Jennifer Quist's third novel is The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner, the story of a woman struggling to move on after her sister's brutal murder. It's a novel with an unabashed Edmonton setting—watch the trailer (and the city!) here. In this list, Quist features other Edmonton authors, books, and literary institution, shining a spotlight on a city wholly deserving of all its bookish glory.
In the legend, Leonard Cohen writes “Sisters of Mercy”—its lyrics and tinkling 1-2-3, 1-2-3 waltz tune—in a single night. It’s an Edmonton night full of snow. I know what the light outside his Jasper Avenue hotel window would have looked like: snow and ice crystals suspended and lit up like gold dust, in the days when streetlights were deep yellow sodium vapor lamps.
This is Edmonton writing, and it exists even when there is no traveling cosmopolitan poet standing over our beds. It’s set in streetscapes, not farm-scapes. The weather is part of Edmonton writing but it’s outside the hotel glass, opposite stories set in warm rooms of people who “have been where you’re hanging [and] think [we] can see where you’re pinned.”
Two million of Alberta’s three million residents live in either Calgary or Edmonton, the fourth and fifth largest cities in Canada. These are urban centres strong enough to sustain degree-granting creative writing programs, new and established publishing houses, literary journals, festivals, and phenomena. If only we weren’t so lean on indie bookshops.
In a warm room full of people, someone is usually reading something, though maybe not a book. Edmonton is on the leading edge of new ways of consuming short stories. It’s the base from which, for the past three years, Michael Hingston, with designer Natalie Olsen, has produced The Short Story Advent Calendar. It’s also home to literary expérimentateur, Jason Lee Norman, who recently introduced Canada’s first short story dispenser at the Edmonton International Airport. Invented in France, the “shortédition” machine won’t accept any money but it will churn out free selections from a randomized bank of short stories printed on long, thin paper strips. Curated by Norman, most of the stories are by Alberta writers.
For readers ready to come in from the airport and settle into some book-length fiction with an Edmonton connection, consider:
Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg
First things first: Edmonton is built on the lands of Treaty Six and Métis indigenous nations. Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie is the story of an indigenous woman who leaves Alberta, turning away from abuse she suffered as a child in a small northern community and as a teenager in urban Edmonton. With hopeful, humorous plans, she starts her life over on the Sunshine Coast. Don’t just read it to assuage that settlers’ guilt or just because the book was a finalist for Canada Reads 2016. Read it for Birdie’s humanity—hers and that of the other indigenous women Lindberg gives voice to with this story.
Coyote Kings…, by Minister Faust
I first read the author now publishing as Minister Faust under the name Malcolm Azania, back when I admired him from a distance as the best columnist at the University of Alberta’s student newspaper. For readers more inclined to science fiction than earthy literary fiction, try Faust’s odd 2004 offering. Maybe genre plotlines about disenfranchised earth-men fighting “Meanys” don’t sound particularly original. But most of those plotlines probably aren’t as satirical as they ought to be, aren’t Africentric, aren’t told with Faust’s headlong poetic flair, and aren’t unfolding in the unlikely setting of Edmonton.
Paper Teeth, by Lauralyn Chow
Here we find a book set mostly in Edmonton, and published by NeWest Press, an independent publisher that’s been operating in the city since 1977. Chow’s book is a collection of interrelated short stories about the Chinese-Canadian Lee family told in a clear, perceptive voice. These perceptions refer to quite a few uniquely Edmontonian landmarks—many of them long gone—but well-drawn family life is familiar wherever it’s found and the book’s “local” status manages to be evocative without being alienating.
The Sicilian Wife, by Caterina Edwards
Edmonton is rich with crime and mystery writing. Wayne Arthurson, E.C. Bell, Janice MacDonald, SG Wong are all prolific producers with ongoing series. Read any of them but don’t miss Caterina Edwards’ one-off literary noir in which an investigation of a mob hit in Sicily brings an Italian police chief to Edmonton. Despite being from the generally male-populated field of crime fiction, the story is driven by the characters of two very different women.
Icefields, by Thomas Wharton
Wharton is an Edmonton literary institution, a prize-winner, a professor, but also a literary innovator. In 2007 he crowdsourced a novel with the city’s newspaper reading public through the Saturday Serial Thriller contest. For this list, I recommend one of his more conventional novels (that's what institutions are for, isn't it?), his debut novel Icefields, set in Edmonton’s mountain park, Jasper.
Morgan Turner’s grief over her sister’s brutal murder has become a rut, an everyday horror she is caught in along with her estranged parents and chilly older brother. In search of a way out, she delves the depths of a factory abattoir, classic horror cinema, and the Canadian criminal justice system, as it tries her sister’s killer and former lover, who is arguing that he is “Not Criminally Responsible” for his actions because of a mental disease. Whatever the verdict, Morgan—with the help of her Chinese immigrant coworkers, a do-gooder, and a lovelorn schizophrenia patient—uncovers her own way to move on.
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