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STAFF PICKS

February 2020

Jo's Picks

Bent Heavens

by Daniel Kraus
(Henry Holt & Co.)


Imagine a horror novel. Imagine an extra-terrestrial sci-fi novel. Now imagine a coming-of-age that also touches on experimentation and torture, morality and justice, and combine them all into a glorious mishmash of genres that terrifies and electrifies and culminates in a conspiracy theorist's dream come true. Tackling the dark under-belly of human behaviour with a deft hand and a unique turn of phrase, this deeply atmospheric novel draws the reader in right from page one delivering twist after twist. Liv Fleming's father went missing two years ago, shortly after claiming he was abducted by aliens and swearing that they would return for him. Liv and her childhood friend, outcast Doug, believe him long dead but they still meet up weekly to check the alien traps Liv's dad left behind. And then one day, they find an injured creature that is clearly inhuman and other-worldly, and obviously has something to do with Liv's father. What follows is a psychological nightmare as Liv and Doug struggle with whether to involve the authorities or take matters into their own hands and implement a more personal kind of justice. Heartbreaking and horrifying.

 

Juliet Takes a Breath

by Gabby Rivera
(Dial Books)

Juliet is a self-proclaimed closeted Puerto Rican baby dyke from the Bronx. She is also a refreshingly direct protagonist whose voice jumps off the page in her stream-of-consciousness stylings. Coming out to her close-knit family is the hardest thing Juliet has ever done, although leaving her love and first girlfriend is also painful. But Juliet has the chance to work in Portland Oregon with her mentor, the white female author of Juliet's favourite book (her queer bible) Raging Flower. Filled with hilarity and honesty, this is all things intersectional, integrating all the aspects of feminism, queerness ,the experiences of people of colour, and a myriad of social issues. Every character leaps from the page and is filled with life. Real, flawed, exuberant. A must-read for older teens.

 

The Secret Commonwealth

by Philip Pullman
(Knopf Books for Young Readers)

The second installment in The Book of Dust jumps twenty years into the future from where the first book left off. Lyra Silvertongue, then a baby, is now a twenty year old student at St. Sophia's. Readers will find her much changed, still heartbroken over Will (books 2 and 3- His Dark Materials) and bitter about all she has lost. One of the biggest differences is that she and her daemon Pantalaimon are no longer close. In fact they hate each other, a separation born of Lyra's desperate actions long ago. Neither can forgive the other and in a world where daemons are like proxy souls or consciences, this results in Lyra being deeply wounded and erratic in her behaviour. Pan is convinced that she has lost her spark and restlessness due to her love of two hyper-rational philosophical books - that allow for no magic in the world, and no place for daemons. The catchphrase is "Nothing was any more than what it was." Pan sets out alone to recover Lyra's imagination, as he sees it. Meanwhile Lyra is drawn into a web of intrigue and must run for her life. Malcolm Polstead, the quick-thinking boy from The Belle Sauvage - who saved Baby Lyra and delivered her into the safety of Jordan College - travels east looking for the rare desert rose oil that reveals dust. Malcolm is now a scholar and a member of the secret organization Oakley Street who battle the Consistorial Court, the security arm of the sinister Magisterium. Two new foes are introduced, Olivier Bonneville who has an alethiometer, and is the son of the assassin with the hyena daemon from the first book, and Marcel Delamare who also works for the Magisterium. Readers familiar with the other books will delight in refamiliarizing themselves with Alice, Ma Costa, Farder Coram and the gyptians. Political machinations, espionage, lies, and revenge abound. It all comes to a bloody climax in the East at the mysterious Blue Hotel. Dark, intellectual and full of ideas, this is an emotional monster of a read.

 

Alice's Picks

Evening in Paradise: More Stories

by Lucia Berlin
(Picador)

Evening in Paradise: More Stories is the second collection of short stories by Lucia Berlin (the first is A Manual for Cleaning Women), both published posthumously. Berlin was an exceptional writer, and as soon as you read her work, you are immediately rapt and enwrapped by her deft, quick prose. These are immersive stories; you are with the characters from the outset, and their emotions and situations are described in a few expert strokes. There is a power to her words - she is unflinching and sympathetic at the same time - and she describes the lives of women and girls with both humour and painful clarity. She writes of working class and poor North, Central, and South American people without any simplification or catastrophization. Comparisons to Raymond Carver and Grace Paley are apt - her directness is remarkable. It is exacting and full of care, but not delicate at all. This is an author whose contributions will far outlive her. Dive into this collection.

