Thursday, December 30, 2010

Review: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

Published: September 2010

Finally got around to it: December 2010

At some point in your life, this statement will be true: Tomorrow you will lose everything forever.


Science fiction wrapped up in science fiction, attempting to unravel the merits and difficulties of living in a time-displaced science fictional universe with a moderately depressed operating system named TAMMY as the closest thing to a love interest, and a there-but-not-there, ontologically valid dog named Ed (whose gas can diffuse even the tensest of situations). Such is the life of an intrepid time travel machine repairman, conveniently named Charles Yu, who seeks to discover the fate of his possibly time-abandoned father (or merely family-abandoning father) and at the same time save himself from shooting… himself. All with the help of a book he will one day write and at the same time has already written titled, again, conveniently, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

And yet, it all makes perfect sense.

Charles Yu’s debut novel is a work of lyrical trickery and poetic manipulation. It thinly veils the allegorical beneath a tidal wave of science fictional tropes and concepts, yet never sacrifices an ounce of the plot or its detail in the process—in essence, the allegorical loss and disposition within one’s life and family drive the science fiction, and the science fiction adds the foundation by which the family drama is spun, winding itself ever tighter around a paradoxical core.

Try as I might, there’s no way I can do this book justice through such modest descriptive talents. The only way to truly get a taste of Charles Yu’s madness is to read it for your self:

There are gaps, blanks, throughout, which I will need to fill in. There are gaps in my autobiography.

Here is one such gap.*

*NB: This is how the text actually reads in the copy I am working from. The text also includes this explanatory (and somewhat self-referential) footnote, including this second sentence, which is itself a second-order meta-explanation of the already explanatory first sentence. It is unclear what the function of this self-referentiality is, other than to raise doubts in my mind as to the actual provenance of this manuscript, although I do note that this third sentence, just like the rest of this footnote, is also in the text that I am copying from, verbatim, which makes it seem almost as if I am, in a way, telling myself what to think, that my future self has produced a record of the output of my consciousness, of my internal monologue. Or rather, a dialogue, between myself and my future self, in which my future self is telling my present self what I have already finished thinking but have not yet realized I thought.

If reading this not only put a smile on your face, but also made some kind of fantastic, nonsensical kind of sense, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe will delight you in ways a never-ending temporal loop simply never will, never could, and has never in the past in which you’ve already experienced it several thousand times over (because no self-respecting temporal loop could ever have an end—not without presenting one hell of a paradox).

This book is a lightning bolt of unrestrained creativity and lyricism all too rare in contemporary science fiction—or science fictional universes for that matter.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Review: Bedtime Story, by Robert J. Wiersema

Published: November 2010

Finally got around to it: December 2010

Gonna go out on a limb here: Robert J. Wiersema has a thing for broken families—maybe not even broken, but in the process of slowly, agonizingly falling apart. That, and childhood trauma of the sort that would likely scar one for life.

The narrative in Bedtime Story is charmingly simple, but layered with an almost unsettling amount of emotional honesty (as much honesty as one can convey through layers of magical realism). A writer whose second book is years overdue, struggles to connect to his wife and son. On his son’s birthday, Chris, the protagonist, gives him a fantasy book by an author he loved as a child. While reading the book, his son, David, suffers a dramatic seizure and becomes trapped within the narrative, fighting to resolve the story. What follows is, in essence, two interwoven narratives striving towards a unified climax.

This calendar year, I’ve read all three of Wiersema’s books: Bedtime Story, Before I Wake, and the novella The World More Full of Weeping. To clear the obvious from the table, I loved all three. He’s an incredibly creative, intelligent, and most importantly, reserved writer. Wiersema has a gift for giving a scene exactly the amount of severity it needs, never giving in to the ever-alluring pull of melodrama. He’s able to sell us narratives of magical realism, to convince us that the fables he spins are as possible as anything in our world by anchoring them to characters that break, that lie to one another, that hurt and betray one another, but still love each other and never, ever fall into the territory of the black-and-white archetypes whose villainous or saint-like behaviour can seemingly never be forgiven or related to.

Bedtime Story gives us a trio of characters in the protagonist Chris, his estranged wife Jacqui, and their son David that are an absolute joy to spend an entire novel with. Though in some ways Chris and Jacqui can feel like modest iterations of the husband and wife at the heart of Before I Wake, they are fully formed and three-dimensional in the sense that their language and actions never feel alien or hyper-realized, as so much lesser fiction would attempt to convey in an effort to increase the drama of a given scene or moment.

Though the structure of Bedtime Story is not terribly unique—many books have used the interwoven narrative approach to varying degrees of success—its payoff is worth the journey, as the manner in which the two worlds come together, both in terms of narrative as well as the visual avalanche of universes bleeding together, is truly climactic. As the individual parts become more entwined and less segregated into individual chapters, Wiersema aptly brings several lingering—but never extraneous—threads to a head that feels entirely earned.

In fact, if I were to lob any criticism onto Bedtime Story, it would simply be that it feels, in some ways, too similar to Before I Wake, especially in the realms of theme and characterization. That’s not to say that what is accomplished isn’t impressive—as it clearly is—but I was left with less of a feeling of genuine exploration into a new world, and more as if I were traversing a slightly less biblical and more Tolkien-esque iteration on a previous blueprint. Part of this feeling might be rooted in the fact that I have read all of Wiersema’s works in such short order, but that doesn’t change the fact that the similarities are there, and they are obvious to a fan of his work. And if I had to choose, the characters and narrative in Before I Wake are still the most captivating of his creations.

Wiersema is a gifted novelist, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention other authors I happen to love who also tackle similar character archetypes again and again (Murakami, Auster, King), but for his next work, I would love to see him step away from the broken family/childhood trauma themes and to really challenge himself on startlingly new terrain.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Reflections: A Drifting Life, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Published: April 2009

First read: May 2008

Finally got around to it (again): December 2010

First thing’s first: this is not a review. In fact, do not trust my critical opinion on this book at all. I’m in love with it, and I have been since first laying my hands on the original Japanese manuscript and the Microsoft Word translation document back in May 2008. If you want my opinion, anyone with even a passing interest in graphica and/or manga and gekiga should pick this brick of a book up. It’s epic, sweeping, and an absolute joy to get caught up in.

But again, might be best to make up your own minds on this particular piece, as I have had more of myself invested in this project than in any other book I’ve worked on to date.

Back in May 2008, as part of my Masters Degree in Publishing, I embarked on an internship with Drawn & Quarterly in Montréal. It was to be a three-month stint, after which I’d come home, write up my thesis, and hang up my educational spurs (until I finally decide to torment myself further by tackling a PhD… one of these days).

