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Bookish Novels

By kileyturner
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As if it's not enough to write a book, some authors even feature books within their books as a main plot hinge. Because some of us love a little book in our book...


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As recently as two years ago, when I was twenty-six, I dressed in ratty jeans and a sweatshirt with lettering across the chest. That’s where I was. Now I own six pairs of beautiful shoes, which I keep, when I’m not wearing them, swathed in tissue paper in their original boxes. Not one of these pairs of shoes costs less than a hundred dollars.

Hanging in my closet are three dresses (dry clean only), two expensive suits and eight silk blouses in such colours as hyacinth and brandy. Not a large wardrobe, perhaps, but richly satisfying. I’ve read my Thoreau, I know real wealth lies in the realm of the spirit, but still I’m a person who can, in the midst of depression, be roused by the rub of a cashmere scarf in my fingers.

My name is Sarah Maloney and I live alone. Professionally -- this is something people like to know these days -- I’m a feminist writer and teacher who’s having second thoughts about the direction of feminist writing in America. For twenty-five years we’ve been crying: My life is my own. A moving cry, a resounding cry, but what does it mean? (Once I knew exactly what freedom meant and now I have no idea. Naturally I resent this loss of knowledge.)

Last night Brownie, who was sharing my bed as he does most Tuesday nights, accused me of having a classic case of burn-out, an accusation I resist. Oh, I can be restless and difficult! Some days Virginia Woolf is the only person in the universe I want to talk to; but she’s dead, of course, and wouldn’t like me anyway. Too flip. And Mary Swann. Also dead. Exceedingly dead.

These moods come and go. Mostly Ms. Maloney is a cheerful woman, ah indeed, indeed! And very busy. Up at seven, a three-kilometre run in Washington Park -- see her yupping along in even metric strides -- then home to wheat toast and pure orange juice. Next a shower, and then she gets dressed in her beautiful, shameful clothes.

I check myself in the mirror: Hello there, waving long, clean, unpolished nails. I’ll never require make-up. At least not for another ten years. Then I pick up my purse-cum-briefcase, Italian, $300, and sally forth. Sally forth, the phrase fills up my mouth like a bubble of foam. I’m attentive to such phrases. Needful of them, I should say.

I don’t have a car. Off I go on foot, out into a slice of thick, golden October haze, down Sixty-second to Cottage Grove, along Cottage Grove, swinging my bag from my shoulder to give myself courage. Daylight muggings are common in my neighborhood, and I make it a point to carry only five dollars, a fake watch, and a dummy set of keys. As I walk along, I keep my Walkman turned up high. No Mozart now, just a little cushion of soft rock to help launch the day with hope and maybe protect me from evil. I wear a miraculous broad-brimmed hat. The silky hem of my excellent English raincoat hisses just at knee length. I have wonderful stockings and have learned to match them with whatever I’m wearing.

“Good morning, Dr. Maloney,” cries the department secretary when I arrive at the university. “Good morning, Ms. Lundigan,” I sing back. This formal greeting is a ritual only. The rest of the time I call her Lois, or Lo, and she calls me Sarah or Sare. She’s the age of my mother and has blood-red nails and hair so twirled and compact it looks straight from the wig factory. Her typing is nothing less than magnificent. Clean, sharp, uniform, with margins that zing. She hands me the mail and a copy of my revised lecture notes.

Today, in ten minutes, Lord help me, I’ll be addressing one hundred students, ninety of them women, on the subject of “Amy Lowell: An American Enigma.” At two o’clock, after a quick cheese on pita, I’ll conduct my weekly seminar on “Women in Midwestern Fiction.” Around me at the table will be seven bright postgraduate faces, each of them throwing off kilowatts of womanly brilliance, so that the whole room becomes charged and expectant and nippy with intelligence.

Usually, afterwards, the whole bunch of us goes off for a beer. In the taproom on Sixty-second we create a painterly scene, an oil portrait -- women sitting in a circle, dark coats thrown over the backs of chairs, earrings swinging, elbows and shoulders keeping the composition lively, glasses held thoughtfully to thoughtful lips, rolling eyes, bawdiness, erudition.

They forget what time it is. They forget where they are -- that they’re sitting in a taproom on Sixty-second in the city of Chicago in the fall of the year in the twentieth century. They’re too busy talking, thinking, defining terms, revising history, plotting their term papers, their theses, and their lives so that no matter what happens they’ll keep barrelling along that lucent dotted line they’ve decided must lead to the future.

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Why it's on the list ...
Winner of the 1988 Arthur Ellis Award for crime-writing, Swann attempts to puzzle together the life of fictional poet Mary Swann whose writing was only discovered after her violent death. Told from the perspective of Swann’s biographer, a Swann academic, a librarian and a small-town newspaper editor, the story’s climax takes place at a Mary Swann symposium where the characters (and their separate perceptions of who the artist was) finally meet face-to-face.
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Bedtime Story

