RL_-_logo2.gif (25999 bytes)

Feature Column - Resource Links V. 10, no. 1, October 2004 

Today's Writing for Tomorrow's Adults: Contemporary Canadian Publishing for Good Teenage Readers


Margaret Mackey

with

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


For the ninth time, we present our annual selection of Canadian books published for adults that have the potential to appeal to good teenage readers. We know other readers also make use of this list, but our main target is those teenagers who are ready to move into adult fiction but don't necessarily know where to start.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it does represent a sampling of what is available in Canada. Our selection criteria are few but rigorous. The first component is topic: by and large we focus on books that deal with issues meaningful to young readers. There has to be a very striking reason for a book that emphasizes the crises of middle age to appear on this list. We try to include a broad range of styles and genres. We do not filter for rough language or adult themes; we assume that any reader capable of understanding this material will be able to cope with swearing, violence and/or sex, if called upon to do so. Most of the books cited here have been published in the past year or so.

As ever, our main challenge is to find ways of making choices out of a set of very rich material. It is a pleasure to work on this column in a time when there is so much interesting Canadian publishing to choose from.

Thinking about "here"

Where is Here? Canada's Maps and the Stories They Tell. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2002. 256 pages. Hardback. 0-14-301351-3.

Journalist Morantz began exploring mapping when working as a project editor for Canadian Geographic's seventieth anniversary issue. Where is Here?, which grew out of that project, is a very readable and interesting look at the story of Canada as told through its maps. Maps, here, are defined not only as "the familiar historical and modern documents that show political divisions, resource locations and travel routes but also the songs, stones, scrawls and art that we create and employ to find our way, and some sort of meaning, in the world". This definition gives Morantz room to talk about many unconventional maps and mapmakers (seafarers' navigational songs, hobo signs, etc.) as well as the more familiar artifacts created by European-born explorers and missionaries. This makes the 'story of Canada' that Morantz finds in the maps more inclusive than it would have been otherwise.

Where is Here? is organized thematically. Chapter headings relate to the major reasons maps have been created and used in Canada: Survival, Exploration, Misdirection, Nation Building, Pathfinding, Exploitation, Seduction, Identity, Reimaginings, Survival Redux. A time line in the appendix helps to keep the chronology straight and there is an index.

If you've never looked at maps as anything more than utilitarian, to get you from A to B, this book is a good introduction to what else a map can tell you. I would also highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Canadian history. EJ

 

The Horn of a Lamb by Robert Sedlack. Toronto: Anchor Canada/a division of Random House, 2004. 393 pages. 0-385-65971-7.

This may be the Great Canadian Novel - it has minor league hockey, arrogant young hockey players lusting for the NHL, farming (albeit sheep farming), people smoking though they know it's bad for them, senseless violence, the romance of a tender-hearted bachelor uncle and a neighbouring widow, a sell-out to Americans, an heroic dog, and cold cold winter. It even has near-death in a snowbank. Fred Pickle's destiny as a great hockey player was derailed years ago by an after-hours shinny accident while he played for the Brandon Wheat Kings. Now 38, Fred has a paralyzed right side and not much short-term memory. He lives on his kindly Uncle Jack's sheep farm, as Jack worries about Fred's impulsive nature and undamaged teenage libido. But each winter, Fred lovingly constructs an outdoor rink for the neighbours to enjoy, and Jack buys season tickets for the closest big-city team. When the team's American owner moves the team to the US, fans are outraged but not surprised. Fred, however, is devastated, and follows the lead of an 82-year old firebrand to exact revenge. Darkly comic and very tender, The Horn of a Lamb is a tale of "attempting the impossible for something you love." JKM

How we got here

Elle by Douglas Glover. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2003. Paperback. 205 pages. 0864923155.

