Shelf Talkers: Spring 2021

tagged : Shelf Talkers

One of the best pieces of news in an otherwise dark year was the word that, despite the growth of online giants during the Covid-19 pandemic, independent bookstores were not, in fact, at death’s door. More than holding their own, they were thriving.

If you were surprised by this news, you shouldn’t have been.

Independent booksellers have always been a breed apart, used to shifting on their feet, bouncing back in the face of adversity, bobbing and weaving as the world rains blows down upon them. They’re smart, and nimble, able to turn on a dime, to embrace change, to make the most of negative situations.
And they do it without a lot of recognition, without a lot of reward. They do it because they love it, because they feel a deep connection to their communities, to their customers, and to the books they sell.

And they never hesitate to do more.

Here, once again, are the independent booksellers of the Shelf Talkers panel, with some recommendations. Please, call your local indie. Drop by, and say hello. Buy a book.

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The Bookseller: Susan Chamberlain, The Book Keeper (Sarnia, ON)
The Pick: Jonny Appleseed, by Joshua Whitehead

CBC’s Canada Reads has spoken, and we are all to read Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, so I did. Joshua Whitehead delivers an impressive debut novel. Jonny, who self-identifies as a two-spirited Indigiqueer, is living off rez in the big city of Winnipeg when he receives news of his stepfather’s death. He has one week to put his cybersex skills to work to raise the money to return to the rez to be with his mother for the funeral. Whitehead packs that one-week time span with a young man’s lifetime of heartache and trauma and wisdom and love.

Jonny’s Kokum gives him the love and acceptance he needs to find his footing in the world and in his culture. His relationship with his mother is complicated by the devastating effects of alcohol abuse but always rooted in love; she refers to Jonny as m’boy. Tias is Jonny’s life-long best friend and lover. Together Jonny and Tias support and heal each other physically and emotionally. I look for and deeply appreciate novels written by poets; their discerning use of language is something that I relish as a reader. I found myself snapping pictures (I would never highlight or underline a book!) of sentences and paragraphs that I found particularly meaningful. I am very impressed by Joshua Whitehead’s talent in this first novel and I look forward to seeing what Whitehead will bring us next.

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The Bookseller: Christie Shaw Roome, Salt Spring Books (Salt Spring Island, BC)
The Pick: I’m Afraid of Men, by Vivek Shraya

“I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me to fear the extraordinary parts of myself.”

There is so much to learn by listening to the voices of trans people where feminism and gender identity are concerned. Vivek Shraya gives us a very accessible, pointed and impactful analysis of both toxic masculinity and the more subtle, yet still harmful, masculine traits embodied by so called “good men.”

Shraya also talks about the ways in which gender roles are both confining and prescriptive when she tells the story of a boy who spat on her while his girlfriend watched and giggled. In this story and others, Shraya’s perspective as a trans woman of colour is an imperative addition to the body of work that centres gender, race and sexuality. 

This book is comprised of memory snapshots, like Polaroids spread out on the coffee table. Memories that stand as a testimony to Shraya's experience of having to police her behaviour to make others—both men and women, both queer and straight—more comfortable. As a cis-gendered, white, bisexual woman, I found this book is highly relatable. Its only flaw is that it felt short, and I wanted more.

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The Bookseller: Shelagh Fitz of Blue Heron Books (Uxbridge, ON)
The Pick: The Woman in the Attic, by Emily Hepditch

A "claustrophobic psychological thriller.” It is not simply set on the Rock but serves as an assault on all the senses, making you feel you are in the old, dilapidated Salt Box house. And you, as much as protagonist Hannah, need to get out of the house, to feel the salt spray on your skin and breathe some fresh air. But like Hannah, you are urgently drawn back in because you need to know the secrets held within. Winner of 2021 Newfoundland Reads!

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The Bookseller: Shelley Macbeth of Blue Heron Books (Uxbridge, ON)
The Pick: Speak, Silence, by Kim Echlin

Echlin, once again, does not disappoint. She writes beautifully, lyrically about an extraordinarily difficult subject. Her poet's lens allows her to examine a 'sisterhood' created by shared acts of violence. Set against the backdrop of war-torn Yugoslavia in the 90's, and the subsequent trial in The Hague establishing rape as a war crime, she has crafted a monument to the resilience of women.

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The Bookseller: Massy Books (Vancouver, BC – the traditional, ancestral, unceded, and occupied territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations)

The Picks: Undoing Hours, by Nehiyaw iskwew Selina Boan

Nehiyaw iskwew Selina Boan's much-anticipated debut collection Undoing Hours, published by Nightwood Editions, embeds her own (re)learning of nehiyawewin into the tension of memory embodied. Boan's poetry is simultaneously metaphysical, operating onto the supposed laws of time, and also quotidian—solitary, seemingly insignificant moments intersect with the webs of expansiveness built across time and place. You will find comfort in this collection, and desire to turn to the constellations of warmth it contains time and time again.

A Short History of the Blockade, by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Over the past year, as much of the cyclical motions of our world ground to a halt, Indigenous-led land and water defense actions continued to enact multiple forms of care, organizing, and world-building. Centuries of settler-colonialism, as is tied to capitalism, have painted such actions as damning, abhorrent interruptions of the ever-extracting modes of production.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's A Short History of the Blockade, firmly rooted in Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg cosmologies, visualizes the expansive and infinitely generative creations of blockades through genre defying stories of our relative, the beaver—or in Nishnaabemowin, Amik. Although tactical for nation-states to consider blockades as simple refusals, Simpson shares with us, in her own Nation's worldview, something many of us have often felt: worlds created separate from colonization may refuse legibility and provide complex ethos attuned to all creation.

