Gift Guide Week: Jessica Westhead

Author of the recently published short story collection Avalanche Jessica Westhead kicks off our Gift Guide Week with five recommendations for all kinds of readers on your list. From a character-driven literary fantasy, to an immersive poetic experience, to essays for “a kinder, gentler, fairer, healthier, and more truly loving place,” these book picks are sure-fire storytelling delights for holiday giving.

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The Quiet Is Loud by Samantha Garner
(Invisible Publishing)

For your favourite co-worker who insists they love their job but everyone knows that’s a lie and they’re actually 100% miserable, so you nod supportively when they tell you in a trembling, shrieky voice, “No, I’m serious, things are honestly super good!” Then they make a poignant whistling noise through their nose, and you hand them a tissue even though they say they don’t need it:

The Quiet Is Loud is a character-driven fantasy novel about a world much like our own, but tilted slightly and populated with the “paradextrous” (“vekers” is the derogatory term): people born with special powers, who are feared and discriminated against by the rest of society. Interwoven with themes of Filipino-Canadian and mixed-race identity, fantastical elements from Norse and Filipino mythology, and tarot card symbolism, this spellbinding magical realist story has a giant heart, with author Samantha Garner giving the interactions between characters so much care and attention. Everything is conjured so beautifully—I was surrounded by the story and felt so connected to the characters. At this moment in time, when so many people are raising their voices and uniting against oppression in all of its forms, The Quiet Is Loud is an especially urgent and important read.

Find The Quiet is Loud here on All Lit Up or use our Shop Local feature to purchase from your local indie bookstore.

Kuessipan by Naomi Fontaine, translated by David Homel
(Arsenal Pulp Press)

For the stranger you haven’t met yet who once glimpsed their own name in their grade 2 math textbook, and from then on, they had the unshakeable sense they would one day play a pivotal role in making life better for someone else, even though they never encountered their name in such an official-seeming way again…but that small but steady wave of purpose has carried them along and always calms them in times of turmoil:

Kuessipan (“your turn” in the Innu language) by Naomi Fontaine (translated from French to English by David Homel) is a quietly powerful novel based on the author’s own experience as a young Innu woman from the community of Uashat, near Sept-Îles, Quebec. The story is told through a series of loosely connected vignettes and gorgeously rendered portrayals of people and place. These often stark and breathtaking snapshots pulled me in with just a few carefully chosen details, conjuring whole existences in fleeting glimpses. In reading this stunning book, I was reminded that my favourite writing never seeks to explain or excuse itself; it just is. And you marvel at the intricacy and immense truth of it, and afterwards you experience the world a little bit differently.

Find Kuessipan here on All Lit Up or use our Shop Local feature to purchase from your local indie bookstore.

Why I Was Late by Charlie Petch
(Brick Books)

For the racquet specialist in your life who always gets a kick out of saying to people who ask what they do for work, “Ask me what racket I’m in!” And then they’re too excited to wait for the question, so they answer it unprompted and they can’t stop laughing and then the other person also laughs uproariously at this joke that has arisen because hey, these two words sound alike but actually they mean different things! Then they hug and get coffee:

Why I Was Late is brilliant and amazing and delightful. Author Charlie Petch generously shares his wryly incisive insight as a transmasculine poet and performer, and his luminous, crackling stage presence imbues every page of this dazzling collection. The poems are hilarious and tender, heartbreaking and heart-repairing all at once. Petch is a consummate storyteller, creating a wholly immersive experience with work that unearths a thrilling range of emotion. There were moments when I laugh-snorted out loud, and other times when my breath caught in my throat. I read Why I Was Late in one sitting on a park bench last fall, and I have this lovely memory of being held within these pages as the world around me just dropped away.

Find Why I Was Here on All Lit Up or use our Shop Local feature to purchase from your local indie bookstore.

Shut Up You’re Pretty by Téa Mutonji
(Arsenal Pulp Press)

For your beloved second cousin who likes to be mysterious and they create their particular air of mystery by doing things that are deliberately misleading and/or out of character for them, making everyone in the family think they’re one way but no, actually they’re another…but wait, they’re ALL of those ways! And you have always wanted to be just like them:

Shut Up You’re Pretty is a collection of vividly and sharply observed linked short stories that follow the coming-of-age of Loli, a young Black woman growing up in the Galloway neighborhood of Scarborough. Author Téa Mutonji delivers striking insight about the intensity and complexity of childhood friendship, and the struggle to forge identity and find belonging. The images that these disquieting, compelling stories created in my head, and the characters and situations contained within them, were brightly and insistently alive. And the dialogue is razor-edged. Mutonji also has two new short stories included in the latest Journey Prize Stories anthology: The Best of Canada’s New Black Writers, edited by David Chariandy, Esi Edugyan, and Canisia Lubrin. “The Photographer’s Wife” and “Property of Neil” are both superbly funny and artfully piercing, expertly paced, and so much fun to read.

Find Shut Up You’re Pretty here on All Lit Up or use our Shop Local feature to purchase from your local indie bookstore.

I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World by Kai Cheng Thom
(Arsenal Pulp Press)

For everyone, everywhere, period:

“We must love ourselves. We must encourage love—love that is radical, love that digs deep. Love that asks the hard questions, that is ready to listen to whole story and keep loving anyway.” I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World by writer, performance artist, and community healer Kai Cheng Thom is powerful medicine to mend our broken times. This collection of thoughtful, impassioned, and inspiring personal essays and prose poems cracked my mind and heart wide open. In particular, the title essay “I Hope We Choose Love: Notes on the Application of Justice,” which urges a critical examination and profound redefinition of our flawed and damaging ideas of “justice,” affected me deeply and caused me to really think closely about how I want to be as a parent, and as a person within every other relationship and community in my life. If everyone everywhere read this extraordinary book, I feel certain that the world would be a kinder, gentler, fairer, healthier, and more truly loving place.

Find I Hope We Choose Love here on All Lit Up or use our Shop Local feature to purchase from your local indie bookstore.

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Jessica Westhead is the author of the novels Pulpy & Midge (Coach House Books) and Worry (HarperCollins Canada), and the critically acclaimed short story collections And Also Sharks and Things Not to Do (Cormorant Books) and, most recently, Avalanche (Invisible Publishing). Jessica teaches creative writing at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. She lives in Toronto with her family.

Photo credit Derek Wuenschirs


Thank you to Jessica Westhead for sharing these thoughtful book picks for all kinds of giftees on your list! Stay tuned for more Gift Guide here on All Lit Up.