Category Archives: Canadian author

Even Weirder Than Before, by Susie Taylor

Even Weirder Than Before is a quiet, introspective coming of age story set in a Toronto suburb in the late 1980s. As the book opens, Daisy is a Grade Eight student struggling with the breakup of her parents’ marriage and the normal adolescent “where-do-I-fit-in?” questions. The novel is  not long, but it unfolds over the next four years: by the time the story ends, Daisy is finishing Grade Twelve and has learned a great deal about her family, her friends, and, of course, herself.

Despite covering so many years in a relatively short book, the story is, in a way, slow-paced, in the sense that it’s more episodic than plot-driven. It’s a coming of age novel that is just that: the story being told is simply the story of Daisy growing up, dealing with all the issues that growing up entails. It’s fascinating to watch her relationships with those around her change. We see that change within her family, as her mother copes with single parenthood and a new relationship, and her older sister seeks her own path in life, and her father settles in with the younger woman he left for. We also see it, perhaps even more so, with her friends. The most important of these relationships is with her childhood best friend Wanda: the shape and fabric of this friendship stretches and changes over the years of high school as both girls grow up, and as other friendships and crushes bloom and fade, but Wanda remains a constant in Daisy’s life.

The book is filled not only with beautiful, understated moments of self-realization, but also with wonderful period detail. I am about half a generation older than the author — at my first job out of college I was teaching students Daisy’s age — and I was keenly aware of the story manages to feel both contemporary and like a period piece, a throwback to that time when teenagers managed to meet up and hook up without cellphones or Snapchat. The pains of adolescence are, to some extent, universal and timeless, yet deeply rooted in the popular culture of the years during which you’re a teenager. Daisy’s world is a completely believable one anchored in a very specific time and place, but also in the growing pains that we can all, to some extent, relate to.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author, Young Adult

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott

This is a book I’ve seen recommended a lot, and I’m so glad that I chose to buy it as an audiobook and listen to the author herself read it, because that format really increased the intimacy and power of an already-intimate book. I’ve shelved it as a “memoir” in my tags, which it is, but it’s not really a memoir in the sense of telling a single chronological narrative of the author’s life. Rather, it’s a collection of powerful personal essays, in which Elliott ties her personal and family stories into broader themes: mental illness, racism, what it means to be an indigenous person in today’s Canada, violence against indigenous girls and woman, domestic violence, and much more.

Alicia Elliott pulls no punches and doesn’t sugar-coat any aspect of the trauma she writes about, whether it’s her own personal/family trauma or the larger background against which its set: the generations of trauma inflicted on indigenous people by settler colonizers and the governments they created. As a settler-descended Canadian, this was a tough but important read for me. It’s rare that a writer can manage to write in terms that are both searingly personal and yet broadly applicable to larger issues in our society, but Alicia Elliott achieves this. I highly recommend this book.

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Filed under Audiobook, Canadian author, Nonfiction -- memoir

The Break, by Katherena Vermette

I had picked up and looked at The Break a few times when it was up for Canada Reads a couple of years ago, but it was a friend’s recommendation that finally got me to read it. The Break tells the story of a single act of violence on a winter night in Winnipeg’s North End, and how the lives of numerous people, most of them connected by ties of extended family, are impacted by this crime. Victim, perpetrator, police officer, witness, and many people affected simply because they’re part of the community — perspectives and voices overlap as the many characters, most of them First Nations women, tell their parts of the story.

In the multi-voiced structure and the story’s situation within the larger story of First Nations communities in a contemporary North American city, this book reminded me to some extent of Tommy Orange’s There, There. In that book, all the multiple characters’ stories converged towards a single act of violence; here, they refract outwards from it, showing a little of what led to the crime but far more of what happens as a result. Along the way there is anger, grief, resilience, humour and hope. It’s a beautiful novel, largely about strong indigenous women and how they try to hold themselves and their families and communities together amid the impacts of generational trauma and institutionalized racism.

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Filed under Canada Reads, Canadian author, Fiction -- general

The Sickroom, by Shayna Krishnaramy

This novella was a quick read but not entirely what I was expecting. It explores a snapshot in time — a summer when teenaged Jacob, who has mono, is sent to stay with his aunt, uncle, and cousins. Confined mostly to the titular sickroom, Jacob doesn’t play with the boy cousins his own age but instead becomes close to his eccentric younger cousin Macon, a gifted ten-year-old artist. When he has to choose between honouring that friendship or being accepted by Macon’s older brothers, Jacob’s loyalty is tested, and his choice shapes the people that both he and Macon (seen in a later flash-forward scene at the end) grow up to be. This was an intriguing premise but felt a little too bare-bones to me; the consequences of Jacob’s decision were not developed nearly as much as I wanted them to be, though the moment of choice was vivid.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general

The Back of the Turtle, by Thomas King

Like everything else I’ve read by Thomas King, The Back of the Turtle explores indigenous life in North America through unexpected and sometimes troubling lenses. This novel is about environmental devastation sliding into dystopia, about a scientist on a personal journey of redemption, about an abandoned reserve and and abandoned motel, about an artist looking for a lost home and a multi-gazillionaire capitalist trying to cover up his company’s involvement in the aforementioned environmental devastation. It’s both realistic and mythical, including a trinity of characters who might just represent Jesus, Satan, and God the Father. Oh, and there’s also a dog.

If this sounds like a lot — it is. It’s also highly readable and engaging, often funny as well as tragic, and ultimately, cautiously, hopeful. I picked up this book on a whim after putting down another book that I’d really wanted to read and sadly found I just could not get into. The Back of the Turtle drew me right in and wouldn’t let me go till I put it down.

