Tag Archives: short fiction

Fontainebleu by Madeline Sonik

The world of Madeline Sonik’s unsettling volume of short fiction, the town of Fontainebleau, is menacing, tragic, violent and surreal. These seventeen linked stories chronicle the traumas, tormented longings and reckless escapades of the anguished adults, freaks of nature, psychos, juvenile delinquents, lost and frightened children, and at least one haunted police officer, who live there. Fontainebleau is a dead-end place, blighted, ill-starred, ramshackle and dangerous: a place that breeds desperation and engenders boredom, despair, sometimes wild and irrational hope, among its unlucky inhabitants—a place that people escape from rather than to—a place where a dead body, sawn in half, turns up in the river.

In Fontainebleau, people prey on one another or try to. “Air Time,” which tells a lurid tale of a pair of sleazy hustlers plying two teenage girls with drinks at a neighbourhood bar with the intention of drugging them and using them to make a porn film, ends with an ironic twist. In “King Rat,” naïve, deluded Lynette either can’t or won’t accept that her boyfriend, Steve, has abandoned her and baby Jess; though, despite her state of denial, she is not shy about giving relationship advice to her gay friend Brian. 

“Sonik has written a story sequence that creates its own distinctive and disturbing mythology.”

Many characters appear in multiple stories. Brothers Kevin and Jimmy Robinson both end up dead, Kevin in a freakish accident (“Slick”), Jimmy under very suspicious circumstances (“Murder”). Perhaps the book’s most vividly imagined and volatile household is the one that sisters Lizzie, Audrey, Suzy and Celeste share with their reclusive, alcoholic mother. The house is at the end of Monica Street, next to a field, where the youngest sister, Celeste, who is afflicted with mermaid syndrome (or Sirenomelia: a congenital defect in which the legs are fused together), communes with the crows. The field is a magical, terrible, beautiful place. After Celeste disappears, Lizzie becomes obsessed with finding her and focuses her search there, losing herself in the process. Later, after their mother’s death, in the story “Misdirection,” Suzy has the property excavated, illegally digging up native artifacts that she plans to sell. Roger Foley, the policeman, who appears in several stories, suffers from visions and strange out-of-body experiences and obsesses about the dead. He is also fixated on Lizzie, who can’t stand him. 

Sonik has written a story sequence that creates its own distinctive and disturbing mythology. Reading the book is somewhat like taking a ride through a nightmarish urban landscape littered with corpses and festering with secrets. Undeniably, the book leaves an indelible impression on the reader. In Fontainebleau, Madeline Sonik displays absolute control over some very slippery material, writing eloquently and sensitively of the darkness at the heart of the human experience and showing us how our actions can be driven by forces and impulses beyond our control and beyond our understanding.  

Madeline Sonik is an award-winning and eclectic writer, anthologist, and teacher, who lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Her books include a novel, Arms; short fiction, Drying the Bones; a children’s novel, Belinda and the Dustbunnys; two poetry collections, Stone Sightings and The Book of Changes. Her volume of personal essays, Afflictions & Departures, was nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, was a finalist for the Charles Taylor Prize, and won the 2012 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize.

  • Fontainebleau by Madeline Sonik
  • Anvil Press
  • Publication: August 2020
  • ISBN: 978-1-77214-148-1

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Seeking Shade By Frances Boyle

Frances Boyle’s first collection of short stories, Seeking Shade, follows two volumes of poetry and a novella. Her skill and control are much in evidence here, the short story genre fitting beautifully with her spare and careful style and her clear-eyed grasp of intent.

The collection roves effortlessly between time periods, location, circumstance, gender, and Boyle displays credibility in all of these. Many of the stories deal with the passage of time, inevitability, choice and consequence. Events seem ordinary in the moment while carrying great significance for what is yet to come. I had the sense while reading these pieces that I was witnessing small moments of profound unfolding.  In “Long Term Lease”, set in a remote northern camp, time has almost run out for a couple’s marriage when they feel the strain of secrets, shifting identities, the press of their divergent priorities.

               Peg, bifurcated: She is sitting here with her friends, yet also back in Toronto, in Char’s hotel room. She runs her tongue over the inside of her lower lip, still tasting a slight rusty tang of blood from where Char bit it.

In “Cold Air Return”, Jacqui clears out the apartment of her ex-partner Matt after he is arrested on drug-related charges in Florida. When Matt’s ex-wife Carol shows up, the two become unlikely co-excavators in sorting through the detritus of his life. An unexpected collaboration develops, and Jacqui emerges with a new grasp on what is essential to her.

               The brisk November wind slams Jacqui when she steps out onto the porch. She lets it blow over her face, pull her hair. She feels cold, but that is just fine. She didn’t realize while she was inside how hot the apartment is. How close.

 Boyle’s approach is keenly intelligent. The writing is sophisticated, the language often crystalline and always precise. The characters are sympathetic without hijacking the narrative; one has the impression that well-conceived ideas underpin these stories.  I felt, after finishing the volume, that many of the stories found here deserved a second reading.

A final note: both the cover design and overall production of this book are exceptional. It was a great pleasure to handle it and to turn its pages.  Simply put, Seeking Shade is a very fine collection.  

Frances Boyle has practised corporate law, volunteered for a number of feminist, arts and international development organizations, and served as a board member and Associate Poetry Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine. She is the author of a novella (Tower, Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2018), two books of poetry, (This White Nest, Quattro Books, 2019 and Light-carved Passages, BuschekBooks, 2014), and several chapbooks. Seeking Shade is her first collection of short fiction. She lives in Ottawa with her partner and a large standard poodle who believes he is a lap dog.

