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STAFF PICKS

September 2020

Jo's Picks

Utopia Avenue

by David Mitchell
(Knopf Canada)

Set in 1960's swinging, psychedelic London, David Mitchell's latest is the tale of a rock super- group that never was, Utopia Avenue. Delivering a story saturated in a heady mix of drugs, rock and roll, sex, art, family and schizophrenia with a hefty dose of magical realism, Utopia Avenue features Mitchell's trademark time jumping, multiple characterizations and genre-bending, transmitted through vivid and effervescent prose. In a nod to his novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and the book-spanning multiverse Mitchell has created, the band's guitarist Jasper shares that same last name and experiences a similar discombobulation with the world as did his ancestor of 150 years prior. Rollicking, transportative and just plain fun.

 

A History of My Brief Body

by Billy-Ray Belcourt
(Hamish Hamilton)

Belcourt is primarily known as a poet - he was the youngest ever recipient of the Griffin Poetry Prize - and the sharp yet lush lyricism of his words shines in this autobiographical collection of essays about growing up gay and indigenous in Alberta. Beginning with a loving letter to his kokum and then expanding out into the larger world, Belcourt examines queer love, the scars of colonial violence, intimacy, joy, ecstacy and the power of writing and the written word, through a lens which is profoundly honest, and intensely powerful. The way forward as he sees it, the only way to make sense of this broken and vast world, is by centering oneself in art.

 

The Skin We're In

by Desmond Cole
(Doubleday Canada)

In his first book, Canadian investigative journalist Cole (Toronto Life, Toronto Star) shatters the smugness of Canada's post-racialist society and draws attention to the naivety of white Canadians and our persistent and wrong assumptions that things are so much worse south of the border. Chronicling the events of just one year - 2017, Cole exposes systemic racial profiling, rights-violating police practices of carding, anti-black racism, and violence against black and brown Canadians, and indigenous peoples. During the same year, Cole left his job at the Toronto Star after receiving criticism for his activism, so this is also a call to action, an ending to white complacency and silence, and includes a comprehensive picture of the social justice and anti-racist groups fighting today to end rampant inequality and human rights abuses.

Hamnet & Judith

by Maggie O'Farrell
(Knopf Canada)

Set in England in 1580 a penniless, unhappy young tutor named William Shakespeare is about to meet his future wife Agnes (Anne ) Hathaway. Farrell's imagining of their courtship and marriage, their twin children, the tragedy that follows, and the inspiration for what was arguably Shakespeare's greatest, and most personal play, Hamlet, is gorgeous and evocative. She breathes life into these people and they live on the page. Exquisitely written, atmospheric, rooted in history but surprising, believable, every character fully-fleshed and drawn out from the shadows. We have no trouble envisioning Agnes as the wise herb woman O'Farrell paints for us, resolutely independent, passionate and strong in her own path. Curious, lively Hamnet is beautifully imagined as is his more cautious sister and the depth of their bond is heart-achingly portrayed. This is not a book about a playwright but a book about family, unimaginable tragedy and love. A sensual, transcendent book.

 

The Montague Twins: The Witch's Hand

by Nathan Page & Drew Shannon
(Knopf Books for Young Readers)

This YA graphic novel is kind of like The Hardy Boys meets Supernatural. Set in New England in the late sixties, we meet teen twins Pete and Al, who along with their adopted sister Charlie aka Chuck, always seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. After they explore a cataclysmic storm over a lighthouse and see a strange, cloaked woman, they are drawn into a mystery that includes a missing teen, small town secrets, and witches. Great characters including some awesome parents, artwork that captures the nostalgia of the era complete with high-waisted pants and quiffs, shifting sibling rivalries, fun banter and lots of action ensue. LGBTIA rep too! The first instalment of a continuing series.

 

Anne-Marie's Picks

I Talk Like a River

written by Jordan Scott
illustrated by Sydney Smith

(Neal Porter Books)

This luminous picture book showcases the magic that can happen when an author and illustrator combine forces to create a uniquely immersive experience. Poet Jordan Scott’s text is raw and evocative, relating the first person story of a boy who stutters. Sydney Smith’s illustrations are tender and reflective, expertly employing perspective, colour and movement to animate the boy’s voice. Together, they place the reader viscerally in the body of someone who is treated as an “other”. At school, when a teacher calls on the boy who is hiding at the back of the class, his anxiety and fear is palpable as illustrations of staring classmates blur and become indistinct. A repeating panel of the boy’s crumpling face telescopes his shame at the fact that his mouth isn’t working. He is having a bad speech day. His dad picks him up from school and takes him to the river where he can be quiet. He tells him, “See how that water moves? That’s how you speak.” A shimmering double page pull-out shows the boy wading into a sunlit river. The next day the boy tells his class about his favourite place in the world, the river, and he talks like a river - “churning”, “crashing”, “whirling” - but shares his words nonetheless. An achingly beautiful meditation on difference and resilience for all ages.

 

The Barnabus Project

written & illustrated by The Fan Brothers (Terry, Eric & Devin Fan)
(Tundra Books)

Perfect Pets pet shop sits on a charming high street and sells charming, fluffy, wide-eyed pets. Nothing in its neat brick facade hints at the nefarious operations conducted in a secret lab beneath the store where perfect pets are genetically engineered. Here we discover Barnabus, half mouse, half elephant - and pretty darn cute - but apparently not cute enough. He has been consigned to the failed project shelves. When he discovers that the Green Rubber Suits intend to remodel him, he and his fellow failed pets mount a daring escape up through the lab’s labyrinthine venting system.  With Green Rubber Suits in hot pursuit, Barnabus and friends spill through the pet shop with its shelves of perfect pets and out into the street. They might not be perfect, but this collection of misfits is free and they survive by sticking together. The Fan Brothers (this time joined by a third brother) are known for their sumptuous artwork and this book is no exception. Atmospheric illustrations brimming with intricate detail will invite young readers to return again and again to Barnabus and his perfectly imperfect friends.

 
 

Jo's Recommendations

Anne-Marie's Recommendations