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Power of Place

A recommended reading list from the author of Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue.

Book Cover Gin Turpentine Pennyroyal Blue

I was born in northern British Columbia and raised, from toddlerhood, in a mostly rural community just south of Vancouver. Four years after my father died, my mother moved me and one of my four brothers, the youngest, to Toronto. She’d met someone—her best friend’s brother. I was 16 and as angry as a hornet about being yanked out of my blackberry and dandelion and forest world, away from my friends. (And I was not too keen on this new fellow of my mother’s either.) I’d only once been east of the Rockies; the summer I was 15 my mother had taken us on a cross-Canada camping trip in a Volkswagen van, all the way from Vancouver to St. John’s to pay homage to my father’s homeland—Newfoundland. We’d skirted Toronto on that trip, so, a year later, when I first breathed the hot, muggy summer air of that big metropolis, my 16-year-old heart was devastated. (And I didn’t know yet about the nostril-freezing winters!)

You’d think, then, that I would have high-tailed it back to BC when I dropped out of high school, two years later; at 18 I would have been old enough to make my own way, as many of us did in those days. But I stayed put. I liked Toronto. I liked my more urbane new friends, my city life. And here I am, decades later, still a Torontonian. I fell in love with Nova Scotia a few years back, and I spend as much time on the Atlantic coast as I can, but Toronto is essentially “home.”

So, why are my novels set in British Columbia? What draws me so richly back to the landscape of my childhood? Why not set my books in Ontario, in Toronto, where I have lived for nearly three quarters of my life? Surely, I know its landscape better. Many have said that the natural world in The Very Marrow of Our Bones was as rich a character as the human ones. And in Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue, my characters have a powerful connection to the land and the sea, to the wild and rough beauty of Vancouver in the 1920s. My first 16 years must have been powerfully formative; BC, I think, is the landscape I know in my body. It is the place I "feel" in my bones.


So, why are my novels set in British Columbia? What draws me so richly back to the landscape of my childhood?

I love books where "place" is a character or where it is evident that the author has felt their novel’s setting in their bones. But I’ve come to realize that ‘place’ can be more than a physical landscape, a geography, rural or urban. It can also be our own body, our psyche, our soul. A ‘home’ of sorts, or a longing for one. These books are lush with either of these, and sometimes both.


Book Cover Shapeshifters

Shapeshifters, by Délani Valin

Délani Valin’s extraordinarily evocative poetry simmers with human ache. It is a glorious soup of anger and yearning, resilience and love. And at times it boils up and over, burning us with lines that take us into the heart of the poet’s experience with identity, trauma, and societal expectations. In “Betty Crocker” she asks: “I did what I could, and I do what I can / with these standards I cannot stand: you want / quick / super-moist / easy / Now is that a woman or a cookie?” In part II of “No Buffalos,” cousins compare features in Grandma’s kitchen: “Who’s pretty? Who’s Indian?” And after experimenting with pale shades of foundation make-up, Valin ends with: “At last I let the sun pick a tint and daydreamed of embedding beaded flowers in my skin.” The body as ‘place’ is deeply felt in “Magic Lessons, V. Flight,” which describes the aftermath of a sexual assault: “I brace myself for judgment… / Why-didn’t-yous on parade.” At the end, Valin leaves us in a hopeful place: picking blackberries with her mother, dancing as they make jam, and laughing “about the ludicrous concept of being unlovable.” Among other richly deserved awards and nominations, Shapeshifters was short-listed for the 2023 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. 


