Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Reading Year in Review

Well, we've reached the end of another reading year here on the blog, and you know what that means. Yes, I throw together a roundup of how the year shaped up in terms of the books I read. With so much going on with Sad Peninsula this fall, I felt like I wasn't really able to give the reviewing part of the blog the attention I've given it in previous years. Still, I was able to put together what I think is a pretty solid Top 10 list. And unlike in previous years, I've decided to exclude my usual Top 5 Disappointments list. This is not to say I didn't read a slew of duds in 2014 - because I did - but I thought I'd keep those off the post this year in order to keep the good vibes around here going.

Anyway, without further ado here's my list. As in previous years, this is not a 1 to 10 ranking: the books below are merely listed in the order in which I read them.

  • The Kindness of Women, by J.G. Ballard: I didn’t do an actual review of this book on the blog, as I had been thinking about doing a long essay on Ballard’s biographical writing and the way it spanned two novels (this one, plus Empire of the Sun) and a memoir (Miracles of Life). I abandoned the idea after I realized that others had written about this very topic far better than I ever could. But The Kindness of Women remains my favourite of the three books: this novel spans much of Ballard’s fascinating life – including the part in a Japanese concentration camp (covered in more detail in Empire) as well as a fictionalized version of the death of his wife. A riveting read from cover to cover.
  • When Is a Man, by Aaron Shepard: “Virtually every beat of Shepard’s prose is bang on. His sharp dialogue, well-drawn characters, and incisive descriptions work to make this tale highly believable. He captures both the sclerotic inanity of grad school and the insularity of small-town life with equal gusto. The novel is tightly plotted, yet leaves room for convincing moments of reflection.” Full review.
  • Honey for the Bears, by Anthony Burgess: “There’s much to admire in this garlicky, rambunctious romp of a tale. Burgess, for the most part, doesn’t overplay his hand in pointing out the Cold War differences between the Soviet Union and the culture Paul would be accustomed to in Britain … Burgess’ humour is spot on in these pages; you probably need to speak fluent Russian—plus about three other languages—to catch all the puns here.” Full review
  • This Location of Unknown Possibilities, by Brett Josef Grubisic: “The real star here is the novelistic voice that Grubisic has created, so assured and observant and full of erudite wit. This Location contains a richness of language that immediately establishes a trust with the reader: no matter the twists and turns of its off-the-chain plot, you’re happy to follow them wherever they leads you.” Full review
  • Career Limiting Moves, by Zachariah Wells: “Ultimately, I think Zach will continue to be a controversial figure in Canadian criticism, if for no other reason than he holds up the dual torches of cogency and honest appraisal, which makes him a target for those who value neither. Zach’s largest critics tend to be those who not only fail to match his chops on the great Scrabble board of book reviewing, but who have a vested interest in incoherent criticism itself. Indeed, some have built entire careers around it. But for the rest of us, a book like Career Limiting Moves reminds us about the strengths – and the dangers – of standing behind one’s opinions. Of being honest. Of being clear. And of loving a good fight.” Full review.
  • All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews: “All My Puny Sorrows will most likely be counted as Toews’ masterpiece, and deservedly so. The ending especially good, as it reaches for something ineffable about death: that life does not stop in the face of a heart-wrenching tragedy, and yet the tragedy can do nothing but remain with us even as time progresses. Toews finishes with moments of levity, and yet an almost unspoken absence remains. There is no way to fill that void, no way to get pass it. Death lives in us as much as life does. There is no way to spin it, no flurry of affirmation to get us beyond it. It is a loss. It is a loss.” Full review.
  • The Walking Tanteek, by Jane Woods: “One can’t help but spot the exuberance of Woods’ style here and in other places. The Walking Tanteek (the title for which is taken, maybe, from a mondegreen that Maggie overhears in a Bob Dylan song) bursts with wild, elastic sentences that loop and spin and twist with baroque enthusiasm. Maggie is a deeply conflicted woman, and this narrative style helps to reveal just how all over the map she really is.” Full review.
  • All Saints, by K.D. Miller: “Miller knows two things very well: the effort and precision it takes to make a short story both its own isolated world as well as part of a larger narrative; and the emotional landscape of the Anglican faith, with all its anxieties and contradictions. She weaves these two elements into a powerful whole, creating memorable tales populated by characters full of both doubt and certainty.” Full review.
  • The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis: The term satire seems wholly insufficient to describe what Amis has done in this, his latest outing. The Zone of Interest not only skewers the various tropes and clichés of Holocaust fiction, but it also pierces through its own parody to reach a level of transcendence rarely seen in literature. Ignore the mostly negative reviews this novel as been getting. Read The Zone of Interest with an eye for its caustic panoramas on evil, human morality, and the very language of fiction itself. The master has returned to form. (Full review to come.)
  • Invasive Species, by Claire Caldwell: I had the great pleasure of sharing a stage with Claire Caldwell back in November at the Pivot at the Press Club Reading Series. Her book was buried at the bottom of a stack of review copies but I plucked it out after hearing her read. These poems are as poignant, assured and cagey as poetry gets. Caldwell shows an incredible deftness for building the tension and emotion in a poem up to a pulverizing finish. On several occasions, her closing line left me short of breath. A startling debut. (Full review to come.)

