The Recommend for July 2019

Research shows that 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 Arthur Slade (Amber Fang), Heather Smith (The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota's Garden), Jules Torti (Free to a Good Home: With Room for Improvement), Marie-Renée Lavoie (Autopsy of a Boring Wife), and Jennifer Robson (The Gown).

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Arthur Slade recommends The Absence of Sparrows, by Kurt Kirchmeier

There is something both stark and beautiful about The Absence of Sparrows by Kurt Kirchmeier. It is stark because the storyline doesn’t pull any punches, but beautiful in its depiction of the relationship between two brothers and the rest of the family in a time of extreme danger and hardship. The main idea of the story is that storm clouds have appeared on earth and they create glass storms—storms that turn individuals to glass. This “unbelievable” idea is presented with Hitchcockian clockwork precision. There is never a moment where you don’t believe the fabulist nature of the story. The novel depicts with clarity how a small town and the world changes as, storm by storm, the adults are turned to glass and the main character and his brother are forced to face what is essentially an apocalyptic event. What do you do when the mayor is turned to glass? The preacher? A family member. And what happens if they shatter? To add to the mystery ravens appear with each statue and the sparrows have vanished. The main character, a birder, must figure out what these birds know. 

The Absence of Sparrows hits all the right notes of fear, heroism and what it’s like to be coming of age in a surreal world. This debut middle-grade novel is one of those books that is easily read and appreciated by both adults and young readers.

Arthur Slade lives in Saskatoon and is the author of over twenty novels for younger readers. His work has won the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award and the Governor General's Award. His latest book is Amber Fang. Strangely, he does all of his writing on a treadmill desk.

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Heather Smith recommends A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott

I don’t usually reach out to authors on social media but a few chapters into A Mind Spread Out on the Ground and I was tweeting Alicia Elliott the following: "If I was to highlight every insightful and moving passage in this book the entire thing would be fluorescent." And it was true. As a mostly fiction reader, I often feel intimidated by works of nonfiction but Alicia Elliott manages to present her deep and thoughtful subject matter in a very accessible way—the sign of a truly gifted writer. Elliott’s writing is also generous. Her acknowledgement of other great Indigenous writers such as Waubgeshig Rice, Eden Robinson, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Cherie Dimaline is not only gracious, it serves as an essential reading list for the reader.

Elliott’s essays explore many important subjects such as colonialism, racism, mental health, and sexual assault. She takes the reader on a journey, threading the various themes together while giving the reader space to connect the dots and come to their own realizations. I had many lightbulb moments while reading this book. To say it’s an important work is an understatement.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is insightful and compelling. It’s also incredibly brave. Through her raw, honest, and deeply personal essays, Elliott gives us the opportunity to open our hearts and minds. With a deft hand she guides us to an oft-neglected window and compels us to take in the view, a view that’s not always pretty but is one that every Canadian should see.

Originally from Newfoundland, Heather Smith now lives in Waterloo, Ontario, with her family. Her Newfoundland roots inspire much of her writing. Her middle-grade novel, Ebb and Flow, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award, and her YA novel The Agony of Bun O'Keefe won the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children's Book Award and was shortlisted for the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award and the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People. Heather's latest picture book, The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota's Garden, illustrated by Rachel Wada, is inspired by the true story of the wind phone in Otsuchi, Japan, which was created by artist Itaru Sasaki. After the tsunami in 2011 destroyed the town of Otsuchi, claiming 10% of the population, residents of Otsuchi and pilgrims from other affected communities have travelled to the wind phone to speak to their lost loved ones.

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Jules Torti recommends Joy Davis’s Complicated Simplicity

Complicated Simplicity is a thorough exploration of the oft romanticized ideal of being an islander. Joy Davis visits seasoned residents in BC's Pacific Northwest over the course of two summers and illustrates the magnitude of the decision to "go island." Who knew you needed to be a full-time meteorologist, seaman, hack carpenter, medic and constant entrepreneur? I appreciated her pragmatic musings on the chosen "lifestyle"—is it one of escape, prestige, simplicity? What becomes most lucent is this: feared or revered, the isolation of an island can become too close for comfort—that's for sure.

Jules Torti, author of Free to a Good Home: With Room for Improvement, writes about the best things in life: birds, beer, beaches, burgers and books (in no particular order). Her work has been published in the Vancouver Sun, the Globe and Mail, Mabuhay, Coast Mountain Culture Magazine, Matador Network, Massage Therapy Canada and Canadian Running. She contributes regularly to Realtor’s blog, Living Room, and is currently the editor in chief of Harrowsmith magazine. In other lives she has made breakfast for chimpanzees, illustrated colouring books for the Jane Goodall Institute, won a flight to Costa Rica in an essay contest and had short stories published in a dozen lesbian anthologies.

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Marie-Renée Lavoie recommends And the Birds Rained Down, by Jocelyne Saucier, translated by Rhonda Mullins

And the Birds Rained Down is the story of a group of old people who find themselves together in the forest, their heads full of sweet and not-so-sweet memories. With no regard for spending their final moments constrained by government and convention, they are determined to live out the rest of their days on their own terms. This timeless story, told through Saucier’s deft pen, is pure and jubilant anarchy. In fact, as part of the Prix littéraire des collégiens, college students across Quebec – 18- and 19-year-olds for whom death is many, many years away – selected And the Birds Rained Down in 2013 as the book of the decade! The men share a death pact which helps them break free of convention and also functions as a message of hope: at its core, the book is a meditation on love. A wonderful read for those who haven’t already, with an upcoming film adaptation (September 2019) played by some of our most young-hearted old actors.

Marie-Renée Lavoie is the author of three novels, including Mister Roger and Me, which won ICI Radio-Canada’s “Battle of the Books”—the Quebec equivalent of “Canada Reads”—and the Archambault Prize. She lives in Montreal, where she teaches literature at Maisonneuve College. Her latest novel is Autopsy of a Boring Wife, a poignant and funny tragicomedy about a 48-year-old woman whose husband has left her.

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Jennifer Robson picks Michael Kaan’s The Water Beetles

I first read The Water Beetles, Michael Kaan’s debut novel, earlier this year, and was astonished by the calm and measured clarity of his prose, the depth of feeling he brings to his narrative, and the assurance with which he presents the point of view of his hero, 12-year-old Chung-Man. The story has its origins in Kaan’s grandfather’s experiences of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and mainland China during the Second World War, but it is far more than a straightforward retelling of one boy’s struggles and suffering. Kaan never resorts to brutal descriptions of the very real horrors of the occupation, and his narrative is all the more powerful and affecting for it. With delicacy, precision, and no small amount of grace, Kaan illuminates a corner of the deadliest war in human history, and ably demonstrates the worth, the weight, and the enduring significance of our shared past.

Jennifer Robson is the author of five novels set during and after the two world wars: Somewhere in France, After the War Is Over, Moonlight Over Paris, Goodnight from London, and most recently The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and children, and shares her home office with Ellie the sheepdog and her feline companions Sam and Mika.

July 25, 2019
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