Book Cover Threading Light

Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry, by Lorri Neilsen Glenn

I hardly know how to describe this beautiful book other than as a work of art by a brilliant mind. There’s that word again: evocative. I read it slowly, carefully, because every single word needed to be seen and contemplated. Part memoir, part poem, part philosophical essay, part spiritual journey, part joyful examination of why we write. Neilsen Glenn explores loss and grief, the nature of memory, our impulse to order, generosity of spirit, ageism in the literary community, “how little we celebrate foremothers,” and the importance of “the awareness of each other’s humanity.” There is so much packed into this wondrous 144-page book. The author, despite feeling “the inadequacy of language to translate pain and beauty” does just that with her words. The writing is lyrical, sharp, poetic, and sometimes funny (a hysterical piece about a weekend meditation retreat). We journey with Neilsen Glenn to the prairies, to the east coast, to Hong Kong, and other places around the world. But on rereading this book, I am reminded that Neilsen Glenn has a whole section on "place" and its wider meaning in writing. Threading Light shows us how place is so much more than just geographical.


Book Cover Soft Serve

Soft Serve, by Allison Graves

In “Stand By,” a woman asks, “Why are people in relationships?” That five-word sentence might perfectly sum up Graves’ wonderfully poignant book of short stories. I haven’t read better examples of existential angst in a long time. Teenagers and adults young and old ponder who and who not to love, where and where not to live, what to eat, who to sleep with, why Donald Trump can be outrageous and still be president. I know the physical places Graves’ characters live: Bell Island and St. John’s, Newfoundland, Halifax, Toronto, Guelph. And I know the emotional places they live as well. You will too. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t. The stories are heartbreaking and funny, sometimes in the same paragraph. I cried a few times, and I definitely laughed out loud a dozen times or more, sometimes when I possibly shouldn’t have. When a grandfather jumps off a cruise ship that his daughter has been moaning about I literally snorted. Was I meant to laugh? I felt bad. I felt bewildered. And then I realized I felt exactly the way the rest of the characters in the story—the grandfather, the daughter, and the grandson—felt: confused. Even the daughter “couldn’t figure out if the situation was funny or tragic or both.” (The grandfather hits a lifeboat and is fine, BTW.) Graves’ writing is spare and blunt and so relatable. In “Sugar,” a character says, “By the time Helen got home all the cupcakes were gone and even though I felt empty, I felt full.” These stories will leave you full, in a delicious way. Just like a soft serve ice cream.


Book Cover Clara at the Door

Clara at the Door with a Revolver: The Scandalous Black Suspect, the Exemplary White Son, and the Murder That Shocked Toronto, by Carolyn Whitzman

October 6, 1894. 18-year-old Frank Westwood answers the front door of his well-to-do family’s lakeside home in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto. Someone shoots him and flees into the night. Frank survives a few days before succumbing, during which time he describes his assailant as a “heavy-set middle-aged man in a dark overcoat and fedora” and with a thin moustache. There’s a media frenzy. An inquest, which takes a month, unearths nothing more than gossip, lies, innuendo, and unsubstantiated blame. Then, somehow, six weeks later, Clara Ford, a 33-year old working-class Black woman is arrested and tried for Westwood’s murder. Ford, who sometimes dresses in men’s clothing, confesses to the murder, but soon recants. She addresses the jury at her own trial and is acquitted. Sounds like a thrilling novel, but this story isn’t fiction. Whitzman takes us on a journey through the social history of the late 1800s in Toronto, detailing the institutionalized racism, sexism, and classism of the era, police bumbling and corruption, vitriolic newspaper wars, and the life of a woman whose story might play out in much the same way today. It’s the history book I wish I’d had when I was in school—stimulating and beautifully written about things that matter. And so intriguing. By page 18, I had already rushed to look up the cakewalk (a satiric dance developed by enslaved Black people that mimicked the mannerisms of white slaveholders; I wanted film footage; I found it), and Florence Hines (a male impersonator; I discovered a fantastic website called Drag King History), and the Magdalen Asylum in Parkdale (for unwed mothers, of course). Eventually I had to give up my rabbit-holing because I knew I’d never get to the end of Whitzman’s superb book otherwise.