My second week at work for Drawn & Quarterly, I was handed two rather obscene stacks of paper. The first was 820 pages of photocopies—the original Japanese-language version of the 48-chapter epic (then tentatively titled A Drifting Life in Gekiga), and the second was the printed page-by-page translation, written out to minimal effect in Word. I was given three tasks: the first was to read through the story with the translation in hand, to make sure it read well and was compelling; the second was to catch any and all parts that, editorially speaking, made little sense (including basic grammatical problems and structural issues and matching each section of the translation with each panel in the text—something that the translator neglected to do); and the final part of this multi-stage reading was to catch the inconsistencies between Japanese and English structures—namely, seeing which panels had to be flipped, to ensure that the speech bubbles work properly in each scene to read the dialogue and action from left to right and not right to left, as is how Japanese books are read.

Upon completion of this work, the documents cycled between us in Montréal, the translator in Japan, the editor-in-chief of the project in Los Angeles, and eventually myself back in Vancouver. Interspersed with all the other work I was doing at Drawn & Quarterly, A Drifting Life always came back to me at another stage of its progress. It wasn’t long before I realized two things: I had my thesis topic buried in the construction of this book, and I would see it to the end, no matter what. And that’s exactly what I did.

I left Montréal late that August, a changed man in many ways, with A Drifting Life in tow. The next three weeks were a caffeine-fuelled haze as I input the English-language text into each and every speech bubble across more than 800 pages, simultaneously noting the items needed for an appendix (things that couldn’t be translated because they were a part of the artwork). Once that was finished, I immediately followed up one marathon with another and got to work on my thesis—a paper documenting the history of comics and manga, the correlations between the two, and the production of A Drifting Life from start to glorious finish.

From the fall, through the winter and into the early stages of the following spring, I finished my work on the book, giving the project and its appendix a round of final proofs, and completed work on my thesis, which was accepted in December 2008, bringing my whirlwind Masters Degree in Publishing to a dramatic close. Around February or March 2009, I received a package in the mail from Drawn & Quarterly. My heart practically stopped as I pulled out a copy of the book, which was then and is today the most beautiful book in my collection. Even with everything I’ve had my hand in since, in a lot of ways my work on A Drifting Life has come to represent a very precise period in my life—a period of great change, a tremendous amount of growing up, and a time when I discovered what I was truly capable of (and how many hours it was possible for me to go without sleep).

In May of 2009, I was able to bring the work full circle, when I flew out to Toronto to meet the man himself, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and the editor-in-chief of the project, Adrian Tomine. The signed copy of the book (with an original illustration no less) that sits on my shelf at home is the one item I would race to grab if my apartment were on fire. There’s little in terms of material objects I treasure more, and there’s nothing I’ve worked on that has as much of myself poured into it, save for my own writing projects.

Yet with all this, I had not read the book. Let me clarify: I read it more than a dozen times while working on it, and subsequently writing about it, but I had not once read the finished product for enjoyment.

I corrected this three days ago, sitting in a Second Cup on Jasper Avenue in downtown Edmonton with a gingerbread latte in one hand and the book in the other as I waited the four or five hours I had before my flight home for Christmas.

As I read the book, seemingly for the first time as a reader and not a student/editor/production grunt, I was struck by how much I was still in love with the story. Chronicling the author’s youth and introduction into the manga scene in 1940s post-war Japan, there is a lot of A Drifting Life that I feel a kinship with—namely the struggle one has with their artistic desires in a world that will forever value practicality and production first and foremost. But what I was happiest about, reading it again, in some ways for the first time, was that I was able to detach from it—to enjoy it for what it was, without my interaction with the book being at the forefront of my brain. I wasn’t looking for mistakes, or areas where I could have done a better job; rather I was losing myself to the narrative without having to force myself to do so.

What I did feel, reading it in that extended coffee shop sitting, was a strong sense of reflection. In many ways, A Drifting Life is representative of the many turns my life has taken in recent months and years. I was able to live, albeit for a short time, a dream I had had since elementary school: working with comics. As someone with strong visual and narrative ideals, the form has the ability to represent the best of both worlds. I was certainly changed by the experience—and the location—which fostered so much personal growth and a divergence from the safety I had come to surround myself with.

After completing my degree, I hit a wall. I couldn’t find work in publishing if my life depended on it. Sure I was able to get freelance editorial gigs here and there, but something stable and dependable with a 9-5 schedule? Ha!

For two years I applied, interviewed, and got nowhere. Maybe I didn’t know the right people, maybe I just lived in the wrong location, or maybe I just wasn’t good enough. Either way, the literary fish weren’t biting. But late last year, I had an opportunity I never thought would come—an offer from a filmmaker friend to write a spec script on an idea he had brewing for some time. I took the chance and tackled the project. Over several months, from the end of 2009 to the middle of 2010, I wrote like a mad fool. In between editorial contracts and job applications, I wrote the script, and really fell hard into short story writing. I began submitting my writing work after completing and selling the script, and eventually, in the middle of this year, gained traction—finally getting a story published. Since then, my world has taken off, albeit in an unexpected direction.

A bite, from a small literary publisher in Edmonton, Alberta called NeWest Press. In August, I picked up my life and moved one province to the east to begin work as the production and marketing coordinator for NeWest, finally giving myself not only the stability I was craving, but also the opportunity to expand upon my writing and freelance editorial work. Since moving, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know many authors and to increase my presence in the publishing community, which I had sought to become a greater part of for several years. I’ve seen several books through at various stages of their production, and I’ve had a chance to dip my toes into marketing in a way that I had not ever had reason to before. I’ve even had the tremendous opportunity of dealing with publishing on a national stage as one of our books has been thrust into the limelight as a 2011 CBC Canada Reads finalist.

All of this has given me such a push, a feeling of momentum that I had been missing for so long. Since beginning this job, my freelance work has picked up, the film has gone into pre-production, and I’ve begun posting my short fiction and book reviews online, to increasing exposure. I’ve stepped out of my shell, my comfort zone, in ways I had never expected, and in the process have met people from around the industry—and around the world—that have changed me in incredible ways.

To look at myself only two years ago and to look at myself now is to look at two completely different individuals. But to trace the path from one to the next is to start in the simplest of places—with one hell of a thick book and a level of devotion I never knew was in me.

A Drifting Life was the starter pistol in a new chapter. I stumbled for the first few metres, but eventually I found my footing and only now the race has begun. As I’ve reached this point in my life and met several long-term goals, I can look back on this stretch of time and the growth included—both good and bad experiences alike—and see how much I’ve changed for the better, how much stronger and more experienced I have become, and most importantly, that I have absolutely no idea what’s next.

