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Editor's Picks: Week of September 21, 2020

By kileyturner
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A man unravels the mystery of his dead fiance's life, a novel reminiscent of "Sliding Doors," the winner of the 2020 International Book Award for LGBTQ Fiction, a provocative new coming-of-age story, and a historical debut inspired by the history of the British “brideships."
After Elias

After Elias

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

A modern queer tragedy about a pilot's last words, an interrupted celebration, and the fear of losing everything.
“Utterly engrossing. Coen is a hero for our era, darkly struggling amid the aftershocks of loss, but doing so with dignity, humanity, and passion.” — Timothy Taylor, author of The Rule of Stephens

When the airplane piloted by Elias Santos crashes one week before their wedding day, Coen Caraway loses the man he loves and the illusion of happiness he has worked so hard to create. …

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Excerpt

I used to call the shadow my old friend. It seemed less frightening that way. I would say it with a wry smile, but nobody else would find it funny.

It has been such a long time since the shadow last came around. “I think I’ve been defriended,” I once said to Elias. He just looked at me, unamused.

I suppose I’ve been too busy with the wedding arrangements to think much about the shadow. It doesn’t like to be forgotten though. It always lingers nearby. As I arrived at the hotel yesterday, I should have predicted that the shadow would make an appearance. After all, it is an old friend.

The Terrace Bar is different today. I feel it as soon as I step inside. Something foreign in the air greets me like a scent I can’t quite place. It’s darker here than in the rest of the hotel. It struck me as odd when I first saw it yesterday, this gloomy cavern hidden within a palace of light.

My eyes adjust and all I see are flowers. They’re an unnatural shade of yellow, worn by a woman softened with age, her skin like an overripe plum. She’s seated alone at a table and stares straight ahead, motionless. The sadness on her face is even more unnerving against the yellow flowers of the dress hanging limply on her.

A few other guests sit at tables scattered throughout the room. Like the woman in the floral dress, their stares are fixed on something in front of them.

The bartender stands behind the long countertop to my left, framed by a wall of glass bottles. He greeted me with such warmth yesterday. Every smile he gave felt earned, inviting my confidence whenever he leaned forward or held eye contact longer than what I’d usually find comfortable. Now his arms are crossed over his chest, his eyes narrowed. A dishtowel lies forgotten over one shoulder. He’s staring in the same direction as everyone else in the dim room, his head tilted upward as though listening to god.

Following their gaze, I see it’s something ordinary: a television set mounted on the wall behind the bar’s counter. I can’t quite tell what they’re watching, but it looks like the ocean. The waves are more grey than blue, churning across the screen with lashes of foam.

Why is everyone so interested in this?

Several jagged objects come into view. They rock along with the rhythm of the waves, the red paint bold against the coldness of the sea. Their shapes lack symmetry.

Are they little boats?

A woman appears on the screen. She’s dressed inoffensively in neutral tones and crisp lines. Her delicate hands are placed on the surface of a lacquered desk. I hear her voice but don’t hear the words.

My body begins to shiver like a taut wire as my phone vibrates in my pocket. I don’t reach for it, like I normally would. It goes off again. And again. I just let it continue its inaudible cry, a silent alarm bell. But I don’t need to read the messages or answer the calls. I know what has happened, why everyone at home suddenly feels the need to get hold of me. I know what everyone in the room is seeing on the television, what those floating objects are. I know, because I’ve always known this would happen one day. Today is that day.

The shadow comes to me.

I recognize it immediately, even though it has been so long.

It cloaks itself around my body. I feel its touch, a sickening static. A familiar numbness washes over me.

It seeps into my skin. The pricking begins softly before it gets sharper, quicker. A thousand stabbing needles.

It whispers in my ears. A deadening hum surrounds me.

Hello, old friend.

Invisible hands wrap around my throat.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t move.

If I had been paying closer attention earlier, I might have seen it in the periphery of my vision, felt its touch against the tips of my fingers. It was so close.