Book Cover Far Cry

Far Cry, by Alissa York

There is perhaps no place so wild and lush as the northwest coast of British Columbia. I opened Far Cry, read the first page, and immediately dropped out of the reality of my big steel and glass city into the tangled green of the tiny coastal village that York has so gorgeously captured for us. The turbulent ocean from which the inhabitants of Far Cry—barely a village—earn their living, teems with life: the sleek blackfish (orcas), and gentle basking sharks, sea lions, salmon, cod, and jellyfish. And the everchanging sky, alive with the cries of gulls and eagles. We even love the stink of the outhouse and the detritus from the clanking cannery that spills into the ocean. The story is as lush as its setting. It’s 1922. Anders Viken, a Norwegian immigrant in his sixties who keeps the store in the village, is writing a confessional to eighteen-year-old Kit. Anders has known Kit since she was born; in fact, it was he who caught her as her mother Bobbie pushed her out into the world while Frank, Kit’s father, was finding help. Anders has much to tell his honorary niece. They have lugged the coffin of her father over roots and rocks in search of a spot where it can be buried. Now is the time for the truth. The slow, gentle winding out of Anders’s story of forbidden love and his deep longing for connection is heartbreakingly beautiful. And Kit, having lost her father and still mourning her mother, who has run off, must now find her own way in the world as well as a love of her own. This wonderful book has one of the most profoundly shocking and immensely satisfying endings I’ve ever read.  


Book CCover the World Before Us

The World Before Us, by Aislinn Hunter

“Don’t ask us what we think, none of us agree on anything. Start with the woods, says one. Start with the sky, says another, with the birds falling out of it, their bodies sent like arrows to earth.” Thus we are introduced to a company of spirits from another era, hovering around a sleeping woman—the present-day Jane. These still befuddled and flustered spirits were inmates of the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics in 1877, from which one of them, a woman known only as N, walked away one day and never returned. This woman’s disappearance is an eerie mirror of a tragedy that befell Jane. In 1991, when she was 15, Jane lost a child she was minding while on a walk in the English countryside near the site of the old asylum. The five-year-old, a girl named Lily, was never found. Now in her 30s, Jane works at a museum that is about to close. She is drawn back to the research of her MA dissertation. The subject: rural 19th-century asylums. She cannot find Lily; perhaps she can find N. Her ghosts are relying on her, reading over her shoulder to understand their own lives more than a hundred years ago. This is not a ghost story. Not magic realism. Hunter so seamlessly marries the stories of the inmates with Jane’s research into the asylum and the disappearance of N, that nothing seems unnatural here. Of course there would be ghosts peering over her shoulder. Hunter is the queen of ‘place’ in this novel; we smell the new litter of pigs and the wisp of air that carries “drying earth and dilly grass.” We walk through pastures and run our hand along rough stone walls or the soft back of the orange cat. We feel Jane’s wound. This book crept into my heart and stayed there. The writing is beautiful and it is so cleverly constructed. Another compelling read.


Book Cover Gin Turpentine Pennyroyal Blue

Learn more about Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue:

Four working-class Vancouver sisters, still reeling from the impact of World War I and the pandemic that stole their only brother, are scraping by but attempting to make the most of the exciting 1920s. Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue is a love story—but like all love stories, it’s complicated …

Morag is pregnant; she loves her husband. Georgina can’t bear hers and dreams of getting an education. Harriet-Jean, still at home with her opium-addicted mother, is in love with a woman. Isla’s pregnant too—and in love with her sister’s husband. Only one soul knows about Isla’s pregnancy, and it isn’t the father? When Isla resorts to a back-alley abortion and nearly dies, Llewellyn becomes hellbent on revenge, but against whom and to what end? What will it change for Isla and her sisters? For women? And where can revenge lead for a man like Llew, a police detective tangled up in running rum to Prohibition America?

Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue is immersed in the complex political and social realities of the 1920s and, not-so ironically, of the 2020s: love, sex, desire, police corruption, abortion, addiction, and women wanting more. Beautifully written, with a compelling cast of characters, this novel is a tender account of love that cannot be acknowledged, of loss and regret, risk and defiance, abiding friendship, and the powerful bonds of chosen family.

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