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book review

The Girl with Ghost Eyes

By M.H. Boroson

Talos, 274 pages, $35.99

Li-lin, a young woman gifted with the ability to see the spirit world, must battle a powerful sorcerer to save San Francisco's Chinatown in M.H. Boroson's imaginative, adventure-filled debut. The Girl with Ghost Eyes shares much with Paul Yee's A Superior Man, also published this year. Both concern saving face and questions of belonging in late-19th-century North American Chinese communities. In both, white people play mere bit parts, a refreshing change. A Superior Man is meant as historical fiction, though, and while thorough research backs The Girl with Ghost Eyes, it's marketed as fantasy. As it turned out, the novel it most reminded me of was Frank Busch's Grey Eyes, from last year – another suspenseful, tightly plotted story about magic outside the European tradition. This page-turner shouldn't be taken as non-fiction. Still, its immersive depiction of Taoist tradition and one historical Chinatown is likely to inspire further reading.

Pillow

By Andrew Battershill

Coach House, 231 pages, $19.95

Pillow is about a large-hearted former professional boxer nicknamed Pillow, now working as an enforcer for the mob but looking to get out after his girlfriend becomes pregnant. Added complication: It's contemporary, but this criminal syndicate is run by the Surrealists: Gwynn Apollinaire, Louis Aragon, Georges Bataille, et. al. (no prior knowledge required). General opinion of Pillow is that he's taken too many hits to the head, which may be true. But Pillow isn't stupid. Great boxers possess a kinetic intelligence so rare it goes unacknowledged: cerebral thinking might dismiss the idea, but it's possible to think with one's body. Great fighters also have personality – an automaton can't dance. Pillow has physicality and charisma in spades, characteristics that carry through to the novel as a whole. It's writing in which breathing takes on extra significance, as it does for any athlete. A fresh, incredibly smart take on literary crime.

Meadowlark

By Wendi Stewart

NeWest, 299 pages, $21.95

"We're all orphans," a character states plainly near the end of Meadowlark. "We" is the three friends the novel follows as they travel from elementary through high school in rural Northwestern Ontario in the 1960s and '70s. "Orphans" is figurative. Rebecca's family car went through ice when she was 6 – she and her father survived, but he may as well not have, the amount he looks after her. Chuck's parents are indifferent or openly hostile. Adopted as an infant, Lissie's birth family is a mystery. Together, they struggle with a shared sense of imprisonment in their insular town and in their responsibilities to family. One criticism: Some word choices seem anachronistic for the time. Meadowlark isn't a period piece, though, and these slips don't seriously mar the work. Read it for Wendi Stewart's powerful evocation of loss and for the hope held throughout that these orphans will find some escape.

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