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Feature Column - Resource Links V. 11, no. 1, October 2005 

Contemporary Canadian Adult Novels with Teen Appeal

by Margaret Mackey
with
Joanne de Groot, Gail de Vos, Heather Ganshorn, Ingrid Johnston, Elaine Jones, Jill Kedersha McClay, James Nahachewsky

This column is the tenth produced by members of this team, and in this column we publish our 225th review. The time is ripe for looking back and looking forward – and, thanks to funding from the Alumni Association of the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta, we are celebrating these milestones by amalgamating all our reviews since 1996 into a single publication. Work on this production is currently underway – watch for an announcement in Resource Links of how you can obtain a copy of this publication when it is ready for distribution. We hope it will prove to be a useful resource for high school librarians and teachers in particular, for public librarians, and possibly for some academic junior high schools as well. We are very grateful to the Alumni Association for their generous assistance for this project.
As usual, our tenth column offers a sampling of the splendid variety and scope of contemporary Canadian novels, published for adults but accessible to good teenage readers. Also as usual, we have selected books that offer some kind of youthful perspective but have not censored for language or theme, assuming that anyone capable of reading any of these books is likewise capable of dealing with strong language or radical writing about sex, violence, politics, or religion.
In looking back over the past ten years of reviews, as part of the preparation of the manuscript of the upcoming cumulative publication, I have been struck all over again by the amazing range and quality of current Canadian adult fiction. When Ingrid Johnston and I started this venture in 1996, we little anticipated how broad a field we would be tilling. The addition of other reviewers over the year has been essential to the survival of the column; the riches of available material have simply become too great for two readers to encompass. As usual, I thank these readers who have helped make this column what it is; in this anniversary year I would also like to thank Resource Links editor Victoria Pennell for her excellent help in producing this column and to acknowledge the earlier, equally exemplary support of previous editor Allison Haupt who had the initial inspiration.

Communities in Upheaval

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. Toronto: Penguin, 2005. Hardcover. 368 pages. ISBN: 0670063622

Joseph Boyden's debut novel Three Day Road is a complex, beautiful novel of family ties, boyhood friendship and war. The story is told from two perspectives. Niska is one of the few remaining "bush Indians" in Northern Ontario in the early 1900s. Her story documents the decline of her culture as her people are pushed inexorably onto reserves, and their children are taken from them and sent to residential schools. Niska rescues her nephew Xavier from the misery of a residential school and raises him in the bush, passing on her traditional knowledge to him. His story composes the bulk of the book. They are joined during the summers by Xavier's friend Elijah, who spends the school year at the residential school in Moose Factory. Elijah persuades Xavier to enlist in the Canadian army during World War I, and the two young men soon find themselves on the battlefields of Europe, where the skills they learned in the bush quickly earn them a reputation as brilliant snipers. Elijah's skills and his zest for his role as a sniper soon give him hero status in the eyes of his regiment. Xavier, with his hesitant English and his distaste for "hunting" his fellow human beings, remains an outsider. As Elijah falls deeper into morphine addiction (a common problem among soldiers in the Great War), he also develops an addiction to killing, and an obsession with beating the record of the legendary Ojibway sniper "Peggy" (Francis Pegahmagabow, an actual historical figure whose kills may have numbered as high as 378). Xavier becomes Elijah's unwilling confessor as morphine and madness transform the friend he loves like a brother into a stranger he comes to fear. Boyden's novel may be Canadian literature's best evocation since Timothy Findley's The Wars of how war can warp the souls of normal young men. If all of this sounds a little bleak, the novel is not without its share of loving warmth and hope. Boyden paints a masterful portrait of Xavier's and Elijah's boyhood friendship, equal parts affection and rivalry. His depiction of the strong ties that develop between fellow soldiers over years of war is authentic and moving. Xavier's outsider perspective on Canada and Canadian military culture is intelligent, thoughtful and occasionally humorous. And in Niska's loving care of her nephew, the reader finds a glimmer of hope that a better fate awaits Xavier than the one facing so many victims of war's horrors. HG

Black Bird by Michel Basilieres. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004 (2003). Paperback. 311 pages. 0-676-97528-3

