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Breakwater Books: Canning, Doyle, Porter, Coles
Some recent reads from four talented writers.
I took advantage of the Christmas Sale from Breakwater Books: 50% off everything in store and online. Shipping was free, as well – in fact, I ordered the books on a Thursday and received them the following day. (I live only down the road from Breakwater, but true to my introverted nature, I spare my “outside energy” wherever I can.) In what follows, I share some thoughts on the four books I bought.
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Bridget Canning, No One Knows About Us
By the time I reached the acknowledgements section, this book made sense: It’s not a collection of completely new stories, but a portfolio of sorts, one that stretches back to Canning’s early career. In other words, a mixed bag. Canning is a cunning writer, and No One Knows About Us does show the same strengths that made her novels so great; given the mixed character of the collection, however, those strengths can feel a little diluted. In any case, if you’re a fan of Canning’s writing and enjoy short stories, I don’t imagine you’d be disappointed. If you’re unfamiliar with her work, her novels deserve your attention more.
Terry Doyle, The Wards
One thing struck me about Doyle’s short story collection, Dig: the level of polish. I had a sense that the author spent a great deal of time refining the stories so as to make them shine. The Wards shows that same level of commitment to the craft; story and subject matter aside, the book is exceptionally well written – particularly considering it’s a first novel, and a longish one, at that.
The story, as it turns out: also great. A family saga for the late neoliberal era, told with great empathy for each of its characters. The tale of Al Ward, suffering silently in the corral of working-class masculinity, proves especially tragic and touching. In my opinion, this is one of the strongest novels to come out of this province in some time, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves.
Michelle Porter, Approaching Fire
In two of my top-ten favourite books, Coming through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Michael Ondaatje combines poetry, prose, song and printed materials to reconstruct the lives of historical figures Buddy Bolden and, obviously, Billy the Kid. These volumes changed how I think about writing, about what you could do with words.
No surprise then, that I loved Approaching Fire: Porter takes a similar route, but with a personal angle. Making use of musicology, poetry, photographs, newspaper clippings, and more, she pulls together the story of her great-grandfather, Métis fiddler Léon Robert Goulet. The end effect is a beautiful book, and one I highly recommend.
Megan Gail Coles, The Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome
Coles’ talent and voice (not to mention, knack for titles) are on display here in this, her first volume of stories. The first story, There Are Tears in this Coconut, is a banger and stands up nearly ten years later; others, as you might expect, may hit or miss.The story Enthusiastic about Potatoes is one I couldn't imagine passing editorial muster in 2023; it begins, “I am the blackest man working in Tim Hortons. There are other black men, but I am the blackest”. I’d recommend this older collection for serious fans of Coles’ writing only.
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A thought occurred to me: Did the writer publish this with Breakwater to satisfy a contractual obligation? Is there a deal with a larger house in the works?
I feel somewhat silly stating this; short story collections from new writers – especially from small publishers – are not about changing the culture or blowing our minds; they’re about introducing and developing new talent. Typically, the quality reflects that.