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NEW ADULT CANADIAN FICTION FOR TEENAGE READERS
Margaret Mackey
with Ingrid Johnston, Elaine Jones, Jyoti Mangat,
and Jill Kedersha McClay

    Strong and committed teenage readers are often found casting about for reading material that is interesting, accessible, and challenging. Canadian teens are lucky to live in a time when much contemporary publishing for adults provides a wealth of such material. 

    For the sixth time, this column offers a selection of contemporary Canadian titles published for adults but with much to offer to good teen readers. As usual, our selection is based on criteria of relevance, quality and recency. We work on the assumption that any reader capable of enjoying these titles is mature enough to deal with issues of strong language and graphic contents, and have made no attempt to censor our list on such grounds.

    We have attempted to cast our net broadly in terms of genre, setting, and voice. No matter how well we have succeeded in this aim, however, there are undoubtedly many books that could be on this list and are not. It truly is a wonderful time to be a Canadian reader.

Contemporary Life / Family Stories / Mysteries / Poetry / Short Stories / Speculative Fiction / Sports Writing /Stories About Stories / Stories From History

 

Family Stories

 Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001 (first published 2000). 378 p. Paperback. 0-676-97322-1

     Lisamarie Hill is a heroine to remember.  When we meet her at the age of about 20, she has just learned that her only brother, Jimmy, is missing from his fishing trawler.   The book interweaves the story of how Jimmy was lost with Lisamarie’s recollections of her life growing up on the British Columbia coast. Her Haisla heritage resonates on every page, as does her stubborn character and determination to grow up her own way. Her gift of prophecy has seldom brought her joy; usually it is pain and loss that she foresees. Nevertheless, this is not a gloomy book - or rather, it is not just sad, for sadness certainly dominates some of the pages, as laughter and amazement dominate others. Lisa’s description of her life is both contemporary and approachable. Her account of her extended family rings true; they are not always wise or even sensible but they do have a full sense of life. 

    By turns dark, funny, spiritual, angry, and poetic, but invariably highly readable, this book is a major accomplishment.  Many readers will come away from it feeling they have changed as a result of reading it.  (MM)

  

Canterbury Beach by Anne Simpson.  Toronto: Penguin Viking, 2001. 312 p. Hardback.  0-670-89484-2

    Based on the old schema of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, this book tells the story of a family returning to the Maine cabin where they have spent many summers.   Verna and Allistair have been visiting this coastal spot for forty years; their children are now grown and most of them are making the trek from Nova Scotia this summer. The two cars set out in convoy.  There are four adult children in the family:  Neil, Spike, Evelyn, and Garnet.  Neil is not coming with the others but is represented on this trip by his estranged wife Robin.  Garnet has not made any connection with his family for a number of years, but his mother hopes he may show up this time, and this hope fuels her trip.

    The complex interweavings of this family dominate the linked stories of this book. As with last year’s The Good House by Bonnie Burnard, the intricate plotlines of family politics are more than sufficient to fill an entire book. Some issues are resolved, others are simply aggravated, but the life of the family is persuasive and the book as a whole makes very interesting reading.  (MM)

 

What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2000 (1999). 515 p. Paperback. 0-676-97318-3 

   Baldwin’s novel, set in India during the 1930s and 1940s, reads like a finely woven tapestry of characters, cultures and dramatic historical events. The power and poignancy of the story lies in the rich portrayal of the three main characters: Roop, beautiful and na´ve, who dreams of marrying into wealth and happiness, but is unprepared for her fate as the second wife of Sadarji, a rich landowner; Satya, the supplanted first wife, who is intelligent and loyal but unable to bear a child; and Sadarji himself, who struggles to find his place amidst the separatist tensions of a divided India. The novel effectively moves between the perspectives of the main characters, and presents a fascinating portrayal of love, intrigue, jealousy and treachery. The book is long, and the plot complex, but it is an absorbing and memorable read. (IJ)

 

 Open Arms by Marina Endicott. Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001. 248 p. Paperback. 1-55054-840-9

     In this wonderful first novel told in three distinct parts, we get to look in on the heroine, Bessie Smith Connolly, at the ages of 17, 20 and 24 as she struggles to come to terms with her family and find her place in the world. At 17, mourning the death of her grandfather and a recent breakup with her boyfriend, she moves away from the Nova Scotia home of the grandparents who raised her to Saskatchewan to be with her mother Isabel. Isabel is a part-time singer who shares a house with her ex-husband's second ex-wife, Katherine, and child, Irene. In Part 2, at 20, Bessie travels with her step-sister, Irene, to Galiano Island to spend the Christmas holidays with their father and his very pregnant and soon-to-deliver-twins girlfriend. In Part 3, at 24, a pregnant Bessie and her grandmother take to the road to find Bessie's mother who has disappeared, following a trail that leads them from Northern Saskatchewan to the B.C. interior and back.

