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book review

Dance Moves of the Near Future
By Tim Conley, New Star, 160 pages, $18

Tim Conley's latest collection of short stories, like his previous ones, is a wild ride through the absurd, the surreal and the speculative. Readers will recognize this style – "Kafkaesque" gets thrown around a lot. So what is Conley doing that's so effective? It's part storytelling prowess, part hitting the sweet spot between realism and the weird (and the weird is almost always played straight), part dedication to the aesthetic as overriding function. Despite the title, named after the final story, the collection doesn't have a shared sense of time or place. Instead, Dance Moves of the Near Future presents ways of being in alternative worlds, some of which hew closer to our own than others. You could get into what any individual story means – and sometimes the meaning is an existential joke – but the overall effect of these 24 experiments isn't an idea but a feeling: an unsettling, a strangely pleasant unease.

Backspring
By Judith McCormack, Biblioasis, 264 pages, $19.95

Judith McCormack's first novel – her latest following 2003's much-lauded short story collection The Rule of Last Clear Chance – begins with a bang. Eduardo, a skilled, if financially vulnerable, architect, is taking notes at a Montreal market when the building is rocked by an explosion. Eduardo survives, but he's physically and professionally burned. Soon the police are treating the explosion as arson and rumour has it Eduardo was involved. As Eduardo emotionally withdraws, the perspective shifts to his wife, Geneviève, and his friend Patrick as they find themselves drawn to one another. Though it starts with a fire, the appeal of this book is its style of depicting aftermath, which is understated despite high emotional tension. It's akin to the scent of smoke that bothers Eduardo during anxious moments in the months following the blast. A novel of precariousness – in love and life – set in a Montreal mosaic of French, English and les autres.

River Music
By Mary Soderstrom, Cormorant, 200 pages, $24

Talent and hard work are not enough: What we often look for in a creative person's biography are the Herod Clauses thrown in the artist's way. As readers, we'd like some exchange with the Devil, because it's comforting to think it's moral rectitude holding the rest of us back. The pianist in Mary Soderstrom's latest novel doesn't make a demonic pact – Gloria Murray's transactions are earthly and realistic to her time, but the cost is still high. Raised by a single mother in Depression- and Second World War-era Montreal, Gloria must rise above her background to achieve her dream of becoming a concert pianist. The choices she makes to get there earn her a resentful label from her daughter: selfish. The book is front-heavy and marred by some typos. It overcomes these drawbacks, however, as a portrait of female artistic ambition in the midst of Canada's own cultural awakening.