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September 25, 2018

Moon of the Crusted Snow, by Waubgeshig Rice

“‘Yes, apocalypse! What a silly word. I can tell you there’s no word like that in Ojibwe. Well, I never heard a word like that from my elders anyway.”

The first sign that something is wrong is the home satellites stop working, TV screens gone dead. “We might actually have to have a conversation,” Nicole tells her partner Evan when he comes from hunting a moose, and they will pass the evening without their usual entertainment. And by the morning, they’ve lost cell phone service, cell towers a pretty recent arrival in their remote northern community anyway—only built because contractors for the south wanted a signal while they built the hydro dam, and the tower stayed even after they were gone. But there’s no signal now, and soon the landlines will stop working, and the power grid will cease to function. Which raises two big questions: What has happened to the rest of the world? And the more immediately pressing one: how will their community get through the winter?

On the latter point, Evan has some advantages—he can hunt and has been storing food; he’s been reconnecting with the traditions of his Ancestors and this wisdom will guide him; and he and Nicole have built a stable life for their family, which will provide the emotional sustenance necessary to survive a dark and barren winter. But they are challenged when Southerners begin to arrive in the community, fleeing the devastation of towns and cities in the south—one of these men in particular is dangerous. And other members of the community prove to be susceptible to this man’s influence, which begins to divide them at a time when cooperation is essential.

Moon of the Crusted Snow is Waubgeshig Rice’s third book, and it’s gorgeously designed, the story itself quiet and subtle, but fast-paced with heavy overtones. Evan’s reconnection with Anishinaabe traditions as his community is becoming disconnected from the world around them sets up an interesting disjunction, and Rice shows the ways that he has consciously woven these traditions into the life of the family he’s created with Nicole, and how these connections serve them when the situation becomes particularly dire. Evan is also learning the Ojibwe language of his people, and this language is included seamlessly in the text without the use of italics or translation, which offers the text an additional layer of meaning to those who can read Ojibwe—does “zhaagnaash” really mean “helpful friend” I wonder, when used toward Scott, the man who has arrived in their community with big guns and survivalist tendencies?

And yes, there is no Ojibwe word for “apocalypse,” which Evan learns through a conversation with Aileen, an Elder whose teachings he carries with him. Aileen explains to Evan that their world isn’t ending—it already ended long ago when settlers arrived. “When the Zhaagnaash cut down all the trees and fished all the fish and forced us out of there, that’s when our world ended.” But they survived—this is her point. They learned to adapt, and to survive, even as their children were taken and abused in residential schools for generations. “But we always survived,” she tells Evan. “We’re still here. And we’ll still be here, even if the power and the radios don’t come back on, and we never see any white people ever again.”

The ending of this novel is powerful, unexpected, and while deeply satisfying, it’s also ambiguous in a really fascinating way. Moon of the Crusted Snow is a terrific, gripping novel, and one of the highlights of my literary autumn.

September 19, 2018

The Luminous Sea, by Melissa Barbeau

If, like me, you are drawn to Melissa Barbeau’s debut, The Luminous Sea, because of its cover (Ernst Haeckel!) then keep on going because the novel itself is just as gorgeous and rich with wonder. Beginning with Vivienne, a university researcher charged with collecting data on the phosphorescent waters off the coast of Newfoundland, not anticipating her next catch—a sea creature unlike anything anyone’s ever seen before. A little Shape of Water, but there’s no sex in the bathtub, and Vivienne and her supervisor, Colleen, create a tank out of a chest freezer instead. And the creature is a female, or at least Vivienne keeps calling it “she,” even as she’s admonished for the anthropomorphizing. Dynamics in the lab are getting complicated—Colleen’s superior arrives and attempts to take control of the discovery, and in a shocking act of violence (exquisitely rendered in prose like you’ve never seen before) he tries to subdue Vivienne as well. Meanwhile, Colleen is carrying on an affair with a local cafe owner whose wife is wise to it all and spends her time making preserves out of such unlikely things as jellyfish, and Vivienne is only there at all because she’s run away from a broken relationship with her girlfriend in the city. And in the meantime, the creature is not doing well in the tank (“Three days in and scales were coming off in her hand when she touched her, like flakes of opalescent pearls…”), and it might be up to Vivienne to save it. So that this extraordinary novel whose sentences and imagery shimmers and shines is also taut with tension, fast-paced, impossible to put down. But oh, the writing! It’s the writing I keep going on about. The following is my favourite part:

“A long stainless steel table is in the middle of the room. Next to it a second table made from a wooden door laid across two wooden sawhorses and covered with sheets of plastic. Instruments and vials, pincers and thermometers and gloves, measuring tapes and suction-cupped monitors are arranged in near rows on top of it. The doorknob is still attached to the door and makes a small mound underneath the plastic. Vivienne wonders if they have not made some kind of underestimation when considering door security. It seems as if at any minute someone might turn the handle on the supine door, throwing scientific instruments across the room; that someone will will up through the horizontal doorway, like that party trick where someone climbs an imaginary set of steps in the carpet behind the couch.”

Do Not Underestimate Door Security turns out indeed to be one of the novel’s many morals, and maybe (definitely) I’ve got a thing for door imagery anyway, but that paragraph for me is emblematic at how beautifully imagined this novel is, its realities and its many possibilities. There is a generous expansiveness at the heart of the book, doorways onto doorways, but it never grows too strange and mystical and stays controlled, anchored in the physical world, with such attention to accuracy and detail, scientific, like the image on the cover. Melissa Barbeau is an extraordinary writer, and I can’t stop talking about this book.

September 18, 2018

Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

This post is less a book review than “How I Spent My Weekend.” I don’t really know that I’m capable of reading a Kate Atkinson novel critically, or if I’d even want to be. I read them for pure enjoyment, delight, for her narrative tricks, and the way she plays with history, and story. For the little twists that make her books so unforgettable, and how they get lodged in the mind, like how I’m still even thinking of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, even though I read it thirteen years ago.

Since then, Atkinson has waded into detective fiction (igniting my own love affair with the genre) with her Jackson Brodie novels, and then in her two most recent books exploring historical fiction, as ever probing at the limits of what a novel can hold, just how far it can stretch. And that her latest is a spy novel set during during WW2 and also in 1950 is not at all incongruous. Questions of duplicity, reliability, truth and lies, and how History agrees with the factual record are what has fascinated Atkinson from the start of her writing career. I’ve always said that all her books have been mysteries (and maybe all books are in general) and maybe they’ve always been spy novels too.

Transcription is about Juliet Armstrong, something of a cypher, who gets a job with MI5 in 1940 transcribing meetings between a government agent and people who believe they’re reporting state secrets to the Gestapo. As with any book about English fascism during the 1930s/40s (including Jo Walton’s Small Change series) there is a contemporary resonance, although it’s subtle here. In addition to her transcribing, Juliet is enlisted to infiltrate The Right Club, a group of German-sympathizers, taking on an additional identity. And all of these war-time activities come back to haunt her a decade later as she’s working at the BBC (Atkinson has said this part of the story was inspired by Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices) and finds old associates in close proximity again. What do they want from her? What does she have to offer them? Is this just paranoia on her part—there are references to the movie “Gaslight.” How much can the reader trust Juliet at all?

I loved this book—but of course I did. I read it in two days and delighted in that very rare and always exquisite, “I’m reading a Kate Atkinson novel for the first time” feeling. And like all her books, it will bear rereading, even once the twist is known. Because Kate Atkinson is always about more than just tricks, but instead about textual richness, and all the clues you missed that were glaring all along.

