If the slowly lengthening nights and cooling winds have you longing for the perfect title to take with you under the covers, check out any one of these lush, engrossing novels.
In Amanda Coplin’s dense debut novel The Orchardist, an orchard farmer called Talmadge has been tending the same grove of fruit trees in the foothills of the Cascades for half a century. His life is changed forever by the appearance of two young sisters and the violent men who trail them. This turn-of-the-century America is as wild as it can be: a nation where solitude is genuine and there truly are places that the law just doesn’t reach.
The Crimson Petal and the White offers a lurid, intoxicating look at the oft-visited streetwalkers, orphans, and gentle ladies of Victorian England. From the high to the low, the people who make up this fabled society are brought together through the dreams of a surprisingly well-read young prostitute named Sugar. Author Michael Faber invokes the gas-lit ambiance of that era but tinges his narrative with an irresistible modernity that makes this novel unique.
Margaret Atwood is my favorite author. You probably know her for her famous dystopian masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale, but forget all about that and read The Blind Assassin instead. In this Booker Prize winner, Atwood traces the history of two sisters: Laura Chase, a novelist who dies mysteriously in her twenties, and Iris Chase, who recounts their story as an octegenarian. There is a novel within this novel, written by Laura; within Laura’s novel, there’s a novel within a novel within a novel: a science fiction tale called “The Blind Assassin” as told to Laura by her lover. It sounds impossibly convoluted, but it just works - Atwood’s genius isn’t just plotting, but stunning language: years later, sentences from this gorgeous book will still be rattling around in your brain. It’s unforgettable.
The Kids are back in the Hall! Or at least they returned to the hall long enough to make a new 8 episode mini-series in 2008 called Death Comes to Town which is super duper funny and, of course, very Canadian.
It used to be impossible to go a day without seeing an episode of The Kids in the Hall, the Canadian Sketch Comedy show that originally aired on CBS and HBO from 1989 to 1995, and then appeared in constant reruns on Comedy Central and other cable channels. But it has been awhile since I have seen the gang altogether (comedians Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thomson) since they have all been off making other TV shows, voicing characters in Disney movies, and hosting reality shows in their home country, so I was thrilled to discover this new series sitting on our new DVD shelf.
Instead of The Kids in the Hall‘s usual short comedic sketches, Death Comes to Town is a murder mystery ala Agatha Christie meets Monty Python featuring a huge cast of characters/suspects all played by the five comedians. The story takes place in the small town of Shuckton, Ontario, when the town’s beloved mayor is killed in his home just after informing the town that they did not win the bid to host the 2028 Winter Olympics. One of the mayor’s old hockey prodigies, an recluse who hasn’t left his home in decades, decides to solve the mystery with help from the local news team and a bunch of quirky townspeople, all while a Demon repeatedly tries to kill him.
I highly recommend Death Comes to Town for all Kids in the Hall fans and for anyone who likes their humor both a little dark and very silly. And although fans may be sad not to see most of their favorite KITH characters, there is a brief cameo by the beloved Chicken Lady.
Idella and Avis are The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay; the girls learned early on to fend for themselves. In 1916, their family is barely scraping out a living on a rocky potato farm in New Brunswick, when their mother unexpectantly dies in childbirth. The girls, ages seven and five, are left in the care of an overwhelmed father who turns to alcohol for comfort. Though Dad tries to create a semblance of normalcy by hiring a series of French Canadian housegirls, none stay for long, and after a few years, he ships the girls across the border for a short stay at a boarding school in Maine.
Idella grows up to be the responsible older sister — always caring for someone. First, it’s for her father, after he is accidentally shot when hunting deer out of season; later, she cares for her very contrary mother-in-law. On the other hand, Avis is the wild one — a free spirit who likes to drink and who runs through men, but often pays painful consequences for her impulsive choices, including a stint in prison. Still, all is not heartbreak in this story of family ties and remarkable resilience — there are equal doses of humor and hilarity as well.