  • Paperback : 160 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 0889844356
  • ISBN-13 : 978-0889844353
  • Publisher: Porcupine’s Quill (April 1, 2020)

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Nothing Could Be Further from the Truth: Stories by Christopher Evans

Christopher Evans knows how to write. Without having met, I felt a kinship to this Vancouver author. His author’s resume is solid. I felt reviewing this work, a short story collection*, would not be hard work—that it should, in fact, be enjoyable. I was right.

From Always Hungry, Always Poor, the opening story:

The wife landlord has a bit of the darkness, too. The power went out a few weeks back, and when she and I came outside from our respective suites to see what was happening, there was a hydro worker harnessed to one of the utility poles. The wife started to yell at him about what was she going to do with all these cutlets going off in the fridge? The worker said that the outage wasn’t him, that nothing he was doing had anything to do with the power grid, which just made the wife say terrible things, like how she hoped each member of his family died by choking on birthday cake. I just watched. After a few minutes of being berated, the worker climbed down and left. Later, the internet said there was an accident a few blocks away that cut electricity to the whole neighbourhood. I told the wife what I’d learned, but she just waved me off like I was talking craziness. The power was only out for forty minutes, so I’m sure the pork was fine.

Death by choking on birthday cake?! That’s innovative writing. The kind that makes me pause and smile. What I have to assume the author did as well, when he first thought it, threshed it out, and eventually settled on final phrasing. That delicious, inspiring, frustrating process—the cloudlike swirl between a notion, a visual or mood and the ultimate written word. No different than a well-crafted joke, a polished song or the last daub of acrylic on canvas.

Let’s enjoy another passage, this one is taken from You Better Run:

… and that’s when I saw the shoes under the bed. They were Reeboks. I asked her where they’d come from.

“They’re probably yours,” she said. “You look really sexy in that shirt. I’m getting in the shower.” She pulled the robe tight and left the room. I heard the lock on the bathroom door click.

The shoes weren’t mine. The laces were all knotted up, and the insides were dark and vinegary. They were size 11s, like an athlete might wear. I usually wear an 8½, so I had to pull my winter socks over my regular socks for them to fit. I reminded myself about how Julie taught me that being jealous is like making yourself drink a mayonnaise jar full of poison.

The pleasure of immediate submersion, perhaps what I enjoy most about well-written short fiction. Which author Christopher Evans presents consistently in this work. I thought a play on words would be clever here. Explaining, for example, that this collection was unenjoyable. Then follow it up with the punchline—the title—Nothing Could Be Further from the Truth. And you’d realize with delight I was being sarcastic, perhaps chuckle aloud, understanding that Christopher Evans’ book is in fact excellent. But I decided that may get confusing. So instead I’ll simply state it. Nothing Could Be Further from the Truth by Christopher Evans is a great read. Or more accurately, a series of reads. For fans of short fiction, and good writing, you’re in for a treat.

About the Author: Christopher Evans is a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Program and a former Prose Editor for PRISM international. His work has appeared in Best Canadian Poetry, The New Quarterly, The Lifted Brow, EVENT, Maisonneuve, and elsewhere and has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. He currently teaches creative writing to children in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

  • Title: Nothing Could Be Further from the Truth: Stories
  • Author: Christopher Evans
  • Publisher: Insomniac Press, 2020
  • *Review from the publisher’s ARC
  • Pages: 146 pp

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People Like Frank: and other stories from the edge of normal by Jenn Ashton

Jenn Ashton’s short stories are peopled with humble and forward-leaning characters, the collection aptly called People Like Frank.
Like many avid readers, I enjoy a good and satisfying dive into dark waters. I regularly embrace contradictions, twists and moral ambiguity. So it was completely unexpected for me to find myself quite simply relieved by the optimism in this collection. People Like Frank felt like a balm, particularly coming as it did during violent social unrest and a pandemic.

Each story in the collection is closely aligned to a singular view, carefully drawn and made credible by intimate observations. Many of the characters are solitary, their worlds conscribed, and Ashton applies a sympathetic but hyper-focused lens to their habits, their thoughts, the details of their daily lives.

“Never too sweet or patronizing, Ashton’s descriptions are precise without being obvious and she doesn’t impose herself on the voices of her characters. The writing is direct and true making it a pleasure to read.”

Valerie Mills-Milde

In “Nest”, the lead story, a Goodwill employee named Francine, “who knows a bit about abandonment”, makes a discovery of what strikes her as a special item. As she dedicates herself to its reinstatement, we are uncomfortably aware that we expected less from her. We are astonished by our misconceptions about people like Francine – humbled by her sense of mission, her resourcefulness. (Would I go to such lengths, I wondered?)
“She enjoyed the Christmas morning feeling of opening a box with no idea what was inside of it, like it was a gift just for her. Sometimes, when she was done, she would mouth the words “thankyou” as if the giver was in the room.”

Never too sweet or patronizing, Ashton’s descriptions are precise without being obvious and she doesn’t impose herself on the voices of her characters. The writing is direct and true making it a pleasure to read. In “Pee”, a woman who has recently suffered an immobilizing stroke tries to navigate her way to the bathroom when her caregiver fails to show. “Her plan, now that she had decided to do it, involved a number of steps, a number of small perfect movements, that would see her come off the bed gracefully and make her way to the bathroom without much effort at all.”

An appreciation for perseverance runs through the collection, and the reader has the sense that the characters value their own lives, no matter how insignificant or unimportant they may seem to others. There is a wakefulness to small experience, a curiosity, a delight. There are gratitude and a celebration of effort. I particularly loved the inclusion of Ashton’s drawings which are whimsical, poignant and funny.

I encountered a great deal of kindness in People Like Frank. As I finished the final line of the last story, I recalled thinking “we need more of these”.

A writer from the age of six, Jenn Ashton was first published when she was fourteen. She has written fiction, non-fiction and children’s books as well as editorials and articles for periodicals and journals. She sits on the board of the Federation of BC Writers and the Indigenous Writer’s Collective. Jenn is a graduate of Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio where she now works as a teaching assistant. She lives in North Vancouver.

