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Novels in Pieces

By 49thShelf
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Whether you think of them as fractured novels or linked short story collections, or neither one thing nor the other, Canadian authors are doing fascinating things with hybrid form. As Leonard Cohen sang, "There's a crack in everything. It's how the light gets in."


A Novel

What if you could see yourself as others see you? Astra is a beguiling debut novel that reveals the different faces of one woman, as seen through the eyes of ten people over a lifetime.

Born and raised on a remote British Columbia commune, Astra Brine has long struggled to find her way in the world, her life becoming a study of the thin line between dependence and love, need and desire. Over the years, as her path intersects with others—sometimes briefly, but always intensely—she will encoun …

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Raymond Brine doesn't want to think about the coming baby. He doesn’t want to think about it, or about Gloria, or his role in it all. He doesn’t want to think about a creature so mewling and helpless. Not about its cord, its first cry, or its delicate newborn skin. He doesn’t want to think about shared blood, or familial lines, or humanity’s relentless compulsion to overpopulate this weary planet either. What he wants to do is work. To toil away on Celestial Farm’s lands with his comrades under this vast expanse of sky. To focus on soil, irrigation, crop yields, and building more housing for the commune—but this baby is coming as fast as a hurtling comet and already it’s made a mess of everything. Gloria arrived with the influx of spring workers in March,and after a long winter alone in the one-room fir cabin that he’d built his first winter at the Farm, Raymond found himself drawn to her quick laugh and broad shoulders, so he let her spend a few nights in his bed. When it soon became clear she was interested in more, he requested she move into the yurt with the others, carefully explaining that he didn’t believe in monogamous relationships, that he treasured his independence, that he never planned on being tied down. Gloria cited this as the reason she kept the pregnancy from him until June, and why she announced the news publicly during the morning breakfast meeting rather than talking to him one-on-one.

After the women finished their congratulations, running their fingers over her small, taut belly and kissing her full cheeks, Raymond pulled her aside to explain yet again that he wasn’t that kind of man. Not the kind who got married or provided or believed that A and B led to C. He wasn’t going to move to the city, cut his hair, get a job in a bank, or some other bullshit like that. He wasn’t going to buy a house or a stroller, because on and on it would go. He’d been called to Celestial for a reason, and nothing was going to distract him or slow him down. If Gloria was hoping he’d build a family with her, or that she’d get a declaration of love, she’d set her sights on the wrong man.

Despite Raymond’s unwavering stance, Gloria stuck around Celestial all summer long. Sometimes she searched him out by the river or in the gardens; or she bravely knocked on his cabin door to show him a sweater she’d crocheted for the baby, or to update him on the kicks she felt at night. When he encountered her like this, both vulnerable and stubborn, Raymond looked anywhere but into her wide, hazel eyes and pointed out that it would be better if she left and got her mother’s help. He had no business getting involved with her child.

“Our child,” Gloria reminded him firmly.

“If you say so,” he said, closing the door.

Summer turned to fall, yet even after most of the seasonal workers had returned to the city to luxuriate in the convenience of electric heat, Gloria showed no sign of going anywhere. So in October, long after her belly began protruding through her embroidered dresses, the hems riding up her thighs as the baby swelled, Raymond took further pains to avoid her. First, he removed his few belongings from his cabin and set up camp by the river. Then he stopped leading the morning meetings and hiking up the hill for the communal meals. Instead he foraged kale, carrots, fennel, and zucchini from the gardens, and he grew even skinnier.

In November, Doris, his childhood friend and the co-founder of Celestial, informed him that she and Gloria’s friend, Clodagh, had moved Gloria into his cabin where it was warmer, and that even though everyone else had gone for the winter, they were going to stay on until the baby arrived—they didn’t want the poor woman to be all alone. Though this bothered him, he was still confident that with time, Gloria would realize what a mistake she was making, and so he soldiered on. He spent his nights on the slate-rock riverbank, head resting on his rolled-up jacket, gazing up at the flickering light of the stars scattered across the sky. And when the weather grew too cold for that, he began sleeping in the small hayloft in the animal shed with the nanny goats, holding out for the morning he’d wake to discover that the woman and her pregnant belly had finally gone. Or, even better, he’d wake up to discover the whole fiasco had been a terrible dream.