This wild romp of a tall tale is uproariously funny but it is also touching, serious, and politically charged. Telling the preposterous story of the Desouche family of Montreal, it also tackled questions about Quebec separatism and political violence - albeit obliquely and under the guise of monstrous exaggeration. Basilieres alters the historical facts of the 1960s and 1970s to present his bizarre story world; nevertheless, his images of life in Montreal and in Quebec flourish vividly and convincingly within the confines of his warped and lurid framework.
To call the Desouche family dysfunctional is a major understatement. Grandfather and Uncle are grave robbers. Grandfather’s second wife is miserable and her only consolation is her pet crow. Father is constantly on the lookout for money-making schemes. Mother is in a deep depression following the death of her father, Angus; she little knows that Angus died as the result of a bomb laid on behalf of the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) by her own daughter Marie. Marie’s twin brother, Jean-Baptiste, is a languishing reader whose passion for text is severely undermined by the fact that he doesn’t like reading in English but can’t read French. This lugubrious set of events and people should make for dismal reading but the tone is light and persuasive, and the pressure of events develops logically out of often very silly initial premises.
Basilieres plays games with the facts of Quebec history, and plays games with his ludicrous cast of characters. The result is a rollicking, satirical and very funny fable that invites readers to keep turning the pages in amazement. MM

A Blade of Grass by Lewis deSoto. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2004 (2003).Paperback. 388 pages. 0-00-639280-6

This is a well-written and haunting story of two young women, one white and one black, set in the tragic landscape of apartheid South Africa. The novel is partly historical fiction and partly a personal psychological drama of love, friendship and betrayal. Märit Laurens, an orphan, comes to live on a farm on the northern borders of South Africa with her new husband, Ben. The couple run the farm with the help of their black workers. When tragedy strikes, Märit turns for help and friendship to her maid, Tembi, incurring the wrath of both the local Afrikaner community and the workers on her farm.
Lewis deSoto, who lived in South Africa before moving to Canada, writes with passion and lyricism about events and relationships that are complex and often violent. Märit and Temba are intriguing characters who effectively symbolize the complexities of living in a country divided by race and fear of the unknown. In their search for a new life and freedom, the two women struggle to maintain a friendship in the midst of violence and hate. Despite its bleak plot, the novel is rich in descriptive detail and draws readers into the passionate life of its characters. DeSoto effectively creates a compelling story that resonates beyond the boundaries of its setting. IJ

Alternative Worlds

Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer. TOR 2002. Paperback, 444 pages. ISBN: 0-765-34500-52002

As the first of three books collectively called The Neanderthal Parallax, Robert Sawyer’s Hugo award winning Hominids explores such controversial and critical matters as violence, privacy, and religion. Through this work of science fiction, which reads more like anthropological fiction, Sawyer posits a parallel Earth in which mankind, as we know it, never made it on the evolutionary tree. Rather, the dominant species to develop is Neanderthal. They have created a different, and in some respects more sophisticated society than our own which is technologically attuned to their parallel Earth. When the book’s main character, a Neanderthal physicist named Peter Boddit, accidentally opens a temporary gateway into our universe, he falls through and into our world’s midst - deep within the non-fictional Canadian nickel mine that holds the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. Unable to speak English, Boddit causes much puzzlement and, of course, is confused himself at this unexpected turn of events.
Sawyer succeeds with Hominids. He skilfully juxtaposes our culture against that of a vastly different Neanderthal culture through the careful use of recent archaeological theory blended with sociology and the physical sciences. The author fortunately avoids excessive scientific exposition by relating technical information in an easily understood and seamless manner throughout the storyline. The only real negative criticism about this book concerns the flatness of some of the secondary characters and a slightly clichéd third major character, Mary Vaughan. This character is a lonely 30-something University of Toronto anthropology professor who is trying to come to terms with a recent physical assault. She finds solace in the arms of Boddit.
Overall, Hominids is an engaging novel that is poignant and timely in its theme and content. Its parallel-running plot, with the alternate realities afforded, is narratively sound with enough surprises thrown in to keep a teenage reader intrigued and looking forward to the other two books in the series: Humans and Hybrids. JN

FamilyStories

The Singing Fire by Lilian Nattel. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004. 321 pages. Paperback. ISBN: 0-676-97601-8.

As she did in her first novel, The River Midnight, Nattel weaves together the stories of several generations of Jewish women to bring a community and an historical period to life in rich detail.
The Singing Fire is set primarily in the one-square mile of the Jewish ghetto in Victorian London’s east end and centres on the fate of two immigrants: Nehama Korzen and Emilia Rosenberg. Nehama is seventeen when she arrives in London in 1875 after running away from Plotsk and the poor marriage prospects a meager dowry and five older sisters brings. She is immediately lured off the dock by a friendly-looking, Yiddish-speaking man who claims to be a countryman and forced into prostitution. After a year, Nehama manages to flee into the neighbouring ghetto and is taken in by a young couple who find her bleeding on their doorstep. Eleven years later, Nehama is on the dock again - driven there by nightmares of her past. On the dock she sees twenty-year-old Emilia, pregnant and alone, fleeing Minsk and her abusive father and her beloved but emotionally damaged mother, marked for prostitution as she gets off the boat. Nehama intervenes and provides Emilia with a safe place to stay. And so Emilia and Nehama’s lives converge for awhile in Frying Pan Alley and remain connected through the daughter Emilia leaves behind when she leaves the ghetto. Both women are strong, independent characters but it is their relationships with friends, husbands, families and their grandmother’s ghosts that sustain them (and provide much of the pleasure for the reader) as they learn to accept their pasts and forge very different lives for themselves in the free land.
Readers who like historical fiction with lots of sensory detail, a touch of magic realism, a hint of soap-opera and wonderful writing will find much to appreciate here. EJ

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2004. Hard cover. 246 pages. ISBN: 0676976123.