I’ve been adrift for long enough. And like Hiroshi, the protagonist of the book at the heart of all this, my focus—my passion—is what it has always been. Only now I know that I’m capable of achieving it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: Apocalypse For Beginners, by Nicolas Dickner

Published: December 2010

Finally got around to it: Pretty much right away, actually

Despite devouring this book as soon as it was in my hands (the synopsis was just enticing enough), there was some trepidation on my part. Nicolas Dickner gained recognition last year after winning CBC’s Canada Reads competition for his previous book, Nikolski. For the life of me, I don’t know how that came to pass. Nikolski, for me, represented what some claimed to be a growing problem with Canadian literature—that it was limp and non-committal, with narratives that lacked direction and too many esoteric plot threads just quirky enough to sound great on the jacket of a book, but sadly remain one-dimensional, never really seeming to propel the characters or story. In other words, no beginning, no real arc or ending to be found, just a whole lot of self-exploratory middle. I remember finishing Nikolski and wondering what, if anything, there was to take from the book.

It was the premise that drew me to Dickner’s new book, Apocalypse for Beginners. At the tail end of the 1980s, the young narrator, Mickey, meets a girl named Hope Randall who lives in a converted pet shop with her borderline-insane mother, Ann. Why is Ann teetering on the edge of sanity? Because every member of the Randall clan, reaching back for generations, has had a crystal clear vision of the apocalypse, right down to the exact day and date. Upon the passing of each suspected final day, when the world continues to spin and another seemingly unavoidable apocalypse has passed by without so much as a whimper, the owner of the failed prediction would leave their sanity at the door and lose whatever was left of their mind. Hope’s mother, for some reason, was given a less than precise date to go on, and spends her days neglecting her daughter while she researches all possible ways to extrapolate a more precise day for her anticipated apocalyptic event. Why would she do this? Because you can’t be a proper Randall without the precision of the vision.

Hope, on the other hand, has been offered a day and date for her own end of days countdown, and it is the journey of discovery she takes with Mickey—and on her own—to understand the date and the seemingly impossible coincidences surrounding it that provide the book’s structure.

Instantly the characters of Hope and Mickey are likable and, though potentially too quirky for some, very relatable. Dickner is a self-professed child of the 80s and it shows, as such things like the fall of the Berlin wall (and talk of its rather shoddy construction) and the fall of the USSR provide much of the contemplation behind not only the coming end of the world, but what it means for a world to end in the first place.

Though there are still some elements that feel almost too esoteric for their own good (such as the ghostly disappearance of a surveillance-happy Japanese not-so-wannabe prophet from the bathroom of a Tokyo baseball stadium), Apocalypse for Beginners is a much tighter, more focussed work than Nikolski. Dickner realizes his strength is in his characters and the connection they’ve forged, and it is only when that connection is strained that the disquiet of the subject matter becomes a little overbearing. But that strain is absolutely necessary, and the distance it enforces sets emotions in play for a genuinely heart-warming finale. And when I set the book down, I was smiling.

That should say it all.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Review: Hate List, by Jennifer Brown

Published: September 2009

Finally got around to it: December 2010

I was in Grade 12 when Columbine became a loaded word. I can remember the exact day, even where I was and what class I was in when the news came over the television bolted to the corner of my Literature 12 classroom. There had been incidents throughout the years of kids bringing violence and weaponry to the classroom, but few as world-changing as the massacre of 12 students and one teacher on April 20, 1999 by the hands of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two unsteady individuals who had decided to punish as many as possible for the hurt, the bullying and the persecution they felt they had been the victims of for all too long.

I remember thinking at the time, in spite of the horror, that I could see how they got from point A to point B. I couldn’t relate, I didn’t sympathize, I sure as hell didn’t understand what it would take for a person to go to such extreme lengths, but objectively speaking, I felt that it was possible to draw a map from Insult One all the way to the final shots as they took themselves out of the picture. Toss in some neglectful parenting and a little psychosis and the recipe was there.

To say I wasn’t popular would be like saying snow is cold. I was, for four years, a soft, short, well-tenderized stub of a student content to see any day that I flew under the radar as a pretty damn good day. Then there were the days when you had had enough—when you daydreamed about lashing out at your French teacher for giving you an especially undeserved hard time, or finally getting the upper hand on someone before they could take advantage of you. I’d say the number of students who find themselves with these thoughts is probably far greater than those who would grow up to say “Man, high school, now those were the best years of my life.” But to dream about showing up a tormenter, and to take a gun to them and everyone in the vicinity—guilty or innocent—are two dramatically different things. So different that to understand the brain of someone capable of mass murdering a student populace would, I imagine, be next to impossible.

This is what Jennifer Brown attempts to do in Hate List.

Set in the aftermath of a May 2nd school shooting that leaves a half dozen dead and an entire school psychologically wounded, Hate List follows Val, the girlfriend of Nick Levil, the gunman who, using a notebook they had written together of those they wished to punish, snapped and took it upon himself to exact vengeance for all the shit he had been forced to put up with at the hands of everyone who felt it was their place to call him a freak. But Hate List isn’t about Nick. It’s about Val, how she deals with what has happened, and the changing relationship she has with her family, friends, and the victims of the list she had concocted with Nick—a list she had never intended to see the light of day. For Val, it was a harmless way to vent, to take aim and fire at those that took so much glee in making her life a day-to-day living hell. For Nick, for someone just unsteady enough to see reality in the lines of fiction, it was a roadmap to justice.

Brown has written an intelligent, thoughtful look at not only what it takes to push someone to such horrific actions, but also the little tragedies that follow in its wake like aftershocks, forever shifting the uneasy ground beneath the feet of those left behind. For Val, the world changed when Nick began his attack, and a part of her died when he turned the gun on himself. But her journey is one of understanding—understanding that the man she loved and the monster that had been revealed were both one and the same, but also different. Understanding the implications of hate and what it means to hate. Understanding that some people are incapable of forgiveness, while others prove more capable than ever imagined—and that those elements are not confined to the intimacy of the connection (case in point: Val’s father, who couldn’t win Father of the Year if he discovered the cures for cancer, AIDS, and the common cold and made it all taste like Belgium hot chocolate).

There were parts of Hate List that were genuinely hard to stomach, such as people you so desperately wanted to grow receding into the shells of their own creation, family and friends so horrible and spiteful that you wish for comeuppance that will never come. But that frustration, those missed opportunities for reconciliation are what give this book its grounding in reality. Because death changes everyone and everything. Because some things can never be fixed. And because sometimes the only way for life to go on is to a new place, somewhere that has no map, no destination, and no lists of any kind.

Because every victim deserves a second chance.

Review: In The Mean Time, by Paul Tremblay

Published: October 2010

Finally got around to it: December 2010

Wordlessly, Jody and Joe climbed down the ridge. They crept behind the jagged boulder and found his body, lying adjacent to the flat rock upon which he landed. The boy looked like Joe and the boy looked like Jody, but only smaller, younger. The left side of his head was dented, caved-in, and was missing a flap of scalp. His left arm was held out stiffly and twitched, beating like one wing of a broken hummingbird. The lower half of his face had crumbled, ice cream melting over a cone. He was breathing, but irregularly. They crouched, hands over their mouths, but not over their eyes. His chest inflated sharply, then deflated slowly, a sagging balloon. The right side of his face was perfect, asleep. His left eye was swollen shut, or missing. It was hard to know for sure with the orbital socket broken, pushed in, along with the area around his temple. Everything leaked slowly. There were too many colours on his face. And his teeth, his teeth, they were baby teeth, as small as seeds, and they peppered the sand and dirt around his head, those miniature headstones in the sand. Then there was one long sigh and the boy stopped breathing and his arm stopped moving.


