McClelland & Stewart, 2019
Reviewed by Brooklynn Hook
“Wood is time captured. A map. A cellular memory. A record.” Spanning 138 years, Greenwood is structured like the cross-section of a tree, the rings of which physically record time passing, and is reflected visually in the novel’s Table of Contents. The oldest events occur in 1908, nestled in the middle rings, and the near future events of 2038 hover on the outer rings.
The novel begins in the outer ring with Jacinda, who prefers to go by Jake, Greenwood. Jake works as an overqualified tour guide in one of the world’s last remaining forests on Greenwood Island, a place where rich people congregate to experience the dwindling trees, “to be regenerated in the humbling loom of their shadows. To stand mutely in their leafy churches and pray to their thousand-year-old souls.” It pays Jake’s bills. Of course student loan debt has outlasted the trees. Jake thinks the island’s connection to her family name is sheer coincidence until someone from her past appears with a book that could give her the family history she has never had and has long desired.
The next section brings the reader to 2008. Liam Greenwood, a contractor and gifted carpenter, has just suffered an accident on the job and reflects on his life as he dies.
1974 introduces environmental activist Willow Greenwood as she attempts to rectify the destruction caused by her family’s vast timber empire.
In 1934, Everett Greenwood is alone in his squat shack in the woods where he collects maple syrup when he hears the cries of an abandoned infant. In this moment he makes the decision that gets him tangled up in series of crimes, secrets, and betrayal that follows his family for decades.
In 1908, the centre of the novel, a tragedy binds the fates of two mysterious and wild boys, which sets the events of the novel in motion. The novel then moves forward through time again in a mirror reflection of the first half.
Greenwood is a unique blend of speculative, dystopian, and historical fiction. In his second novel to be long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Michael Christie asks the question: “What if most of Earth’s forests were wiped out by fungal infection and insect infestation?” He doesn’t soft-pedal the dire environmental consequences, nor the social impact of the collapse he terms the Great Withering: displacement, gaping divide between rich and poor, and serious health hazards. It makes for a great hook and sets in motion the novel that follows the Greenwood family.
Christie takes the reader on a riveting, inter-generational journey that starts and ends on an island off the coast of British Columbia. After revealing lies, secrets, joys, sacrifices, loves, and losses, Christie arrives at an answer: “What are families other than fictions? Stories told about a particular cluster of people for a particular reason? And like all stories, families are not born, they’re invented, pieced together from love and lies and nothing else.” The Greenwood family is hardly related through blood, but rather their shared experiences and chance circumstances have brought them together.
Christie insists a family is like a forest, collectively “pooling resources together through intertwined roots, sheltering one another from wind and weather and drought.” People cannot survive without their network of roots, and neither can trees. The Great Withering, a discolouration of fir needles from green to a “cinnamon tinge,” is all too possible in our current climate crisis. Today foliage on some Western Red Cedars turn a rust red after periods of drought, a withering on a smaller scale. Christie’s opinion piece in The Globe and Mail titled, “Canada Needs a National Tree-Planting Program,” urges readers to “put some damn trees in the ground.”
Greenwood is well researched, timely, and advocates for solutions. In a time when it is easy to imagine a future like the one Christie has presented, works like Greenwood are imperative. The plot is driven by mysteries and big questions, as is the nature of speculative fiction and family drama.
Christy Ann Conlin
House of Anansi, 2019
Reviewed by Giovani Ralaisa
Christy Ann Conlin’s short fiction collection of 11 mesmerizing stories returns to characters in her previous gothic novels Heave (2002) and The Memento (2016), and to Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley and the communities between two mountains on the Bay of Fundy. Its rural, isolated location is familiar to Conlin who lives there with her husband (Wolfville’s Conundrum press owner) and three sons, and has grown out of challenges as foreboding as her titles – “Full Bleed,” “Dead Time,” and “Beyond All Things Is the Sea.” Her own experience with divorce, multiple family deaths, a bout with cancer, contrast her inventions – teen murderers, runaway brides, single and absent parents, devilish children and more.
Each story is portentous, yet often droll in the middle of its darkness. Conlin illuminates our everyday stresses and obsessions, but doesn’t hesitate to be candid when called for, as in this conversation about Canada in which Viola says, “Canadians aren’t as nice as everyone seems to think. It’s easy to be a coward underneath all that beer and bacon.”
That blunt honesty is characteristic of her protagonists Lucy, Isabella, Viola, Adam, and Daisy. From mothers and daughters who differ so vastly they cannot get along, to the German teacher so far from home, to the insomniac on the streets, Conlin’s characters are real and outspoken. She describes her own style as “Alice Munro meets David Lynch.”
These moody family sagas contain an element of the fantastic, mysterious and suspenseful.
A widower takes his late wife’s elderly relatives on an annual outing or a woman travels to home to piece together the mystery of “women evanescing” following her grandmother’s disappearance.
