Throughout March we'll be focussing on books that write the world—books set in other countries, about global issues, and cultural intersections. Here's a cross-genre selection of such books (with a balance of heavy and light) that we think you might want to read this spring.
The Corpse With the Garnet Face, by Cathy Ace
About the book: The seventh book in the Cait Morgan series finds the eccentric Welsh criminologist–sleuth accompanying her husband Bud to Amsterdam to try to unravel a puzzling situation.
To Bud’s surprise, he discovers he has a long-lost uncle, Jonas, who’s met an untimely death. Bud's mother assures him Jonas was a bad child, but, from beyond the grave, Uncle Jonas begs his nephew to visit the city he adopted as his home to delve into the life he built for himself there, founded on his passion for art.
With an old iron key as their only clue, Cait and Bud travel to Amsterdam to solve the cryptic message left by Jonas—and to honor the final wishes of a long-lost relative.
Why we're taking notice: A recent Cait Morgan title was winner of the 2015 Bony Blithe Award for Light Mystery, and this new book promises similar fare. Morgan's adventures have taken her all over the world (where they inevitable coincide with a murder or two) and now she's arrived in Amsterdam—thing are going to get interesting.
The Bonjour Effect, by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau
About the book: Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow spent a decade traveling back and forth to Paris as well as living there. Yet one important lesson never seemed to sink in: how to communicate comfortably with the French, even when you speak their language. In The Bonjour Effect Jean-Benoit and Julie chronicle the lessons they learned after they returned to France to live, for a year, with their twin daughters. They offer up all the lessons they learned and explain, in a book as fizzy as a bottle of the finest French champagne, the most important aspect of all: the French don't communicate, they converse. To understand and speak French well, one must understand that French conversation runs on a set of rules that go to the heart of French culture.
Why do the French like talking about "the decline of France"? Why does broaching a subject like money end all discussion? Why do the French become so aroused debating the merits and qualities of their own language? Through encounters with school principals, city hall civil servants, gas company employees, old friends and business acquaintances, Julie and Jean-Benoit explain why, culturally and historically, conversation with the French is not about communicating or being nice. It's about being interesting. After reading The Bonjour Effect, even readers with a modicum of French language ability will be able to hold their own the next time they step into a bistro on the Left Bank.
Why we're taking notice: According to bestseller lists, we all want to be like the French, or at least to how, like them, not to get fat and/or teach our children how to eat and behave. So let's learn how to converse like the French as well, though of course this book is not just a how-to—in previous books Barlow and Nadeau have written about the histories of both the French and Spanish languages, and this one promises to be similarly packed with fascinating insights.
100 Days, by Julianne Otok Bitek
About the book: 100 days ...100 days that should not have been... 100 days the world could have stopped. But did not.
For 100 days, Juliane Okot Bitek recorded the lingering nightmare of the Rwandan genocide in a poem—each poem recalling the senseless loss of life and of innocence. Okot Bitek draws on her own family's experience of displacement under the regime of Idi Amin, pulling in fragments of the poetic traditions she encounters along the way: the Ugandan Acholi oral tradition of her father—the poet Okot p'Bitek; Anglican hymns; the rhythms and sounds of the African American Spiritual tradition; and the beat of spoken word and hip-hop. 100 Days is a collection of poetry that will stop you in your tracks.
Why we're taking notice:
It was the earth that betrayed us first
it was the earth that held onto its beauty
compelling us to return
it was the breezes that were there
& then not there
it was the sun that rose & fell
rose & fell
as if there was nothing different
as if nothing changed
The Killing Game, by Mark Bourrie
About the book: On January 21, 2015, a pro-ISIS Twitter account reported that John Maguire, a 23-year-old university drop-out from the Ottawa Valley town of Kemptville, had been killed fighting Kurds in the Syrian city of Kobani. A few weeks before, Maguire had starred in a YouTube video threatening Canada for bombing ISIS forces in Iraq. He is one of the dozens of young Canadians who have chosen to fight in a vicious conflict that really had little to do with them and with Canada.
Why would young people choose to fight in other people's wars, especially one as bloody and cruel as this one? Why has ISIS become so good at attracting foreign fighters?
