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BC in Eight Books and Seven Genres

A recommended reading list by the author of the new book The Other Valley.

Book Cover The Other Valley

My novel The Other Valley takes place in a speculative world, but I borrowed its physical landscape from the places I grew up: the lush valleys and shrub steppe of the Southern Interior, and the windswept northern hills of the Peace River Country. After transforming this province’s geography into an otherworldly setting, I wanted to make a reading list focused on the actual place where I live. Here are eight recent books set in the mostly unceded territory we colonially call British Columbia: a memoir, a scholarly history, a story collection, two works of poetry, and three different genres of novel.


Book Cover Five Little Indians

Five Little Indians, by Michelle Good

Let them think I drowned,” vows Kenny, kicking off his daring escape from the residential school that will haunt each protagonist’s life across Michelle Good’s gripping debut. These five survivors are children when they’re abducted by the Canadian government, and children, too, when they’re discharged and left to fend for themselves. Good’s novel follows them as they reconnect in the aftermath of their abuse and explores their attempts to overcome it. Their paths cross most often in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a place of danger and resilience, but Good’s canvas is wide, taking the reader south through the Okanagan and across the border as the character Clara becomes involved with the American Indian Movement. For a novel spanning multiple decades, Five Little Indians is timely. It was published shortly before radar searches began uncovering the many gravesites at former residential schools—gruesome corroboration of crimes that attracted worldwide media attention and prompted a new national reckoning. Beyond its political stature, however, the book’s storytelling is simply superb: page-turning, clear-eyed, and humane.


Book Cover Invisible Boy

Invisible Boy: A Memoir of Self-Discovery, by Harrison Mooney

A few days after he was born to a teenage mother, Harrison Mooney was adopted by a white family in the Fraser Valley, where he would be the only Black person in his household and, for much of his childhood, in his fringe evangelical church. Mooney’s examination of his trans-racial adoption and religious indoctrination is a skilful tonal balancing act, mixing pain with no small amount of cringey humour, but its signature characteristic is unsparing honesty. With searing rigour he addresses his adoptive parents and white readers; with compassion and frankness he addresses his birth parents and his own younger self. Invisible Boy is a memoir whose revelations build like a twisty thriller. The third act will leave you gasping.


Book Cover The Long Walk

The Long Walk, by Jan Zwicky

Every summer the sky over BC is filthy with smoke. It starts earlier in the spring, it lingers into the autumn, and when at last it clears, the light is a mercy but the drought persists through the cold. Jan Zwicky’s collection The Long Walk begins with a poem entitled “Courage:” “You must look, heart. You must look.” The book both enacts and interrogates the practice of looking. Staring into the face of ecological ruin is sometimes exhorted, and sometimes despaired over (“Loyalty to what / insists on seeing this?”). Zwicky acknowledges, too, the difficulty of comprehending the scale of the damage—yet unflinching seeing is The Long Walk’s dominant mode. There is a furious urgency in these poems to match their subject matter, punctuated with images of speechlessness and stupefaction: “The present / is thick-lipped and stunned; it sweats. The voice / of the century is a wild clanking, a loose stink that lifts / and settles in our mouths.” Or: “Near is the hard grief … the grief that is tearless, that gags.” Part of witnessing, though, is retaining sensitivity to the beauty that exists “Even now, even now.” Zwicky dwells on “the great weight of the firs” and “the light / cartwheeling off the snow,” and it’s in the quiet beauty of these moments, as much as in the horror and frenzy, that the depth of our loss is felt. The Long Walk is a work of profound moral clarity: of rage and mourning and apocalyptic grace.


Book Cover Mass Capture

Mass Capture: Chinese Head Tax and the Making of Non-citizens, by Lily Cho

Between 1885 and 1953––the period encompassing the “head tax” on Chinese migrants and later an effective ban on any new Chinese immigration—the Canadian state created and enforced a system of mass surveillance utilizing the novel invention of identification photos. The tens of thousands of surviving “CI 9” (Chinese Immigration 9) short-term travel certificates, which mostly record migrants’ passage through the ports of Victoria and Vancouver, are the subject of Lily Cho’s genre-defying study. At first glance, the CI 9s might seem like proto-passports: they feature a picture, a name, and a date of birth (as well as aliases, known associates, birthmarks…). But passport holders are citizens. By contrast, Cho argues that the CI 9s were instrumental in constructing the category of non-citizenship on which modern Canadian citizenship relies. Mass Capture lays out this argument convincingly but doesn’t stop there. Cho’s main goal is to read between the lines of an invasive, racist archive and uncover stories of resistance, refusal, subversive fraud, and forms of kinship that go beyond family. On the way, she weaves history together with photography, affect theory, Asian Canadian cultural studies, museum studies, and more. A fascinating, poignant, highly original work of scholarship.