Now it’s mid-December, and Raymond is at the top of a tall wooden ladder while the new kid, Wesley, clings firmly to the lower rails, steadying the contraption over the rocky soil. They are framing a twenty-foot-high, geodesic greenhouse that only needs five more windows before it’s completely winterized, and in the distance the sparrows and thrushes are singing, and the river’s winter-swollen waters are gurgling under the thin ice. Nature’s cacophony is normally the only soundtrack at the Farm, but today something else has been drifting down from the Encampment since dawn: the women are singing. With determination. Raymond can make out their wavering harmonies in the breeze.

Hooking his hammer in his back pocket, he begins his descent, when from below Wesley lets out a holler and the ladder careens to the left. Raymond’s tread-bare gumboots lose their footing, and the rails start sliding through his gloved hands. Thankfully, after falling only a few feet, he manages to grab ahold of the ladder again and maneuver his way to the ground in one piece.

Shaken, he rubs his jaw through his long, tangled beard as the boy watches him closely.

“I’m real sorry about that, it’s just those women up there are driving me crazy,” Wesley stammers, his face red and worried- looking, like he expects a beating.

“No problem. No one died.”

Wesley points to the hill. “Can’t you hear them? What do you think that’s all about? They’re going on and on, singing the same song.”

Raymond shrugs. “I couldn’t tell you,” he says, though he’s pretty sure he knows the reason behind it.

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If Sylvie Had Nine Lives

If Sylvie Had Nine Lives

also available: eBook

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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Ellen In Pieces

Ellen In Pieces

also available: eBook Paperback
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Ellen McGinty: sexy, impulsive, loud-mouthed, chock full of regrets. In middle age she sells the house she raised her daughters in, slips off the shell of her old life, and steps out for a first, tentative foray into real contentment - directly into the path of a man twenty years her junior. Her story explodes into multiple points of view. Through the eyes of her lover, Matt, her ex-husband, Larry, her two daughters (one a former addict), her grandson, and her friends, we watch Ellen negotiate h …

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So Much Love

So Much Love


Finalist for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award
A Globe and Mail Best Book
A Quill & Quire Best Book of the Year
Olive Kitteridge meets Room and The Lovely Bones in this stunning first novel about the unexpected reverberations the abduction of a young woman has on a small community.

When Catherine Reindeer mysteriously vanishes from the parking lot outside the restaurant where she works, an entire community is shattered. Her fellow waitress now sees danger all around her. Her mother desperately …

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It seems disloyal after all these years, but I’ve got to start buying different mascara. The Lancôme one I’ve always used wears so nice and soft—heavy makeup makes a woman my age look like a harri­dan—but it isn’t waterproof, and I’ve been crying all spring.
     When Catherine first disappeared in March, everything was still frozen, but within a week the spring melt began. Rivers of slush ran down the edges of every street and the police came again and again, tracking dirty slush into my foyer. They doubted that an adult, a grown woman with a job and a husband, could be taken—as if such violence were kiddie stuff, or showed a lack of willpower. They kept asking questions about any unhappiness with Grey, an affair, secrets I can’t imagine my daughter would keep from me. Or him. I can’t imagine any of it. And so, helpless, clueless, I wept and wept.
     After four weeks, the police don’t feel the need to visit anymore. Like with a bad boyfriend, I call them if I think of anything new to tell them or just to check in, but they never call me. Things are changing, the world is stuttering forward, and these constant tears have to stop.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