  • Full reading list for the year:

    56. December 30. The Stag Head Spoke, by Erina Harris. 91 pps.

    55. December 27. Cipher, by John Jantunen. 299 pps.

    54. December 22. [Sharps], by Stevie Howell. 87 pps.

    53. December 17. Invasive Species, by Claire Caldwell. 69 pps.

    52. December 15. The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis. 306 pps.

    51. December 5. The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis. 225 pps.

    50. November 29. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O'Neill. 403 pps.

    49. November 17. All Saints, by K.D. Miller. 222 pps.

    48. November 6. The Green Hotel, by Jesse Gilmour. 112 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire.)

    47. November 4. The Eve of St Venus, by Anthony Burgess. 122 pps.

    46. October 30. FreeFall magazine Volume XXIV No. 3 (Fall 2014). 106 pps.

    45. October 28. CNQ 90 (Summer 2014). 80 pps.

    44. October 20. Four English Comedies, edited by J.M. Morrell. 414 pps.

    43. October 9.  Paths of Desire, by Emmanuel Katton (translated by Kathryn Gabinet-Kroo). 175 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)

    42. October 4. The Walking Tanteek, by Jane Woods. 446 pps.

    41. [September 17. The Secrets Men Keep proofs. 178 pps.]

    40. September 9. Stowaways, by Ariel Gordon. 95 pps.

    39. September 5. Play: Poems about Childhood, the Kid Series: Volume One, edited by Shane Neilson. 81 pps.

    38. September 3. The Search for Heinrich Schlögel, by Martha Baillie. 261 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)

    37. August 26. Sweetland, by Michael Crummey. 322 pps. (For review in Canadian Notes and Queries.)

    36. August 16. Leaving Tomorrow, by David Bergen. 277 pps. (For review in The Winnipeg Review.)

    35. August 8. The Antigonish Review 177 (Spring 2014). 144 pps.

    34. August 2. Look Who's Morphing, by Tom Cho. 126 pps.

    33. July 29. Everyone Is CO2, by David James Brock. 63 pps.

    32. July 26. All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews. 321 pps.

    31. July 14. How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, by Doretta Lau. 119 pps.

    30. July 9. Prism International, Spring 2014. 85 pps.

    29. July 7. Prairie Ostrich, by Tamai Kobayashi. 200 pps.

    28. July 1. Sons and Fathers, by Daniel Goodwin. 230 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire)

    27. June 25. He'll, by Nathan Dueck. 94 pps. 

    26. June 23. Anthony Burgess, by Roger Lewis. 470 pps.  

    25. June 14. Emberton, by Peter Norman. 295 pps. (For review in The Winnipeg Review.)

    24. May 26. The Fiddlehead No. 259, Spring 2014. 119 pps.

    23. May 20. CNQ 89 (the Montreal issue). 80 pps.

    22. May 17. Career Limiting Moves, by Zachariah Wells. 331 pps.

    21. May 8. This Location of Unknown Possibilities, by Brett Josef Grubisic, 342 pps.

    20. April 27. More to Keep Us Warm, by Jacob Scheier. 79 pps.

    19. April 24. The Age, by Nancy Lee. 281 pps.

    18. April 14. David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide and Other Stories, by D.D. Miller. 246 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire)