Bedtime Story

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David’s eyes gleamed as I set the package on the coffee table in front of him. I had wrapped it in the comics pages from last Sunday’s paper, the way my mother used to wrap all my birthday presents.
“I wonder what this could be,” he said, bouncing the package in his hand, teasing me.
“Only one way to find out.”
Jacqui was clearing the far end of the table, stacking the cake plates, crushing the torn wrapping paper into a Thrifty Foods bag.
“It feels like a book,” he said, running his fingers around the edges of the package.
“From your father?” Jacqui asked. “How odd.”
David giggled as he tore at the paper. He looked up at me when he saw the leather cover and a corner of a faded, silver-embossed seal, and I smiled. He pulled the rest of the paper off with a flourish, no longer able to bear the excitement.
Then his face fell.
“Oh,” he said, turning the book over in his hands. “To the Four Directions,” he read, furrowing his brow. “By Lazarus Took.”
I forced myself to keep smiling. Jacqui shook her head and plucked the comics in which I’d wrapped the book to tuck them away.
“He’s a good writer,” I said, leaning toward him. “I haven’t read this one, but I used to read his books when I was your age.”
He looked down at the book, then back at me.
“You’ll like it,” I said, hopefully. “There’s a quest, and—”
“Is it as good as Lord of the Rings?” He ran his fingers over the silver seal on the cover.
“It’s—it’s different.”
I probably should have expected this reaction. I probably should have bought him a copy of The Lord of the Rings, like he wanted.
“What do you say to your dad?” Jacqui prompted.
“Thanks, Dad,” he said weakly, coming over for an obligatory hug.
“You’re welcome,” I whispered into his hair.
“And this one’s from me,” Jaqui said, placing the last box on the table.
Separate gifts for David. Something else I’d never expected.
Under the bright paper was the box from David’s latest pair of sneakers. She had taped the edges of the lid down, and David grinned as he tore at them. There was nothing forced about his reaction as he worked the box open.
“A new glove,” he practically shouted. “Thanks, Mom!” He almost knocked her over with his hug.
“You’re welcome,” she said breathlessly, ruffling his hair. “I got some oil as well. It’ll need to be broken in.”
He looked at the glove, studying every stitch and seam. “Rob Sterling says that if you put a ball in it and put it under your mattress it helps.”
“Sounds like that would make it pretty hard to sleep,” I said, as lightly as I could.
They both ignored me.
“You can do that,” Jacqui said. “We’ll look up some other ideas on the computer.”
“Cool,” David said, before spontaneously throwing his arms around her again. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too, Davy,” she said, looking at me over his shoulder.
“Can we go out and have a catch?” he asked her, bouncing on the couch.
“Sure we can,” Jacqui said without hesitation. “Just a quick one, though. You don’t want to be late for your game.” He was already wearing his jersey.
David bounced to his feet and started toward the front door. He stopped partway and looked back at me.
“Do you want to come too, Dad?”
Both of them waited for my response.
“Not right now,” I said, feeling a little raw from his disappointment. “I’m gonna finish cleaning up in here. Maybe later, though.”
He didn’t look surprised, or particularly disappointed. Clearly he’d expected that answer.
Minutes later, listening to the sound of leather on leather through the front windows, I crumpled the last of the wrapping paper into the plastic bag and took it and the stack of plates into the kitchen. When I came back, I picked up the book, riffled through the pages.
Seeing it through Davy’s eyes, it really didn’t look like much: just a novel, no movie or videogame connection, nothing he could talk about at school. And it was used, at that: someone had written their name on the inside of the front cover.
Not much of a present for an eleventh birthday.
I turned the book over in my hands.
It was a thick hardcover, bound in brown leather, with a ding in the upper right corner, where it looked like someone had dropped it. The round symbol on the front cover was faded silver, with a band of strange lettering, almost Arabic-looking, circling a star in its middle. Within the star was another circle, which looked like it had been red at one time, but the colour had faded, leaving just a rusty mark against the brown leather.
The symbol also appeared, in miniature, on the spine of the book, separating the title from the author’s name.
To the Four Directions.
Lazarus Took.
I had found the book at Prospero’s on my way for my weekly lunch with Dale the week before. I had had to look twice at the spine when I first saw it: I had never seen a Lazarus Took hardcover before. The four books I had read had all been paperbacks: this was something new. Well, not new—the copyright page read: Alexander Press, 1951.
Turning to the first chapter, I couldn’t help myself: with the first sentence it was like I was eleven years old again, reading in the apple tree or the hayloft at my grandparents’ place in Henderson.
“I’ll get a beating if I am late to the stables,” Tamas complained. But that didn’t stop him from following Matthias through the winding alley in the dark.
“You worry too much, Tamas,” Matthias said. “You have time for a little food. The stable-master will be asleep for hours yet. Besides,” he said, hopping over the short wall into the back garden of The Mermaid. “I would be more worried about my mother.” Matthias flashed his best friend a sly grin.
“Oh, I am,” Tamas muttered, heaving himself over the wall. He almost fell on a stack of discarded bottles.
“Shush. We don’t want to wake—”
The water hit Matthias in the face as the back door swung open, soaking him from head to foot.
“What—?” he sputtered.
“Oh, I am sorry,” Mareigh, said, smiling sweetly. “I thought you must be a thief. No respectable person would be stealing through the yard at this hour of the night.” She passed the bucket to Arian.
Matthias tried not to stare at the serving girl.
“And you, Tamas, what are you looking at?” Mareigh demanded, glaring past her sopping son, hands on her hips. “Does your mother know where you are?”
“She knows I am with Matthias.”
“Sad thing for a mother to give up on her son like that.” She stepped back from the door. “Well, come on,” she said. “You’re better off inside. Someone has come looking for you.”
Matthias glanced at Arian, but she was already busying herself at the stove. He sat down at his usual spot at the table, Tamas across from him.
“So, would either of you know why I had Zekariah and Jarrett and their friends pounding at the door an hour after closing?”
Matthias hid his hands, with their scraped knuckles, on his lap.
“He said he was looking for you, son of mine,” she said. “And he seemed to have fewer teeth than when he was gracing us with his custom earlier.”
He tried not to look at Tamas, not wanting to give anything away, but his mother noticed something in his expression. “What did you do?” she asked, sounding defeated.
“Nothing,” he said. As Arian leaned past him to set cups on the table he became almost dizzy from her closeness, the sweet smell of her.
His mother brought her hand down on the table with a hard smack. “This is not funny,” she said. “If there are people looking for you in the middle of the night, I should at least know why.” She turned to his friend. “Tamas?”
Matthias almost groaned.
“There was a fight,” Tamas said quickly.
“And I suppose they had it coming.”
Tamas risked a nervous glance at Matthias, and Mareigh caught the look.
“Matthias,” she said, her voice dropping sternly.
“He did have it coming,” Matthias said weakly.
Arian had stopped her work, holding a cloth in one hand as she listened, ready to spring into movement should his mother happen to look her way.
“These are customers,” she said, not waiting for him to explain. “They put the bread on our table, and a little coin in our pockets.”
He looked at Arian again. His mother always claimed poverty, but one as poor as she claimed to be didn’t have a servant like Arian to jump at her every command, to keep the bar and the taps in the tavern shining. And she was the only woman to own one of the taverns on the island, close to the castle, safe behind the walls.
She sighed heavily. “You know what you need to do.”
“I won’t,” he said.
“You will,” his mother stressed, in the voice that had settled hundreds of tavern fights. “You’re fifteen years old—when are you going to learn there are consequences to your actions? You will give them a few hours to sleep off the worst of it and then you will apologize.”
“I will not,” he said, pushing back from the table. “They had no right—”
“Matthias, they are our livelihood.”
“And that gets them as much ale as they can buy. It doesn’t give them the right—”
Again his mother turned to Tamas. “What did they do?”
Tamas sank on the bench. “You know how they get when they are in their cups. Joking and bragging.” He glanced at Arian, who was making a good show of wiping the counter. “They started in on Arian. Saying she would make a good wife. Someone to come home to. And then Jarrett said that there was no reason to marry her, when you could just pay her by the hour.”