Nomi Nickel, a sixteen-year-old Mennonite in Southern Manitoba, is rebelling against the constraints of the community. Her mother and sister have physically disappeared and her father has distanced himself in a world of his own making. Nomi’s voice is sure and true as she tells the reader about her growing alienation with the community and its members as she herself matures and reaches out to the wider universe outside of this community. It is a coming of age story that will engage the hearts and minds of readers of all ages but is particularly poignant for teens who are also undergoing their search for their own identities in relationship to their families, their communities and the wider world at large. It is a story told with compassion, humour, and honesty and without evoking stereotypes and intolerance.
It was a Giller Prize Finalist and has received many literary awards such as CLA’s Young Adult Canadian Book Award Winner, The Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Young Minds Award in the UK. While it garnered awards for young readers, it was published and received as an adult novel which is why it is included in this listing. GdV

Lonesome Hero by Fred Stenson. Edmonton: Brindle & Glass, 2005 (originally published in 1974). Paperback. 180 pages. 189714203X

Fred Stenson's hilarious debut novel is back in print after a long hiatus, and it has aged amazingly well. Though a couple of references give away the book's 1970s setting, for the most part it could have been written yesterday. The protagonist, Tyrone Lock, is a moody twenty-something who fancies himself a philosopher. Possessed of a degree in economics which he has no desire to parlay into a job, Tyrone has a large measure of contempt for his parents and their dull conventionality, but doesn't mind living off of them while he figures out what he wants to be when he grows up. Older readers may find him somewhat adolescent and irksome (even Stenson admits in the afterword that thirty years after writing the book, he sympathizes more with the parents). But teens will identify closely with this angst-ridden soul. And Tyrone has many saving graces - he's witty, a shrewd observer of others' idiosyncrasies, and remarkably forthright about his own fears and shortcomings. As the book opens, Tyrone and his girlfriend are preparing to leave for a European tour. It's a trip Tyrone would do anything to avoid because, as he admits, he's a craven coward with no desire to seek out adventures in unknown places. Stenson wrote the novel at the age of twenty while travelling in Europe himself, and the youthfulness of the authorial voice makes this book a rare gem.
The book's cover blurb calls Tyrone "an undergraduate Adrian Mole," and the comparison is an apt one. HG

River of the Brokenhearted by David Adams Richards. Toronto: Doubleday, 2004. ISBN: 0385658885. Trade Paper. 448 pages.

This is the story of three generations of one Maritime family. Janie McCleary, her son Miles, and her grand-daughter Ginger are bound by the past and moving into an uncertain future. Janie owns one of the first movie theatres in the Maritimes, but is weighed down by a long-running family feud and the deceitful Joey Elias, who will stop at nothing to put an end to Janie’s successes. Janie’s son Miles is misunderstood and when misfortune befalls his family, he retreats into alcoholism and eccentricity. Finally, Ginger is much like her grandmother, smart, funny, and spirited, but she lacks her grandmother’s common sense and ends up allying herself with the one person who wants to destroy her and her family.
Full of strong, memorable characters, this is a story of good and evil, of families, and of history. David Adams Richards, a previous winner of both the Governor General’s Award and the Giller Prize, has based his most recent novel on his own family. His family owned a theatre in New Brunswick and Janie McCleary is based on his own grandmother. Narrated by Wendell King, another of Janie McCleary’s grandchildren, who states that “this in a way is a journey back in time to see how I was damned” (p. 4), River of the Brokenhearted is a multi-layered epic that will engage strong young adult readers. JdeG

The Swinging Bridge by Ramabai Espinet. Toronto: Harper Collins Canada, 2004 (2003). Paperback. 306 pages. 0-00-648595-2

