Can’t Lit Fall Previews

Currently Reading: Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha

Not to throw shade (except kind of really to throw a little shade…), but there is one Canadian book that has been getting some serious buzz this fall. And guess what? I don’t think it’s the most exciting CanLit that’s being released this season! Not even close. Let me tell you about what I DO think is the most exciting CanLit being released this season…

Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline

The cover of Empire of Wild: A Novel, by Cherie Dimaline. The cover also notes that the author is the same as the #1 Bestseller The Marrow Thieves. The image is a mostly desaturated image of a green armchair sitting in the middle of a forest clearing.

I work at Another Story, an indie bookshop in Toronto’s west end. The year that I began working there was the year that Cherie Dimaline’s YA Indigenous speculative fiction novel The Marrow Thieves took the world by storm. When I chewed through it in one sitting, the cover was fresh and bare. Now, the cover is littered with medallions representing the awards that this title has won since its released, so much so that they nearly obscure the art. By the time the winter holiday shopping season rolled around, we were literally having cartons of this title delivered by hand from our distributors at the last minute to keep up with customer demand.

I was working at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton in 2018 when I learned that Dimaline had secured contracts for four more books after the success of the Marrow Thieves, and on September 17th, the first of those will be available to the public. Empire of Wild is, like Dimaline’s last book, an Indigenous speculative fiction title, this time written for a mature audience. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on an ARC of this book.

I wasn’t disappointed. Much like when I read the Marrow Thieves, it took me a few chapters to really get into the pacing. As a settler reader, I sometimes find myself challenged by this aspect of Indigenous storytelling, but the more Indigenous lit I spend time with, the more that I am growing accustomed. Taking the time to get into the rhythm of brilliant books is always well worth it.

In Empire of Wild, Dimaline skillfully weaves her Métis heritage into a politicized, suspenseful narrative that centres around a woman’s search for a missing partner, the damage that Big Oil does in Indigenous communities, and the rougarou – a Métis mythical creature that calls to mind an anthropomorphic, demonic wolf.

CWs for this book include murder, other violence, possible abduction/abandonment by a family member, extreme right religious content, and substance use. It is an adult title, and it doesn’t pretend to be for a YA audience. I would definitely recommend this book. Is there any more enjoyable way to learn about social justice issues than through delicious, #OwnVoices storytelling?

If you are a settler and pick up Dimaline’s work, and then want to learn more about Indigenous issues, there are some great resources and books that can be read as follow up – including Billy-Ray Belcourt’s fall release, NDN Coping Mechanisms, which I recommend later in this post.

Other resources I would recommend are the final report of the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the content produced by Idle No More. Some non-fiction titles that would be fantastic follow up include 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, by Bob Joseph, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, Heart Berries, by Therese Marie Mailhot, and A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott. Last but not least, if you can’t get enough Indigenous speculative fiction, I can’t recommend Jonny Appleseed enough, by Two-Spirit author Joshua Whitehead.

I Hope We Choose Love, by Kai Cheng Thom

The cover of I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl's Notes from the End of the World, by Kai Cheng Thom. A red flower with a yellow and red centre on a black background, with white lettering.

Kai Cheng Thom is one of the only authors whose work I savour. From her insightful articles and essays to her picture books, Thom’s writing is some of my favourite. She has an advice column in Xtra, and her recent essay on the legacy of trauma within queer communities has been resonating with lots of folks online. From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea is one of my all-time favourite, gender-affirming picture books to read with children and adults alike, and Thom’s artwork is sumptuous and vibrant.

I’ve read, re-read, and been repeatedly brought to tears by her poetry collection a place called NO HOMELAND, but I’ve actually held off on reading her fictionalized memoir, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, which got some buzz recently since it was Emma Thompson’s Shared Shelf pick in March of 2019. I couldn’t bring myself to read it, because Thom didn’t have any other books, and I didn’t want to have read everything she’d published! I was so excited when I heard that Thom had a new project in the works, and now the wait is almost over, since her new collection of non-fiction essays, I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, will hit shelves on September 24th.