Each story navigates family, home, marriage, and travel: Isabella is a girl who burns to tell the truth story in “Dead Time,”; Viola in “The Diplomat” is a Chinese woman who teaches German and watches her husband Henry who “shut his eyes and was quiet for a moment before he took Viola’s hand and kissed the palm of her hand”; and Soon and Late, a story told in second-person POV, tells how they were nicknamed for the order in which they were born.
They begin with a unique hook like “Eat any eyeballs lately?” or “I am the consort of scarlet fire beings and sirens of blue ice” and their poetic and sensory imagery reveal characters who sometimes feel exaggerated, but their vivid and emotionally candid narratives make it difficult to turn from the page. The author also illuminates the everyday: Isabella’s father fails to take care of himself due to stress and Conlin does not beautify it, but rather casts it in bright light where no one can miss it. The grittiness of her stories works with her blunt tone.
Conlin’s stories are unabashedly sharp and outspoken, but it is this absorbing authenticity that makes Watermark a unique experience. These stories are uncomfortable, never more so than when they capture the true horrors of family dysfunction – perpetual disapproval, drugs and alcohol addiction, breast cancer, nasty husbands, sexual abuse, hippie fathers, lost siblings and the truth that “Even as adults we never stop trying to complete the childhood story. We never stop trying to find the ending.”
Heave was a Globe and Mail “Top 100” book, a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, shortlisted for the Atlantic Fiction and the Dartmouth Book Awards and longlisted for CBC Canada Reads Novels of the Decade. Conlin hosted the 2012 CBC summer radio series Fear Itself. She teaches at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies’ online Creative Writing program.
My Year of Living Spiritually From Woo-Woo to Wonderful:
One Woman’s Secular Quest for a More Soulful Life
Douglas & McIntyre, 2019
Reviewed by Margot Fedoruk
Laid out in 12 chapters, Anne Bokma’s My Year of Living Spiritually is an inspirational calendar for the secular set. Let the pages fall open randomly in November to be reminded to practice gratefulness. Hum a tune when you land on Ella Fitzgerald’s quote, “The only thing better than singing, is more singing” (Bokma devotes the entire month of June to finding her voice). Bokma makes her way through 20+ non-religious practices and activities to inspire a more meaningful life. For the millions of Canadians who consider themselves spiritual but not religious (SBNR) this is literary soup for the soul
Bokma’s journey begins in January and is titled, “Waking up,” possibly in recognition of Sam Harris’ similarly themed bestseller, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. The first few chapters feel familiar as Bokma tries to reduce both her drinking and her screen time. “Netflix had become my church; I regularly worshipped from the comfortable pew of my couch.”
In May’s chapter, “Into the Woods,” Bokma experiences the Japanese art of shirin-yoku or forest bathing, where she is led by a nature therapy guide who instructs the group to taste the air. Bokma says, “I notice the tang of morning coffee lingering in my mouth. When I open my eyes, I catch sight of a single dewdrop glimmering so brightly on the tip of a leaf I can see it from two metres away. How like that dewdrop we are, I think, so often trembling and hanging on for dear life.”
July’s chapter is called “Tripping,” a fun account of the author’s psychedelic mushroom trip. Bokma is drawn to them because they sound “earthy, relatively safe, and well, magic.” She attempts to keep a coherent diary, but discovers that “everyday vocabulary is woefully insufficient. What feels profound comes out platitudinous.” Here readers begin to suspect Bokma’s quest may have been born of her broken relationship with her mother and a marriage that “no longer sparked joy.”
Bokma left The Dutch Calvinist Reformed Church when she was 20, something for which her mother never forgave her and the church sent her a letter that said she was “barred from the gates of Heaven.” Leaving her family’s religion meant a life plagued with guilt. “I’ve been discontent. The dissolution of my relationship with my family is a wound I’ve compulsively picked at. It has made my foundation seem fragile, and I have often felt I can’t ground myself properly, especially if other dissatisfactions are heaped on the pile.”
Bokma downloads meditation apps and practices journaling. She tries both aerial and goat yoga, only to discover, “I’m too distracted by the sheer cuteness of the goats to focus on my poses.” She attends witch camp and visits Walden Pond to reflect on the ideas of Henry David Thoreau.
The plethora of quotes often makes it difficult to discern whose words you are reading, but the words are entertaining. Readers will be jotting down book titles, punching their personal data into death-clock.org, and taking notes on how to shop for an eco-coffin. There is also an eight-page bibliography to drive you into other titles like Emily Esfahani Smith’s 2017 book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters and others for those with a propensity for spiritual wanderlust.
Bokma’s 30 years of journalism, including writing the column “Spiritual but Secular” and then a blog for The United Church Observer, has prepared her well for this fuller length and well-researched book. It won’t take you 12 months to read these 12 chapters, but it will take you a lifetime to live them.