This book examines the lure of this radical Islamist movement: its religious beliefs, sophisticated propaganda, and vast social media networks. ISIS is now a go-to cause for alienated young people in the Islamic World and the West. Does it offer answers to troubled young people? Are ISIS's crimes—slavery, murder, rape, repression, and the destruction of heritage sites—an attraction in and of themselves? What do we do about the people who take up ISIS's cause but stay in their home country? What do we do with the ISIS recruits who come home?
Why we're taking notice: Award-winning journalist Bourrie (who has written extensively about propaganda and censorship) is addressing the "why?" behind the violence of ISIS, and the question is timely. But he's also putting the issue in a historical context, examining the draw of political movements and extremism for young people throughout the twentieth century.
The Light that Remains, by Lyse Champagne
About the book: The despair of refugees has haunted us long before the civil war in Syria. Lyse Champagne's evocative new story collection attempts to put these collective and individual tragedies into a historical context.
Two Armenian sisters write to each other in the year leading up to their deportations. A young Ukrainian mother embroiders her life story as famine threatens. A boy travels to Hong Kong by train while the Japanese march towards his hometown of Nanjing. A Jewish girl collects words and falls in love as she hides in a French mountain village in 1942. A Cambodian refugee recalls his childhood in his home country and his new life in Canada on a makeshift stage. A Rwandan family prepares to emigrate days before President Habyarimana's plane is shot down.
Why we're taking notice: With a broad canvas, Champagne (an award-winning playwright and author of a memoir on growing up bicultural in Canada) reaches back across the century and around the world to find points of commonality in disparate experiences, and to write the stories that lie behind the newspaper headlines.
Magyarázni, by Helen Hajnoczky
About the book: The word "Magyarázni" (pronounced MAUDE-yar-az-knee) means "to explain" in Hungarian, but translates literally as "make it Hungarian." This faux-Hungarian language primer, written in direct address, invites readers to experience what it's like to be "made Hungarian" by growing up with a parent who immigrated to North America as a refugee. In forty-five folk-art visual poems each paired with a written poem, Hajnoczky reveals the beauty and tension of first-generation cultural identity.
Why we're taking notice: Read this interview with Hajnoczky about learning Hungarian and the integration of folk art with her poetry.
Shade, by Mia Herrera
About the book: After her plans for the future are disrupted by an unexpected breakup, Benni, born and raised in northern Ontario, seeks escape from her everyday routine by visiting her father in the Philippines—the fantastical land of ghosts and glamour that her parents described to her as a child. In the Philippines, Benni discovers that the father she adores is an alcoholic whose health is endangered by his alcoholism, and she is captivated by the luxurious lifestyle of the wealthy members of her mother's family. Canada, in comparison, is a bleak world of work, work, and more work, and Benni cannot understand why her parents ever left. Over two weeks, Benni finds much more than she bargained for: she discovers a world of poverty that supports the rich and the social restrictions that even the rich experience; she learns to value the honest, human relationships that come from seeking and reconnecting with family; and she comes to understand the importance of the stories we tell ourselves to construct and maintain our identity.
Why we're taking notice: This debut by Herrera poses provocative questions about culture and cultural identity.
Box Kite, by Kim Maltman and Roo Borson
About the book: "A piece of paper with writing on it is flat, but when what is written on that paper fills the mind of a reader, it takes off into the wind like a box kite on a windy day," writes Baziju—the shared voice of poets Roo Borson and Kim Maltman. This exquisite, collaboratively written sequence of prose poems, unfolding through rich, delicate imagery, journeys through streets and gardens, houses and temples, cities and countryside, Canada and China. It is a meditation on the way we travel between places and between times, and how words and ideas travel between languages.
Baziju explores the literature of China, from centuries past to the present, exploring, at the same time, the meaning of hope and of home: childhood homes, the homes we grow into, and the homes in our minds. In Lu Xun's classic story "My Old Home," the hero returns from a distant city to the home he left two decades earlier. Hope, he ponders, "is just like the roads of the earth. . . . [T]o begin with the earth has no roads, but where many people pass, there a road is made."
These sensual, deeply personal prose poems ponder change, loss, friendship, and belonging. In a life in which every detail has significance, the smallest observation grows, and spreads like the branches of wisteria.
