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Small Toronto publisher offers four deliciously satisfying novellas


By Vanessa Smith

Quattro Books, 125 pages, $16.95

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Shrinking Violets

By Heidi Greco

Quattro Books, 120 pages, $16.95

Break Me

By Tom Reynolds

Quattro Books, 83 pages, $16.95

The Panic Button

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By Koom Kankesan

Quattro Books, 115 pages, $16.95

Europeans love little books of all kinds, but in the English-language world, novellas are considered a hard sell because their sales price won't cover printing costs. However, the novella's time may have come on our side of the ocean. At a recent publishing panel, a Toronto marketing executive praised novellas as a potential moneymaker since they can be sold for 99 cents as e-books, an attractive consumer price, she explained, that could mean a high volume of sales.

Quattro Books has just published four spicy, provocative, well-written novellas, which demonstrate the strength of the genre. The definition of a novella is a prose narrative somewhere between 90 and 100 pages, and the novellas here are all slightly more than 100 pages, or slightly less. Coincidentally, three of them deal with predatory males and the harm they can inflict, real or imagined. But each of the three stories is original, urgent and unpredictable, proving that novellas can provide an exhilarating free-form reading experience compared to the comfort food of much of North American literature, in which accessible style has been influenced by sales and marketing departments eager to reach as many readers as possible.

Let's talk about these novellas one by one. Grace, by Vanessa Smith, describes an affair between an older man and a young West Coast woman adrift in the postgraduation miasma of what do next. Smith's descriptions of sex and the inarticulate restlessness of youth are deft. So is the way she handles the appeal of the older man, who's as irresistible as George Clooney, while conveying a sense of danger. The pitfalls of his charm prove to be real, although the danger isn't what the young dreamer expects.

Shrinking Violets, by Heidi Greco, is another electrifying plunge into human experience. This is how it feels for many women, even the wives of serial killers, I thought as I read Greco's story: the good-natured acceptance of men and their interests without the filter of being self-protective or discerning. Greco's novella is about a young single mother who lets her supermarket co-worker into her life far too quickly, only to discover that he's more interested in her son.

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Once again, Greco's earthy descriptions felt true to life. She has interwoven her account of this woman's discovery of creepy family secrets with descriptions of prophetic dreams. My sole complaint is that Greco could have given us fewer dreams, which would have left more room for the touching portrayal of her main character.

Break Me, by Tom Reynolds, put me inside the mind of a man who may be a child molester, even a killer. Sometimes slow-moving, it depends on a sophisticated understanding of human consciousness and how it works by association to tell its story. At 83 pages, this is the shortest novella in the group and the most daring in its approach to narrative. At times, I wanted to put the book away and not look at it. But I couldn't help picking it up again to try and puzzle out the mystery of this odd character, who is endearing and menacing by turns.

The fourth novel, The Panic Button, by Koom Kankesan, describes the struggle of a young Tamil immigrant in Scarborough, Ont., to avoid an arranged marriage. Instead of doing what his parents expect, he has a lusty, secret affair with a white co-worker. Kankesan's prose is occasionally overwrought, but it is also witty, with lots of verve and frank descriptions of contemporary life: the marketing scams, office sex and genuine post-adolescent confusion.

As with the other novellas, I had no idea where or how his story would end, which is part of the novella's thrill. If, broadly speaking, a novel is like a marriage partnership with the reader and the short story is comparable to a wonderful affair, the novella, with its unexpected twists and turns, represents the wilder freedom of an unconventional relationship.

Is it their brevity that makes these stories so terrific? Or is it because I dropped the usual expectations I bring to a novel? After all, there's no time for their authors to get trapped inside the often-boring slog of a novel's middle section. Still, it strikes me that the form itself has brought out imaginative daring in these authors, leaving me deliciously satisfied as a reader.

One caveat: The design of these books seems to have no connection to the excellent stories within. Perhaps Quattro could try harder with its covers and give us more little books to love.

Susan Swan's next novel, The Western Light , is a prequel to The Wives of Bath . She hasn't written a novella - yet.

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