Exploring the 2013 ReLit Award Shortlist

To make it even more likely that people check out the exciting books on the ReLit Awards shortlist, we're dedicating this post to the finalists. If you're new to these awards, they honour the best writing from Canada’s independent publishers, and they were founded by author Kenneth J. Harvey. Beside each book jacket, you'll find the publisher's description of what's inside and a snippet of a review.

SHORT STORIES:

Seen Reading, by Julie Wilson (Freehand): Seen Reading is the exciting debut collection of microfictions from Canada’s pre-eminent literary voyeur, Julie Wilson. Based on the beloved online movement of the same name, Seen Reading collects more than a hundred fictions inspired by sightings of people reading on Toronto transit, each reader re-invented in a poetic piece of short fiction. Tender, poignant, and fun, Seen Reading offers readers an inspired fictional map while charting an urban centre’s cultural commitment to books and literature.

"Beneath the surface of Julie Wilson’s energy, biting wit and quirkiness lays intelligence and insight—a fresh observer to the dynamic ways in which we communicate." —Anthony de Sa

 

People Who Disappear, by Alex Leslie (Freehand): An oil spill on the West Coast coincides with a loved one's death. An enigmatic young musician experiences the rise and fall of his career, as told through videos posted to YouTube. Sometimes romantic, sometimes elegiac, Alex Leslie's coastal stories take place in ocean inlets and city streets. Haunted as much by technology as by their own ghosts, Leslie's characters face the disappearance of sanity, love, and landscape. An electric, poetic debut.

"Alex Leslie conducts artful traffic in the zeitgeist, stories that are earthy, smoky, with Didion’s terse calm, empathetic and reliable as duct tape." —Mark Jarman

Escape and Other Stories, by Trevor Clark (Now or Never): From the author of the novels Love on the Killing Floor and Dragging the River, Trevor Clark’s new collection of stories covers broad territory, from an addict’s confessions to the corruption of academia, in such diverse locales as Jamaica and the UK. The subtle nuances of knifings, the unforeseen rise of Islamic terrorists, the familial kidnapping and the marriage of convenience that takes a wrong turn—Escape and Other Stories is a rough and tumble collection of tales that not only crosses genres, but oceans as well, drawing the reader into worlds of majestic dilapidation not often seen, but which all of us endure.

"Trevor Clark creates such complex and diverse characters in Escape and Other Stories (Now or Never Publishing, 2012) that it’s like reading ten different stories from ten different authors." —ABCBookworld

Dibidalen by Seán Virgo (Thistledown): Virgo knows the power of short fiction. He knows that the act of storytelling is hardwired into human consciousness and that the well-told story can appear in various shapes and sizes .... The result is a fascinating dance between reader and text that is as rewarding as it is challenging, reminding us of what Anaïs Nin meant when she said, “We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are."

“One of the best in Canada ... what continues to astonish about Seán Virgo is his incredible virtuosity.” —Toronto Star

The Weeping Chair, by Donald Ward (Thistledown): The stories in The Weeping Chair are confidently layered with unexpected situations and characters whose faith in themselves provides the strength to confront whatever weird or challenging experience befalls them. While Ward's style is steeped in the traditional storytelling structures of Flannery O'Connor and P.G. Wodehouse, his highly imaginative settings and eccentric character profiles push the stories' energies into contemporary spheres of literary entertainment.

"The 16 stories here, including Badger, which won the CBC Literary Award, are witty, comical, bizarre, absurd and often quite spiritual, both by turns and often all at once." —Saskatoon StarPhoenix

How to Get Along With Women, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi (Invisible): A sharply original debut collection, How To Get Along With Women showcases Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s keen eye and inventive voice. Infused with a close and present danger, these stories tighten the knot around power, identity, and sexuality, and draw the reader into the pivotal moments where—for better or for worse—we see ourselves for what we truly are.

