Canadian writers sure know how to rock the short story—we are the nation that brought the world an Alice Munro after all.
Willem De Koonig's Paintbrush, by Kerry Lee Powell
About the book: An unflinching and masterful collection of award-winning stories, Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush is a career-making debut. Ranging from an island holiday gone wrong to a dive bar on the upswing to a yuppie mother in a pricey subdivision seeing her worst fears come true, these deftly written stories are populated by barkeeps, good men down on their luck, rebellious teens, lonely immigrants, dreamers and realists, fools and quiet heroes. In author Kerry-Lee Powell’s skillful hands, each character, no matter what their choices, is deeply human in their search for connection. Powell holds us in her grasp, exploring with a black humour themes of belonging, the simmering potential for violence and the meaning of art no matter where it is found, and revealing with each story something essential about the way we see the world.
Why we're taking notice: Powell was named as one of CBC Books' Writers to Watch for 2016, and the stories in this collection have already garnered numerous awards. So now it's time to discover them for yourself. Pour yourself a drink though: these stories aren't at all light and breezy, and each one packs a wallop.
Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You, by Jill Sexsmith
About the book: Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You explores the peculiar places we look for validation, for purpose, for a life we might recognize as wholly our own. The off-kilter heroes and heroines in Jill Sexsmith's debut collection of short stories find themselves camping in elm trees set to be felled; seeking refuge in a spare bedroom carved out of an opal mine; singing to a stranger on the other side of a bathroom wall. As her characters struggle with relationships, Sexsmith deftly cuts through raw and intimate moments to show how strangely impervious to their desperate circumstances people can be. Witty and unapologetic, the stories in Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You traverse the everyday and the unexpected to delightful effect.
Why we're taking notice: Well, originally we took notice because we loved the stunning cover by award-winning illustrator Julie Morstad. But then we started reading and fell in love with these weird and wonderful tales about the survival gear we invent to carry in this absurd and tragic world.
Cretacea and Other Stories from the Badlands, by Martin West
About the book: In Cretecea and Other Stories, Martin West unearths a stratum of Alberta that we rarely imagine, and certainly do not see covered in the media.
At the foot of Highway 838, where the pavement drifts down off the Alberta prairie, through the Badlands to meet the banks of the Red Deer River, one would hope to find a bridge. But instead of a bridge, there waits only an intoxicated ferry master, a creeping glacial landform, and a transsexual who plays asphyxia games on the tennis court. Between the Hoodoos, a draft dodger still evades the Vietnam War. A bachelor runs a gas station with no fuel. The delivery boy tempts Pterosaurs.
This is not the world of oil and hockey and wheat, but of people at night, living alternate lives, wearing clothes that usually remain hidden in the depths of closets. When they emerge from these closets wearing these clothes, these shopkeepers, lawyers, and students do things to themselves and each other that it would take Freud to explicate. Everywhere in the valley lies the fear of loneliness, the obsession with desire and the human fixation with the unknown.
Why we're taking notice: Who doesn't love hoodoos? This is the debut collection by West, and two of its stories have been included in the Journey Prize anthologies, indicating fine literary pedigree. Also, like the above, a very cool cover.
Double Dutch, by Laura Trunkey
About the 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 we're taking notice: Every story in this collection is remarkable—one about Topsy the elephant, who was killed by Thomas Edison on Coney Island in 2003; another from the perspective of the man who served as Ronald Reagan's double during his presidency—but the cover price is actually worth it entirely for the very first story in the book, about a woman who becomes convinced that her toddler son is the reincarnation of Osama Bin Laden.
Hamburger, by Daniel Perry
About the book: The stories in this collection represent the coming of age of a young writer. His earliest published work is here along with his later more sophisticated literary efforts. Perry’s fiction explores contemporary life mostly in urban centres like Toronto, though they are not bound by this parameter with stories also set in places such as Venice and Nicaragua. The pieces range from dark satirical perspectives to situational ironies and explore a wide variety of themes such as poverty, family life, travel, urban fear, dating and disenfranchisement. The stories fit well into the urban fiction motif and although they frequently carry images of struggle, fatigue, and loss, they move the characters who populate them into decisions that offer tense moments of hope and beauty. Not always plot specific, the stories frequently set in motion a paradox or unresolved event with which the reader is left to grapple.
Why we're taking notice: Check out Perry's list of CanLit's most disgruntled employees (and no, he means characters, not the authors). Amanda Leduc sings the book's praises: "Perry captures entire worlds in these deft yet swooping stories—in sketches snappy and precise, he shows us the magic in the downtrodden, and gifts us images that linger long after the last page is turned."
Four Letter Words, by Chad Pelley
About the book: Chad Pelley’s Four-Letter Words, his collection of award-winning short stories, presents us with characters haunted by one four-letter word or another: love, hate, lust, or loss. A father drives across the island hoping to find his missing son, a hitman considers the life of his female victim while watching her through his scope, a lonely man frequents hospital emergency rooms to diagnose the pain of others, and another clings to a buoy at sea. Whether documenting the ways in which we become obsessed with our current situation or our fascination with the lives we could have lived, these stories, told in Pelley’s decidedly contemporary style, form unique portraits of how we are led astray and how we often find ourselves at a crossroads, uncertain and entirely lost.