Teenagers will be able to relate to the title character, a self-described "headstrong girl" living in Renaissance France. Her father does not know what to do with a teenage daughter with a strong libido and an even stronger intellect. When her uncle leads an expedition to New France, it seems a golden opportunity to get rid of this troublesome daughter. Elle is equally eager to embark on a new adventure. Unfortunately, her prudish uncle is not amused by her shipboard antics with Richard, a good-looking tennis champion. He maroons the two of them, along with Elle's childhood nurse, on a desolate island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Richard and the nurse soon succumb to illness and starvation, but Elle survives long enough to be rescued, first by an aboriginal hunter, and then by a "bear woman" who heals her after a difficult birth and the death of her newborn. When this old woman dies, Elle inherits her ability to turn into a bear. Is it magic or madness? Writing her story years later, Elle is unable to decide. Glover's novel is fundamentally a story about the psychic shock that must have befallen many of the adventurers who came from intellectual, urbanized backgrounds in Europe, and discovered that the New World, instead of containing riches, noble savages, and the fountain of youth, offered only a harsh, unforgiving climate, and a people whose lifestyle, cultural norms and way of thinking were utterly foreign to minds steeped in biblical tradition and Renaissance culture. HG


Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens. Toronto: Random House, 2002. 547 pages. Paperback. 0676974511.

Rush Home Road is essentially two stories, told in alternating chapters, about Adelaide Shadd. Adelaide was born in southwestern Ontario in the early twentieth-century in an all-black town settled by fugitive slaves. Part of the book has an elderly Addy, living a quiet life in a trailer park not far from her birthplace. Her world is completely changed when five-year-old Sharla Cody is abandoned on her doorstep.

The other part of the book is the story of Addy's earlier life, where as a teenager she is forced to leave her home and her family. Even though she never lives far from Rusholme, Addy doesn't return. But Rusholme is never far from Addy's heart or her memory, even as she marries, has a family, and ultimately survives the many challenges that she encounters. It isn't until she is forced to care for Sharla that Addy can confront her past, find forgiveness, and finally make the journey back to Rusholme.

Rush Home Road is a powerful story that draws the reader in and doesn't let go until the final page. The characters are interesting and memorable and the setting is vividly described in living colour. At over 500 pages long, Rush Home Road is probably most appropriate for older teenaged readers, but it is a book that no one will soon forget. JdG

 

The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2003. 720 pages. 0-676-97408-2

The most engrossing aspect of The Way the Crow Flies is the intersection of political lies, secrets, and intrigue with the smallest of details of everyday life, as MacDonald makes the narrative case that the world of espionage and official secrets in fact casts a pall over the lives of those very average citizens in whose name the deception is perpetrated. Jack McCarthy moves his family from Germany to his new posting at an air force base in Ontario. For Jack, Mimi, and their two children, Mike and Madeleine, the return to Canada is a continuation of their perfect life in this good and decent country. Jack has everything, and more importantly, he "wants what he has"- a successful career, a happy marriage to a beautiful and sexy woman, a sweet daughter, an intelligent son, and the respect of friends and colleagues. But Jack soon finds himself caught in a web of petty lies and deceits, as he becomes involved in a high-level classified plan for which he operates outside the normal chain of military command. Madeleine, though only eight, also learns the destructive power of lies and secrets, as she and her classmates are ensnared by an evil that results in a horrific crime. The rich period details of life in Ontario in the 1960s demand a reader's patience, as the plot moves slowly during these pages; but the very ordinariness of these details becomes imbued with deeper significance as the story gathers force. JKM


Deafening by Frances Itani. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2003. Hardback. 378 pages. 0-00-200539-5.

Deafening is the first novel by Frances Itani, and tells the story of Grania, who at the age of five becomes profoundly deaf after contracting scarlet fever. Her guilt-ridden mother cannot accept Grania's disability while Grania's grandmother tries to teach her to read and speak again. Grania's sister, Tress, is another ally who obligingly shouts words into Grania's ears, trying to help her 'hear' again. When it becomes clear to her family that Grania can no longer survive in the hearing world of their small, Ontario town, Grania is sent to live at the Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville, where she learns sign language and speech far from the often unforgiving world outside.

After graduating from the school, Grania meets Jim Lloyd, a hearing man, and together they create a new vocabulary that is made up of both sound and silence. Two weeks after their marriage, Jim must leave home to serve as a stretcher bearer on the battlefields of the First World War.

The remainder of this story is told through their letters, both real and imagined, as Jim and Grania try to sustain their relationship and come to grips with the terrible realities of war.

