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Sensational Settings: Sometimes Hero, Sometimes Villain

A recommended reading list by author of new book Stargazer.

Book Cover Stargazer

My newest book, a dark campus novel, Stargazer, features two girls in the 90s at a remote college campus, Rocky Barrens University, set in the woods in Ontario cottage country. A delicate, slow-burning portrait of privilege, fame, art, and ambition, the novel’s backdrop is the weather, seasons, and landscape of Muskoka. Here, I’ve listed my favourite Canadian books where place feels not only like a character, but a central one: sometimes the hero, sometimes the villain.


Book Cover French Exit

French Exit, by Patrick deWitt

French Exit follows Frances Price and her son, Malcolm (as well as Small Frank, a cat embodied by Frances’ dead husband), as they depart New York City as disgraced and broke socialites, and embark on a trip by cruise ship to a new life in Paris. New York, the ship, and Paris feature in a kind of collage of meals and drinks, farces and emotional casualties. The range of characters who populate these scenes are emblematic of both the absurdity of deWitt’s wild talent, and of the places themselves. I read French Exit in New York City, and felt like I saw both a Frances Price as well as a Small Frank at every corner as easily as I could imagine them drifting drunkenly across the ocean.


Book Cover Washington Black

Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

Edugyan’s third novel and second Giller win, Washington Black follows young Wash from a plantation in Barbados, overseas in a hot air balloon, to Virginia, London, and Morocco. Edugyan’s exquisite writing and brilliant imagination makes the world seem both enormous, unfathomable, but also small—describing plant life and weather of each place. The heat of Virginia, the sandstorms of Morocco, the plantation from whence it began, and the beauty of Wash’s drawings all came alive. I read this book on a plane, and lifted my eyes often, marveling of the gifted world building that leapt off the pages.


Book Cover Montreal Stories

Montreal Stories, by Mavis Gallant

Mavis Gallant’s stories are like sinking into another’s life in a dream. There is something so familiar, intimate, and yet compellingly voyeuristic about Gallant’s stories. There is a melancholy loneliness but also a fierce and defiant spirit to them, and her hometown features so largely as to be not just Canadian, but specifically a particular experience of Montreal—Gallant’s Montreal—in culture, religion, class, and gender. They are soothing and discomforting, and the writing is so beautiful to be a kind of imaginative balm for the soul.


Book Cover When We Lost Our Heads

When We Lost Our Heads, by Heather O’Neill

Speaking of Montreal and imagination, I must include my latest favourite novel from master storyteller, Heather O’Neill. O’Neill’s Montreal in her latest book is a late 19th century playground of two diametrically opposed girls over the course of their lifetimes as best friends and enemies, competitors and fierce defenders. Think My Brilliant Friend as a kind of confectionary of horror drawn out in a children’s fable. O’Neill here is characteristically unflinching; by the line this book is beautiful, and page-by-page, the plot is a fantastical and compelling adventure.


Book Cover Sea of Tranquility

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel

When there is time travel involved, place becomes somewhere new in every revisiting. In St. John Mandel’s newest marvel, readers travel by steamship, airship, and time travel device, to deep woods and moon colonies, and we are reassured to discover that families are troubled and estranged and loyal in every version of history. People are delicate, frightened, and curious in this fine novel, connected by many knotted threads. There is not only a masterful approach to plot here, but a warm attention to characters and the places in which they live their lives. Her best yet.


Book Cover Galore

Galore, by Michael Crummey

My favourite Michael Crummey novel is Galore. It is wild and magical and full of preposterous and yet somehow conceivable leaps of the imagination. I heard Crummey speak about it once, on how he’d been reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and was struck by how Newfoundland is a place built on stories of superstition and myth not unlike the magical realism of Marquez. In Galore, we meet a man born in the belly of a whale, and this is just one of the fanciful wonders of the wild landscape inhabited by generations of complicated characters who have crises of faith, fall in love, wreak havoc on the lives of one another, and paint the colourful stories of their lives. 


Book Cover Butter Honey Pig Bread

Butter Honey Pig Bread, by Francesca Ekwuyasi

This book made me hungry. Place reveals itself in this big-hearted novel in the loving descriptions of food in a mother’s kitchen in Lagos. Every description of the sensory manifestation of family, of coming together in places of love and familiarity in order to begin to heal fractured relationships and past traumas, was a delight. Twin sisters, Kehinde and Taiye, return home, as their mother, Kambirinachi, comes to terms with her own trauma and fears, alongside those of her daughters. The past is told by Ekwuyasi alongside the present, and the book explores love, community, and family, and the in-depth descriptions of making the food of your home for those you love was like drawing a map of places and time.


Book Cover Empire of Wild

Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline

There is both a love and fear of the woods in Dimaline’s Empire of Wild. The book will fill you with unease, inspire you with the heart, and keep you fiercely rooting for the heroes until the end. Inspired by the Métis story of the Rogarou, a wolf creature who doubles in this novel as a darkly charismatic religious leader, the book is wholly sensorial and sensual. The well-crafted descriptions turn the woods into a place of comfort and treachery that you can smell and feel in your beating heart as the characters take one step deeper into the trees and towards their destinies.


Book Cover Stargazer

Learn more about Stargazer:


It's a fine line between admiration and envy.

Diana Martin has lived her life in the shadow of her sadistic older brother. She quietly watches the family next door, enthralled by celebrity fashion designer Marianne Taylor and her feted daughter, Aurelle.

She wishes she were a 'Taylor girl'.

By the summer of 1995, the two girls are at university together, bonded by a mutual desire to escape their wealthy families and personal tragedies and forge new identities.

They are closer than lovers, intoxicated by their own bond, falling into the hedonistic seduction of the woods and the water at a remote university that is more summer camp than campus.

But when burgeoning artist Diana has a chance at fame, cracks start to appear in their friendship. To what lengths is Diana willing to go to secure her own stardom?

The lines between love, envy and obsession blur in Laurie Petrou's utterly enthralling, unceasingly tense new novel. A darkly compelling coming-of-age story, perfect for fans of Donna Tartt's The Secret History or Emma Cline's The Girls.


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