Aaron Cordic and Samantha Riske are a couple of twenty-something hypochondriacs living in east-end Toronto. While Aaron works part-time at a bathroom supply store, donning surgical masks, plastic gloves, and a backpack full of sanitary products, Samantha hides herself away in their apartment, tip-toeing around naked and spying on the neighbours. Between paranoid trips to the doctor and extremely intimate examinations of each other's bodies, they’ve managed to eke out an isolated and highly sterilized existence. Then, one day, birds begin falling from the sky as numerous tenants in their building become mysteriously ill. Before long, a pandemic known as Buzzard Flu has swept across the city, and Aaron and Samantha must come to terms with the all-too-real possibility that disease, or even death, could finally be at hand. But is Buzzard Flu the biggest problem the couple must face? Or does a more dangerous killer lurk closer to home. By turns disturbing, uplifting, funny, and weirdly erotic, Touching Strangers examines what it means to be young and afraid in a world more hazardous than we want to believe.
Madden (Poison Shy) offers a rousing, weird, and darkly comic tale with a beating pulp fiction heart. Virtually seeping bodily fluids, it evokes films such as David Cronenberg's Rabid and Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, in which dense urban populations become fertile disease incubators and hell really is other people. The novel begins in a low-rent Toronto apartment building that houses motley renters in close quarters. Aaron and Samantha, a couple since adolescence, share a germ phobia that has resulted in an anxious existence defined by manic hygiene and self-diagnosis. When wildlife start dying, followed by the couple's neighbors, they and their already unhinged relationship spin out of control. Toronto is soon in crisis; the "buzzard flu" is quick-acting and deadly. Madden's story remains close to the couple, but its scope steadily widens to include a drug dealer, his dealer, the second dealer's brother, a sex worker, her clients, and other viral hosts. Using short, film-style jump cuts, Madden expertly covers his expanding cast and their territory, from dirty alleys and retail shops to hospital wards. He offers intriguing thoughts on intimacies, the human need for and fear of them, and their sometimes steep price. He dwells on "the unsettling bizarreness of the situation," but the story has an appealing B-movie merit: sometimes gory, sometimes crude, sometimes funny, sometimes violent, and altogether engrossing.