Recent Canadian fiction has been the focus of my reading life this month, as part of my Shadow Giller jury project. Out of the 30 books I read in August, 18 were for the Shadow Giller. As usual in my monthly round-up, I will share brief reviews of the best. These include audiobooks, translated fiction, science writing, an award-winning children's novel, a graphic novel and lots of Canadian fiction. Five out of the thirteen books that are highlights this month are also eligible for the Giller, so you will find links to my longer reviews when you get to those in the list below.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Audiobook (17.5 hr) read by Angus King
A gay boy with a tender love for his alcoholic mother comes of age amid poverty and high unemployment in 1980s Glasgow. Heartbreaking and gorgeous: the two main characters are unforgettable. If your library has Hoopla, it‘s a treat to hear the Scottish voices in the audiobook read by Angus King.
New Year‘s in Scotland was a legendary two-day party. New Year‘s in Agnes‘s Glasgow was endless. When they first came to Pit Head the boy had seen a house party that lasted for days. Agnes had still been drunk by the 6th.
No day ever started well with six dozen raw chickens. And today, of all days, it was stealing the sweetness out of his daydreams.
La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono
Translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel
An amazing, eye-opening novella about a lesbian teen, Okomo, an orphan who lives with her grandparents in a traditional Fang settlement in Equatorial Guinea. Despite the odds being against her—same sex love is reviled by the villagers, and her family expects Okomo to bring them dowry wealth by attracting a husband—this story has a happy ending.
“Your uncle was never a normal child. Ever since he was little, he liked women‘s things: cooking, cleaning, smiling, and talking too much. Your mother‘s home was like a church altar it was so clean!”
“What is a woman without a man? Dina is on the brink of old age—she is 18 years old and has no husband! And her family still has not benefited from her body.”
The men left for the House of the Word to wait for the food, and the women went into one of the two kitchens depending on their place in the hierarchy of polygamous families. First wives went into my grandmother‘s kitchen, while second, third, fourth (and so on) wives went over to the kitchen of Osá‘s second wife. The two groups hated each other intensely.
The Beauty of the Death Cap by Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze
Translated from French by Tina Kover
I was in exactly the right mood for dark, twisted humour in the voice of a fussy, delusional mushroom fanatic in the Auvergne region of France. Nikonor is tight lipped around people, but in his journal he eventually reveals all. The tale is delightfully outrageous and macabre.
I was three and a half years old. Already highly advanced for my age, I understood even the finer points of mushroom-hunting perfectly, thanks to an illustrated book (Le Petit Mycologue, 1923 edition) presented to me by my father for my second birthday.
I must absolutely be in full possession of my faculties—that is one of the reasons why I eat so many Portuguese sardines (sardines are excellent for mental acuteness, you know).
Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller
Audiobook (5 hr) read by the author
Bisexual science journalist Lulu Miller was searching for the secret to resilience when fish taxonomist and eugenics proponent David Starr Jordan caught her attention. His desire to turn chaos into order seemed to help him handle a series of setbacks and tragedies. Part biography, part memoir, part history, part murder mystery, this book is wholly fascinating. And there's an explanation for the title that really surprised me. A Publishers Weekly review calls it "frustratingly disjointed," but I enjoyed the audiobook so much that I listened to it twice in a row.
The longer we examine our world the stranger it proves to be. Perhaps there will be a mother, waiting inside a person deemed unfit. Perhaps there will be medicine inside a weed. Salvation inside the kind of person you had discounted.
Miller on the leading role the US played in eugenics ideology: “This was not a fringe movement. It crossed party lines. The first five presidents of the 20th century hailed its promise. Eugenics courses were taught at prestigious universities all across the country. […] In 1916 an American guy named Madison Grant published a eugenics book that a German guy named Hitler would later call his bible.”
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
Audiobook (7 hr) read by Cathleen McCarron
I bailed on two audiobooks in a row before settling on this luminous collection of essays. Archeological sites in Alaska and the Orkneys, a long ago trip to Tibet, family, health, the natural world: Kathleen Jamie writes about all of these things with a poetic precision I adore. Words like smur and blaeberries are performed in the audiobook with a proper Scottish accent by Cathleen McCarron.
The landscape was astonishing. There was nothing I wanted to do more than sit quietly and look at it, come to terms with its vastness.
Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels
For their 45th wedding anniversary, a childless Black and Latina couple decide to undergo a biogenetic procedure that will restore their youth. In this outstanding science fiction novel told in comics format, selfish desires are counterbalanced by love and strong moral ethics. Don‘t make my mistake and put off reading this because the cover is creepy. The interior art is finely detailed and washed in somber hues.
Stand on the Sky by Erin Bow
Girl-power adventure set among the nomadic Kazakhs of Mongolia. I like the nuances of chosen family in this, and, of course, the indomitable 13-year-old girl named Aisulu who trains an eagle. The primary audience is children ages 9-13, but this Governor General Literary Award-winner would also be an engaging family read-aloud.
In a land where girls are supposed to have hearts made of milk, Aisulu had a heart made of sky.
And here is something that is hard but true: a place can be perfect, and still not be enough.
Rabbit Foot Bill by Helen Humphreys
A poetic novel based on a true story of friendship between a boy and a murderer in mid-twentieth century Saskatchewan. Link to full review.
Indians on Vacation by Thomas King
A funny novel about living with depression and despair. Link to full review.
Five Little Indians by Michelle Good
How do residential school survivors cope with the trauma they've experienced? In this heartbreaking, hopeful novel, Michelle Good brings five characters to life to answer that question. Link to full review.
Watching You Without Me by Lynn Coady
Suspenseful domestic drama. Link to full review.
Dominoes at the Crossroads by Kaie Kellough
Pieces of short fiction about Canadian identity as part of the African diaspora -- short stories, autobiographical fiction, science fiction, spy thriller, memoir, metafiction, history, historical fiction: whatever form this hybrid collection uses, by the end it has transformed into a novel. It's safe to call it outstanding. Link to full review.
Home Sickness by Chih-Ying Lay
Translated from Mandarin by Darryl Sterk
Ten insightful, melancholic stories set in contemporary Taiwan. Link to full review.