Espinet’s novel, steeped in the rhythms of Caribbean life, is a moving account of immigration and the power of memory. Mona, the main character, has grown up in Montreal, but her life is overshadowed by memories of her early life in San Fernando, Trinidad. At the start of the novel, Mona is facing a time of crisis. She is in a relationship with a journalist that seems to be going nowhere, her parents are living unhappily in Toronto and her brother is dying in a hospice. When she agrees to travel back to Trinidad to negotiate the re-purchasing of family land, she is confronted with her childhood memories and many secrets from her family’s past. Gradually, as Mona learns more about her great-grandmother’s Indian heritage, she begins to piece together her family history and to understand her own fractured and displaced life.
Espinet effortlessly weaves together Mona’s present life in Canada with her past memories of life in Trinidad and all the lives that went before her, particularly of the woman in her family’s past who came from India to an unknown life in the Caribbean. The novel is poignant and humorous, rich in metaphor and allegory. It is an appealing and insightful read. IJ

The Momentum of Red by Monica Kidd. Vancouver: Polestar, 2004. 268 pages. Paperback. ISBN: 1-55192-682-2.

The Momentum of Red is a coming-of-age story for a father and daughter relationship.
Randy is the fifty-something father of Mary, his only child who he has fiercely loved and protected since his wife died in childbirth. Randy and Mary’s close bond is tested and changed when twenty-one year old Mary gets involved with Darren, a charming, “bad-boy” journalist in town to cover the Juniper Butte Cowboy Poetry Festival. When Darren loses his job with the paper and moves in with Mary what started out as an exciting affair quickly changes into something darker and more complicated. Both Randy and Mary struggle with the boundaries of their relationship as Mary’s relationship with Darren starts to go wrong.
The plot holds few surprises for anyone who has ever watched a TV drama; however, the snappy dialogue and the poetic language, particularly in describing the Southern Alberta prairie landscape, raises this book to a much different level. The way the story moves back and forth among the perspectives of the main characters (primarily Mary and Randy but Darren gets his own chapter later on) and between the present and the past also makes it more compelling. EJ
All That Matters by Wayson Choy. Toronto: Doubleday, 2004. Hardback. 423 pages. ISBN: 0385257597.

In All that Matters, award-winning author Wayson Choy goes back to the characters and places he first wrote about in The Jade Peony to bring us this long awaited sequel. With beautiful language and gentle style, Choy gives readers a glimpse into life in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the Great Depression and World War Two.
Told from the perspective of First Son, Kiam-Kim, All that Matters continues the story of the Chen family. Having come to Vancouver from their small village in China, Kiam-Kim, his hard working father, and his fierce grandmother, Poh-Poh, arrive in Canada with hopes for a better future. Kiam-Kim knows that, as First Son, it is his responsibility to maintain his family’s honour and set a good example for his Canadian-born brothers and sister. As Kiam-Kim grows up, his understanding of family and his role in his family is complicated by his growing awareness of the world and people around him. Part family story and part growing up story, All that Matters is a story full of memorable characters, wonderful stories, and vibrant locations.
Although it is a sequel, All that Matters stands alone and can be read without previous knowledge of the story. Young adult readers will be drawn into the story of Kiam-Kim and his family as Choy takes them on a journey into the past. Nominated for the 2004 Giller Prize, All that Matters is beautiful story that is highly recommended. JdG

Sexual Identities and Sexual Passions

Raymond and Hannah by Stephen Marche. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2005. Hardback. 209 pages. 0-385-66041-3

This book was published in early 2005 and attracted a great deal of attention in Canada’s reviewing press for its frank and lyrical account of a brief sexual fling between two consenting young adults that turns into a longer-lasting and more complicated relationship. Raymond and Hannah meet at a party in Toronto and initially set off together for what they anticipate will be a one-night stand. The overwhelming nature of their first sexual encounter keeps them together for longer than they had anticipated, but soon Hannah is to leave the country to spend some time in Israel, learning more about her Jewish heritage, and they must decide what they want to do about this separation.
The book is told in very short units, glossed by a marginal synopsis of the main point of each section. The sex is joyful and also very explicit. The longer-term ramifications of this surprise connection are skilfully elaborated by Marche in this, his first novel. Hannah and Raymond must find ways to make their separate lives and priorities work together if they are to be able to stay connected, a common problem of early adulthood, and Marche explores the complications with zest. MM

Fruit by Brian Francis.Toronto: ECW Press, 2004. Trade paper. 278 pages. ISBN: 1-55022-620-7.