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A Brightness Long Ago, by Guy Gavriel Kay

brightnesslongagoYet another book by one of my favourite authors, and once again a beautifully-realized story from a fantasy world parallel to our own that Kay has been crafting in painstaking detail throughout several novels. This story takes place in the same world as The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic — the world with two moons, where the dominant Jaddites worship Jad the sun-god, the marginalized Kindath worship the sister moons, and the star-worshipping Asharites from the desert threaten the Jaddite world with their rising power. (So, basically, Christians, Jews and Muslims in medieval Europe and the Middle East … kinda).

This novel takes place hundreds of years after Al-Rassan and Sarantine, and there are many echoes and callbacks to the The Sarantine Mosaic and a few to Al-Rassan, but its closest links are to Kay’s last novel in this world, Children of Earth and Sky. Interestingly, Brightness is not a sequel but kind of a prequel to Earth and Sky — it takes place about 25 years earlier and sets up some of the events we see happening in that book.

So, that’s where it stands in the canon of Kay’s work, all of which I’ve read. This novel is the story of Guidanio Cerra, a tailor’s son given an education above his station, finding his place as a young man in a land which is, for all intents and purposes, pretty much Renaissance Italy, a land of warring city-states and larger-than-life leaders. Two of those leaders — Folco Cino d’Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio — are rivals whose paths both cross Guidanio’s at various points in his journey, and we see the world from both their perspectives as well. There are also two extraordinary women at the centre of this novel: Adria Ripoli, a Duke’s daughter who doesn’t want the life expected of a noblewoman, and Jelena, a pagan healer who lives on the margins of society. How the great events of the day intersect with these individual lives — especially how they shape Guidanio’s life into an unexpected path — is the meat of this book.

It’s almost misleading, at this point, to categorize Kay’s work as “fantasy,” even though the world in which this book is set has two moons instead of one, and different place names. He kicked off his career with a trilogy (The Fionavar Tapestry) that was very much classic high fantasy, but in his more recent novels he seems to be trying to see how little magic you can put into a novel and still have it shelved in the fantasy section. This isn’t a criticism: I love how good writers play around with the boundaries of genre. In Kay’s later novels, any fantastical elements are mostly contained within the religion and folklore of the characters’ worlds — things that they believe are miracles, or mystical experiences, or magic, just as people might do in a historical novel set in our world. Only two marginally “magical” things happen in this novel: one, a miracle that happens to an extremely minor character, and the second the appearance of a ghost to a major character that has no significant impact on the plot. Fantasy readers who are mainly interest in complex magical systems might find this disappointing, but the vividly detailed world-building is more than enough to draw me in and keep me reading.

I can divide Guy Gavriel Kay novels into those I’ve liked, and those I love passionately and would re-read over and over. While Brightness is beautifully written and I inhaled it in a couple of days, I think it might end up falling into the “liked” rather than “loved” category, simply because it’s not as plot-driven as some of his other books — I didn’t find myself breathless at the end, unable to rest till I knew how it ended. This is more a slice-of-life than a plot-driven book, and while it has great, richly realized characters, a key event three-quarters of the way through the novel made me far less invested in how the characters’ lives turned out. But a different reader might find this resonates differently. It is a beautiful addition to his canon of books.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- fantasy

Juliet’s Answer, by Glenn Dixon

julietsanswerIt’s kind of unusual, for my reading habits at least, to read a memoir by a man about wandering around the world, trying to find himself, and straightening out his love life. I read a lot of those kinds of books by women, and Glenn Dixon’s Juliet’s Answer, while it’s no Eat, Pray, Love, definitely fits into the genre.

To be fair, Dixon doesn’t exactly wander the globe. He goes to Verona, Italy, and volunteers with the group of people who answer the thousands of letters that arrive yearly from people around the world writing about their broken hearts and hopes to the fictional Juliet of Shakespeare’s play. Dixon neatly sketches the entire Romeo-and-Juliet-centric tourist industry of Verona, and the gently good-hearted people who take on the task of dealing with Juliet’s mailbag. His stated reason for going is to deepen his own knowledge of a play he’s been teaching at the high school level for many years; his deeper reason is to untangle the threads of his own messy love life.

There are really three stories here, woven together: Dixon’s two trips to Verona, his experiences teaching Romeo and Juliet to ninth-grades back in Canada, and his unhappy long-term relationship with a woman he’s been “just friends” with since college. The Verona story is a nice piece of travel writing. The teacher story is a nice, not too idealized, look at the ways in which teaching a 400+ year old story can intersect with the lives of 21st century teenagers. I could definitely relate to this part after 20+ years teaching Shakespeare. (I say Dixon’s story is “not too idealized” — there’s obviously some editing for dramatic effect in the classroom scenes, and I almost laughed out loud at the touching scene where he and his class are reading the very last scene of the play on the very last day of school — what, they’ve spent all this time reading Romeo and Juliet and there’s no unit test, no final exam, not even a final project to complete? No assessment whatsoever?)

The narrator’s own love story ranges from “endearingly awkward” to “slightly cringeworthy” — it’s obvious that he is completely inept either at understanding the feelings of this woman he’s been in love with for decades, or at expressing his own feelings, and it’s hard not to wonder what her side of the story sounds like. However, while it doesn’t have a happy ending in the most obvious sense, there is an important message here about not being too tied to the romantic ideal of “one true love” — which guarantees that Dixon’s story has a less tragic ending than Juliet’s.

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Filed under Canadian author, Nonfiction -- memoir