book reviews

Yellowknife by Steve Zipp. Res Telluris, 2007, 286 pp.

A few months ago I received an email from Steve Zipp, who asked if he could send me his novel Yellowknife. The book had been one of those chosen for debate on the 2010 Canada Also Reads program put on by the National Post‘s Afterword. It was defended by book blogger John Mutford, whom many of you already know. Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise won, but Yellowknife was certainly a worthy contender.

I’ll admit I was dubious when I received the book. While the cover is printed on lovely stock (the book was printed by Gaspereau Press, though published by Res Telluris) and the image here looks all right, in real life the design is not especially attractive or clear, and the back material did nothing for me, being little more than a list of components and a couple of less than impressive excerpts. The argument for this might be that the book is difficult to summarize, but in that case, I might not have tried.

Thus, still negatively affected by my time at a custom-book publisher where the design of the books and the writing mostly left everything to be desired, I opened Yellowknife with an admittedly large dose of skepticism. Canada Also Reads choice or not, I didn’t read any reviews of it beforehand, on purpose. I still haven’t.

So I was extremely, pleasantly surprised when Zipp proved my suspicions wrong. Don’t you love it when that happens? Yellowknife is in fact very well written and often kept me up reading long past my bedtime. Zipp has a way with with words that so powerfully evokes a place I’ve never been (still have no desire to visit) that the cold, the snow, the community, the decade, the…Canadianness were extremely palpable. For there is indeed a Canadianness aside from that found in Ontario, or the Prairies, or the East Coast, in CanLit. You’ll see. Yellowknife is the Canadianness many of us long for but are not yet well acquainted with: funny and daring (let me tell you: a lot fits into those two words). Thomas King and Terry Fallis have given us examples.

Needless to say, I’d expected this novel to disappoint me; instead, I enthusiastically dogeared a good many pages of particularly excellent writing. Wish I could quote it all.

There can be no doubt that Yellowknife is a bit of a challenging read. It is huge in scope in terms of plots, and populated by many (memorable) characters, man and beast alike, whom I sometimes confused. But the various stories are inextricably intertwined even if they do not all continue to the end, connected by the land and climate (that is, political, weather, economic climate), so that we are indeed left with a sense of community, even if not all the individuals know or encounter each other, even if some are only visitors. I kept being reminded of that TV show Northern Exposure, but this story is far more quirky, brave, exploratory, and deep.

There is also an obvious element of magic realism, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which takes up residence in this book quite comfortably, given the setting and the able hand that forges it. There is also the blatantly ridiculous, and a sense of humour, that keeps the novel from being depressing or bleak.

More than these things, however, this is a book written by a man who intimately knows his subject. That mandate “Write what you know” (which I don’t believe one must necessarily subscribe to) has never been more in evidence than in this book. Zipp has truly lived this experience; that much is obvious, as well as the fact that he finds it all interesting and thoroughly enjoyable. The facts we are given on the landscape, weather, fish, insects, water, animals, the very strata of the territory, in this book are numerous—but never fear: they do not dry out the text but rather enrich it as well as the story. Zipp doesn’t divulge this information in a didactic manner; it is an intricate part of the prose, it blends perfectly into the story to give it as many layers as the mines that feature in the book. Yet for all that concreteness, through Zipp’s craft, one still has the sense of a shimmering landscape of the Great North, one that’s as much mysterious and ethereal, one that defies pinning down, as it is quite present (quite like Canada herself, yes?).

This is the thing: Yellowknife seems more Canadian than a great deal of the CanLit I’ve read, even though I’ve never been there or know much about the territories at all. But I have to say, if ever there was a novel that evoked a place so well, that reflected Canada so well, it’s this one.

The reason I accepted Steve’s offer of his book is that I don’t want to endorse only all the popular books that are already getting tons of attention. That’s part of the reason I haven’t yet reviewed the new books I’ve received. I want also, perhaps even especially, to give due respect and attention to those that deserve to be read. I want people to be exposed to the work of authors who remain little known because we are too often focused on the giants.

Yellowknife is both challenging and rewarding. It is both entertaining and informative. Best of all, the novel, quite as novels should, transports you wholly to and fully immerses you in another world that is at once somewhat familiar yet strange, tangible yet elusive.

what I brought home

Or, rather, in piles around the house, particularly in my office or by my bed. There hasn’t been room on the shelves in some time.

I haven’t done a post like this in eons. But I have acquired more books over the past months, of course, and I thought I’d share with you the eclectic variety, as well as perhaps tempt you. Since starting this blog but also working at the bookshop, I’ve evolved from almost exclusively contemporary CanLit to being more open to suggestions and other people’s tastes. That’s not to say I’ll read anything, or that I’ll like everything—I do have my limits—but now I’ll try many things I wouldn’t have considered before, also thanks to publicists and authors offering to send me books.