A collection of 15 dark fantasy/surrealist tales, Paul Tremblay’s In The Mean Time is a wildly uneven book—at times brilliant and subversive (such as the frame-by-frame creeping of a security video taken in a classroom that forever disrupts the life and mental state of a student), but equally capable of being overtly mundane and obtuse. Already a published author several times over, Tremblay’s skilful use of language shines in every story (as seen in the disturbingly brilliant portion up above). But it’s the tales themselves that suffer from a somewhat discombobulated tone.

Narrative is clearly not Tremblay’s intent with these tales. He’s not interested in telling us a story or taking us on a ride. No, what drives these disparate stories is the onion peeling of layers and layers of distress, trauma and psychosis—all captivating conceptually, but not always relayed in an intriguing manner.

In cases where this style absolutely works—“The Teacher”; “The Two-Headed Girl”; “There’s No Light Between Floors”; “Headstones in Your Pocket”—the characters provide just enough three-dimensionality to really succeed at pulling the reader into the layers of subtle distress (particularly with the last story mentioned, which I felt to be the highlight of the book). They exist apart from the tales, and not as products for the writer to experiment with.

Conversely, where this stylistic approach doesn’t work as well—“The Strange Case of Nicholas Thomas: An Excerpt from A History of the Longesian Library”; “We Will Never Live in the Castle”; “The People Who Live Near Me”—the author’s experimentation results in characters who feel less approachable/relatable and more as if they were avatars for a concept only partially realized. In this regard, the collection suffers from a strange duality that prevents it from ever feeling like a complete work; many of the stories wind up feeling anticlimactic when paired with others, their intent diluted from the lack of a complete vision that is sometimes endemic of works of short fiction. This is not to say that all short fiction collections need to have a mosaic-like approach to them, but I have always felt that the more successful ones in this regard have at least an understandable focus or conceit that guides the selections and how they are paired with one another.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Review: Sub Rosa, by Amber Dawn

Published: April 2010

Finally got around to it: December 2010

One man said, “Bury me alive.” He lay on the bed with his arms dead-man crossed over his chest. First knelt at his feet and dropped her body down, little by little. I imagined it felt like heavy clods of sod covering him from the ankles up. She unhooked her bra, and her breasts fell over his face. I heard his gasps, his muffled “yes”; I watched her hold her breath and her body grow even bigger so that not a hint of him was left.

“Do you want to revive our dear departed man here?” First signalled me over as she rolled off of him. His eyes were closed, his skin purple. A smear of semen on his thigh. I blew into his mouth.

“Come toward the light.” What else could I have said as I propped his head on my lap? First nodded in encouragement. “Come to the light,” I repeated in what I hoped was an ethereal voice.

“I’m a new man,” he cried as the colour returned to his skin. I bit down on my disbelieving smirk as he pressed a hundred-dollar bill into my hand. The money seemed alive, like I was holding a baby bird; it pulsed.


Memory and identity are at the core of Sub Rosa. Amber Dawn’s debut explores these broad concepts through a densely plotted magical realism narrative of gifted prostitutes called “Glories” whom each have an ability not of this world, the “live ones” that seek to escape from the city—from the Dark—by visiting Sub Rosa every chance they get, and representative fathers and mothers that run their respective houses full of working girls like high society families, respectful of one another in the open while burying their mutual distaste beneath twisted strands of town gossip and ghost stories.

Dawn’s prose is a treat. She writes sparingly, using embellishment only when necessary to create the feeling of a lucid dream when travelling between the Dark and the vibrant, hyper reality of the Sub Rosa strip. She lays out the reality beyond Sub Rosa as a muted, oppressive state of being that siphons the life of young, runaway girls, or threatens the survival of an unfortunate Glory who, because of the protection of Sub Rosa, is unprepared to deal with the harshness of a reality that they’ve forgotten over time.

As beautiful and loving as the prose may be, it only serves to accentuate the dark allegory of Sub Rosa as a subversive Neverland, where a prostitute can work safely, so long as she plays by the rules and stays within the hidden realm. To take oneself out of Sub Rosa is to throw one’s life away to ambling, zombie men who can only take and salivate, no matter the cost to a young girl’s life. But to remain in Sub Rosa, is to discard the memories and identity of one’s past—a sacrifice which, in many ways, becomes the core question of the book: are safety, security and comfort worth the cost of burying the past without having to first confront it? It’s an interesting question, one that guides the main character, Little, through the connections and risks she decides to take in the latter half of the 317-page novel.

Sub Rosa is wonderfully immersive, moves at a very fast pace, and is filled with so many magical, tantalizing visual metaphors that it leaves you feeling a little drunk by the end. As a debut, it marks the arrival of one hell of a talented storyteller, and I’m eager to see what she does next.

Review: In A Strange Room, by Damon Galgut

Published: April 2010

Finally got around to it: December 2010

Part travelogue, part psychologically deconstructive journey, In A Strange Room kept me at arm’s length for almost the entirety of its 180 pages. Structured as three mid-length stories strung together loosely as a novella, the most pressing thought I’m left with is that the book lacked focus—both on a macro and micro level, as none of the tales, independent of the whole, came together with any level of clarity beyond the objective curiosity they first inspire.

The three sections—“The Follower,” “The Lovers,” and “The Guardian”—take the main character, Damon, on journeys through Africa, India and parts of Europe, but at no point do the destinations have life breathed into them beyond the most basic clinical descriptions. The same could be said for the manner in which dialogue and interaction of any kind is handled—surgical, detached, and lacking all emotion.

I’ve been stewing over this review for days now, as I really don’t know what to say. I didn’t hate the book by any stretch, but neither would I recommend it to anyone. What is described as a journey not only through a series of exotic, sometimes treacherous, sometimes serene, landscapes, but also as an adventure as one man experiences a series of encounters that would change his life, feels like a limp, disaffected series of uncomfortable conversations from a man that seemingly wants and does not want to connect with the world around him at the same time.

The narrative choice of switching back and forth from third person to first, sometimes within the same paragraph, did not have the intended effect—I did not feel, at those moments of first person narration, an increased attachment or intimacy with Damon’s thoughts. Instead, it felt clumsy, as if I were reading the work of a writer who could neither decide to be here nor there with his thoughts.

