The Syllabus: Back-to-School Books for Grownups

Even if you're not enrolled in classes this year, these books—campus novels, literary homages, and historical imaginings—will give you that back-to-school feeling.

*****

Dubious Documents, by Nick Bantock

About the book: From the creator of the bestselling Griffin & Sabine series comes a visual epistolary puzzle posed by a mysterious character named Magnus Berlin. Readers must study Berlin's introductory note, list of clues, and 16 multifaceted notes and envelopes to decode cryptic anagrams, picturegrams, number puzzles, and wordplay. When solved, each clue reveals one word—but the rest remains a mystery.

Packaged inside a folio with a tuck-in flap cover, spine stitching, and all 16 envelopes bound, Dubious Documents is an art object, keepsake, and puzzle in one treasured volume, and a distinctive gift or self-purchase for fans of puzzles, riddles, and anyone who enjoys an exquisitely designed challenge.

Why we're taking notice: A one-of-a-kind release, and a real treat for fans of Bantock's work. 

*

The Luminous Sea, by Melissa Barbeau

About the book: A team of researchers from a nearby university have set up a research station in a fictional outport in Newfoundland, studying the strange emergence of phosphorescent tides. And Vivienne, a young assistant, accidentally captures a creature unknown to science: a kind of fish, both sentient and distinctly female. As the project supervisor and lead researcher attempt to exploit the discovery, the creature begins to waste away, and Vivian must endanger herself to save them both.

Why we're taking notice: Well, the gorgeous cover, for a start. And Sharon Bala calls the novel, "A radiant debut full of sly wit and glorious imagery." 

*

The Accidental Education of Jerome Lupien, by Yves Beauchemin, translated by Wayne Grady

About the book: Montreal student Jerome Lupien—libidinous, unscrupulous, and fresh out of university—is ambitious and at loose ends. Whether on a hunting trip into Québec’s northern woods, on an escape planned in good faith to Cuba, or seeking to make his way in Montreal, Jerome cannot help but be embroiled in misadventures and underworld escapades. He is conned by the devious — a hunting guide, a low-life car salesman, and, ultimately, a well-to-do political lobbyist profiting by the city’s infamously corrupt partnership of politicians wielding remunerative contracts and the construction firms in cahoots. The unwitting (though frequently culpable) young man is enrolled, whether he knows it or not, in an unconventional and criminal school. And the education is singular, not only for Jerome, but also the reader. The young man’s heady journey provides—as only Yves Beauchemin can do—an extraordinary, full, and trenchant portrait of Québec and the city of Montreal in all its topographical and class variety. Here is a mordant piece of social satire that is a marvelous entertainment and wonderfully traditional narrative too.

Why we're taking notice: Because it's the latest release in English by this award-winning Quebec writer. 

*

Theory, by Dionne Brand

About the book: Theory begins as its narrator sets out, like many a graduate student, to write a wildly ambitious thesis on the past, present, and future of art, culture, race, gender, class, and politics—a revolutionary work that its author believes will synthesize and thereby transform the world.

While our narrator tries to complete this magnum opus, three lovers enter the story, one after the other, each transforming the endeavour: first, there is beautiful and sensual Selah, who scoffs at the narrator's constant tinkering with academic abstractions; then altruistic and passionate Yara, who rescues every lost soul who crosses her path; and finally, spiritual occultist Odalys, who values magic and superstition over the heady intellectual and cultural circles the narrator aspires to inhabit. Each galvanizing love affair (representing, in turn, the heart, the head and the spirit) upends and reorients the narrator's life and, inevitably, requires an overhaul of the ever larger and more unwieldy dissertation, with results both humorous and poignant.

By effortlessly telling this short, intense tale in the voice of an unnamed, ungendered (and brilliantly unreliable) narrator, Dionne Brand makes a bold statement not only about love and personhood, but about race and gender—and what can and cannot be articulated in prose when the forces that inhabit the space between words are greater than words themselves.

Why we're taking notice: A new book by Brand is always a literary event—and she also just published a collection of poetry, The Blue Clerk

*

Original Prin, by Randy Boyagoda

About the book: Following a cancer diagnosis, forty-year old Prin vows to become a better man and a better Catholic. He’s going to spend more time with his kids and better time with his wife, care for his recently divorced and aging parents, and also expand his cutting-edge research into the symbolism of the seahorse in Canadian literature.