Proof I Was Here
Buckrider Books (Wolsak and Wynn Publishers), 2019
Reviewed by Sean Desrochers
Becky Blake’s debut novel Proof I Was Here is a new take on the expat abroad story that focuses on Niki, a 20-something Torontonian who has just moved to Barcelona with her fiancé Peter. The story is divided into three parts. In the first, Peter ends the relationship soon after they arrive, and she walks out of her apartment and leaves her wallet and keys behind. She is struggling to deal with the loss of her old life by living penniless, listless and aimless, a stranger in a foreign land: “I rode the trains back and forth for hours, noticing the unloved people. They were suddenly everywhere. A thin woman in a window seat rocked herself back and forth. Quarter-sized bruises lined the inside of her arm.”
In the second part she meets Manu, a pickpocket struggling to send money home to his family. Their friendship is the first of several for Niki, under the alias Jane. Manu teaches her the art of stealing and living hard. They meet knock-off purse-sellers and street performers who are part of a group of squatters in an abandoned house —“freegans.” Niki also meets Annika there as they try to stay one step ahead of the police and try to foster a feeling of belonging somewhere.
Lastly, she meets Xavi, a graffiti artist and Catalan separatist, who shows her his life of resistance and passion and shows her how to tag. Niki uses all these experiences to look her past traumas and abandonment issues, not to mention a court date for shoplifting awaiting her in Canada.
Niki’s choices demonstrate her shattered state after her breakup, but her growth and maturity come too quickly and are unearned in passages like this one: “‘Don’t look back’—that’s what he’d always said. And it was good advice if you were running away. But I didn’t want to keep running, always moving forward through a world I didn’t quite belong in, everything slipping away behind me.”
This novel is about confronting the past, identity, and the impermanence of life and, as the title suggests, it explores legacy in a world where the only constant is change. It is a fast-paced read, which fits the uncertain first-person narrative well, but Niki/Jane is often less interesting than her fellow misfits. Blake’s writing is gritty and spares no punches in exploring privilege and its sudden loss in a moment that can alter everything we think we know about ourselves.
Blake won the CBC Short Story Prize in 2013 and the CBC Nonfiction Prize in 2017 for her pieces “The Three Times Rule,” and “Trust Exercise,” respectively. Here stories and essays have appeared in Prairie Fire, subTerrain, Taddle Creek, Room, Prism, and enRoute. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Education.
A Feed Dog Book, Anvil Press, 2019
Reviewed by Kim Hunter
Mark Laba’s Inflatable Life is a collection of 35 poems pondering everything from Edgar Allan Poe to skeet shooting to TV variety shows he watched as a child, most now forgotten in the vault of broadcast history. Consequently, The Inflatable Life, features singing, dancing, drama, comedy, and commentary on gritty pulp fiction, “Borscht Belt” humour, ventriloquism, and comic books, so that the poems collectively present a kind of Jewish vaudeville both surreal and lyrical.
The poems seem ideally suited to the odd media moment we live in and are captured in Laba’s characteristic shock-and-awe, often baffling style. They are absurd, hilarious, troubling, philosophical, nostalgic, and disarming simultaneously. Jacket quotes call them a “semiotic funhouse,” “gear-crashing shifts from the sublime to the ridiculous,” and the cover features a one-eyed bird sitting on a steampunk train engine – surreal is certainly the order of the day.
Inflatable Life is a short book of 35 poems, his second book of poetry since Dummy Spit,published in 2002. In the interim 18 years, he has published one chapbook, Tusk-a-loos’a in 2017, to complement two others published in the 80s—Movies in The Insect Temple and The Mack Bolan Poems—and Africa: A Tale of Moscow with Stuart Ross in 1979 when active in the small press scene in Toronto. He has also appeared in two anthologies: Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence (2005) and Our Days in Vaudeville (2013). Laba teaches applied communication for social issues, digital and popular culture, media design for social change, advocacy, media education, and civic engagement at SFU’s School of Communication. He lives in Vancouver.
The first poem in the collection, “Phil’s Wall Emporium,” is a four-stanza 18-line piece about Laba’s admiration of wall units in which he describes talking to other people about Edgar Allan Poe’s work: “‘Did you know that Edgar Allen Poe wrote a story/about a guy who kills someone and then hides/the body behind his wall unit….”
Laba references another writer in “The Wallace Steven’s Hit Parade,” divided into four parts: Gutterball of Bathsheba, The Bananas of Dr. Horst, Four Ways of Looking at an Alligator, and The Emperor of the Ice Cream Truck. He likewise alludes to John Keats and his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in “Vomiting into a Grecian Urn,” in which a puppet projectile vomits into one. Laba is irreverent and disruptive here, as he is in most poems in this collection.