 

The Great Happiness

by M.A.C. Farrant
(Talonbooks)

M.A.C. Farrant, even though she is an award-winning author, should be far more well known than she is, in Canada and worldwide. She is a miniaturist; her short stories tend to be one to three pages in length. These are delightful, funny, sharp, thoughtful, conversational, swift stories. The first story in The Great Happiness is "Positive Impact", about a woman who hears a story about Buddhists releasing lobsters, and couriers a lobster from the Save-On-Foods from the West Coast to PEI, with instructions that it be released into the Atlantic, because it's a "spiritual thing". That will give you a little sense of the humour at play here. Mixed in with the brief vignette-style stories are small drawings and handwritten notes. A wonderful collection - it may provide some reprieve from the unrelentingly awful state of the world.

The Man Who Saw Everything

by Deborah Levy
(Hamish Hamilton)

The Man Who Saw Everything is a moving, incredibly well-constructed novel. The narrator, Saul Adler, is a self-absorbed young historian who is invited to Communist East Berlin in 1988. Before he goes, he arranges a photoshoot by his girlfriend to take a photo of him standing in the crosswalk on Abbey Road, for his German host. While waiting, he is hit by a car. From this point, the novel unwinds its various threads - time shifts back and forth, relationships are revealed and described, and change as other characters speak. The reader is taken on a refractory journey, through a broken mirror, into different perceptions of history, both personal and social. There is a refreshing and remarkable sophistication to Deborah Levy's description of desire, sexuality, gender, artistic exploration, and political realities. An excellent and engaging and complicated short novel.

 

Anne-Marie's Picks

Migration: Incredible Animal Journeys

written by Mike Unwin
illustrated by Jenni Desmond

(Bloomsbury Children's Books)

As its title suggests, this book invites the reader to ponder the extraordinary travels of twenty notable species. Author Mike Unwin, a natural history and travel writer, together with award-winning illustrator Jenni Desmond, spirit you around the globe as an unobtrusive observer of animals at all stages of their respective migrations, from preparation to arrival at their destinations. Animals are trekking over grasslands, flying over oceans and swimming up rivers, spurred on by the changing seasons, in search of food and safe places to over-winter or to reproduce and raise their young. Their journeys are over hundreds and thousands of kilometres. Some are shuttling between Canada and Central America, like our backyard Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, others like the Arctic tern, are commuting from pole to pole. En route they must fend off predators and navigate treacherous weather and environs, both natural and human-made. And all this while many individuals are mere months or even weeks old. Sometimes one single migration will take several generations, as in the case of the Monarch butterfly, which incredibly leaves its summer home in Canada to find a hidden forest in Mexico it has never seen before. Migration leaves the reader with a sense of wonder and humility and serves as an urgent reminder that it will take collective action to save endangered species who know nothing of national boundaries.

 

The Promise

written by Pnina Bat Zvi & Margie Wolfe
illustrated by Isabelle Cardinal

(Second Story Press)

On the night Rachel and Toby’s parents were taken away by Nazi soldiers, their father gave them a little tin with three gold coins to use “only if they had to” and their mother told them desperately to stay together in order to survive. The Promise relates the harrowing true story of how the sisters - the mothers of the authors - miraculously did just that, surviving against the odds when they were imprisoned at Auschwitz. The book memorably follows the girls through their daily life in the camp, with its cramped quarters, casual brutality, and work assigned to break both body and mind. While only alluding to death (their parents and various fellow prisoners are never seen again), the book effectively conveys an atmosphere of acute injustice, violence and fear. On this 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, The Promise is an age-appropriate introduction to the Holocaust which offers a springboard to further discussion by raising questions rather than answering them. It is not perfect, I found its photo-realistic collage illustration style jarring, but the result is sombre and haunting and perhaps that is the point. Readers will be moved by its visceral depiction of cruelty and inhumanity juxtaposed with the shimmering beauty of the two sisters’ fidelity and fierce love for each other.

 
 

Alice's Recommendations

Anne-Marie's Recommendations

Jo's Recommendations