Peter Paddington is overweight and has no friends in his grade 8 class. He sticks his finger into his belly button to measure his fat, a sad caricature of the Pillsbury Doughboy. Then, one day, his nipples pop out. His sweatshirts can no longer conceal the “cherries” on his chest. As if that isn’t trouble enough, his nipples talk, encouraging his homoerotic fantasies. Binding his chest with masking tape is painful, and the convenience store owner is beginning to wonder what kind of school project requires this much masking tape. Peter tries religion for a while, making a shrine to the Virgin Mary so that she will cure him. His family is no comfort or inspiration: his smothering mother pushes sweets on him, his father is taciturn, one sister is equally fat, and the thin sister avoids family contact. Peter’s fantasies play out in his “Bedtime Movies,” which star him and the boys and men to whom he is attracted, with an occasional nod to Brooks Shields. In the fantasies, he is popular, desired, and successful. If his nipples have their way, he will begin to act out his fantasies in real life.
Brian Francis’ debut novel is funny, poignant, and spirited. His first-person narrator ambles, ever hopeful, from one humiliation to another. He is a clueless adolescent who intends to start his diet any day now so that he will be “normal” by the time he starts high school next fall. This coming to awareness novel is set in Sarnia in 1984, and Francis flawlessly evokes the self-absorption and fantastic thinking of a young adolescent. Peter longs for “normality,” creating fantasy personas that reveal his true heroic stature while simultaneously fearing exposure of his flawed adolescent self. His sexuality remains largely a mystery to him, even as he senses that he is “running from somethingthat I already know.” This novel is a delight to read, as Peter gradually begins to comes to terms with himself. JKM

Adultery by Richard B. Wright. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2004. Hardback. 243 pages. ISBN: 0002005867.
Daniel Fielding is a quiet, middle-aged man. He works for a Toronto publishing company. He’s married and has a teenaged daughter. He seems to have it all: a good career, a wonderful wife and family, a nice house in a good neighbourhood. So why does Daniel Fielding risk everything by succumbing to his charming and beautiful colleague, Denise, while on an overseas business trip?
These few days of passion and bad decisions are made even worse when Denise is kidnapped and murdered in England. This sets into motion a chain of events in which Daniel must watch his whole world fall apart around him. His wife and daughter are forced to re-evaluate their own lives and their seemingly strong family, while Daniel himself must stand by and watch the devastation of two families.
Adultery is, in some ways, a story for older adults who can identify with the feelings of loss and love expressed by the main characters. However, young adult readers will also find much in this story appealing. Daniel’s daughter, for example, who is forced to deal with her father’s involvement in Denise’s murder, is a strong character who will resonate with younger readers.
Richard B. Wright, who is well known for his award-winning novel Clara Callan, is a wonderful storyteller and this well-paced novel will capture readers from the first chapter .JdeG

Reading about Reading

The Logogryph: A Bibliography of Imaginary Books by Thomas Wharton. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2004. Paperback (in slipcover). 236 pages. ISBN: 1-894031-91-1

According to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, a “logogriphe” is a sort of riddle. This book is a riddle and much more. Told in fragments, it invites a reader to assemble a story that is also a tribute to the powers of reading. The complicated network of textual bits and pieces accumulate into a story of a rich family, the Weavers, who lived for a while in Jasper, Alberta and made a permanent impact on the life of the narrator of this book in many different ways.
In addition to telling the story of the Weavers, the book contains many fragments of other stories and the overall impact is a meditation on the reading of fiction. Many of the small sections that make up the book are lyrical and the overall result is powerful. It is comparable in some ways to Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, though considerably shorter.
The physical artifact of this book is also very appealing. The small brown paperback has both a dustjacket and a slipcover, so, in effect, having three different covers, all carefully designed. Paper and typeface are appealing, and the pages are patterned with small decorations and tiny illustrations.
This is not a book for every reader but for those interested in contemplating the process itself, it offers an admirable set of pathways. MM

Reading like a Girl by Rishma Dunlop. Windsor, ON: Black Moss Press, 2004. Paperback. 96 pages. 0-88753-396-5

As its title suggests, many of the poems in this book discuss reading. The author grounds her accounts of reading in specific backgrounds: she was born in India and grew up in Ontario and Quebec; her girlhood spanned the 1960s and 1970s, but some of her poems also talk about reading with her daughter at a later date. She does not address questions of reading in abstract or generalized terms but is precise about what it is that she is reading on any given occasion -and the list ranges from Ladies’ Home Journal and Miss Chatelaine to Chekhov and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. The specificity of the step into a particular textual world is a major part of the charm of these poems.
The book is not exclusively about reading; other poems address questions such as shifting from one culture to another, both for herself and even more intensely for her mother. She also writes about being a university student and being a teacher of university students. The language is appealing and approachable, but there is plenty of meat in this small book. MM

Reading about Writing

Thieves by Janice Kulyk Keefer. Toronto: HarperFlamingoCanada, 2004. Hardback. 304 pages. 0-00-200556-5

