Feature Column - Resource Links V. 11, no. 1, October 2005
Contemporary Canadian Adult Novels with Teen Appeal
by Margaret Mackey
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Adultery by Richard B. Wright. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2004. Hardback. 243 pages. ISBN: 0002005867.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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’.