Category Archives: Canadian author

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

donotsayThis is the best book I’ve read so far this year. Told from the perspective of a Chinese-Canadian woman learning of her late father’s life in China during the cultural revolution, it is a riveting voyage to a place and time I didn’t know much about. 

As a young girl, Marie loses her father when he leaves their family to return to China, then takes his own life in Hong Kong. Soon after that trauma, Marie’s mother offers shelter to Ai-Ming, a girl about ten years older than Marie, whose father was close friends with Marie’s father. The student protests in Tienanmen Square have recently ended and Ai-Ming, who was involved in the protests, has fled China for Canada. During the months she stays with Marie’s family, she tells the younger girl stories of their fathers’ youth in China, the music that bound them both together at the Conservatory, and a mysterious, hand-copied book that has been copied and distributed down through three generations of Ai-Ming’s family.

The narrator then takes us into the heart of these stories, not filtered through Ai-Ming’s and Marie’s perspectives but through the points of view of the people who actually lived them — Big Mother Knife, Ba Lute, Swirl, Wen the Dreamer, who live through the Japanese invasion during the Second World War and are proud to be part of the new Communist China post-war, until Mao Zedong’s dream turns against them. Their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, whose lives are forever changed when their musical careers bring them into contact with Kai (future father of the narrator Marie). These three young people, Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai, as young artists, are targets of the Cultural Revolution, and the brutality of that revolution tears all three lives apart. The horrors of living under a totalitarian regime are depicted here with chilling precision, and the writing is beautiful. This novel won both the Governor General’s award for fiction and the Giller Prize, and the awards were richly deserved.


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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

Yiddish for Pirates, by Gary Barwin

yiddishI wanted to love this book a lot more than I did, especially since it was the only book anyone gave me for Christmas and I got not one but two copies of it. It’s crazy, inventive, witty and definitely a novel for anyone who loves playing with words — but in the end, I think all the wordplay and some of the narrative tricks kept me a little distanced from really getting involved with the characters.

It’s the story of Aaron, a talking (really talking, not just mimicking) parrot, who narrates the story of Moishe, the Jewish boy on whose shoulder he perches. Moishe embarks on a series of adventures and misadventures in fiftenth-century Spain, on the high seas, and in the New World, where he sails with Columbus. There’s a lot of humour to their adventures as narrated by the wisecracking Aaron who sprinkles his story liberally with Yiddish word and phrases, anachronisms, and puns in several languages. But there’s also a darkness that follows Moishe and all his travelling companions, Jews expelled from Spain under the shadow of the Inquisition.

The book is incredibly inventive and a delight for those who love wordplay, but after Moishe and Aaron left Spain and travelled to the New World I found the story less compelling than when they were back in Spain. Also, I found that using the parrot as narrator kept me distanced from the human characters, so that I never got quite as involved in Moishe’s story as I’d hoped to. The book certainly is brilliantly written and truly unique, but it wasn’t my most engrossing read of the year so far.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel

threesistersKatherine Govier’s latest historical novel sweeps across the Canadian Rockies and the twentieth century, beginning with an ill-fated expedition out of Gateway, Alberta in 1911. A hundred years later, the purchase of the titular hotel, now run-down and neglected, drives a family to explore a tangled web of hidden stories that go right back to that 1911 journey.

This is a wonderfully evocative novel that explores a piece of Canadian history I didn’t know much about. It’s peopled with larger-than-life, vivid characters who are present in these early years of our Western provinces and National Parks. I found it difficult to adjust to the fact that early in the novel the reader is wrenched away from a point of view character to whom I, at least, had become quite attached — I kept wanting to get back to her perspective, and it took some time to accept that, like the rest of the novel’s characters, there were mysteries I would never get to solve and stories I would never definitively learn the end of. 

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

The Witches of New York, by Ami McKay

witchesWhen I think about witches in history and historical fiction, I think, of course, of the Salem witch trials, and of women of that era in both Europe and the New World accused of witchcraft — often for nothing more sinister than living alone, or having a working knowledge of herbal medicine. Ami McKay’s new novel takes us into witches in a different world — 1890s New York City, where women’s ancient knowledge intersects with the fascination for spiritualism in late 19th-century New York to produce a trio of memorable women, the titular witches of New York.

Adelaide is a medium who passes on messages from the dead; she shares a storefront and living quarters with Eleanor, who practices traditional “witch” knowledge handed down from her mother. Into their lives, in response to a newspaper ad, comes young Beatrice, new to the city and looking for adventure, who turns out to have the abilit to see dead people. Together the three women face prejudice and misunderstanding and try to forge out a tiny space for witches in a rapidly modernizing world. 

I categorized this book both as historical fiction but also as fantasy, since it has elements that I would describe as a sort of urban fantasy — that is, the “witchcraft” elements of the story are real within the world of the story, so inexplicable and mysterious things do occur, and are not explained away rationally. This requires the reader to suspend disbelief, entering into the world of the story’s characters and believing what they believe.

