10 Short Story Collections You Should Be Reading This Spring

We're celebrating short stories this month at 49th Shelf, but the celebrations are going to stretch on through the spring with the release of these much-anticipated collections by both emerging and established writers. 

*****

Swing In the House and Other Stories, by Anita Anand (April)

About the book: Swing in the House and Other Stories paints an utterly contemporary portrait of Canadian families in their most private moments. Anand pulls back the curtains to reveal the unspoken complexities within the modern home, from sibling rivalries to fracturing marriages, casual racisms to damaged egos, hidden homosexuality to mental illness. Each of these stories offers a deftly-constructed morality play. In the novella-length title story, a young mother timidly explores the possibilities of an affair to alleviate the suffocations of a loveless marriage, to detrimental effect. In "Indelible Markers," a girl vacationing in Greece learns that growing up with a schizophrenic father has affected her relationship with men. In "Something Steady," a lonely, mentally challenged teen vents his anger on a co-worker's boyfriend. Throughout, Anand's incisive intelligence, sharp prose, and sly wit breathe dark undercurrents into these seventeen cautionary tales.

Why we're taking notice: Anand was a finalist for the CBC's Quebec Writing Competition in 2012, and her bio included the following: "In every neighbourhood where she has lived, she has been the only person her age of Indian origin. This condition has been a priceless gift to her development as a writer. She has traveled extensively, but retains a stubborn preference for Québec, where, as someone once said, 'everyone is a minority, including the majority.'" What a fantastic way to articulate her unique point of view. We're looking forward to seeing how this is idea is expressed in her fiction. 

*****

Welcome To the Circus, by Rhonda Douglas (May)

About the book: Rhonda Douglas's debut collection dazzles with its daring and dangerous prose. Welcome to the Circus, where every moment is a tight-rope act, precariously balancing on the edge of destruction. 

In these stories, a choir processes its collective grief at the loss of one of its members to cancer; a teenage boy marks himself with the poetry of John Donne; God explains the collapse of the cod fishery; Mata Hari stands trial; and two sisters try to reconcile their respective places in the family porn emporium business before everything blows up.

These ten strikingly original stories explore love and escape—how we escape to love, escape through love, and escape ourselves and hold on to love. Together, the stories of Welcome to the Circus highlight the acrobatic, courageous circus acts we all learn to perform.

Why we're taking notice: Poet Douglas makes her fiction debut here, and we like what Russell Wangersky has to say about Welcome To the Circus: "It has perhaps the best thing that you can say about any collection: they may be stories, but they read like truth. With a vast breadth of style, from Paleolithic romance to the spare desperate needs of a businesslike sex club, Welcome to the Circus delivers. This is a collection worth waiting for, and worth thinking about."

*****

What Can’t Be Undone, by dee Hobsbawn-Smith (March)

About the book: In her first collection of short fiction, dee Hobsbawn-Smith creates protagonists struggling to navigate the domestic troubles common to life everywhere, including children attempting to make their parents proud, the disintegrating of romantic relationships, and dealing with death and loss. Her stories are rife with the disasters of homelessness, domestic violence, and child abuse, as she exposes the difficulties that arise in relationships between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and parents and children. Hobsbawn-Smith's keen observation and the unflinching eye which she directs towards her characters' flaws bring the land and its inhabitants into painful focus as they grapple with loss. 

What Can't Be Undone is a collection anchored in the Western Canadian landscape, and the natural imagery which has become synonymous to the area reigns supreme. These stories are strongly informed by local colour. Horses' hooves echo from coulee walls, blue jays, crows, and eagles announce the seasons, and coyotes wail from distant valleys as Hobsbawn-Smith travels with her protagonists across rolling prairies, unforgiving mountain ranges, and along coastal highways.

Why we're taking notice: Hobsbawn-Smith does it all—her award-winning poetry, essays, fiction, and journalism have appeared in Canadian, American, and international literary journals, books, newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Her first book of poetry, Wildness Rushing In, was published in 2014, and we love her book, Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet. What Can't Be Undone promises a similarly compelling sense of place. 

*****

Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, by Mark Anthony Jarman (March)

About the book: In Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, Jarman writes about losing and finding love, marriage and melancholy, the dislocation and redemptive power of travel in Italy's sensual summer.

A man travels to Italy to escape the memory of love lost, and a marriage ended. He passes through sun-drenched landscapes of cliffs and seaside paradises, while the corpses  of refugees wash up on the beach; he parties with the young and beautiful Italians he meets on the train while a man bleeds to death in the hallway. A teenage thief prowls the roof of the tourist hotel at night; an embassy is bombed; holy statues come alive to roam in a gang stealing used restaurant grease.

He suffers the acute loneliness of one who has abandoned and been abandoned, and in this exquisite suffering, he finds how beautiful this life can be. In vivid, sensuous prose, Jarman's stories circle and overlap in surprising, weird, and wonderful ways. Tangents turn out to be crucial, allusions are powerful.

Why we're taking notice: In his review of Jarman's previous collection, My White Planet (which has repeatedly turned up on 49th Shelf lists of stand-out short stories—here and here—and in this list of sexy books), Steven W. Beattie notes that Jarman's stories are different from most Canadian short fiction: "Jarman’s focus is not on story in the traditional sense, and although a handful of the selections in the book do end with a character reaching a kind of epiphany, the author’s core interest resides elsewhere—specifically, in the delirious and courageous use of language to create startling effects." Plus, A.S. Byatt has called his writing "extraordinary, his stories gripping," so there's that.  