As a purely psychological experience, there is a lot that could be dissected from Galgut’s writing style and affectations. But is it an enjoyable, intriguing, mystifying read? Not in the slightest. He approaches intrigue only with the last story, “The Guardian”, in which he takes charge over a severely bi-polar friend. In those final pages, glimpses of his humanity sparkle in and amongst some rather laborious literary choices, but never do they shine bright enough to provide you with an entry point into the young narrator’s heart.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Review: Essex County, by Jeff Lemire

Published: Part 1 – March, 2007

Part 2 – September, 2007

Part 3 – August, 2008

The Complete Saga – September, 2009

Finally got around to it: December, 2010

Full disclosure time: I hadn’t heard more than passing comments made about Jeff Lemire’s Essex County before this year, and I might not have picked it up had it not made the top five of this year’s Canada Reads competition. That’s not a knock against the book by any means, I simply had not given it the attention it deserved.

I am so happy to have rectified this gross oversight.

Bundling together the three independent-yet-interlinked volumes that made up the saga (Tales From The Farm, Ghost Stories, and The Country Nurse), The Complete Essex County is a remarkable title of beauty, scope and serenity. Using the backdrop of a small Ontario town to bridge together the lives of two intertwined family trees over the course of nearly one hundred years, Essex County is, in fact, charming in its simplicity. That may sound trite to some, but there is no other way I can think to describe the tenderness by which Lemire writes and illustrates his populace. This is a lovingly crafted set of tales.

Most interesting is the emptiness that Lemire embraces as an intrinsic part of his visual design. The loneliness of lost souls on farms—or of those facing just as much isolation in the city, despite the densely populated surroundings—is depicted with careful attention to long, drawn out horizons and fields of vanishing points, where a tractor could work all day and barely cover the ground it needs to. Where a single crow stands out against a sea of blue and white and little else overhead. The characters are just as lovingly illustrated, but no two greater than Lou and Vince, the two brothers at the core of the second volume, Ghost Stories. The lines on their faces say more than most authors could dream of doing. The willingness to embrace nothingness or minimalism as an aesthetic conceit is something few graphic artists have the confidence to attempt, but Lemire does it with style to spare.

As the first graphic novel to break the Canada Reads barrier, I don’t think we could have a stronger contender than Essex County. The book wears its Canadian heritage with pride. This is a work of art in so many ways. A new printing of the complete saga is coming in early 2011—don’t miss this one.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Review: Transubstantiate, by Richard Thomas

Published: April 2010

Finally got around to it: December 2010


tr.v. tran-sub-stan-ti-at-ed, tran-sub-stan-ti-at-ing, tran-sub-stan-ti-ates

1. To change (one substance) into another; transmute.

2. Christianity To change the substance of (the Eucharistic bread and wine) into the body and blood of Jesus.


Richard Thomas’ seven-voice neo noir thriller borrows heavily from obvious sources (Lost, the Matrix films, Ghost in the Shell, and any number of psychological thriller/horror/sci-fi tropes, but the end result it entirely its own thing. As an examination of seven broken, lost, murderous, Machiavellian, and generally fucked up souls, the mosaic painted at the end is both a rich, detailed thriller that moves with a definite sense of urgency, and a social deconstruction of what it means—and what it takes—to create a utopia.

Using the premise of an experiment in population control spawning a global virus that leaves only a fraction of a percentile still breathing, Thomas uses his seven avatars—the shopkeeper, the nymphomaniac, the exile, the guardian, the vengeance seeker, the mind behind the curtain, and the disgruntled youth—to construct a non-linear narrative that is as much a mystery of what their island utopia/prison represents as it is the whys and wherefores of the seemingly disparate threads that connect the many narrators.

The ghost-in-the-machine/mind-behind-the-curtain concept is nothing new to noir or science fiction, and neither is the last-happy-spot-on-the-ravaged-world setting that may or may not occasionally travel back to the desolate mainland, complete with its semi-mutated, likely drug-addled wanton-rape-and-pillage gangs. Thomas makes these ideas feel fresh, however, by the division of the seven narrators. Through such a tactic, we never get a total sense of omniscience. In essence, we see what we need to see in order to understand why several random individuals might find themselves as mice in a cage for the purposes of an ongoing investigation into social control mechanisms, but not much more than that. The reader is similar to a bird flying over a city, snagging only the bits of story that appear when people walk between buildings, but losing the greater sense of what goes on inside before moving onto the next voice. That’s not to the book’s detriment—if anything, its slightly-obstructed set of perspectives are what keep it from feeling as if it is something seen and experienced before.

Taken as one, the seven voices of the tale pull together a set of strands that transforms what could have been a very predictable Big Brother-esque plot into a more painterly abstraction of the desire to live in a safe haven, and the ramifications of a single perverted mind that seeks to deconstruct the utopia it has infiltrated. An interesting ride, and a very worthwhile experiment in storytelling if one can get past some rather glaring editorial shortcomings.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review: The Devil You Know, by Jenn Farrell

Published: July 2010

Finally got around to it: November 2010

Barbed. That’s the first word to come to mind when attempting to describe Jenn Farrell’s second collection of short fiction, The Devil You Know. To break things down to the bare essentials, she’s got shit to say, and you’re damn well gonna listen—if you know what’s good for you.

Over the course of nine acerbic tales of lies, abuse, pregnancy, drugs and dark sexual exploration, Farrell lets us into the mind of an author who has clearly not kept her head in the sand when it comes to analyzing the human stain. Her characters are depicted as open sores—tender, damaged, and prone to causing wicked amounts of pain in return. At the same time, they’re very real, very down to earth, and deeply entrenched in the same personal, psychological and sociological issues we deal with, to varying degrees, every day of our lives. The characters might seem like extremes when looked at as a shopping-list microcosm of humanity, but digging deeper into their wounds reveals a great deal more than the surface strange would have you believe. It’s then that the tenuous connective tissue becomes something stronger and more resilient, when you realize that you know these people, or you have been one of these people—or you are one of these people.

That’s Farrell’s strength, and the strength of the collected stories in The Devil You Know: to hold up the mirror without having to first smack you across the face with it.

Review: Major Karnage, by Gord Zajac

Published: September 2010

Finally got around to it: November 2010

“You can do it, Major!”

“Damn right, Cookie.”

“You’ve got the cojones, sir!”

“You got that right, Velasquez.”

“You’ve got it in you, sir!”

“Amen to that, Koch.”

“I’ve got faith in you, Major.”

“Is that you, Heckler?”

“You bet your ass it is, John.”

Karnage grinned. Now he knew he was hearing things. Old Heckler hadn’t spoken a word in years. Not since that day in Kandahar, the worst day of—

The War!

Battle and bullets and flames! Bombers buzzing as they fly overhead. Their payloads whining as they hurtle towards the scorched earth. The night sky strobin’ and flashin’ and pulsin’ like a goddamn disco inferno. Debris and dirt and mud and pain and screams fltin’ in all directions. Forward march, soldiers! Forward! Take ‘em all! Shoot and fire and kill and die-die-die—

Karnage slapped himself. The Sanity patch crooned “Citrus Blast” as the visions of battle faded, returning to the black expanse of starry night.