I don’t know how long I stand there before my legs can move again. They march me out of the dim room, and I stumble through the hall. The light sears my retinas. The sound of my shoes on the cold floor becomes louder with every step as the hum subsides. I find my suite, the door emblazoned with numbers polished so well I can see my reflection in them. My hand shakes as it fumbles in my pocket for the key.

I throw myself into the room and slam the door shut behind me. I pull the curtains closed and switch on the television above the dresser.

This must be a mistake.

The unholy messenger in the neutral tones stares back at me, though she seems less benign. There is an emptiness in her eyes as her lips move. I can understand her words now.

Flight XI260 was on its way to Vancouver from Berlin when it crashed into the Arctic Ocean one hour ago. There were 314 passengers on board, including fifteen crew members, one relief pilot, one captain, and one co-pilot.

A face appears, and I know it so well. The square chin and uneven lips that make him look more arrogant than he is. The arrowhead slope of his nose, something he’s always been self-conscious of.

Most striking of all, the darkness of his irises. Almost black, they reflect the light as tiny white orbs — two satellites in the night sky.

He’s the man I’m supposed to marry in seven days, this co-pilot.

His name is Elias.

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If Sylvie Had Nine Lives

If Sylvie Had Nine Lives

edition:Paperback

An innovative, gorgeously written story about the small decisions that shape our lives.

Meet Sylvie -- funny, sly, sensual and flawed. She can't always count on herself to make good choices. She may or may not recognize a life-or-death moment, may or may not cancel her own wedding with a day to spare, might just try to walk past store security with a little something in her pocket. Like all of us, Sylvie must make decisions that have reverberations for years to come. Unlike the rest of us, Sylvie …

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Carousel

Carousel

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

Winner of the 2020 International Book Award for LGBTQ Fiction.

Margot Wright has led a deliberate life. At 18, she left her unusual and abusive family situation and never looked back, and then two years later she devoted herself wholly to Estelle Coté, her first and only love. But now, at 45, freshly retired from a career in antique firearms dealing, and settling into a new home with her wife, Margot finds herself feeling restless. Bored. She admits this to herself on the day she visits Le Galop …

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Excerpt

"Echidna," I said.

"What?"

"Pierrot's print reminds me of Echidna, the Greek she-dragon."

Estelle lit up. "Mais oui. Why didn't I think of that?"

"I'm impressed I just did."

"And you operated a digital camera. It's been a big day for my GoGo."

I reached above the sink, where the medicine cabinet yielded acetaminophen and Estelle's prescription bottle of Lorazepam. I shook out two pills of the former, one of the latter, and filled her empty glass with water.

"Take your bath so we can look at the carousel pictures together in bed." This would give me time to study the one of Katy, for it had been nagging at my consciousness more than anything else since my arrival home.

Estelle hadn't made any progress in our bedroom. It was as I had left it that afternoon, her chest of novelty cameras still open, my men's lightweight flannel nightshirt slouched over the lamp. The room gave the impression of a suspended departure rather than a celebrated arrival. I closed the chest and dragged it beside the Queen Anne burl walnut highboy I had gifted to Estelle our fourth year together, which she cunningly re-gifted to me the following year, on our "wood" anniversary, confessing that the dresser was too impractical for her everyday use. As a demonstration of her rue, she had filled each drawer with silly bric-a-brac she knew I enjoyed but was too proud to acquire on my own: Bazooka Joe bubble gum, miniature green army men, a Lego medieval village set, t-rex-patterned handkerchiefs

