A Guide to Canadian Children's Books

by Deirdre Baker and Ken Setterington
354 pages,
ISBN: 0771010648

The Syllabus

by Mike Barnes
208 pages,
ISBN: 088984254X

Love Object

by Sally Cooper
365 pages,
ISBN: 155002387X


by Brian E. Pearson
278 pages,
ISBN: 1551263505


by Peter Darbyshire
200 pages,
ISBN: 1551925621

Butterflies Dance in the Dark

by Beatrice MacNeil
332 pages,
ISBN: 1552634744

Post Your Opinion
First Novels
by W.P Kinsella

Passiontide, by Brian E. Pearson (Path Books, 278 pages, ISBN:1551263505). Since this is published by the Anglican Book Centre, I thought, Oh dear, religious propaganda, but such is not the case. The main character, Father David Corcoran, is an Anglican priest, but he has a myriad problems dealing with his personal and professional life. He lives a rather colorless existence in Toronto with his wife and two children. He is stuffy and conservative, insisting that everyone call him Father.
His crisis begins when his wife admits to a brief lesbian relationship with her best friend. The good Father forgets all the tenets of his religion, offers no forgiveness, refuses even to discuss the matter, and runs off to a temporary position in the area of Tofino on Vancouver island. How the informal people and beautiful surroundings bring him more or less to his senses takes up the remainder of the story. However the path is not easy, he comes to doubt his faith and like the man in the previous book develops a crush/obsession with the local veterinarian, Daphne. He writes her a maudlin and embarrassing love letter. But it is a near death experience that sends him on his way back to his family, somewhat changed but with a lot of work still to do. The writing is competent, the cover is pretty, and Father David is a sympathetic character.

Love Object, by Sally Cooper (Dundurn, $19.99, 365 pages, ISBN: 155002387X), is the umpteenth female coming of age novel this year and ranks near the bottom of the pile because of its verbosity and lack of organization. The difficulties start with Cooper introducing six characters on the first half page. The protagonist is Mercy, who is about 17 in 1983. The story flops back and forth between 1978 when Mercy's mother Sylvia becomes mentally ill and is institutionalized. The changes in time are difficult to follow and it is often hard to know whether we are in 1978, 1983 or somewhere in between. The characters are Ontario hillbillies, quirky and unlikable. The father is almost simple in his devotion to his absent wife, while Mercy's young brother is a budding cross-dresser. The relatives, Uncle Larry and his family, are straight out of Deliverance. What starts as a young girl trying to come to terms with her mother's mental illness turns, in the final pages, into a gothic horror story. The organization is haphazard. The author tries to cram every possible detail into the story, whether necessary or not. This book desperately needed editing, organizing, and probably 100 pages cut. There are some good individual scenes as when twelve-year-old girls experiment sexually at a summer camp, though the problem is that the whole summer camp scene needed to be cut. The dialogue gets out of hand. For instance, can you imagine an unschooled grandmother saying this to her pubescent granddaughter? "When I was young, desire slipped on and off me like clouds on the sun. . ." And the narrator who is supposed to be literate observes, "Soon the two were rolling around in a wrestle."

Butterflies Dance in the Dark, by Beatrice MacNeil (Key Porter Books, $24.94, 332 pages, ISBN: 1552634744), follows Mari-Jen from age five to adulthood in the aptly named hamlet of Ste. Noire in Cape Breton. The novel is a powerful indictment of the Catholic Church, as they hold their ignorant flock in bondage through superstition, fear and intimidation. Mari-Jen's mother is unmarried; she has twin sons by one father, Mari-Jen by another. Mari-Jen, though very smart, has a learning disability that keeps her silent to a point where she is regarded as retarded. She suffers constantly at the hands of the sadistic, perhaps criminally insane, Mother Superior, who unmercifully ridicules her and her family. She has an annoying aunt and uncle who truly are mental cases. The little girl's frustration is palpable. Her brothers grow up and hit the road, having been helped by a neighbor, a Polish Jew, who, of course, is distrusted by the catholic community, particularly the evil Mother Superior. Mari-Jen has a breakdown after her mother conveniently dies, but is rescued by the saintly neighbor, and her brothers return and set up a successful business in a nearby city. The story sort of peters out in the later stages. Mari-Jen who should be suing the church for millions of dollars for at least ten years of abuse, meekly accepts a minor position at the institution that abused her. The final explanation for why the Mother Superior treated her as she did, holds no water, and the ending is completely unsatisfactory. The Mother Superior is The Devil incarnate. She goes unpunished for her misdeeds, and unhappily Mari-Jen has been indoctrinated too thoroughly to make her much needed escape.

Please, by Peter Darbyshire (Raincoast Books, $21.95, 200 pages, ISBN: 1551925621). A novel this is not. It is a collection of stories titles intact, passed off as a novel because novels theoretically sell better than story collections, about a group of disparate people linked only by the narrator, a slightly dimwitted slacker, who delivers the sometimes very humorous vignettes sotto voce, reminding me of a 1960s comedian named Jackie Vernon whose catch phrase was "I used to be a dull guy." The nameless narrator (it is virtually impossible to empathize with someone with no name) grieves the wife who has left him, while he leaps backward and forward in time recalling their meeting, their bizarre wedding, his contacts with an insane religious cult, a criminal who sends him on risky errands, his adventures as a pretend patient for interns to practice on, and a bizarre scenario where he and a gun-toting girlfriend track down a thief who stole their tickets to a concert. The stories are generally congenial if very low key, and Darbyshire shows a good deal of potential. He might someday write a real novel.
What first appears to be a beautifully designed jacket and cover turns out to have problems: when the jacket is discarded, as most jackets are, we are left with a book with a blank spine and no author's name.

The Syllabus, by Mike Barnes (Porcupine's Quill, $19.95, 208 pages, ISBN: 088984254X), may not be the worst novel of 2002, but is certainly the most boring. Had it not been the final book of the year I would have invoked the 50-page rule. The first 150 or so pages of this very short book can be summed up in one sentence. "Except for a brief, somewhat sexual encounter with a friend's mother the first 17 years of my life involved a generic, trite, middle class Canadian upbringing." There follows about 25 interesting pages as the nameless narrator (he signs his e-mails M.) becomes involved with a devious, controlling girlfriend. The final 30 pages are piffle. This is a novel written in the form of e-mails, which means the author doesn't have to pay attention to grammar, sentence structure or capitalization. How convenient!

W. P. Kinsella reads first novels and plays in Scrabble tournaments.

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