Celebrating Short Books

During February—the shortest month—we'll be paying respects to the shortest books, short stories, novellas, and novels that do not sprawl. Because who doesn't love a slim volume, a book that reads up quick, all the literary value in half the time? With a short book too, an author is going to have more luck getting their reader to take up a challenge, partake in the experimental, and dare to read difficult. Because with a short book that is difficult, you can always read it twice or more just to puzzle it out.

And of course, as always, there are so many books and so little time (and not just in February). So to that end, we've compiled a list of award-winning Canadian fiction that clocks in at 225 pages or less—an excellent chance to meet your reading goals , or to score a Book Club pick that everyone stands a chance of actually getting through. 

****

Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis (160 pages)

About the book: – I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.

– I'll wager a year's servitude, answered Apollo, that animals—any animal you like—would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.

And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old 'dog' ways, and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.

André Alexis's contemporary take on the apologue offers an utterly compelling and affecting look at the beauty and perils of human consciousness. By turns meditative and devastating, charming and strange, Fifteen Dogs shows you can teach an old genre new tricks.

*

Brother, by David Chariandy (192 pages)

About the book: Winner of the 2017 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, David Chariandy's Brother is his intensely beautiful, searingly powerful, and tightly constructed second novel, exploring questions of masculinity, family, race, and identity as they are played out in a Scarborough housing complex during the sweltering heat and simmering violence of the summer of 1991.

With shimmering prose and mesmerizing precision, David Chariandy takes us inside the lives of Michael and Francis. They are the sons of Trinidadian immigrants, their father has disappeared and their mother works double, sometimes triple shifts so her boys might fulfill the elusive promise of their adopted home.

Coming of age in The Park, a cluster of town houses and leaning concrete towers in the disparaged outskirts of a sprawling city, Michael and Francis battle against the careless prejudices and low expectations that confront them as young men of black and brown ancestry—teachers stream them into general classes; shopkeepers see them only as thieves; and strangers quicken their pace when the brothers are behind them. Always Michael and Francis escape into the cool air of the Rouge Valley, a scar of green wilderness that cuts through their neighbourhood, where they are free to imagine better lives for themselves.

Propelled by the pulsing beats and styles of hip hop, Francis, the older of the two brothers, dreams of a future in music. Michael's dreams are of Aisha, the smartest girl in their high school whose own eyes are firmly set on a life elsewhere. But the bright hopes of all three are violently, irrevocably thwarted by a tragic shooting, and the police crackdown and suffocating suspicion that follow.

With devastating emotional force David Chariandy, a unique and exciting voice in Canadian literature, crafts a heartbreaking and timely story about the profound love that exists between brothers and the senseless loss of lives cut short with the shot of a gun.

*

Bear, by Marian Engel (128 pages)

About the book: The winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, Marian Engel’s most famous—and most controversial—novel tells the unforgettable story of a woman transformed by a primal, erotic relationship. Lou is a lonely librarian who spends her days in the dusty archives of the Historical Institute. When an unusual field assignment comes her way, she jumps at the chance to travel to a remote island in northern Ontario, where she will spend the summer cataloguing a library that belonged to an eccentric nineteenth-century colonel. Eager to investigate the estate’s curious history, she is shocked to discover that the island has one other inhabitant: a bear. Lou’s imagination is soon overtaken by the island’s past occupants, whose deep fascination with bears gradually becomes her own. Irresistibly, Lou is led along a path of emotional and sexual self-awakening, as she explores the limits of her own animal nature. What she discovers will change her life forever. As provocative and powerful now as when it was first published.

*

A Perfect Night to Go to China, by David Gilmour (192 pages)

About the book: This astonishing novel—unlike anything Gilmour has ever written before—begins with every parent’s worst nightmare: the disappearance of a child. A father makes a casual error of judgement one evening and leaves his six-year-old son alone for fifteen minutes. When he returns the child is gone and three lives are changed forever. Has the boy been kidnapped? Spirited out of the country? Is he dead? 

The story that unfolds is told by the novel’s narrator, a television host named Roman, who searches for his son through the city and through the underworld of dreams and tries to bring him back. Pursued by an unshakeable conviction that his son is speaking directly to him, Roman begins to enter a haunting relationship with the missing child and his own conscience. In the meantime, his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and he is rejected by his grieving and angry wife, eventually fired from his job, and shadowed by a persistent policeman who thinks Roman is hiding the child. Written in the clear, elegant prose Gilmour is known for, A Perfect Night to Go to China is a completely absorbing and original work of fiction. It sets up a harrowing premise and doesn’t let up until the last surprising page.

*

Elle, by Douglas Glover (226 pages)

About the book: A 16th-century belle turned Robinson Crusoe, a female Don Quixote with an Inuit Sancho Panza—this is the heroine of the novel that won the 2003 Governor General's Award. Elle is a lusty, subversive riff on the discovery of the New World, the moment of first contact.

Based on what might be a true story, the novel chronicles the ordeals and adventures of a young French woman marooned on the desolate Isle of Demons during Jacques Cartier's ill-fated third and last attempt to colonize Canada.

In this new readers' guide edition, Douglas Glover's carnal whirlwind of myth and story, of beauty and hilarity brings the past violently and unexpectedly into the present. His well-known scatological realism, exuberant violence, and dark, unsettling humour give his unique version of history a thoroughly modern chill.