  • Publisher : Tidewater Press (Oct. 6 2020)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 200 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1777010160
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1777010164

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2020 “The Very Best!” Book Awards: Best Short Fiction Winners!

For 2019, there were only two short fiction books in this particular category, so we declared it a tie. This year, we were blessed with some of the best and imaginative short fiction to choose from. It is difficult to narrow down the shortlist of five titles to three.

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The End of Me: Stories by John Gould

In his third collection of very short fiction, Giller Prize finalist (in 2003 for Kilter) John Gould turns his laser focus on death in its infinite variety. A whole book about death might seem intimidating, or, to some, simply depressing. But by approaching the subject from every conceivable angle and constructing his stories using a profusion of refreshing and startling perspectives, Gould keeps his reader guessing and slightly off-balance throughout the volume. After a while, seduced by these moving, ironic, insightful, and cleverly subversive snapshot dramas, it’s easy to forget that you’re reading about death and dying at all.

Indeed, in much the same way that the nature of the eventual demise that awaits all of us is impossible to predict, we never know quite what to expect from Gould’s stories. In “Sunday Morning” Theresa sends a birthday greeting on Facebook to her friend Simon only to discover by scrolling through posts further down on his page that he’s been dead for two years. In “Dreams of Love,” two sisters console each other in the wake of their brother’s death by invoking his mischievous spirit in the office of the funeral director. In “Stage,” a gay man mourning his husband’s death ruminates on the stages of grief, though he’s been assured by his psychologist that such stages don’t actually exist and that everyone grieves in their own way. And in “Skeletal,” a couple is bemused when their school-age daughter decides to do her science project on the “five stages of decomposition.”

It is true that the shadow of death—what death means, the physical mechanism by which death occurs, what comes after—hovers over every page. But just as you can’t have order without chaos, or light without darkness, it turns out that you can’t contemplate death for very long without also giving some consideration to life. As strange as it might seem, The End of Me is a lively, humane, uplifting book, filled with compassion and written with deep affection for its characters. It’s also a book that rewards repeated readings: you will find yourself dipping back in, trying to decide which of these 56 artfully crafted vignettes is your favourite. 

And, finally, it poses something of a conundrum: how is it possible for a book about death to have so much to say about being alive?  

John Gould is the author of two previous collections of very short stories — including Kilter, a finalist for the Giller Prize and a Globe and Mail Best Book — and the novel Seven Good Reasons Not to Be Good. His fiction has been published in periodicals across Canada and abroad, and adapted for film. A teacher, editor, and arts administrator, he served on the editorial board of the Malahat Review and taught creative writing at the University of Victoria.

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Freehand Books (May 2 2020)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1988298563
  • ISBN-13: 978-1988298566

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2020 Shortlist: “The Very Best!”Short Fiction

Last year, the Best Short Fiction category sported a meagre two titles (mind you, they were excellent ones!) but 2020 proved to be more of a watershed year for good solid, short story collections. Even some ingenious flash fiction was thrown into the mix. Here are the five shortlisted titles for Best Short Fiction, in no particular order.

Of the above five titles, three will be awarded either gold, silver, or bronze award early in September 2020. The entire longlist can be seen here: https://miramichireader.ca/very-best-book-awards/

Next up: Best Historical Fiction!

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Seeds and Other Stories by Ursula Pflug

In my years of reading and reviewing, I consider Ursula Pflug one of my “finds”, that is, an author that I enjoy reading and want to read everything he/she produces. I was first introduced to Ms. Pflug by her 2017 novella Mountain. Down From (2018), is derived from the seeds of two short stories (“The Dreams of Trees” and “Daughter Catcher”) in this collection of her previously published works from the past decade or so. So, then, Seeds is a fitting title!

“Ms. Pflug’s style is a nice little mixture of literature, surrealism and sci-fi. In short, escapist reading with significance, if you will.”

There are twenty-six short stories in Seeds’ almost 300 pages, and while some are brief (“A Shower of Fireflies”) others are much longer and tell a more complete story averaging about 15-20 pages per story. Ms. Pflug’s style is a nice little mixture of literature, surrealism and sci-fi. In short, escapist reading with significance, if you will. The title story is post-apocalyptic science-fiction that seems a little closer to reality reading it in the midst of a pandemic. “The Lonely Planet Guide to Other Dimensions” has two hotels physically separated by distance, but connected by a portal:

“The hotel is a node. People from another dimension can stay here. The hotel exists in two dimensions at once, and in the other one it’s called The Red Arcade.”

What is fascinating about this story is that Rachel, living in one dimension, is writing a story about Esme, who lives in another, but they manage to meet via this portal. In “Mother Down the Well” a very different type of portal exists deep in a well on a farm in Ontario. Clarissa’s mother fell (jumped?) into it before Clarissa was born and has been living down there ever since.

My mother jumped down the well the day after her wedding to a local settler boy. Everyone thought her young husband must have been awful until a beautiful baby girl floated to the surface nine months later. That would’ve been me. Dave followed a year later although how Pa impregnated Ma once she was living down the well I was too shy to ever ask.
Pa did a fine job raising us. I think he missed my mother a lot and wished he had been able to provide whatever it was she got suckling at the portal down the well, but of course could not. Special as he may have been he couldn’t provide her with whatever other dimensional flavour it was she loved best, for it simply doesn’t exist here on Earth, not now and probably never. Ma never did tell me what it was either.

The above passage is a good example of Ms. Pflug’s pragmatic story-telling style as if things like portals and interdimensional travel are occurrences that are not unusual in themselves, they just transpose that way in the telling, like trying to explain the colour blue to a sightless person.

