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Visceral: A Book List, Part II

Today we follow up Part I of our focus on visceral books: books we feel in our bodies as much as our brains, books that can range from shocking to arousing to graphic ... and more. These books often stay with us long after we've turned the last page. We're pleased to present a compilation of these books, complete with publishers' descriptions and review excerpts.


Midnight Tides, by Steven Erikson: Book Five of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Midnight Tides is the most visceral of the series. After decades of internecine warfare, the tribes of the Tiste Edur have at last united under the Warlock King of the Hiroth, There is peace—but it has been exacted at a terrible price: a pact made with a hidden power whose motives are at best suspect, at worst deadly. To the south, the expansionist kingdom of Lether has enslaved all its less-civilized neighbors with rapacious hunger. All, that is, save one—the Tiste Edur. It seems only a matter of time before they too fall, either beneath the suffocating weight of gold, or by slaughter at the edge of a sword. Yet as the two sides gather for a pivotal treaty neither truly wants, ancient forces are awakening. The impending struggle between these two peoples is but a pale reflection of a far more profound, primal battle—a confrontation with the still-raw wound of an old betrayal and a craving for revenge.

SF Site called the Malazan series "some of the most febrile and imaginative myth-making ever attempted." And Fantasy Faction said of Midnight Tides, "Do not underestimate what Erikson has achieved here for it is nothing less than masterful. With few touchstones to the earlier books, with the words he sets out in this work alone, Erikson paints for us an enlarged world that is as rich as the one he took is through in the preceding four instalments of the series."



A Killing Winter, by Wayne Arthurson: Leo Desroches, a half-Cree, half-French Canadian reporter working undercover in Edmonton, is writing about the homeless of Edmonton. In his personal life, he’s trying to reconnect with his estranged son while fighting his urge to gamble. And at the newspaper, he is consumed by a story that turns into a personal crusade: a search for a missing Native street kid he’s befriended. When the boy is found brutally murdered, Leo realizes that in order to tell the victim’s story and bring him justice, he has to plumb the depths of First Nations street culture in the local gang to which he belonged. But as Leo delves deeper into the gang and the inner workings of tribal politics, secrets emerge that threaten not only the survival of the tribe, but also Leo’s sanity ... and his life.

From Booklist: “So much is good here: an understanding of the pleasures as well as the horrors of addictions; descriptions of the Canadian cold that send one seeking a radiator; masterful action scenes." And bestselling author Giles Blunt declared, “It's about time  someone set a kick-ass crime novel in Edmonton.”


De Niro's Game, by Rawi Hage: Bassam and George are childhood best friends who have grown to adulthood in war torn Beirut. Now they must choose their futures: to stay in the city and consolidate power through crime; or to go into exile abroad, alienated from the only existence they have known. Bassam chooses one path: obsessed with leaving Beirut, he embarks on a series of petty crimes to finance his departure. Meanwhile, George builds his power in the underworld of the city and embraces a life of military service, crime for profit, killing, and drugs.

Told in the voice of Bassam, De Niro's Game is a beautiful, explosive portrait of a contemporary young man shaped by a lifelong experience of war. Rawi Hage's style mimics a world gone mad: so smooth and apparently sane that its razor-sharp edges surprise and cut deeply."

From the review in The Toronto Star: "De Niro's Game is a feverish nightmare of a book, written with a distinctly European flair ... it stubbornly refuses to offer the reader any easy comfort ... [readers] will be seduced by the undoubted visceral power of this suddenly current narrative." The Literary Review of Canada called De Niro's Game: "A masterpiece ... writing cannot really get much better than Hage's."


Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, by Shyam Selvadurai: The setting is Sri Lanka, 1980, and it is the season of monsoons. Fourteen-year-old Amrith is caught up in the life of the cheerful, well-to-do household in which he is being raised by his vibrant Auntie Bundle and kindly Uncle Lucky. He tries not to think of his life “before,” when his doting mother was still alive. Amrith’s holiday plans seem unpromising: he wants to appear in his school’s production of Othello and he is learning to type at Uncle Lucky’s tropical fish business. Then, like an unexpected monsoon, his cousin arrives from Canada and Amrith’s ordered life is storm-tossed. He finds himself falling in love with the Canadian boy. Othello, with its powerful theme of disastrous jealousy, is the backdrop to the drama in which Amrith finds himself immersed."