Right now I’m reading a novel called Yellowknife by Steve Zipp. Steve contacted me after having come across this blog and asked if I would be interested in reading and reviewing a copy of his book, published by Res Telluris, printed by none other than Gaspereau. I said yes because I think he was the first author to contact me but also because his book was defended by John Mutford for Canada Also Reads 2010, and I’ve never before read anything set in the Northwest Territories. Never really had an interest, to be honest. But the book is good, and I’ll have more about it when I do the review.

Next is Rosy Thornton‘s The Tapestry of Love. Rosy emailed me, too, and I accepted her book because she’s from England (Cambridgeshire; she grew up in rural, idyllic Suffolk), has a fantastic bio, the book takes place in countries I love, and it sounded like a good one to cozy up with this winter. Also, “it all began” with her reading Gaskell’s North and South, her novels have met with considerable success, and she has spaniels named Treacle and W.G. Snuffy Walden. I mean, come on. Idyllic England. Rural France. Spaniels. Treacle. (I want to name my next dog Treacle!) I’m in love.

So I look forward to reading her book. I admit it’s not something I normally would have picked up because it sounds somewhat like women’s lit, but the novel does kind of remind me of Joanne Harris for setting and Elizabeth Berg for story, and I do enjoy those two authors very much. Also, I’m not averse to a good light story. Often those touch me deeply because they play more to my romantic notions. I’m glad Rosy introduced me to it. I could see reading it in a bookshop tearoom, which because I have not yet won the lottery does not exist here. Damn it. Oh, but I just remembered something else I only recently discovered: remember my “food in fiction” idea? I still do plan to do that, and Rosy has just so happened to have collected recipes to accompany this book because food of course features in the novel. So when I finally can start (when I’m not proofing mss and have my weekends free), we can enjoy some French food; perhaps English as well. Ha! My stomach just growled on cue.

Had I been sent this ed., I likely would have cried with homesickness
This is mine, which is also lovely. I want to reach out and grab that bread

HarperCollins just sent me this book below; it arrived this weekend (I love getting packages on Saturday!): The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard. The Ecco imprint ARC is published with a beautifully designed matte cover with French flaps and the thickish cream-coloured stock has deckle edges and I would swear it wasn’t an ARC, then, except for it says uncorrected proof on the front, perfectly incorporated into the design like a logo, and on the back is the marketing campaign info. It’s to be released in February 2011, so I have some time to read this, but when I opened to the first page I didn’t want to put it down, so I read some during breakfast. I may bump it up somewhere in the list and write the review ahead of time.

Those little things you see at the corner of each square are numbers

Here’s a surprise for you: Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars. I know: Stephen King, not seen here on this blog; haven’t read him since I was a very curious and rebellious young teen. But listen: Simon & Schuster kindly sent me this shiny new hardcover after they asked if I would review a copy of Lo Bosworth’s The Lo-Down, which is totally not my thing. That book right there is an example of where I draw the line, where my snobbery comes out. And I did think that King was not my thing, either. Yet I asked, pretty please, if I could possibly read and review his book of short stories instead. I like short stories. I do look forward to it, and will tell you why later, when I review it.

Lovely clean design.

Again from Simon & Schuster, Search for Wondla by Tony DiTerlizzi. Okay. This is one gorgeous book, I have to tell you. If you’re in a bookstore, do check it out. I did love Spiderwick, and DiTerlizzi is incredibly talented. I started reading this one, too, and it’s hooked me, but I’m really not great at reading more than one book at a time, two max. DiTerlizzi’s illustrations are plentiful and perfect. But kudos must also go to S&S for making one of the most appealing YA books I own. Everything about this book is attractive: weight, size, paper, smell (oohh), and especially design (layout and cover). Even the table of contents is awesome. I will definitely post some photos when I review it. Leviathan and Behemoth are other prime examples of S&S’s children’s/YA appeal, though their covers aren’t as nice, and the softcover in particular is kind of cheap—it curls up, like the paperback versions of the Hunger Game novels put out by Scholastic. I find it quite annoying, especially in rainy weather. Still, beautifully designed and illustrated. And those are both, Leviathan and Behemoth, on my bedside table as well.

This is nothing. Wait till you see the inside!

Penguin very kindly sent me Michael Winter’s The Death of Donna Whalen, which I’ve really been looking forward to not only because he’s Kathleen Winter‘s brother but because it’s a format unlike any I’ve ever read: a documentary novel. I used to read a bit of true crime, way, way back in the day, and I enjoyed watching shows like CSI and Profiler, also years ago, but I think I can handle this book. I hope so. I also find it interesting that Winter chose this topic and think it an intelligent decision to make it a novel; it might otherwise be considered inaccessible, less accessible, or offensive in terms of being invasive. This way it may reach more people and get us thinking the way Room did—outside the box, so to speak, to consider these events, the plights of certain people, as more than just another news story.