But when his historic college in downtown Toronto faces a shutdown and he meets with the condominium developers ready to take it over—including a foul-mouthed young Chinese entrepreneur and Wende, his sexy ex-girlfriend from graduate school—Prin hears the voice of God. Bewildered and divinely inspired, he goes to the Middle East, hoping to save both his college and his soul. Wende is coming, too.

The first book in a planned trilogy, Original Prin is an entertaining and essential novel about family life, faith, temptation, and fanaticism. It’s a timely story about timeless truths, told with wise insight and great humour, confirming Randy Boyagoda’s place as one of Canada’s funniest and most provocative writers.

Why we're taking notice: It's the latest from the Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated author of Governor of the Northern Province and Beggar’s Feast.

*

The Eavesdroppers, by Rosie Chard

About the book: When social attitudes researcher Bill Harcourt puts an advertisement in the newspaper for ‘listeners’ to work on an unconventional project, he anticipates that his team of eavesdroppers will discover previously untapped insights into public opinion.

But as five eager listeners begin eavesdropping in the cafes, dentist waiting rooms, public toilets, tube trains and launderettes of London, discreetly noting the details of unguarded conversations, Bill starts to notice subtle changes in their behaviour and realises he has underestimated the compulsive nature of his group. His anxiety is compounded after he receives a series of anonymous letters warning him of the dangers of his experiment.

As the group becomes increasingly intertwined in their subjects’ lives, eavesdropping descends into obsession and Bill has to find a way to rein in his increasingly unruly team before they are beyond help.

Informed by conversations collected over three years, The Eavesdroppers, by award-winning author Rosie Chard, is a dark, yet wryly humorous tale of present-day Londoners, living in a constant state of noise and crowds and eavesdroppers.

Why we're taking notice: Writer Michelle Butler-Hallett calls this book "[a] creepy ambush of a novel, unsettling and profound in its ideas and fears. One feels the weight of history and of the future; one hears a warning.”

*

The Saturday Night Ghost Club, by Craig Davidson

About the book: When neurosurgeon Jake Baker operates, he knows he's handling more than a patient's delicate brain tissue--he's altering their seat of consciousness, their golden vault of memory. And memory, Jake knows well, can be a tricky thing.

When growing up in 1980s Niagara Falls, a.k.a. Cataract City—a seedy but magical, slightly haunted place—one of Jake's closest confidantes was his uncle Calvin, a sweet but eccentric misfit enamored of occult artefacts and outlandish conspiracy theories. The summer Jake turned twelve, Calvin invited him to join the "Saturday Night Ghost Club"—a seemingly light-hearted project to investigate some of Cataract City's more macabre urban myths. Over the course of that life-altering summer, Jake not only fell in love and began to imagine his future, he slowly, painfully came to realize that his uncle's preoccupation with chilling legends sprang from something buried so deep in his past that Calvin himself was unaware of it.

By turns heartwarming and devastating, written with the skill and cinematic immediacy that has made Craig Davidson a star, The Saturday Night Ghost Club is a bravura performance from one of our most remarkable literary talents: a note-perfect novel that poignantly examines the fragility and resilience of mind, body and human spirit, as well as the haunting mutability of memory and story.

Why we're taking notice: The respective selves of Davidson and his alter-ego Nick Cutter appear to be colliding in this new novel, which is fascinating—but mostly it's on the list because, thanks to the cover, we've got serious school library paperback nostalgia 

*

The Grimoire of Kensington Market, by Lauren B. Davis

About the book: The downtown core of Toronto is being consumed by Elysium, a drug that allows its users to slip through the permeable edges of this world and then consumes them utterly. Peddled by the icy Srebrenka, few have managed to escape the drug and its dealer. But Maggie has.

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," The Grimoire of Kensington Market is the story of Maggie, guardian of The Grimoire bookstore, which expands and contracts as stories are born . . . or die. Only those who are destined to find The Grimoire enter through its front door. But one day a messenger arrives with a mysterious note that reads, "follow me." The next day, another note arrives and then another. The messages, Maggie realizes, are from her brother, Kyle, who has fallen under the influence of the Elysium. Kyle has gone too far into the Silver World and needs his sister, a recovering addict herself, to rescue him.