Major John Karnage has two problems: the sanity patch at the back of his head that will take his head off if he crosses from Strawberry Shortcake to Tricycle Red, and Unidentified Flying Objects of Death! Fortunately, neither matter is anything more than a minor obstacle to a grizzled, moderately unbalanced, former army battalion leader.

Major Karnage is author Gord Zajac’s first full novel, and it’s a beast of a unique colour. As a cross between a contemporary social satire (with the Dabney corporation and its long-dead originator, Galt, filling in nicely for Walt and the cultural weight the Disney corporation has had for decades now) and a send-up of classic sci-fi serials, it works largely on the strength of its quick-off-the-mark writing and genuinely witty characterizations—seriously, Stumpy? Great name.

The segment quoted at the start of this review is indicative of a large amount of the text and the speed at which it jumps around in tone, which is a terrific source of its humour. In fact, this is one of the few books I’ve read this year that has made me laugh out loud—in public, no less, because I just love getting “WTF” stares from passers-by. The chapters work to keep the pace as quick as the writing—rarely will you find one more than five or six pages in length.

Major Karnage was a great, sit-your-ass-down-and-lose-your-mind kind of a read—it reminded me, in a way, of what Spielberg and Lucas claimed to have been shooting for with the creation of Indiana Jones, a lovingly constructed tribute to the ‘50s adventure serial mindset. Though Karnage goes in the other direction, shooting for the travesty that will be the corporate designed far-flung future, the established tone is similar, the execution just as much of a blast to ride along with.

In fact, if I were to fault Major Karnage on any one thing, it would be that it sometimes felt as if it were trying to do too much; by balancing war-based insanity, questions of discarded troops and their worth in the aftermath of harsh and unforgiving war, religious zealots and the men (and women) behind the curtain, corporate dominance, social distortion, cloning, alien supremacy and hive minds, the book is able to maintain its roller coaster pace, but at the expense of deeper exploration into a few of these areas. In the end, though, I can’t decide what I would want trimmed, or if I would simply want a longer, more detailed read. But then there’s the conundrum of what that might do to the book’s already tight pacing. I can’t fault the book for taking on so much—I only wish there could have been more space to dive into some of the more compelling strands of plot. Make no mistake though, if you want to escape from the norm for a few hours, Major Karnage will satisfy your psychotic-alien-war-lust like few others.

“So come on, buddy. Let’s go. You and me: brain to brain. Cerebro a cerebro.”

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: Before I Wake, by Robert J. Wiersema

Published: August 2006

Finally got around to it: November 2010

“And what have you done?”

“Many things, Henry,” he said. “Time is long and old men forget…”

“That’s not an answer.”

“No, it’s Shakespeare.”

My introduction to Wiersema’s work came earlier this year when, after being introduced to the CZP catalogue, I found a copy of The World More Full of Weeping at my local White Rock Indigo. A mildly traumatic story about a boy lost in the woods behind his home in much the same way that his father had gotten lost in them many years earlier, The World More Full of Weeping is a sucker punch of a novella: it strikes unexpectedly, and over the course of a mere 70 or so pages, leaves you breathless and distraught. Now with his latest book, Bedtime Stories, on the market (which I hope to have a chance to read in the next few weeks), I wanted to go back and see where Wiersema’s career as a writer began.

First published back in 2006, Before I Wake tells the story of Sherry Barrett and the single moment in time that changes not only her world, but the worlds of her parents, her parents friends and family, even the entire country. The book opens with Sherry being struck and abandoned in a hit and run accident that leaves her comatose. Accepting that she has experienced brain death, her parents Simon and Karen decide to remove her from life support. Just as they do, she begins to breathe on her own, and their little miracle of a child becomes one in the literal, spiritual and religious definitions of the word.

A couple things to note right off the bat: though it is nearly 400 pages, this is a one-sitting read. Make no mistake about that. The writing is tight, intelligent, and oozes realism without ever resorting to extremes or overtly dramatic moments and gestures.

Speaking of realism, the characters are some of the most genuinely mature I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The broken marriage slowly facing redefinition, the other woman that never once feels like the stereotypical “other”, the religious zealots with a disturbing (and potentially supernatural) depth to them that is not so easily explained away—especially not when one considers the physical nature of certain characters to some, and the total lack of physical presence those same characters might have when placed in the sights of others.

Before I Wake is a book of miracles that doesn’t rely on the reader being a believer in any way, shape or form. Its weight is transcribed through the completely down-to-earth rationality and actions of its leads, and that weight is what not only grounds the spirituality and supernatural elements to the very real Victoria, BC setting of the book, but also allows for those elements to enhance the story in very unexpected ways.

Wiersema writes with a sincerity that cannot be forced. There isn’t an instance where the tone is betrayed or subverted for the means of addressing something that the characters wouldn’t be addressing themselves. The questions we would ask are the ones they are asking—a critical conceit seemingly absent in most books that attempt to marry the real and the spiritual.

What matters most though with a story like this is whether or not it was able to sink its teeth into me. So here it is: one sitting, and by the end my eyes were watering and it certainly wasn’t from staring at the pages for too long. This is a book that shouldn’t be missed by anyone. My anticipation for Bedtime Stories is now through the roof.

Before I Wake is one of my notable experiences of the year. I can’t recommend it enough.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review: The Obituary, by Gail Scott

Published: October 2010

Finally got around to it: November 2010

I’ve been struggling to find an angle for Gail Scott’s The Obituary, but in truth I am conflicted. On one hand, I have read the book and attempted to analyze it to the best of my abilities, but on the other hand, I feel confident in saying that I am clearly not the audience for this title.

I wish I were. God knows I found the descriptions I’ve read of the book to be absolutely enticing, but in no way indicative of my experience with it. What is billed as an exploration of the ideas of the ghosts that surround us, and who is speaking for us, to us and through us when history weaves its way through the long life of a home, is I found… impenetrable.

The book is a novel, but written through a carefully constructed style of poetic prose that, to be frank, felt too forced on the page to ever maintain a natural rhythm. Each paragraph—each line was a trial, not to understand what was being said, but how it was being said and, more importantly, why it was being said in such a manner. In that sense, I feel the attempt failed to capture any of the spirit or sense of voice it sought to explore.

I respect what Gail Scott attempted to do with The Obituary, but in the end I remain torn as to whether or not I am the audience for the book, or whether the book simply fails to succeed as a result of its very forced and deliberate stylistic choices.