In the last two lines of the last poem, “Skeet Shooting,” he briefly elevates the craft above sport by saying: “Because, after all, this isn’t poetry,/it’s a shooting gallery.” Earlier in the same piece he compares poetry to cooking a meal and eating it: “I put some language in a bag/and shook it up with crushed breadcrumbs.”
He returns to the subject of food n “Cold Meat City”: “while toasted marshmallows/ whacked against an oak door” and in “Tennis Lessons for the Homeless”: “It takes three ingredients/to make a perfect beef stew:/beef, potatoes and jaundice.”
Laba has a video on YouTube in which he pretends he and his emotional support ventriloquist dummy, Mr. Puscle, are being held hostage by inflatable toys (the only visible one in the video is a pink ostrich) with the ring-shaped body wrapped around the poet reading lines from the book. Here are charming, odd, irreverent, bizzare, and outlandish poems for readers who appreciate surrealism and Brussel sprouts, but which may grow on others who don’t have a taste for either.
Brick Books, 2019
Reviewed by Kain Stewart
An apple tree grown from seed can take up to 10 years to bear fruit and Marlene Cookshaw’s fifth book of poetry, Mowing, has likewise germinated for over a decade. Now she is harvesting the fruits of her literary labour and it is sweet.
Farm life is challenging and rewarding, solitary and communal, populated with neighbours and animals and with moments of reward and respite. Cookshaw’s work invites readers to the table in “Small Potatoes,” and to the pasture in “Donkey Walk,” roving the fields of her idyllic farm to experience time that is cyclical.
Her book is divided into three numbered sections. The first of which begins with arriving in a new land still thinking of an older life. Her poem “Moving Houses” captures the beginning of this transition beautifully in the first two stanzas:
That’s it: mine’s lost. Every dream
occurred in that small city yard,
even tinier brick house: worlds
it contained, and histories.
But only one future, and we all
moved away from it…
Cookshaw begins her book with a poem about her transition into a new life which invites the reader to do the same. She coaxes each reader to leave their own house and join her in a new role, a new life.
The second section is about becoming comfortable in a new land and role. Her poem “The Calendar” is an invitation into nature:
Stay a while. The curtain of rain is the same
pond-green as the cottonwood. If we walk out
before songs of celebration end, we may need
to take a shovel to the world, raw
and wounded. A long time since
we have been whole.
So too does the reader begin to find comfort in the lines of Cookshaw’s poetry. Readers almost expect to hear the crowing of a rooster with the start of each new poem.
The third section is about being one with the land after living on it for many years. The beginning of Cookshaw’s poem “Late” speaks to her emotional connection and routine on her farm:
The valley thick with lethargy today: sun-hot
wind. A drowsy cricket whinge.
My husband lay an hour in the hammock
imagining potato salad into bowls.
Our Barnevelder died this week. Blue-banded
matriarch of the flock, she quieted,
her head beneath her wing.
The reader feels the loss of life from the page and empathizes with the narrator during the time of mourning after the death of her chicken.
Each section combines to create an enduring book about the transition into farming life. The sections connect thematically, stylistically, and formally. The form of her poems are often couplets full of enjambment that seemingly symbolizes the on-and-on days of farming and end in a peaceful finish. Her confident style and enjambment echo the life she created in the time between published books.
Mowing also invites the reader to read her poems over for a second and third time. Many of Cookshaw’s poems gain further depth after the first read of her book. Poems in the first and second sections connect with those that appear in the third.
The cover of Mowing is as simple as these pleasures. A lone black-and-white bee emanates from the book’s spine legs reaching for Cookshaw’s name and title grounded in the corner in peaceful coexistence. Mowing’s poems are like a lazy stroll over to the neighbour’s kitchen table; you won’t notice time slip away because time itself is transformed. As Ross Leckie’s jacket quote says, “Mowing requires that you sit and visit for a good long while.”
Julie Demers Translated by Rhonda Mullins
Coach House Books, 2018
“You’re not a monster,” Mother used to say. “Just a little beast.” In the original French, the title for Little Beast was Barbe: Roman. “Barbe” means “beard” in French. Both of these titles ring true when looking at the story as a whole.
Little Beast follows an unnamed 11-year-old girl who has been hidden behind thick curtains and away from any prying eyes in the village she was born in because of a rather peculiar feature. She has grown a beard.
Fatherless, with only her mother to keep her protected from the outside world, the girl has no choice but to watch the village from the tiny window in her room. She peers behind the blinds and watches the world shift and change in a yearly cycle. The girl is forced to flee her little village, in the middle of winter, to escape the barrage of men in boots who breached her home to find her.