As Tamas spoke, Matthias watched Arian, the long, slow stretches of her arm with the cloth, the way the raven hair that escaped from her kerchief fell over one eye.
He and Tamas had been drinking at a table close by, had heard every word the fat drunkard had said about Arian, every piggish laugh that his friend had given in response. Arian had kept her head down, her eyes averted, but he had seen the scarlet on her cheeks.
He had almost come to his feet when Jarrett’s clumsy paw circled her waist and tried to pull her close. But Arian moved lightly away, made off to the kitchen, to safety.
Both men laughed, and Jarrett said, “It’s more fun when you have to chase them a little.”
That decided it for Matthias. He slapped Tamas’s arm as the two drunks left. Tamas did not even try to argue—he had seen that look in Matthias’s eyes before, and he followed his friend out the door.
They trailed behind Zekariah and Jarrett for a while, putting some distance between them and the tavern. They each picked up a good-size chunk of wood from in front of the butcher’s shop, and when the two men staggered into the noxious alley behind, Matthias simply nodded at Tamas.
The drunks were leaning into the alley wall, looks of hard concentration on their faces as they pissed, trying to keep their balance.
“So,” Matthias said, and both men started. “You think it’s funny to mock a bar girl, do you?”
With a glance between them, Zekariah and Jarrett straightened up, fumbled with their belts, and pulled themselves to their full height. “And what are you, then? Her prince come to her rescue?”
Jarrett laughed. “Looks more like the bastard cur of that tavern wench, come for a beating.”
His laugh faded when he saw the wood in the boys’ hands.
The fight was quick and dirty, and left the two men in sodden heaps in the muck of the alley.
“Is that true?” his mother’s question jarred Matthias out of his reverie, but she wasn’t talking to him. She had turned to confront Arian.
The girl paused a moment, not able to meet the older woman’s gaze. Finally, she nodded.
“You should have told me,” she said, in a voice as close to understanding as Matthias could ever recall hearing. “I would have taken a round or two out of them myself. You need never tolerate that, do you understand?”
Arian kept her eyes on the ground, looking more uncomfortable with the sympathy than she would have been with Mareigh’s temper.
Tamas sighed and deflated a little, obviously relieved.
Matthias, though, knew that it was not yet over.
“And as for you,” his mother said, rounding on him. “What business is it of yours if some customers have a little fun at the expense of the help?”
“She was—”
“That is her business. And mine. It has nothing to do with you.”
She took a long look at his face, and he willed himself to be stony, to give nothing away. But she had seen something. And she did not like what she saw.
A furious pounding at the front door seemed to shake the whole tavern.
“Open in the name of the King.”
“Matthias,” Mareigh whispered hoarsely, turning toward the front room.
“Mother, I didn’t . . .”
She shook her head. “I’ve told you your temper was going to be the end of you.” She looked at the serving girl, who shrank under her gaze, and back at Matthias. “You’ve brought this down on all of us.”
He could barely breathe.
Mareigh tied on a fresh apron. “I’ll get the door, and pretend that I don’t know exactly why they’re here. You two”—she looked at Matthias and Tamas—“take the back door. Don’t go home,” she said sternly to Tamas. “They’ll be looking for you as well. Find a place, maybe on the shore, to wait this out.”
Matthias was stunned; the idea of running from the King’s Men had not occurred to him, and now to have his mother suggest it . . .
“Go,” she snapped, pushing her way through the swinging door into the tavern.
He didn’t move. What was she doing? She had worked so hard to build this place, and now she was suggesting that he run. It could ruin her. If anyone even suspected that she had helped in his escape, the Royal Fiat that allowed her to run the tavern on the island, inside the walls, would disappear like a night of drink. How could he have been so stupid?
But then he looked upon Arian, and he realized that he’d really had no choice. He would do it all again, and damn the consequences.
Her eyes were wide and dark, shining against her ivory skin. She was looking at him as if she was about to cry.
Tamas tugged at his sleeve. “Matthias, come on,” he whispered frantically.
He could hear his mother shouting, “All right, all right, give a poor woman a chance . . .”
Matthias wanted to go to Arian, to say something to comfort her, but there was no time.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s go.”
They ran out the back door and retraced their steps, again not bothering with the gate. It seemed like hours since they had tumbled over the stone wall. This time they pushed themselves over it—
—and into a small group of King’s Men, facing them in an orderly row.
Waiting for them.
The captain of the King’s Men stepped forward. “I command you halt, in the name of the King.”
The soldiers lowered their halberks toward the boys, backing them against the wall with the gleaming metal blades, then herded them into the tavern kitchen.
Mareigh was already sitting down, her hands on the table in front of her. Arian was sitting beside her; she bit her lip as Matthias walked through the door.
More of the King’s Men stood surrounding the table, their halberks at their sides.
When Mareigh saw her son, her face fell.
They had caught him anyway.
“Matthias,” the captain said, grasping the boy’s sleeve. “Take a chair.”
Matthias shook off the captain’s grip, then stumbled as the captain pushed him onto the bench across from his mother. How did the captain know his name?
The captain turned to Tamas. “You, boy.” Tamas wilted under his gaze. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the stables?”
Tamas looked blank at the question, then nodded.
“Then I suggest you hie yourself over there and not give the master further cause for a whipping.”
Tamas barely hesitated. Matthias watched his friend race out the back door—it was only right. Following the men from the tavern, the beating in the alley—it had all been Matthias’s fight. It was better that Tamas avoid the consequences.
And given the number of King’s Men gathered in the kitchen, the consequences would be dire indeed. He tried not to think of the stories he had heard of the dungeons, buried deep within the castle. The stories of men who went in and never came out.
The captain stepped to the head of the table, and with both hands lifted the bronze helmet from his head. His hair was long, damp with sweat. He had bright blue eyes and a short, well-trimmed beard.
He set the helmet carefully on the table, and nodded toward Matthias’s mother.
“Good morning, Mistress Mareigh,” he said.
“And to you, Captain Bream.” Matthias’s mother met the captain’s gaze and held it.
Matthias looked between them: his mother knew this soldier? Matthias had seen him in the street on occasion, but he wasn’t one of the soldiers who frequented The Mermaid’s Rest.
Arian shuddered next to him, close enough to touch.
“I trust you are well,” the captain said.
Mareigh looked pointedly at the men ringing the kitchen. “I’ve had better mornings.”
Matthias flinched at his mother’s tone. He expected the captain to lash out at her, with either words or, more likely, his hands.
Instead, he looked at the guards. “Gentlemen,” he said.
At the single word, the men broke rank and filed out through the swinging door.
“They’ll wait in the tavern,” he said. “Out of sight. I am aware that the sudden appearance of the King’s Men can be bad for business.”
Mareigh nodded. “I appreciate that.”
“We’re here about your son,” he said, turning to look at Matthias.
Matthias pushed back from the table, starting to rise to his feet. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean to, but I couldn’t . . .” He glanced at Arian, then back at his mother. “My mother, she told me to wait here while she answered the door, but I was scared so I ran.”
The captain listened to him, his face set in a dark scowl that broke, surprisingly, into a smile. “What are you talking about, boy?”
The question stopped him. “About what happened this morning.”
The captain took a satchel from one of the men. He tossed the bag as if it weighed nothing, but it landed on the table in front of Matthias with a heavy smack.
“About Zekariah and Jarrett.”
“That is none of my concern. There are clothes in there. Boots. You’ll need to clean up.”
Matthias glanced at his mother; she seemed as puzzled as he.
“Clean up,” the captain repeated. “The Queen has summoned you.”
The sound of the door slamming brought me back to myself. Davy’s footsteps were already fading into the house, up the stairs toward his room. Jacqui was standing in the doorway, her keys in her hand, her purse under her arm.
“You’re not coming to his game?”
It wasn’t really a question, and I didn’t answer. I just closed the book slowly.
She shook her head. “You should have bought him The Lord of the Rings.”
She walked away before I could say anything.
Mareigh swept aside the heavy curtain and stepped into Matthias’s sleeping room without warning. He hurriedly finished pulling the new shirt over his head.