Is Seeds and Other Stories unusual? Yes. Far-fetched? Maybe, but not unreasonably so, I don’t believe. But this is what I so enjoy about reading Ursula Pflug. “A little bit of escapism with your literature, James?” “Yes, I don’t mind if I do Ms. Pflug, thanks.”

About the author: Ursula Pflug is author of the novels Green Music, The Alphabet Stones, Motion Sickness (a flash novel illustrated by SK Dyment), the novellas Mountain and Down From, and the story collections After the Fires and Harvesting the Moon. Her fiction has appeared internationally in award-winning genre and literary publications including Lightspeed, Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Postscripts, Leviathan, LCRW, and Bamboo Ridge. Her fiction has won small press awards abroad and been a finalist for the Aurora, ReLit and KM Hunter Awards as well as the 3 Day Novel and Descant Novella Contests at home.

  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Inanna Poetry & Fiction Series (May 1 2020)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1771337458

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In the Beggarly Style of Imitation by Jean Marc Ah-Sen

Jean Marc Ah-Sen, award-winning author of Grand Menteur — a novel about Mauritian street gangs—, has returned with something new: a collection of short pieces titled In the Beggarly Style of Imitation. Now a novelist and short story writer, Ah-Sen has proved what a multi-faced creator he is. He is currently working on another novel “just to make sure the first one wasn’t a fluke,” he says (Ah-Sen, “The Jean Marc Ah-Sen Interview”). In the Beggarly Style opens with a dense introduction describing writing processes, featuring the words “translassitude,” “omnilassitude,” “paralassitude,” and more (12). The language of the introduction initially made the text seem daunting to me, but the following stories are intelligent, refreshing with rich characterization, and thought-provoking worldviews. Although I needed a dictionary with me at times, the extra effort on my part to understand it made it all the more worthwhile.

The collection is filled with longer short stories like the introductory “Underside of Love,” and shorter pieces like “Sentiments and Directions from an Unappreciated Contrarian Writer’s Widow,” which read similar to Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack:” Where Ben Franklin wrote in the eighteenth century, “Love your neighbor; yet don’t pull down your hedge,” our unappreciated contrarian writer’s widow writes, “a life in harmony is a wasted one” (47). Ah-Sen, or our contrarian writer’s widow, is also ironic and self-aware: “be wary of anyone bearing gifts, be irreconcilable to anyone bearing advice” they write (49). Between each piece is a photograph that relates to the story that succeeds it, usually an image of the main character. Photos that accompany writing always take it a step further, for me; the fictional pieces have a greater sense of reality to them when attached to a picture. 

“This collection….asks its readers to see the good side of misanthropy and to appreciate cynicism, which was surprisingly refreshing to read.”

Along the lines of irony and awareness of self, included in the work is also a thought-provoking essay in defence of misanthropy. Filled to the brim with vocabulary, it offers a personal and worthwhile defence that is “neither vindicatory nor in the nature of clarification,” but explains how a mentality such as misanthropy has allowed the writer to live against other terrible sentiments in the world like pettiness and “cupidity” (Ah-Sen, 60). With a story, advice column, and essay behind us, we come to a song— a “chantey”— in both french and english. Further in the text readers find another poem and song—also presented in translation—, and selected correspondence between characters Tabitha Gotlieb-Ryder of Toronto and Serge Mayacou of Hamilton, which quickly descends into something dramatic, hilariously erotic, infuriating, and heartbreaking.   

What stood out to me most while reading In the Beggarly Style of Imitation, though, were the characters. Each person was complete and intriguing in themselves— and had such interesting names! Roddy Borgloon in “The Underside of Love” seems unreal, and yet I have met people just like him. Reading the character of Borgloon, I was reminded of Ravelstein from Saul Bellow’s novel of the same name: insufferable, yet we see his suffering and are sympathetic. I found myself liking Tabitha Gotlieb-Ryder, admiring her power over men, even while the correspondence reveals that she degrades Serge so far as to destroy his life and career, and inadvertently then cause Serge’s wife to try to kill herself. I found myself liking, nearly rooting for, characters who do despicable things.   

If this collection does anything it makes you think. Not simply in the way looking up words in a dictionary makes you think, but it prompts its readers to look at those in our lives who are loud and obnoxious, probably pretentious, terrible in all sorts of ways, and find sympathy or kindnessIt asks its readers to see the good side of misanthropy and to appreciate cynicism, which was surprisingly refreshing to read. Ah-Sen successfully makes the despicable likeableAfter reading a whole lot of cynicism in Ah-Sen’s text, I feel happy. I laughed.  

In the Beggarly Style of Imitation by Jean Marc Ah-Sen
Nightwood Editions

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The Jean Marc Ah-Sen Interview

Jean Marc Ah-Sen is the Toronto-based author of Grand Menteur, which The Globe and Mail selected as a top 100 Best Book in 2015. The National Post has hailed his work as “an inventive escape from the conventional.” His second book, In the Beggarly Style of Imitation*, was just published by Nightwood Editions. He lives with his wife and two sons. This interview was conducted by email in spring 2020.

What inspired this collection?

I love miscellanies and Punch magazine and wanted a justification for experimenting with varying prose styles in a new work. I did something similar in my first novel Grand Menteur, which is kind of joined to the hip of this new book as a loose prequel. I wanted to use an artistic conceit more suited to poetry for the book though – using the miscellany as a meta-framework for the styles I’d be appropriating. To try to achieve that in novel form would have upset the integrity of the project a little – plus, Calvino already perfected it in If on a winter’s night a traveler and no one in their right mind would try to follow an act like that.

“Short stories are great because the minute you get bored, you can get the hell out of dodge.”

What is the significance of the specific epigraph you chose for the book?

Vic Godard and his band Subway Sect are a huge influence. I asked Vic if I could use the lines from “Ambition,” a kind of wry mockery of the pursuit of profit, and he graciously consented. With the epigraph I was nailing my colours to the mast in a manner of speaking – commercial considerations would be secondary to writing a book completely motivated by my artistic obsessions.