Heartwrenchingly, I find myself hesitant about this new collection. It is beautiful, and brilliantly written. It is thought provoking, and that Thom brings a perceptive, and well-informed analytical lens to the issues that marginalized people face surviving the current political climate together. I would never hesitate to recommend any of Thom’s work (this collection included) to another reader, but I wondered even reading the title if perhaps our paradigms had diverged too far in recent times for me to find Thom’s newest work meaningful for me personally in the same way that I had her previous publications. Am I too cynical? Am I too white? Am I too hopeless? Am I too immature? Am I too angry?

I saw red flags that led me to believe this book was not for me. In the first chapter, Thom referenced works that make me deeply uncomfortable, for example, Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse, which is a deeply problematic work that can be used to gaslight victims of harassment. Thom also criticized “call out culture” or “cancel culture”, when I am of the opinion that if cancel culture’s existence isn’t a myth entirely, people often use this rhetoric when what they really mean is “consequences.” Yet, when Thom outlined her political views, I found nothing objectionable, and so I decided to proceed with caution.

Whatever it is about me and my social location, or about this political moment, I struggled with this collection. The format alternates between essays and poetry, and while much of the poetry reached me in a way that felt reminiscent of NO HOMELAND, the essays did not. They’re accessible and well-articulated, and I was often right there with Thom, until about three quarters of the way through. At some point in each of the essays, I found myself taking pause.

There was a conversation on Twitter recently about how instead of describing the written work of a marginalized person as “important” or “urgent”, we should be approaching these works as requiring “urgent listening.” I hold Kai Cheng Thom in great esteem, and while the conclusions drawn in this book are difficult for me to agree with, it is a book that I think warrants urgent listening, and probably for me, revisiting. I would definitely recommend it to fans of books like Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown, and it may just become my alternate recommendation when folks come into my shop for Conflict is Not Abuse. In the meantime, me and my rage are looking forward to savouring Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars in the not-too-distant future.

NDN Coping Mechanisms, by Billy-Ray Belcourt

The cover of NSN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, by Billy-Ray Belcourt. The cover notes that the author is the winnter of the Griffin Poetry Prize. The image is a person with long, dark hair, wearing a black shirt, set against a backdrop of dry, tall grass or wheat, and a pale, clear blue sky. The person has their hands folded as if in prayer in front of them, and the hands are bound together with white fabric. They are holding a piece of wood that looks like a dried, dead tree, with a hole positioned over one of the person's eyes. The wood obscures the rest of the face.

I was honoured to be able to attend the Toronto launch of this book as one of the staff of Another Story, who are the book vendors for the literary events held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As Belcourt himself noted during his talk, the event was very well-attended, and I spent the majority of my time behind the bookselling table admiring the spectacular beadwork and other Indigenous jewellery that so many of the people in the diverse crowd seemed to be wearing.

In my doctoral studies, I cite Belcourt’s work on animality in decolonial thought constantly these days. He is one of few Indigenous scholars based in colonial Canada who has written academic work in this area, and since I study working animals using an anti-racist and decolonial lens, his work has been invaluable to me. Because I had yet to read Belcourt’s Griffin-award-winning poetry collection This Wound is a World, I was intrigued by this new work consisting of both scholarly theorizing, as well as poetry.

The event, like the book (title pronounced N-D-N Coping Mechanisms), was varied in both tone and intellectual register. The book is a gripping commentary on the paradoxical horror and beauty of Indigenous queer life in colonial Canada. Belcourt noted that the book had already made the CBC Books Bestseller List for its first week out – but had, strangely, been placed in the fiction category.

Belcourt was joined at the AGO by fellow Indigenous author and scholar, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who asked questions ranging from how Belcourt conceptualized success and envisioned his responsibility to future Indigenous queer authors, to probing for details about the men that Belcourt writes about in his new book. Belcourt himself joked about being born in the 90’s and thus having too short an attention span to write a novel, and also mused about who the anthropological object of his creative work was. I simultaneously enjoyed the evening, and felt (appropriately) like a complete outsider. At times, the conversation was theoretically challenging for me to keep up with – and I say that as a fifth year PhD student. I was both awed, and at times, a little lost. Both Belcourt’s and Simpson’s readings of excerpts from the book made me shiver.