“I’m worried for you,” she whispered, so as not to be overheard by the guard at the foot of the narrow staircase.
Matthias was scared too, more than he would let his mother see. His insides had turned to water when the captain delivered his summons, and the feeling was only getting worse.
“You know the captain?” he asked.
“Captain Bream,” she said. “He served with your father.”
“But . . .”
She squeezed his arm so tightly it hurt. “Stop,” she said firmly. “We don’t have much time.”
He pulled his arm away from her and took a step back. His legs pressed against his low bed.
She moved closer to him. “You have to be careful,” she whispered. “The Queen . . .” She shook her head as if she had decided something. “She gets what she wants.”
Of course she gets what she wants, she’s the Queen. He didn’t dare say so; his mother’s face was white and taut.
“I’ll be all right,” he whispered, though he feared the words were a lie.
He hugged his mother close, holding her tight until Captain Bream called for him from the tavern below.
“Be careful,” she said, as he started down the stairs.
The captain looked at him appraisingly as he descended. “That will have to do, I suppose.”
Matthias had hoped to see Arian one last time, but the captain led him directly into the street, where the King’s Men formed a tight circle around him. There was nowhere for him to turn, no way for him to run, and he fell into step with them as they led him away, up the sharp rise of the island, toward the castle.
“Are your teeth brushed?” I asked, up to my elbows in soapy water. “Nolan fed?”
“Yup.” He was already in his pyjamas, and his face was red and shiny from a recent encounter with a washcloth.
“Okay. I’ll be up in a sec.”
I finished the dishes and opened a bottle of red wine, leaving it on the counter to breathe as I went upstairs to read David his story.
Jacqui and I passed on the stairs: she was coming down after kissing David good-night. I tried smiling at her, but her face displayed the same stony rigour she had maintained since dinner.
I tried to put it out of my mind before I got to David’s room.
Davy’s bedtime was my favourite part of the day, and we had stumbled into it by accident. When Jacqui had gone back to work at the ER after her maternity leave, we had talked about the importance of consistency and routine. Knowing how crazy her schedule was going to be—shifts all over the map, on-call so often—we had decided that it would be best if bedtime were my domain.
It worked for me, too. I was at home, busy with the new book, and finding routine was essential for both my writing and my sanity.
At first it had been easy. Babies don’t need much of a bedtime routine. As Davy got older it became more involved: fights about tooth-brushing, constant negotiations for extra time, arguments about TV shows.
That was before we discovered reading together.
Standing in front of the bookshelves beside his door, my back to him, I asked, “So, what shall we read tonight?”
“Daaaad,” he said, drawing out his exasperation. Playing along.
“All right . . .” I slid the hardcover of The Hobbit off the shelf and carried it over to the chair beside the head of his bed.
He was already nestled under the covers. Nolan the hamster was running merrily in his wheel.
The bookmark was leather, rough-cut and almost rectangular, with faded, painted letters, some of them backwards, that read, “To the best Dad in the world.” He had made it for me for Father’s Day when he was six, and we used it in all of the books we read together.
“We’re getting pretty near the end of this,” I said. “We’ll have to figure out what to read next.” I didn’t want to be the one to suggest the book that I had given him, still sitting on the coffee table in the living room.
The Lord of the Rings?” he asked. Again.
We had watched part of The Fellowship of the Ring on DVD, the parts before it got too violent and gory, and he had been wanting to read the book ever since.
“We’ll see,” I said measuredly. “Those are some pretty meaty books, so we might want to wait for a bit.”
He pouted deliberately.
“There are plenty of good books out there.” Not hinting. Not really.
David had always been a reluctant reader, only doing his Language Arts homework under duress. We learned why when he was eight and his teacher sent him for some testing: dyslexia. Reading was a struggle for him, and since then we had done everything we could to make it easier.
But our nightly ritual wasn’t about work, or learning, it was all about pleasure.
“Dad,” he said tentatively, before I could start. “None of my friends get a bedtime story every night.”
“Darren Kenneally says stories are for babies.”
“Do you think he’s right?”
He shook his head.
“Good. Because I know for a fact that he’s wrong.”
“Because you write stories. For grown-ups.”
I smiled. “Right. And you know what? Darren Kenneally doesn’t know what he’s missing.”
His face brightened.
After that he was quiet for so long that I was about to start reading when he said, “Dad?”
“When am I going to be too old for you to read to me?”
The thought brought a thickness to my chest. “Someday. That’s up to you.” Hoping silently that day would be a long time coming.
He watched me carefully for the first few minutes I was reading. Every time I looked up our eyes would meet, and he would grin a little and press himself deeper into the pillow. After a while he turned onto his back, folded his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. His breathing slowed.
He never fell asleep when I was reading, but he always closed his eyes. Once when I asked him why, he explained, “When I close my eyes I can see what you’re reading. It’s like a movie inside my head.”
Although it took more than an hour, we finished The Hobbit that night; there wasn’t really a good place to stop in the last few chapters.
I was slipping the book back into the space on the shelf by the door when he said, “Lord of the Rings next?”
I turned back to him, setting the bookmark on the edge of the shelf. “Maybe,” I said, trying not to sound hurt. “We’ll have to see.”
He snuggled more deeply under the covers. “Okay.”
“Time for sleep now, though.”
“Sweet dreams,” I said as I stepped into the hallway. “Happy birthday.”
I left the door open a foot or so, the way he liked it.
The soldiers marched Matthias quickly toward the castle, their boots echoing off the cobbles and the stone walls. Few people were out so soon after sunrise, but those who were gave the men wide berth, stepping into gutters or doorways to let them pass.
He gasped when they rounded the corner and the castle came into view.
The castle gates were closed.
For as long as he could remember, the gates had stood open, guarded, but swung wide onto the broad castle boulevard, the gardens within, and the towers that always seemed to shine against the blue sky. People would come and go freely. But this morning the entrance was blocked with towering wooden doors braced with iron.
Matthias stumbled slightly when Captain Bream stopped at a narrow iron door cut into a shallow recess in the castle wall, a short distance from the gates. The captain tapped three times on the door, and an eye-slit opened. The eyes behind the door surveyed them carefully, and after a moment a tumbler chunked into place and the door opened.
Matthias peered into the narrow opening, expecting to see the castle grounds on the other side of the wall. Instead, there was a dim tunnel, lit with torches, sloping into the depths of the castle. Armed guards stood inside.
“Come on,” the captain said, directing him through the door.
Matthias’s heart jumped into his throat as he stared ahead, his mind filled with his worst imaginings of the castle dungeons.
The captain dismissed his men, and they swung the heavy iron door shut as they left. The captain took a torch from one of the guards and started down the hallway.
Matthias followed silently, the torchlight wavering on the walls. The tunnel angled downward for a while, the walls growing damper, the air thick. Men stood guard at the openings of other tunnels, and they straightened as the captain passed.
Then the tunnel began to climb. In time, the air became fresher, cooler. The walls and the floor dried. Matthias had lost track of how long they had been walking when they came to a sudden stop at a dark archway, covered by what seemed to be a heavy curtain.
The captain pushed his torch into a bracket on the wall, then led Matthias through a barely noticeable seam in the middle of the curtain.
No, not a curtain, Matthias realized as he passed through it: a tapestry.
He found himself in a wide corridor, flanked on one side by a row of tapestries down the length of the stone wall through which he had just passed, and on the other by a series of high windows. A breeze blew cool from outside.
Matthias stopped in the middle of the corridor. The captain turned to him. His face was hard, and his mouth opened to speak, but he stopped himself.
Matthias was overwhelmed, and confused. To go from the backroom of the tavern to the heights of the castle . . .
He looked first at the wall.
The tapestries were all about the kingdom. He was standing in front of a weaving of his home: the island at the mouth of the Col River with the walled lower city rising toward the castle, and on the shore, Colcott Town. The next tapestry over was a battle scene, soldiers fighting, and falling, the Sunstone crest bright on their standards. One soldier was rising from his mount, driving his sword deep into the chest of a Berok warrior, the blade piercing the bearskins the savages wore instead of armour.