September 13, 2018

Late Breaking, KD Miller

So, if we’re talking about remarkable things, let’s start with the obvious one: the cover. How many other book covers this season feature a naked man drinking milk? I’ll wait. And in the meantime, we can talk about “Refrigerator,” by Alex Colville, which on the advanced copy of K.D. Miller’s Late Breaking that I read was less subtle than it is on the finished version, above. Which meant I felt kind of conspicuous reading it in the dentist’s waiting room the other day, but then I got over it, because the book is so excellent that the penis on the cover quickly ceases to be the point.

And so too does this collection’s conceit, which is that each story is inspired by an Alex Colville painting. Which is not to say that this way of collecting stories into a book is not compelling—absolutely not. It’s an fascinating idea that adds additional texture to Colville’s work, and the stories themselves are similarly absorbing, both ordinary and extraordinary at once, and disturbed by an uncanny strangeness—like the gun on the table, a horse on the train track. Each story is preceded by an image of the painting that inspired it, and the connections between the works are surprising and illuminating both ways.

But this too is eclipsed by something far more central to the text when we talk about the collection: which is that the stories themselves are incredibly good. The first story (inspired by “Kiss With Honda”) is about a widower whose relationship with wife was tainted by a secret she never knew he realized and was never able to explain before he dies, and then he goes to visit her grave, which leads to an act of violence that comes out of nowhere—and suddenly we realize that these stories have teeth, and claws. The second story is about Jill, an older woman whose novel has been shortlisted for an award, and she’s touring with a motley crew of other nominated authors, all the while reflecting on the sex-lives of septuagenarians and the relationship (and heartache) that inspired her work. The third story, “Witness,” takes Colville’s painting “Woman on Ramp” literally—Harriet is the woman on the ramp, and after coming out of the lake and into her cottage, she finds an arm around her neck and something sharp against her back. “Olly Olly Oxen Free” is about the marriage between a woman and her husband, a failed novelist, intersected with story of an older woman in her book club who still carries the pain of a traumatic childhood event. In “Octopus Heart,” a lonely man (who turns out to be the one who broke Jill’s heart in the second story, five years before) feels the first intimate collection of his life with an octopus from the aquarium. In “Higgs Bosun,” a woman (whose son is married to Harriet’s son from a previous story) thinks about the ways she’s tried and failed to hold the world and her family together. In “Lost Lake,” the family from “Olly Olly…” are away at an isolated resort where their daughter seems to be visited by sinister supernatural forces. “Crooked Little House” takes us back to the widower from the first story, and his neighbour (who is the estranged daughter of the octopus man), and their friendship with another man who is trying to make a clean start after twenty-five years in prison. For the murder of a woman who, we realize in the next story, was a friend of Harriet and Jill, all of them meeting one summer long ago—and this story begins with a wonderful scene in a locker-room, older women squeezing into their bathing suits without regard for their naked bodies. “Have we all just given up? Harriet thinks, hanging her suit on a hook in one of the shower stalls and rinsing down. Or is this wisdom?”

These are all rich and absorbing stories on their own, but even richer for how they also inform each other. Eventually I would be making a chart in the back of the book to figure out all the surprising connections, including the final story, about the murdered girl’s mother who was also author of a book about octopuses that preoccupied a character in a  previous story. Similar to my friend Rebecca Rosenblum’s work, K.D. Miller’s fiction seems to conjure whole worlds, with characters who seem to walk off the page and who—one has no doubt—continues in their adventures even when their stories are finished. We get glimpses of these people, but they’re like the tip of an iceberg and there’s so much more going on beneath the surface. Which is something you could say about the people in Colville’s paintings too, and about each of these stories themselves, compelling and disturbing, and impossible to look away from, creating the most terrific momentum.