Rather than lose time making the bed and fluffing the pillows as I customarily did before we turned in, I sat on the edge and turned on the digital Polaroid. The images Katy had captured were, as she had promised, the work of a steady--and remarkably skilled--hand. Estelle would be pleased. There was a series of the horses from behind, the undersides of their lovely silver hooves flashing the lens; a series of the horses in profile that emphasized the precision of their sculpted muscles and manes; and a cheeky shot of Étienne brooding into the horizon, evidently unaware he was the subject of Katy's whim of the moment. Katy had photographed me, too, and the shot was so abysmal that in the morning, with fresh eyes and a fresh mind, I would have to figure out how to delete it. After a few more horses, I came to the photograph I had taken. I compared it with the printed version, and I was severely disappointed. Whatever magic I had believed existed in the shot had remained at the park. It was just a picture of a teenage girl who was all limbs, her smile too wide and luscious for her face, and an obnoxious sliver of a gap between her top front teeth like the sort admired in select famous actresses and models, but which, in common women, betrayed orthodontic negligence or inferior social class.

"What are you looking at?"

I jumped to find Estelle standing before me, wrapped in a plush lavender towel and smelling of cinnamon body wash.

She sat beside me and nipped my earlobe. "I'm sorry," she whispered. She slipped her fingers down the front of my towel as she worked her lips along my neck.

With the two versions of Katy looking up at me--a funhouse, mocking me--I couldn't allow things to go any further. Besides, the resurrected desire I had felt for my wife in the bathroom, had felt in twinges throughout the day, was once again dormant.

"I've had quite the day, Elle."

Estelle pressed her teeth against my collarbone as she considered my statement. She wrapped her towel more tightly around herself and crawled to the top of the bed and then under the sheets. "Sure. I get it."

I turned off the Polaroid and hid the print of Katy in a pocket inside the camera bag. "Tell me more about this Dr. Weinstock. And since when--no, why, I mean really, have you been seeing him?"

"Do you want the short version or the long version?"

"I have nowhere to be in the morning."

A yogi's controlled exhalation, silence, and then: "What about our rule?"

"I didn't start this conversation."

A pause. "But if we get into a fight."

"We'll stop right away and wait until tomorrow."

"Promise?"

"Yes."

"Remember, you asked." Estelle pulled the sheets up over her shoulders. "I thought there was something wrong with me, like a depression, because everything was upsetting me, so I went to the guy Marianne recommended. You have to believe me, Margot, everything under the sun was upsetting me, not just you. Sometimes I'd have to take emergency breaks at work to go sob in the washroom. Jean-Jacques's been the biggest jerk lately, and I can't take it, working with him day in day out and listening to his bitching every time we don't get an artist. I'm doing the best I can. I actually left one of our meetings in tears. So," another exhalation, less controlled this time, "I went to Dr. Weinstock, assuming after he heard me talk for five minutes he'd diagnose me with clinical depression and send me to a walk-in for a prescription of Paxil or something. But instead he told me to come back the next week. Sort of. He asked me to come back."

"And you went back."

"Yes. That was in March, right after you quit Le Canon. Right before we found this place."

"Why?"

"Why, what?"

"Just, why, Estelle? You've been seeing a therapist for five months? What's so terrible that you need to see a therapist for five months?"

Though just that afternoon I had entertained notions of our relationship being in a perilous state, now I felt the searing panic of a person about to be ejected from even the unhappy securities of her life. My wife had been doing something significant and transformative behind my back. How else was I supposed to feel?

"Oh, fuck, I shouldn't have said anything tonight."

"But you did, and I'm guessing it wasn't all the wine talking."

I turned to her and good thing I did, for her face slick with tears quelled my anxiety enough for me to consider her explanation.

"Look, lately you've been, I want to say it nicely ... brash? Angry? All the time. Your decision to quit Le Canon was your decision, remember. I complained a few times about missing you when I got home from work, and you imagined I was asking you to quit your job. That's a lot of pressure on me. And you've been on this bender about your parents--tu es obsédée. I get it, but I didn't appreciate you griping about it the one time this year my family was able to come visit. And I've stopped asking you to work functions, because I never know what you'll say to set someone off. Like you did with Marianne? When she asked what you'd like to do next and you said sell firearms to Al Qaeda? I mean, she was genuinely interested."