    Strong, appealing characters make this book work. In the end, the story is both funny and wise and has a lot to say about the mother and daughter relationship and the contemporary family.  (EJ)

 

Baroque-a-nova by Kevin Chong. Toronto: Penguin Books, 2001. 232 p.  Paperback.  014100025-2

     This book tells an absorbing story of a teenage boy trying to come to terms with the suicide of his mother, a woman who is known to him only through different kinds of records of her earlier life as a music star. The book takes place over the week of her death. Not surprisingly, 18-year-old Saul is not quite sure what to think or feel when he hears of his mother’s death. His school life is messy; his family life even more so. He speaks directly to the reader and successfully conveys much of the uncertainty of being a teenager, particularly one who is temporarily in the public eye.

    This book is a first novel and shows some unevenness, especially in the tone of voice of its first person narrator. Nevertheless, it does a good job of getting inside the experience of being a teen trying to find a place in the world.  (MM)

 

Raspberries on the Yangtze by Karen Wallace. London: Simon and Schuster, 2000. 148 p  Paperback. 0-689-82796-2

     Karen Wallace now lives in England but she lived in Quebec until her early teens, and this story of childhood is set on the Gatineau River. The narrator is Nancy, who roams the countryside with her brother Andrew, her fatherless friends Amy and Clare, and her enemy Sandra Wilkins, whose sister Tracy is mysteriously at odds with their mother.

    Nancy thinks she knows all there is to know about love and hate, lust and babies, but her understanding is far more limited than she realizes. Still, she knows enough to realize that something is very wrong with the Wilkins family.  The hot, free, summer days should be untroubled, but even half-understood secrets can interfere with the simplest childhood pleasures.

    This short novel is easy to read and conveys the joys and frustrations of childhood very evocatively. (MM)

 

Contemporary Life

 

 Generica by Will Ferguson. Toronto:  Penguin, 2001. 309 p  Paperback. 0-14-029984-X

     What would happen if somebody published the ultimate self-help book that actually solved all the problems of everyone who read it? According to this rollicking satire, the world as we know it would come to a halt.  Nobody would need to strive for anything ever again. Yet, as Edwin de Valu, the “hero” of this funny story discovers, that nirvana of ultimate satisfaction all round might well cause different kinds of problems.

    This book aims many telling and entertaining blows at contemporary society, the publishing industry, the self-help mania of our times – and at many New Age notions along the way. Its main premise is utterly preposterous, but the sheer ridiculousness of the story does not prevent it from making many telling observations about North American life as we know it today. Its complex, larger-than-life plot and characters are engaging without necessarily being likable. The book is amusing and savage all at once.  (MM)

 

Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2001. 423 p. Hardback. 0-676-97307-8

     Carefully nuanced characters, an intriguing plot, and thematic explorations of the relationships of people to their environment and food combine to make Stanley Park a rich and satisfying read. Chef Jeremy Papier, trained in France, returns home to Vancouver to open The Monkey’s Paw Bistro, where he highlights local produce. His interest in people’s relationship to the food available in their surroundings, though, is oddly echoed by his eccentric anthropologist father who studies homeless people living in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.   As Jeremy’s father is increasingly drawn into the lives of these seemingly rootless people, he also becomes obsessed with the mysterious deaths of two young children in the Park in the 1950s. When Jeremy’s financial stress threatens his restaurant, he is forced to turn to the creepy Dante, of the successful coffeehouse chain Dante’s Inferno. The discussions of culinary and restaurant styles add to the flavour and delight of this novel. (JKM)

Stories About Stories

 

Salamander by Thomas Wharton. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2001. 372 p. Hardback. 0-7710-8833-7 

    This challenging book is not for everyone, but for those who like intricate stories about the making of stories, it is a real winner. Fittingly for a book about the making of an infinite book, it is the kind of story that leads readers to turn immediately back to page one as soon as they come to the end. At first reading, the level of elaboration is enjoyable in itself but quite mystifying in terms of the overall plot; on a second read, it becomes much clearer that every detail has its place in the nested filigree composition of the plot. 

    Nicholas Flood is an 18th century printer who is commissioned to create an infinite book by a Slovakian count who lives in a clockwork castle where nothing stays still. Like the castle, the story is constantly on the move also, and readers will need to be alert to every detail. The quest to create this never-ending book takes the characters all over the world, collecting many stories from other people as they go.