Review: Bats or Swallows, by Teri Vlassopoulos

Published: October 2010

Finally got around to it: November 2010

Invisible Books is another small Canadian press that produces books with an unconventionally high dedication to artistry. Their authors are (usually) previously unpublished, and the books themselves tend to have a unique aesthetic flavour that, similarly to products from Gaspereau Press or ChiZine Publications, certainly stands out on the shelves of a bookstore. Teri Vlassopoulos’ first collection of short fiction, Bats or Swallows, with its beautiful watercolour exterior, is just such a title—instantly recognizable as an Invisible product.

The collection itself—eleven short stories in a tight 133 pages—shows a confident progression of ideas, many of them relating to farewells, as Vlassopoulos gradually transgresses from childhood discomforts and absentee siblings who are suddenly growing apart, through friends, family, teenage years, young adults struggling to follow love across borders, and coming to a close with a look at the subdued methods in which lovers later in life hurt one another—without shouts, without cursing, without the drama of youth to provide any unnecessary severity to the quiet moments when one knows the end is near.

There’s a level of attention to the structure of this book and how the stories progress, gradually revealing more sincerity as they become increasingly heartbreaking, that causes the book itself to feel less like an assortment of disparate tales and more like a mosaic of sorts. Upon first reading, I felt as if the book itself was back-loaded, with the more adept and well-written tales coming in the latter half. In retrospect, that feels intentional—as if to illustrate this transgression of ideas married through the transformation of maturity and how, as it would a person’s relationships, age and experience can only transform a writer into what they had one day hoped to be: an observer of the human condition.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review: Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

Published: May 2010

Finally got around to it: November 2010

The Writer’s Trust Fiction Award, the Giller, and the Governor General’s Literary Award—few are the Can Lit titles that manage to snag nominations for one of those, maybe two of them. But nailing the trifecta? This year that honour is Kathleen Winter’s alone with her first novel, Annabel. Has it won anything yet? Sadly no. It was shut out of the Writer’s Trust and Giller awards by Emma Donoghue’s Room (see previous review here) and Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists respectfully. Will it win the Governor General’s award? We’ll find out tomorrow night. Does it deserve it?

Oh yes.

Full disclosure: I went into Annabel with a bit of a chip on my shoulder—hype. Namely, that I’d been hearing about the book for months, its support base was growing incredibly fast, and once the three nominations came through, the praise seemed deafening. I’d already felt that my anticipation for Room might have somewhat dampened that book’s impact (though I’d like to read it again to be sure… I still feel that the voice just wasn’t “there” for me), and I’ve been avoiding Freedom for the same reason—almost wishing I could forget about the hype before deciding to sink into the text. So yeah, I was a little dodgy with Annabel. I knew I wanted to read it, I just didn’t know if it would be best to wait a little while longer, just long enough for the awards season to pass and for the urgency to die down a little bit.

Glad I didn’t pay too much attention to my own advice.

Winter’s novel tells the tale of Wayne, a true intersex child born in Labrador in 1968, and Annabel, the female side of him that is given name and is always there, always present in some form or another within every facet of Wayne’s existence. The two coexist in this tale, even in times when one isn’t aware of the other’s presence.

It would have been tremendously easy for Winter to fall back on predictability, using the subject of an intersex child as a literary vehicle for metaphor, but she doesn’t have so little love for the character or story as to take such an easy route. Instead we have been given a rich, detailed set of characters, who never play to the expected stereotypes with which it would have been so easy to label them upon first glance, and a focussed plot that moves swiftly through nearly three decades of Wayne’s life, as he comes to learn of Annabel’s existence, and how the presence of a buried self helps to define the person he was always destined to become.

It’s a beautifully detailed work of art that shows equal love to its maritime locations as it does to Wayne, Wally, Thomasina, Jacinta, and most surprisingly, Wayne’s father, Treadway. I struggled to connect to Treadway for a great portion of the text, finding his actions deplorable, even if his motivations were without malicious intent. By the end, however, he surprised me. He grew in such a way as to tether the emotional journey of Wayne in the final chapters, enhancing our perception of the changes that they had all gone through in the course of the story. Whereas Wayne’s journey was one of self-discovery, Treadway’s was of acceptance. We were not cheated at the end—there was no character within the main cast that had not blossomed into something entirely different by the book’s final chapter, and at no time did the steps of their individual development feel in any way forced. That is certainly an impressive feat for any writer. That this is Winter’s first novel makes it all the more breathtaking of an achievement.

Whether she wins the Governor General’s award tomorrow night or not will do nothing to extinguish the beauty of Annabel. It is a remarkable book, one that anyone with a serious interest in Can Lit owes it to themselves to read.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review: People Live Still in Cashtown Corners, by Tony Burgess

Published: October 2010

Finally got around to it: November 2010

“I sit without taking my eyes off her. The hole in her forehead isn’t closing or healing, but it isn’t festering either. Her eyes are shaded prettily in blue and purple. Bruises that haven’t changed. She pulls her long black hair back behind her shoulders.”

Tony Burgess is a very disturbed man.

From the author of Pontypool Changes Everything comes a sparse, economical novella about one gas station attendant’s sudden decision to become a mass murderer. Why would he do this? Boredom. A break from the everyday. Because it beats pumping gas for a living.

Or, more likely, because he has simply snapped—completely splintered from reality (something which is fairly evident later on when considering his connection to the girl mentioned above).

There isn’t an action in People Live Still in Cashtown Corners that isn’t unsettling. Gross. Barbaric. But that’s why it works. The “spare no unnecessary text” approach of Burgess’ writing gives the book a strange duality: on one hand, it’s incredibly quick to read, compelling enough to keep turning the pages, and will likely be breezed through in a morning; on the other hand, the bluntness to some of the events, descriptions and the main character’s internal thoughts will twist your stomach into knots, causing you to want to slow down, to want to take a breather from Bob Clark’s rampage.

From start to finish, the book reads like a disaffected child’s attempt at self acceptance—immature and removed from the behaviours of a “normal” human being, Bob Clark’s blood and brain-soaked journey is a tangent to a life he hasn’t yet figured out. The death and destruction left in Bob’s wake could be seen as the classic Mustang of some midlife crisis spending spree—the ability to accept his life for what it truly is and the inability to connect to the failed attempt at a life well wasted until the final line of text.

And fuck you, Tony Burgess, if “blood moving through the cruiser like spiders jumping” pops up in my dreams tonight.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: Hygiene and the Assassin, by Amélie Nothomb

Published (in French): 1992

Published (in English): October 2010

Finally got around to it: November 2010

There’s not much in this world more delicious than good dialogue. Banter, a back and forth that takes on a life its own, never feeling forced, driving a story to places you’d never expect to be taken. It’s not often a novel comprised of almost exclusively dialogue-driven passages has such a life to it, a three-dimensional quality that excessive detail would only hamper. But that’s exactly the situation with Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin. This is the first of Nothomb’s works, published in 1992 when she was 25 years old. In October of this year, Europa Editions released the English version of the text to North America, and it’s a hell of a translation.

