It's April, and the spring books are bursting forth like flowers. Here's a nice stack of particularly excellent blooms.
Bad Things Happen, by Kris Bertin
About the book: The characters in Bad Things Happen—professors, janitors, webcam models, small-time criminals—are between things. Between jobs and marriages, states of sobriety, joy and anguish; between who they are and who they want to be. Kris Bertin's unforgettable debut introduces us to people at the tenuous moment before everything in their lives change, for better or worse.
Why you're going to love it: Bertin's award-winning stories have appeared in literary journals and magazines across the country, and this debut collection has received a starred review in Quill & Quire. Short story fans will appreciate the diverse parts of this collection, how Bertin takes a variety of approaches and somehow they work.
Mister Nightingale, by Paul Bowdring
About the book: When self-described mid-list Newfoundland author James Nightingale makes a brief sojourn to his St. John’s home for the re-release of his seminal novel, he’s forced to confront his failings, both familial and artistic. Imbued with the language of literature and the imagery of a Newfoundland in flux, Mister Nightingale is at once diatribe on the writing life, and a keen and poignant exploration of one man’s coming to terms with la vie quotidienne.
Why you're going to love it: Bookish readers will be intrigued by Bowdring's treatment of the writing life, and it's going to be good—his previous novel, The Strangers Gallery, was winner of the BMO Winterset Award and a nominee for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Thirteen Shells, by Nadia Bozak
About the book: Spanning the late 1970s to the late 1980s, Nadia Bozak’s thirteen stories are narrated from the perspective of Shell, the only child of bohemian artisans determined to live off their handicrafts and uphold a left-wing lifestyle. At the age of five, Shell’s world is transformed when the family moves into a new house, where she grows up. Over time, she gradually trades her unconventional upbringing for junk food, rock music, and boys. All the while, Shell quietly watches her parents’ loveless marriage fall apart and learns to survive divorce, weight gain, heartache, and first love.
A funny, sensitive portrayal of the innocence and uncertainty of childhood and adolescence, Thirteen Shells is a true-to-life collection that is as unforgettable as it is poignant.
Why you're going to love it: It's always good sign when a book is published under House of Anansi's Astoria imprint, dedicated to the short story. Plus, Thirteen Shells is being compared to Lives of Girls and Women.
From Up River and for One Night Only, by Brett Josef Grubisic
About the book: Meet The Gorgons The Legionnaires Chicken Treblinka The Statistics . . . Meet Dee, Gordyn, Em, and Jay, indecisive members of the greatest New Wave band to ever spring from River Bend City. Before they graduate from high school and flee a mill town that's seen better days, these ambitious friends (two sets of siblings) aim to make something from nothing as a test-run for planned careers of total glamour in New York City. Set between Labour Day 1980 and a Battle of the Bands contest in February 1981, From Up River and for One Night Only traces the unsure but determined steps of the gang's hopeful act of creation. The darkly comic and autobiographical story memorably captures the detours, setbacks, compromises, ethical quandaries, and illicit opportunities encountered along the twisty highway to the band's fifteen-and-a half minutes of fame.
Why you're going to love it: A new title join the CanLit Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll canon—what's not to love?
The Dancehall Years, by Joan Haggerty
About the book: Both an epic adventure and an interracial drama, this spellbinding novel brims with gorgeous writing. The complex family saga begins one summer on Bowen Island and in Vancouver during the Depression and moves through Pearl Harbour, the evacuation of the Japanese and three generations into the 1980s. Gwen Killam is a child whose idyllic island summers are obliterated by the war and consequent dramatically changed behavior of the adults around her. Her swimming teacher, Takumi, disappears along with his parents. The Lower Mainland is in blackout, and Gwen’s beloved Aunt Isabelle painfully realizes she must make an unthinkable sacrifice.
The island’s dance hall, a well-known destination for both soldiers on leave and summer picnickers, becomes the emotional landmark for time passing and time remembered.
Why you're going to love it: Sounds like a fantastic summer novel, plus it's a work that's been twenty years in the making by this Governor General's Award-nominated author.
This Marlowe, by Michelle Butler Hallett
About the book: 1593. Queen Elizabeth reigns from the throne while two rival spymasters—Sir Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex—plot from the shadows. Their goal? To control succession upon the aged queen's death. The man on which their schemes depend? Christopher Marlowe, a cobbler's son from Canterbury who has defied expectations and become an accomplished poet and playwright. Now that the plague has closed theatres, Marlowe must resume the work for which he was originally recruited: intelligence and espionage.
Fighting to stay one step ahead in a dizzying game that threatens the lives of those he holds most dear, Marlowe comes to question his allegiances and nearly everything he once believed. As tensions mount, he is tossed into an impossible bind. He must choose between paths that lead either to wretched guilt and miserable death or to love and honour.
Why you're going to love it: "Michelle Butler Hallett refuses to apologize for violating genre and gender boundaries," so begins her author biography, so we know we're not getting any run-of-the-mill historical fiction here. This novel is receiving great reviews.
Where The Bodies Lie, by Paul Lisac
About the book: In a small city somewhere in an oil-rich Canadian province just east of the Rockies, a political scandal has erupted: an aging cabinet minister has struck and killed a member of his local constituency executive with his half-ton truck, in broad daylight. But the premier suspects that there is more to this "accident" than meets the eye--and he wants to know the real reasons behind it before the media or his political rivals do.
Enter the premier's old friend Harry Asher—lawyer, former hockey star, self-styled intellectual, and recent divorcé—who is hired to dig into the incident. And it isn't long before Asher's investigation threatens to expose a chain of corruption that implicates many of the province's most powerful citizens—including the province's legendary now-senile premier—as well as its most cherished founding myths.