“Elisabeth de Mariaffi is urgently trapping the ten percent of emotions that hardly get mentioned by anyone else. She’s alive to what disturbs, and she’s dead to cliché.” —Michael Winter, author of The Death of Donna Whalen

 

NOVELS:

Love and the Mess We're In, by Stephen Marche (Gaspereau): When Viv flies to Buenos Aires for a secret liaison with Clive, there is no ambiguity as to their intentions—adultery. But this is where conventionality terminates in Stephen Marche’s new novel, Love and the Mess We’re In, a work whose lyric richness and inventiveness skillfully embody the tumbles and turns of love in a postmodern age. Marche collaborates with award-winning typographer Andrew Steeves to create richly polyschematic book pages whose influences range from the interwoven texts, geometric shaping and pattern-making of Hebraic calligraphy, illuminated manuscripts and incunabular typography to the ordered tangle of a New York City subway map.

"Between the covers is a poignant, fractured narrative of adultery and madness that is sometimes laid out in parallel columns like a script, sometimes in typographic patterns like concrete poetry, and sometimes like flowing waves set sideways." —Globe and Mail

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Minor Episodes / Major Ruckus, by Garry Thomas Morse (TalonBooks): In tribute to the surrealist narrative techniques of André Breton and Robert Desnos, Minor Episodes documents the serial adventures of Minor, the ubiquitous “everymogul” who embodies the economic 1% and keeps musically erotic quixotics on tap. Major Episodes, contrapuntal text and parody of the speculative fiction genre, celebrates the stylistic techniques of William S. Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, following a frenzied struggle by various parties to obtain an essential time-travel component, a struggle that includes psychic “dicks,” universal call-centre operators, aboriginal eroticists, lubricant heiresses, rogue advertisement animations, pornography censors, and alien sperm-bank clones, all to the horrified fascination of hapless meta-writer Oober Mann.

"Minor Episodes / Major Ruckus is a wonder. Garry Thomas Morse most certainly has Salvador Dalí, Miguel de Cervantes, André Breton, and that rude rocker Gargantua, courtesy of Rabelais, in his corner. His novel, with its themes of sex, money, and intrigue, and with its over-current of hilarity running amok, explodes from the page." —M.A.C. Farrant, author of My Turquoise Years

The Lava in My Bones, by Barry Webster (Arsenal): A frustrated Canadian geologist studying global warming becomes obsessed with eating rocks after embarking on his first same-sex relationship in Europe. Back home, his young sister is a high-school girl who suddenly starts to ooze honey through her pores, an affliction that attracts hordes of bees as well as her male classmates but ultimately turns her into a social pariah. Meanwhile, their obsessive Pentecostal mother repeatedly calls on the Holy Spirit to rid her family of demons. The siblings are reunited on a ship bound for Europe where they hope to start a new life, but are unaware that their disguised mother is also on board and plotting to win back their souls, with the help of the Virgin Mary.

"This book is utterly beautiful in its strangeness ... This sensuous tale is both removed from and grounded in the physical, calling attention to our mineral and emotional deficiencies. A brilliant read." —The Coast (Halifax)

Mount Royal, Basil Papademos (Tightrope): A wildly entertaining roller-coaster ride, this novel combines ferociously clever slapstick, frenetic satire, and extremely sizzling love scenes to expose a turbulent 1980s Montreal. While following petty thief, drug dealer, and ladies' man, Johnny, as he explores his sexuality and unearths political cover-ups, this complex narrative examines issues of sexual power and individual identity, the nature of bureaucratic tyranny and political control, and the effect of history on us all. Concluding with the Montreal massacre, this is mostly a bittersweet romance: a love letter to a time and a place.

“Morally dangerous.” —William S. Burroughs, author, the Red Night trilogy, on Basil Papademos’s work.

Heidegger Stairwell, by Kayt Burgess (Arsenal & 3-Day Novel Books): Music journalist Evan Strocker has almost finished a book about his time with Heidegger Stairwell, an indie-rock legend from small-town Ontario whose members he has known his whole life. But the band thinks he's left a little too much of himself on the page, letting his experiences as a transgender man and his complicated "romance" with the lead guitarist eclipse the story of the group's dramatic rise and fall. Through notes and marginalia, the musicians argue over their friend's version of the truth and fight to put their own testimony on the record. And, as Strocker's manuscript finally comes together, both band and writer are forced to face a shocking new event that will change their fortunes once again.