What is it about short stories that is appealing, whether to function for this project or in general. What do you like writing more, short stories or novels?

Short stories are great because the minute you get bored, you can get the hell out of dodge. I like their immediacy, and the pressure to be pithy can be sobering, especially because writers have a tendency to be voluble. I just finished co-writing a book with Lee Henderson, Emily Anglin, and Devon Code, so I want to do another novel right now, just to make sure the first one wasn’t a fluke.

The two main characters in “The Underside of Love” were “too white” for their friends while they were together, and then are threatened by the (former) landlady later on with their “dirty immigration secrets.” What is the role of race in the book, and what is their relationship with/treatment in North America? If they are too white for some but then later their race is used against them? Is the condition/treatment different for different immigrant groups?

My family hails from Africa and a white African once implied I had less of a claim to African culture than he did because my parents were expats. The experience stuck with me, and I wanted to explore that a bit deeper. “Underside” is the social realist chapter of the book, and as such, I didn’t want to be mealy-mouthed about race and class. The situation you’re describing from the story was about how race gets co-opted to serve political objectives – both on the side of strategic essentialists and groups that want to keep a people down, suppress political agency and the ability to organize. The aim with that story was to come about a kind of dialectical movement in racialized consciousness and narrativize how identity can coalesce around political questions. It was originally commisioned by a friend who was putting together a celebration of Austin Clarke’s legacy, so I’m also engaging with his short story “Give Us This Day: And Forgive Us.”

What are the images before each story?

All the images relate to the stories that follow them. Usually it’s a photograph of the main character within each installment. I was thinking of Patrice Molinard’s photos in Clébert’s Paris insolite that appeared without descriptions or identifications, which lent weight to the supra-fictional reality of which the book served as confirmation.

Unusual character names such as (Borgloon, Ousmane) populate the book – how do you come up with these names? Are they significant?

It’s usually an aleatoric process, a lot of free associating and spitballing. They’re usually the result of bad jokes.

Is there a significance to the order of the stories?

Originally the sequencing of the book chronologically mirrored the evolving stages of the novel’s development as a form. I thought that was too on the nose – the essay, aphorisms, and the bawdy songs coming in early, the epistolary chapter and the picaresque in the middle, followed by the more modern offerings. As it stands now, I just wanted it to have good flow, and not have certain styles like the 18th century stuff clump up and annoy a reader.

Much of the advice in “Sentiments and Directions from an Unappreciated Contrarian Writer’s Widow” is quite cynical. Do the thoughts of one who has experienced great loss, as a widow, become cynical? Is there a benefit to this cynicism?

Cynicism is my favourite mantra for a state of mind. I almost feel that something has gone wrong in your psychic development if you haven’t become a touch cynical after the world has sunk its teeth in you.

*The Miramichi Reader plans to have a full review of In the Beggarly Style of Imitation soon.

This article has been Digiproved © 2020 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

Rising Tides: Reflections for Climate Changing Times, edited by Catriona Sandilands

In the introduction to Rising Tides, Sandilands states that climate change stories “focus increasingly on thornier questions of persistence, adaptation, resistance, and renewal” instead of apocalypse. Ultimately, the short fiction, poetry and personal climate testimonies in this climate change anthology are about hope.

“The way rain falls the spring of life seed to root, stem to leaves. Oh trees, weather maker, life shaper, air sweet. Language of snail, moss lichen. Everything returns …” The intricate simplicity and beauty of Hiromi Goto’s language in ‘This is the Way’ particularly resonated with me, reinforcing one of the anthology’s messages to observe and listen to the change around us.

The writers are uniquely and intensely involved with the environment as storytellers, activists, researchers, teachers and passionate observers. Many are Indigenous, people deeply bonded to the land that is changing beneath them. These relationships enhance the authenticity and rawness of the anthology.

“Ultimately, the short fiction, poetry and personal climate testimonies in this climate change anthology are about hope.”

Some of the narratives reflect on the disappearance of small, known species, many of which pass unnoticed. In ‘Absence’ (Elysia French), a child asks if a dead bee had a family. The child’s aunt asks, “What did the death of this singular bee mean for her colony and for the human and non-human networks it supported? In ‘Five Ways to Talk about Twisted Oak Moss’ (Holly Schofield), the narrator seeks a vanishing species and asks what effect it will have if it disappears. She states, “We simply don’t know. When we decide we do need to listen to twisted oak moss, will it still be here?”

Water in its many forms is a common theme. Jamie Snook, in ‘Futures on Ice’, writes how his community in southern Labrador can no longer rely on generations of knowledge to cross winter ice. “Thoughts continually run through our minds about the safety and the thickness, the conditions and quality of the ice we are crossing, knowing what can happen if we have misread the conditions. But the ice also brings a sense of awe. And the ice brings us to places that we love, and every year we hope for good ice–ice the way it has always been.”

“Rising Tide’s power is in the rereading and reflecting on the messages within.”

I read this book while the COVID-19 epidemic was/is raging through the world. It was impossible not to intertwine these two challenges in my mind. An editorial in The Narwhal magazine recently stated, “The story of COVID-19 is at its core, a story of humanity’s ever-encroaching relationship with all other living things on this planet.” The same is true of climate change. The contributors to Rising Tides question, provoke, express personal emotion and invite change. What transpires in the future depends on us.

In ‘All Our Relations: Climate Change Storytellers’, Deborah McGregor and Hillary McGregor say we need to “act on the stories being told by the earth.”

These are not stories to be consumed at one sitting. Rising Tide’s power is in the rereading and reflecting on the messages within.