Driven by guilt and love in equal measure, Maggie sets off on a quest where bands of robbers stalk the woods, tavern keepers weave clouds to hide mountains and caribou fly on the Northern Lights. A journey where dreams and the dead both come to life.

Why we're taking notice: Davis' acclaimed works include The Empty Room and Our Daily Bread. We're looking forward to her latest. 

*

Book Cover Lady Franklin of Russell Square

Lady Franklin of Russell Square, by Erika Behrisch Elce

About the book: Spring, 1847, and Lady Franklin is back in London expecting to greet her hero husband, polar explorer Sir John Franklin, upon his triumphant return from the Northwest Passage. But as weeks turn to months, she reluctantly grows into her public role as Franklin's steadfast wife, the "Penelope of England." In this novel that imagines a rich interior life of one of Victorian England's most intriguing women, the boundaries of friendship, propriety, and love are bound to collide.

Why we're taking notice: Helen Humphreys calls this one "a captivating tale of transformation, beautifully told." 

*

The Abandoned, by Kyp Harness

About the book: Among the strip malls, industrial parks and overpasses of Southwestern Ontario, Tim is a young misfit with an overactive imagination and a heavy-drinking father, surrounded by bullies at school and wondering if he’ll ever be normal. He experiences first love with another high school student, Sherrie, and at the same time he meets his first friend, Russ. In pursuing Sherrie, Tim is drawn into a cult-like religious retreat, and his friendship with Russ takes a strange turn as the three teenagers confront their vanishing childhood.

Why we're taking notice: "Pen in hand, there seems to be nothing Harness cannot do." Or so said the Globe and Mail about his first novel, Wigford Rememberies. This new one is second of a trilogy. 

*

The Red Word, by Sarah Henstra

About the book: A smart, dark, and take-no-prisoners look at rape culture and the extremes to which ideology can go The Red Word is a campus novel like no other. As her sophomore year begins, Karen enters into the back-to-school revelry—particularly at Gamma Beta Chi. When she wakes up one morning on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in the state of feminist activism on campus. The frat known as GBC is notorious, she learns, nicknamed “Gang Bang Central” and a prominent contributor to a list of rapists compiled by female students. Despite continuing to party there and dating one of the brothers, Karen is equally seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women, who surprise her by wanting her as a housemate and recruiting her into the upper-level class of a charismatic feminist mythology scholar they all adore. As Karen finds herself caught between two increasingly polarized camps, ringleader housemate Dyann believes she has hit on the perfect way to expose and bring down the fraternity as a symbol of rape culture—but the war between the houses will exact a terrible price.

Why we're taking notice: A gripping campus novel rich with allusions to Greek myth? Sign us up for that class. 

*

Eye of the Beholder, by Janice MacDonald

About the book: Randy and Steve have finally tied the knot. With the snow blowing and temperatures dipping well below zero they are looking for an escape from the frigid Edmonton winter. Like so many others, they head south to Puerto Vallarta, along with a crush of University of Alberta students, looking for a goodtime during spring break. When a student is found dead in an elaborately staged scene, Randy's romantic beach walks and candlelit dinners will have to wait. Instead Randy and Steve will have find meaning in the murder to catch the culprit. If they don't, the honeymoon just might be over.

Why we're taking notice: Because it's Janice MacDonald's latest novel about Randy Craig, an itinerant academic with a nose for murder. 

*

Black Star, by Maureen Medved

About the book: Del Hanks is on the verge of academic tenure, but at forty she's also perched on the precipice of either the beginning or the end of the rest of her life.

Black Star is a dark comedy, both bitingly funny and transgressive, an unflinching and unsentimental exploration of the female experience, academia, and the idea of power that burns in the mind as white as acid. Medved's new novel is a searing critique of a world we all know too well, one of sexual exploitation, manipulation, and the subtle machinations of power that Black Star filters through the lens of academia. It is at once poetic, tragic, disturbing and funny.

Why we're taking notice: Superstar Zoe Whittall writes, "This wild novel is a powerful exploration of imposter syndrome taken to extremes and a story of how the sadistic, competitive world of academia intersects with one woman's unraveling sense of self. Suspenseful and beautifully written."