Deafening is a story of both love and history. Frances Itani weaves together a great deal of historical research and information about World War I and the story of a family living in small town Ontario in the early twentieth-century. Full of interesting and memorable characters, this is a wonderful story that readers of historical fiction are sure to enjoy. JdG


Lightning by Fred Stenson. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2003. Hardback. 428 pages. 1-55365-010-7

Lightning is the story of Doc Windham a Texan cowboy. It's 1881 and Windham and a crew of misfits are hired to trail a herd of cattle from Montana to the Cochrane Ranch in Alberta. The story is told in the present and in flashbacks to 1866 when Doc lost the love-of-his life, Pearly, in a bowling match, and went on the run from a man who wants him dead. The two threads weave together like a beautifully crafted tapestry.

Stenson writes sparsely but descriptively, "Hungry as they were, no one moved during the full transformation of evening. The long rays turned the horse mint to amethyst, the tired grass to gold. Then the sun was devoured by a jagged mouth. The gold, pink, then purple washes of sunset. Finally, the moon was an egg yolk in a purple sky."

This is historical fiction at its best well researched with larger-than-life, but totally believable characters. It is a gripping story about the beginning of open ranch life in Southern Alberta.

Lightning won the Grant MacEwan Authors Award. MH

 

Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis. Toronto: HarperFlamingoCanada, 2004. Hardback. 149 pages. 0-00-200568-9

Seven linked short stories of varying length recount the childhood, adolescence and early adulthood of Mark Berman. Within this tight framework, Bezmozgis offers complex and illuminating insights into life in a particular immigrant community - in this case, that of Russian Jews in Toronto in the 1980s and 1990s. Despite the contemporary setting, many of the elements in this story seem timeless. Family complications are intensified by the fact that only some members of the family are at home in the language of their new community. People try to adapt to new ways while still being strong personalities formed in old ways. The life of the child or the teenager is often quite separate from and unknowable to his parents.

Many of these stories first saw print in major American and Canadian magazines. They are polished individual items, but placed together they weave a different kind of spell. Young Mark is the narrator in all of them, and his confident voice and his spare but affectionate perspective on his family and broader community are elements that unite the book into a whole that is somehow not only greater but also different from the sum of its parts.

We first meet Mark at the age of six, newly arrived in Toronto. By the time we part company he is an adult with his own idiosyncratic interests, which include a strong curiosity about boxing heroes of the past. We also learn about his parents' struggles, his grandparents' battles with illness and old age, and his uncle's experiment in matrimony (which leads to different kinds of sexual experimentation and disillusionment for Mark himself). In a short book, Bezmozgis makes us at home in a fully specified and fascinating world. MM

Histories of elsewhere


Clothar the Frank by Jack Whyte. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2003. Hardback. 602 pages. 0-670-88783-8.

This new offering from Jack Whyte continues the Camelot story that was told in the popular series A Dream of Eagles. That series was an attempt to recast the story of Arthur and Camelot as historical fiction rather than fantasy. It ended with the coronation of Arthur and his first victory in battle. This book, the first in a projected two-part series, tells the story of Arthur's greatest friend and betrayer, Lancelot. In this incarnation, Lancelot is a Frankish nobleman named Clothar, growing up during the dying days of the Roman Empire. The adopted son of a minor king in Geneva, Clothar is sent to a Church-run boarding school in Auxerre for his education. When he is grown, his mentor, Bishop Germanus, sends him on a special mission to Britain, a land that is descending into chaos in the wake of the Roman withdrawal. Germanus wants Clothar to assist Arthur, the soon-to-be High King, to unite the island's fractious tribes under the banner of the Church, so that the British can fight off the invading pagan hordes.

While this book parallels the events narrated in Whyte's previous books, enough explanation is given for readers unfamiliar with the series. This is heroic fiction on a grand scale. The battles, bloodshed and adventuring will definitely appeal to male readers, but there is also a cast of likable characters, and a wealth of detail for anyone interested in Celtic history. Whyte is meticulous about his historical research, and his author's notes usually explain which elements were historically true, which are his own conjecture, and which are pure fiction. HG

Growing up in fact and fiction


Bambi and Me by Michel Tremblay. Trans. Sheila Fischman. 1990. Burnaby: Talonbooks, 1998. Paperback. 157 pages. 0-88922-380-7