He took several steps toward the windows and looked down, first, on the castle and its gardens, then, beyond the castle wall, on the narrow streets of the lower city winding down to the protective wall at the shoreline. From this direction there was nothing but the sea beyond the outer wall; if the corridor had been on the other side of the castle, he knew, he would have been able to see Colcott Town on the shore.
“It is difficult to tell how far you’ve walked in the tunnels,” the captain said. He looked toward the windows. “Or how high you’ve climbed. Only the royal chambers and the battlements are above us now.”
The royal chambers? Matthias glanced down the hallway at the huge double doors, the pair of guards standing in front of them. His heart thrummed in his chest.
“The Queen’s receiving rooms. Come.”
The guards pushed the doors open as they approached.
Inside, the heady smell of spices and flowers and perfumes filled the bright, sunlit air. Without warning, the captain fell to one knee, bowing his head so it almost rested on his other knee.
“My Lady,” he said.
Not having any idea what else to do, Matthias copied the soldier. He didn’t dare look up. His stomach lurched, and he trembled with fear.
“Rise.” The voice, rich and melodious, had come from the far end of the room.
Matthias waited until Captain Bream started to his feet before he stood up. He kept his eyes fixed to the floor, knowing better than to look on the Queen unbidden.
“Come,” said the voice, and Matthias followed Captain Bream forward.
He glanced about surreptitiously, curious about his surroundings. The room was large, but seemed cozy, with tapestries on the walls, low couchettes in the corner, carpets over much of the floor.
He couldn’t help but look up.
The Queen was the most beautiful woman Matthias had ever seen, with long dark hair and pale skin that seemed to shine in the light. She reclined on a low divan on a raised stone platform, a small bowl of dried fruit and a goblet close to hand.
“Y-yes, Your Majesty,” Matthias choked.
“Has Captain Bream told you why we bid you come?”
He shook his head, conscious of every motion. “No, Your Majesty.”
He tried to look away as she stood up. Her blue-grey gown trailed behind her as she stepped down carefully from the platform.
“You’re here because we need you, Matthias,” she said, close enough that he could smell the sweetness of her breath.
He almost jumped when she reached out and took his hand, holding it warmly between her own.
“The kingdom needs you.”
When I got down to the kitchen, I poured Jacqui and me each a glass of wine. As I carried the glasses and the bottle into the living room, I pictured myself passing the glass to Jacqui, reminding her of what we had been doing eleven years ago right now, the night that David was born. I imagined a moment of shared history, of tenderness.
She had been flicking through channels, but she turned the TV off as I set her glass on the end table next to her.
She didn’t say anything.
“Davy’s to bed,” I said as I sat down. Anything to break the silence.
She picked up her glass.
“We finished The Hobbit.”
I wished she had left the television on, for the noise, the distraction. I lifted my glass toward her.
“Eleven years,” I said.
She smiled a small, sad smile, and sipped her wine.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Odds were the answer was going to involve me somehow, but I couldn’t bear the silence, the feeling of things hanging in the air.
She shook her head. “It’s the same old stuff,” she said dismissively. “Is it really worth getting into it, all over again?”
I could feel myself deflating. “Okay.”
“I mean, seriously, Chris. You couldn’t even be bothered to come to his ballgame? On his birthday?”
“And that book. It’s like you don’t even know him. You spend more time with him than any other dad I know spends with his kids, and it’s like it doesn’t even register.”
“That’s not—”
“Do you even know who Rob Sterling is?”
She was so quick with the question, I knew that she had been waiting to use it. And I couldn’t answer.
“I didn’t think so.” She shook her head and looked away. “He’s his coach, Chris. Coach Sterling. David talks about him every day. Do you even listen?”
I leaned forward on the couch. “Of course I listen.”
“Really? Then why didn’t you get him what he wanted for his birthday? Instead, you get him that . . .” She nodded toward the book on the coffee table. David had taken all of his other gifts upstairs to his room.
“He’s going to like it,” I said, aware even as I was speaking the words that they weren’t going to make any difference. “When I was a kid—”
“Exactly,” she said, so loudly I almost flinched. “That’s exactly it, Chris. When you were a kid. This isn’t about you. This is about David. It’s his birthday. And you couldn’t even be bothered—”
“Right,” I said, leaning forward to set my wineglass on the coffee table and pick up the book. “You’re right.” I stood up. “It’s probably not worth getting into it all again. I’m gonna go.”
“Chris,” she said to my back as I turned out of the room, but I didn’t respond.
I walked through the house and out the back door. I navigated the narrow path in the spill of light from the kitchen window and unlocked the door in the back of the garage.
He sat up slowly, listening to the faint sound of his parents’ voices as they rose up the stairs, drifted through the partly open door.
After a few moments, the voices grew louder, not really shouting but definitely upset. It was impossible to ignore them, to tune them out. He couldn’t make out actual words, just a texture of voices raised in anger.
Biting his lip, he stood up and walked across the room, careful to be quiet. He closed his door fully, and darted back to bed in the dark, pulling the covers up to his chin and burying his head in the pillow.
He could barely hear the voices, now.
I’m not gonna cry, he told himself. I’m not gonna cry.
The narrow staircase was dim with the light from my desk lamp, which I left on from four in the morning until I went to bed. In the shadows of the small kitchen, I filled a glass with vodka from the bottle in my freezer. I set the glass on top of the morning’s pages and sat down at my desk.
Why did it always have to go so bad so fast?
I pulled my cigarettes out of my pocket and set my lighter on the desk next to this morning’s work. The engraving caught the light. After tapping a cigarette out, I put it to my lips, savouring the feel of it there, its light presence.
For a long time, I had allowed myself a single cigarette each day, just before I turned in. It was a holdover from my days as a smoker, and was supposed to be a reward, a way of recognizing a good day’s work, a capstone to a productive time. Now, I was smoking compulsively again, my hands shaking as I flicked the lighter, as I held the flame to the paper waiting for that subtle crackle.
As I drew in the first smooth lungful of smoke, I ran my thumb across the lettering on the lighter.
Coastal Drift
Christopher J. Knox
Spring 2000
The Zippo had been a gift from my Canadian editor. He had lit my cigar with it at the launch party for my first book, then handed it to me with a broad grin and an arm draped drunkenly across my shoulders.
“To the first of many,” he had toasted me.
“Right,” I muttered to the memory, throwing the lighter onto the desk and taking a healthy swallow of the icy vodka. It chilled all the way down, and when the burn hit my stomach I shivered.
That had been a perfect night: my life was on track, unfolding as I had always dreamed it would. My novel was just out, and already on the best-seller lists. Jacqui and I had just bought the house, and every time I met her eye across the crowded bar, she smiled. The future was wide open.
And this was where it all led: me sitting in what once had been my office over the garage, trying to ignore the bed in the tiny adjoining room. There had been no more books, no more launch parties. And, over the last couple of years, precious few of those smiles from across the room.
I sat quietly for a moment, watching the shadows of the smoke play along the desk in the pool of golden light. As I opened David’s book to where I had left off—since I had started reading it, I’d been sneaking in a few pages whenever time allowed, and when it didn’t—I deliberately kept my back turned to the bookcase next to the desk, the top shelf with the different editions of Coastal Drift, the second shelf stuffed with bulging notebooks, stacks of loose-leaf, battered files. Ten years in the life, waiting for a match.
It felt like the floor had tilted beneath his feet. Matthias couldn’t think, could barely breathe, with the Queen so close to him, holding his hand, staring into his eyes.
“Let us sit,” she said, turning him toward a cluster of divans and chairs against the wall.
“That’s better,” she said, a smile of comfort softening her face as she settled on a divan. “Sit.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Matthias said as he sat, not sure of how to speak.
“Comfort is a fine, fine thing,” she said, almost to herself. “Save for the price that must be paid.”
