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Review: New and notable work from Charles Demers, Teri Vlassopoulos and Carole Giangrande

The Horrors: An A to Z of Funny Thoughts on Awful Things

By Charles Demers, Douglas & McIntyre, 218 pages, $24.95

This is one of those books that's frustrating to review because the more I try to describe it, the more fun I'll likely take out of it, therefore not describing it accurately at all. You're just going to have to take my word that it's funny and not always as dark as the title suggests, though the introduction outlines a series of deaths in the author's family and the gallows humour continues from there. Why would you want to read this abecedary of essays on horrible things, often veering into the personal, by a self-described fat, anxiety-ridden socialist who is also a stand-up comic? Demers acknowledges that the funny can both console and anesthetize us against injustice, but life is tragicomic – it's terrible and hilarious, often at once – arising from the fact we are human. In that light, Demers's large-hearted perspective is just being honest, and that honesty is appreciated.

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Escape Plans

By Teri Vlassopoulos, Invisible, 247 pages, $19.95

"You can escape once. But if you try again, you end up where you began." In Teri Vlassopoulos's first novel, these lines could be read on the one hand as a warning, on the other, as a helpful homing device. The quote is from a book within the book, a collection of poetry called The Solitary Woman, and that title gives you some sense of the themes running through the novel, which alternates between the members of a three-person family. There's Niko, who flees his family in Toronto for his native Greece; then Niko's wife, Anna, and their daughter, Zoe, a student in Montreal, both of whom face questions of commitment. Each becomes adrift after making an escape of some sort; each misses the tug of an anchor after becoming unmoored. Ultimately this book asks, if you escape back to where you started, are you exactly where you began?

Here Comes the Dreamer

By Carole Giangrande, Inanna, 127 pages, $22.95

What's most compelling about this novella is how it perfectly captures that heady brew of disquiet desolation and unspent passion that makes up 1950s suburban malaise. Set in the New York suburb of Linden, N.J., (and later, contemporary Toronto), at its heart is Al Luce, the dreamer in the title. Really he's just an artist, but as a (Canadian) foreigner cold to American patriotism, within McCarthyism's quiet frenzy Al's considered a threat. He's also tragically in love with a wife who could not be more unlike him; the story gets going when their domestic issues boil over into a terrible accident. Of the three focal characters – Al, his daughter, Grace, and Grace's slightly older somewhat-friend, Claire – Claire's perspective is the most fascinating. She's perceptive beyond her years, but like a lot of teenagers both naive and self-involved about her role in the drama. A book that feels much fuller than its page count.

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