Birth of a Bookworm by Michel Tremblay. Trans. Shela Fischman. 1994. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2003. Paperback. 192 pages. 0-88922-476-5

Twelve Opening Acts by Michel Tremblay. Trans. Sheila Fischman. 2002. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2002. Paperback. 190 pages. 0-88922-466-8

This set of three interconnected autobiographical stories by the well-known Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay is delightful to read. As the titles suggest, Tremblay describes his childhood and youth through three different lenses: via his relationship with movies, with books, and with live theatre. He does a very good job of conveying the huge importance of imaginative engagement with other people's stories in the development of a growing child. At the same time he conveys the rich atmosphere of his working-class Montreal home, his larger-than-life mother, his loving but often inarticulate father, and his crowded surroundings. As characters appear and reappear in the different books, we get an acute sense of the lively, jostling patterns of his childhood. We also follow Michel as he discovers that his major emotional and physical feelings are aimed at his own sex. He describes growing up gay in a time when homosexuality was illegal in terms that are frank and matter-of-fact without being prurient or overwhelming. 

How movies, books, and theatre shaped and inspired this young man is clearly and lovingly described in these three books. In turn, he has shaped this story by means of writing three separate books rather than one chronologically consistent account. Reading the three books we move back and forth through his youth, making connections from one book to another. As a reading challenge it is very rewarding.   As an account of a certain era in Montreal's history it is fascinating. As a coming-of-age story of a gay and artistic young man, it is compelling. MM


Village of the Small Houses: A Memoir of Sorts by Ian Ferguson. Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre, 2003. Hardback. 200 pages. 1-55365-021-2

This galloping read is simultaneously funny and poignant. In an account of his life that is only somewhat factual, Ferguson underlines the desperate difficulties of growing up poor in the unforgiving north (the farthest reaches of northern Alberta) but offers with his story a wry and witty take on life that is never sentimental. "This book is as honest as I could make it, but I haven't let the facts get in the way of the story I was trying to tell. Nothing that follows is true, except for the parts that really happened," he says at the very outset of the book. He tells a rollicking tale of human frailties, racial distinctions, inadequate friendships, and various other components of the human struggle; the paradoxical entanglement of his lively telling and his often fraught tale fuels a page-turning book.

The story starts with his birth, and comes to an end as he escapes from the north and begins his career as a playwright. In between, he describes the dynamics of a large group of brothers, two parents who often do their best but sometimes opt for the easy exit, a small town where Whites and Aboriginals mingle uneasily, and two unbalanced friendships. Yet the book is never gloomy, never bitter, and Ferguson maintains a wonderful balance between the uproariously funny and the desperately upsetting. Even though he disclaims the facts at the beginning, the sense by the end is of a very truthful book. MM


The Divine Economy of Salvation by Priscilla Uppal,. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2003 (2002). Paperback, 404 pages. 0-385-65805

This coming of age novel is a sophisticated and haunting tale of a youthful crime with lifetime repercussions. Angela is sent away to a Catholic Boarding school when her mother becomes too ill to care for the family. Feeling lonely and abandoned, Angela makes friends with a group of girls who call themselves "The Sisterhood." Her involvement in the group results in an unfortunate death that changes the course of Angela's life. The story of what happened at the school is told in alternating narratives by Angela as a teenager and Angela as a middle-aged nun, hiding from her past in a religious life of seclusion. Her story, harrowing and suspenseful, is convincingly told in a poetic and nuanced style. The book will be a winner with a wide range of readers. IJ


Midnight at the Dragon Cafe by Judy Fong Bates. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004. Hardback. 315 pages. 0-7710-1098-2

At home she is Su-Jen; at school she is Annie. Her family are the only Chinese people in their small Ontario town, and they work very hard to run their restaurant. But Su-Jen's parents are trapped by history as well as geography. They pin their hopes on Su-Jen's chance to get an education, learn English, become more Canadian than they can ever manage.

As a small child, Su-Jen arrives in Canada with her mother to meet an elderly and unknown father. She soon learns to love him, but her mother is not so easily won over. The arrival of Su-Jen's much older half-brother should make life a little easier for everyone, but instead it causes enormous complications, whose ripples run through the whole story.

