Degrees of Nakedness and Open, by Lisa Moore
The stories in these collections are so sensory, the descriptions are so precise, and the emotional subtlety of each moment is really something to behold. Take these lines from the story “Melody”: “The sky goes dark, darker, darker, and the first rumble is followed by a solid, thrilling crack. A blur of low light and pulsing. The rain tears into the basement like a racing pack of whippets… livid, grey muscles of rain.”
Moore is a master of micro-tension and subtext, carefully written as everyday moments. Her stories are so believable and relatable that in recalling them, I’ve sometimes wondered if someone told them to me, and who it was, before I realized where I’d read them. Some of my favourite stories are “Craving,” “Mouths,” “Open,” “Grace,” “Surge” and “Sea Urchin.” Degrees of Nakedness and Open are two absolute must-reads for any short fiction writer.
Natasha and Other Stories, by David Bezmozgis
As soon as I read the opening story, “Tapka,” in which Bezmozgis accurately and humorously describes the immigrant Jewish community in Toronto, I knew I would fall in love with this collection. I had never considered that some of the settings of my childhood could be written about, let alone in such an elegant, literary way. To say that it changed my life as a writer – in terms of what I thought was possible and what I conceived of writing – is an understatement. Bezmozgis’s characters are unforgettable, both in how three-dimensional and real they seem, and in their struggles. I loved the complexity of the title story, and the range of feelings it produced in me. I also love his newer collection, Immigrant City, which includes a reappearance of the beloved Berman family.
Geeks, Misfits, & Outlaws, edited by Zoe Whittall
This brilliant collection features two of my favourite short stories of all time: Heather O’Neill’s “I Love Angelo,” and Zoe Whittall’s “Seven Stops Time.” To this day, I still reread “I Know Angelo” every time I need some inspiration. O’Neill’s descriptions, and her ability to imbue every moment and object with beauty and depth, still knock me out. “Seven Stops Time” is so realistic and is a great example of a perfect punch-line denouement. “I’m having the world’s slowest nervous breakdown.” Fingers crossed that Whittall publishes a whole collection of short stories sometime soon.
Daydreams of Angels, by Heather O’Neill
You know when you already love an author’s work, and you think it’s not possible to love their writing more, but then somehow you do? Daydreams of Angels made my heart expand. It blends fairy tales with beautiful, gritty urban life in the freshest and most gorgeous and unique ways. I’m hard-pressed to pick a favourite, but currently it’s the title story, “Heaven,” as well as “Sting like a Bee” and “The Saddest Chorus Girl in the World.”
Long Story Short, by Elyse Friedman
This collection provides an incredible study of all aspects of crafting a short story. I’ve reread Long Story Short more times than I can count and am always awed by its biting humour and observations, genuinely tender moments, and unexpected twists. My favourites are “The Soother” (which won a National Magazine Award, and which is one of the most revealing portraits I’ve ever come across of a man and a family – on multiple levels) and “Wonderful,” an amazing, contemporary reimagining of It’s a Wonderful Life.
The Octopus Has Three Hearts, by Rachel Rose
If, like me, you love animals, you’ll love this collection and all the complex ways Rose weaves animals into her brilliant stories. In the title story, Mica, a biologist, is in a polyamorous relationship with two men, Phil and Winston. All three protagonists’ hearts are represented within the octopus, Oberon, who escapes his aquarium at the beginning of the story. Phil, the narrator, describes Mica in the context of her bond with Oberon: “She had a heart so full of love that she made it seem normal to hold hands with an octopus at lunch. I was a lucky man. So was her other husband, Winston.” From a Golden Retriever stolen by a former sex offender to a pot-bellied pig who grows so large he dominates his family’s home, to a woman who steals her would-be assailant’s pet rat, this collection is full of compassion and originality. In the story “Will You Accept the Charges,” Rose addresses race, identity, and cultural appropriation with her signature multifaceted insights and sharp characterization. No wonder The Octopus Has Three Hearts made the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist in 2021.
Nowadays and Lonelier, by Carmella Gray-Cosgrove
Carmella Gray-Cosgrove’s Nowadays and Lonelier is a gorgeous, emotionally arresting collection. I sobbed through the story “Almost Touching,” with its perfect descriptions of a young girl named Bailey and her sex worker mom, whom she adores. “Bailey can feel their hearts pounding against each other, her own slowing to match her mom’s. They’re syncopated and then they’re the same. She breathes in Joy’s perfume and feels the cold wind drying the tears on her cheeks.” In the opening story, “The Dance of the Cygnets,” a ballerina whose father overdosed on heroin contends with the mental health and addiction issues of her sister. In “Dive Master,” the protagonist looks back on a significant relationship: “I think you imagined your life like a Wes Anderson movie… cross sectioned and neatly organized into a pleasing symmetry… like you were an actor or a doll, not in fact responsible for anything you did.” I can’t recommend it enough.
