Just as the jury enjoyed reading the stories submitted for tthe 2014 Journey Prize, other readers can also value the “exposure to a new generation of writers who are extending the tradition of Canadian short fiction well into the twenty-first century”.

Journey Prize 26

McClelland & Stewart, 2014.

Edited by Steven W. Beattie, Craig Davidson and Saleema Nawaz, The Journey Prize Stories 26 presents tremendous variety in these emerging storytellers’ styles and themes, but the stories are consistently well-crafted and solidly constructed.

(Those who follow the prize collections annually may find less of a focus on imagistic writing and fewer experimental stories than were included in last year’s collection, #25, which was edited by Miranda Hill, Mark Medley and Russell Wangersky.)

Geographically, settings in this year’s collection include Thailand, Jerusalem, Burrard Inlet, Montreal, North Vancouver, St. John’s, Toronto (from the intersection of Queen and Bathurst to the restaurant Grapefruit Moon), and the Internet.

The narrative voices cover the gamut, from first-person to third-person omnisicent, through rotating POVs and even an excerpt from an instruction manual (which the jurors describe as “[p]lotless and characterless…[requiring] readers to radically reconsider their concept of what qualifies as a fully formed story”, also calling Julie Roorda’s story “tightly calibrated” and “gut-bustingly funny”).

Conflicts abound, between union and scab workers (“Sealskin”), partners in relationships (“Juvenile”, “High Beams” and “Remainders”), teacher and pupil (“Piano Boy”), pet and caretaker (“Frog”), shooter and shootee (“Old Man Marchuk”) siblings (“Four Mintues” and “Probabilities”), daughters (“Wolves, Cigarettes and Gum” and “#MaggieVandermeer”) or sons (“Monsoon Season”) and mothers, and old cough friends (“Downturn”).

Memorable Quotes:

“He turned off his car but did not get out and instead sat listening to the engine, which tinked intermittently like slow-cracking glass.” (Tyler Keevil’s “Sealskin”)

“Pearl turns herself into a human shield, using the hem of her untucked blouse as a cork to stop the blood coming out of Marxy’s nose. Marxy whimpers, curling into a nautilus shell.” (Andrew MacDonald’s “Four Minutes”)

“Chinook wind blew warm across the prairie, slowly spun a crooked weathervane that had been long ago fixed atop the high front gable of the house.” (Kevin Hardcastle’s “Old Man Marchuk”)

“I watch the waves hitting the shore below the cliffs, let the wind wash away the noise of downtown St. John’s and the strain of the last few weeks. I lose myself in the pattern of large and small waves, thinking about Eddy and Wayne, about Jeff twenty years ago, and then I hear him speak for the first time since we parked the car.” (Rosaria Campbell’s “Probabilities”)

“Two nights before the date printed in silver italic on her wedding invitations, Sylvie’s old friend Erik from high school called, the guy she’d ridden with through all those dust-hung after-darks on country gravel grids in his mom’s long Meteor, boarlike in the night.” (Leona Theis’ “High Beams”)

“Her mother picks through the fries like she’s trying to find a four-leaf clover in a field of corn. She finally decides on one and bites down delicately on one end.” (Amy Jones’ “Wolves, Cigarettes, Gum”)

In the final story, Annalise sticks her earbuds back in her ears: “That’s stupid,’ she says, eyes down even as the cop cars race through the intersection in front of us, cherries flashing. ‘Everyone has a hole in them.’”

That may be true, but there is no hole in this year’s Journey Prize collection: short stories laudable and enjoyable throughout.

Contents: Lori McNulty “Monsoon Season”, Shana Myara “Remainders”, Nancy Jo Cullen “Hashtag Maggie Vandermeer”, M.A. Fox “Piano Boy”, Jeremy Lanaway “Downturn”, Julie Roorda “How to Tell if Your Frog is Dead”, Tyler Keevil “Sealskin”, Andrew MacDonald “Four Minutes”, Kevin Hardcastle “Old Man Marchuk”, Clea Young “Juvenile”, Rosaria Campbell “Probabilities”, Leona Theis “High Beams”, Amy Jones “Wolves, Cigarettes, Gum”

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress (2014) has received a lot of attention for its title story, conceived of while she was travelling on a cruise ship, which is as useful as Julie Roorda’s treatise on an African clawed frog, but not targeting frog owners, rather those seeking to execute the perfect murder while at sea.

With so many collections to her credit (seven others, beginning with 1977’s Dancing Girls, through 2006’s Moral Disorder), readers will expect top-notch work and Stone Mattress delivers. (I have six pages of notes from a single reading of this collection in December, a busy time of year which one might suggest wasn’t the best time to maximize note-taking.)

One element of this collection which is particularly remarkable is the delicate pleating of theme and interconnected stories and characters.

“Things have a way of coming full circle: a bad habit, to his mind.” (“Revenant”)

As with Rosemary Nixon’s Are You Ready To Be Lucky? and the trio of tales in Alice Munro’s Runaway, there are ties between tales in Stone Mattress. (This always appeals to me but, in this case, because my favourite story is amongst the cycle of related tales, “Alphinland”, I was particularly pleased.)

“There isn’t any past in Alphinland. There isn’t any time.”

Though drawn from “Dark Lady”, the idea of playing with time plays a role in more than one story as well, which adds to the sense of a tightly curated collection. Consider in “Lusus Naturae”, “no future…only a present” which changed with the moon. Or, in “Stone Mattress”, there is “…an anger already fading into the distance of used-up time”.

In many stories there is, as described in one tale, an atmosphere of “longing, wistfuness, and muted regret”.  But this is presented in a variety of guises. Perhaps “a burp from the past” . And one might want to keep in mind that “discarded wives stick like burrs”.

There is often, too, a sense of disorientation, of viewing the everyday through a skewed lens. As with “an upside-down saint” or “the would-have-been wife”. Things are out-of-joint, and even a simple statement can have a double meaning which conjures up a contradictory emotion in readers.

“She smiles again and puts her hand on top of his; he can feel the bones inside her fingers.” (“The Dead Hand Loves You”)

Settings vary, from public to private. The cast might be a solitary figure or an ensemble. Geographically, a scene might be as specific as the Queen Mum cafe on Queen Street West in Toronto or as general (and immediately conjured, in memory) as a noodle-and-tuna-scented kitchen.

But what is predictable in a Margaret Atwood collection is sophisticated crafting and a smattering of sass: Stone Mattress is my favourite of her collections (but it’s true that I say that upon finishing any given one of them).

Favourite Quotes:

“…that turgid puddle of frog spawn…” [of writing which does not appeal to the speaker]

‘…vocation guaranteed to take the bloom off ornamental adjectives…” [of advertising]

“Who knows? Out of desperation’ Out from under the bed. Out of his childhood nightmares.” [of the idea for a novel]

“When it came to love, wasn’t believing the same as the real thing?” (“Stone Mattress”)

“On a cruise, word of mouth spreads like the flu.” (“Stone Mattress”)

Contents: Alphinland, Revenant, Dark Lady, Lusus Naturae, The Freeze-Dried Groom, I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth, The Dead Hand Loves You, Stone Mattress, Torching the Dusties