Why we're taking notice: Pelley was the writer behind CanLit booster blog, Salty Ink, and now runs The Overcast, an alternative newspaper in Newfoundland with a focus on arts and culture. His first novel was recently made into a film starring Jason Priestly, and Lisa Moore called his second book "Cant’-put-it-down compelling." So don't miss this one—particularly as he says it's his final purely literary work.
The Light That Remains, by Lyse Champagne
About the book: The despair of refugees has haunted us long before the civil war in Syria. Lyse Champagne's evocative new story collection attempts to put these collective and individual tragedies into a historical context.
Two Armenian sisters write to each other in the year leading up to their deportations. A young Ukrainian mother embroiders her life story as famine threatens. A boy travels to Hong Kong by train while the Japanese march towards his hometown of Nanjing. A Jewish girl collects words and falls in love as she hides in a French mountain village in 1942. A Cambodian refugee recalls his childhood in his home country and his new life in Canada on a makeshift stage. A Rwandan family prepares to emigrate days before President Habyarimana's plane is shot down.
Why we're taking notice: In his review of this book in The Ottawa Citizen, Paul Gessell writes, "Champagne’s stories are true works of art, just like the Ukrainian woman’s embroidered tablecloths. She has captured the essence of each of these refugee crises. The research involved in trying to create credible stories from six very different countries in different time periods must have been a herculean task. Champagne largely pulled it off."
It is an Honest Ghost, by John Goldbach
About the book: From Kenya to Quebec, these wry and unconventional stories explore the different ways we’re haunted...
Teenagers philosophize on the nature of ontology while fearing there's a ghost in the old mill they're stuck in; a man encounters an old friend in the unlikeliest of places; nineteenth-century inventor Sigismund Mohr is vividly brought back from obscurity; and two journalists travel to Kenya for a conference, where one of them has a paranoid breakdown.
It Is an Honest Ghost is a funny and often eerie collection that explores what lies beyond mortality—if anything, that is.
Why we're taking notice: Tamara Faith Berger (Maidenhead) has blurbed this one: "A thrilling collection: hot-headed, existential, crystalline. Goldbach’s novella Hic et Ubique illuminates the nightmare of being a man in this world—the twisted, spiritual conversion of buddy into warrior. This book is cadenced and visionary."
Wigford Rememberies, by Kyp Harness
About the book: Wigford is a small town in rural Southwestern Ontario, home to a cast of recurring characters: Buzz, a drunk-driving father of two; his wife, who should have married Bert Walmsley instead; Happy Henry, a devout, socially inept apostle who loves to play the organ; Elmer, a stroke survivor.
Wigford Rememberies tells this community's stories through an impressionistic series of vignettes. The language is inventive, innovative and exciting, and whether describing mucking out the pig barn—"there in the dust and the sweet smells of grain and straw and the heavy brown odour of shit so strong it makes you sneeze"—or helping a drunk articulate how to manipulate God's forgiveness—"'if I gave my heart to Jesus—right there on my deathbed the minute before I died—he'd forgive everything an I'd go up into Heaven and be saved just as much as the other guy who never did nothin' wrong at all with no difference?'"—Harness wields words with an eye for detail, musicality and style.
Why we're taking notice: We like what folk singer turned novelist Harness has to say about the difference between writing and music: "Writing is more like yelling out to the sky and sometimes waiting for years for an echo to return. Other than that, the rhythm and the beat are the same both in songs and on the page—it’s all writing and it’s all music!"
Worldly Goods, by Alice Petersen
About the book: An old record player; an unposted letter; a pearl necklace never purchased; a badly written poem from the woman you love: tokens, gifts, and objects lost or left behind, desired or not wanted at all are the starting points for the stories in Worldly Goods, a new collection by Alice Petersen. The stories reveal that ownership is more than possession, for Petersen shows how small objects stand as markers of our attempts to communicate with each other.
Why we're taking notice: "What a thrill to follow a writer from promise to fulfillment," writes Katia Grubisic in the Montreal Review of Books on the occasion of Petersen releasing her second collection this spring. [Ed's note: I'm reading this right now!]
The Animal Game, by Kirsteen MacLeod
About the book: In The Animal Game’s nine short stories, Kirsteen MacLeod takes us on a zigzag global journey in search of meaning. Haunting and frequently hilarious, this is a wayward meditation on travel and home, reality and illusion, and seeking one’s place in the world. Written with compassion and insight, the collection’s intersecting stories explore inner landscapes and countries of the heart—Brazil, Toronto, Bahamas, India. Readers are transported and return transformed, joining the book’s characters as they walk, and often stumble, down the uncertain path we all travel to find our true, essential selves.
Why we're taking notice: We're been hearing buzz about this one from all kind of esteemed corners, including praise by writers Helen Humphreys and Diane Schoemperlen, the latter of whom calls these stories "compelling geographies of the spirit, both global and interior, drawing us ever closer to the transformative power that breathes beneath the surface of all things, especially ourselves."
Rising Abruptly, by Gisèle Villeneuve
About the book: Gisèle Villeneuve’s short stories test the elastic pull between passion and terror. For inspiration, Villeneuve turned to her personal history to examine what lures urban dwellers outdoors, to test themselves against peaks and valleys. Using the overarching metaphor of mountain climbing, she plays with form, language, and narrative to reveal our fears, our loves, our passions. Rising Abruptly is a perfect companion for anyone who likes to travel, loves a climber, or simply glories in the allure of the mountains.
Why we're taking notice: Because we like the kind of books that lift us up where we belong.
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