That Time I Loved You, by Carrianne Leung
This beautiful collection of linked stories, set in a Scarborough subdivision in the 70s, reveals so much about relationships and marriages, mental health, siblings and parents, immigrant culture, and cultural identity. One of the most incredible aspects of Leung’s writing is her deep empathy; she is invested in every single character, from Mrs. Da Silva, in “Flowers,” who converses – in desperation and loneliness – with her plants (“they had a right to be intrusive, they’d lived there almost as long as she had”) to June, who narrates three of the collection’s best stories, including the opening story, “Grass.” I also loved the sharp observations about married life in suburbia in “Fences.”.The whole collection is a revelation.
Waiting for the Cyclone, by Leesa Dean
A sign of spectacular writing is when the author can make you nostalgic for places you’ve never been, or for things you’ve never experienced. In the title story, “Waiting for the Cyclone,” Dean’s descriptions of Coney Island (“slow driving cars on the boulevard, the smell of sugar powdered grease in the air”) and the way she uses the rollercoaster to describe a couple are perfect: “There was a pause at the top before the first drop…I wanted to kiss him right then so we would both remember how it had been, but it was too late. We were already falling fast.” I’m also always a sucker for female characters who don’t behave in expected ways. In “Libertad,” a woman cheats on her husband on vacation, then turns on him instead of showing any remorse. This whole collection is beautiful and full of unexpected delights.
All the Shining People, by Kathy Friedman
I knew I would love this collection of stories when I learned they were about South African Jewish immigrants, displacement, and fitting in. Friedman does an exceptional job with those themes. “Hentie’s Voice,” in particular, is incredibly touching, full of sympathy and honesty. Friedman’s other stories are equally moving, including the title story, told beautifully from multiple perspectives, with its perfect ending: “I don’t remember how his fall happened, but I would reverse it so gently...I’d lift him up from the floor of the valley, bound to me with the heart’s thin elastic strings. Then I’d raise him up over the highway’s red and white lights… like a banner in a parade with confetti… I’d watch my love unfurl across the sky, to ripple and wave above the city, and all the shining people in it.” Her final story, “Hineni,” brought me to tears.
The Best Place on Earth, by Ayelet Tsabari
Ayelet Tsabari’s writing pulsates. The characters, and all their deepest feelings and needs, leap off the page in beautiful, masterful ways. In “Tikkun,” the collection’s opening story, Natalie, a hippie who became religious seven years prior, meets up with an ex and connects with him on some surprising levels. Tsabari’s characterization is urgent and intense, the dialogue is so funny and sharp, and her creativity with the concept of Tikkun (i.e., correction), is frankly brilliant. Another favourite is “A Sign of Harmony,” where a character named Maya travels to India for the fourth time. Along with gorgeous, sensory descriptions, there is this funny exchange between a server and Maya and her boyfriend, who are told that they look like siblings: “Ew,” Maya twisted her face. “No it’s a good thing,” the barista hastened to add, “it’s a sign of harmony.” On my current reread, “Below Sea Level” is another favourite.
Translated from the Gibberish, by Anosh Irani
I’ve been a huge fan of Irani’s for years, ever since I tore through his beautiful novel, The Parcel. This collection is lyrical and spellbinding – but it’s also full of wry humour. In the title story, Irani writes, “I was on my way to becoming a flammable object. That’s what writers are. And I knew I had it in me, this innate ability to combust.” I loved every story, from the fable-like “Circus Wedding” to the brilliant “Butter Chicken.”
What Boys Like, by Amy Jones
If, like me, you hear the sardonic, deadpan delivery of the singer in the band The Waitresses every time you see the title, What Boys Like, boy are you in for a treat. This collection has a freshness and energy about it that is both pure pop culture and pure literary genius. Jones has written some incredible novels since, and has a new one out now, but her short stories should not be overlooked. My favourite remains “How to Survive a Summer in the City,” with its precise descriptions of Halifax, from Point Pleasant Park to Sobey’s on North Street and note-perfect dialogue. Jones does a masterful job of conveying the tension and love between Marie and her mother, Stacy. The story is a heartbreaker in the best possible way, and so is “An Army of One,” in which a woman is in love with and still seeing a man who is about to get married. “Places to Drink Outside in Halifax” is so evocative it makes me miss living on the East Coast.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad
Mona Awad’s novels, including All’s Well and Bunny are incredible, so it’s no surprise that her stories are excellent, too. Awad tackles body image, and the deep dissatisfaction we can have with ourselves, with brilliance and heartbreaking accuracy. It’s the kind of writing you wish wasn’t so relatable (I laughed and nodded so many times when I read the story “I Want Too Much”) but it’s also writing that inspires.
Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome, by Megan Gail Coles
If like me, you loved Coles’ novel Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, you will also love her previously published short story collection, Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome. These stories capture the Newfoundland voice so beautifully and address class, race, sex, and the body in such a memorable, direct, and succinct way. Coles’ opening and closing sentences are always arresting. In “A Closet Full of Bridesmaid Dresses,” she opens with, “Shawn never finishes the food on his plate. Doing so lacks self control, and besides, it seems vulgar to be so hungry…Sadie finishes every mouthful for starving children in Africa.” The story ends with Sadie leaving him: “she belongs to no one, is a part of nothing…and Shawn will be fine. He’ll meet someone before the summer’s end…maybe they’ll fall in love. Maybe it will be all be different.” Other standouts include “I Will Hate Everything,” “Later,” “Enthusiastic about Potatoes,” and “Everyone Eats While I Starve to Death Here.”
Bad Endings, by Carleigh Baker
This collection is absolutely gorgeous, full of sensitivity, dark humour, and heartbreaking insight about marriage, the dissolution of it, nature and our lack of connection to it, and so much more. “Shoe Shopping With the Cash Poor” is one of my favourites, along with “Chins and Elbows,” and “Moosehide,” about a Cree-Metis couple on a canoe trip. I can’t wait for her new collection, Last Woman, which will be out in 2024 with M&S.
The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie
One of the things I admire most about this collection, along with its descriptions of Vancouver, is Christie’s fearlessness in fully immersing himself and his reader into the minds of struggling characters, including characters having psychotic breaks. He does it both with elegance and plausibility, and the effect is haunting to say the least. “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” about a crack smoker who loves science and thinks he’s become friends with J Robert Oppenheimer, is surreal and masterful. In the opening story, “Emergency Contact,” a lonely older woman calls a paramedic and expresses her love for him. My other favourites include “The Queen of Cans and Jars,” and the title story, “The Beggar’s Garden.”
Oh, My Darling, by Shaena Lambert
Few stories have knocked me out as much as the title story in this collection. Lambert pulls off the second person brilliantly, as the reader gradually learns that the internal voice propelling the narrator to question her mortality is in fact her cancer. Another heartbreaker is “Crow Ride,” about a mother who has lost her son to addiction and makes an unexpected connection. People who admire Alice Munro and Annabel Lyon will adore this collection, for its observations, insights and bravery in addressing her character’s greatest fears and needs.
Bang Crunch, by Neil Smith
Neil Smith is one of my favourite writers, and his debut short story collection has one of my favourite love stories that begins in “Green Fluorescent Protein” and is continued in “Funny Weird, or Funny Haha?” Smith’s ear for dialogue is perfect, his ability to insert tension and heart into body language and tiny subtle moments is unparalleled. People who love his novels will love this collection so much.
Shut Up You’re Pretty, by Tea Mutonji
I tore through this collection in one night, unable to put it down. I’ve never seen the Congolese immigrant experience and a girl’s coming-of-age written such a beautiful, unvarnished way. The stories are honest and vulnerable, propulsive, complex, and unafraid to show life and sexuality and family in all its messiness. “I was relieved when he died. It felt like this huge rock I didn’t even know I was carrying, had suddenly lifted…I said it and nothing happened. The roof of the bar didn’t crack open, and no birds flew from heaven and there was no earthquake.” I marvelled at Mutonji’s beautiful phrasing throughout, and “Sober Party” and “Theresa Is Getting Married” brought me to tears.
Survivors, by Chava Rosenfarb
I feel remiss that I only discovered the incredible writing of the late Canadian writer Chava Rosenfarb, a Holocaust survivor, so recently. This collection is spectacular, particularly the story “Edgia’s Revenge,” about two women who survived the camps together, one as a kapo and one as a prisoner, and their fraught and tense friendship after the fact. Rosenfarb’s collection is a brilliant study of what happens to families and to individuals’ identities after they survive indescribable horrors. This is an emotional read, but so full of insight and brave investigation that I can’t recommend it enough.