    17. April 7. The Strangers' Gallery, by Paul Bowdring. 349 pps. (For review in The Fiddlehead)

    16. March 25. The Bear, by Claire Cameron. 221 pps.

    15. March 19. Honey for the Bears, by Anthony Burgess. 272 pps.

    14. March 11. When Is a Man, by Aaron Shepard, 279 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire.)

    13. March 11. From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents, by David Gress. 610 pps. (for research)

    12. March 3. The Antigonish Review, No. 176 (Winter 2014). 144 pps.

    11. February 28. Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, by J.G. Ballard. 250 pps. (For possible essay)

    10. February 23. The Kindness of Women, by J.G. Ballard. 343 pps. (For possible essay)

    9. February 13. Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard. 279 pps. (For possible essay)

    8. February 4. Dear Leaves, I Love You All, by Sara Heinonen. 174 pps.

    7. February 1. Archive of the Undressed, by Jeanette Lynes. 79 pps.

    6. January 29. All the Broken Things, by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. 330 pps.

    5. January 22. Strip, by Andrew Binks. 281 pps.

    4. January 13. Winter Cranes, by Chris Banks. 64 pps.

    3. January 11. CNQ 88 (Summer/Fall 2013). 80 pps.

    2. January 4. Left for Right, by Glen Downie. 101 pps.

    1. January 2. The Art of Sufficient Conclusions, by Sarah Dearing. 222 pps.

    Wednesday, December 10, 2014

    Reminder: Maritime reading tour

    Okay, with less than a week to go I thought I'd send out a reminder about the reading tour in the Maritimes. If if you're in one of these three cities and are free on the respective nights mentioned below, please come on out. I would love to see you.

    When: Tuesday, December 16, 2014.
    Where: Peter Wilson Common Room, the University of King's College, 6350 Coburg Rd.
    What time: 7 pm.
    Sales by the King's Bookstore.
    Come one come all. See the Facebook invitation.

    When: Wednesday, December 17, 2014.
    Where: The Confederation Library, 145 Richmond St.
    What time: 7 pm.
    Sales by the Bookmark.
    Come one come all. See the Facebook invitation.

    When: Thursday, December 18, 2014.
    Where: Folio Books - 110 St. George St.
    What time: 7 pm. See the Facebook invitation.

    Monday, December 8, 2014

    Upcoming: Twitter chat #CanLitQA

    UPDATED: Event takes place Friday, not Thursday. So I'm very excited to announce that I'll be taking part in a live Tweet chat this Friday over the lunch hour as part of a discussion on literary journals with Magazines Canada. This is the first time I've ever done this in my capacity as an author, so I'm very much looking forward to it. If you're on Twitter and would like to follow along, here are the details:

    When: Friday, December 12
    What time: 12:30 to 1:00 pm, Eastern.
    Hashtag to follow: #CanLitQA
    Moderated by: @MyCdnMags

    And for those of you who don't know, you can always find me on Twitter at @freerangesamp.

    Anyway, special thanks to Natasha Malloch at Magazines Canada for inviting me, and publisher Chris Needham at Now or Never Publishing for setting this up as a bit of promotion for my forthcoming short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep.

    Hope to see you all (virtually at least) on Thursday!


    Sunday, December 7, 2014

    Review: The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis

    I read David Bezmozgis’ new novel right on the heels of finishing The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill as part of my Co-habitational Reading Challenge with my wife, which I blogged about here. Both books were shortlisted for this year’s Giller, but a person would be hard-pressed to find two contemporary novels that were more different. Whereas O’Neill is a master of whimsy, of flakiness and of small, quotidian details, Bezmozgis’ book navigates the grimly serious terrain of geopolitics and its influence on individuals trying to do the right thing. Both novels are brilliant in their own ways, and I actually valued the jarring impact of immediately going from one to the other.

    The Betrayers tells the story of Baruch Kotler, a former Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician. In a flight of conscience, Kotler turns on his own political party and speaks out against the dismantling of an Israeli settlement in Palestinian territory. As revenge, his former allies expose an affair Kotler is having with a much younger woman named Leora. The two lovers flee together to Crimea, where Kotler encounters a man he knew decades ago named Tankilevich, who was responsible for exposing Kotler as a Soviet dissident in Russia in the 1970s and getting him sent to the Gulag for 13 years. Meanwhile, back home, Kotler’s son Benzion, who is serving with the Israeli army, is about to go against orders in the tearing down of the Israeli settlement. He reaches out to his father for wisdom, but Kotler’s own predicament interferes with him giving his son good counsel.

