Most of the books we read are the result of one thing: someone we know, trust, and/or admire tells us it's great. That's why we run this series, The Recommend, where readers, writers, reviewers, bloggers, and others tell us about a book they'd recommend to a good friend ... and why.
This week we're pleased to present the picks of Chelsea Rooney, author of the acclaimed first novel Pedal; Daniel Allen Cox, author of two Lambda Award-nominated novels and the new book Mouthquake; Kevin Hardcastle, much-published short story writer and author of the upcoming collection Debris; Chadwick Ginther, creator of the award-winning Thunder Road trilogy; and Teri Vlassopoulos, whose short story debut, Bats and Swallows, was a Danuta Gleed finalist and whose forthcoming novel is Escape Plans.
Chelsea Rooney picks Nancy Lee’s The Age
In the 1980s myriad panics—both real and imagined—swept across North America. An untameable disease killed people by the tens of thousands. Crack cocaine flooded and ravaged the cities’ most embattled poor. Primetime television reported breathlessly on rumoured Satanic cults. And the threat of nuclear war reached its fever pitch, with WWIII imminent.
Nancy Lee’s The Age tells one story from this generation’s most vulnerable: its youth. And the story’s most vulnerable youth is Gerry. With an absentee father and overworked, distracted mother, Gerry slips deeper into a group of anti-nuclear activists. These are the children of The Weather Underground generation. The John Hughes’ Brat Pack they are not. Here, girls shave their heads and negotiate with sex. Here, MTV is shunned for coverage of Soviet warships proliferating in the Atlantic. Here, weekend activities include shopping for explosives and designing backpack bombs. And here, Gerry—who belongs nowhere—will do anything she can to feel needed. During the day and in secret she cannot stop thinking about other girls. And at nighttime and in secret she dreams of herself as a young man navigating a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland, struggling with crises of masculinity: of violence, sex and male aggression.
What makes The Age my recommendation? Gerry’s uncanny pain and turmoil—uncanny because at times you wonder, "Is this my own pain and turmoil?"—around almost every aspect of her identity. Her confounding gender and frustrated sexuality. Her family who fails her. Her nuclear panic and the intimate jeopardy of her own precious fifteen-year-old body as it shifts from girl to boy, from child to adult, from in-control to wildly at risk. You’ll want to take her hand and lead her out of harm’s way, hold her still until she ages out of those dangerous reckless teenage years. You’ll want to tell her, “It gets better.” The active compassion I felt—feel—for Gerry, along with the book’s historical lessons, make The Age one of my favourite novels—not just a favourite Canadian novel—and a treasured entry in our CanLit canon.
Chelsea Rooney is the author of Pedal, a debut novel published in 2014 with Caitlin Press and a finalist for the 2015 Amazon.ca First Novel Award. CBC Books named Rooney a writer to watch in 2015, and in 2014, we (49th Shelf) chose Pedal as a Book of the Year. Rooney hosts a monthly episode of The Storytelling Show on Vancouver Co-Op Radio, and spends her time in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia and Vancouver, British Columbia, with her partner, writer and cartoonist, Taylor Brown-Evans.
Daniel Allen Cox picks Elise Moser's Lily and Taylor
Elise Moser’s Lily and Taylor is a crucible that shows how darkness and light are made of the same materials. In this YA novel that enriches the genre by defying it, we see domestic violence and abuse at the precise moments they creep into one’s life, told in full brutality and with no hedging language. From the opening autopsy to a dangerous situation in a cabin in the woods, Moser uses the geography of small spaces to distort time and make the fear real. This book doesn’t promise an easy journey out of hopelessness, but instead offers the chance to see strength and confidence form slowly like a star within the core of the self. Who can you trust, and who can you not? What is horror, if not simply showing us how to be sensitive to the things we ignore every day?
Daniel Allen Cox is the author of the novels Shuck, Krakow Melt (both Lambda Literary Award finalists), Basement of Wolves, and the novella Tattoo This Madness In—and most recently Mouthquake. He co-wrote the screenplay for Bruce LaBruce's 2013 film Gerontophilia. Daniel was a 2015 writer-in-residence at the Zvona i Nari Library & Literary Retreat in Ližnjan, Croatia. He lives in Montreal, where he is vice president of Quebec Writers' Federation.
Kevin Hardcastle picks The Lost Salt Gift of Blood
I first found the work of Alistair MacLeod by reading No Great Mischief maybe six or seven years after it was published. I’d not heard of MacLeod and I’d not been taught his work in school, and that book drilled a hole in me and got me hunting for his other work. At the time I was waylaid out in Alberta and had some rough years. One Saturday I passed a weird little used bookstore off a residential street and went inside. I came back out with a little McClelland & Stewart New Canadian Library paperback of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, already well worn and beat up around the edges. That little book changed my life in that it changed the way I read and wrote, and more specifically, it changed the way I read and wrote the short story.