Why you're going to love it: Intriguingly, Lisac has been writing about the politics of a certain oil-rich Canadian province just east of the Rockies since 1979. Parts of this novel are guaranteed to ring true.
The Heaviness of Things That Float, by Jennifer Manuel
About the book: Jennifer Manuel skilfully depicts the lonely world of Bernadette, a woman who has spent the last forty years living alone on the periphery of a remote West Coast First Nations reserve, serving as a nurse for the community. This is a place where truth and myth are deeply intertwined and stories are “like organisms all their own, life upon life, the way moss grows around poplar trunks and barnacles atop crab shells, the way golden chanterelles spring from hemlock needles. They spread in the cove with the kelp and the eelgrass, and in the rainforest with the lichen, the cedars, the swordferns. They pelt down inside raindrops, erode thick slabs of driftwood, puddle the old logging road that these days led to nowhere.”
Only weeks from retirement, Bernadette finds herself unsettled, with no immediate family of her own—how does she fit into the world? Her fears are complicated by the role she has played within their community: a keeper of secrets in a place “too small for secrets.” And then a shocking announcement crackles over the VHF radio of the remote medical outpost: Chase Charlie, the young man that Bernadette loves like a son, is missing. The community is thrown into upheaval, and with the surface broken, raw dysfunction, pain and truths float to the light.
Why you're going to love it: At a time in which reconciliation is beginning (we hope?) to be more than just a buzzword, books like this are important. The award-winning Manuel's novel, which is from the perspective of a non-native character, is informed by its author's connections to First Nations communities.
The Most Heartless Town in Canada, by Elaine McCluskey
About the book: Myrtle is not one of those communities with a town historian or a roster of famous residents. Myrtle does, however, have a poultry plant, and looming above the plant are the eagles, massive birds that roost in trees and feast on entrails left by workers, creatures synonymous with power, freedom and might. The story starts with a newspaper photo taken in an obscure Nova Scotia town after the murder of eight bald eagles. The bizarre photo wins a contest and, over time, the unidentified girl in the foreground becomes, like Diane Arbus's Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, infamous. Rita Van Loon decides, after seven painful years, to explain herself and the events surrounding the murders. The Most Heartless Town in Canada looks at media agendas, amateur sport, family dynamics, and the divide between rural and urban Canada.
Why you're going to love it: Elaine McCluskey is so so amazing, and somehow mercilessly funny and yet her work is infused with a sense of goodness and rightness. Also, her portrayal of a competitive swimming team will seem uncannily familiar to anyone who's been involved in amateur athletics.
The Goddess of Fireflies, by Geneviève Petterson
About the book: The year is 1996, and small-town life for 14-year-old Catherine is made up of punk rock, skaters, shoplifting, and the ghost of Kurt Cobain. Her parents are too busy divorcing to pay her headful of unspent angst much attention. But after she tries mess—a PCP variant—for the first time, her budding rebellion begins to spiral out of control.
Universally acclaimed as the modern-day coming-of-age story for a generation of Québécois youth growing up in the 1990s, Géneviève Pettersen's award-winning debut novel both shocked and titillated readers in its original French, who quickly ordained it a contemporary classic and a runaway bestseller.
Why you're going to love it: This novel was huge in Quebec and continues to be important there, so it's about time it was translated into English. Besides, it's currently being adapted to film by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, so here's a chance to read it before you see it.
On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, by Cordelia Strube
About the book: Harriet is 11 going on 30. Her mixed-media art is a source of wonder to her younger brother, Irwin, but an unmitigated horror to the panoply of insufficiently grown-up grown-ups who surround her. She plans to run away to Algonquin Park, hole up in a cabin like Tom Thomson and paint trees; and so, to fund her escape, she runs errands for the seniors who inhabit the Shangrila, the decrepit apartment building that houses her fractured family.
Determined, resourceful, and a little reckless, Harriet tries to navigate the clueless adults around her, dumpster dives for the flotsam and jetsam that fuels her art, and attempts to fathom her complicated feelings for Irwin, who suffers from hydrocephalus. On the other hand, Irwin’s love for Harriet is not conflicted at all. She’s his compass. But Irwin himself must untangle the web of the human heart.
Why you're going to love it: Strube's Lemon was massive when it was published in 2009, and readers who fell in love with that book will be awaiting this latest title. And the reviews are looking good.
Double Dutch, by Laura Trunkey
About the book: Intensely imaginative and darkly emotional, the weird and wonderful stories in Double Dutch deftly alternate between fantasy and reality, transporting readers into strange worlds that are at once both familiar and uncanny—where animals are more human, and people more mysterious, than they first appear.
Shape-shifters, doppelgangers, and spirits inhabit the extraordinary worlds depicted in Trunkey’s stories: a single mother believes her toddler is the reincarnation of a terrorist; Ronald Reagan’s body double falls in love with the first lady; a man grieves for his wife after a bear takes over her body. The collection also includes moving tales grounded in painful and touching reality: a young deaf girl visits Niagara Falls before she goes blind; an elephant named Topsy is killed on Coney Island by Thomas Edison in 1903; and a woman learns the truth about her son’s disappearance while searching with her husband in the Canadian Rockies.
Why you're going to love it: Another book under the Astoria footprint, this collection offers a veritable grab-bag to short story lovers. I'm particularly fond of the opening story in which an anxious single mother becomes convinced that her son (in his terrible twos) is the reincarnation of Osama bin Laden.
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