The best contemporary North American short story collections that find the beauty in hard-ass, hard-luck cases

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a short story reader, reviewer, and writer. Short stories are a powerful form, combining the distilled intensity of poetry with the depth of character development. They allow enough space to get to know a character, feel the pain of their disappointments, to root for their ultimate success. Such moments reflect broader realities of a culture, a society, a people. A single-author collection gives great insight into a writer’s abilities and style. My own debut collection was a finalist for the Alistair MacLeod short fiction prize and is critically acclaimed, so hopefully, that means my careful reading of these collections has taught me a thing or two

I wrote...

Boy with a Problem

By Chris Benjamin,

Book cover of Boy with a Problem

What is my book about?

Shortlisted for the prestigious Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction, the jury had this to say: "In Boy with a Problem, Chris Benjamin parses some of the major political issues of our times through the flawed, driven, often lonely characters he inhabits. They discover that nothing is ever as ethically easy as it appears. In many of these dozen stories of messy morality and questionable action, characters unravel their own motivations, learn the impossibility of escaping the past and face the very human costs of justice. They become intimate with the light that death sheds on life in their efforts to live it at all, if not well." 

These 13 short stories by award-winning author Chris Benjamin are about love, loss, failure, and acceptance.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Friday Black

Chris Benjamin Why did I love this book?

The scenarios in Friday Black, at first, felt unbelievable, even though they were an amplification of rampant capitalism and racism that are already very real. I didn't want them to be real. Adjei-Brenyah rendered them so perfectly and developed his narrators' psychology so effectively (especially his retail workers, so reminiscent of a commercial world I used to inhabit) that I became immersed in these new realities. 

The characters are underdogs by virtue of simply being Black people in America. But they are resilient and complex, finding unique ways to resist. 

The writing is beautiful, with tightly turned phrases aptly describing the time and place.

By Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Friday Black as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The instant New York Times bestseller
'An unbelievable debut' New York Times

Racism, but "managed" through virtual reality

Black Friday, except you die in a bargain-crazed throng

Happiness, but pharmacological

Love, despite everything

A Publisher's Weekly Most Anticipated Book for Fall 2018

Friday Black tackles urgent instances of racism and cultural unrest, and explores the many ways we fight for humanity in an unforgiving world. In the first, unforgettable story of this collection, The Finkelstein Five, Adjei-Brenyah gives us an unstinting reckoning of the brutal prejudice of the US justice system. In Zimmer Land we see a far-too-easy-to-believe imagining of…

Book cover of The Beggar's Garden: Stories, The

Chris Benjamin Why did I love this book?

Christie’s stories are set in downtown eastside Vancouver, a neighbourhood notorious for junkies and homelessness. Of course, the realities are much more diverse. 

These stories focus not only on the down-and-out but also on shop owners and others trying to make a go there, the traumatic things they witness and experience, and the guilt of surviving there. In prose that is sharp and witty, yet evocative and illuminating, he shows every character to be struggling, regardless of their situation. 

It is a very real look at completely believable characters. And he sees them very clearly, shows their humanity, and finds compassion for all of them.

By Michael Christie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Beggar's Garden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Longlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Critically lauded, The Beggar’s Garden is a brilliantly surefooted, strikingly original collection of nine linked short stories that will delight as well as disturb. The stories follow a diverse group of curiously interrelated characters, from bank manager to crackhead to retired Samaritan to web designer to car thief, as they drift through each other’s lives in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. These engrossing stories, free of moral judgment, are about people who are searching in the jagged margins of life―for homes, drugs, love, forgiveness―and collectively they offer a generous and vivid portrait of humanity, not…

Book cover of Willem De Kooning's Paintbrush

Chris Benjamin Why did I love this book?

Kerry Lee Powell writes some of the best sentences I’ve ever read. A lot of her opening lines (“Today's the day Mitchell Burnhope gets the royal shit kicked out of him” ... “I took my kung fu instructor off speed-dial today” ... “A dozen of us were dressed up as low-budget ghosts outside Earl’s Court tube station”) are arresting, instantly grabbing my attention, while hinting at something more, posing a question and inviting me to read on. 

