canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Last Chance to Renew
by Scott Randall
Signature Editions, 2006

A Minor Planet for You and Other Stories
by Leslie Greentree
The University of Alberta Press, 2006

Reviewed by Ted Harms

There’s not much fear of cultural appropriation here – Randall Scott’s first collection of short stories (we do mean short - most don’t get far past ten pages) are nearly all concerned with males, with most seeming to be coming up to, in the midst, or just coming out some sort of crisis. Leslie Greentree’s first collection of short stories (not as short as Randall’s; she seems to be more comfortable in the 15-20 pages range) nearly all deal with women, not all in as precarious position as Randall’s creations but there’s still a sense of gravitas with her characters and situations.

Randall's "The Accident on Strathearn" is a story of an accident told from the viewpoints of those involved – a van-driving student starting university and the car-driving recently married husband with his son from his previous marriage and his new wife. Randall gives us short descriptions in alternating sections of the drivers - how they got there, what happened before, and what happened after. "Back Before, When My Brother Had Two Kidneys" gives us brief snippets of the lives of two brothers.

The highpoint of the collection is "Kincardine Breakwater" – the story of a marriage, its end, and the husband going back to a memorable location from his marriage. Randall does a great job of being evocative but not overloading the story. While not eschewing adjectives, he paints a good picture. Describing the couples rented cabin:

With its lacquered logs and crossed corners, the exterior of cabin three was promising, but once inside, the couple was somewhat disappointed. The drywall on all four sides of the room had been covered in a dining room wallpaper, a pastel blue print of patterned crests and leaves that had faded. The only heating available in the cabin on a cool night would have to come from the aged space heater that sat unplugged by the bed. Neither Stanton nor Zoe wished to express their disappointment, so they ignored the uneven boards on the floor and the dim light that came through the one side window. He managed to say it was cozy, and she said they’d probably be spending most of their time out of doors. And with that, they decided on their first walk along the waterfront.

Randall’s stories are all relatively neat and tidy episodes; good and solid but not all terribly memorable, which I blame on the homogeneity of the main characters. Most of his characters seem to be coming from the more-or-less the same die - late twenties/early thirties, just out of or just heading into university, newly married, maybe some young children, and some sort of crisis is looming or just happened. That Randall is a recently hired professor, you get a sense that he’s drawing on or extracting from personal experience. He does a good job of the stories, but more variety in characters or giving his characters more than a dozen pages to do their thing might have helped mix things up.

Greentree’s collection is very strong, though her favouring of female protagonists is just as noticeable as Randall’s favouring of males. But, in contrast to Randall, Greentree’s characters are varied enough for the reader to believe that though she may be drawing on nuggets of personal experience, that there are healthy doses of fiction added to the mix.

The story that gives its title to the collection is about a frustrated woman, whose husband is spending more time doing things that he hopes impresses his wife than spending time with her – the icing on the cake is his attempt to scour the heavens, trying to find an unnamed heavenly body for her. In "Hot Chocolate with Guy Lafleur," a woman's childhood memories (good and bad) are relived while she watches the outdoor NHL games that was held in Edmonton some years back. "How You Know" describes how a woman responds to a stalker’s email – with a healthy mixture of fear, suspicion, and, eventually, defiance. "Ramona’s Escape" deals with a girl who’s dealing with her vaguely creepy mother and trying to avoid what may be an inevitable legacy.

My criticism of Randall’s cookie-cutter males is relatively minor given the strength of his writing. Greentree has two previous collections of poetry (one of which was short-listed for the ’04 Griffin Prize) and she consistently demonstrates a poet’s way with words in her stories. 

These are both good collections and both hopefully signs of good things to come from these writers.

Ted Harms lives in Kitchener.







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