Arts & Culture

Pass the test? Ottawa author’s new books aim to engage in first 20 pages

Looking to get your book published? Well, you’ve got 20 pages to impress a potential publisher. Anecdotally, most readers I talk to are prepared to give a book a bit more of a chance. I for one have usually given it up by about page 70 if I’m neither curious, nor gripped. There are just too many good books out there to bother with the ones that feel like homework, rather than the ones that gallop along, dragging you with them.

How did these Ottawa authors fare?

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A Plea for Constant Motion, by Paul Carlucci (House of Anansi Press)

Ottawa resident Paul Carlucci, describes himself as a recovering transient after many years of roaming the world. He’s clearly sat still long enough to pen a riveting collection of loosely-linked stories that are gripping from the first page. By the end of the first one (page 27), I was keen for more.

Carlucci’s target in his work is the throbbing, emotional violence that is so obvious to us all, but so often ignored. He gives words to awkward, painful situations and nails them consistently so that as a reader, you really feel you’re right there. This excerpt from the story, Even Still, is about two couples united in grief for their dead children, killed in a botched kidnapping:

“Angry black grill marks are slashed across the blood seeping meat. Two shrivelled lengths of asparagus occupy the corners of their plates like driftwood flung ashore from some cancerous lake of violence and gore. The Maceys take their seats at either end of the table, and between them is the thick and ugly energy of a couple that’s just been fighting.”

A Plea for Constant Motion is a powerful collection of stories that draw you into their reality, even if that reality isn’t a particularly pleasant or happy one.

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Shattered Illusions: KGB Cold War Espionage in Canadaby Donald G. Mahar (Rowman and Littlefield)

From Ottawa resident, former RCMP Security Service, CSIS and CSEC officer Donald Mahar, comes a real life spy story, stretching from 1951 to 2011. Set throughout Canada, but with its nexus in Ottawa, Shattered Illusions is the real deal: confusing code names, even more confusing Russian spy agency acronyms, a cast of many shady characters.

Shattered Illusions didn’t pass the 20-page test. However, by page 50 I was much more engaged. If your brain works like an intelligence officer’s and you enjoy the minutiae of details that make for a convincing cover, then this book is definitely for you.

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Vital Signs, by John Metcalf (Biblioasis)

It becomes clear within a couple of pages of Vital Signs, John Metcalf’s collection of five novellas, that you’re in the hands of a professional. The first story in the collection, Private Parts, is one that is at turns funny, wry, shockingly honest and graphic. It is, after all, about a teenage boy getting to grips with his sexuality. If the subject matter isn’t to your taste, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’ll make you smile and grimace in turns, and keep you turning pages if only to enjoy his use of language and metaphor.

The second in the collection, The Lady Who Sold Furniture, fairly romps along. It’s at once an intriguing and tender story, rich with descriptive passages that paint pictures as clear as mountain streams.

Metcalf is an Ottawa resident, the fiction editor of publisher Biblioasis and the author of more than a dozen works of fiction and non-fiction. Vital Signs, is the first time that these five novellas have been published together, although each has been published previously. The book is one of several by Metcalf to be published in late 2016 and early 2017, in celebration of his writing. A new work, The Canadian Short Story, a collection of essays on the subject, will be published in March.