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n Good Relation, edited by Sarah Nickel & Amanda Fehr

In Good Relation gathers a critical and urgent collection of artistic, scholarly, and activist voices orient around the notion of “generations” to detail the complexities, contradictions, and potentialities of an "Indigenous feminism." Building upon the necessary work of earlier scholars, this anthology resists any moves to cast Indigenous feminisms as reductionist or reactive, and instead maps the emergent network of connectedness across divergent Indigenous philosophies and materialities. This is sure to be considered a fundamental text, not for simply understanding the realities of Indigenous peoples—particularly femmes, Two-Spirit, women, and gender diverse people—but for realizing powerful and brilliant futures.

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The Bookseller: Chris Hall of McNally Robinson (Winnipeg, MN)
The Picks: The Crash Palace, by Andrew Wedderburn

An enjoyable road novel set in the Canadian Rockies. Audrey Cole becomes the driver for a band of has-been rockers, a road that eventually ends at the Crash Palace. A few years later she finds herself compelled to return, threatened by a different kind of crash.

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The Centaur’s Wife, by Amanda Leduc

A novel that interweaves fairy tales with a realistic story of a catastrophe that threatens humanity. While the humans struggle to survive, the natural world continues to thrive and a group of centaurs who had stayed hidden all this time summons the courage to reappear.

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Return of the Trickster, by Eden Robinson

The third in her Trickster Trilogy, Robinson continues the story of Jared Martin who just wants to be a normal teenager but is swept away into a violent and chaotic supernatural world when he discovers that he is a Trickster. These are highly energetic, fun, and profound novels.

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The Bookseller: Erin Kirsh, Iron Dog Books (Tsleil-Waututh, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and Musqueam territories - Vancouver, BC)
The Pick: The Guests of War Trilogy, by Kit Pearson

Kit Pearson's The Guests of War Trilogy is a young adult historical fiction series that centers around a highly memorable pair of British siblings, the wilful Norah and gentle Gavin, who are sent away from their family for safety at the beginning of World War Two. They wind up living with the wealthy and eccentric Ogilvies in Toronto's Rosedale area. The series follows the siblings as they adjust to the loneliness and culture shock of a new country, come of age, and grapple with the reality of a violent war being waged in their home country. British parents making the impossible choice to send their children away for better odds of survival is a heartbreaking and seldom-discussed chapter of World War Two. Kit Pearson beautifully explores the nuance and emotionality of this narrow slice of history from the perspective of two remarkable characters that have stayed with me for decades.

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The Bookseller: Liz Greenaway, Audreys Books (Edmonton, AB)
The Picks:

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Morena-Garcia

Mexican Gothic tips its hand in the title: it's a taut, suspenseful and very gothic read that grabs you early and really never lets you go. Noemi is sent to the countryside to check on her newly married cousin. What should be an ordinary visit turns into anything but as Noemi meets the inhabitants of the house. Highly recommended.

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Accidentally Engaged, by Farah Heron

Anyone who has read Heron's The Chai Factor knows she can write lovable real characters with humour and heat. She revisits a character from that book here as she creates a delightful romantic comedy featuring a Muslim woman who fakes an engagement to the boy next door in the hopes of winning a couples cooking contest. But what is the boy hiding? And why do her parents keep meddling in her life?

It's terrific.

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The Bookseller: Jan Lindh,  Mulberry Bush Book Store (Parksville, BC)

The Pick: The Memory Collectors, by Kim Neville  

Two women can both “sense” the emotional connections left behind in the objects of others.  For one, it’s a source of joy, for the other a source of pain. For fans of Charles de Lint’s Newford series, Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus and Ten Thousand Door of January By Alix Harrow. A story of magical realism which contains great darkness, but also hope and unexpected community.

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The Bookseller: Lee Trentadue, Galiano Island Books (Galiano Island, BC)
The Pick: Stung, by William Deverell

Deverell’s aging lawyer Arthur Beauchamp—pronounced “Bee-Chem”—is engaged to fight environmental causes in his own stomping grounds on a west coast island and on a more global scale to defend a young eco-terrorist and her co-conspirators in Toronto for their part in an attack against a global and corrupt company which is producing a substance that is killing bees. Fans of Deverell’s Beauchamp novels will not be disappointed. His cast of characters, humour and environmental themes are all here.

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The Bookseller: Michelle Berry, Hunter Street Books (Peterborough, ON)
The Pick: Kill the Mall, by Pasha Malla

This is a wildly strange, almost supernatural book, by the talented Canadian writer (author of Fugue States), Pasha Malla. Kill the Mall has been called a “madcap work of horror-fantasy—a cutting critique of consumer culture as embodied in the fading local mall.” It is narrated by a man who writes a letter in praise of Malls and this letter wins him a residency at a mall that is falling apart and empty and creepy. His full-time job is to write a weekly progress report about the people who come to the Mall and the people who work there—he's a bizarre Mall-Anthropologist. He’s witty and weird and eccentric and the mall becomes gradually stranger, to the point that it seems, eventually, to be run by human hair. The whole book is like some wild nightmare/dream. Funny, and also extremely, uncomfortably odd. A Twin Peaks kind of experience.

May 7, 2021
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