Many people have read one or more short stories by Katherine Mansfield; she is widely assigned for high school reading and more broadly known as a brilliant creator of this short form. This book, in a way, is a book about Katherine Mansfield - or rather about Kathleen Beauchamp, a writer of many names of which her nom-de-plume was only the most famous. In other ways, however, this is a book about history, about discovery, about engagement with the past, and about writing that past in a variety of different forms.
In this book we meet Kass, the New Zealand girl who will grow up to become the well-known author. We meet, more briefly, her husband John Middleton Murry, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, Ottoline Morrell, and numerous other luminaries of the time before, during and after the First World War. We also meet fictional figures from our own time: Monty, the failed PhD student, and Roger, his Mansfield-phile father, both interested in tracing documents that might shed light on Katherine Mansfield’s affair with Garnet Trowell and the miscarriage that ensued. Monty and Roger are sufficiently committed to pursuing this story that they are ready to steal – but nearly everyone in the book is a thief in one way or another.
Keefer adroitly assembles her account from the different perspectives of many of these characters. Readers who enjoyed Possession by A. S. Byatt will find similarities in this novel - but this story is complicated by its elaborate dance between the historical record, the contemporary fiction, and the author’s right to invent as well as record. The result is an intriguing story about fiction. MM

Stories and Novellas

The Best Thing for You by Annabel Lyon. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2004. Trade Paper. 322 pages. ISBN: 0771053975.

The three novellas that make up Annabel Lyon’s second book all explore the potential for darkness that exists in all of us. In each story, even the most perfect characters have a seemingly shadowy side to them.
In the first novella, “No Fun”, a family in modern-day Vancouver is taken to the brink of disaster when their teenage son is charged in connection with the brutal beating of a disabled man. The second story, “The Goldberg Metronome” takes readers through time and place when a young couple discovers an antique metronome hidden under the kitchen sink in their new apartment. In the third novella, “The Best Thing for You”, a young woman living in 1940s Vancouver plots and carries out her husband’s murder with the help of a young grocery-store clerk.
Although dark at times, ultimately the three stories in this book reveal the truths that exist in all of us. With highly developed characters and sharp, sometimes sparing prose, Annabel Lyon will captivate readers of all ages. Young readers will identify with the young adult characters in each story, all of whom are complex and memorable. JdeG

The Hour Before Dawn & Two Other Stories from Newford by Charles de Lint. Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2005. Hard cover. 114 pages. ISBN: 1-59606-027-1.

As Charles de Lint is a prolific short story writer, it is often difficult to obtain access to many of his stories. This slight collection contains two tales previously published in anthologies in 2004 and the title story, original to this collection. All three stories have been illustrated by the author.
Each of the stories focus on second chances, relationships and mystical opportunities to right wrongs and have connections to Newford, the setting for many of de Lint’s writing. The characters are all three dimensional, caring, if not always careful; people. Written in first person, the stories reflect de Lint’s love for language, music and story.
In the title story which takes place in 1957, Jack Daniels, private eye, can talk to the dead. Better than that, the dead can come back and help him as does his less than delightful sister-in-law. de Lint’s characterization and voice brilliantly constructs the tone of these tales in this homage to the pulp detective stories which were so popular at that time. The second story, “That was Radio Clash,” is a memorial to drummer Joe Strummer, of the Clash and Pogues, and reflects de Lint’s belief in the power of music as well as the gift of second chances. “Butter Spirit’s Tithe” blends Celtic and North American mythology in this tale of a young musician who runs afoul of the Little People. Drawing on the ballad of “Tam Lin,” Miki, who appeared in de Lint’s novel Forests of the Heart, helps to untangle the web and offer second chances surrounding the guitar playing janitor snared by one of the wee folk. GdV

The Princess and the Whiskheads: A Fable by Russell Smith. Illustrated by Wesley W. Bates. Toronto: Doubleday Canada 2002. 110 pages. Hardback. 0-385-65898-2

Smith’s short fable illuminates questions about the social benefits of art. Told as a fairy tale about a princess who sets out to learn more about the needs, impulses and artistic priorities of her subjects, it creates an intriguing society in which art and sewage reform compete for resources. The inhabitants of this country are famous for their extraordinary skill in working with very fine threads of precious metals. Whiskheads are social rebels who adapt this skill to their own purposes and alter their brains through inserting very fine metal threads into their heads.
This short and whimsical story is engaging on its own terms and also raises interesting questions about how art should be paid for in a society of finite resources. MM

Kilter: 55 fictions by John Gould. Turnstone Press. 2003. Paperback. 205 pages. ISBN:0-88801-280-2