As well as this domestic story, Su-Jen relates her life as Annie, the schoolgirl who makes and loses friends as she grows up. The complexities of feeling herself to be the only different one are subtly conveyed, even as the artless narrator describes differences - invisible to her - that affect some of her Canadian classmates. There are many ways in which life in an Ontario small town in the 1950s and 1960s can be very hard.

Judy Fong Bates has created a very appealing heroine/narrator in Su-Jen, who describes the fierce isolation of her parents even as she finds her own ways of escaping it. What might have been a bleak, and certainly is a heartbreaking story, is told with grace and warmth, and the result is a haunting account of human beings doing their best against mighty odds. MM

Stories of life and death


Knocked Up: Confessions of a Modern Mother-to-Be by Rebecca Eckler. Toronto: Random House, 2004. Paperback. 374 pages. 0385660375

Part Sex and the City, part Bridget Jones s Diary, and part The Girlfriend s Guide to Pregnancy, Rebecca Eckler has written a funny, intimate book about the perils and joys of impending motherhood. Eckler, a columnist with The National Post, is used to living a fabulous life, drinking cocktails and going to parties with her friends. So, when after their engagement party, she and her fiancé find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, Eckler must figure out how she is going to survive being knocked up .

Readers will follow Eckler s frank and realistic portrayal of the physical and emotional changes she underwent throughout her nine months of pregnancy. Written as a diary, in a light, easy-to-read style, Knocked Up is both entertaining and interesting. Readers follow along as Eckler discovers all things baby : prenatal vitamins, ultrasounds, all-day "morning" sickness, weight gain, and cravings. Throughout it all, even in the midst of the unpleasant aspects of pregnancy, Eckler keeps readers laughing with her insights, observations, and the crazy cast of characters who are as good as any you would find in a fictional story.

Although Knocked Up is a true story about a twenty-something journalist's experiences with pregnancy, young adult readers will be drawn into Rebecca Eckler's life. Her breezy style makes this a quick read and young adults will enjoy reading about a fabulous life in the big city, a life full of parties, cocktails, friendships, and babies. JdG


Hey Nostradamus by Douglas Coupland. Vintage Canada, 2004 (2003). Paperback. 256 pages. 0-679312706

This quirky and strangely haunting book has a plot centred on a fictitious Columbine-type school massacre in Vancouver. Seventeen-year old Cheryl Anway, secretly married to a schoolmate, Jason, and newly pregnant, scribbles the eerie message "God is nowhere God is now here" on her binder just before she is gunned down. This message and the manner of Cheryl's death leave a legacy of hatred, fanaticism and religious fervour in the neighbourhood of the school and in the lives of the people that knew Cheryl. The book is narrated by four different characters: Cheryl narrating her own death; Jason describing his tormented life ten years later; Heather, the woman who tries to create a relationship with Jason; and Reg, Jason's father, who is a religious fanatic.

Written with Coupland's trademark dark humour, the novel is only partly successful. Cheryl's and Jason's versions of the story are gripping and exciting, but the novel begins to lose some of its narrative coherence in the last two stories. We cease to care as much about what happens to the characters and are left feeling vaguely dissatisfied by the end. Nevertheless, the book does have its strengths and fascinations and will be widely read by fans of Coupland's novels. IJ.


Strange stories

The Town that Forgot How to Breathe by Kenneth J. Harvey. Vancouver: Raincoast, 2003. Paperback. 480 pages. 1-55192-592-3

And for generations to come, . . . they told the story of the time that the people of Bareneed [Newfoundland] forgot how to breathe, until they came to recognize who they truly were and, through the turmoil of calamity, reclaimed their lives as their blessed own. (470)

Unusual events are gradually taking place in the town of Bareneed, Newfoundland when Joseph and his young daughter come for a vacation. Father and daughter are attempting coming to terms with their disintegrating family life but the needs and the fears of the community prove to be even more imperative. People are beginning to fall prey to a breathing disorder, the sea is spewing out curious fish and ghosts of previous residents, and the old stories and storytellers are once again being sought out and listened to.