I can cry at night, alone in my big bed full of pillows—perhaps I always will. But I’ve got to be stronger during the day. It will be a relief, maybe even a blessing, as Seva would say, to be back at work, thinking and talking and making people’s lives slightly easier by helping them with their banking. I want to spend the day with people who have never had the person they love most snatched away from a parking lot; I want to pretend to be one of them.
     I’ve been such a reliable employee for so many years that Janie has been generous about my leave of absence, even coming by for tea with some of the other girls from the branch. Not that anyone knows what to say, but they’ve come over the past three Friday afternoons, bearing pumpkin loaves and coconut brownies, little bits of news from work, and encouraging smiles. If Catherine had died, if she’d had a straightforward car accident on an icy night or a fall while hiking in the mountains, there would have been some discussion of God, I’m sure—all of that “everything happens for a reason” non­sense, but it would have filled in the silences. I’m not religious, and Seva and Leanne know that, but it’s what they rely on in bad times, and I rely on them. We’ve all been working at the same branch since the strip mall opened.
     Even if it had been a more uncomfortable thing, a drug overdose or driving under the influence—and we have certainly had our share of such tragic idiocies around here—there are things you can say. About forgiveness, about moving on, about appreciating the time we had. About never doubting the value of memories.
     But Catherine’s disappearance is nothing but doubt. No one knows who would do her harm, but equally no one knows why she would run off. Both options are impossible, and there is no third. There is nothing to say, no question left to ask. I read the poetry Catherine likes—the book she forgot on the sofa, and another by the same poet that I got from the library. The poems are about plates of pasta, cats in the dark, vegetable gardens—nothing to do with me, but they are something that she loved. And they are something to think about other than the empty space where my daughter used to be. No one wants to talk about that, but my colleagues aren’t that interested in poetry either. So on this, the fourth Friday since my daughter disappeared, I ask the ladies about mascara.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I wait until they’re gone and I’m at the sink washing dishes before I let myself follow my thoughts as far as they’ll go. It’s dangerous to think of Catherine too much, especially when I’m alone. If Grey were here, we’d pick one little topic and go over every detail—how she could never be bothered to blow-dry her thick, heavy hair, how even at the end of the day when she took down her ponytail there would still be a trace of damp. Or that woman poet she liked so much—or maybe she didn’t like her, but she was reading her books over and over in the weeks before . . . before. She was like that, so much energy, you didn’t always know what she loved and what she just felt strongly about. We can talk and talk about Catherine, Grey and I, and almost always manage to stop before one of us breaks down. We can do that because we both love her equally, if such a thing is possible.
     Alone, I worry I’ll go too far, think too much, and then not be able to get up off the floor. But remembering my beautiful girl is devastatingly tempting. Oh, my Catherine. So interesting. So lovely to think about. Her strange theories of how the world works. The rare moments when she wouldn’t do the expected, “normal” thing. Her refusal to get a student loan, so horrified of debt that she took only the courses she could pay for in cash, which was why her degree was stretching out into its seventh year. Her contempt for her friends who competed in figure-skating competitions. Her childhood terror at the idea of French immersion.
     She was only four when the neighbourhood school mailed me a flyer about French immersion classes—it seemed a wonderful opportunity to me. One night on the back porch as we played shadow puppets I told her that next year, when she went to school, she would get to learn French. In fact, I had the bunny shadow say it, hopping up and down the crumbling brick of our back wall. I even improvised a French accent, told her she would love French, mais oui.
     But Catherine unclasped her hands from making the goose shape and squawked angrily, “No, I will not. I will not learn French.”
     I was baffled—still so inexperienced as a mother even after four years. Though Wayne had never contributed much in the way of parenting, he had left only six months earlier and I was feeling especially unmoored. I tried to explain the benefits of learning a new language, something different and exciting, something I myself would have loved to have done. And Catherine in her pink-and-white overalls just plopped right down on her bottom and wailed. I can still picture her hot wet face, sobbing that she would never “say that stuff,” that she only wanted to say “true words.” I never found out where she got the impression that French was a scary language or even where she learned that French was a language.
     Years later, she laughed at the story and claimed not to remember her tantrum. When I pressed, she said, “Iria’s a pretty small place, Mom, and I’d never been anywhere. I probably thought I’d have to move away to learn another language.” She was giggling—I hope I laughed too, although I can’t remember that part. The memory of Cat is clear, though—I recall her grinning pink-lipstick mouth as clearly as I recall her childish panic. My memories come into clearer focus every day—I suppose it’s the longing that makes me conjure her so strongly.
     They would have let me say all this and more, Seva, Leanne, Janie— they would have listened all afternoon and been glad to. But so much has been taken from me, I have to keep some memories for myself.

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Penguin Modern Classics Lives of Girls and Women

Penguin Modern Classics Lives of Girls and Women


Lives of Girls and Women is the intensely readable, touching, and very funny story of Del Jordan, a young woman who journeys from the carelessness of childhood through an uneasy adolescence in search of love and sexual experience.

As Del dreams of becoming famous, suffers embarrassment about her mother, endures the humiliation of her body’s insistent desires, and tries desperately to fall in love, she grapples with the crises that mark the passage to womanhood.

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Glass Beads

Glass Beads

also available: eBook

These short stories interconnect the friendships of four First Nations people — Everett Kaiswatim, Nellie Gordon, Julie Papequash, and Nathan (Taz) Mosquito — as the collection evolves over two decades against the cultural, political, and historical backdrop of the 90s and early 2000s.


These young people are among the first of their families to live off the reserve for most of their adult lives, and must adapt and evolve. In stories like “Stranger Danger”, we watch how shy Julie, though …

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From “Stranger Danger”


Nellie was struggling with an English paper. She hated the class.  Her professor had intoned at the beginning of class: “There are no right answers, only answers that you had to argue for.”  Nellie hated open-ended shit.  She just wanted to know which argument would give her an A.