At this last I laughed, which earned me a scowl, but not one entirely rooted in opposition.

"Come on, Elle, it's too tempting. She's so gullible. Remember that time she wired money to Micronesia based on some email claiming you were stranded there?"

"Tu vois? That's just it. You enjoy being cruel. What has any decent person in our lives ever done to you?"

"Is Marianne still your friend?"

"That's not the point. You always do this." Estelle fought back a yawn.

"Let's continue this conversation tomorrow, baby girl."

After a contemplative moment, she turned down the sheets on my side of the bed and beckoned sleepily to me. The Lorazepam hours were upon her. The sun had set behind the crystalline Saint Lawrence Seaway, caliche horses nickered as they passed one another along streets hugged narrow by nineteenth-century stone structures alight with nouveau bars and restaurants, a string quartet stationed at one of the Seaway's docks implored the night crowd with a hopeful, festive rendering of a Prince song. As I settled beside my wife and lay my head on her shoulder, I thought about our first time together as a married couple: it had given us an opportunity to redefine our relationship. Though we had been together for twenty-five years, in some ways I had come to think of the day of our sanctioned marriage, sixteen years after Estelle stopped me on rue Saint-Paul, as who we were in the world. People seemed most comfortable understanding relationships in terms of years legally married, so while Estelle and I were firm when we stated we had been married for nine years but together for twenty-five, some people, especially those who regarded our kind of marriage as a young concept, viewed us as a relatively new couple--a couple still figuring out that things could never fit exactly.

"Margot? Tell me about Le Galopant. Is it magnificent?"

"I wouldn't go that far."

"Then I don't want to know."

"Not according to the photographs I took, anyway. I guess my alter-ego led me to believe I'd done a better job. Maybe I've had one too many hazelnut wafers after all. I'll go back tomorrow and try again. Would you like to come?"

"I've got Pierrot all day. Why don't you keep going back until you take the perfect picture? I'd love that."

Estelle kissed my forehead and tangled her legs with mine, the slipperiness of our bodies in our un-air-conditioned loft in the high of summer making it difficult for us to hold onto each other. Estelle endured, turning toward me on her side to secure an arm and a leg across me.

We are a unit, I imagined was the mantra in her mind. We are a unit, and you can't leave me just because I haven't told you everything. As I let the sounds of the quartet on the boardwalk lead me into sleep, I committed to beginning the next day with insoluble resolve to rescue my marriage. I planned out how I would start the day--making breakfast for Estelle and serving it to her bedside--and I pushed aside the troubling thought that doing for her now what I had lived to do for her in the early years of our relationship was somehow more antagonistic than restorative.

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Throw Down Your Shadows

Throw Down Your Shadows

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

Sixteen-year-old Winnie is a creature of habit, a lover of ritual and stability. If she had her way, not much would change. But when a new family moves to town, Winnie and her three best friends—all boys—find themselves changing quickly and dramatically to impress Caleb, their strange and charismatic new companion. Under Caleb's influence, Winnie and her friends test boundaries, flirt with danger, and in the end, illuminate darkness within each other and themselves.

Following a before and af …

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Excerpt

Though we had never met, he waved at us like he knew us. An open palm raised above his head. Bewitching grey eyes under dark, curly hair.

What is a wave, really? It is recognition. It is I see you. But it's not always a gesture of welcome. Sometimes a wave means caution. I see you (stay back). I see you (I'm busy). I see you (please, not now). His palm was raised, demanding our attention, letting us know we had appeared in his world. But his hand stayed frozen, inert. He didn't move it from side to side, like you do with those you're happy to see.

His hand was a stop sign but we mistook it for a green light.

AFTER

There is a moment when I first open my eyes. Not even a moment. It's gone before it begins. The night before, all its destruction, the fire, a dream. Something imagined. Confusing and irrational. I blink hard, but my eyes can't unsee. All that smoke, the heat. Don't fool yourself, Winnie. It happened.