Her struggles in the harsh Quebec winter are interspersed with glimpses of what her life was like in the past, hidden from view and locked away. She faces down fearsome storms, a wildfire, and hunters eager to find a unique score. All the while, the girl grapples with the fear of getting caught, and coming to grips with what true isolation can mean. While she is only 11, she has the voice of someone far older. She struggles through daily trials of survival while constantly pulled into the past.
Set in 1994, the book deals with issues of identity, discrimination, and the fear of being different that many people today would find familiar. Once free from her tiny room, and no longer concerned with her followers, she begins to wonder who she is without these shackles. “When the Boots were looking for me, I was someone; with their violence came recognition.”
Written in a tone similar to a folk tale, Little Beast depicts the forests around the girl’s village as a magical, yet cruel, place. It is filled with many creatures lurking in the dark shadows between the trees, yet is far more ordinary in setting than expected.
Overall, Little Beast’s concept is both unusual and intriguing, but its brevity leaves the reader wanting more, though some aspects of the story may have been lost in translation. The story was fast paced and kept the reader engaged, but the end was less concrete and more rushed than it needed to be.
“But it is dangerous, very dangerous to keep a wild animal in a cage for too long… From the wild animal she was, the creature became a pet. Docile. Accommodating. Should they bring her back to the village?”
The Saturday Night Ghost Club
Knopf Canada, 2018,
Reviewed by Chynna Moore
Known for short story collections such as Rust and Bone (2006) and novels like Cataract City
(2013), Toronto’s Craig Davidson returns to Niagara Falls for his latest title.
In the late 1980s, 12-year-old Jake Baker, a freckly, bullied outcast, finds both refuge and
fuel for his imagination in the form of his Uncle Calvin, the tie-dyed, Cthulhu bead-wearing
owner of the town’s struggling occult shop. Calvin’s brand of advice has helped Jake to conquer
some of his fears. One fateful day, Uncle C’s attempt to use a modified “spirit phone” to contact the dead becomes the catalyst for the titular Club, and uncovers memories of a life-changing trauma in Calvin’s life.
Before long, the Club, made up of Jake, his new friend Billy Yellowbird, and Billy’s free-
spirited older sister Dove, starts “investigating” urban myths, local haunts, and the city’s
abandoned structures. All of this, and how Jake’s mind and fears react to them, plays in tandem
with flash-forwards to Jake’s adult life as a Toronto neurosurgeon. Within these intertwined
plots are the histories, relationships, and stories of his parents, friends, and ultimately, the pieces
of the fractured puzzle that is Uncle Calvin’s life.
Author Craig Davidson weaves a rich tapestry, not wasting a single thread as
this unique “coming-of-age” story is brought to life. Davidson proves highly adept in finding
humor within drama, and vice versa, further cementing the transitionary themes embedded in the
story. From Jake’s opposites-attracted parents, to Dove’s “business venture” raising black
salamanders in her backyard turtle pool, characters subvert cliché from the get-go.
“Uncle C” is perhaps the novel’s most interesting character, not only due to his fragmented past,
but also thanks to his kindness and off-the-wall behavior. The Club’s first official
meeting concerns trespassing in a funeral home’s embalming room to find the body of Billy’s
grandmother. Calvin is cordial, like a chivalrous knight, while Jake is fascinated when the funeral home director gives Calvin a knowing nod, yet another clue to Calvin’s past.
Davidson strives throughout to show just how powerful the mind can be, whether it’s
creating fear, or reacting to it. The malleability of memory touches every character, some suffering from its most devastating forms. All of this proves truth will always emerge in the end, even in a sea of falsehoods, embellishments, legends, and “little white lies” to protect the ones you love.
What started out as a Ph. D thesis at the University of Birmingham was a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. A highly-engrossing and captivating read, The Saturday Night Ghost Club shines a light on the endless complexities of the mind, memory, imagination, and love in the face of unspeakable horror.
Find You in the Dark
Simon & Schuster, 2019
Reviewed by Chantelle Nazareth
Find You in the Dark, the first thriller by author Nathan Ripley, is a chilling story that will have you frantically looking over your shoulder. The book, though categorized as literary fiction, borders on mystery/suspense with the story being built around the hunt for a killer. This creepy tale showcases the violence that lurkers in the shadows of some minds, and has you questioning the sanity of several characters.
The story follows protagonist Martin Reese, a retired tech mogul, who is obsessed with murder and finding the remains of long-missing young women who were victims of a serial killer named Jason Shurn. Reese is a family man who for years has been researching cold cases with the help of a corrupt cop. He believes he is doing the police a favour as a public servant. At the same time, he enjoys taunting the police by leaving them messages and rubbing it in their faces when he is one step ahead. “This started when I found my first body at 21 years old, the same age Jason Shurn was when he started murdering Seattle college girls in the mid-1990s.”