There were a few moments in the evening that were particularly poignant for me. When asked why he writes, Belcourt responded, “I don’t know how else I would deal with all this shit.” As someone who has been eyeball-deep in affective scholarly work for the better part of my adult life, this was deeply relatable to me. In some ways, NDN Coping Mechanisms appeals to me as a work precisely because of this. I am interested and often validated when I have the opportunity to read about the experiences of other marginalized people who have found creative ways to cope with the state of the world, or who cope through content production.

I was also charmed and impressed when Simpson inquired whether Belcourt suffered from imposter syndrome, and he replied, “Maybe it’s just my generation’s thing of being like, I know I’m amazing!” The audience laughed, and Belcourt paused before continuing, “I know what I bring to the table.” As a bookseller and a member of the literary community, if I could have one wish for all Indigenous people, it would be that they all feel this kind of confidence in their work. Indigenous literature is certainly having a cultural moment right now, one that I hope will have a lasting effect on the literary scene in our colonial nation state, and I hope that Indigenous creators can all be aware of just how much they bring to the table.

Lastly, and to make reference back to some of my complicated feelings about Thom’s I Hope We Choose Love, Simpson mentioned during the launch that some of Belcourt’s lines of poetry would stay with her forever, and I think that the one that she mentioned is a good place to end this recommendation of Belcourt’s NDN Coping Mechanisms, which is available for purchase now. He wrote, “Revenge is more decolonial than justice,” something which feels equitable and firey and powerful to me. Simpson therefore asked herself, and Belcourt, and I think that it is a good question for everyone in the Canadian literary community to consider: what does revenge look like in CanLit?

Other Fall Books That Just Can’t Lit

…and if two books won’t be enough to stock up your TBR this fall, there are lots of other Canadian releases you should know about, for readers of all ages. These are some of the ones that I would recommend:

  • One Drum, by Richard Wagamese, October 19th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • On Fire, by Naomi Klein, September 17th
    Political non-fiction.
  • From Where I Stand, by Jody Wilson-Raybould, September 20th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • Breaking the Ocean, by Annahid Dashtgard, available now
    Memoir, Iranian-Canadian author.
  • Pickles vs the Zombies, by Angela Misri, September 21st
    Middle grade dystopian.
  • Angry Queer Somali Boy, by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali, available now
    LGBTQ2S+ memoir, POC author.
  • Hustling Verse, various authors, available now
    Poetry, authors are sex workers.
  • African Canadian Leadership, various authors, available now.
    Political non-fiction, POC authors.
  • I Promise, by Catherine Hernandez and Syrus Marcus Ware, available now
    Picture book, LGBTQ2S+, POC authors.
  • Blanket Toss Under the Midnight Sun, by Paul Seesequasis, October 22nd
    Photography, Indigenous artist.
  • We Three, by Markus Harwood-Jones, available now
    YA with polyamory and LGBTQ2S+ representation.
  • In My Own Moccasins, by Helen Knott, available now
    Memoir, Indigenous woman author.

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Fall Preview: Music and Monsters

Currently Reading: NW, by Zadie Smith

I am super lucky that for this upcoming season, I was gifted some amazing (and in some cases, very high profile) ARCs, either for the purpose of screen reading them to see if they’d be a good fit for the bookshop where I work, or for review. Some came directly from incredibly generous publicists, and others came from the shop’s hardworking sales reps. Others came from Edelweiss+ or Netgalley. EITHER WAY, for the next couple of months, I’m going to do my best to share the wealth and feature some of these hot new titles in this space.

If you’re interested in my own personal reading, I stumbled across this read-a-thon that’s too perfect for me to pass up! It’s called the #VillainAThon, and I’ll be participating until the end of October. It’s my first ever read-a-thon! (When do I get my merit badge?) I’ve paired the information about the #VillainAThon with a fall preview that would be a perfect fit!

Before I get to these great ARCs, I stumbled across a new resource recently that is incredible. Compiled by Ray Stoeve, it’s the YA Trans Ownvoices Masterlist – a list of all the trans, young adult lit that is written by trans authors. Check it out, and if you like it or find it useful, please remember to show your appreciation through ko-fi.

High School, by Tegan and Sara

Cover image of High School, by Tegan and Sara. Image is of two twins with long, thick hair, standing back to back, looking into the distance. Image is black and white, on a light gray background. Image is oriented in landscape, although the book is oriented in portrait.