*

The Roaring Girl, by Greg Hollingshead (198 pages)

About the book: “Writing doesn’t get much better,” The Edmonton Journal enthused when The Roaring Girl was first published in 1995. Readers and award committees agreed, bestowing Hollingshead with bestselling-author status and a Governor General’s Award for Fiction. These are 12 stories that dazzle with a compelling sense of mystery just below the surface, a showcase for Hollingshead’s uncanny ability to turn the world on its head and view life from unexpected perspectives.

*

A Dream Like Mine, by M.T. Kelly (176 pages)

About the book: Considering whether it is moral to use radical and violent solutions to stop the destruction of the environment, this dark novel portrays a succession of fights over land rights and pollution in northern Ontario. As tensions increase, a local Indigenous man decides to follow his vision of revenge by kidnapping the manager of the paper mill and a reporter who arrives on the scene.

*

Whale Music, by Paul Quarrington (224 pages)

About the book: Des Howell is a former rock 'n' roll star who never leaves his secluded oceanfront mansion. Naked, rich and fabulously deranged, he subsists on a steady diet of whiskey, pharmaceuticals and jelly doughnuts and occasionally works on his masterpiece, "Whale Music." One day, upon awakening from his usual drunken stupor, Des discovers on his sofa a young alien from the faraway universe of Toronto. This girl has made the trek to Des' hideaway because she believes in the "Whale Music" and she's crazy enough to think that Des can make a comeback hit with his mad magnum opus—

*

Forms of Devotion, by Diane Schoemperlen (223 pages)

About the book: Diane Schoemperlen's acclaimed In the Language of Love expanded our expectations of the contemporary novel, using everyday words to deconstruct a young woman's life and loves. In her new short story collection, Forms of Devotion, she again tests the bounds of her craft, creating an arresting and wonderfully readable work that is also a treat for the eye.

Forms of Devotion contains eleven stories, each one a brilliant interplay of words and images. The illustrations, selected by Schoemperlen and depicting almost every subject imaginable, are wood engravings and line drawings from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In somecases, she was inspired to write the story after studying the illustrations; in other cases, she wrote the story first, then chose or constructed the pictures to accompany it. The result is a playful, sometimes surreal and often mysterious juxtaposition of a historical fascination with anatomy and classical themes with the author's contemporary exploration of everyday people, places and things.

*

The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud (224 pages)

About the book: Haunted by the vivid horrors of the Vietnam War, exhausted from years spent battling his memories, Napoleon Haskell leaves his North Dakota trailer and moves to Canada.

He retreats to a small Ontario town where Henry, the father of his fallen Vietnam comrade, has a home on the shore of a man-made lake. Under the water is the wreckage of what was once the town—and the home where Henry was raised.

When Napoleon's daughter arrives, fleeing troubles of her own, she finds her father in the dark twilight of his life, and rapidly slipping into senility. With love and insatiable curiosity, she devotes herself to learning the truth about his life; and through the fog, Napoleon's past begins to emerge.

Lyrical and riveting, The Sentimentalists is a story of what lies beneath the surface of everyday life, and of the commanding power of the past. Johanna Skibsrud's first novel marks the debut of a powerful new voice in Canadian fiction.

*

Nights Below Station Street, by David Adams Richards (232 pages)

About the book: David Adams Richards’ Governor General’s Award-winning novel is a powerful tale of resignation and struggle, fierce loyalties and compassion. This book is the first in Richards’ acclaimed Miramichi trilogy. Set in a small mill town in northern New Brunswick, it draws us into the lives of a community of people who live there, including: Joe Walsh, isolated and strong in the face of a drinking problem; his wife, Rita, willing to believe the best about people; and their teenage daughter Adele, whose nature is rebellious and wise, and whose love for her father wars with her desire for independence. Richards’ unforgettable characters are linked together in conflict, and in articulate love and understanding. Their plight as human beings is one we share.

*

Shakespeare's Dog, by Leon Rooke (224 pages)

About the book: A tour de force of inventive wit Shakespeare’s Dog is the eccentric and high-spirited story of William Shakespeare and how he came to bed and wed Anne Hathaway.

Told from the point of view of the Bard’s dog, this astonishing novel of comic bliss, hailed as a triumph of language and an amusing delight.

*

The Double Hook, by Sheila Watson (152 pages)

About the book: In spare, allusive prose, Sheila Watson charts the destiny of a small, tightly knit community nestled in the BC Interior. Here, among the hills of Cariboo country, men and women are caught upon the double hook of existence, unaware that the flight from danger and the search for glory are both part of the same journey. In Watson’s compelling novel, cruelty and kindness, betrayal and faith shape a pattern of enduring significance.

February 14, 2019
Books mentioned in this post
Fifteen Dogs

Fifteen Dogs

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary
More Info
Bear

Bear

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback
tagged :
More Info
Elle

Elle

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback eBook
More Info
A Dream Like Mine

A Dream Like Mine

(Exile Classics Series Number 16)
edition:Paperback
More Info
Sentimentalists, The

Sentimentalists, The

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary
More Info
Shakespeare's Dog

Shakespeare's Dog

Twentieth Anniversary Edition
by Leon Rooke
introduction by Shelagh Rogers
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
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