Contributors include: Catriona Sandilands (editor and writer), Carleigh Baker, Stephen Collis, Ashlee Cunsolo, Ann Eriksson, Rosemary Georgeson, Hiromi Goto, Laurie D. Graham, David Huebert, Sonnet L’Abbé, Timothy Leduc, Christine Lowther, Kyo Maclear, Emily McGiffin, Deborah McGregor, Philip Kevin Paul, Richard Pickard, Holly Schofield, Betsy Warland, Evelyn White, Rita Wong and many more.

Rising Tides: Reflections for Climate Changing Times, edited by Catriona Sandilands
Caitlin Press

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Watermark by Christy Ann Conlin

Christy Ann Conlin’s first collection of her short stories is entitled Watermark, and while I haven’t read either of her two previous (and highly acclaimed) full-length novels, I came away from Watermark suitably impressed with her short fiction work. There are eleven stories here, all in fine form, and no two alike, yet Ms. Conlin’s voice throughout is strong and sure, once you get the feel for it. The titles are as interesting as the stories themselves: Eyeball in Your Throat, Dead Time, Full Bleed, Occlusion, Desire Lines and The Flying Squirrel Sermon, just to name some of the more cryptic ones. Her style has been called “North Atlantic Gothic” and this is most evident in The Flying Squirrel Sermon, in which a young woman, Ondine, who is searching out the truth of old family stories encounters an enigmatic old woman living alone in an old farmhouse near the sea. The tension and mystery build as the woman talks and talks and Ondine begins to notice strange little things around her such as previously dry fountain which is now running:

“You have to be careful telling stories. Some of them aren’t yours to tell, you understand. Bad things happen when you steal them or change them. Did you know this?”
Ondine looked away, toward the small pond where something jumped. The fountain was running now. Maybe it had been the whole time and Ondine hadn’t noticed.

“Each story has its own unique magic and sparkle to find, during the writing process and for the reader.”

The woman gives Ondine what looks like iced tea, and calls it a “tonic” that will revive her. For the rest of the story, Ondine appears to listen, enthralled, trancelike to the woman’s unravelling of her history and the mysterious disappearances of her mother and sister. Then comes the beautiful ending at which, if the hairs on the back of your neck are not already standing, they will be. There’s a little nod to H.P. Lovecraft in The Flying Squirrel Sermon.

Dead Time is a troubling story about Isabella a young woman who is incarcerated for the death of Lulu, her boyfriend’s former girlfriend. That Isabella is extremely paranoid about her relationship with Sergei there is no doubt. Her exasperated father tells her:

“Isabella, when your mind is made up it’s like trying to stir dried concrete,” I thought that was stupid because concrete is so ugly, and I felt like kicking him.

Isabella’s narrative continues:

But here I am, surrounded by concrete, I told the warden how ugly this place is and it was the one time he laughed. “Why would we want to pretend you’re somewhere pleasant?” he asked me. “This isn’t a boarding school, Isabella. This isn’t a hotel. Or some storybook palace. You need to grow up and take responsibility for yourself.”
I would have liked to shove chopsticks in his temples, nice and slow, right into his brain.
“Whatever,” I said.

In the touching story The Diplomat, we find Viola, a native of Campobello Island, in Germany taking a German language course. Another student, Henry (his English name, for he is Vietnamese) is attentive to her and a relationship slowly develops, even though both have family back in their respective countries of origin. Viola has Ben, who never wants to leave Campobello, but Viola yearns to see more of the world. She tells Henry (the “diplomat”):

“He’ll never know his dad, but he tries at the grave. He really believes by staying on Campobello Island he can somehow be close to him and have the life his father threw away. Ben won’t leave the island, not even for me.”
Henry took her hand. “I understand your Ben. In China, we pray to our ancestors. The old ways are slow to pass. My father was sad when I went to Beijing. He said to complete the circle of life one must bury one’s father. I laughed at him, Viola, but I laughed less as I grew older. It is our history with the people we love which binds us together. Being close to the graves of the dead has life in it even if you cannot see this.” He took out a tissue and dabbed her eyes and cheeks, and kept holding her hand.

All of Ms. Conlin’s stories in this collection have an intrinsic beauty and a raison d’etre. There is no filler here! In a recent blog post at the House of Anansi Press website, Ms. Conlin stated:

“George Saunders talks about keeping the magic of a story throughout the writing process, and by extension, creating that experience for the reader. I see this as fictional sparkle, which is embedded in an artistic honesty which allows each story to find its own shape and form. Each story has its own unique magic and sparkle to find, during the writing process and for the reader.”

How true! These eleven stories have that “unique magic and sparkle” and Ms. Conlin is a “reader’s writer” to be sure. Naomi at Consumed by Ink said in her review of Watermark:

“What I love most about Conlin’s work is her inclination to write about ‘home’. Whether a character has ever lived anywhere but home; has always longed to leave home; left home but has carried with them a pull to come back. Sometimes home is a place of love, other times a place of terror or grief. Often, home for these characters is in the mountains of the Annapolis Valley. What a perfect setting for dark pasts, tragedy, ghosts, and secrets (as well as peace and belonging).”

I am putting Watermark on the 2020 long list for “The Very Best!” Book Awards in the Best Short Fiction category. Five stars!

Watermark by Christy Ann Conlin
Astoria (a House of Anansi Press imprint)

*Please note if you choose to purchase this book through Amazon using the link below I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: https://amzn.to/2r4NMx6 Thanks!

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Send More Tourists…the Last Ones Were Delicious by Tracey Waddleton

Recently, Breakwater Books the publisher of Tracey Waddleton’s debut collection of short fiction tweeted a Goodreads review:

I thought that was a pretty good description of Send More Tourists… and aside from the odd ‘Barbie head’ there are a lot of great ‘cookies’ in this collection, too. While some reviewers think that the humorous title befits this book, I think there is a darker side to many of the stories (which I was attracted to), for the reader is immediately introduced to the ubiquitous creature under the bed/in the closet in ‘It Lunged.’ Cthulhu is referenced in ‘The Creation of Water,’ depression in ‘Riding With Maurice’ (“are you taking your pills?”) and infatuation in ‘The Woman in the Yellow Dress’ (the ‘woman’ in question is in a photograph). Suicide presents itself as the only way out for several of the characters in her story, too. “Sure, there was nothing to be done, she said and set the kettle on the stove” is the laconic reaction of a neighbour to news of a girl’s suicide in ‘Old Ben Walsh.’