"Heidegger Stairwell was the 2011 winner of the 3-Day Novel contest, and while I thought that last year’s winner was a fun, cute read that was pretty good for a winner of the 3-Day Novel contest, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this year’s is just really good full stop." —Pickle Me This

Life is About Losing Everything, by Lynn Crosbie (Anansi): This is author Lynn Crosbie at her most honest, most cutting, most hilarious, and most heartbreaking. The stories told here are at once a cache, a repository, of a seven-year period in the author's life; and, too, a gymnasium, a place where she can flex her prodigious wit and her dazzling stash of literary tricks. Deft with matters both low- and highbrow (here are stories about 80s big-hair bands and the lasting, theological value of the Rocky series; here, too are stories contemplating critical theory and fine art), Life Is About Losing Everything speaks with manic yet grave authority about risking and losing everything, and then sorting through the remains to discover what is beautiful, what is trash, and what, ultimately, belongs.

"... a finely carved, blood-stained shiv of a book, beautiful and brutal ..." —National Post

The Complete Lockpick Pornography, by Joey Comeau (ECW): Combining two novellas into one volume, this collection explores the effects of prejudice and the ramifications of violence with a slightly unhinged sense of humor and unexpected tenderness. Lockpick Pornography, originally published in 2005, is a gender-queer adventure story that was not widely available until now. We All Got It Coming presents the experiences of a young couple dealing with the aftermath of an act of violence. From kidnapping the son of a "family values" politician to violent confrontation, these are characters who fight back.

"Comeau has an unparalleled knack for finding the sweet sadness and rare humour in common pain, in the painfully commonplace." —Quill & Quire

Maidenhead, by Tamara Faith Berger (Coach House): Myra, naive and curious, is on a family vacation to the southernmost tip of Florida—a mangy Key West full of Spring Breakers. Here, suffering through the embarrassments of a family on the verge of splitting up, she meets Elijah, a charismatic Tanzanian musician who seduces her at the edge of the tourist zone. Myra longs to lose her virginity to Elijah, and is shocked to learn he lives with Gayl, a secretive and violent woman with a strange power over him. Myra and her family return to an unnamed, middle-class, grey Canadian city and she falls in with a pot-smoking, intellectual anarchist crowd. When Gayl and Elijah travel north and infiltrate Myra's life, she walks willingly into their world: Myra continues to experiment sexually with Elijah, while Gayl plays an integral part in the increasingly abject games. Maidenhead traverses the desperate, wild spaces of a teenage girl's self-consciousness. How does a girl feel scared? What is she scared of? And how does telling yourself not to be scared really work? As Myra enters worlds unfamiliar of sex, porn, race and class, she explores territories unknown in herself. 

"Tamara Faith Berger has been writing challenging and sexy books for more than a decade, but this novel is her best yet." —Maisonneuve

Texas, by Claudio Gaudio (Quattro): A diplomat is captured by supposed insurgents and is waiting in a room for his execution. Texas is a provocative story of death against the backdrop of ugly and uncompromising politics. It is also a meditation on empire, imperialism and American hegemony. The writing borrows heavily from philosophy and poetry. A book full of unique visions, written by a writer who has an ear for cadence.

"Poetry as political criticism is not new, but Claudio’s exceptional talent in weaving it into a thoroughly enjoyable full-length novel is, at least for the Canadian literary scene." —Capital Literary Review

 

Husk, by Corey Redekop (ECW): Outlandish and emotional, this humorous novel centers on Sheldon Funk, a struggling actor who dies in a bus restroom only to awaken during his autopsy and attack the coroner. Fleeing into the wintry streets of Toronto, Sheldon realizes he’s now a zombie—as if he didn’t have enough on his plate already. His last audition, reading for the reality television series House Bingo, had gone disastrously wrong. His mother is in the late stages of dementia, his savings are depleted, his agent couldn’t care less, and his boyfriend is little more than a set of nice abs. All Sheldon has to his name is a house he can barely hold onto and a cat that is more pillow than mammal. Now he also has to contend with decomposition, the scent of the open grave, and an unending appetite for human flesh—and on top of it all, there’s another audition in the morning. In order to survive his death without literally falling apart, Sheldon must find a way to combine his old life with his new addiction, which would be a lot easier if he could stop eating vagrants. A hysterical take on fame, love, religion, politics, and appetite, this is the story of the “everyzombie” people long to be.

