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The Big Swim by Carrie Saxifrage

One Night in Mississippi

By Craig Shreve, TAP, 160 pages, $21.99

Craig Shreve's short, brooding novel opens in mid-sixties rural Mississippi with a lynching. Graden Williams, a black civil-rights activist, is found dead in a swamp, his body brutally mutilated. The perpetrators are charged, but soon released. What follows is the story of Warren, Graden's brother, as he slowly brings Graden's murderers to justice, and Earl, the sole free man who witnessed Graden's torture. Telling part of the story through a member of a lynch mob? It's a gamble, certainly, though less of one considering Earl gets half the pages Warren does. Neither man comes off as particularly sympathetic in the end. Rather than play sympathies off one another or "humanize" one who has performed monstrous acts, Shreve seems to aim for different targets. Warren and Earl show "history" to be very much alive in the present, and with that history they bring a complex portrait of guilt.

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The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir

Edited by Claude Lalumière and David Nickle, Exile, 304 pages, $19.95

Everything is in the title. These are all new stories – no novel extracts – selected by Claude Lalumière and David Nickle from an open call. They're Canadian-authored, but this is not an invitation for national introspection. Some Canadian locales get the noir treatment, which is fun, since, as Nickle notes in his afterword, noir, with its regard for the underbelly, seems like an un-Canadian thing to write. But the main question New Canadian Noir asks isn't "Where is here?" It's "What can noir be?" These stories push past the formulaic to explore noir's far reaches as a mood and aesthetic. In Nickle's words, "Noir is a state of mind – an exploration of corruptibility, ultimately an expression of humanity in all its terrible frailty." The resulting literary alchemy – from horror to fantasy, science fiction to literary realism, romance to, yes, crime – spanning the darkly funny to the stomach-queasy horrific, provides consistently entertaining rewards.

The Big Swim

By Carrie Saxifrage, New Society, 192 pages, $16.95

While on "the Big Swim," an eight-kilometre journey from Cortes to Quadra islands off mainland B.C., Carrie Saxifrage rotates through three sensations that in turn inform this book. First, the water feel: that communion with the surrounding environment. Then, the state of grace known as embodiment: the pleasure of the body when it is happily moving as it was intended. Then the grace fades, and the fatigue and questioning, familiar to endurance athletes, begins: "Why do I do this?" This last sensation is what sets Saxifrage's essays apart from most environmental writing. Yes, she has her states of grace and communion with nature, but also her anxieties and moments of questioning, too. Saxifrage, a former sustainability reporter at the Vancouver Observer, gets personal in these essays – what one early reviewer dubbed a "climate-change memoir" – as she attempts a sustainable but modern life. A fine balance between the ecstatic and the level-headed.

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