She called Everett.  There was no answer.  He had no answering machine but he had call display and it told him how many times she called.  Right now if he would see: twelve.


She had been angry six calls ago.  Now she was just disappointed.  And horny.   


She opened up her political science binder, it was filled with photocopied readings.  She had to read about Aristotle even though she’d already read about him in Philosophy.  It must be nice to straddle two subjects with the same boring writing.  She went to the kitchen to refill her tea.  She was drinking green tea these days, it was supposed to fire up her metabolism by getting rid of all the free radicals lurking in her body.  She didn’t know what those were but Oprah said they were bad.  Nellie hadn’t lost a pound but then again it was hard to eat healthy when the entire apartment smelled like pizza.


Nellie padded into the kitchen and saw a pizza container on the counter.  She squelched a scream of frustration.  She opened the pizza box; it was sausage and pepperoni.  The top of the box was rimmed in dark where the fat had soaked into the cardboard.


Nellie spit on the pizza and spread the spit over the top of it with her finger.  She was closing the box carefully when the front door opened.


She looked around the corner as Julie stalked past her.  Nellie hurried behind her.


Julie sat on Nellie’s bed, her head against the wall.  Julie’s bedroom was the living room so during the day she used Nellie’s. It wasn’t the best situation but Nellie didn’t feel like giving up the extra rent money.




“He’s ok, I guess.”


Nellie started small. “Did you have fun?”


“I guess.”


“Did you make out with him?”




“Did you want to?”


“I dunno.  He’s so… bleh.”  Julie made a damn-I-just-stepped-in-dog-poop-and-I’m-wearing-sandals-face.


“Okay then.” Nellie’s disappointment was writ clear. 


“He wants to see me this weekend.  So I told him I work this weekend and then he’s all like what about before work and so I said yes but I don’t want to go.  He wants to go hang out at the park - what the fuck is at the park?”


“There’s ducks.”


“You and Everett ever go to the park?”


Nellie and Everett never went anywhere together.  It was her house or his.  Sometimes she saw him at the bar and she would wave to him and he would act like he was gonna come over but he never got to where she was sitting.


One time she asked him to meet her at Place Riel at the University.  She saw other girls meet their boyfriends there.  She had explained to him how to get there, walked him through the streets one by one.  He never showed up.  He told her that he made it to the University Bridge but then some woman give him a weird look which made him feel weird so he turned around and went home.


“I don’t like ducks,” Nellie replied.


“There wasn’t a single Indian in that place.  Me and a bunch of white people.   I felt like everyone was looking at us and I couldn’t stop looking at his arms.  He had this blonde hair all over them.  Like lots of it.” Julie made a face that she saved for the smell of rotten garbage.


“That’s how white people are, I guess.” How would Nellie know? She’d never studied one up close. “Was he nice?”


“He asked me if I liked being called Indian or Native.”


“Always say Native.”


“I know that, Nellie.  But I don’t have to answer that question if I’m with an Indian guy.”


Nellie wanted to argue from the perspective of diversity and being open minded but she was tired and felt nauseated from the smell of pizza.  So, they walked down to the Rainbow cinema where movies were three dollars on Sunday afternoons.  As they stood in line for popcorn, Julie laughed suddenly and sharply.


“What’s so funny?”


“I was thinking about the date.  You know when he asked me if I liked Native or Indian.”


“What did you say?”


“I asked him if he liked white or honky.”


Nellie rolled her eyes as Julie laughed at her own joke.


When they got home, Nellie checked the phone: Ball, N. had called.   She showed it to Julie who shrugged and then turned on the TV.  Nellie went back to her homework.

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The View from the Lane

The View from the Lane


Spanning the twentieth century to the beginning of the twenty-first, this masterful collection of linked stories follows the life of Amy, through tales stretching back to her youth in 1950s Ottawa, her experiences as a young wife and mother in a small Ontario town, and her later years back in the city. Through a collage of unique voices and points of view - including a dog that introduces us to the neighborhood where Amy lived as a child — The View from the Lane examines the authenticity of me …

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The Juliet Stories

The Juliet Stories

also available: Paperback

Shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award: Fiction and selected as a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book

Juliet Friesen is ten years old when her family moves to Nicaragua. It is 1984, the height of Nicaragua's post-revolutionary war, and the peace-activist Friesens have come to protest American involvement. In the midst of this tumult, Juliet's family lives outside of the boundaries of ordinary life. They've escaped, and the ordinary rules don't apply. Threat is pervasive, danger is real, bu …

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