All three women are engaging, well-drawn characters (Adelaide has been previously introduced to us under another name, Moth, as a young girl in McKay’s novel The Virgin Cure). They are survivors, strong and indomitable in world that wants to force women into a more compliant mold. Characters and setting are the strengths of this story — the plot, I thought, stumbled in a few places, perhaps because there are many characters in addition to the three witches and many plot threads, some of which seemed to me to be resolved a little too easily and others left dangling without any resolution at all. In spite of these dropped threads, the overall tapestry of this story was rich and enjoyable.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- historical

Found Far and Wide, by Kevin Major

Layout 1Years ago, I noticed the interesting fact that one of Newfoundland’s greatest maritime disasters — the great sealing disaster of 1914, in which nearly 80 men perished when stranded out on the ice for two nights — occurred in 1914, a few months before World War One started and hundreds of Newfoundland young men went overseas, many to die in the trenches on the Western Front. I wondered if any men who were survivors of the sealing disaster subsequently went off to fight and die in the war, and thought of how interesting it would be to write about a character whose life intersected with both these events.

In fact, the life of Kevin Major’s main character in Found Far and Wide, Sam Kennedy, touches not just on these two events, but also on the 1920s era of Newfoundlanders working on the high steel in New York City, run-running during the US Prohibition years, and Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s work in Northern Newfoundland and Labrador. Sam’s a bit of a Newfoundland Forrest Gump in that sense, on the scene for so many key events of our history, but he’s no happy-go-lucky schumck like Gump. Sam’s a pretty intense guy, and it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on what motivates him. The events he lives through and experiences are depicted in vivid and memorable detail (I especially liked that the war experience we see up-close through Sam’s eyes is not the Battle of Beaumont Hamel, which has been written about so much by Newfoundland writers including Major himself in other works, but the earlier and lesser-known Gallipoli battle). The man himself, at the heart of these great occurrences, remains a bit of an enigma — perhaps to himself as much as to the reader.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical, Newfoundland author

Waiting for First Light, by Romeo Dallaire

waitingRomeo Dallaire’s memoir about surviving not just the Rwandan genocide (in his incredibly frustrating role as commander of the UN forces there), but living with the ravages of PTSD for the 20 years after Rwanda, is not an easy read. But it is a compelling one, and a necessary one. Dallaire intersperses his story of trauma and survival with brief chapters that flash back, as his own memories do, to the horrors of the genocide.

Dallaire is unsparing and scathing in discussing some of the things that contributed to his struggle, particularly as concerns institutions and their blind spots — the U.N., the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian government and its treatment of veterans. He is much more cautious when writing about individuals, especially his own family. He and his wife remain married after all these struggles, but lived apart for many years after Rwanda — ostensibly due to Daillaire’s work and his wife’s desire to raise the kids in the same community they had grown up in, but it’s clear that his PTSD put a huge strain on marriage and family life, and I actually respect that every didn’t write a tell-all memoir exposing a lot of personal information about his wife and kids — these are really people he loves, and I’m glad he showed some discretion there. The one person Dallaire is truly unsparing in writing about — even moreso than, say, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs — is himself. While recognizing that he suffered terribly, he also acknowledges that in dealing with that suffering he made many poor choices and hurt others as well as himself.

Dallaire’s hope in writing this book was to shed light on the struggles with PTSD that so many of our modern veterans experience, and I can’t imagine it will fail to do so. This is a very compelling book.

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Filed under Canadian author, Nonfiction -- memoir

Art Love Forgery, by Carolyn Morgan

artloveforgeryCarolyn (no relation) Morgan’s first novel, Art Love Forgery, illuminates a little-known true story from Newfoundland history, embellished with details from the author’s imagination.

The facts: a European artist named Alexander Pindikowsky painting murals on the ceiling of the governor’s mansion in St. John’s, in the 1880s. Pindikowsky was in prison at the time for forging cheques, and was permitted to reduce the term of his sentence by carrying out artwork for the governor — under guard, of course. At some point, Pindikowsky married and had a daughter with a Newfoundland woman named Ellen Dormody. Little is known beyond that, but you can see how that would be more than enough to pique a novelist’s imagination and get her itching to create the rest of the story.

In fact, author Carolyn Morgan has only recently come to fiction, having been for most of her career a visual artist. Her background not only explains her knowledge of and interest in Pindikowsky’s story; it also shines through in the lovingly detailed descriptions, not only of Pindikowsky’s murals but also of Ellen’s millinery creations, and most tellingly, the process of creation for both characters. For a story that takes a little-known oddity of local history and fleshes it out into a story with fully rounded characters and period detail, Art Love Forgery is a great read.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical, Newfoundland author