    Although the story is exceedingly complex, it is always very readable, even if it is sometimes difficult to see how one section connects to another. It is the kind of book where the author early teaches his readers that they must trust the storyteller if they want full value. That value is undeniable.  (MM)

  

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.  Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000.  521 p. Hardback. 0-7710-0863-5

    Hard to categorize, this swashbuckling novel tells many different kinds of story in one. It includes five nested narrative frameworks: Iris Chase Griffen’s account of her current life; her reminiscences about her dead sister, Laura; the newspaper cuttings that shed alternative light on their lives as rich daughters of an Ontario button manufacturer; Laura’s torrid romantic novel, The Blind Assassin, and the rich fantasy narrated by a character within that novel. Are they five stories or are they one, and, if so, which one? The telling is elaborate and complex, and provides the chief compulsion of the book; it is probably fair to say that the telling is more interesting than the story itself.

    Nevertheless, this is an engaging, intriguing and readable book, winner of many prizes, and appealing on many fronts. It is the kind of book in which the need for readers to keep their wits on full alerts is one of the major charms.  (MM)

 

Speculative Fiction

 

Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer.  New York: Tor, 2000. 335 p. Hardback.  0-312-86713-1 

    This book, set in the near future in Toronto, combines a space story, a thriller about a pair of creationist terrorists, and a great deal of philosophical discussion about the nature of God and the role of sentient life in the universe. It features an Ontario paleontologist who is dying of cancer, Tom Jericho, an alien called Hollus who normally appears only as a telepresence, and members of a third species who play a minor role in the story. It turns out that all three life forms have experienced historical cataclysms at the same five points in their histories, and the aliens want to consult the records contained in Earth’s fossils in order to increase their understanding of what has happened in the past. Tom’s great interest in the project and his developing friendship with Hollus are shadowed by his knowledge of his own mortality and his fears for his family. It sounds like a recipe for a rather depressing book, but in fact it is engaging and stimulating, raising huge questions in accessible and interesting ways.  (MM)

 

Stories From History

  

The Trade by Fred Stenson. Vancouver:  Douglas & McIntyre, 2000. 344 p. Paperback. 1-55054-816-6

     The story of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the opening of the Canadian West to the fur trade form the core of this highly readable book. Told from the perspective of the European traders, it conveys the language and attitudes of the time. Such language and attitudes may offend some contemporary readers but they shed considerable light on the foundation of the western provinces as we know them today.  Stenson based his story on real people and historical documents but “wrote between the lines of known fur trade history” to make the characters real. The result is a vivid adventure story filled with people who, perhaps because of their actual historical roots and quirks, come across as larger than life. The reshaping of the West was not a pretty operation.  Stenson does an excellent job of conveying the accidents, the contingencies, and the messiness of that story. The result is an illuminating and fascinating novel.  (MM)

  

Baltimore’s Mansion: A Memoir by Wayne Johnston. Toronto: Vintage Canada 2000 (1999). 272 p. Paperback. 0-676-97297-7

    Lord Baltimore founded the community of Ferryland on the Southern Shore of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland, as long ago as the 1620s. Wayne Johnston tells a more recent story, but one equally steeped in history:  the anguished battle among Newfoundlanders over whether to confederate with Canada or to stick it out independently as a Dominion of the British Commonwealth.  Families divided and acrimony ran deep for generations.

    In this story of his father and his grandfather, Johnston explores that ebb and flow of emotion and eloquence in highly fascinating ways. Author of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams which fictionalizes the story of Joe Smallwood, the victorious leader of the Confederation cause, Johnston here tells something of the other side of the story. In the course of this book, we learn much about the Johnston family, about the psychology of losing a vital political battle, and about the doughty and hardworking people of Newfoundland. At the same time, we are offered many subtle insights into how fathers and sons make and break connections with each other. The book is a pleasure to read from beginning to end.  (MM)

  

The Beothuk Saga by Bernard Assiniwi.  Translated by Wayne Grady. Toronto:  McClelland & Stewart, 2000 (first published in French in 1996). 341 p. Hardback. 0-7710-0798-1

     This book accomplishes many things and raises many questions. It begins at the time that the Vikings arrived in Newfoundland and ends with the death of the last of the Beothuks in the 19th century. A saga spread over eight hundred years must establish strong emotional connections with the characters in order to sustain readers’ interest, and this book certainly succeeds at that level. Assiniwi also achieves a convincing sense of time passing, customs changing, legends settling into fixed stories. This story establishes anew the utter horror of an entire people being wiped out, and restores a shameful chapter of Canadian history to a live moral question.