*

Lear's Shadow, by Claire Holden Rothman

About the book: On the brink of forty, Bea Rose has lost her lover, her business, and her bearings. When the opportunity arises to work on a summer production of King Lear to be staged in various parks around Montreal, she takes it, despite her utter lack of theatre experience. 

Things get off to a rocky start when Bea meets the artistic director, Artie White, a childhood friend whose presence stirs up painful memories. Then, inadvertently attracting the attentions of the play's aging star, she learns that she must tread carefully among the egos and relationships of the company. At the same time, Bea's father begins behaving erratically, and her younger sister Cara discovers cracks in the foundation of an apparently perfect life. 

The sisters do their best to care for their beloved, demanding father, but his deteriorating condition is more than they can handle. Meanwhile, the star of Lear is also faltering amidst the confusions of age, illness, and regret. When a raucous party whirls out of control, the various forces in Bea's life collide, culminating in a violent act that could destroy more than one life. But that act also reveals how lives might be united in new ways.

Tender, vivid, and powerful, Lear's Shadow is a richly satisfying meditation on love's power to bind and to liberate. It's a lyrical reminder that even in the face of grief, life's joy can be embraced.

Why we're taking notice: "Lear’s Shadow is a novel with a play-like feel to it that manages to toy with wisdom and folly, love and loss," said the Winnipeg Free Press. "It is an ambitious work which hits its mark.”

*

Paradise Lost, adapted by Erin Shields

About the book: “The biggest mistake any of us could make would be to underestimate Satan.”

The seventeenth century and present day are seamlessly intertwined as Satan vents to an audience about her frustration at being cast out of Heaven and her thoughts on oppression. When she finds out that God has created delicate new creatures called “humans,” she crafts a plan for revenge and betrayal on the Almighty.

Erin Shields turns Heaven and Hell upside down in this witty, modern, feminist retelling of John Milton’s epic poem about the first battle between good and evil. Shields’s wickedly smart and funny script questions the reasons of the universe, the slow process of evolution and the freedom of knowledge. The debate over right and wrong has never been so satisfying.

Why we're taking notice: Read about Shields, her Stratford Festival debut, and her fascination with Milton's epic poem

*

Sir John A.: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion, by Drew Hayden Taylor

About the book: An uproariously funny and sharply inquisitive new play from one of Canada’s leading Indigenous playwrights, Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion explores the possibility of reconciliation between Peoples and urgently questions past and contemporary forms of Canadian colonialism. Taylor’s twenty-seventh play, Sir John A’s characters include Canada’s infamous first Prime Minister, red-nosed and pompous, full of patriarchal contempt for those “strange and perplexing Indians,” and his contemporary accusers: two Ojibway men and a soul-searching white woman.

Bobby Rabbit, Sir John A’s irked, Anishinaabe main character, in a fit of anger and revenge, convinces his friend Hugh to accompany him on a “sojourn of justice”: to dig up Sir John A. Macdonald’s bones and hold them for ransom. Decades before, a medicine pouch belonging to Bobby’s grandfather was taken away by the staff of the residential school where he was detained. The precious object was sent to a British Museum exhibition room for conservation—and now Bobby wants it repatriated. Along the way the pair pick up Anya, a young, bright, and opinionated woman fleeing a bad breakup, with conflicting ideas about Sir John A’s place in Canadian history. Not to be left out of the argument, Canada’s first Prime Minister, broadcasting live from nineteenth-century Ottawa, shows up with opinions of his own.

Why we're taking notice: Because at this moment when not erasing history is of paramount importance, let us keep the conversation going with the work of this award-winning playwright. 

September 6, 2018
Books mentioned in this post
The Blue Clerk

The Blue Clerk

Ars Poetica in 59 Versos
edition:Hardcover
More Info
The Red Word

The Red Word

A Novel
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary
More Info
Black Star

Black Star

edition:Paperback
tagged : literary
More Info
Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost

adapted by Erin Shields
introduction by Paul Stevens
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
More Info
Sir John A.

Sir John A.

Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion
edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian
More Info
Sir John A.

Sir John A.

Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion
edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian
More Info
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