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book review


By Jane Eaton Hamilton, Arsenal Pulp, 296 pages, $17.95

What makes a good sex scene? Is it the sex itself or is it a matter of affect? (Do all participants get off or does the reader?) Or is it about, in the case of a novel, description? In promotional material for Weekend, Jane Eaton Hamilton writes, "It probably is possible to write good sex scenes, but I worked more on trying to win the Bad Sex in Fiction Award." I think she's being modest. What I like about Weekend – the story of two queer couples sharing an island in Ontario cottage country over one tumultuous (some might say melodramatic) weekend – is how it depicts sex as part of everyday life and acknowledges queer women and non-binary people as sexual beings without hypersexualizing them. I do wish the story had stuck to the island and not carried over into the week, but this is a good, fresh take on what we talk about when we talk about love.

Death Valley

By Susan Perly, Buckrider Books, 312 pages, $22

A soldier, a novelist, a war photographer, an intelligence operative and a counterterrorism agent in a bird suit take a hallucinogenic road trip in Susan Perly's difficult-to-define novel about war, weaponization and fallout in the desert. The starting place is Las Vegas; the year, 2006; the backdrop: troops deploying to Iraq. Death Valley has a Pynchonesque quality: the many crosscutting stories suggest a web of conspiracy; the depiction of America's military-industrial complex is at once horrific and absurd. I'd characterize it as desert noir. But the novel my mind kept darting to was Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero, and not just because that book is partly set in Nevada's casinos. In Ondaatje's works, lyricism and sensuality are rarely far removed from some violent encounter. That potent mix is present here as well. (Another reader might emphasize the book's Alice in Wonderland homage.) Vivienne Pink, the tough-but-damaged photojournalist, is an anti-hero for the traumas of the past half-century.

The Seven Oaks Reader

By Myrna Kostash, NeWest Press, 238 pages, $26.95

The pianist Glenn Gould revelled in counterpoint, whether in Bach's compositions or his own radio documentaries: In Idea of North, Gould presented a series of voices that sometimes ran overtop one another. Text can't quite achieve this polyphony – the eye can read only one line at a time – but it can come close. Myrna Kostash's Seven Oaks Reader, originally developed for radio, is a contrapuntal history of the 1816 gunfight known as the Battle of Seven Oaks, which took place near the Forks in today's Winnipeg. The skirmish lasted only 15 minutes but left 22 dead and would long reverberate in relations between settlers and natives. In Seven Oaks Kostash arranges short passages from multiple sources – journals, histories, fiction, songs – that together form an at times contradictory narrative. From those contradictions emerge larger truths about finding meaning in history. A work that heeds the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call to build "capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect."

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