Reese’s obsession began with the a murder that happened 20 years prior – Tinsley Schultz. The obsession with that murder ran so deep that Reese married Tinsley’s sister, Ellen. However, things start to take a turn for the worse when Martin uncovers not only what he believes are the bones of Tinsley, but also remains of a fresh corpse. His gravedigging soon becomes an issue when he crosses paths with the murderer. “Three bodies in a grave that should only have had two.”
Readers are unclear of Reese’s intentions and as the novel unfolds they realize that Reese is an unreliable narrator who is far from a good Samaritan. Detective Sandra Whittal pushes all boundaries and protocols in the hunt for the killer, increasingly convinced Reese is responsible for the latest body.
Is Reese being framed? Ripley jumps between characters and creates confusion, but the reader is gripped throughout. Find You in the Dark is a fast read, despite clunky dialogue, heavy tech talk, and a rushed ending. It is hard to bond with the characters as Ripley keeps readers at arm’s length to handle the twisted mind of the killer and Reese’s obsession. Even so, Ripley’s (aka Naben Ruthnum) debut thriller by is a must read for fans of the genre.
Deep River Night
McClelland & Stewart, 2018
“The dark cup of the cat’s ear moved, the long guard hairs at the tip shivering toward the crack in the window beside her. Art finished his drink, put his glass down by the whiskey bottle, and waited to see if the cat’s ear would come back to rest, but it didn’t. Instead, she lifted her head and looked out the window, both ears pointed at whatever was outside.”
So, begins Deep River Night, a novel by Patrick Lane that follows the residents of an isolated sawmill town in the interior of B.C. It opens with Art Kenning, a first aid attendant, being awoken from a drunken stupor to treat a wounded boy brought to his cabin by one of the mill workers. Lane worked in labour communities in northern BC as a first aid attendant so it is not surprising Art’s character feels particularly lived in, as if Lane is giving an account of his own experiences. Art wrestles with his personal demons while aiding the community members who struggle with the daily routines and personal demons of their lives.
The other storyline in the novel belongs to Joel, a young man who ran away from home east of the Rocky Mountains and ended up in town. Throughout the book, he struggles with his attraction to both a First Nations woman named Alice and his girlfriend Myrna Turfoot.
The characters carry with them the traumas of their past experiences. Art witnessed the atrocities of the WWII from the frontlines. The sawmill’s cook, Wang Po, escaped the massacres in Nanjing, China during the Japanese invasions. Lane masterfully showcases each character’s needs and desires through their interactions. Given the size of the mill town, the characters are in frequent contact and comment on each other to offer a more layered perspective
There is also a pronounced theme of naturalism over industrialism as the those who experience a closeness to nature like the character of Myrna and her family are depicted as being wiser and more fulfilled than those working in the town. There are many instances throughout were characters try to find meaning in the natural world with various interactions with the animal and plant life around them.
Patrick Lane is a well-established Canadian writer known for multiple collections of poetry and the novel Red Dog, Red Dog, which was longlisted for multiple awards including the Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
When reading Deep River Night, it’s clear that Lane’s abilities as a poet aid his prose. His arresting similes and metaphors are at once vivid and ethereal: “The opium he had used back in the cabin had begun its first quiet leaving, soft tendrils slipping away along the blood vessels in his arms and legs, thin velvet ropes undoing in him, letting him go.”
Overall, Deep River Night is a darkly vivid journey into the mill town’s characters as they struggle with addiction, loss, and the desire to forge their place.
Cold Skies: A Dreadful Water Mystery
Reviewed by Dirk Plante
Cold Skies by Thomas King is the third in the Thumps DreadfulWater series, featuring a retired Cherokee LAPD detective with a keen interest in photography who is unwillingly pulled back into the force to replace Sheriff Duke Hockney in his hometown of Chinook, Montana. Hockney hands the reigns to DreadfulWater when he is ordered to go to Costa Rica, a questionable choice that casts a shadow over the whole book given that it is the FBI’s responsibility to investigate murders that occur on U.S. reservations
DreadfulWater’s starchy demeanor and cool emotions prevail even when multiple bodies are found in the vicinity: one at the airport, two on the neighbouring reservation, a fourth at a motel. All are connected to Orion Technologies, a company working on a new mechanism to map aquifers. One victim is found languishing in a newly completed luxury condo resort built by the local American Indian band. The number one suspect is Stick Merchant, anti-condo protester and wayward son of Claire Merchant, head of the tribal council and DreadfulWater’s sometimes lover.
DreadfulWater obnoxiously debate the style of eggs at the local diner or resent his doctor’s orders to change his lifestyle as a diabetic. This is classic Thomas King banter, but unfortunately Thumps thinks he’s funny, but he’s not. He is so lackluster and emotionless he comes off as indifferent, more of an observer than an active participant. He shows little empathy for the victims and solves even less; when the killer is revealed, the solution feels both remote and anticlimactic.