I contemplate never leaving my room. Staying in bed with my hands clamped between my knees, turned towards the wall forever. What does the morning after look like? Not knowing makes me squirm.

I wonder if Ruth will do the regular things. Make coffee, serve it up hot. Did she bother to put on pajamas last night? I slept in a T-shirt, no underwear. I felt the need to let my whole body breathe.

Toast. She always makes toast. But who will eat it? And what about Mac? I don't think he came home last night. I didn't hear him. He tends to stomp up the stairs and across the hall. I would have heard the stomping and the opening and closing of doors. I would have heard them talking. Or maybe there was nothing to say.

I slide out of bed and into sweatpants. I listen before I open the door. Nothing. My hand hovers above the doorknob and I wait for a sign of what comes next. There's a strong chance everything will be different today, the old ways of doing and being no longer suitable. This is not a place that changes much but even those who are stuck and stubborn can't ignore such a profound disruption.

I finally turn the knob. I tiptoe downstairs, past the closed door of Ruth's bedroom. The house is unusually quiet. Dark corners and the echo of a clock hand. It's the end of October and the cold haunts my bare feet. I continue past the living room, the dining room. Everything quiet and empty and cold.

I nearly jump out of my skin when I find Ruth at the kitchen table. She's wearing pajamas.

"You scared me," I whisper. "Your door was closed."

She points upwards and I understand. Mac is sleeping.

She made coffee but no toast. She pours me a cup and we sink into silence. We wait.

BEFORE

Mona warned me. It was the only future she ever accurately predicted, our local psychic who couldn't see rain rolling in from the other end of the valley. I didn't believe in fortune-telling or astrology or anything like that, but Mona was my mother's best friend and my best friend Jake's mother. If she wanted to read my future, I wouldn't stop her.

"Hi, Mone," I said, opening the door of her tiny office.

"Winnie, come in." Her voice was low and hushed.

I sat down on the empty chair, the only clear space in the small room. Her office was tucked into the east corner of their farmhouse. A room with an unusually low ceiling, jam-packed with junk. There were crystal balls and heavy curtains and charts of the night sky, dirty teacups everywhere. But there were also used batteries and too many stray pens, milk crates full of old electronics. Radios and VCRs, a broken toaster.

"I'll need a moment," she said, gathering herself, eyes closed. A big bowl of water sat between us on her desk.

Mona was not a small woman. She was tall and broad, like her son Jake. They both had the same blonde hair, the colour of wheat, though Mona's was long and stringy, reaching down past her sagging breasts. She didn't dress like a psychic. No glittering scarves or gaudy jewelry. That wouldn't be practical on the farm. Mona dressed like every other farmer. Jeans with plaid, roomy shirts she didn't mind tearing on the pasture fence. The only difference between farm Mona and psychic Mona was her hair. When she was working on the farm, she wore it tied back in a long braid. During readings, it hung long and free.

I breathed in deeply. The room, like Mona, smelled of sweet beeswax and hay. They kept hives on the farm and she used the wax to make candles. She sold them out of her kitchen. The hay was just something that followed you around where we lived. She opened her eyes. It seemed she was ready.

"I asked you to come in for a reading, Winnie, because I had a dream about you two nights ago. I don't usually dream about people I know. My dreams are full of strangers, faces I don't recognize." She tilted her head to the side, considering. "The dead, perhaps. I've always thought I might also be a medium."

I nodded. I was used to this. Mona and my mother, Ruth, had been close friends for as long as I could remember. On the surface, they seemed like very different people but they shared an unconventional sensibility, an eccentric way of moving and being in the world. Mona as a psychic, Ruth as an artist.