Maybe those Barbie heads that one pulls out of that cookie jar might look like this?

My favourite story is ‘Mr. Moriarty’ about an old man in a nursing home reminiscing about a life unlived. Nothing outstanding about that trope you say? Consider the fact that Ms. Waddleton is a young woman yet she still captures so well the innermost travails of a man at the end-stage of life. Plus, she does the recounting most creatively by having him relate to us about five ways he has failed in his life. He invites us: “Here. Let me count them out.” They are:

  1. I have not loved enough
  2. I did not travel enough
  3. I never followed my dreams
  4. I never got the car
  5. I never learned enough

Each numbered heading causes him to not only explain himself to the reader, but it invokes thoughts of Margaret, his deceased wife and of his children who only visit a couple of times a year.

In the beginning, I thought of her often. Everything different, sleeping alone and eating alone and nobody to talk to about the little things, how was your day and that sort stuff. The smell of her faded too and I almost can’t imagine it anymore. Now it’s just me and the memory of Margaret and the children who don’t come by, except on Christmas and my birthday, and that is why I don’t love them.

As this reviewer approaches his seventh decade of life, thoughts like Ms. Waddleton creates in ‘Mr. Moriarty’ are all very real and hit closer and closer to home (although I don’t have any children to ignore me). Very well done.

Breakwater Books continue to promote fresh new voices in the Newfoundland writing scene. Witness Susie Taylor’s Even Weirder Than Before, Bridget Canning (The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes) and Melissa Barbeau (The Luminous Sea) just to name a few. Tracey Waddleton is yet another exciting young writer to watch. So set the kettle on the stove and get ready for some delicious tea and cookies…with a side of Barbie heads.

I am adding Send More Tourists… to the 2020 long list in the Best Short Fiction category for “The Very Best!” Book Awards.

The sheer energy is marvelous and there’s so much poignancy too. Yep, I love these stories!” – The Minerva Reader

Send More Tourists…The Last Ones Were Delicious by Tracey Waddleton
Breakwater Books

*Please note if you choose to purchase this book (also available in a Kindle Edition) through Amazon using the link below I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: https://amzn.to/2n5uVjW Thanks!

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Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta (Guest Post)

Note: For the past three summers, Naomi of the Consumed by Ink book review blog and I have been swapping a book review. This year I reviewed The Afrikaner by Arianna Dagnino for her site, and she has written a review of the critically-acclaimed book by Jamaican-Canadian author Zalika Reid-Benta, Frying Plantain (2019, House of Anansi Press)*. Naomi writes from Truro, Nova Scotia and reviews a broader range of CanLit than I do, although we sometimes review the same book, which is always interesting! I recommend bookmarking her site, as well as her Twitter account, @_ConsumedByInk.

“On my first visit to Jamaica I saw a pig’s severed head.” And so begins our time with Kara, a second-generation Jamaican-Canadian who, unlike her Jamaican cousins, does not feel comfortable with dead animals, and whose Jamaican accent is not strong enough for her Jamaican-Canadian friends. Yet around her white classmates, Kara feels too Jamaican. Who is she, anyway?

I kept walking. I always lost when I went head-to-head with Anita anyway; her comebacks were harsher and her accent was better. Real. Not something she had to put on. The rest of us just cobbled together what we could from listening to our parents or grandparents, but Anita was fresh from Jamaica – there was no competing, especially when I had the weakest accent out of all the Canadian-borns.

Through a sequence of stories, Reid-Benta writes about Kara’s growing up years; “caught in the middle” of her Canadian upbringing and her Jamaican origins. Kara’s mother is strict. Kara endures taunting from her friends in order to follow her mother’s rules. Expectations are high for Kara – that she will go further and make better decisions than the generations before her. Her mother got pregnant at 17, so Kara’s relationships with boys are closely monitored and her clothing is scrutinized for modesty.

“You can’t do this. You cannot afford to act out like this. When you get back here, I want you to write me a report telling me exactly how you got the alcohol, where you were when you weren’t at school, and a list of names of the kids you were with. Are you listening to me? You may go to their school but you cannot afford to act like them. You have to be better than this, Kara.” There was a tremor in her voice, a quiver I rarely heard. It wasn’t anger and it wasn’t sadness. It was something different, something she never meant for me to notice. Fear.

Although Kara seems to have a good relationship with her grandmother, her mother and grandmother do not get along. (“I wondered if all daughters fought with their mothers this way when they grew up and I started to tear up just thinking about it.”) And her grandparents have problems into the bargain. Kara seems to learn early on how to feel things out and navigate around them.

She had to know what I only just now discovered: that peace could only exist in this family when we lied about everything, at least to each other.

‘Place’ is a big theme in this book. There are Canada vs. Jamaica, and on a smaller scale, Toronto vs. Little Jamaica. Anyone familiar with Toronto’s Little Jamaica will surely feel at home.

Our school was right at Vaughan and Oakwood, hidden in one of the residential pockets in the centre of the area where the Caribbean and Europe converged. Once you left the playground you could turn right toward downtown and head to Little Italy on St. Clair West; but we were turning left up toward Eglinton West and Marlee: Island Town. The walk in either direction was mixed with both groups, though. Bungalow windows boasted the colourful banners of the Island flags: red, yellow, and green for Guyana; black, yellow, and green for Jamaica. Nonnas and nonnos crowded every other porch, teetering on rocking chairs, drinking beer or Brio Chinotto, their pit bulls snarling in the backyard.

