My Life as a Diamond. Orca Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Skating Over Thin Ice. Red Deer Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
This Book Betrays My Brother. Mawenzi House Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reading each of these books felt like a powerful individual experience; reviewing them together is in some ways exactly the right thing to do, and, in others, risks diminishing the potential impact each book could have on its readers.
When I first picked it up, I knew nothing about Kagiso Lesego Molope’s This Book Betrays My Brother, a novel set in South Africa and originally published in 2012. The narrative unfolds slowly, moving inexorably toward betrayal on multiple levels. Naledi, the narrator and younger sister of Basi, makes it clear from the beginning that she is working her way up to an account of something horrific; the wealth of evocative context she provides along the way allows her to approach the tale of this incident on her own terms. Basi is the first boy born into Naledi’s family in generations, and occupies an elevated position in the entire extended family. Naledi’s parents see their two children differently, which seems like a good thing in the abstract, but which places Basi beyond criticism of all but the most trivial sort. The family’s move up the hill from the township further isolates Naledi and inures her to a set of attitudes toward girls and women that later resonate with Basi’s actions to produce deep trauma. By the time Naledi is a paralyzed observer of her brother’s crime, she has already learned a set of cultural and familial lessons about her own responsibilities. This is a beautifully written and absolutely haunting novel. Naledi’s voice and story stayed with me for a long time after I finished reading. The book does contain potential triggers for survivors of sexual assault.
Imogen St. Pierre, the protagonist of Jean Mills’ Skating over Thin Ice, wrestles with the effects of her early childhood while living a relatively isolated life as a musical prodigy. Forced into a boarding school in her mid-teens, she finds a friend in another new student, Nathan McCormick, a hockey prodigy. Music and hockey might seem an unlikely combination of passions, but the work of this novel lies in presenting Imogen and Nathan as connected by their experiences of celebrity and the expectations of others. The narrative is less about music and hockey than it is a meditation on being exceptional. Imogen is socially awkward in ways that are painful for a reader to experience, while Nathan is both an extraordinarily gifted hockey player and capable of extreme violence. Their friendship is healing for both Imogen and Nathan, but does not replace their respective passions, making their unlikely connection feel more genuine. This book will speak to a set of readers who don’t often see themselves in the texts they read.
The title of My Life as a Diamond suggests (to a fan, at least) a book about baseball, as elite player and narrator Caz negotiates his family’s move from Toronto to Washington State through the community provided by a new team. It is quickly obvious that middle-school student Caz and his parents are using the move to leave behind his former female identity, and this book is a welcome addition to the growing collection of transgender-themed reading for younger readers. The diamond in question comes from a saying Caz’s Nana has about the effects of pressure. Jenny Manzer does a wonderful job evoking an authentic voice for Caz without making him too precious, and his parents’ and grandparents’ voices and reactions ring true as well. Caz flourishes in his new community. He finds that he has the strength and support he needs to stand up to the bully who tries his best to out Caz in a very public way. From issues like sleepovers to his musings about how life will change when he hits puberty, ten-year-old Caz’s range of experiences feels right for the target age group (ages nine to twelve). A lovely book indeed.