    The Beothuks became extinct almost 175 years ago, so there is no one left to speak directly for them. In a fictionalized account such as this one, readers need to be able to trust the narrator, to know the authority for his assertions about a silenced people. In this story, Assiniwi often convinces through the substance of detail, but there are points where it would be useful to know more about the basis of his descriptions. In particular, a motif of lesbian exchanges between the wives of a single man raises the issue of authenticity.  A single occurrence of such a scene might be taken as poetic license; when it recurs over centuries, questions arise about the historical warrant for such description. It is not that the lesbian scenes are particularly offensive in themselves – indeed they are warmly comforting. But it is not clear whether readers are meant to suspend disbelief and read these scenes as fiction, or to ascribe historical verification and read them as fact. This mental conflict eventually interferes with complete enjoyment of the book and may limit its value for broad recommendation. Nevertheless, those who relish the sweep of historical sagas will find much to enjoy in this wide-ranging novel.  (MM)

 

Sports Writing

    Tropic of Hockey: My Search for the Game in Unlikely Places by Dave Bidini.  Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000.  288 p. Hardback. 0-7710-1457-0

     To appreciate this delightful book, you probably need to know something about the game of hockey. A little bit of awareness of hockey history wouldn’t hurt either, though it’s not really as necessary.  But with these minimal credentials in hand, you are in for a treat. On the back cover, Roy Macgregor calls Bidini the Bill Bryson of hockey writing and that link to the travel writer who manages to be very funny and very perceptive all at once is appropriate. Bidini, a member of the musical group the Rheostatics when he is not pursuing his love of hockey, is a terrific travel writer and a thoughtful commentator on the state of hockey both here in Canada and also in other parts of the world, such as China, the Middle East, and Romania. He is unsparing about the issues that plague contemporary hockey and highly persuasive on the subject of the game’s ongoing delights. Laugh-out-loud funny in places, the book has a great deal to offer to hockey fans and others.  (MM)

 

 Ice: New Writing on Hockey, edited by Dale Jacobs. Edmonton: Spotted Cow Press, 1999. 228 p. Paperback. 0-9694665-4-4

     This book is a collection of poems, essays, and short stories, written by Canadian and American contributors, and reflecting on many aspects of the game at every level. The amateur, the professional, the fan, the coach – all have a place in this book. The variety of approaches and styles is very inviting, and the range of perspectives on a single game is intriguing. It is quite common for critics to prefer baseball writing as more complex and elegant, but this anthology makes a place for the subtleties of hockey and hockey writing to be taken seriously.  (MM)

Short Stories


The Topography of Love by Bernice Morgan. St. John’s: Breakwater, 2000.  337 p. Paperback. 1-55081-157-6

    This wonderful book will win over even readers who generally dislike short stories. The dozen stories in this collection are subtle and compelling. The first six are separate stories; the second six are inter-related in complex and troubling ways. The sense of a real, three-dimensional world is vividly conveyed in both sets. In the separate stories we gain a real sense of the scope and variety of the world; in the linked set, we see the backwash of actions and consequences reverberating over many years and across different families. In all cases the sense that the author has created a borehole into a universe that is simultaneously fascinating and strangely familiar provides a strong sense that readers are gaining a privileged perspective on other people’s lives. Most of the stories are set in Newfoundland and Morgan has a sure ear for local dialects.  The characters, however, are universal, as are the predicaments in which they find themselves.  (MM)

 

The Love of a Good Woman: Stories by Alice Munro. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1999 (1998). 340 p. Paperback. 0-375-70363-2

     Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories (winner of the Giller Prize in 1998) offers eight new stories of love, passion and nostalgia. Characters in these stories are as varied as the stories themselves: an old landlady in Vancouver, a passionate young mother, a gruff country doctor, an Ontario farm wife. Alice Munro is an expert at describing small incidents of life that have significant consequences for people’s lives. These stories are rich with humour and passion that transform the mundane into interesting narratives that will quickly resonate with readers’ own lives. Munro’s international fame and reputation are well earned and this collection will further enhance her standing in the literary world. (IJ)

  

Awake When All the World is Asleep by Shree Ghatage. Concord, ON: Anansi Press, 1997. 165 p. Paperback. 0-88784-602-5

     In this collection of eleven interconnected stories, Shree Ghatage weaves the world that surrounds Shaila, a medical student in Winnipeg, as she returns to Bombay for her father’s sixtieth birthday party. While Shaila does not figure as the protagonist in all of the stories, the collection begins and ends with her perspective and each of the intervening tales adds a dimension to the community to which she is temporarily returning. The characters who occupy these stories are the residents of the apartment building in which Shaila was raised and by bringing them vividly to life Ghatage allows the reader to participate intimately in the lives of these neighbours.