*****

The Daydreams of Angels, by Heather O'Neill (April)

About the book: From "The Robot Baby," in which we discover what happens when a robot feels emotion for the very first time, to "Heaven," about a grandfather who died for a few minutes when he was nine and visited the pearly gates, to "The Little Wolf-Boy of Northern Quebec," in which untamed children run wild through the streets of Paris, to "Dolls," in which a little girl's forgotten dolls tell their own stories of woe and neglect, we are immersed in utterly unique worlds. Also included in the collection is "The End of Pinky," which has been made into short film by the NFB.

With this collection, Heather O'Neill showcases her diversity and skill as a writer and draws us in with each page.

Why we're taking notice: O'Neill's novels, Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, have won acclaim and awards in Canada and abroad. Readers are enthusiastically awaiting her short fiction debut. 

*****

The Secrets Men Keep, by Mark Sampson (April)

About the book: The Secrets Men Keep is about the secrets men keep, and the comic possibilities that arise from our shifting sense of what it means to be a man. Taking an off-kilter approach to revealing the intricacies of modern relationships—relationships that can be at times funny, sensual, or tense—it's about the lies that men tell themselves and others to keep their dreams and identities afloat.

Why we're talking notice: Sampson is no literary novice—The Secrets Men Keep is his third book—and it's possible that short fiction is where his talents shine the brightest. We loved his story, "Man Room," in The New Quarterly 128, and can't wait to read what else he has on offer in this new book. 

*****

The Pain Tree, by Olive Senior (May)

About the book: Olive Senior's new collection of stories is wide-ranging in scope, time period, theme, locale and voice. Her characteristic "gossipy voice" is present in many of the stories, but as well there is reverence, wit and wisdom, along with satire, humour and even farce. Like her earlier stories, Jamaica is the setting but the range of characters presented are universally recognisable as people in crisis or on the cusp of transformation. While most of the stories operate within a realist mode, Senior in this collection is also exploiting traditional motifs, so we have collected here revenge stories ("The Goodness of my Heart"), a bargain with the Devil ("Boxed-in"), a Cinderella story ("The Country Cousin"), a magical realist interpretation of African spiritual beliefs ("Flying") and a narrator's belated acceptance of the healing power of traditional beliefs ("The Pain Tree"). "Coal" and "Tap" are realist stories set in the war years and depression that followed as folks try to find a new place in the world. Senior's trademark children awakening to self-awareness and to the hypocracy of adults are here too, from the heartbreaking "Moonlight" and "Silent" to the girls in "Lollipop" and "A Father Like That" who learn to confront loneliness and vulnerability with attitude.

Why we're taking notice: This is the latest book from the author of Dancing Lessons, a finalist for the 2012 Amazon.ca First Novel Award and finalist for the 2012 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and Senior has been garnering similar acclaim with her fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and children's books since the 1980s. 

*****

Confidence, by Russell Smith (April)

About the book: In Russell Smith's darkly brilliant new collection of short stories, Confidence, the reader will be introduced to ecstasy-taking PhD students, financial traders desperate for husbands, owners of failing sex stores, violent and unremovable tenants, aggressive raccoons, seedy massage parlours, experimental filmmakers who record every second of their day, wives who blog insults directed at their husbands. There are cheating husbands. There are private clubs, crowded restaurants, psychiatric wards. Every character has a secret of some kind.

Why we're taking notice: Smith is well known for his cultural criticism and his novels, but fans of his short fiction are looking forward to his first collection since Young Men in 1999. 

*****

Cover Before Striking, by Priscila Uppal (January)

About the book: The most common phrase in print is "cover before striking," a warning to those about to innocently strike a match to be careful not to burn their fingers.

Uppal's characters in Cover Before Striking are all people pushing their lives to new levels of intensity, danger, or passion as they test their limits and those of the world. The pyromaniac at the heart of the title story—winner of the Gloria Vanderbilt Short Fiction Prize—desperately uses fire to reconnect with lost lovers and family members. In "Vertigo," an injured Olympic athlete becomes a research guinea pig in a surreal scientific experiment. In "The Boy Next Door," a teenager recounts how her mother took her and fled Canada for Brazil, along with the local Catholic priest.

Implacable and just a little unhinged, the stories of Cover Before Striking each move toward that moment of contact when the sparks begin to fly, when destruction and beauty seem to blur together. With this collection, Priscila Uppal offers the literary equivalent of playing with fire.

Why we're taking notice: Uppal's previous book, Projection: Encounters With My Runaway Mother, was disturbing, mesmerizing, and brilliant, nominated for the Hilary Weston Prize and the Governor General’s Award. We'll be reading whatever she does next. 

*****

Street Symphony, by  Rachel Wyatt (May)

About the book: A woman carries a placard bearing the question "Are you content to be nothing?" as she conducts her way through the interconnected stories of this thought-provoking collection. A pianist herself, eventually she'll be the soloist in her own story, but first we'll encounter the contrapuntal lines of "Cafe Society," the discord of "The Companion's Tale," the slowly evolving dark harmonic resolution of "Aquarium".

These are the songs of people—many of them seniors—sidelined and dismissed, but refusing to go gently into that good night—a night that isn't even on their concert program! Be it through a percussive storm of revelation, or a quietly insistent ostinato that won't be ignored, this is an orchestra of characters never content to be nothing, determined to be heard.

Why we're taking notice: Wyatt has been publishing wonderful, strange, ahead-of-her-time fiction since the 1970s. Her last two novels were Suspiciona Gone Girl-esque meta-thriller, and Letters to Omar, a quirky, life-filled ode to female friendship. But we've been told that it's in her short fiction that Wyatt's talents are on full display. We can't wait! 

And don't miss: The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Short Stories, edited by Larry Mathews, and Specimen, by Irene Kovalyova, both out in June. 

February 2, 2015
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