The Most Precious Substance on Earth, by Shashi Bhat
This linked short story collection about a millennial named Nina and all that she experiences from grade nine to her thirties is exquisitely relatable, and beautifully rendered. A traumatic experience with a teacher is curated with incredible restraint, her tensions with friends, struggles with her MFA program and adventures in teaching feel incredibly real and are packed with insights. Similar in age to Nina, I loved the pop culture and fashion references, which were spot on. The Most Precious Substance on Earth is a joy to read and reread.
Her First Palestinian, by Saeed Teebi
I was knocked out by Teebi’s amazing title story when it won the CBC Short Story Contest. The ending was particularly moving and ingenious: “My hands were still nestled in Nadia’s, but she was gazing past me. Are you in love with him? I replied. Nadia did not lunge at me. She did not move a muscle. I said to myself, just let her go, let her go to him, let her go to her first Palestinian.” The rest of the collection is just as brilliant and incisive. My other favourites include “Do Not Write About the King,” and “Woodland.” I can’t wait for Teebi’s next book.
Frying Plantain, by Zalika Reid Benta
I devoured this vibrant and cinematic coming-of-age collection of linked stories in one sitting. Kara Davis, a young Jamaican Canadian living in Toronto’s Little Jamaica neighbourhood, has such an engaging and authentic voice. From romantic relationships in “Lovely” to racial tension and definition in “Pig Head” to familial tensions in the brilliantly structured “Celebration” and the title story, with its subtle, touching ending, the collection is original and accomplished. I can’t wait to read her new novel, River Mumma.
The Night Is a Mouth, by Lisa Foad
This collection has some of the most extraordinary descriptions of Toronto I’ve ever read. This is just a tiny sample, from the story “Grey”:
“Smoke stacks, stadium lights…Graffiti. Railroad tracks. Rainwater pooled in the yard’s gaping cavities. A wolf dog bent on wrestling a piece of plywood from beyond the shadows…Sunlight shimmies, bejewels the building’s backside. The windows glint and swagger. They stink of arrogance and aftershave…the sky reddens, then purples, a plum.” Her characterization is exceptional, too. In these magical, dream-like stories, Foad has such finesse with the form, it’s hard to believe this was her debut.
Animal Person, by Alexander MacLeod
This collection was so expertly and sensitively rendered that I was sure it would win every award the year it was published. The O. Henry Award-winning opening story, “Lagomorph,” is a standout in how it examines both the loss of a family pet rabbit and the dissolution of the marriage of its owners. MacLeod has the rare gift of humanizing all his characters. In “What Exactly Do You Think You’re Looking At?” he writes about a person with an uncontrollable compulsion to steal people’s luggage from an airport carousel. In “The Entertainer” he writes with heartbreaking insight about a piano recital. If you haven’t read this poignant collection yet, I can’t recommend it enough.
Bad Things Happen, by Kris Bertin
This collection is dark, insightful, and hilarious, full of brilliant moments of self-reflection on the part of his characters, no matter how precarious their circumstances. I always love writing that embraces the worst possible scenarios or characters at rock bottom, and Bertin does it with such skill, it’s impossible not to feel for all of them. I was especially taken with “Is Alive and Can Move,” and “Girl on Fire Escape.” Fans of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son will absolutely love this collection.
Fake It So Real, by Susan Sandford Blades
I was drawn to this collection both because of its punk rock cover illustration and its reference to one of my favourite Hole songs, "Doll Parts." Sandford Blades describes punk bands and groupies, musicians and magical thinking, parenthood and identity with a freshness and fearlessness that makes the stories both stirring and captivating. From "Poseurs": “Gwen had not been the sort of little girl who enacted a white wedding with a dandelion tied around her finger and her boy neighbour’s ketchup-chip powdered lips thrust against her cheek. She spent the idle summer days of her childhood melting her doll’s plastic faces with her magnifying glass and dodging said boy neighbour’s arc of urine through the gaps in their shared fence.” “What to Expect” and “The Postcard” are other highlights from this killer collection.
About Danila Botha
Danila Botha is an author of short story collections and novels. For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I've Known was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award, The Vine Awards, and the ReLit Award. Her new collection, Things that Cause Inappropriate Happiness, will be published in March 2024 by Guernica Editions. Her novel Too Much on the Inside which was recently optioned for film. Her new novel, A Place for People Like Us, will be published by Guernica in 2025. She teaches Creative Writing at University
of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and is part of the faculty at Humber School for Writers.
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