Filled with mythological and folkloric references, vivid characters who speak as individuals, and the importance of history, this novel intrigues, tantalizes and delivers. This is not a book to be rushed through and should appeal to strong high school readers. GdV


Fantasy


Spirits in the Wires by Charles de Lint. New York: TOR. Hardback. 448 pages. 0-312-87398-0

When evil spirits attack the virtual library Internet site of Wordwood, they do so with a vengeance. Not only do computers crash, but also the people visiting the site are sucked into the vortex. When Saskia, Christy Riddell's girlfriend, disappears right before his eyes, his brother and friends, well-known to de Lint's wide readership of the Newford novels, embark on a quest to get her back. As they too, enter the otherworld of cyberspace, they soon discovers that a hacker has unleashed an ancient spirit who has been badly hurt by a virus and is causing havoc in both worlds.

"Spirits ride the software, cables and telephone lines and make homes for themselves in the spaces that lie between the various computers that the technology connects." De Lint successfully plays with the premise of the spirits embracing technology but it is his exploration of people and their perceptions of themselves and their relationships that formulate the backbone of the novel.

Highly recommended for fans of urban fantasy as well as cyber-savvy teens. GdV


Mysteries

Playing with Fire by Peter Robinson. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2004. Hardback. 350 pages. 0771076061

Playing with Fire is the newest book in Peter Robinson's mystery series about Detective Inspector Alan Banks. In this book, Banks and his colleague Annie Cabbot investigate the deaths of two people, each living on separate barges moored in a dead-end canal. The barges were both set on fire, killing the two occupants and burning much of the evidence. As Banks, Cabbot, and fire investigator Geoff Hamilton begin to pick through the ashes, they discover the trail of accelerant leading from barge to barge. Suddenly, they are no longer dealing with an accident, but with murder. As Banks and Cabbot sort through the evidence, they have many questions that need answering before they can stop the arsonist from striking again. As they get deeper into the case, they discover more and more people who have a motive for murder, especially the boyfriend of one of the murder victims, who bolted from the scene when the police first arrived. By the end, with the list of suspects narrowed down, the detectives will discover that playing with fire can be a thrilling and dangerous game.

Set in a small community in England, Playing with Fire is full of imaginative characters and enough plot twists and turns to keep the most avid mystery fans guessing until the very end. Robinson has an extraordinary ability to create well-rounded characters that continue to develop and grow with each new book in the series. Readers do not have to be familiar with the other books in the series (there are 13 in the series) to read and enjoy Playing with Fire. Young adults who are new to Peter Robinson and Inspector Banks will be delighted to find a new series by one of Canada's best mystery writers. JdeG


The Monitor by Janice MacDonald. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2003. Paperback. 322 pages. 0-88801-284-5

Randy Craig is a distance educator with a local community college. To make ends meet she takes on the position of night monitor for Babel, a cyberspace chat room owned by Chatgod, for the night shifts six nights a week.

To begin with, Randy is happy with her new position, but strange things start to happen in the chat room. A regular chatter disappears, others are having private chats about murder and sex, and it appears that a contract killer is out there somewhere. Although she has been sworn to secrecy as monitor, when Randy feels her life is threatened she enlists the help of her boyfriend, a policeman.

The Monitor is a work of fiction, but it highlights the pitfalls of chat rooms where no one is necessarily who they say they are, and predators can lurk. MacDonald uses email and instant message format for much of the book and, with lots of twists and turns, keeps the suspense right to the end. MH


The Delicate Storm by Giles Blunt. Toronto: Seal Books 2004 (Random House 2003). Paperback. 393 pages. 0-7704-2939-4

Giles Blunt sets his latest mystery in the northern Ontario community of Algonquin Bay in the heart of a tremendous ice storm. This book features many of the characters that readers first met in Forty Words for Sorrow, and develops some of the themes that made that book such an engrossing read. He is adept at conveying a rich and convincing sense of location and the rigours of a harsh Canadian winter haunt every page of this highly readable story.

When a body - half eaten by bears - shows up outside Algonquin Bay, Detective John Cardinal begins an investigation that eventually leads to the exploration of events that occurred thirty years earlier in a different province entirely. Blunt is very skilful at weaving contemporary and historical events and themes into an intriguing whole. He also does a terrific job of demonstrating the overlap of personal and professional issues in the life of his hero. Cardinal is convincingly flawed and his human weaknesses affect his detection in believable ways.

