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Book Reviews

Glory Days and Other Stories

by Gillian Chan

Back of Beyond

by Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis’s Back of Beyond contains 12 stories diverse in tone and content, from “Gore,” a giddy take on the popular horror novelist “R.L. Tankard,” to “Potato,” a touching portrait of a young girl whose brother disappears into a religious cult. What links these stories is that they are all, in some way, not quite of this world. Appearing in these stories are a silkie (half-human, half-seal), a fairy midwife, a seemingly helpless supernatural being in disguise who repays a kindness, and fairy folk both malevolent and benign. But the magic is rarely blatant. Instead, it wafts through these stories like a dissipating mist or slides into the reader’s peripheral vision at the last moment. This sleight of hand allows Ellis to write about tired old problems such as divorce, family violence, anorexia, step-siblings, and parental depression with subtlety and freshness. The more pervasive sorcery in Back of Beyond, though, lies in the writing. Again and again, Ellis plucks brilliant metaphors out of her characters’ lives, and spins them into themes that carry the plots in unforseen directions. No smoke and mirrors here, only the pure, transcendant magic of words. This book is a joy.

Perhaps we react so positively to magic in literature because it takes us places we cannot otherwise go. Gillian Chan’s second story collection, Glory Days, takes us back to the setting of her first book, the Christie-nominated Golden Girl. At Elmwood High, the bite marks of reality are clearly visible. These five stories are written in a straightforward style that will appeal to teens. There are no technical flaws with which to take issue. Which leaves me to wonder why my reaction to the book was almost allergic. I set Glory Days down with profound relief.

These five stories deal with ordinary kids facing typical tribulations. In “Singing the Blues,” Rachel examines the difficulty she had adjusting to her brother’s transformation from geek to hip guitar player. In “The Boy Most Likely,” Art does volunteer work only to boost his chances of getting into a good college, and finds his ideas about losers confirmed by the cranky old derelict he helps. In “The Courtship of Rudy,” an oversized boy is asked to a dance, only to discover he’s the butt of a joke. In “The Invisible Girl,” Luisa, new to Elmwood, dates a guy just to give her entry to a clique, and is almost raped in revenge. In “Glory Days,” Mike sees his father exploiting his little half-brother’s hockey playing, just as he once used Mike’s basketball skills, to vicariously relive his youth.

There are moments of redemption in Glory Days. Rachel accepts her family, Rudy finds he fits with Rachel’s friends, Luisa gets Mike, the boyfriend she really wants, and Mike vows to help his little brother. But Elmwood High is a use-or-be-used world. Chan’s characters are preoccupied with superficial popularity and self-gratification. Anyone even mildly different is met with suspicion and scorn. Is this realism, or just a mean-spirited take on adolescents? The redeeming qualities – naiveté, idealism, quirky humour, fierce loyalty, and deep capacity for feeling – that endear us to adolescents despite themselves, and that make Sarah Ellis’s stories sparkle, are missing. Without them, Elmwood High seems populated by 45-year-olds in ripped jeans and cheerleader outfits. This is not a pretty picture, but it’s not a realistic one either.