September 6, 2018

In Love with Lane Winslow

If you’ll recall, I did it wrong and read It Begins in Betrayal, by Iona Whishaw, last spring, having not yet read the previous three books in her Lane Winslow Mystery Series, but maybe it didn’t even matter, because I fell totally in love with the book, its characters, and Iona Whishaw’s fictional world, and the idea that I had three more books in the series to go back and discover was the very best news, and so I made this my summer project. So in June, I went back to the start and read A Killer in King’s Cove, about Lane Winslow’s arrival in the rural BC town after heartbreaking and dangerous experiences during World War Two, in which she’d served her country as a spy. But if quiet is what she’s seeking, Lane finds very little of it in her new life, where she is conspicuous as a young and very pretty woman who’s unattached and likes living alone. It doesn’t help either that dead bodies keep coming her way—and in the first book, it’s a body that’s washed up in her creek. When the local constabulary arrives, Lane herself becomes a suspect, her conspicuousness only underlined by the fact she cannot disclose much about her background and she seems to have an uncanny knowledge about things that are inappropriate for women to be concerning themselves with. And it’s here where Lane’s relationship with the dashing Inspector Darling is first sparked, but it takes until the end of Book 3 for both of them to realize and admit it.

I took Book 2, Death in a Darkening Mist, on vacation in July—body turns up in a hot springs, and there’s a whole Soviet spy plot—and it proved a most excellent companion. I read it very quickly, and continued to delight in the novel’s polish and smarts, and that the feminist threads I’d see in It Begins in Betrayal are woven all the way through. And finally, I read Book 3, An Old Cold Grave, this weekend, where the body turns up this time in a root cellar, and it’s a beautiful novel whose ties go back to British Home Children and their exploitation, but it’s also about women’s emancipation and independence from their fathers and husbands, and the terms under which Lane and Darling are going have a relationship—if one is finally going to happen.

So I’m all caught up, but it’s not over yet, oh no! Because this month A Sorrowful Sanctuary arrives, a mystery that explores Canada’s ties to Nazism, and I’ve read enough to know I’m probably good to have really high expectations. I’m looking forward to reading this one, and in the meantime, I’d encourage anyone—particularly those with a penchant for British cozy mysteries and detective fiction with excellent female characters—to pick up the preceding novels in the series. Iona Whishaw’s books have been the highlight of my reading year.

August 30, 2018

Women Talking, by Miriam Toews

“No Ernie, says Agata, there’s no plot, we’re only women talking.” 

Women Talking, the latest novel by Miriam Toews, is not an easy read. Not easy because of the places it takes its readers to—the women talking in Women Talking are women from a Mennonite community in Bolivia, women whose husbands/brothers/sons have been accused to raping the women while they were sleeping, incidents based on real events, so-called “ghost rapes,” and it’s how women respond to and try to move on from this trauma that raised important questions for Toews as she considered writing this book, more than the fact of the violence itself. Because violence is ubiquitous. As Toews said in conversation with Rachel Giese when I went to see her last week, she can imagine what a rape is like. But what happens after—how do you imagine a way through that? And then she said something else, an echo of line in the novel which I read a few days later: “We are all victims, says Mariche./ True, Salome says, but our responses are varied and one is not more or less appropriate than the other.”

This line reminded me of Jia Tolentino’s article in The New Yorker on The Women’s March in 2017, and the way that so many were quick to jump on organizational conflicts and disagreements as a way to dismiss the movement altogether. Scoffing is often what happens when we hear about women talking—it’s either idle gossip, or else a petty scrap. A catfight. Women talking—it’s on the background, unless the voices are shrill. Or when they’re allowed to be a chorus. But in her novel, Toews dares to make women talking everything. The “there’s no plot” line is a funny meta-joke. But this is difficult too, on a practical level. To follow along with the conversations, to discern who these people speaking are as we’re just beginning to know them as characters. And Toews complicates the work further by refusing to make any of her characters just one thing—these are women who are difficult, who argue with each other out of spite, who contradict themselves and turn their own arguments inside-out, because this is what thinking is. For the first half of the novel, I confess that I was a little bit lost, finding the narrative hard to follow, and not remotely sure how the whole thing would come together.