There is permanence to the stories in that book that eludes most writers on the planet, by a fairly wide margin. Maybe that’s because MacLeod took so much goddamn time to write them, but I think that it’s more likely because they are stories that came from lives he knew and lives that were very hard, that demanded a wealth of personal knowledge and writing that rung true, and that carried honest sentiment without becoming sentimental. For a good writer that sounds easy enough but is really like hitting a bulls-eye blindfolded from a half-mile away. It also takes ingredients that not everybody has, or, even if they do, a lot of those writers have perhaps spent a good deal of their life in imaginings and designing plot and running away from those more difficult elements instead of running toward them. These are stories about the working class that mined and fished around Cape Breton and the love and loss that came with it, the things they endure. They are stories about the things that truly matter.
“The Boat” is one of the best stories ever put to paper, and it carries that near-crippling atmosphere of loss and regret and inevitability, with lines that are beautiful and haunting and nearly hypnotizing, all before an ending that rends you from all of that at once. I really admire craft and there is no better craftsman. Nothing is wasted here and there is no fat nor padding in the whole of the collection. It is funny to me that, as I’m a writer that rarely writes in the first person, and never writes in first-person present-tense, not once did I feel set upon by the latter approach in these stories. I would point to The Lost Salt Gift of Blood as a book that shows the why and how of this kind of writing for any young author who sees it so often that they just think it should be their default tense. These stories, one and all, carry that old world storytelling sensibility, and they feel like something heard before and before and before and chronicled here at last by MacLeod. It is a perfect book. I carry it around plenty, and I am always in some stage of reading it whether by a just a few lines or the entire collection over a day or two.
Kevin Hardcastle is a fiction writer from Simcoe County, Ontario. He studied writing at University of Toronto and at Cardiff University. His work has been published in journals including The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, The Puritan, PRISM international, EVENT, Joyland, The Fiddlehead, Shenandoah, and The Walrus. Hardcastle was a finalist for the 2012 Journey Prize, and has twice been published in the Journey Prize Stories anthology. Hardcastle’s debut short story collection, Debris, will be published by Biblioasis in mid-September, and his novel, In the Cage, will also be published by Biblioasis, likely in Fall 2016.
Chadwick Ginther picks Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Signal to Noise
I'm a huge fan of Silvia Moreno-Garcia's short fiction, and Signal to Noise was my most anticipated book of 2015. This wonderful debut novel didn't disappoint. I love music, even if I can't play an instrument or sing to save my life, and so reading a coming of age story that finds magic in old records really spoke to me. Signal to Noise is set in Mexico City and told in two time, 1988 and 2009. In 1988 awkward teenage Meche and her unhip friends' discovering how to cast spells using music is interwoven with 2009 Meche returning to the home, family, and friends she'd abandoned for her father's funeral in 2009. Moreno-Garcia deftly answers the questions of those missing years, particularly, is there any magic left.
Originally from Morden, Manitoba, Chadwick Ginther is the winner of The Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher, the winner of The Michael Van Rooy Award for Genre Fiction and was twice nominated for the Prix Aurora Awards for Thunder Road and Tombstone Blues. The final novel in the Thunder Road trilogy, Too Far Gone, will be published this fall. Ginther's short stories have appeared in many speculative fiction publications, and he co-hosts the Winnipeg arm of the Chiaroscuro Reading Series. A bookseller for over a decade, Chadwick Ginther lives and writes in Winnipeg.
Teri Vlassopoulos picks Christine Pountney's Last Chance Texaco
I read Last Chance Texaco, by Christine Pountney, almost a decade ago. It stayed with me for years, although sometimes I thought of it more like a fever dream than a book. I remembered certain scenes cinematically: the main character, a troubled teenaged boy, diving into the ocean or driving through the desert or soaking in a floatation tank. Over time the plot evaded me, but I knew there were tragedies and that they reverberated through the characters’ lives and tossed them into different directions, usually unprepared. I recently reread the book wanting to see if my memories were right. I was relieved that they were and that the tone I remembered was still there, so much melancholy and yearning. The book also introduces the character of Hannah Crowe, who appears more prominently in Pountney’s later novels.
Last Chance Texaco was longlisted for the Orange Prize when it came out in 2000, but it’s difficult to find now, although worth digging around for (Editor's Note: you can now buy a signed copy directly from Pountney!). Either way, you won’t go wrong with Pountney’s most recent book, Sweet Jesus, which also has a roadtrip in it, and, more importantly, her gorgeous, evocative writing.
Teri Vlassopoulos is a Toronto-based writer. Her non-fiction has appeared in The Millions, The Toast, The Rumpus and in a regular column for Bookslut. Her first collection of short stories, Bats or Swallows, was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary award. Her novel, Escape Plans, is forthcoming in October 2015. You can find her on Twitter at @terki.
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