Kilter is the Giller Prize nominated book whose title reflects the very compactness of its 55 stories. Most of this collection is comprised of narrative fragments which reveal glimpses of characters who find themselves ‘off-kilter’ in a post modern world. With each of these 55 stories averaging less than four pages, the reader may get the sense that these are aborted story beginnings, middles and ends. Yet, several of these pieces are brilliant in their thematic introspection and character development. Kilter allows one to travel non-linearly through the hinge moments of several characters’ lives. The importance of these moments is masked in the seeming ordinariness of the characters themselves. They include old and young couples who are married and not, blended families, and gender disconnects - all of whom are alternately undergoing marital and generational discord, the trials of parenting, and sexual anxieties.
Gould’s language is understated, and tinged throughout with irony and skepticism which may appeal directly to teenage readers’ sensibilities. A main concern with the book would be its lack of consistency as one never knows whether the next snapshot will be clear, blurry, or completely unfocused. Some of the stories have a jarring affect, while others resonate for hours afterwards. Fortunately, the whole of the collection is greater than its parts. This would be an excellent source for reluctant readers who would rather dip into a narrative pool rather than immersing themselves in longer works. As well, young writers may find solace and inspiration in this compact genre which demonstrates the power of brevity through its direct yet complex renderings. JN
Understanding Popular Culture

Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Documented an Era and Defined a Generation by Chris Turner. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2004. Paperback. 466 pages. ISBN: 0679313184.

Chris Turner, a Calgary writer whose articles on pop culture and technology have appeared in Shift, UTNE Reader, and other august publications, makes a bold claim in this book: The Simpsons, he argues, defines the turn-of-the-century generation in the same way that rock and roll defined the spirit of the baby boomer era. While he may not convince entirely, he does make a solid case for The Simpsons as a brilliantly written work of art. The text is sprinkled with bits of interesting Simpsons trivia, such as a step-by-step account of the writing process for an episode, and entertaining quotations from memos to the show's creative staff from Fox's censors. Despite the inclusion of such trivia, this book is not so much about The Simpsons as it is about American society, post-modern artistic expression, and the role of the satirist in unmasking the hypocrisies of the established order. The ideas discussed are likely a bit complex for some teen readers, but more precocious readers and thinkers should certainly be able to understand them. Turner explains concepts such as nihilism and postmodernism in easy-to-understand language (his explanation of postmodernism, using an example from the show, is especially brilliant). Teens who are bound for liberal arts university courses will certainly come across many of the concepts Turner examines, and Turner is sometimes better at illustrating them than your average first-year university textbook. This book is a must-read for the thinking Simpsons fan. HG

Autobiography

A Nurse’s Story: Life, Death, and In-Between in an Intensive Care Unit by Tilda Shalof. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2004. Hardcover. 337 pages .ISBN: 0771080867.

In A Nurse’s Story, Tilda Shalof uses her twenty years of professional experience to recount her work in critical care. As an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse in a Toronto hospital, Shalof writes about “the privilege that nurses have to see deeply into our patients’ lives as we accompany them through some of their most private, difficult, and vulnerable moments” (p. vii).
Readers are introduced to a number of patients and their families (although in some cases, these patients are actually “composites of two or more real people” (p vii)), who for a variety of reasons, end up in the ICU. There is a teenage boy struck down by a cerebral aneurysm, whose parents must make the terrible decision to remove his life support and donate his organs. There is a woman, who after years of being unable to breathe, receives a lung transplant, making it possible for her to breathe easily. And there is the story of an old man, with not long to live, whose life is prolonged because his ex-wife and son cannot bear to let him go. In the end, “this is the story of many stories. It is what I’ve learned from my colleagues and my patients over the years. It is my journey of learning to conquer myself so that I could serve others. It is my expression of gratitude to nursing and the nurses I have known and had the privilege to work with” (p. x).
A Nurse’s Story is a powerful book that will make its readers appreciate the often unappreciated nurses who work in our hospitals. Although Shalof points out at the beginning of the book that “this book is intended neither to entice young people to enter this profession nor dissuade them from doing so” (p. ix), young people who are interested in nursing or medicine will find much to interest them and learn from in Shalof’s well-written, fast-paced book. JdeG

Mysteries

Scare the Light Away by Vicki Delany. Scottsdale, AZ.: Poisoned Pen Press, 2005. Hardcover. 337 pages. 1-59058-141-5.