But then mid-way through, something happened—it was like the walls started closing in on the threat to these women in the hayloft talking, these women who were daring to defy their husbands, brothers, sons. To explore the three options available to them: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave, but then the men who’ve gone to the city to post bail for the others could return at any time. And suddenly this novel without a plot takes on the most furious momentum and becomes unputdownable. In this novel in which nothing’s happened yet, something is going to have to give—but what?

The women talking in the novel are people who’ve never learned to read or write, who cannot read a map, and know nothing about the world beyond the boundaries of their communities. (I read this book right after Claudia Dey’s Heartbreaker, which is such a completely different novel in spirit, but there’s a kinship between them.) As the women in the novel are illiterate, writing down the minutes of their meeting is tasked to August Epp, an estranged member of the community who has returned after years away to serve as a school teacher (which is basically to be a failed farmer, and shameful occupation for a man). And August’s own complicated story, and his love for Ona, one of the women whose words he’s recording, becomes a foundation for the novel, as it would be, although just why or how does not become apparent until the conclusion, which only adds to its devastating and beautiful ambiguity.

August 15, 2018

Swell: A Waterbiography, by Jenny Landreth

The gendered nature of swimming is something I think about all the time, although most often when I am sharing a lane with a man who has found taking up ample space by merely having longer limbs than I do unacceptable, and therefore has decided to enhance his lengths with flippers on his feet and paddles on his hands, increasing his chances of making violent contact with my body as he passes me. The women in the pool I swim at don’t do this, and neither do they, as one swimmer in Jenny Landreth’s spectacular book Swell: A Waterbiography does, butterfly up and down narrow lanes driving all other swimmers into the gutter. In her recent book, Boys, Rachel Giese writes about the way that boys are taught to be entitled to public space, as they dominate the basketball courts on the playground, and because I spend most of my time hiding in libraries, I don’t encounter this very much, but it’s in the pool I do. And it all makes me think of the line on the very first page of Swell, which was where I fell in love with this book: “how swimming can be a barometer for women’s equality.” We’ve all come a long way, but still.

Swell is my favourite book I’ve read this summer, a summer that has been all about swimming, in pools and lakes, as both my children are both at pivotal stages in the development of their inner fishes, and we can worry slightly less about the little one drowning. I’ve gone swimming by myself four mornings a week along with the men with the hand paddles and the flippers, and then later in the day we’ve all gone to the public pool and I’ve sat in the shallows and tried not to think about pee as my daughters delighted in turning somersaults over and over again. So yes, Swell was just absolutely perfect.

It’s a book I’d situate as what might happen if Sue Townsend of Adrian Mole fame got together with Elizabeth Renzetti’s Shewed and they decided to have a literary baby that was also a social history of women swimming in England. The result is absolutely delightful, empowering, and so terrible funny in its asides that I kept reading them aloud to the people around me who became very confused about what this book was about exactly. But that’s because it’s about everything, about the history of suffrage, and bathing suits, and public pools, and mixed beaches, and how women used to drown all the time because they weren’t taught to swim, and about how when they decided they did want to learn how to swim, no one could teach them because all the instructors were men and men and women couldn’t possible swim together. It’s about pools where women were accorded very little time for swimming, and it was usually during the day when no one could make it anyway. It’s about women who defied convention (and their mothers!) to become swimming superstars, pioneering the front crawl in England, swimming the English channel, being the first women swimmers in the Olympic games.

Landreth writes, “‘In front of every great woman is another great woman… Women whose lies will change. Some who will take this story, make it their story and push it on to its next pages.”

And of course, Landreth’s own story is part of this book, her “waterbiography”—and she admits to being proud to have coined the term. She grew up in the Midlands, which is kind of a swimming desert—when I lived there I was once so desperate for a swim that I dove in the duck pond on the Nottingham University Jubilee Campus—and was an unlikely candidate to become an avid swimmer for a host of reasons. She writes about learning to swim as a child, about travelling to Greece in her 20s and trying proper swimming for the first time, about lacklustre swimming as part of the 1980s’ fitness craze, about what an awful and unfulfilling thing it is to go swimming with small children—and then about finding her identity as a swimmer once her children were older, and what a thing it is that women can do this at any age. About how empowering it was to learn to call herself a swimmer.