    The themes here are, obviously enough, issues of loyalty versus betrayal, and each character grapples with the double side of this coin. Some readers may find this thematic thread a bit too obvious, but Bezmozgis counteracts a lot of that by working hard to build the emotional tension between his characters. As a writer, he is very good at using a wide lens to show how larger forces and personal history can rewrite a character’s morality. The compelling interactions between Kotler and Tankilevich transcend the basic themes in the novel and leave us shaken by the damage both men have done to each other.

    The Betrayers, while dismal in its set up, is strangely uplifting in its conclusion. Bezmozgis leaves us with a sense that hope is possible, that loyalty can withstand betrayal, and that good choices can follow bad ones and still do good.

    Thursday, December 4, 2014

    The Secrets Men Keep available for pre-order!

    So I discovered over the course of my daily (yes daily, sigh) Internet snooping that my short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep, forthcoming in April from Now or Never Publishing in Vancouver, is now available for pre-order from a major online retailer. I do realize that this sort of thing is driven mostly by metadata in a database feed somewhere, and I also realize that we're still four months out from the launch date (April 15, 2015, to be exact), but it's still fun to see the book up on its legs and walking around. Anyway, if you're one of those obsessive types who loves to order books far in advance of their release, well, you know what to do.


    Monday, December 1, 2014

    This year’s Co-habitational Reading Challenge: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill

    So RR and I decided to do another of our Co-habitational Reading Challenges. If you’ve followed along in previous years, you know this is where she and I read the same book at the same time and then blog about the experience. This time round, we wanted to choose one of the books on this year’s Giller short list. Happenstance found me purchasing a copy of Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (her follow-up to Lullabies for Little Criminals) at the same time that RR was taking it out of the library. So that sealed the deal on which book we’d pick.

    Unlike in previous editions of the Co-habitational Reading Challenge, we completely failed to blog about the reading experience in real time. Our lives have just been too dang busy this fall – what with me doing a variety of promotion for Sad Peninsula at the same time that I’m working a busy day job AND writing a new novel, and her working a busy day job and doing hefty rewrites on the novel-in-stories she is slated to publish in 2016.  ALRIGHT THEN – shameless self promotion out of the way. We more or less finished the book at the same time last week (I was about a day and a half behind her) and shared our thoughts with each other along the way, even if we failed to share all those thoughts with you.

    Anyway, we both liked the book a lot, though found it flawed it all kinds of slight but obvious ways. With the creation of Nouschka Tremblay, O’Neill proves beyond a doubt that she is a master of the flakier-than-thou narrator. Nouschka, positioned in some unmentioned period in the future, is relaying the story of her and her twin brother Nicholas being 20 years old and living in Montreal around the time of the Quebec referendum in 1995. The two of them, inseparable for the first chunk of the novel, are celebrities by default: their father is a famous folk singer named Etienne Tremblay (completely unknown in English-speaking Canada) who used to bring his children on shows only to abandon them to pursue his career, but still pays intermittent visits to their lives when he’s in between gigs.

    Young Nouschka pursues (or is pursued by) a number of men in her rundown neighbourhood in Montreal, but ends up marrying a handsome, alluring ne’er-do-well named Raphael. Meanwhile, Nicholas falls in with some rather nasty characters and eventually plans a bank heist. Along the way, Nouschka falls pregnant, finishes her long-delayed high school diploma, finds her true calling in life, and learns more than a thing or two about familial love.

    With its cast of quirky, off-kilter characters, this novel aims to charm, and for the most part it succeeds. There is a certain narrative energy to seeing the world through Nouschka’s perspective. Even the most mundane interactions become charged with a kind of mythic quality: the visiting of a strip club, the taking of night courses, a stroll down a Montreal street in blistering winter. Nouschka lends a certain magical quality to it all. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is about a young woman who is aware of her flaws and the flaws of her family but still aims to hold things together while trying to carve a place out for herself in the world – that evergreen theme of finding individual agency while at the same time recognizing collective obligation.

    For all its compelling ups and downs, this novel did leave us scratching our heads at times. There were the repetitive appearances of cats throughout the first part of the book that didn’t really amount to much. The opening section is pretty slow: the real “plot” doesn’t start to unfold until the last third of the book. We’re never sure from which period Nouschka is telling her story, as the whole narrative is framed like one giant flashback. And we’re still not entirely sure what the title of the book means either.

    But overall we enjoyed The Girl Who Was Saturday Night well enough and were glad we picked it for the Challenge. It was fun discussing what we thought of Nouschka’s various choices through the story and how she kept things moving along. This won’t be the last time RR take this Challenge, so stay tuned to our blogs to find out which book we’ll do next.