Why we're taking notice: Maltman is a poet and physicist; Borson has won awards including the Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award
The Ice Diaries, by Jean McNeil
About the book: A decade ago, novelist and short story writer Jean McNeil spent a year as writer-in-residence with the British Antarctic Survey, and four months on the world’s most enigmatic continent — Antarctica. Access to the Antarctic remains largely reserved for scientists, and it is the only piece of earth that is nobody’s country. Ice Diaries is the story of McNeil’s years spent in ice, not only in the Antarctic but her subsequent travels to Greenland, Iceland, and Svalbard, culminating in a strange event in Cape Town, South Africa, where she journeyed to make what was to be her final trip to the southernmost continent.
In the spirit of the diaries of Antarctic explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, McNeil mixes travelogue, popular science, and memoir to examine the history of our fascination with ice. In entering this world, McNeil unexpectedly finds herself confronting her own upbringing in the Maritimes, the lifelong effects of growing up in a cold place, and how the climates of childhood frame our emotional thermodynamics for life. Ice Diaries is a haunting story of the relationship between beauty and terror, loss and abandonment, transformation and triumph.
Why we're taking notice: Jean McNeil is the author of ten books including four novels and a collection of short fiction. Her work has been short-listed for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Journey Prize, and she has won the Prism International prize for short fiction and subsequently for narrative non-fiction. And this new book sounds fantastic.
Death Valley, by Susan Perly
About the book: Legendary war photographer Vivienne Pink has five days to photograph servicemen about to deploy for active combat. Racing to meet her deadline, she heads to Las Vegas, where she'll capture images of men who may die the next day—and where she'll confront an abuser from her past to force a reckoning. Accompanied by her husband, a celebrated novelist, and her best friend, a former CIA spook, Vivienne heads out into the Nevada desert in search of adrenaline, vengeance and the perfect shot. Told in a vivid, hallucinogenic realism, Death Valley is a sexy, fast-paced tale that's part Pynchon, part Tarantino and so radioactive you'll need a Geiger counter.
Why we're taking notice: The premise is excellent, and will no doubt be informed by Perly's background as a journalist and war-correspondent who has worked all over the world.
All That Sang, by Lydia Perović
About the book: A visceral tale of obsession and creativity, unrequited passions and the power of music. A love story in which art is a foil to companionship, and the intellect an interlocutor of the heart.
A Toronto opera critic on assignment in Paris falls in love with the subject she's been sent to interview, France's leading female conductor. But is the attention evenly matched, is genuine connection even possible?
Perović guides us through the panorama that orbits contemporary courtship. The jilted lover, the housekeeper, the chiropractor, the manager, all take part in a chorus of voices that illustrate the unknowable creative spirit whose inaccessibility fires the writer's obsession. Reminiscent of the bold and inventive fictions of Ali Smith and Siri Hustvedt, postmodern refractions play with the reader's sense of perspective to build the persona of affection, a figure of reality and imagination that we all recognize but can never truly access.
Why we're taking notice: This is the second novel by Perović, whose first was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien
About the book: Madeleine Thien's new novel is breathtaking in scope and ambition even as it is hauntingly intimate. With the ease and skill of a master storyteller, Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations—those who lived through Mao's Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in one of the most important political moments of the past century. With exquisite writing sharpened by a surprising vein of wit and sly humour, Thien has crafted unforgettable characters who are by turns flinty and headstrong, dreamy and tender, foolish and wise.
At the centre of this epic tale, as capacious and mysterious as life itself, are enigmatic Sparrow, a genius composer who wishes desperately to create music yet can find truth only in silence; his mother and aunt, Big Mother Knife and Swirl, survivors with captivating singing voices and an unbreakable bond; Sparrow's ethereal cousin Zhuli, daughter of Swirl and storyteller Wen the Dreamer, who as a child witnesses the denunciation of her parents and as a young woman becomes the target of denunciations herself; and headstrong, talented Kai, best friend of Sparrow and Zhuli, and a determinedly successful musician who is a virtuoso at masking his true self until the day he can hide no longer. Here, too, is Kai's daughter, the ever-questioning mathematician Marie, who pieces together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking a fragile meaning in the layers of their collective story.
Why we're taking notice: This is the bestselling, award-winning Thien's first book since Dogs at the Perimeter. We look forward to discovering what she's up to now.
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