There is indeed something womanly about swimming, in spite of the Michael Phelpses and the men with paddles on their hands. I mean, have you ever heard of a male mermaid? No. And I can’t for the life of me think of a single man who’s swam across Lake Ontario, but I know about Marilyn Bell and Vicki Keith, and Annaleise Carr, a swimming hero for every generation. I have dreams of one day swimming in the Ladies Pond at Hampstead Heath. I used to buy terrifically fancy swimsuits, but lately I’ve become enamoured of my sporty suits, the ones I wear while swimming in the pool in the mornings. Where my favourite swimmer is this woman I’ve never spoken to, but she’s my hero—grey bathing cap (I wouldn’t know her without it) and same bathing suit as mine, a bit stocky, older than I am. And in the pool every morning, she’s the fastest every time.

More on swimming:

August 7, 2018

Sodom Road Exit, by Amber Dawn

I’ve had Amber Dawn’s Sodom Road Exit waiting for me since the beginning of May, when I bought it right after seeing her speak on a panel on genre at the Festival of Literary Diversity. She was fantastic on the panel (along with Cherie Dimaline, David A. Robertson, and Michelle Wan), explaining that Sodom Road is an actual road with an exit off the QEW to get to her hometown of Crystal Beach, on Lake Erie, which was once a thriving resort town with an amusement park famous for its terrifying roller coaster. Her novel is set during the summer of 1990, a year after the amusement park closed and things are officially in decline. Which is when Starla Mia Martin returns to town, driven by debt and desperation to move back in with her mother, and then inadvertently begins to channel a ghost who is powered by relics from the old amusement park, the spirit of a woman who’d been killed in an accident on the roller coaster decades before. But is this a benevolent spirt? Is she helping Starla get back on her feet, or is she only making it worse—and for a good portion of the book, it’s hard to tell. Starla gets a job working at a campground on the graveyard shift, which doesn’t help calm her mind at all, or reduce her propensity for being haunted. And as her connection to the spirit intensifies, Starla’s situation is complicated by the relationships she’s developing in Crystal Beach, in spite of herself—with her boss at the campground, an Indigenous woman who lives there and is struggling to maintain custody of her son, with the former high school classmate who dances at the local bar and with whom Starla might possibly think about entering into a relationship…were she the type of person who did such a thing as have loving relationships, and also if she wasn’t already cavorting with a woman who’s been dead for fifty years.

Things get complicated Or even more complicated? Starla, following the instructions of the spirit, has a memorial gazebo erected out of materials from the amusement park, and people begin to travel from miles around to witness her communing with the dead and perhaps channelling their own lost loved ones. But the toll of these experiences and the burden of Starla’s connection to the spirit become too much for her to carry and her mental and physical health begin to suffer, so much so that soon the people who love her are frightened for her life.

I picked up this book because I was intrigued by the setting, and also so fascinated by Dawn’s remarks on genre and the idea of the novel as a container for a ghost story. And I was a little bit intimidated to finally start reading it because a) it had the word “sodom” in the title, b) it was a solid brick of a book and was I ready to commit to that many pages, and c) in order for the premise to work, it would have to be a really, really exceptional novel. Which, it turns out, it is. I loved this novel. We were camping the weekend before last, which isn’t always the best place to be reading, because there are bugs, and chores, and children setting themselves on fire, but all these things took a back seat as I read 300 pages of this book in two days, and came home and read the rest once the laundry was done, because it really was that compelling, so masterfully crafted. It’s a perfect gripping amazing summer read, but it’s also underlined with substance—the stakes are real here. I absolutely loved it.