What was happening was usually much deeper than first expected. She's economic with her words, but in a few pages I came to care about the characters and I miss them now, feel like they're still out there somewhere wheeling and dealing to keep their head above water.

By Kerry Lee Powell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Willem De Kooning's Paintbrush as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ranging from an island holiday gone wrong to a dive bar on the upswing to a yuppie mother in a pricey subdivision seeing her worst fears come true, these acclaimed, deftly written stories are populated by barkeeps, good men down on their luck, rebellious teens, lonely immigrants, dreamers and realists, fools and quiet heroes. In Kerry Lee Powell’s skillful hands, each character, no matter what his or her choices, is deeply human in their search for connection. Powell holds us in her grasp, exploring with a black humour themes of belonging, the simmering potential for violence, and the meaning of…

Book cover of Peninsula Sinking

Chris Benjamin Why did I love this book?

The long titular story from Peninsula Sinking is about three phases in a young man’s life, and his maturation from a guy who does crazy stunts to get attention from the cool kids to someone who, full of regrets and hopes, grapples with highly evolved intellectual and ethical conundrums and finds safety only in love. Its final third opens with this enticement: “Imagine it’s you facing the loss of the still-ripening cherries between your legs.” Throughout the book, Huebert proves himself a wizard with figurative, sensual writing, layering bizarre images with tricky turns of phrase. We are reminded that “there were palm trees on Antarctica once.” Anything can happen.

This collection is filled with great energy, stunning images, and overall great stories—all of them prominently featuring non-human animals, and their interactions with humans, in some cases tackling complex ethical dilemmas with considerable insight.

By David Huebert,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Peninsula Sinking as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In his debut collection of short stories, David Huebert brings us an assortment of wounded wanderers who remind us that we are all marooned on the shores of being, watching oceans rise. Veterinarians, prison guards, and prosthetic phallus designers develop various schemes to navigate the ruins of their capsizing lives and to confront the beauty of their bruised worlds.

Book cover of A Visit from the Goon Squad

Chris Benjamin Why did I love this book?

Egan's point-of-view and temporal experiments worked very well. Even the Powerpoint presentation-as-story/chapter. I loved getting different perspectives on the same characters at various times in their lives, and thus became emotionally attached and curious about what happened to them. 

Some consider this a novel, but I enjoyed each “chapter” as a self-contained short story. Several pieces focused on aging punker Bennie Salazar and/or his employee, Sasha. In the non-Bennie chapters I wondered about Bennie, and Sasha. Despite the time leaping, the plot had a nice circular arc in the end that was quite satisfying, tying the whole thing together.

The reason this work ultimately resonates with me is that these stories offer profound insights about modern humans: the universal power of our music, the influence of hype and technology, the nature of time, frailty and desire, pollution and energy, aging, and the long-term consequences of our choices.

By Jennifer Egan,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked A Visit from the Goon Squad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Jennifer Egan's spellbinding novel circles the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other's pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.

We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist's couch in…

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Split Decision

By David Perlmutter,

Book cover of Split Decision

David Perlmutter Author Of The Encyclopedia of American Animated Television Shows

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a freelance writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, specializing in media history and speculative fiction. I have been enchanted by animation since childhood and followed many series avidly through adulthood. My viewing inspired my MA thesis on the history of animation, out of which grew two books on the history and theory of animation on television, America 'Toons In: A History of Television Animation (available from McFarland and Co.) and The Encyclopedia of American Animated Television Shows (available from Rowman and Littlefield). Hopefully, others will follow.

David's book list on understanding the history of animation

What is my book about?

Jefferson Ball, the mightiest female dog in a universe of the same, is, despite her anti-heroic behavior, intent on keeping her legacy as an athlete and adventurer intact. So, when female teenage robot Jody Ryder inadvertently angers her by smashing her high school records, Jefferson is intent on proving her superiority by outmuscling the robot in a not-so-fair fight. Not wanting to seem like a coward, and eager to end her enemy's trash talking, Jody agrees.

However, they have been lured to fight each other by circumstances beyond their control. Which are intent on destroying them if they don't destroy each other in combat first...

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