Cold Skies is a small-village cozy mystery. We are exposed to the procedures and investigatory aspects of the case, but the main plot surrounds Thumps DreadfulWater’s personal life. This prevents the plot from reaching its full potential as readers have to guess at his tactics to catch a murderer. There are typical clues, red herrings, and quirky townspeople:
Cold Skies leaves the impression that King is still only dabbling in crime fiction rather than taking it seriously despite leaving the pseudonym Hartley GoodWeather behind for his own name on the cover. Perhaps this indicates it’s now acceptable for literary writers to publicly dabble in crime fiction.
Thomas King is an award-winning writer of Cherokee and Greek descent. He is member of the Order of Canada and recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation. His novels include Green Grass Running Water, One Good Story That One, The Back of the Turtle, and The Inconvenient Indian. The next title in the series, A Matter of Malice is due out next year.
Cobra Clutch: A Hammerhead Jed Mystery
by A.J. Devlin
NeWest Press, 2018
Reviewed by Alicia Shalapata
Cobra Clutch features Jed, a retired wrestler, who returns to his previous life, a raw and gritty world relieved by comedy from his ex-military cousin, Decalin. Decalin not only has the “ability to pour the perfect pint of Guinness. But he is damn near legendary for his tendency to pick a fight after downing one too many of his masterful creations.”
Written in first-person, this novel takes us through a whirlwind of gruesome events. Its informal style suits its audience perfectly, enlightening the audience on the finer points of wrestling and how those skills can assist in solving crime. The characters throughout make numerous allusions to previous detectives, such as Columbo, or pop culture references to Predator, Transformers, Nintendo, and Davey Crocket.
The novel’s authority sweeps the reader into the combined world of wrestling and private investigating. Devlin revises classic tropes – Jed’s father, Frank, is a tough retired cop with his own PI business who wants Jed to follow in his footsteps. Decalin is an ex-military bartender. One of the thugs, Damian, poses as a hardcore biker dude, but makes welded statues of characters from Star Wars. Then there is a sleazy PI named Melvin, and Pocket and Tubbs, two wresters whose names complement their size, and Rya, the police detective who is Frank’s protégée.
The novel is set in Vancouver’s Metrotown, Denman Street, on the Ghost train at Stanley Park, and the skytrain.
This book is a fresh, exhilarating twist on the mystery by combining both wrestling and sleuthing to create a one-of-a-kind novel.
The Boat People
McClelland & Stewart, 2018
Reviewed by Erinn Sturgeon
The Boat People by Sharon Bala examines the ways in which a single act can connect and impact many people in various ways. Inspired by true events, the novel begins with a large boat containing 500 refugees from Sri Lanka landing illegally on the shores of Canada. While there had been rumours of this ship and the turmoil of war in Sri Lanka, the Canadian government was unprepared for such a large number of refugees, and thus had to figure out how to strike a balance between opening their arms to those in need and protecting their land from potential threat.
Mahindan arrives with his young son, Sellian. Bala was inspired by a real news article and a particular individual in it that stood out to her, who helped inspire the character of Mahindan. As a widower, Mahindan’s devotion to Sellian is heartwarming.
Grace and Priya, two Canadian women who are assigned to work with the refugees, as their lawyer and adjudicator respectively, are skeptical of their motives. These varied perspectives reinforces we are fundamentally the same, having the same basic wants and needs, despite our different homes and upbringings.
Bala doesn’t use quotation for dialogue and has a huge cast, but these are minor critiques in the face of the novel’s many strengths. Bala conveys the colourful nature and warmth of Sri Lanka, so starkly different from the cold and vast landscape of Canada. On the other hand, the war in Sri Lanka is described in dark, gruesome detail, making the destruction of the country even more heartbreaking.
Sharon Bala was born in Dubai but grew up in Canada, raised in Ontario and now living in St. John’s, Newfoundland with her husband. The Boat People is her debut novel, a finalist for Canada Reads 2018, and the 2018 Amazon Canada First Novel Award. The unpublished manuscript won the Percy Janes First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Fresh Fish Award, both in 2015. In 2017, Bala won the prestigious Journey Prize and had a second story long-listed in the anthology. A three-time recipient of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Arts and Letters Award, she has stories published in Hazlitt, Grain, Maisonneuve, The Dalhousie Review, Riddle Fence, Room, Prism International, The New Quarterly, and in an anthology called Racket: New Writing From Newfoundland (Breakwater Books, Fall 2015).
Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City
by Tanya Talaga
House of Anansi Press, 2017
Reviewed by Jesse Wilson
Seven Fallen Feathers is a well-written, eye-opening work of investigative journalism that focuses on the deaths of seven First Nations teenagers from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The seven students died between 2000 and 2011. Near the end of the book, it also references a painting of the same name by one of the parents of the teens.