August 1, 2018

Summer Books on the Radio

I was on CBC Ontario Morning today talking about amazing summer books—including two I’d already mentioned, but I hadn’t talked about them then, and I absolutely had to come back and enthuse because they’ve been highlights of my summer, along with all the rest. You can listen again to my picks on the podcast: I come in at 30.00. 

July 31, 2018

The Journey to the Journey Prize

I’m so pleased to share the news that I’m a juror for the The Journey Prize this year, along with Sharon Bala and Zoey Leigh Peterson. And I’m pleased not just because it’s such an honour to be part of this project, a prize that has played a part in the careers of so many superstar Canadian writers. A prize that I always had secret dreams of being a finalist for—the closest I ever came was having a story of mine nominated way back when, and even that was something I was a little bit proud of. I’ve written before about how exciting it was to buy a copy of the anthology in 2008 when my friend Rebecca Rosenblum was a finalist—my friend was in an actual book! And so to be a juror—what a huge and incredible thing. But the honour is just the beginning—I want also write about how it’s been an absolute delight and that I’ve learned so much from the experience as a reader. It’s been so interesting.

This opportunity arrived in my inbox early this year, and I did not hesitate to say yes, because if there is any evidence that I’ve succeeded in making a name for myself as a reader, this would be it. It felt great to be in the esteemed company of Sharon and Zoey as well—I’d just read Sharon’s novel, The Boat People, and loved it, and I’d been hearing people raving about Zoey’s Next Year, For Sure since it was published. And then it would not be long before a giant envelope was delivered to my house, and I began the process of reading 100 short stories that had been published in journals and magazines across the country, which meant there was so much goodness, and it would be my job to help figure out the best of the best. I began a big knitting project as I started reading the stack, and I knit as I began reading, and also lugged the stack of stories over to the pool and read it on the bleachers while my children did their swimming lessons. When I think of that stack of stories, I think of sunny Sundays with pages spread out on  my bed and also chlorine.

And then I sent in my shortlist of 15 or so stories, and I thought that it was pretty cut and dried. Several stories it seemed obvious to me were excellent, and others were pretty easy to reject, because some things are simple, right? And then I received our collective longlist, which was 30-some stories, and some of the picks were baffling—really? Maybe this was going to be harder than I thought…but I started reading again, and something amazing happened. Reading these stories in a new context was so illuminating, and understanding that my colleagues supported some of these stories made me read them differently. I also reread some of my own favourites, and wondered if my enthusiasms had perhaps been ill-placed. A few stories continued to stick out as extraordinary, and the rest of them were the same stories they’d always been, but my mind had changed. What a thing! To adjust and correct as a reader, to learn from my colleagues, to benefit from their broadening of my perspective.

And this only kept happening as we got to know each other through conference calls, as we debated and enthused, asked questions and posed answers. There was such generosity in the spirit of the work we were doing, a willingness to listen to each other and learn. I’d previously had an experience on a jury with someone who simply dug in his heels and refused to listen to anyone, and he’d ruined the entire experience for me—and I’m still so angry that we let him get his way, but in the end I just wanted to get home for lunch. With Zoey and Sharon though, every bit of our conversation was about listening and building, and at those moments when one of us dug in our heels, it was absolutely the right thing to do.

The list we settled on could not have been more perfect, and all of us were so satisfied with it, and excited as we took on the task of arranging story order and writing our introduction. That giant stack of stories had been whittled down to something that was an actual book, rich with cohesion and connections, both obvious ones and others that were surprising. And I’m so excited now, for the shortlist to be revealed on August 7, for the book to find its way into readers’ hands, for these stories to be read—I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so personally connected to a book I didn’t write. But I can tell you with assuredness that it’s such a good book, and I’m excited for the next stage of its journey into the world.

Update: In all my rhapsodizing for my co-jurors, I forgot to give credit to McClelland & Stewart and the incredible Anita Chong, who is the whole reason this experience has been such a pleasure. Anita is so incredibly good at what she does, and I’ve been so grateful to get to know her and work with her on this book.

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