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Because my Novellas in November wrap-up was torpedoed by a nasty bout of flu followed quickly by hectic end of term chaos, here is the final word on that project .

I read a few novellas to close out the year, because illness and work had robbed me of a proper finish to my Novellas in November. The first was Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco (McSweeney’s). I think this was my favourite book of the year (tied with Foulsham). A writer who decides to stop writing books and takes to writing intimate “portraits” of people before he disappears. The clarity of the prose and the simplicity of the plot may lull the reader into thinking this is a simple story, but it is like looking into a pool of crystal clear water. What at first may appear shallow is revealed to have tremendous depth once you are immersed in it. One of the few 5 star books of my reading year.

Perhaps it was because I read it following Mr. Gwyn, but The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami was a tremendous disappointment. The best part of the whole book was Chip Kidd’s design work. I appreciated the return of some of Murakami’s characters and motifs as well as some of the little quirks of the story (like the Ottoman tax record thing), but all in all, I thought this novella was a disaster.

I finished the year with Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki (Biblioasis). This was a great romp, set in Luanda, Angola, in the 1980s and peopled with a marvelous cast of characters. The children (playful, mischievous, but thankfully not the tired clichés of the “precocious prodigies”) are determined to prevent the Soviet occupying forces from displacing their community for the purpose of building a mausoleum for a dictator. Lively characters and lots of layers.

Something I noticed after the first couple of weeks of Novellas in November: as much as I enjoy reading novellas, reading so many in succession started to feel like eating nothing but appetizers for supper for weeks on end. By the halfway point, I was craving something more meaty. Novellas are a specialty narrative, and as such they make narrative choices, sacrificing certain elements in favour of others (choosing character over a sense of place, for example). This is what can make them so intense and impactful. However, like a college kid living on appetizers and beer, eventually, I began to crave those elements that were lacking in my novella diet. So, while I love novellas (and I do read a lot of them), I’d rather intersperse them with longer reading material so my reading diet is more balanced. .

I read a number of other novellas throughout the rest of the year that were brilliant, and I think Novellas in November is a great time to bring them up. If you are looking for excellent short reads, here are a few that I’ve read recently that I would highly recommend:

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press)

A by André Alexis (BookThug)

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Peirene Press)

The Blue Fox by Sjón (FSG)

The Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Knopf)

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Twenty days into Novellas in November. The reading was a bit slower over the past ten days. I blame work. However, I did still manage to get 3 books finished. First, I picked up The Book of Proper Names by Amelie Nothomb, because it had been recommended on Twitter by Dan Rhodes (author of Gold, Little Hands Clapping, This is Life, and many more) whose books I adore. The Book of Proper Names is a darkly comic book about names, family, and destiny. The protagonist is a girl named Plectrude who has a tragic start to life, but is adopted by her aunt and uncle, and dreams of being a ballet dancer. I enjoyed the book, but I still prefer Dan Rhodes, who is a master at blending the odd, the funny, and the melancholy. You should all read Gold. 4 Stars to The Book of Proper Names.

Then my order of Mary Swan’s The Deep arrived, and I dove right in. This early novella of Swan’s uses the same polyvocal technique that she uses in her 2008 novel The Boys in the Trees. That book breaks my heart. It is an incredible meditation on community, family, and despair: a discourse on the things we can never know about each other. This novella is the story of twin sisters volunteering near the front lines in France in 1918. Swan uses the polyvocal narrative to create suspense, as the narratives of the sisters are basically contemporary to their war experience or recollections of their earlier lives, but the narratives of the others are memories told of the sisters. The story is interesting, but I found the sisters to be less compelling than they should have been. Swan has an incredible way with imagery, but (unsurprisingly, as this is an earlier work) the story doesn’t pack as much emotional punch as The Boys in the Trees. I would recommend that one as my favourite of her works. 4 stars to The Deep.

And finally, I decided to reread Shopgirl by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin). It’s been almost 15 years since I first read the book, but I am still surprised at the skill with which Martin manages to distill emotional meaning into the smallest details. The story is charming, but it also addresses complex questions in terms of the growth of its characters. I love the fact that each of the characters comes to (sometimes unpleasant) realizations about the way they treat themselves and other people. It was an absolute joy to return to this novella. Of course, before it’s time for the next reread, I will definitely be watching the film again.