In the prologue, Talaga addresses an Ojibwe legend about a giant named Nanabijou. He protected the people in a small village along Lake Superior, as long as they didn’t take away any of his stash of silver. However, a Sioux man, who was taking advantage of their hospitality to get at the silver, stole some of it, and was coaxed by some European explorers to locate the rest of it was. After getting him drunk, he told the explorers where it was, and they took everything. Once Nanabijou heard what happened, he suddenly lay down and turned to stone, becoming the mountain fittingly named “Sleeping Giant.” This is a great opening to the rich First Nations and gives some insight into the setting.
Talaga then inserts herself into the story, talks to Nishnawbe Aski Grand Chief Stan Beardy about voting statistics among First Nations peoples across Canada. He doesn’t answer any of her questions, and asks her to look into the disappearance of Jordan Wabasse, who would later be, one of the Seven Feathers.
After that encounter, Talaga never appears in the story again, and dives instead into great detail about the seven teenagers, their stories, their families, and their cases. With some interconnectivity, she devotes one chapter of the book to each student, and doesn’t miss a morsel of information or testimonies.
She also reveals the conditions First Nations had to endure in residential schools. Not only were the children taken from their families and leave behind their rich Indigenous heritage, but once they got sick, they weren’t treated properly, resulting thousands of deaths.
Talaga records the statements from the families of the seven teens, heart-wrenching testimonies to their loss. At the end of Chapter 8, after finding the body of Kyle Morrisseau, his father Christian is quoted saying: “It was not easy to thank the river for taking my son.”
Despite investigation, to this day, no one knows who killed these students. The mistreatment of First Nations cases people is underscored throughout the book. A 41-year-old man’s “accidental drowning” goes uninvestigated even though his debit card was used after his death.
Tanya Talaga is an Anishinaabe Canadian investigative reporter for the Toronto Star. Seven Fallen Feathers won the 2018 RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction and the 2017 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.
Hamish Hamilton, 2018
Reviewed by Braedan Zimmer
“One day—long after the end of this world and into the beginning of the next—the director unlocked the gates to the first museum that had existed in nearly four thousand years, and the people streamed in.”
The opening of “Outside,” a story about a museum that houses selections from all of human history, is an example of the abstract nature of Johanna Skibsrud’s short story collection, Tiger, Tiger. Skibsrud, winner of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel The Sentimentalists, conjures up narratives each more speculative than the last.
“The Last Frontier” relates the short account of Sabrina Lowe-Mackey, who, along with six others, stars in a reality television show that records their trip to Mars. Things take a turn for the worst when the show’s ratings drop and “nobody talked anymore about future seasons—and nobody talked about bringing the pioneers home.”
“The Origin of Species” is a taxidermist’s first-person account of a “strange ball of light” that appears in the sky just after dusk, and his fiancé of three years’ disappearance shortly after.
The final story of the collection, “The Rememberer,” details a last-ditch effort to preserve 200,000 years of accumulated knowledge in the mind of a six-year-old girl with “a virtually limitless power of recall.”
Skibsrud’s stories investigate the human condition, with a particular emphasis on how this condition might change in the future. Her skilful prose is philosophical and reflective, and the reader is often struck by the stark truths she illuminates, beautifully and precisely, in the unlikeliest of moments.
However, as a result of her emphasis on the philosophical, many of her characters share a similar sense of existential dread, and their voices often bleed into one another. Moreover, as captivating as her story premises are, Skibsrud at times sacrifices idiosyncrasy of character for inventiveness of plot. In some of her stories, especially those that feel more experimental, the characters take a decidedly back seat to the effect she is trying to create. 
That being said, some of her stories hit just the right note; none more powerfully than the title story, “Tiger, Tiger,” which explores a scientist’s career insecurities and the tension it creates in his marriage. He faces a moral predicament when he acquires the genetic material necessary to reanimate the long-extinct tiger: “We had married during the dodo craze; Franziska was still in graduate school then. There had been no reason to suspect that my career would not continue as promisingly as it had begun. It wasn’t long, however, before I was more than eclipsed.”
Everything considered, it is hard to imagine that anyone could read Tiger, Tiger without being captured by at least one of Skibsrud’s 12 fascinating narratives. The final lines of “The Last Frontier” attest to the eerie majesty of her prose: “They were being cut off, Sabrina understood, finally. The realization had been slow at first, but she couldn’t fool herself forever: it had been a long time since she’d felt that “real time” was progressing toward anything—well, real. No, it wouldn’t be long at all, she lamented candidly into the camera one night, until the red planet’s first pioneers were left to themselves, the camera gaping at them uselessly above. Until there was no one left to cut or edit or rearrange, let alone to actually witness the material of their lives.”
In addition, a few of her stories feel as though they come to an almost arbitrary ending before they’ve even properly begun, and the reader is left feeling satisfied by neither a sense of character development nor well-executed plot.