Conversational dialogue in small amounts lives or dies by the quality of its translation. In the case of Hygiene and the Assassin, the book itself is predicated on a tight rhythmic structure that required a pitch-perfect translation—which is exactly what it got. There’s not a word that doesn’t fit exquisitely with the flavour of the piece, which, to be honest, is sometimes difficult to stomach yet impossible to turn away from.

The story is simple: an obese, misogynistic, hate-filled Nobel Prize winning recluse of an author is dying of cancer at a very late stage in life, having completed his life’s work (leaving one novel unfinished, as any self-respecting author should, he claims). The author, Prétextat Tach, decides to allow a small group of journalists to interview him—the first interviews he has ever had. None are prepared for the level of perversity inherent in this one individual.

An example—Prétextat Tach on the persona of the Writer:

“The hand is for pleasure. This is devastatingly important. If a writer is not having pleasure, then he must stop immediately. To write without pleasure is immoral. Writing already contains all the seeds of immorality. The writer’s only excuse is his pleasure. A writer who does not have pleasure is as disgusting as some bastard raping a little girl without even getting his rocks off, just for the sake of raping, to commit a gratuitously evil act.”

One by one, the first few journalists are eviscerated by the reclusive author, and by the halfway point of the book’s sparse 167 pages, only one remains. Her name is Nina, and she knows more about the author than he would ever suspect. From this point on the book is a single, unbroken 90-page chapter as Nina and Prétextat tear each other apart in a beautifully choreographed verbal sparring.

To say anything more would be a disservice. It is a disturbing book, a sometimes difficult to stomach read, but also one of the most compelling and expertly written stories I think I’ve ever read. I admit—I am a sucker for a conversation, and to have one build its momentum for nearly 90 pages, continuously increasing the level of animosity that exists between the two while simultaneously fostering a perverted respect that can only build between two people who want nothing more than to see the other left weak and without recourse, it was something special. This is the very definition of a one-sitting read. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Review: Beautiful Darkness, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Published: October 2010

Finally got around to it: November 2010

Harry Potter was the start of something new—a renaissance for the young adult market. The last few years have seen an absolute flood of mature, sci-fi, magic- and/or supernatural-oriented YA lit. Some of it stronger than others (The Hunger Games series), some of it more unfortunately prevalent (Twilight… and everything to do with Twilight), but for the most part we’re seeing quality writing that’s of the standard of most adult lit, with deeply engaging characters and plots that simply trim away the overt sexuality, cursing or extremely gory violence that might distinguish a title as being “too mature” for a YA audience.

I’m just going to step right out on this limb here: over the last two years I’ve read more than 200 books, and out of the top ten or so that have really burrowed into my memory, six or seven of them are aimed at the YA audience. I don’t think my tastes have changed, nor my attention span or interests. More than anything, the characters and worlds in some of these tales just feel… more authentic to me, as of late.

I remember reading an article last year about the changing face of Canadian lit—the writer in question, possibly mistakenly, called what was happening “the feminization of Canadian lit.” Without lingering on the potential sexist overtones of that statement, what was meant, when you parsed through the article, was that, by and large, more men tended to write with plot at the forefront, and more women focussed on character and the inherent emotional weight of a story, often to the expense of plot. I’m not going to say whether or not there’s any merit to this assumption, but I have noticed a change in a lot of adult-aimed books I’ve read in the past few years—stories that have been mostly middles, with little distance travelled from beginning to end. I recall really feeling this with last year’s Canada Reads victor, Nikolski, a book which I felt nothing but frustration over, following the writer on a slow bus to nowhere. By the end of the book, I felt like I’d spent an afternoon contemplating my navel and not much else.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. I don’t mean to generalize Can lit in this manner—this trait is endemic in a lot of adult-oriented literature coming from the US and around the world. It all has its place and its purpose, but I find more and more I’m being drawn to the worlds of well-written YA novels because what they’re offering feels more relatable—the characters feel more a part of a tangible world, even if it so happens to be a completely supernatural one. This was my reaction upon finishing Garcia and Stohl’s Beautiful Darkness, the follow up to last year’s debut from the two authors, Beautiful Creatures.

The story takes place in a southern American town called Gatlin, following the love affair between a Caster girl, Lena Duchannes, and her mere mortal of a boyfriend, Ethan Wate. Though it was established in the prequel that these two share a bond more super than it is natural, they are still the Romeo and Juliet of the magic-laced YA world; Lena is unable to accept that her powers will likely one day be the death of Ethan, because mortals and Casters are simply never meant to be together—co-existence is thought to be the best they could ever hope for. Without giving anything away, that idea doesn’t sit well with Ethan, from whose perspective the series takes place.

There’s a harshness and severity to the story and the world of Gatlin that really propels these characters. No one is a bystander, no one is an innocent, no one is beyond screwing up royally, but none of those things ever spell the end of the world for any of them. They adjust, they rebuild, and they move on. But something in the level of writing on display pushes them further than most similar characters in other YA titles: believability of action, reaction and motivation. Nothing ever feels out of place, either with respect to the fiction revolving around Blood Incubi, Sirens, Casters, Waywards and Keepers and the centuries-old conflict that has shaped their lineage and the history of the town itself, or with the rationale behind why each character acts in a particular way. It all fits. This strong, believable structure is even more impressive when you remember that there are two writers constructing this series, yet at no point do you feel the juxtaposition of two voices trying to tell one tale. They’re unified, indistinguishable from one another in tone.

Most critically to a narrative-obsessed individual such as myself, the ending is entirely satisfying, well paced, and leaves me aching for part three. Again, to call up two previous YA examples: Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Both were tremendous successes, and rightfully so, but both shared a common flaw: giving their endings enough space to breathe. With Harry Potter, I felt the individual titles ended well enough, but the final chapter of the seventh book left a painful amount to be desired. It was like breaking through the ocean and catching only a half breath—truncated and awkwardly paced as it was. With The Hunger Games, it was a sore spot with each title—ending abruptly with no room to really acclimate to the drastic changes the characters had undergone. The worst offender in that series was the second book, Catching Fire, which, while being my favourite in the series, took a knife to the space that the ending should have had and instead forced an info-dump down our throats in the final chapter. It felt as if the author had been told to stick within a certain page limit and that was the work-around. With Beautiful Creatures and Beautiful Darkness, I feel as if I’ve been served a complete meal, but maybe—just maybe—I’ve got a bit of room left for dessert. There’s resolution, enough to feel complete if the story were to end here, but with more than enough hooks to pull us along the way for the next step in their journey.

Supposedly there are two more titles planned in the series. If that’s true, and this is only the halfway point, then I hope they’ve got something special up their sleeves, because I’ve enjoyed both titles in this series with a level of satisfaction I feel I rarely experience these days—from narrative to characters and emotional subtext. It hits all the right notes.