Book Cover Not that Kind of Place

Not That Kind of Place, by Michael Melgaard

Murder mysteries are replete with detectives whose private traumas compel them to solve cases as proxies for their own healing. Michael Melgaard’s “anti-mystery” presents an alternative: what if a case so traumatized its investigator that he refused to investigate it? The novel’s would-be detective is David McPherson, whose sister Laura was murdered as a teenager in the fictional Vancouver Island town of Griffiths. Around the twenty-year anniversary of the crime, David is approached by journalists and podcasters attempting to enlist his help in finally solving it. He has no interest in talking to any of them. But David is reluctantly drawn into his own investigation, where progress is made not by participating in the true crime popcorn complex, but rather by confronting the misogyny, white supremacy, and top-down class warfare of his hometown. Told in the brisk, ultra-lean style of Melgaard’s short story collection Pallbearing, Not That Kind of Place has a gut-punch ending that’s impossible to see coming.


Book Cover Frehs Pack of Smokes

Fresh Pack of Smokes, by Cassandra Blanchard

Near the end of Cassandra Blanchard’s debut is a poem called “Clean”: “I’ve had so much excitement, if you can call it that, in my life that I won’t mind if the rest of my years are simple and quiet.” From a sober distance, Fresh Pack of Smokes appraises Blanchard’s time on the streets of Vancouver. It’s a recollection of addiction and sex work and domestic violence, but more than anything else, of surviving “this thing called life, this sadness carried through time.” In each prose poem composed of one long sentence, Blanchard creates marvels of measured observation, her unfurling syntax steering the reader down dark alleys and haunted hotel corridors. The result is harrowing but hard to put down. The book balances shattering anecdotes with mordant advice (“the path of the thief is not something I would recommend”), and punctuates agony with charming anachronisms (“bejesus,” “nervous Nelly”). Many pieces are heartbreaking, like the chronicle of exploitation that concludes simply: “she was my first girlfriend.” But if there’s one descriptor for this collection, it’s elegiac: “you will meet the worst of the worst and learn how cold hearts can be, but there are also those who still have humanity and it’s those people I remember the most.”


Book Cover Sea of Tranquility

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel

To punish him for criticizing British colonialism, the wealthy family of eighteen-year-old Edwin exiles him to the western edge of the Empire. Victoria in 1912 is a stuffy, distasteful place: “a far-distant simulation of England, a watercolour superimposed unconvincingly on the landscape.” A restless Edwin travels up-island looking for wilderness, but he finds the reality of it menacing. Things get more disorienting when he wanders into the brush and has a hallucinatory vision: he feels as though he’s entered a different place entirely, a giant station reverberant with violin music. When he comes to, he’s vomiting on a nearby beach, and there’s a stranger in the tiny village who seemingly came out of nowhere. Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility covers a lot of ground––even if you don’t count the lunar colony—but it all comes back to a grove in the salal brambles of Vancouver Island.


Book Cover Beggar's Gardens

The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie

A decade before his magisterial eco-epic Greenwood, Michael Christie’s early collection of scruffy, sad, and savagely funny short stories remains a standout of fiction set in the Downtown Eastside. If you took George Saunders’s blend of humour and pathos but turned the dial from madcap absurdism to social realism, you might get a tone like that of The Beggar’s Garden, a book teeming with idiosyncratic voices that are rendered with tenderness. Christie’s first-person narrators are special highlights. In “Emergency Contact” and “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” desperate characters describe living on the margins with unapologetic honesty. And in “The Extra,” a story whose central friendship echoes Of Mice and Men, Christie skewers Vancouver’s vicious inequality, where impoverished background actors wear futuristic rags on the set of a post-apocalyptic movie that’s filming a few blocks away from the contemporary dystopia they call home.


Book Cover The Other Valley

Learn more about The Other Valley:

For fans of Emily St. John Mandel, David Mitchell, and Kazuo Ishiguro, an exquisite literary speculative novel set in an unnamed valley, where bereaved residents can petition to cross a forbidden border to see their lost loved ones again.

Sixteen-year-old Odile Ozanne is an awkward, quiet girl, vying for a coveted seat on the Conseil. If she earns the position, she’ll decree who among the town’s residents may be escorted deep into the woods, who may cross the border’s barbed wire fence, who may make the arduous trek to descend into the next valley over. It’s the same valley, the same town. But to the east, the town is twenty years ahead in time. To the west, it’s twenty years behind. The only border crossings permitted by the Conseil are mourning tours: furtive viewings of the dead in towns where the dead are still alive.

When Odile recognizes two mourners she wasn’t supposed to see, she realizes that the parents of her classmate Edme have crossed the border from the future to see their son while he’s still alive in Odile’s present. Edme—who is brilliant and funny, and the only person to truly know Odile—is about to die. Sworn to secrecy by the Conseil so as not to disrupt the course of nature, Odile finds herself drawing closer to her doomed friend—imperiling her own future.

Masterful and original, The Other Valley is an affecting modern fable about the inevitable march of time and whether or not fate can be defied. Above all, it is about love and letting go, and the bonds, in both life and death, that never break.

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