In an interview with Deborah Dundas in The Star, Zalika Reid-Benta reveals that when she would “workshop the book” in Canada, “everyone kept saying that it wasn’t Canadian, or they assumed it was nonfiction. “I think that there is a very narrow definition of what it means to be Canadian. I think there’s a very narrow definition of what CanLit is.”

Let’s read these books and learn a thing or two about the experiences of all Canadians.

*A note on the title: Food plays a part in Frying Plantain as well as place. Kara’s grandmother is forever preparing food in her kitchen, feeding whoever is in her house, and then sending leftovers home with her guests. Even when she and Kara’s mom are not speaking, she sends food home for her with Kara. And when Kara claims not to be hungry, she fries her up her favourite anyway – fried plantain.

In an article Zalika Reid-Benta wrote at Open Book, she talks about the meaning behind the title of her book, and how many readers have made an instant connection to it.

 In the titular story, Kara marvels more at the art than the food itself. As she watches her grandmother make her favourite dish, she’s in awe of the beauty within the preparation and contemplates how she never quite got the hang of it. Not only did I think that that moment encapsulated a lot of the themes and subject matter in the collection as a whole, I thought it spoke to an aspect of the diaspora/third culture experience: trying to connect to home through cooking while knowing you may never get it as right as your parents or grandparents.

Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta
House of Anansi Press

*Please note if you choose to purchase this book through Amazon using the link below I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: https://amzn.to/31LBk2r Thanks!

This article has been Digiproved © 2019 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

Use Your Imagination! by Kris Bertin

Halifax-based writer Kris Bertin has won many awards for his previous short story collection, Bad Things Happen (2016, Biblioasis) and I’m sure that Use Your Imagination! (2019, Vagrant Press*) will garner its share. Composed of seven stories spread over 200 pages, these are the type of short stories you can really get into. The book’s title is derived from the third story in the collection, which is a story within a story: a creative writing class inside a prison in which one of the rules is to “use your imagination” when constructing a story. Eric’s story, “All Halves Made Whole” about life inside is reprinted (bookended by letters from the class instructor and the prison warden). The questions arise: did Eric write the story to further his own purposes, to downplay his heinous crime and get paroled early? Were his expressions of loneliness real?

Fans of the short story/creative fiction genre will enjoy reading Use Your Imagination!

I wasn’t a stone. Maybe I could look like one if you walked by, but inside I was soft and squishy. I was a bug. I was a turtle.
I didn’t know if it was a permanent change, or if, when I was out, if I could go back to being a normal person. I was most worried about the extremes. That I would come out a husk, and that whatever softness inside me will have rotted, dried up, and blown away. Or that, once released, I will be without any defenses, and be raw and naked and frightened, the kind of person who cannot cope with one single stressful interaction without breaking down completely. The kind of person you see screaming and crying at the bank teller’s window. I was preparing for the worst.

A superb example of creative fiction, this story was one of the highlights of the collection. Each of the stories in Use Your Imagination! have a certain disquietude about them, whether it is the whispering, cancer-riddled living corpse of Luke in the introductory story “Waiting for the Heat to Break and the Cold Air and Rain to Move In” to Allan’s secret life in “The Calls” to “Missy’s Story,” an unusual story/legend/myth involving the narrator’s great-grandparents and their “adoption” of a young speechless woman found wandering naked in the snow. Details are confused and conflicting and hard to come by from her grandmother and mother. The story absorbs Shannon. She must know more; to try to understand who Missy was, where she came from. When Shannon’s mother visits her in Toronto, she takes advantage of the opportunity to know more.

I remember feeling that she looked older and smaller than I remembered, and out of place in an apartment as bare as mine. She lived in a world of carpet and quilt, a fuzzy nest of soft things, Stuffed animals and slippers and blankets. Outside it, she seemed irritated, a crab pulled naked from its shell and left naked in the sand.
When I asked about Missy, her eyes sort of glazed over, like she had begun to dream right there in my kitchen. She looked like she was returning to some familiar, comfortable place in her mind.
“Did anyone ever have a guess about where she came from?” I asked.
“No,” she said, after a moment, “No one ever found that out.”
Right away I pressed her:
“I don’t understand that part. When we lived in Dale, we knew everybody. And with Missy it was what—ninety people living there? All going to the same church, all working in the same logging camp, How is it possible that nobody knew this girl?”
My mother tilted her head and I could see that this thought had never occurred to her.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Somebody had to know who she was.”
“I don’t know,” she repeated, even quieter this time. She was getting embarrassed, I could see, but by what I didn’t know. Maybe at never having had this thought, or just at not having any kind of answers for me. But then I saw her face change and she doubled back from where she was into stone certainty. She said:
“No one ever knew where she came from.”

A short story that spans generations, “Missy” is a classic finish to this collection, terminating in a most unexpected way.

Use Your Imagination! was my bedtime reading material, and after turning out my light, I went to sleep with what I had just read wafting through my mind, and I sought to grasp the essence of the stories Mr. Bertin had spun before I imperceptively drifted off into unconsciousness. Fans of the short story/creative fiction genre will enjoy reading Use Your Imagination!

Use Your Imagination! has been added to the 2019 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards in the Fiction category.

“Kris Bertin clearly has a talent for story-telling, and is quickly becoming one of my favourites.”

*This review was based on an Advance Reading Copy provided by Vagrant Press in exchange for a fair review. Use Your Imagination! will be released in April 2019. You may pre-order from Amazon.ca using the link below. Please note if you choose to purchase this book through Amazon I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: https://amzn.to/2UtJHwx Thanks!

Use Your Imagination! by Kris Bertin
Vagrant Press

This article has been Digiproved © 2019 James FisherSome Rights Reserved