"But the other night, I dreamt of you, Winnie. You as a grown woman. You looked different, more like your mother. But it was you, undeniably. Red hair. Same dark brown eyes. You were living somewhere far away. A foreign place that looked a bit like home. Rolling fields, a river. You were happy there. I thought we could try to conjure it, that place. You, there. I thought if I could see it more clearly, we could locate it. See where you're headed in this life."

I wondered how she knew the place was necessarily elsewhere. Looked a bit like home. Sounded like home to me.

"It's been a while since you've done a reading. I'll remind you that I ask you to remain silent throughout the process. When I am done, you are free to ask one question. I will let you know when you can speak. Until that time, please try to sit still to ensure the reading is as accurate as possible."

I suppressed a small laugh as she waved her hands over the bowl of water. This was how she did her readings, how she mined the invented futures of our most gullible neighbours: the recently divorced, the grieving. She claimed to interpret energy as it bounced off the surface of the liquid. As a child, I'd sat for many readings. When I was eleven, Mona told me I would attend eight funerals in the next five years, that I would need a passport by the time I turned fourteen, and that I had been a Salem witch in a past life. The predictions didn't come true and the third claim just seemed absurd. I stopped doing the readings when I realized it was all a hoax. It had been a while and I'd forgotten how seriously she took it.

After several minutes of hand-waving, Mona stopped, stared at the bowl, and frowned. "I'm not seeing that place today," she said. "I'm just seeing home. The valley. You in the valley."

I wanted to say, maybe it was always the valley. Maybe your dream was just like any other dream, a messy pastiche of memory and imagination, snapshots of life cut through with nonsensical intrusions and nothing more.

She continued to wave her hands once again and I realized I needed to pee. Gazing at the bowl of water, unable to move.

"Ah, here's something." Mona brought her hands to her chest and looked at me, suddenly intent. "I'm getting change from you, Winnie. Dramatic change. Everything is going to change for you this summer. You will become a woman. The woman you're meant to be."

She let the words sink in for a few long moments and then continued. "Also, you should avoid anything hot. Definitely don't take up smoking. No bonfires or fireworks, Winnie. I smell smoke in your future."

When the reading was finished, she told me I could ask my question.

I yawned, looking around. "What do you keep in that locked cabinet in the corner?"

Mona turned to face the cabinet behind her and then back at me. Her green eyes were large and blinking. I wasn't doing this right.

"That's all you want to know?"

I shrugged. "I've always wondered."

I'd forgotten about the cabinet, which I had tried to break into as a child. We didn't have locked cabinets or drawers in my house and so it fascinated me, this mysterious space, off limits to anyone who didn't have a key. Mona's son Jake and I took turns guessing what might be inside. I imagined important documents or shiny, expensive jewelry. Maybe even stacks of money. It was fun to think Mona might have another life, exotic and confidential, the evidence hidden behind the cupboard doors. Could she be a spy? A criminal? Nothing about her life or personality suggested this was the case but it was fun to indulge in the fantasy. I liked reading books about people with secret lives—double agents, assassins—and it was thrilling to pretend I might know someone living a life in disguise.

I became obsessed with the locked cabinet. I wanted to open it. I felt entitled to know the truth. On many occasions, Jake looked on, quiet and nervous, while I unsuccessfully stuck a bobby pin in the lock, jiggling and listening for a click, like I had seen people do on TV. Eventually, unsuccessful, I let it go. Of course Mona wasn't a spy. I didn't think she was even a real psychic.

"Winnie, come on. You have nothing else to ask? You only get one question, remember."

I crossed my arms. "Nope."

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The Brideship Wife

The Brideship Wife

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged : historical

Inspired by the history of the British “brideships,” this captivating historical debut tells the story of one woman’s coming of age and search for independence—for readers of Pam Jenoff's The Orphan's Tale and Armando Lucas Correa’s The German Girl.

Tomorrow we would dock in Victoria on the northwest coast of North America, about as far away from my home as I could imagine. Like pebbles tossed upon the beach, we would scatter, trying to make our way as best as we could. Most of us wou …

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