    Ghatage successfully evokes the humanity of the characters who inhabit her stories; they are portrayed equally with a keen eye and a loving pen.  This is an appealing, confident first collection that allows the reader glimpses into the small, private moments that constitute human lives. (JM)

 

 Poetry

  

A Pair of Scissors by Sharon Thesen. Toronto: Anansi Press, 2000. 70 p. Paperback. 0-88784-647-5

     Sharon Thesen writes with the sharp precision and cutting edge suggested by the title of her new poetry collection. Contemporary, everyday scenes are transformed by her wit and sense of fantasy. Her subject matter is often the banal: walking the dog, watching TV, sitting on a plane, but she has the ability to create surrealist landscapes from these ordinary events, infusing her writing with images of pop culture, witty commentaries and hints of the magical. Twice short listed for the Governor General’s award for poetry, Thesen offers intelligent reflections on the potential chaos and magical possibilities of modern life. (IJ)

Midland by Kwame Dawes. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2001. 91 p. Paperback. 0-86492-299-X

    Dawes’ latest book of poems is concerned predominantly with images of belonging, displacement, loss and desire. The poems are set in a variety of countries around the world, drawing on Dawes’ own experiences in the Caribbean, Africa, England, Ireland and the United States. His writing is haunting and evocative, inviting readers into the “snotty halls” and “dirty light” of London (39), the “scarred muscle of Belfast’s heart” (24), and the “slate gray Carolina dawn when the cotton fields were blanched” (73). Like a “griot in search of a village” (18), Dawes sings out his memories and his dreams of different times and different places. Born in Ghana, growing up in Jamaica, studying and teaching in New Brunswick, and now South Carolina, Dawes brings to his poems much of his own rich diasporic life experiences. He has already won a major award in Britain for his poetry collections, and has been highly praised for his rooted sensibilities and the vibrancy of his language. His poems are easy to read but hard to forget. (IJ)

  

Long Girl Leaning into the Wind by Janet Fraser. St. John’s: Killick Press, 2000. 64 p. Paperback. 1-894294-21-1

     Maritimer Janet Fraser presents 39 relatively short free-verse poems in this attractive book. Many of them tell stories of family life and talk about the crises of growing up. Some are rooted in the specific geography of places in the Atlantic Provinces, particularly St. John’s, but this fact does not close out those readers who may not recognize particular references – her sense of the general truth of the complexities of life is recognizable to all.  (MM)

Mysteries

Forty Words for Sorrow by Giles Blunt.  Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001 (first published 2000). 326 p. Paperback. 0-679-31145-9

    This book is certainly not for the squeamish, but for those whose capacity for gruesomeness is reasonably robust, it offers a stimulating look at some of the horrors of being human. It is a mystery thriller at one level but it is also much more. Set in northern Ontario, it offers a description of winter that is chilling in more than one sense. Starring a policeman with a past, it provides a multi-faceted look at human frailties but maintains an invitation to keep reading that would seem to be at odds with its horrifying contents.

    The book tells of a series of sadistic murders and offers a glimpse inside the minds of the serial killers that can strangely be described as almost compassionate. They are dreadful people, yet the author reminds us that it is not just certified sadists who take pleasure from other people’s pain.  Public executions are often in fashion and, historically, have often caused excruciating pain. Blunt does not shrink from the implications of what this fact has to say about violence and humanity. 

    Not many mysteries offer quite as much scope for reflection as this one, yet it also fulfills the mystery’s other obligation, to keep the reader turning the pages ever faster. For those who can handle a certain amount of very nasty blood and gore, this very troubling book has a lot to offer.  (MM)

  

Sticks and Stones by Janice MacDonald.  Winnipeg: Ravenstone, 2001. 252 p. Paperback. 0-88801-256-X 

    This book is a much more conventional mystery than Forty Words for Sorrow but a good read in its own right. Set in a very recognizable English department at the University of Alberta, it offers a classic academic mystery featuring poison pen letters, gender issues, and then violent death. Sessional lecturer Miranda Craig must confront an enemy whose identity is not clear to her. 

    The details of academic life provide both setting and mood in this story. Occasionally there is a sense that the author may have an axe or two to grind, but the story moves along smartly, nevertheless, with clues properly distributed and later assembled in a very satisfying way.  (MM)

Editor: Victoria Pennell