I first discovered Tegan and Sara’s music when I was an unaware queer teen, living in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It wasn’t even that I was closeted, it was that I was so unexposed to the breadth of LGBTQ2S+ experiences that I didn’t know that there was queerness beyond gay, white men. I had no idea that I could be anything other than a cis, het, woman. And even so, something in their music spoke to me in a way that most other music never had. So Jealous became the soundtrack to my life overnight, and awakened something in me that had yet to be discovered.

I’ve been a huge fan of theirs since then. The Con guided me through much of my early twenties, and I can sing every word of Sainthood by heart. I’ve seen them in concert in arenas and grassy fields, and heard their music echo off the towers of the Toronto skyline during Pride. When I heard that they had a book coming out, I was so excited.

High School isn’t exactly what I expected. When I saw the previews online, I imagined a glossy, hardcover book, with loads of photos, lyrics sprinkled throughout, something abstract and commemorative – but the book is a straight memoir. While there are photos included, the book is a collection of autobiographical essays, alternating authors, that chronicles the artists’ lives from tenth through twelfth grade, in downtown Calgary, Alberta.

This memoir feels very CanLit to me. Written in a chronological timeline, the stories are set on a backdrop of cold, Alberta winter days that turn the skin of the white authors’ knees purple through their ripped jeans, and freeze car batteries. There are stories of weekends spent in Jasper, and shows at the Saddledome. The anecdotes that Tegan and Sara tell are also very 90’s throwback. I think any white, middle class, Canadian Millennial who picks this up will find something relatable in the ambling stories of twins who troll Value Village for striped sweaters, write long notes to their friends, and fight over the telephone.

I almost felt like this book was told in two parts. Tegan and Sara before music entered their lives, and after. *High School* is the story of three tumultuous years, and the first half of the book is an exploration of budding queerness, the complex relationship that exists between twin sisters and their adolescent friends, and (CW) more alcohol drug use than I expected. For me, it was honest, complicated, and relatable. While I enjoyed reading Tegan and Sara’s musical origin story, the second half of the book focused much more on their fledgling career. I wished that the themes of the first half had bled a little more into the later part of the book.

Now having read the whole thing, I’m glad that I did, and I would recommend it to fans of Tegan and Sara’s music, CanLit memoir fans, or young queer Canadians still learning about their identities. The one burning question that I felt the book left unresolved for me – and maybe this is petty – is how “Sara and Tegan”, used throughout the entire text of the book, became “Tegan and Sara”?!

*High School* comes out on September 24th, and is available for pre-order now. Peripherally, Tegan and Sara’s new album, “Hey, I’m Just Like You,” comprised of songs unearthed while working on writing the memoir, will drop on September 27th. If you’re a fan of their older music like I am – I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about this new album, and I could be ready for a nice nostalgic Spooky Season this year. If you haven’t seen the preview video for the new album, you can watch it below, and get hyped for all this fresh Tegan and Sara content…

Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi

Cover of Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi. Letters of the title are large and blocky, filled with cream-coloured feathers. They are set against a map of a neighbourhood in purple and cream. In the foreground stands a young Black girl in pajamas and slippers, holding a large feather in her right hand.

…cue the gushing. I’ve written about Emezi before on this blog, so it should come as no surprise that when I heard they had another book coming out, I was immediately eager to read it. Even with my high level of anticipation, this book blew me over in so many ways. First, when talking to one of my partners while I was reading, I described the worldbuilding in this book as setting a high bar for what the norm for books of the future should be. To begin, Pet is set in a fictionalized world, post-revolution, in a time of relative peace. Emezi takes this basic, familiar setting, and masterfully crafts their main character, Jam, and her surroundings in a way that sets a fresh standard for what diverse representation in novels should be.

Race, transness, queerness, disability, and neurodiversity all get a place to unapologetically shine in this book in a way that regularly brought me to the edge of tears. I am doing my best to be acutely aware of my privilege as a white, settler reader, as I write this next bit. I had to read Pet more slowly than almost any book that I’ve ever read, and part of the reason for that is because it was so much to take in. I was completely overwhelmed by the way that Emezi’s poetic prose and nuanced, loving character development served as both a window and a mirror for me over the course of this book.