Her smile disappeared as she looked at Matthias again. “Five days ago, the watchtowers fell. Three of them. All under cover of a single night. The Berok have taken them.”
Matthias stole a glance at Captain Bream; the man’s face was hard and still.
“Our most feared enemy is at the borders of the kingdom, less than two days’ ride from the city. From this castle—” She broke off as handmaidens entered the room with wine.
Matthias’s mind reeled: the Berok?
Matthias and Bream waited while the maidens tasted from each cup before serving them, and then until the Queen had taken a sip before they drank. The wine was cool and strong.
“The King has brought you here today,” the Queen said, “because we think you can help.”
Matthias bit back a protest. He knew only tavern fighting, and all he knew of the Berok were the stories his mother had told him when he was a boy. The country to the north was the stuff of myths and children’s stories, of blood-thirsty warriors and epic betrayals. Surely there was nothing he could do. He drowned the words he was tempted to say with another swallow of wine, knowing better than to argue with the Queen.
“I know you believe there is nothing you have to offer,” she said, seeming to read his thoughts and expression. “But others think differently. Loren,” she called, barely raising her voice.
From a doorway at the far end of the room a man appeared, a long, grey beard falling to the middle of his chest. Within the folds of his tattered robes, Matthias could see he carried a large, leather-bound book.
“Loren is an historian and a scholar. One of the King’s most trusted advisers,” the Queen said, not even glancing at the man as he took his place beside her. “He has been working in the libraries, both in the castle here and at the monastery,” the Queen said. “He has found some startling information.”
The monastery: the old man was one of the Brotherhood.
“I am a translator,” Loren said in a thin voice, “of the ancient texts. When I learned of the attacks on the watchtowers, I was reminded of a manuscript that I translated, some years ago. Not a book. Private papers, from the reign of King Harkness.”
“And why did it remind you of that?” the Queen prompted.
“Because of when the attacks happened,” he explained. “On a night when the moon was swallowed by the dark.”
Matthias remembered the night, almost a week before, when he had stood outside the tavern next to Arian as the moon seemed to disappear momentarily into the night sky. He sat forward to listen more closely to the translator.
“There is a prophecy,” the old man said. “In those scrolls. A prophecy which I am only now beginning to understand. It is mostly fragments, scattered within another text.” He opened the book in his hand, balancing it carefully as he turned the pages. “It begins:
The fall of man shall come,
As a fall comes to all things.
The mighty walls of Colcott shall crack
And bleed
On the night the moon dies in the sky.”
The old man looked up from the book and fixed his eyes on Matthias. “There is more. Much more. And it concerns the boy.”
“Me?” Matthias asked, before he could stop himself.
“You,” the translator said.
The old man shook his head, and Matthias closed his mouth. Loren continued speaking, but Matthias barely heard him over the rushing in his ears. It couldn’t be him. He was . . . nobody.
“Hidden as it was, the prophecy has long puzzled scholars. But the confluence of events, the attack on the watchtowers on the night of the disappearing moon . . .” His voice trailed off. “I believe I know what it means.”
Matthias shifted, uncomfortable in his chair.
“The prophecy describes a treasure, a relic so powerful that it was hidden away before the time of King Harkness. A relic that will save this kingdom. The Sunstone.”
“A sunstone?” Matthias asked. It was the symbol of the kingdom, on every flag, every gate, and sewn onto the shoulder of Bream’s tunic.
“Not a sunstone,” the scholar corrected. “The Sunstone. The first Sunstone, carried into battle by Stephen the Bold, before he was the First King.”
There was a long moment of silence before the captain said, “That’s just a myth. A children’s story.”
“It’s much more than that,” the old man said. “Do you know why the Sunstone is the symbol of our kingdom? Not because it was Stephen’s sigil, but because of what it could do. What it did, in our darkest hour.”
“What could it do?” Matthias heard himself asking.
“It is believed the stone held great power. How else to explain the victory at Corindor Field, when the brave five hundred broke the army of the Berok, more than ten thousand strong, turning them back and forging this kingdom in blood and iron?”
Matthias recognized the last few words from a poem that every child was taught, the chronicle of the founding of the kingdom.
“Tactics,” the captain said. “Bravery. Loyalty. As battles have always been fought and won.”
“You would believe that, of course,” the old man said. “But the truth is much stranger. The truth is that Stephen rode into battle with the Sunstone, the first Sunstone, on his breast, and a magus at his side.”
“Are you talking about magic?” Matthias asked.
“Indeed I am. A magic so powerful it can render an army unbreakable. A magic so powerful that King Stephen, even in the flush of victory, could see its dangers. After Corindor Field, he ordered the Sunstone hidden where no one, not even he, could find it. He entrusted his dearest friend Gafilair, the first of the Brotherhood to be paired with the king, the first high mage, to hide the stone. To wrap it in mysteries and magics such that no man could ever find it.
“The magus did as the new king instructed, hiding the stone away where it would remain for more than a thousand years, until the kingdom once again was in such grave danger that the stone’s powers would be its only salvation.”
“If it is hidden so well—” Captain Bream began.
“There is one who can find it,” the scholar said. “That is the reason for the prophecy. That the Brothers of Gafilair, his heirs and followers, might follow the signs, might find the right person at the right time to recover the stone and return it to the King. The clues to finding the stone are in here,” he said, gesturing to the book. “As is the information we needed to find the one who could retrieve it.”
“Me?” Matthias asked incredulously.
The captain nodded.
“Captain Bream has selected a troop of his finest men,” the Queen said. “His most loyal and true. You will ride out with them to find the Sunstone, and bring it back that it might protect the kingdom once more. Loren will ride with you to decipher the signs left by the first high magus.”
“But it can’t be me,” Matthias blurted.
The magus spoke slowly: “There are signs, portents, in this book. We have studied them. Studied you. The signs of your birth. Your parentage. There is enough for us to be sure.”
“Matthias,” the Queen said. “You’ll ride out at dawn in three days’ time. You’ll be well cared-for, well protected. And when you return with the Sunstone, you will receive a hero’s welcome. Do you understand?”
He nodded slowly. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
He had no choice.
“Come,” she said. “The importance of this journey cannot be overstated.”
The Queen led the three men around the stone platform at the end of the room, to a double door hidden behind a tapestry. The captain opened the door, and stepped back to allow the Queen to enter. Matthias followed.
In the centre of the room stood a huge bed. The man lying on it was tiny, and clearly sick, his skin yellow and waxy, his hair missing in patches. He lay facing the door, considering his guests with pale, milky eyes.
Loren took several steps toward the bed before falling to his knee. “Your Majesty,” he said, almost in a whisper.
Matthias looked at the Queen.
“This,” she said, “is why we need the Sunstone so badly.”
The crumpled figure on the bed raised a shaky hand. “Loren,” he said weakly. “Loren, my friend.”
The mage rose to his feet and stepped to the bedside. The King took his hand.
“Have you found the boy?”
Matthias could feel his heart in his throat.
“I have, Your Majesty. He’s here.”
The King’s eyes searched the room, and prompted by a gentle push from the Queen, Matthias stepped to the old man’s side.
“This is him?” the King asked.
“It is, Your Majesty.”
A weak smile came to the King’s face as he took Matthias’s hand. The King’s grip was sticky and cool, and Matthias tried to breathe mostly through his mouth; the air near the bed was sweet and acrid with the smells of sickness.
“Yes, so it is,” the King said, as if finally able to see him. “It is all yours to do now,” he said to Matthias. He winced and strained with each word. “The future of the kingdom is in your hands.”
Dumbstruck, Matthias nodded. The King’s grip tightened, then fell away. His eyes sank shut. For a moment, Matthias’s hand hung in the air where the King had held it. But then a rough, wet breath brought a sense of relief. The King was only sleeping.
“The great secret at the heart of the kingdom,” the Queen said slowly.
Matthias turned back to face the Queen and the Captain of the Guard, both still standing in the doorway.
“No one knows of the King’s illness. Your mission, therefore, must remain a secret, known to as few people as possible. You cannot go home. Not now. Not before you leave. Do you understand?”
“I do, Your Majesty.”