"Sheldon is actually a sensitive and sympathetic creation. . . . Zombiedom's entire pop culture heritage has been thrown against the wall in bleeding chunks, where much of it sticks." —Toronto Star

Whitetail Shooting Gallery, by Annette Lapointe (Anvil): Cousins Jennifer and Jason live close together as small kids, exploring their rural home. They live in adjacent, sometimes overlapping, households. But one act of family violence begets another, and the cousins drift apart. By adolescence, the two are estranged. Jennifer grows closer to her best friend, Donna, an evangelical minister’s daughter who rebels against her family by immersing herself in a world of vectors, fractals, perfect math, and porn. Jason’s world is hockey. Donna likes his street-hockey bruises. Jason’s also interested in Gordon, a semi-recluse ex-teacher who lives on the periphery of town and constructs art installations from leather, tamarack, animal skulls, and other found items. Horses, bears, kissing cousins, and other human animals conspire in a series of conflicts that result in accidental gunfire and scarring—both physical and emotional—that takes many years to heal.

"... Lapointe gives us an animalistic view of the teen world. This is not small-town rural life as idyllic or pastoral. Lapointe’s world reflects the turmoil, raging emotions and hormones brewing inside adolescents …" —Winnipeg Free Press

 

POETRY:

Trobairitz, by Catherine Owen (Anvil): Twenty-first century metalheads; twelfth century troubadours and their female counterparts, the trobairitz- what could they possibly have in common? The creation of an often misunderstood and at times reviled genre for one; for another, a kin preoccupation with the questioning of structures set up by class, gender, and religion."

Describing metal fans as 'raw birds, eyes banged out of their heads,' Owen's loving scorn allows her to walk a fine line between paying homage to the subculture and dissecting its darkness." —Winnipeg Free Press

The Unmemntioable by Erin Moure (Anansi): The Unmemntioable joins letters that should not be joined. There is, in this word, an act of force. Of devastation. The unmentionable is love, of course. But in Moure's poems, love is bound to a duty: to comprehend what it was that the immigrants would not speak of. Now they are dead; their children and grandchildren know but an anecdotal pastiche of Ukrainian history. On Saskatoon Mountain in Alberta where they settled, only the chatter of the leaves remains of their presence. What was not spoken is sealed over, unmemntioable. There is no one left to contact in the Old Country. Can the unmemntioable retain its silence, yet be eased into words? Can experience still be spoken?

"... ambitious and laudable ..." —Quill & Quire

Riot Lung, by Leah Horlick (Thistledown): Riot Lung is a well-balanced introduction to a new voice. Horlick's poems vibrate with spontaneity and yet retain an intimacy that is emotionally intoxicating. Whether reflecting on her coming of age moments within her family, or measuring the impact of both the rural and urban prairie landscapes on her life, Horlick never strays far from how her identity as a queer writer has been shaped.

"'Palpable desire' aptly describes Leah Horlick’s Riot Lung. The collection is marked by defiant, whole-bodied loves and political commitments." —ARC Poetry Magazine

Cloudy with a Fire in the Basement, by Ronna Bloom (Pedlar): Most things have no reason. Why you leave a lover or join another, why you choose to stay where you live; these questions you may have no answer for. Or the answers change. Within Bloom's new poems exists an attempt toward freedom that demands looking at whatever the psyche revolts against or craves. By hawking an eye on human experience that has previously been rejected or desired—cruelty, love, grief, a good fitting pair of jeans, God—the poems investigate stuck places and too-tight habits. They skitter and rest, and lie down in the chaos and the quiet, in the overwhelming, tragic, sequinned world; and occasionally they alight in reality.

“Bloom’s synthesis of contradictory passions into graceful poetics connects Permiso to writing by Adrienne Rich (Dark Fields of the Republic), Anne Carson (The Beauty of the Husband), Esta Spalding (The Wife’s Account). Thinkers, feelers, in conversation with the music of language, building on the gift of accepting almost any sound—in this case any subject matter—as permissible textures for honest poems. ” —Globe & Mail

Natural Capital, by Jason Heroux (Mansfield): Natural Capital is “the untapped raw material and natural resources that a country holds” and it is “the land, air, water, living organisms and all formations of the Earth’s biosphere that provides us with ecosystem goods and services imperative for survival and well-being” and it is “the basis for all human economic activity”—and it is the title of Jason Heroux’s third collection of poems. These poems invite us to visit the strange and beautiful world right outside our window, a world where “clouds drift overhead / like eighty-year-old ballerinas crossing the street” and “wind chimes resemble a gentle alarm / warning everyone that nothing is wrong."