I felt deeply reflected in this book by the implicit rejection of gender norms, the generous depictions of characters with a rich internal worlds and varying outward capacities, and the tacit portrayal of non-monogamous and queer bio and found family structures. Meanwhile, the dialogue, clothing, and foods that the characters take up through this story were a window into a racial and cultural world that both felt welcoming and nurturing, and utterly unfamiliar to me.

Emezi achieves in Pet much of what they achieve in their previous fictionalized memoir for adults, Freshwater, which is to say that it is a paradigm-shifting gem of a book, but it unfurls in a way that feels more accessible to younger readers or people who may be triggered by some of the content of Freshwater. It also feels more plot-driven – and the story itself is a wild ride about a fantastical creature that is accidentally summoned from a painting in the first few pages of the book, who challenges Jam’s perceptions of the world, but also of her dearest friendship. But I wouldn’t want to spoil it anymore than that.

Pet is exquisite, and it comes out on September 10th. It’s available for pre-order now, and I would encourage you to do that through your local brick and mortar book shop. (CW for mention of child abuse, not very detailed.)

The #VillainAThon

I stumbled across Kailey Steward’s Villain-themed read-a-thon just in time for my favourite time of the year: Spooky Season! I always read a lot of horror, thriller, and paranormal books, but I definitely try to indulge even more in my favourite genre as October approaches. Even though I’ve never participated in a read-a-thon before, I figured this would be the perfect chance, given that the bar for participation was low, and it would give me a chance to chat about my favourite kind of books with some other people who were also excited about them!

My only hesitation in participating is a feeling that’s new to me, but there are a lot of rad folks on Twitter these days who are so much younger than me! While I definitely appreciate that youth and young adults are doing such cool things and using the internet in the best ways, I’m also 31, and always a little nervous about sticking my nose in where I’m just going to be an intrusive elder. But. I decided in this case that talking about spooky books is something I’m willing to do with just about anyone, so I’m pushing my internalized ageism aside and hoping that I’ll be welcome.

If you’re interested in more details on the #VillainAThon, check out Kailey’s post about participating, and choose something from the required reading list! It’s a super accessible event, and if you’re going to participate, please let me know, so I can give you a wave on the bird site!

The Tenth Girl, by Sara Faring

Cover image for Sara Faring's The Tenth Girl. Background is an ice blue, with branches and birds silhouetted against it. There are some letters and numbers indistinct in darker ink. The primary image is of a large, dark, manor house that is suspended in the middle of the cover. It fades to black and then into the background.

Kailey has put together some great recommendations for Villainous reading, but I thought that I’d pile on with one more. I read this book so long ago that I nearly forgot to write about it at all, even though it made my head spin at the time, so I’m very glad that trying to think of something to recommend for the #VillainAThon brought it back to mind. Two of my favourite spooky aspects are morally ambiguous characters, and haunted houses that become characters in their own right. This book has both of those in spades, nothing in this book is as it seems.

This book is a suspenseful, historically situated, complex horror novel, by Argentine-American author Sara Faring. It has dual narrators, which I initially had a negative reaction to, but once I read a few chapters, I had trouble putting it down. I’m so glad that I persevered. The characters and the setting of this novel are well-developed and compelling. The Patagonian setting is unique, and I would encourage educators to recommend this book to students who are interested in history, political resistance, and dictatorships in general. For someone looking for a bit of a more mature read, this would be another book that I would recommend as an alternative to Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

The plotline is extremely complex, with one of the most shocking twist endings I’ve ever read. That said, I question this novel’s categorization as a young adult read. None of the main characters are teens, and this book is one of the more chilling horror novels I’ve read this year – the scare factor is high. It works well as NA, or as a YA/adult crossover. I would recommend this book to fans of Tananarive Due’s The Good House, or Sarah Maria Griffin’s Other Words for Smoke, which I blogged about earlier this year.

Who is the villain in this book? One of the things that I like about it is that I think that many readers would give many different answers. Without spoiling the book, I’d have to say that to make that judgement, you’d have to read it for yourself when it comes out on September 24th. In the meantime, check out the Den of Geek’s interview with Sara Faring, and the book trailer for The Tenth Girl.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.