From the Booklist review: "As lush and languid as its Sri Lanka setting ... What captures readers is the way the story rolls in waves, mimicking how Amrith looks at himself, then looks away. The luxuriant language with details of architecture and verdant gardens doesn't call attention to itself, but refreshes like a breeze. Selvadurai, who wrote so gracefully for adults ... now does the same for teens."


The Bone Cage, by Angie Abdou: Digger, an 85-kilo wrestler, and Sadie, a 26-year-old speed swimmer, stand on the verge of realizing every athlete's dream—winning a gold medal at the Olympics. Both athletes are nearing the end of their athletic careers and are forced to confront the question: what happens to athletes when their bodies are too old and injured to compete? The blossoming relationship between Digger and Sadie is tested in the all-important months leading up to the Olympics, as intense training schedules, divided loyalties, and unpredicted obstacles take their draining toll. The Bone Cage captures the physicality, sensuality, and euphoric highs of amateur sport, and the darker, cruel side of sport programs that wear athletes down and spit them out at the end of their bloom. With realism and humour, author Angie Abdou captures athletes on the brink of that transition—the lead-up to that looming redefinition of self—and explores how people deal with the loss of their dream.

From Quill & Quire: “Through Sadie and Digger, Abdou captures the heroic quests of these hopeful Olympians in all their gritty pain and glory. Sequences describing Digger’s wrestling matches and Sadie’s gruelling sets of lengths are vivid, intense, and authentic." Lynn Coady wrote, "This novel is as taut, lean and focused as the driven athletes’ lives it chronicles.”


Broom Broom, by Brecken Hancock: Nothing slips by Brecken Hancock's deft ear as she seductively plumbs the depths of the evolution of bathing, doppelgangers, the Kraken, and the minutiae of family with all its tragic misgivings. The poems in Broom Broom pervert the rational, safe parts of the world to extoll and absorb the sweep of human history.

Pank Magazine says: Broom Broom adds to and ultimately transcends the subgenre [the poetry of grief], making something new and strange that also announces the emergence of an exciting young poet at the beginning of a significant body of work."


How to Make Love to a Negro (Without Getting Tired), by Dany Laferriere: Brilliant and tense, Dany Laferriere's first novel is as fresh and relevant today as when it was first published in 1985. With raunchy humor and a working-class intellectualism, Laferriere's narrator wanders the slums of Montreal, has sex with white women, and writes a book to save his life. With this novel, Laferriere began a series of internationally acclaimed social and political novels about the love of the world, and the world of sex, including Heading South and I Am a Japanese Writer.

From Publisher's Weekly: "Laferriere's scintillating debut recounts the sexual adventures of an eclectic cast of characters. In each story-like chapter, Laferriere reveals the workings of race, class, and colonialism in Haitian society and the manipulative sexual power that underlies it all."


The Beauty of the Husband, by Anne Carson: The Beauty Of The Husband is an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in 29 tangos. A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end. This clear-eyed, brutal, moving, darkly funny book tells a single story in an immediate, accessible voice—29 “tangos” of narrative verse that take us vividly through erotic, painful, and heartbreaking scenes from a long-time marriage that falls apart. Only award-winning poet Anne Carson could create a work that takes on the oldest of lyrical subjects—love—and make it this powerful, this fresh, this devastating.

From the New York Times review: "Brilliantly captured ... Reading her is to experience a euphonious, mystical sort of perplexity ... punctuated by what the husband himself calls ‘short blinding passages’ ... moments of almost unbearable poignancy.” Michael Ondaatje has called Carson "the most exciting poet writing in English today."


Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod: Two long-distance runners race a cargo train through a rat-infested tunnel underneath the Detroit River. A pre-adolescent drug store bicycle courier crosses a forbidden threshold in an attempt to save a life, only to risk his own. A young swimmer conquers her fear of water only to discover she’s caught in far more dangerous currents. In Light Lifting, Alexander MacLeod offers us a suite of darkly urban and unflinching elegies for a city and community on the brink. Anger and violence simmer just beneath the surface and often boil over, resulting in both tragedy and tragedy barely averted. But as bleak as these stories sometimes are, there is also hope, beauty, and understanding.