"Mostly, Natural Capital is a helluva good read. I inhaled its 47 poems in one long breath—they left me excited and wondering exactly what it is that makes them so captivating." —Rod Perderson, Ottawa poet and one of the founding members of VERSeFest, Ottawa’s international poetry festival.

Our Gleaming Bones Unrobed, by Grant Loveys (ECW): Focused thematically around discovering the figurative “bones” beneath the “skin” of a situation/relationship/moment, the poems in this collection are at once memento mori—a reminder of mortality—and celebration of life. Its two sections, “Body” and “Bones” delight in both the corporeal and the ethereal mysteries deep within the physical world. This haunting debut expresses complex ideas in simple, powerful language.

“Lovely and strange ... plenty of poems that are ‘half drunk on moonlight / like froth from a dish of freezing milk’ — while staying quiet and intimate, drawing the reader in with a conversational tone and the promise of future intimacy.” —The American Reader lit journal

Personals, by Ian Williams (Freehand): These are not love poems. These are almost-love poems. Jittery, plaintive, and fresh, these are poems voiced through a startling variety of speakers who continually rev themselves up to the challenge of connecting with others, often to no avail. Ian Williams writes in traditional poetic forms: ghazals, a pantoum, blank sonnets, mock-heroic couplets. He also invents his own: poems that spin into indeterminacy, poems that don’t end. With a deft hand and playful ear, Williams entices the reader to stumble alongside his characters as they search, again and again, for intimacy, for love, and for each other.

"Williams uses the hook of newspaper personals to not only showcase his talent but highlight how aware we all are of everything nowadays yet feel we’ve missed the magic moment." —The Telegraph Journal

Omens in the Year of the Ox, by Steven Price (ECW): Steven Price’s second collection is part of a long-lived struggle to address the mysteries that both surround and inhabit us. The book draws together moments both contemporary and historical, ranging from Herodotus to Augustine of Hippo, from a North American childhood to Greek mythology; indeed, the collection is threaded with interjections from a Greek-style chorus of clever-minded, mischievous beings—half-ghost, half-muse—whose commentaries tormentingly egg the writer on. In poems that range from free verse to prose to formal constructions, Price addresses the moral lack in the human heart and the labour of living with such a heart. Yet the Hopkins-like, sonorous beauty of the language reveals “grace and the idea of grace everywhere, in spite of what we do.” The pleasures of Price’s musicality permeate confrontation with even the darkest of human moments; the poems thus surreptitiously remind us that to confront our own darkness is one of the divine acts of which humans are capable.

"The poems are characterized by vivid images, precise details, and many shades of grey. Price clearly delights in choosing and arranging his words to forge lines and phrases at once guttural, visceral, and mythic." —Quill & Quire

Conflict, by Christine McNair (BookThug): Conflict interweaves ghosts, bad communication, the uncanny and the archival, to create a collection of poems that breaks down remembrance into abandoned historic markers, jet fuel, keening, or teeth. What you are given (this is a gift) is an insistent refusal to silence or shift. In exchange, the reader faces the impossibility of erasure and a gritty resistance. Conflict swells with the fractures and lacings in language, motion, architecture, and emotion; between individuals, systems, and mechanical silences.

"Some poetry books ask you to read them front to back. This one makes me dive in willy-nilly." —ARC Poetry

Please note: Some ReLit shortlisted books are unfortunately not in our database or had no accompanying descriptive info: the short story collections Tracie's Revenge & Other Stories by Wade Bell (Guernica), Subtitles by Domenico Capilongo (Guernica), and Every House Is Haunted by Ian Rogers (CZP); Given, by Susan Musgrave (Thistledown); the novels Dirty Bird by Keir Lowther (Tightrope) and Ninja Versus Pirate Featuring Zombies by James Marshall (CZP); and in poetry, New and Selected Poems by Cliff Burns (Black Dog Press). Congratulations to these authors and books as well!

November 25, 2013
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