The Recommend: April 2016

Most of the books we read are the result of one thing: someone we know, trust, and/or admire tells us it's great. That's why we run this series, The Recommend, where readers, writers, reviewers, bloggers, and others tell us about a book they'd recommend to a good friend ... and why.

This week we're pleased to present the picks of authors Andrew Forbes (The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays), Peter Behrens (Carry Me) and Kristi Charish (Owl and the Japanese Circus and soon, The Voodoo Killings); librarian Jamie-Marie Thomas; and me (Kiley Turner).

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Andrew Forbes recommends A Token of My Affliction, by Janette Platana

I want to say that Janette Platana's excellent story collection A Token of My Affliction is a funhouse mirror on domestic life, but that's not quite right. It's not a cracked mirror, either. I'm flipping through all the mirror metaphors here, and none fit. What it is is a magnifying glass that you hold up to an assortment of lives that look a lot like your own, and through that magnifying glass you see all the fascinating and horrible microscopic entities crawling over the surface and within the minuscule cracks of those lives.

“Invisible Friends” begins with a sequence which deploys the language of crime reportage to describe in unsettling fashion a pair of sleeping children—"'It looks like a bloodless massacre,” the woman says, bending slightly to switch on the plug-in nightlight'"—and from there goes on to ruminate on the nature of imagination as both solace and impediment. That's how Platana unseats you throughout the book, how she loosens your footing: inverting bad and good, wrong and right, like the negative impression of daylight you find under a full moon: familiar, things in their usual places, only somehow off. “I am thinking about domestication and compromises made for love,” she writes in “Dog Story,” and so, as the reader, are you.

Andrew Forbes is the author of the story collection What You Need, and The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.

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Peter Behrens recommends Steven Hayward's To Dance the Beginning of the World

Steven Hayward is a nimble writer. Everything shines. If he's a humorist, he's also bloody-minded. In his other life, Hayward is a Shakespeare scholar (and his title is an Elizabethan euphemism for sex). The stories in his To Dance the Beginning of the World own something Elizabethan in their ribald wit, their lurking darkness and their eagerness to explore the motive powers of lust, vengeance, laughter. These short, sharp tales are mostly set in the North American heartland, from the ferociously hardass bicycling roads of Colorado Springs to the bleak far northern ends of Yonge Street. They are funny, they are disarming, and most of them—no, all—offer the reader wistful and misdirected characters who have stumbled into fresh layers of confusion and feeling after encountering one of the disheartening array of vernacular catastrophes—unfaithfulness, death of parent or parents, workplace disappointment, morbid obesity—that life deals out to thousands of someones every moment.

This collection is a challenge. It is delightfully easy to read—Hayward's a stylist, and his sentences are honed—but it's challenging to anyone's sense, however fleeting, that all can be right with the world, that hurts and abandonments and early death are or can ever be forgotten or forgiven. No they can't. They can wryly infiltrate splendid short fiction, however.

Peter Behrens’s first novel, The Law of Dreams, won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, and has been published in nine languages. His collection of short stories, Travelling Light, was reissued in 2013; his second novel, The O’Briens, was published in 2011; and his new novel, Carry Me, is out now. His stories and essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Tin House, Brick, Best Canadian Stories, Best Canadian Essays, and many anthologies. Behrens is a native of Montreal and was educated at Lower Canada College, Concordia University, and McGill. He has held a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford University and was a Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He lives in Maine and Texas.

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Kiley Turner recommends Ellen in Pieces, by Caroline Adderson

Ellen in Pieces is a perfect mess: a sprawling giant of a book that drags the reader through an astounding range of emotional territory and tones.  

The title is a play on words. In the first sense, it’s about the format: Ellen in Pieces is delivered through a series of linked stories that touch down on various periods in protagonist Ellen McGuinty’s unruly life. In the second, Ellen is often figuratively in pieces, compromised by her huge appetites, occasional self-pity, a certain prickliness, and impulsiveness. She can be hard to take, but Adderson balances her all-too-human weaknesses with irresistible traits: Ellen goes after what she wants, and every time she stumbles she gets up again, tries again, and becomes new again. Also: she's an exuberantly sexual being who makes no apologies for this part of her energy.