This book rises above the category of genre fiction; although the central mystery is absorbing, the larger elements of setting and character are even more engaging. MM


Thinking with pictures


Souvenir of Canada 2 by Douglas Coupland. Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre, 2004. Paperback. 144 pages.   1-55365-043-3

This sequel to Coupland's first Souvenir of Canada doesn't supply quite the same quotient of surprise and pleasure as its predecessor, probably inevitably. And it reads less daringly because Coupland knows that the first round of this approach was a great success. But this book includes some of the same awareness that our feelings of home comprise a visual, aural, psychological and political sensation. Its images, both verbal and pictorial, are often domestic, sometimes quirky, and frequently telling. Coupland organizes his little verbal and visual essays by alphabetical order - "with a poetic deviation here and there" - which leads to some interesting juxtapositions: Gitchigumi facing GST for example.

The book offers lavish colour pictures and short essays on a motley set of topics. He is clever at moving between forms; for example, his two paragraphs on "hooch" stand alongside a full-page image of the famous purple Crown Royal bag surrounded by a few coloured marbles. Coupland never mentions this time-honoured childhood practice (losing the chance to discuss regional names for marbles, perhaps), but his image will resonate with many readers who once owned or coveted this iconic container.

There is a danger of sentimentality in this kind of book but Coupland evades that problem for the most part, though at times he comes close to veering over the edge into kitsch. Overall, however, this is an engaging and sometimes thought-provoking read. MM

It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken: A Picture-Novella by Seth. Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly Publications, 2003. Paperback. 178 pages. 1-896597-70-X

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that graphic novels are always full of action and superheroes, not to mention biffs and splats. This graphic novel, on the contrary, is contemplative. It involves a quest, but the quest is to find out more about a little-known gag-cartoonist from the 1940s and 1950s, Kalo. Kalo was a real person and examples of his work are included at the back of the book.

The hero of this story is Seth, a cartoonist and cartoon fan, who worries about the way the world is deteriorating. Much of the book is taken up with his ruminations about social and cultural decline since the early part of the twentieth century. Seth the author-artist is terrific and using panels of landscape and scenery to convey a sense of place and a sense of passing time. The sometimes extreme introspection of the words are balanced by the necessity of looking outward at the world through the pictures. This contradiction is one of the compelling qualities of this book.

The general plot of this book involves Seth's pursuit of further information about Kalo. The images are conveyed in black, white, and a delicate shade of blue-grey. Everything about this book is quiet, but the overall impact is inviting. Originally published as six instalments in the comic book series Palookaville, the combined stories work together very appealingly. MM

Poetry


When Your Voice Tastes Like Home: Immigrant Women Write. Edited by Prabhjot Parmar and Nila Somaia-Carten. Second Story Press, 2003. Paperback. 171 pages. 1-896764-71-1

This collection of short stories and poems offers fascinating and moving glimpses in the diverse experiences of immigrant women moving to Canada from countries around the world. There are stories and poems of sadness, longing, despair, hope, excitement, strength and determination. Some of the writing is factual and straight-forward; some is lyrical and evocative. For one immigrant, Canada feels "like a flat square slippery gray building/ you stumble upon" (page 9). For another, "Winter chill numbs shivering, tired body" (page 89). Some of the writers face the oppression of racism or the breakdown of a marital relationship; others struggle to overcome homesickness as they embrace their new country. The anthology finely balances nostalgic writing about the past with writing that looks forward to a present and future of hope and new life. In the words of Rosita Ferrero de Estable: "Let us build other bridges/ with a present and a tomorrow. / We cannot remain still" (page 155). IJ.

 

The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology: A Selection of the 2004 Shortlist. Edited by Phyllis Webb. House of Anansi Press, 2004. Paperback. 106 pages. 0-88784-6998

This anthology offers selections of poems from the seven books short-listed for the 2004 Griffin prize. One of the world's most prestigious literary awards, the Griffin Poetry prize is given for the best books of poetry published in English in Canada and worldwide. Phyllis Webb, the distinguished Canadian poet who was one of the judges for the 2004 award selected the poems for this anthology. They include works by four international poets and three Canadian poet finalists and range widely in theme, style and language.

