Where It All Happened: A List of Propulsive Settings

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Anyone who's read Emma Donoghue's The Pull of the Stars knows just how much the confines of that understaffed maternity ward contributed to this intimate, feminist love story. Donoghue is a master of gripping thrillers set in small spaces—think of The Wonder and of course, Room.

This is a list of books where unusual settings set the scene for all that happens next.

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The Setting: The Back Room of a Café

The Book: The Company We Keep, by Frances Itani

What It's About

On Tuesday nights in the backroom of Cassie’s café, six strangers seek solace and find themselves part of a “Company of Good Cheer”

Hazzley is at loose ends, even three years after the death of her husband. When her longtime friend Cassandra, café owner and occasional dance-class partner, suggests that she start up a conversation group, Hazzley posts a notice on the community board at the local grocery store. Four people turn up for the first meeting: Gwen, a recently widowed retiree in her early sixties, who finds herself pet-sitting a cantankerous parrot; Chiyo, a forty-year-old fitness instructor who cared for her unyielding but gossip-loving mother through the final days of her life; Addie, a woman pre-emptively grieving a close friend who is seriously ill; and Tom, an antiques dealer and amateur poet who, deprived of home baking since becoming a widower, comes to the first meeting hoping cake will be served. Before long, they are joined by Allam, a Syrian refugee with his own story to tell.

These six strangers are learning that beginnings can be possible at any stage of life. But as they tell their stories, they must navigate what is shared and what is withheld. Which version of the truth will be revealed? Who is prepared to step up when help is needed? This moving, funny and deeply empathic new novel from acclaimed author Frances Itani reminds us that life, with all its twists and turns, never loses its capacity to surprise.

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The Setting: A Book 

The Book: The Lightning of Possible Storms, by Jonathan Ball

What It's About

Aleya's world starts to unravel after a café customer leaves behind a collection of short stories. Surprised and disturbed to discover that it has been dedicated to her, Aleya delves into the strange book...

A mad scientist seeks to steal his son's dreams. A struggling writer, skilled only at destruction, finds himself courted by Hollywood. A woman seeks to escape her body and live inside her dreams. Citizens panic when a new city block manifests out of nowhere. The personification of capitalism strives to impress his cutthroat boss.
The more Aleya reads, the deeper she sinks into the mysterious writer's work, and the less real the world around her seems. Soon, she's overwhelmed as a new, more terrifying existence takes hold.

Jonathan Ball's first collection of short fiction blends humour and horror, doom and daylight, offering myriad possible storms.

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The Setting: A Manhattan Sidewalk

The Book: Molly Falls to Earth, by Maria Mutch

What It's About

In late January 2010, choreographer Molly Volkova has a seizure on a crowded Manhattan sidewalk.

As Molly experiences the singularity of the seizure over the course of seven minutes, she is haunted by her past: memories of love and infidelity, thoughts of her family and her work, and of the city itself. She also reflects on the disappearance of a lover she last saw ten years earlier, his sister, and the secrets that connect all three of them.

Flickering through time and space and from character to character, Molly Falls to Earth forms a constellation around the spot where Molly lies on the edge of Washington Square Park. Interwoven throughout are documentary segments featuring the voices of others who search for the lost, obsessed with those who have gone missing.

With her extraordinary ability to capture the unimaginable, Maria Mutch takes us deep into a stormy world in which people disappear without going anywhere, and appear to be present while travelling vast distances.

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The Setting: A Haunted House

The Book: The Hush Sisters, by Gerard Collins

What It's About

Sissy and Ava Hush are estranged, middle-aged sisters with little in common beyond their upbringing in a peculiar manor in downtown St. John’s. With both parents now dead, the siblings must decide what to do with the old house they’ve inherited. Despite their individual loneliness, neither is willing to change or cede to the other’s intentions. As the sisters discover the house’s dark secrets, the spirits of the past awaken, and strange events envelop them. The Hush sisters must either face these sinister forces together or be forever ripped apart.

In The Hush Sisters, Gerard Collins weaves psychological suspense with elements of the fantastic to craft a contemporary urban gothic that will keep readers spellbound until the novel whispers its startling secrets.

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The Setting: The Afterlife

The Book: Afterlife Crisis, by Randal Graham

What It's About

Something’s rotten in the afterlife. At least that’s how it seems to Rhinnick Feynman, the one man who perceives that someone in the afterlife is tugging at history’s threads and retroactively unravelling the past. Doing his best to navigate a netherworld in which history won’t stop changing for the worse, Rhinnick sets off on a quest to put things right.