From the Quill & Quire review: "MacLeod’s stories are shorn of sentimentality but drenched in an amorphous yearning, an omnipresent sense of loss and peril that seeps into even the happiest moments ... Steeped in the guts and sadness of life, [Light Lifting] provides moments of pure literary transcendence."


Anatomy of a Girl Gang, by Ashley Little: A powerful exploration of a young girl gang in Vancouver called the Black Roses: Mac, the self-appointed leader and mastermind; Mercy, the Punjabi princess with a skill for theft; Kayos, their former classmate who gave birth to a daughter at age thirteen; Sly Girl, who fled her First Nations reserve for a better life, only to find depravity and addiction; and Z, a sixteen-year-old anti-establishment graffiti artist. Cast out by mainstream society, the five girls terrorize Vancouver with a primal, restless urgency. As they navigate from ATM robberies to cooking crack on the stove to savagely avenging the beating of one of their own, they hope and wait for better days that will turn into a better life, even as the darkness of fate draws inevitably nearer.

From the Geist Magazine review: "Anatomy of a Girl Gang is triumphant, beautiful, startling, sad and gritty—a powerful feminist coming-of-age novel. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "Both gripping and moving ... a tight, grim portrait with deep empathy for characters capable of horrific deeds."


Bull Head, by John Vigna: A line-dancing aficionado visits his brother in jail in hopes of mending their relationship, and instead discovers his own unwitting role in his brother's failed life. After the death of his wife and children, a logger tries to survive the Thanksgiving weekend on his own. A delinquent teen's life is changed forever by a work-camp placement with a violent older boy. A truck driver seeks sanctuary from his abusive wife in a fantasy world of strip clubs and personal ads.

Bristling with restlessness and brutality, the eight linked stories in Bull Head catapult readers into the gritty lives of social outcasts lost in purgatories of their own making. John Vigna tempers raw and at times cruel rural masculinity with graceful prose and breathtaking tenderness to illuminate the plight of men living in small towns and backwoods who belong neither to history nor the future.

Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story, wrote: "A heartbreaking portrait of what it means to be a man in a world where violence trumps reason, and bad decisions begin with good intentions. With wit, tenderness and intelligence, Bull Head exposes the raw underbelly of male experience."

In our series The Recommend, editor extraordinaire Frances Peck wrote: "Turns out Bull Head is full of animals: dogs, deer, elephants, elk. Also truckers, tree planters, brothers. Peeler bars, sad sex, beer, betrayal. From this harsh stuff Vigna spins the most remarkable stories: poignant yet unsentimental, brutal yet gorgeous. There are sentences so simple and so perfect that you’re hard pressed to move beyond them, yet there is nothing precious or arty about the prose. It throbs with the rhythm of the big rig, the crack of the shotgun, the sick thud when a hard-living man falls, his heart breaks, his illusions die."


We So Seldom Look on Love, by Barbara Gowdy: With a particular focus on obsession and the abnormal, We So Seldom Look On Love explores life at its quirky extremes, pushing past limits of convention into lives that are fantastic and heartbreakingly real. Whether writing about the dilemma of a two-headed man who attempts to expunge his own pain, the shock of a woman who discovers she has married a transsexual, the erotic delusions of a woman who repeatedly exposes her body to an unknown voyeur, or the bizarre predilections of a female necrophile (a story made into the acclaimed motion picture, "Kissed"), Gowdy convinces us with incisive detail, only to disarm us with black humor.

In the Boston Globe, Carol Shields wrote: "Barbara Gowdy invites herself, and us, into taboo territory where love and disgust mingle freely. Nothing seems to hold back the narrative flow, not propriety, not politics, not even that ambiguity we once called good taste ... Gowdy writes about the macabre, but she writes like an angel."


Let us know what we're missing (tweet us @49thShelf) and we'll add it to our Visceral list! And don't forget to check out Part I for more reads that will bowl you over.

February 11, 2015
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