In this sense there’s a third dimension to the title: Ellen is complicated, full of contradictions and inconsistencies, and she is impossible to reduce or contain.  

Ellen is one of the most finely drawn characters I can remember reading, and her ex-husband, Larry—himself a major piece of work—is also one I’ve kept thinking about long after finishing the book.

Back to the messiness of the book, and what I mean by it. The relatively loose, gamboling structure Adderson employs and the different Ellens we encounter along the way are perfectly suited for the portrayal of a middle-aged woman grappling with her loves, her failings, who she is and was, and everything life throws at her. Our lives aren’t tidy, and this book does a masterful job of illuminating this, often with razor-sharp humour, sometimes with tear-your-heart-out pathos.

I can’t stop thinking about this book.

Kiley Turner is the managing editor of 49th Shelf and the co-founder of the publishing consultancy Turner-Riggs.

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Kristi Charish recommends The Palace Job, by Patrick Weekes

The Palace Job embodies the spirit of a D&D-style adventure romp at its absolute finest with a large dose of tongue-in-cheek Terry Pratchett-style humour thrown in. Weekes' love of the adventure genre comes across clear and makes this an authentic entry into the humorous vein of adventure stories, with enough originality in the story and characters to separate it far and away from the pack of rehashed D&D campaigns that tend to flood the genre (not that there's anything wrong with that ... just that this isn't it). Patrick knows well the genres he plays with, giving a nod to both the classic fantasy and RPG video game tropes—not surprising since Patrick writes for blockbuster RPG (Roll Playing Game) maker Bioware. In fact, fans of Dragon Age will find a kindred adventure story here.

Many have compared this to a fantasy style Oceans 11 and I think that's accurate.

In short, there is a lot in here to love for fantasy buffs and heist lovers alike.

As far as characters go? The Unicorn is my favourite ... Think the Lady Amalthea from The Last Unicorn done so, so, so, so woefully and spectacularly wrong.

Kristi Charish is the author of Owl and the Japanese Circus (Simon and Schuster Canada/Pocket Books), an urban fantasy about a modern-day “Indiana Jane” who reluctantly navigates the hidden supernatural world, and The Voodoo Killings, (out May 10 from Random House Canada), about a voodoo practitioner living in Seattle with the ghost of a deceased grunge rocker.

Kristi writes what she loves; adventure heavy stories featuring strong, savvy female protagonists, pop culture, and the occasional RPG fantasy game thrown in the mix. Kristi is also the Canadian co-hosting half of the Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing Podcast and has a PhD in Zoology from the University of British Columbia.

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Jamie Marie Thomas recommends The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel, by Katherine Govier

This epic novel is set in the Canadian West, and its themes of discovery, adventure, family, love, and friendship make for an emotional, captivating read.

The Rocky Mountains provide visual beautiful settings; and vibrant characters, humour, and romance activate a story that straddles the past and the present. Katherine Govier’s wit and charm shine on every page.

The plot hinges on the experiences of two families, and on a central mystery: a family went missing on an expedition in the early 20th century, and the disappearance haunts the residents of the pristine town of Gateway, Alberta—and it bears greatly on the present-day family of Herbie Wishart and his female descendents. Much of the drama unfolds at The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel in Gateway. Herbie Wishart—mountain trail guide, writer, musician and romantic—is the lovable main character and the link between the two families.

Throughout the story the suspense of the missing family from the past loosens and tightens like a ribbon, and Govier carefully ties everything together with the gift of a satisfying conclusion.

This “feel good” book left me wanting to jump on the next train west!

Jamie Marie Thomas is an avid reader and librarian for a public library in Bayfield, Ontario.

April 13, 2016
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