So, we are now 10 days in to the Novellas in November challenge (#NovNov on Twitter) and I’ve been having a smashing time. I’ve surprised myself by finishing 5 novellas already, three new reads and two rereads: Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith, Light Boxes by Shane Jones, Ticknor by Sheila Heti, All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman, and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

I started Ticknor first, but was reading it before bed when I was able to focus more on the narrative and the language, so I actually finished Portuguese Irregular Verbs first because it was a commute read (and had the advantage of being absurd and amusing, which was a good kick-off to the entire endeavour), and finished Light Boxes second (which read very quickly, in part due to the fragmented nature of the narrative). I enjoyed the internal dialogue that Ticknor has with himself (the voice that constructs a narrative in his head and the voice that reveals the inaccuracies in that constructed narrative even as it is being shaped). Portuguese Irregular Verbs was a funny take on the pomposity of academia, and I may continue reading the other novellas in this trilogy (whether I will tackle them this month is unknown). Light Boxes is surreal and strange and basically a vision of my future because up here in the frozen north the idea of an endless February hits a little too close to home. I found the imagery in Light Boxes to be remarkable, almost cinematic at times, and now I can’t wait to read his new book, Crystal Eaters. All My Friends Are Superheroes was a single sitting read one evening, and it was an absolute joy to revisit (having originally read it in 2003) because it is funny and quirky and moving all at once (and of course, it left me pondering what my own superpower might be…). Train Dreams blew me away again (having originally read it in 2012), and I remain stunned that the Pulitzer Prize jury in 2012 did not award the prize to Johnson. This novella is an incredibly tight narrative of one man’s experiences in the northwest U.S. from the late 19th C. to mid-20th C. It is a profoundly moving story that encompasses a wide range of issues from masculinity and racism in America to settlement and the notion of progress.

I’ve really appreciated the sense of accomplishment that comes from being able to finish a book in a couple of short sittings without worrying about getting too far behind on my day-to-day work. From the mid-point of the semester, guilt usually prevents me from picking up anything lengthy, and then I languish without narrative meat to feed on. However, these novellas have satisfied my appetite for stories with humour and emotional heft, without the unrealistic commitment of hours at this busy time. I think everyone should pick up more novellas to have on hand for just such circumstances.

Some of the novellas I have to choose from for the month of November.

Some of the novellas I have to choose from for the month of November.

I am embarking upon a month of reading novellas, inspired by Another Book Blog (http://anotherbookblog.com/2013/10/16/novellas-in-november/) which I heard about from http://reading-in-bed.com/, and I am really looking forward to it. Obviously, since I have a rather reading heavy day job (and a reading heavy second job, come to think of it), I won’t be able to read the 30-odd books in the photo. I am totally okay with that. My intention was to gather most of the novellas from my shelves so that I would have the broadest selection possible, enabling me to read for my mood. Some of the books in the piles are potential re-reads because I enjoyed them so much the first time around, but most of them are as yet unread. Anything under 200 pages is fair game for my reading pile. I will, of course, continue reading other books for the month of November, but my goal is to read eight to ten novellas in four weeks. If you have any recommendations, please leave a comment.

It should be evident from the photo that I will be reading quite a few novellas in translation, which I am quite excited about. There is also a good mix of male and female writers. There are several independent small presses that publish amazing novellas, and I recommend that you check out their catalogues to get your short narrative fix. My favourites include: New Directions, Biblioasis, Melville House, Peirene Press, Pushkin Press, Coffee House Press, and Dalkey Archive.

I’ve decided to start off with Ticknor by Sheila Heti from another great Canadian press, House of Anansi. I’ll endeavour to post weekly progress reports, but may have to resort to one massive final recap, because November is traditionally one of the busiest months for my day job. In any case, I hope that you will all consider picking up a novella this month to join in with the spirit of the thing. If you are on Twitter, watch for the hashtag #NovNov to keep an eye on what other participants are reading.

Here is a proper list of the books in the photo, plus a couple I discovered after the pic was taken. They are all novellas from my own library that I have not yet read, or have read, but would like to reread:

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira – Cesar Aira

Conversations – Aira

Shantytown – Aira

All My Friends are Superheroes – Andrew Kaufman

Professor Andersen’s Night – Dag Solstad

Magda – Meike Ziervogel

The Mansion – Alvaro Mutis

Dance with Snakes – Horacio Castellanos Moya

Agua Viva – Clarice Lispector

Point Omega – Don DeLillo

Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret – Ondjaki

The Graveyard – Marek Hlasko

Visitation – Jenny Erpenbeck

Ticknor – Sheila Heti

The Book of Proper Names – Amelie Nothomb

Motorman – David Ohle

The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am – Kjersti A. Skomsvold (Read this one last year. Marvellous, dark. Also, met the author. Awesome.)