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Why it's on the list ...
A good book proves too enveloping, literally transporting its young reader into the fictional realm where the boy is made a character and embarks upon a mythical adventure. At the same time, his father is on an analogous quest to discover the book’s magic spell, keep the book out of enemy hands (including those of unscrupulous publishing types), and to find the key to reversing the spell and returning his boy to reality.
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Shelf Monkey

Shelf Monkey

also available: Audiobook (CD) eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
Donna Tartt meets Chuck Pahlahniuk in this very funny novel about disgruntled big-box bookstore employees who burn bad books in their off hours in order to save their souls and save the world. Things get out of control, however, when a messianic talk show host with a book club is kidnapped, protagonist Thomas delivering his story in missives while still on the run from the law. The big-box store is not quite Indigo, and the talk-show host isn’t Oprah either, which means that although the story may sound familiar, it’s original enough to have legs of its own.
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Incident Report, The
Why it's on the list ...
A book that is aware it’s a book, albeit a book comprising a series of incident reports documented in a workplace. But there is nothing ordinary about these incidents, because that workplace is a downtown library, with the eccentric cast of characters inevitable in such a setting. It’s a quirky premise, but in Baillie’s capable hands, the incidents culminate to create a gripping, moving story with remarkable depth.
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also available: Hardcover
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Magnetic Anomaly

My name is unimportant.

It all started in September 1989, at about seven in the morning.

I'm still asleep, curled up in my sleeping bag on the living-room floor. There are cardboard boxes, rolled-up rugs, half-disassembled pieces of furniture, and tool boxes heaped around me. The walls are bare, except for the pale spots left by the pictures that had hung there for too many years.

The window lets in the monotonous, rhythmic sound of the waves rolling over the stones.

Every beach has a particular acoustic signature, which depends on the force and length of the waves, the makeup of the ground, the form of the landscape, the prevailing winds and the humidity in the air. It's impossible to confuse the subdued murmur of Mallorca with the resonant roll of Greenland's prehistoric pebbles, or the coral melody of the beaches of Belize, or the hollow growl of the Irish coast.

The surf I hear this morning is easy enough to identify. The deep, somewhat raw rumbling, the crystalline ringing of the volcanic stones, the slightly asymmetrical breaking of the waves, the water rich in nutriments – there's no mistaking the shores of the Aleutian Islands.

I mutter something and open my left eye a crack. Where can that unlikely sound be coming from? The nearest ocean is over a thousand kilometres away. And besides, I've never set foot on a beach.

I crawl out of the sleeping bag and stumble over to the window. Clutching at the curtains, I watch the garbage truck pull up with a pneumatic squeal in front of our bungalow. Since when do diesel engines imitate breaking waves?

Dubious poetry of the suburbs.

The two trash collectors hop down from their vehicle and stand there, dumbstruck, contemplating the mountain of bags piled on the asphalt. The first one, looking dismayed, pretends to count them. I start to worry; have I infringed some city bylaw that limits the number of bags per house? The second garbageman, much more pragmatic, sets about filling the truck. He obviously couldn't care less about the number of bags, their contents or the story behind them.

There are exactly thirty bags.

I bought them at the corner grocery store - a shopping experience I'm not about to forget.

Standing in the cleaning-products aisle, I wondered how many garbage bags would be needed to hold the countless memories my mother had accumulated since 1966. What volume could actually contain thirty years of living? I was loath to do the indecent arithmetic. Whatever my estimation might be, I was fearful of underestimating my mother's existence.

I went for a brand that seemed sufficiently strong. Each package contained ten revolutionary ultraplastic refuse bags with a sixty-litre capacity.

I took three packages, for a total of 1,800 litres.

The thirty bags turned out to be adequate - though I did on occasion enlist my foot to press the point home - and now the garbagemen are busy tossing them into the gaping mouth of the truck. Every so often, a heavy steel jaw crushes the trash with a pachyderm-like groan. Nothing at all like the poetic susurrations of the waves.

Actually, the whole story - since it needs to be told - began with the Nikolski compass.

- - - - - - - - - -

The old compass resurfaced in August, two weeks after the funeral.

My mother's endless agony had worn me out. Right from the initial diagnosis, my life had turned into a relay race. My days and nights were spent shuttling from the house, to work, to the hospital. I stopped sleeping, ate less and less, lost nearly five kilos. It was as if I were the one struggling with the tumours. Yet the truth was never in doubt. My mother died after seven months, leaving me to bear the entire world on my shoulders.

I was drained, my thinking out of focus - but there was no question of throwing in the towel. Once the paperwork was taken care of, I launched into the last big cleanup.

I looked like a survivalist, holed up in the basement of the bungalow with my thirty garbage bags, an ample supply of ham sandwiches, cans and cans of concentrated frozen orange juice and the FM radio with the volume turned down low. I gave myself a week to obliterate five decades of existence, five closetfuls of odds and ends crumbling under their own weight.

Now, this sort of cleanup may seem grim and vindictive to some. But understand: I found myself suddenly alone in the world, with neither friends nor family, but still with an urgent need to go on living. Some things just had to be jettisoned.

I went at the closets with the cool detachment of an archaeologist, separating the memorabilia into more or less logical categories:

• a cigarillo box filled with seashells
• four bundles of press clippings about the U.S. radar stations in Alaska
• an old Instamatic 104 camera
• over three hundred pictures taken with the aforementioned Instamatic 104
• numerous paperback novels, abundantly annotated
• a handful of costume jewellery
• a pair of Janis Joplin-style pink sunglasses

I entered a troubling time warp, and the deeper I plunged into the closets, the less I recognized my mother. The dusty objects belonging to a life in the distant past bore witness to a woman I'd never known before. Their mass, their texture, their odour seeped into my mind and took root among my own memories, like parasites. My mother was thus reduced to a pile of disconnected artifacts smelling of mothballs.