Di Brant's poems of lament for pollution in Canada are finely crafted and socially conscious. She laments "the bones of old horses and dead Indians/and lush virgin land, dripping with fruit/ and the promise of wheat, /overlaid with glass and steel/ and the dream of speed" (p. 63). In contrast, Leslie Greentree, the second Canadian poet short-listed, has a comic and conversational style which draws on the minutiae of everyday life. In her poem "If I was a gate," she writes: "I hold my shiny new electric drill/listen to its high pitched whine/ it is fairly leaping in my hand/tingling through my arm my shoulder/waking all my bones" (p. 38).

The third Canadian finalist highlighted, and the eventual winner of the 2004 Canadian award, is Anne Simpson, the internationally recognized poet from Nova Scotia. Selections from her poems included here are bleak but beautifully crafted, exploring the nightmares of history and destruction. From the devastation of the Twin Towers: "A fold on air. We're smoke, drifting" (p. 91), to the larger view of what remains after death: "A tattoo of wounds" (p. 100), Simpson eloquently explores the ravages of time and history. The four finalists for the international award are similarly skillful. The selections gathered together for this anthology offer a dramatic and resonant introduction to some of the most exciting poetry being written in English today. IJ.


The Gardens Where She Dreams by Rebecca Luce-Kapler. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 2003. Paperback, 83 pages. 0-88887-273-9

In this collection of resonant poems, Rebecca Luce-Kapler explores multi-faceted experiences of life and womanhood. In the first section, "Garden of the Moon," the poems are intensely personal, as she reflects on childhood experiences. She feels the warmth of her mother's body "falling over the house/ like feathers" (p. 4), remembers "coyotes on distant hills/ calling home" (p. 10), revives memories of lying with friends in sleeping bags "like pickles on a barrel/feet touching feet/as rain clattered on the tin roof…" (p. 13).

In section two, "Rainforest," Luce-Kapler's poems are dedicated to the painter and writer, Emily Carr, interweaving stories and dreams of Emily's life with those of her own experiences. These poems are rich with nature and dream imagery and filled with a yearning for understanding the connectedness of women's lives: "I open the door/ invite her in/ before cold spray from the sea/ pales her into maples…" (p. 34.) These are the poems that most effectively anchor the collection, engaging readers with the power of language to breathe life into the memories and possibilities of Carr's life and to feel resonances with women's experiences through the ages.

In the final section, "The Gardens Where She Dreams," Luce-Kapler moves though more contemporary experiences of adulthood as she explores tactile pleasures of love and sees her own experiences reflected in the dramatic forces of nature. The opening lines of her final poem perhaps best articulate the attraction of this collection of poetry: "The dawn sky stirs her shadows, makes lucid the/ dark corners…."(p.77). These poems effectively reflect dark corners of women's lives, illuminating the shadows of memory and drawing the past into the present. It is a collection well worth reading. I.J.


Short stories


Vinyl Café Diaries by Stuart McLean. Toronto: Penguin, 2003. Hardback. 302 pages. 0670044369

The twenty stories published in the Vinyl Café Diaries take us into the fictional world of Dave and Morley, their children Stephanie and Sam, and their friends and neighbours. Created by Stuart McLean for CBC Radio's show The Vinyl Cafe these stories share with readers the strange secrets, odd dreams, high hopes, and hilarious adventures of Canada's favourite radio family.

The book is split into four sections, with each section introduced by a different member of the family. The introductions, written by each of the four main characters, are stories in themselves, and provide insight into the character and their place in the family. Following each introduction is a series of four stories (previously heard on The Vinyl Café radio show) which feature that character. Through these stories readers will discover things like: what is Dave doing by himself in a Halifax hotel room with a duck? What grisly secret is Stephanie hiding in her father's picnic cooler? Why is Morley walking around in Stephanie's clothing? And what are in the mysterious packages that Sam is receiving in the mail?

As with his other Vinyl Café books, Stuart McLean has created for readers a funny and interesting collection of stories about this family. Readers of all ages will laugh out loud at some of the stories, while recognizing themselves in others. The Vinyl Café Diaries is highly recommended. JdG

 

top.jpg (2260 bytes)

Editor: Victoria Pennell