I love the rubbery feel of the dust jacket, a finish that’s becoming increasingly popular. I also have a feeling this book should be getting even more recognition than it’s received and wonder if it hasn’t because of the potentially upsetting content? Or perhaps the different writing style.

Penguin also sent My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales by various authors, including Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, and Michael Cunningham. I have had a deep and abiding love for folk and fairy tales ever since I can remember, and I’m so happy people are still writing them. I enjoy contemporary fairy tales, both for kids and adults (for example, John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things). This anthology promises to be very entertaining, and it will be a treat to read the experiments of authors for whom this might be their first foray into the style. I’m quite excited!

Now, I have a few other ARCs but I won’t mention them here; they were given us at the bookstore, so not sent to me personally. Still, you’ll see reviews when I’ve read them.

I’ve also bought a few books, but I’ll just post the ones I treated myself with on Friday for my first two full-time weeks at the bookstore, a successful anniversary party last weekend, a few author events, and the Whoville window, which other shops seem to be inspired by, to my dismay (ours was done first!!).

Anyway. Fear of Fighting by Stacey May Fowles was recommended by Erin Balser and Jen Knoch during one of their Books in 140 Seconds video reviews. I just discovered it was a Canada Also Reads 2010 selection, too, along with Yellowknife. I thought it sounded intriguing, and I’ve been in the mood for something set in Toronto for some reason. Maybe because I’m meeting so many great people both in the industry and who are authors in the city, and while I could never move there, I sometimes feel quite left out living out here. Anyway. Fear of Fighting is “a book for lovers of classic stories and pencil drawings and the Oreo fabulousness of the two coming together.” It “searches for meaning in the mundane”—and do we not all yearn for this meaning?—which is what got me in the first place, as well as this: “Set in the lonely, urban landscape of downtown Toronto, the story revolves around Marnie, a broken-hearted young woman fighting to find something more.” I remember that experience, only I wasn’t in TO.

FoF is published by independent small press Invisible Publishing, whose books are all lovely, and it’s illustrated, including the cover and the chapter numbers, by Marlena Zuber, who went to OCAD, like my sister. The novel is short in stature, almost square (though the image below doesn’t show that), and about 210 pages, and is thus wholly attractive to me. I love the shape and size and the design. The whole thing gives off a handmade feel, good quality. There’s a very nice statement by the publisher at the end, and I’m certain I’ll be checking out more of their stuff.

Lastly but certainly not least, since I’m reading it now, comes The Incident Report by Martha Baillie. This is another small-press production, put out by Pedlar Press in Toronto. God, these beautiful books with their lovely stock and awesomely designed covers. All this book says on the back is: “There are moments when time dilates like the pupil of an eye, to let everything in.” Then I read this, inside: “Many incidents occur in public libraries, and when one does the librarian is required to fill out the necessary forms, including a Suspect Identification Chart.”

Enough said. Well, the book itself because of its beauty roped me in, but this description clinched it. Having worked in the public library here, I know these reports and I’ve had to fill out my own sort of SIC; the incident was the last straw for me, having had to deal with so many other patron issues before that, not unlike so many, I discovered, that other library workers have blogged about, and I handed in my resignation. This book was going to be something I’d enjoy, I thought, something that would make me laugh, as we so often did to make ourselves feel better; because, oh! the characters we’d meet. Don’t get me started. But I also expected it would teach me a few things about judgement.

So I sat down to lunch and read 40 pages. It is a quick read, but it’s not fluff; it made me laugh, it made me sympathize, it made me understand, it made me appreciate the observations people make, the character sketches, most of all the lack of harsh judgement on the protagonist’s part. My own encounters with most patrons unfortunately made me cynical, jaded, and bitter.

The book is a collection of incident reports but it is most definitely still a novel. While searching for an image to use, I came across friend blogger Kerry over at Pickle Me This (this is her old site), who wrote: “Baillie goes further, however, with excellent plotting, this potentially gimmicky book distinctly a novel, with romance, mystery, suspense, darkness, and tragedy (oh god, the gasp I uttered near the end, I could not believe it, I wanted to turn back the pages and have it happen a different way, but alas, there is only going forward).”

My edition is softcover

So. Much wonderful material to read and review! A special and heartfelt thank you to all the publicists and other fantastic people in the industry who are making my days and exposing me to great literature for free. Truly, I feel very fortunate, especially in a time of economic hardship, and it is my pleasure to read and review these books, especially if what I say helps sales.

Thank you also to the authors who contact me to send me their books or to comment on my reviews. If you’re reading, see my statement on book reviews.

Not least, thank you to the small presses for printing books as works of art, to the large presses for continuing to print books.

I don’t know the order in which I’ll be reading the above volumes, but you’re sure to one day see my thoughts on each book.

Anything new you’ve acquired that is especially piquing your interest? Leave a comment and give us more to add to our wish lists!