I was annoyed by the way events were unfolding. What had started out as a simple matter of sweeping up was gradually turning into a laborious initiation. I looked forward to the time when I would finally reach the bottom of the closets, but their contents seemed inexhaustible.

It was at this point that I came upon a large packet of diaries - fifteen softcover notebooks filled with telegraphic prose. My hopes were rekindled. Maybe these diaries would allow me to put together the pieces of the puzzle?

I arranged the notebooks chronologically. The first one began on June 12, 1966.

- - - - - - - - - -

My mother headed off to Vancouver when she was nineteen, feeling that a proper break with one's family should be gauged in kilometres, and that her own falling-out deserved to be measured in continents. She ran away one June 25, at dawn, in the company of a hippie named Dauphin. The two confederates shared the cost of gas, shifts at the wheel, and long drags on thin joints rolled as tight as toothpicks. When not driving, my mother wrote in her notebook. Her script, very neat and orderly at the outset, quickly started to furl and unfurl, tracing the eddies and whorls of THC.

At the beginning of the second notebook, she had woken up alone on Water Street, barely able to stutter a few halting phrases in English. Notepad in hand, she went about communicating through ideograms, by turns sketching and gesturing. In a park, she made the acquaintance of a group of arts students who were busy crafting delicate origami manta rays out of psychedelic paper. They invited her to share their overcrowded apartment, their cushion-filled living room and a bed already occupied by two other girls. Every night at about two a.m., the three of them squeezed in under the sheets and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while they discussed Buddhism.

My mother swore she would never return to the East Coast.

Whereas her first weeks in Vancouver were recounted with a wealth of detail, the rest of her journey grew more and more elliptical as the demands of nomadic life evidently supplanted those of narration. She never stayed anywhere more than four months, but would all of a sudden take off to Victoria, then Prince Rupert, San Francisco, Seattle, Juneau and a thousand other places she did not always bother to identify clearly. She scraped by thanks to various paltry expedients: hawking poems by Richard Brautigan to passersby, selling postcards to tourists, juggling, cleaning motel rooms, shoplifting in supermarkets.

Her escapade went on like this for five years. Then, in June 1970, we showed up at the Vancouver central station with two huge duffel bags just about bursting at the seams. My mother bought a train ticket to Montreal, and we crossed the continent in reverse, she curled up in her seat, me nestled in the depths of her uterus, an imperceptible comma in an as yet unwritten novel.

When she got back home, she briefly made up with my grandparents - a strategic truce aimed at securing the endorsement she needed from them to buy a house. In short order, she purchased a bungalow in Saint-Isidore Junction, a stone's throw from Châteauguay, in what was to become the southern periphery of Montreal, but which at the time still retained something of the countryside, with its ancestral houses, its fallow land and its impressive population of porcupines.

Now saddled with a mortgage, she had to take work in Châteauguay - at a travel agency. Paradoxically, this job put an end to her youthful roving, and to her diaries too.

The last diary ended on an undated page, circa 1971. I closed it, deep in thought. Of all the omissions that punctuated my mother's prose, the most important was Jonas Doucet.

Nothing was left of that transient sire but a stack of postcards scribbled with indecipherable handwriting, the final one dating back to 1975. I had often tried to crack the secret of those cards, but there was no way to make sense of their hieroglyphics. Even the postmarks were more revealing, as they limned out a path that began in southern Alaska, went up to the Yukon, then back down again toward Anchorage, and ended in the Aleutians - more precisely, on the American military base where my father had found employment.

Under the pile of postcards was a small, crumpled box and a letter from the U.S. Air Force.

I learned nothing new from the letter. The box, on the other hand, illuminated a forgotten pit in my memory. Now totally flat, it had once contained a compass that Jonas had sent me for my birthday. That compass came back to me in astounding detail. How could I have forgotten it? It was the only tangible proof of my father's existence, and had been the pole star of my childhood, the glorious instrument with which I'd crossed a thousand imaginary oceans! Which mountain of debris was it buried under now?

I combed the bungalow from top to bottom in a reckless frenzy, emptying drawers and cupboards, searching behind the sideboards and under the rugs, crawling into the darkest recesses.

It was three in the morning before I tracked it down, stuck between an aquarium-sized deep-sea diver and an apple-green garbage truck, at the bottom of a cardboard box perched on two rafters in the attic.

The years had not improved the appearance of the poor compass, a five-dollar gizmo most likely found near the cash register of an Anchorage hardware dealer. Luckily, its lengthy proximity to metallic toys had not demagnetized its needle, which persisted in pointing (what seemed to be) north.

Strictly speaking, it was a miniature mariner's compass, composed of a transparent plastic sphere filled with a clear liquid in which there floated a second, magnetized and graded sphere. The inclusion of one sphere inside another, as in a tiny matryoshka, guaranteed a gyroscopic stability that could withstand the worst storms: no matter how strong the waves might be, the compass would lose neither its bearings nor the horizon.

I fell asleep in the attic with my head sunk in a cumulus of candy-pink insulation, the compass resting on my forehead.

- - - - - - - - - -

Superficially, that old compass seems perfectly unremarkable, just like any other compass. But on closer examination one realizes that it doesn't point exactly north.

Some individuals claim to be aware at all times of precisely where north is located. However, like most people, I need a marker. When I'm sitting behind the bookstore counter, for example, I know magnetic north is located 4,238 kilometres away, in a beeline that runs through the Mickey Spillane shelf and goes to Ellef Ringnes Island, a pebble lost in the immense Queen Elizabeth archipelago.

But, instead of pointing toward the Mickey Spillane shelf, my compass lines up 1.5 metres to the left, right in the middle of the exit door.

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Why it's on the list ...
Three characters end up in Montreal, loosely linked by blood ties and a strange “three-headed book.” Their barely-intersections are filled out by fish, pirates, serendipitous bookshop scenes, various islands and rising water. Dickner performs strange and wonderful feats with parallels and opposites: wheat fields and oceans, the Aleutians and the West Indies, orphans and their ancestors, all of them dreaming of nomads and home. A most fitting champion for Canada Reads 2010.
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Lady Oracle

Lady Oracle

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Why it's on the list ...
Joan Foster has two bookish secrets: the collection of feminist poetry she’s just published and become famous for was composed via automatic writing, and also she’s long been publishing gothic romance novels under a nom de plume. Lady Oracle opens with Joan faking her own death to make matters simpler, and then proceeds back through the web of lies that is her past with a twisting and turning plot examining the role of the woman artist.
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Why it's on the list ...
On a winter’s day at the Toronto Reference Library, Lilah Kemp inadvertently sets Kurtz free from page 93 of Heart of Darkness, unleashing a monster upon the city. The novel is never clear about whether Lilah is suffering from another of her delusions or if her visions are reality, either being plausible in Findley’s dystopian Toronto, which is ruled by dark forces and in which starlings have begun to be exterminated en masse in order to contain a dangerous bird flu.
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Why it's on the list ...
Similarities to Lady Oracle are too glaring to be coincidental, and it’s no wonder that this book made an impression of Margaret Atwood. When mousey Valancy Stirling learns she has months to live, she throws off the shackles of her horrid family and marries local eccentric Barney Snaith. Valancy’s fate is not what she imagines, however, and neither is Barney, who turns out to be the real-life identity of Valancy’s favourite novelist, John Foster.
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