My Beautiful Bus – Jacques Jouet

Light Boxes – Shane Jones

The Sandman – ETA Hoffmann

Last Night at the Lobster – Stewart O’Nan

The Prowler – Kristjana Gunnars (Read over a decade ago. Time to revisit.)

Stick Out Your Tongue – Ma Jian

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark (Read. Loved it. Probably get more out of it now.)

Shopgirl – Steve Martin (Read. Loved it. Time to reread.)

The Pleasure of My Company – Steve Martin (Read. Loved it. About time to reread.)

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

Portuguese Irregular Verbs – Alexander McCall Smith

At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances – Smith

The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs – Smith

The Pharmacist’s Mate – Amy Fusselman

The Seas – Samantha Hunt

Travels in the Scriptorium – Paul Auster

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson (Read, and it is absolutely remarkable. Plan to reread.)

The Anxiety of the Goalie at the Penalty Kick – Peter Handke

Broken Hours

Last week, I wrote briefly about five children’s books that scared the bejeesus out of me. Now, I’d like to share some of my favourite spooky books for grown-ups, just in time for All Hallow’s Read. The idea is that you give out scary books to people on Halloween, so that they have something suitably atmospheric to read. To learn more about All Hallow’s Read check out the website: http://www.allhallowsread.com/

My recommendations are going to run the gamut on this one, from atmospheric ghost stories to postmodern genre mashups to Lovecraftian stories of cosmic dread.

The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker: An atmospheric and creepy tale about Arthor P. Crandle, a young writer down on his luck hired as a personal assistant to none other than H.P. Lovecraft, wizard of the Weird. The prose is incredibly eloquent and Baker manages to create an atmosphere of tension and gloom, but also of loneliness and loss. You can find hauntings, tentacles, and clever twists in this beautiful book.

Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray: Chilling and tragic. Tiffany Murray is a marvellous storyteller. Drawing on local tales, Murray builds a world in which tragedy echoes through generations and is connected to a dark family history. The story is set in 1955 on the Welsh/English border, but a malevolent spirit has been on the premises of the declining estate for much longer than the current occupants. The story takes its inspiration from the legend of the Black Boy of Littledean Hall. Super creepy. Also super creepy? This new book trailer for Sugar Hall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTQTL7_S-Wk

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: I wrote my Master’s thesis on this novel, and while it definitely has some pretty big problems, there is no denying that the Navidson house story line is absolutely terrifying. The Navidson’s discover that their house is bigger on the inside than on the outside, manage to cope with the sudden appearance of a door that leads to a dark passageway that changes shape and size, and then embark upon an expedition to explore the passage. Bad things ensue. Add to that the absolutely brilliant and utterly disorienting layout of the book, and the spooky qualities of the accompanying “soundtrack” by Danielewski’s recording artist sister, Poe, and you have all the makings of a freaky read.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill: Written as an exercise in genre, this novella is conventional but exceedingly effective. The isolated and dreary landscape, the imposing architecture, the restraint of the characters, the palpable fear of the townspeople, the repressed grief of the protagonist… all of the elements of Victorian Gothic are here. The film version is also very well done, managing to avoid the gore that so many horror films are dependent upon now.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes: I’m not usually one for reading crime stories, but this is the story of a time-travelling serial killer and the one woman who survived him. It’s an absolutely cracking read, and I must say that during the climactic scene in the novel the sense of dread was so visceral that at many points I wanted to put the book down because I wasn’t sure I could face what was coming. Despite my desire to escape the inevitable horror, I was compelled to continue reading and couldn’t make myself look away. So, even though this isn’t a horror novel, per se, I found it absolutely horrifying (in a good way).

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: This was a single-sitting read for me. It’s got that “unity of effect” that Poe (old E.A., not the musician mentioned above) wrote about, and it’s got that Lovecraftian sense of cosmic dread. A team from the Southern Reach organization embarks on an expedition into the mysterious Area X. The story is intense and uncanny, and will leave you breathless in anticipation of the second book, Authority, which will in turn leave you breathless for the third book, Acceptance. Strap in and enjoy the ride.