Rebecca McKenzie returns, after an absence of 30 years, to her home town of Hope River, Ontario to attend her mother’s funeral. A successful banker in Vancouver, Rebecca has been recently widowed and brings this grief to meet with her dysfunctional family to honour her mother, the only member of the family she has remained connected.
While coping with reuniting past memories with present realities, Rebecca is given a gift of her mother’s diaries.
Through these entries, beginning with her parent’s first meeting and throughout the rest of their married lives, Rebecca begins to understand, and possibility forgive, her family. Whilst undertaking this emotional journey, Rebecca also confronts the mystery of a missing teenage girl, one who is known to have idolized Rebecca’s older brother.
While this is essentially the adult Rebecca’s story, much of the action revolves around people in their teens in the past and present, and the way that family members and family history shapes their lives.
A strong debut for Delany, who, with a strong narrative voice, creates vibrant main characters who live in a fully realized small town on the Canadian Shield. The secondary characters are not as successfully formulated as the family members.
This is not a fast paced romp but one that deserves careful reading; young adult readers should easily make connections to acquaintances in their own school and community environment. GdV

Fifth Son by Barbara Fradkin. Toronto: Rendezvous Press, 2004. Paperback. 299 pages. ISBN: 1894917138.

Fifth Son is the fourth book in the Inspector Green mystery series which is set in Ottawa, Ontario. Barbara Fradkin, a practising psychologist, uses current issues and Ottawa landmarks to create believable situations and interesting stories. In the latest book in the series, Inspector Green investigates the death of a mysterious stranger who fell from an abandoned church tower in a quiet village near Ottawa. Inspector Green and his colleagues are forced to decide whether it is murder or suicide. When the victim turns out to be the long lost son of a local family, Green must delve into the past and, and regardless of police procedure and policy, learn all he can about the years of tragedy, madness and death that have plagued the family in order to solve the mystery. As is the case in all the books in this series, Inspector Green's quest for the truth often causes conflict with his family and colleagues which creates additional layers in the story.
Fifth Son recently won an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. Easy-to-read and with memorable characters, Fifth Son is sure to delight mystery fans. Inspector Green, like many good detectives in literature, is a slightly flawed but ultimately good, character who is trying to do his best for his family and his job. His long suffering colleagues have learned to accommodate his drive to solve crimes at any cost and together create an interesting cast of characters that will interest young adult readers.
Although this is the fourth in a series, it can be read alone or out of sequence without losing any of the impact of the story. The book as an object will appeal to young adults. It is slightly larger than a mass market paperback and the darkened church on the cover immediately causes the reader to wonder what is going to happen in the story. Additionally, $13.95 price tag makes it affordable for libraries or individual readers. Fifth Son is highly recommended. JdG

DreadfulWater Shows Up by Hartley GoodWeather (Thomas King). Toronto: HarperFlamingoCanada, 2002. Paperback. 234 pages.ISBN: 0-00-639179-6

Thumps DreadfulWater is a Cherokee ex-cop turned photographer who is dragged into the mystery of a computer programmer’s death by his sometime lover, Claire, whose son is a prime suspect. The dead programmer has been helping to set up a major casino and resort funded by the tribal council of which Claire is head; her son, Stick, is the leader of the opposition to this resort.
Writing under the nom-de-plume of Hartley GoodWeather, King presents the politics of small-town and reservation life in an area (vaguely located in the United States) where the prairies meet the Rocky Mountains. The lively characters and the dynamic cultural tensions frame a classic whodunit. The result is a beguiling mystery. MM

Miscellaneous

At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2005. 320 pages. Paperback. ISBN: 1-58017-589-9.

You don’t have to be a knitter to enjoy At Knit’s End. It is a wonderful collection of humourous observations that will appeal to anyone who has an obsession (knitting or otherwise) or lives with someone who does! Each short meditation starts with a quote (from sources ranging from Faith Popcorn to Marcel Proust), followed by a knitting anecdote and a knitting/life lesson. Meditations include cautionary tales about gauge, practical tips like using M&M’s as row counters, philosophical observations about the joys of handwork, and lots and lots of wry observations about life. Some are laugh-out-loud funny!
This may not be the kind of book teens will seek out on their own, but leave it lying around, the short bites will surely hook them. Who knows, maybe they’ll be inspired to take up knitting.
Stephanie Pearl-McPhee’s popular online blog is at www.yarnharlot.com. EJ

The Velocity of Honey and More Science of Everyday Life by Jay Ingram. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2003. 211 pages. Hardback. ISBN: 0-670-89310-2.

Popular science writer and Discovery Channel host, Jay Ingram, has written a series of essays on what we know, or don’t know, about the science behind some commonplace occurrences. Topics are diverse, including: the new thinking behind why leaves change colour in the fall, how many people the average individual knows, why the trip back from anywhere always feels shorter than the way out, the left-side preference for holding a baby, the science behind coffee stains, etc. These essays don’t necessarily provide answers but certainly pose interesting questions and discuss what research has been done in an attempt to explain these various daily ‘mysteries’.
Ingram has an appealing, breezy style and the short essays will cause you to look a little more intently at your toast and coffee and wonder, ‘why?’. EJ

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Editor: Victoria Pennell