What I found most intriguing about this book is that the author, Beverly Jensen, died of pancreatic cancer in 2003, never having published a word of her writing. So how did this book come to be? Well, a group of supporters gathered around her work, initially getting one of the chapters of this book published as an award-winning short story. Amazingly, the stories all fit together with convicing continuity and the author’s voice comes through loud and clear, even beyond the grave. Every writer should have such friends.
Due South is one of the few prime time Canadian series to air on American tv. The cultural differences between Canada and the U.S. in general, and the Mounties and Chicago police in particular, were a major theme. The Canadian law enforcement officer is politeness personified, while the American is well-armed and cynical.
The tone was gently absurdist. That, and the fact that it bounced all over the schedule, led to it’s cancellation. Fortunately, though, like so many other under-rated shows, it is available on DVD through our very own PrairieCat.
Especially charming, was that the star’s vast knowledge of just about everything was attributed to the fact that his grandparents were librarians. You gotta love that.
What’s a modern-day Olympics without mascots?
Well, definitely still exciting but perhaps a little less fun. If you were able to watch any of the opening ceremony for the Vancouver Winter Olympics, the emphasis on the traditional “First Nations” was obvious. The media and marketing moguls have carried it a bit further by designing some cute, cuddly little mascots inspired by native creatures. Here’s a few to look for:
- Sumi — (the mascot for the paralympic games) is an animal spirit with the hat of a whale, Thunderbird wings and the furry legs of a black bear.
- Quatchi — a friendly, if rather shy, young sasquatch, who wisely wears boots and earmuffs
- Miga — a mythical sea bear, who’s part orca and part Kermode bear
If you go to the official website you and your kids can play games with Quatchi and the other mascots. I don’t know about you, but it’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to competing in the Olympics!
Louise Penny , a former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter, steeps her mysteries in the French culture of Quebec. Her Chief Inspector Gamache series has been compared to Agatha Christie (a small village setting and large cast of characters and surprise endings) . In Brutal Telling, Gamache is called in when an unknown dead body turns up in local bistro. Penny’s skill is creating a place that is so appealing that readers want to move there, bringing to life people you want to spend time with and describing meals that make you salivate.
Kathy Reichs works as a medical examiner in Quebec (and North Carolina). Apparently, the tv show Bones was inspired by Reichs’ work and she also works as a producer on the show.
The heroine of her mysteries is Temperance Brennan, who, coincidentally, is a forensic anthropologist who works in both Quebec and North Carolina. Monday Mourning is set in Montreal, where Tempe investigates the skeletons found in a pizzeria. In this installment, her romance with detective Andrew Ryan is not going well, though the French Canadian setting is as magical as ever.
Everyone knows Dan Ackroyd and Michael J. Fox. And perhaps you knew that Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey were Canadian.
But did you know aboot Eric McCormack, of Will and Grace? And Matthew Perry of Friends? And Victor Garber of Alias?
Our very own Field of Dreams is based on Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, who is, you guessed it, not from Iowa, but from Alberta.
The Edge by Dick Francis is, as always, about horses, but this time the action takes place in Canada, instead of England.
Head of Security for the British Jockey Club, Tor Kelsey travels to Canada for the Great Transcontinental Mystery Race Train. He works undercover as a waiter on the train so he can keep an eye one of the club’s Most Wanted (an extortionist/horse owner they haven’t been able to catch red-handed,yet).
To add to the intrigue, there is a murder mystery group on the train – no one but Tor and his foe know that there is a real murderer on board.
Another railroad mystery is The Silk Train Murder by Sharon Rowse. A train that rushes silk from Vancouver to the east coast of Canada is the setting for a turn of the century romantic caper. Emily Turner is the liberated heroine who helps John Landsdowne Granville investigate a murder. Granville’s quest takes him to the seedier part of frontier towns (opium dens, brothels and dance halls).
The combination of strict Victorian morals and the rambunctious frontier provide a glimpse into a fascinating period of Canadian history.