I also have a pile of books I intend to read over the dark winter months here in the frozen north, many of which have the potential to be terrifying. And who knows? They may make next year’s list:

The Winter People by Jennifer Mahon

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

The House on Haunted Hill by Shirley Jackson (don’t ask me why it’s taken so long to get around to this one)

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

Helen

Just over a week to go until All Hallow’s Read. If you are not familiar with this new bookish Halloween tradition, watch Neil Gaiman explain it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1tYtLeWN5NQ

As a huge fan of spooky stories, I would like to make a few recommendations for young readers and not-so-young readers. I’ll start with my list of books for children and young adults. I’ve always preferred psychological horror to gore, and my selections should reflect that. Here are my top spooky reads for kids (and you should still have plenty of time to go buy one of these at your local indie bookshop):

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman: Gaiman is a master storyteller. I read this book as an adult, and it still spooked me. It also made my best of the year list. It has everything a scary story lover could want: murderers, ghosts, graveyards…

The Seer of Shadows – Avi: Again, a title I read as an adult while working in a public library. The story is fascinating, with a marvellously rendered historical setting and the added element of wonder in the subject of early photography (specifically “spirit photography”). The writing is top-notch and the ghost story is terrifying. Two thumbs up!

Wait Till Helen Comes – Mary Downing Hahn: I read this book when I was 11 and it scared the bejeesus out of me. Seriously. I’ve had it on my shelf since then, and every once in a while I think, “I should read that again.” Then I remember how terrified I was (in a good way), and I chicken out. Maybe it’s time. Apparently, there is a movie coming out: http://variety.com/2014/film/news/maria-bello-nelisse-sisters-starring-in-wait-till-helen-comes-1201304228/

Julie – Cora Taylor: Another classic from my Scholastic book order days, this is a story about a girl with the second sight, and while it isn’t a ghost story, I remember being incredibly tense because it was so thrilling and dealt with the unknown/paranormal. I loved this one so much as a kid, that I faked the author’s autograph (which turned out to be rather embarrassing when she actually signed the book 25 years later, and actually saw my grade four attempt at forgery).

And no list of recommendations for kids who dig scary stories would be complete without recommending…

Scary Stories to Read in the Dark – Alvin Schwartz: I remember reading these stories to my brother and uncle on long road trips while we sat in the back of the Suburban. The stories are classics drawn from folklore and urban legend, but it was really the illustrations that were the most terrifying. I still have a box set of these on my shelves.

So, there you have it. Five suggestions for books to track down before October 31st, so that you can give the spooky little ones in your life their first All Hallow’s Read!

Heap House is Edward Carey’s first foray into young adult fiction. The author of two of the most original adult novels in recent years—Observatory Mansions and Alva and Irva—Carey brings his quirky and emotionally resonant style to Book One in the Iremonger trilogy (available from Harper Collins Canada).

For generations, the Iremonger family has been responsible for “the Heaps,” a tremendous sea of trash outside an alternate-universe London with Dickensian echoes. The story has an Upstairs/Downstairs structure that is masterfully managed by Carey’s use of two protagonists: Clod Iremonger, gifted outcast of the Upstairs Iremongers, and Lucy Pennant, feisty orphan of the Downstairs Iremongers. The chapters alternate between protagonists, and the stories slowly intertwine as Clod and Lucy begin to uncover the dark secrets of the Iremonger family.

Each of the protagonists faces significant challenges. Clod has the unusual ability to hear the voices of birth objects (objects assigned to each Iremonger at birth), and each object calls out a different name. This skill leaves him shunned by many family members. Clod is bullied by his wretched cousin Moorcus and has to face a dreaded coming of age ceremony involving an arranged marriage to an unpleasant cousin, Pinnalippy. Lucy is oppressed by the rules imposed on the servants downstairs and struggles to hang on to her identity and her memories in a house where she is stripped of everything but the name “Iremonger”. Accompanying these challenges faced by the two protagonists is the larger problem of the Heaps themselves (which certainly make the reader consider the environmental consequences of our culture of the disposable, as well as the way we accumulate unnecessary stuff in our consumer culture). The Heaps surround the house and provide a menacing backdrop for some intense scenes, while the objects inside the house begin to become threatening in their own, very unexpected, way.

The chapters are accompanied by evocative and gloomy portraits of the occupants of Heap House with their birth objects. The illustrations create the effect for the reader of walking through the grand hall in a Victorian manor house lined with family portraits. As with his adult fiction, Carey creates a marvelous architectural space for this story. The house is a patchwork conglomeration of other buildings or bits of buildings, creating a fantastic, precarious, and near surreal setting for the story.

This is a family saga of such originality that readers will be swept away wondering where the tale will take them, and the story ends on a cliffhanger certain to leave readers anxious for the next installment. This is my number one recommendation for Young Adult reads this Christmas. The second book in the series, Foulsham, is already available in the UK from Hot Key Books. Here in Canada, we have to wait a little longer, but Heap House is available in hardcover now.