This would be a good deal easier if Rhinnick didn’t believe he was a character in a novel and that the Author was changing the past through editorial revision. And it’d be better if Rhinnick didn’t find himself facing off against Isaac Newton, Jack the Ripper, Ancient Egyptians, a pack of frenzied Napoleons, and the prophet Norm Stradamus. Come to think of it, it’d be nice if Rhinnick could manage to steer clear of the afterlife’s mental health establishment and a bevy of unexpected fiancées.

Undeterred by these terrors, Rhinnick recognizes himself as The Man the Hour Produced, and the only one equipped to outwit the forces of science and mental health.

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The Setting: A Maternity Ward

The Book: The Pull of the Stars, by Emma Donoghue

What It's About

Dublin, 1918: three days in a maternity ward at the height of the great flu. A small world of work, risk, death and unlooked-for love, by the bestselling author of The Wonder and Room.

In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city centre, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new flu are quarantined together. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders—Doctor Kathleen Lynn, on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.

In the darkness and intensity of this tiny ward, over three days, these women change each other’s lives in unexpected ways. They lose patients to this baffling pandemic, but they also shepherd new life into a fearful world. With tireless tenderness and humanity, caregivers and mothers alike somehow do their impossible work.

In The Pull of the Stars, Emma Donoghue once again finds the light in the darkness in this new classic of hope and survival against all odds.

**

fivelittleindians

The Setting: Downtown Eastside Vancouver

The Book: Five Little Indians, by Michelle Good

What It's About

Taken from their families when they are very small and sent to a remote, church-run residential school, Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie and Maisie are barely out of childhood when they are finally released after years of detention.

Alone and without any skills, support or families, the teens find their way to the seedy and foreign world of Downtown Eastside Vancouver, where they cling together, striving to find a place of safety and belonging in a world that doesn’t want them. The paths of the five friends cross and crisscross over the decades as they struggle to overcome, or at least forget, the trauma they endured during their years at the Mission.

Fuelled by rage and furious with God, Clara finds her way into the dangerous, highly charged world of the American Indian Movement. Maisie internalizes her pain and continually places herself in dangerous situations. Famous for his daring escapes from the school, Kenny can’t stop running and moves restlessly from job to job—through fishing grounds, orchards and logging camps—trying to outrun his memories and his addiction. Lucy finds peace in motherhood and nurtures a secret compulsive disorder as she waits for Kenny to return to the life they once hoped to share together. After almost beating one of his tormentors to death, Howie serves time in prison, then tries once again to re-enter society and begin life anew.

With compassion and insight, Five Little Indians chronicles the desperate quest of these residential school survivors to come to terms with their past and, ultimately, find a way forward.

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The Setting: A Tiny Fishing Village

The Book: New Girl in Little Cove, by Damhnait Monaghan

What It's About

When a new teacher arrives in a tiny fishing village, she realizes the most important lessons are the ones she learns outside the classroom.

It’s 1985. Rachel O’Brien arrives in Little Cove seeking a fresh start after her father dies and her relationship ends. As a new teacher at the local Catholic high school, Rachel chafes against the small community, where everyone seems to know her business. The anonymous notes that keep appearing on her car, telling her to go home, don’t make her feel welcome either.

Still, Rachel is quickly drawn into the island’s distinctive music and culture, as well as the lives of her students and fellow teacher, Doug Bishop. As Rachel begins to bond with her students, her feelings for Doug also begin to grow. Rachel tries to ignore her emotions because Doug is in a long-distance relationship with his high school sweetheart. Or is he?

Eventually, Rachel’s beliefs clash with church and community, and she makes a decision that throws her career into jeopardy. In trying to help a student, has she gone too far? Only the intervention of the "Holy Dusters," local women who hook rugs and clean the church, can salvage Rachel’s job as well as her chance at a future with Doug.

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The Setting: A Stolen Car

The Book: The Crash Palace, by Andrew Wedderburn

What It's About

Audrey Cole has always loved to drive. Anytime, anywhere, any car: a questionable rustbucket, a family sedan, the SUV she was paid to drive around the oil fields. From the second she learned to drive, she’s always found a way to hit the road.

Years ago, when she abandoned her oil field job, she found herself chauffeuring around the Lever Men, a B-list band relegated to playing empty dive bars in far-flung towns. That’s how she found herself at the Crash Palace, an isolated lodge outside the big city where people pay to party in the wilderness.

And now, one night, while her young daughter is asleep at home, Audrey is struck by that old urge and finds herself testing the doors of parked cars in her neighbourhood. Before she knows it, she’s headed north in the dead of winter to the now abandoned Crash Palace in a stolen car, unable to stop herself from confronting her past.

The Crash Palace is a funny, moving, and surprising novel by the author of the Amazon First Novel Award–nominated The Milk Chicken Bomb. Audrey is unlike any character you’ve met before, and you'll love being along for the ride.

 

February 11, 2021
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