Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Poem in PEI's The Buzz

Yes, folks, I am alive and well. I realize things have dried up here at the blog over the last several months, and I apologize for the extended radio silence. My main excuse is that I'm actually technically working on three (yes, three!) separate books right now, on top of everything else going on in my life (busy day job; awesome marriage; travel; aging elders; etc.) and so the free-range book reviewing and life updates here on the blog have had to suffer. Not sure if that's going to change any time soon, but I will try to keep my small sliver of web in my thoughts, especially as we draw closer to the release date of my new novel, The Slip.

In the meantime, here is a bit of news: the free monthly arts and entertainment paper on PEI, The Buzz, has reprinted my poem, "Tableau," from my poetry collection, Weathervane, in its December issue. This wintry little number was a fitting choice for The Buzz's poetry column, considering that PEI (which I'll be travelling to in a couple of weeks, by car, Lord love me, for the holidays) has already received a whack of the white stuff since the end of November. Anyway, thanks to curator and fellow poet Judy Gaudet for choosing my piece. Really glad to see it getting another run out there in the world.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Some love on the 49th Shelf

It has been my experience that recognition - especially of the literary sort - can be a deeply fleeting, perplexing or relative thing. Writing fiction is one of the few activities I know of where it's perfectly normal to spend a lot more time creating something than that will spend in the limelight. So it was very moving to see writer Emily Saso include my novel, Sad Peninsula, in an article she has written for the 49th Shelf in which she lists a handful of books published over the last five years that she feels didn't receive nearly enough kudos. Emily's own novel, The Weather Inside, has just been published by Freehand Books, and by all accounts it is looking to, if you'll forgive the pun, take the world by storm. Anyway, very chuffed to be included on this list along with Matt Cahill, Dani Couture, Erin Bedford and Amanda Leduc. Thanks Emily!


Sunday, October 16, 2016

Poetry Weekend in Fredericton

Me, reading at Poetry Weekend in Fredericton.
So a couple of weekends ago I got to take part in what has quickly become one the biggest events in Canadian verse: the annual Poetry Weekend festival at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Celebrating its 13th year this year, Poetry Weekend gathers many established and emerging poets for two solid days of readings. I was there in support of my debut collection, Weathervane, published by Palimpsest Press back in March. I also got to spend time with a number of really great versifiers, including John Wall Barger, Cory Lavender, Katherine Leyton, Daniel Renton, Shane Neilson, Jan Conn, Roy Adams, Jim Johnstone (my editor at Palimpsest) and event organizer Ross Leckie. It was a fabulous weekend and I hope I get to do it again sometime.


Friday, October 7, 2016

Review of The Gloaming, by Melanie Finn

So I'm back in the pages of Numero Cinq this month with a review of Melanie Finn's novel, The Gloaming, which I hope a lot of you will seek out. In this review, I praise Finn's range and inventiveness, and also take a gentle dig at one of my own books. Here's a sample of what I have to say:

[I]t is at once exhilarating and humbling to see a writer as immensely talented as Melanie Finn take this standard formula and turn it inside out, to subvert it so thoroughly, so brazenly, so originally, in her new novel, The Gloaming. If you yourself are a writer and thinking about forging your own “going aboard to learn something about yourself” kind of story, you would do no harm to it by reading this small masterpiece. It’s good to know what you’re up against.

It is books like this that remind me why I love reviewing for Numero Cinq: I often get exposed to works that would otherwise not pass over my radar. Anyway, check it out if you have the chance.


Monday, October 3, 2016

My Quill and Quire review of Chasing Utopia, by David Leach ...

... is now online on the Q&Q website. I was very happy to give a glowing review to this very accomplished nonfiction work about the kibbutzim of Israel. As I say in the piece, Leach provides a multifaceted overview of the role that the kibbutz has played in the formation of Israel and its long-protracted conflict with the Palestinian people. He writes with humour and charm, but also deep insight. A book very worthy of a Q&Q star. Go check it out.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Acceptance: Humber Literary Review

Well, I had some good news earlier this week: A poem of mine, called "Dysthymia," as been accepted for the fall issue of The Humber Literary Review, slated for release in late November. It will be a special edition of the magazine focusing on the theme of mental illness. This poem is the first in a batch of new verse I started writing earlier this year to get accepted for publication, so I'm very pleased about that. It looks like there will be a Toronto launch for the issue, which is exciting as well. Anyway, I will keep you all posted as we get closer to the publication date.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Word on the Street 2016

Just a short note to say I'll be appearing at the Word on the Street festival in Toronto this Sunday, September 25, at Harbourfront Centre. You can find me at the Palimpsest Press booth between 4 pm and 5 pm in support of my poetry collection, Weathervane. My spies indicate that there are still several Canadians who have not yet purchased this book, so if you're one of them, why not come by, pick up a copy, and have me sign it for you. The day is always loads of fun, with dozens of writers, publishers and booksellers around to help you get your bibliophilic fix. Hope to see you there!

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Slip has a cover!

Aaaaaand here it is! I'm very stoked to reveal the cover for my new novel, The Slip, which goes on sale next May from Dundurn. Check it out:

The book has cleared the copyediting stage and I should be receiving the first page proofs in a couple of weeks. Then the Advance Reading Copies (or ARCs) get printed and sent around to various magazines, awards committees, booksellers and so forth.

And for those of you who may have forgotten what The Slip is about (or, indeed, forgotten that I'm publishing a new novel in the spring), here is the updated back cover copy:

In this wickedly funny novel, one bad afternoon and two regrettable comments make the inimitable Philip Sharpe go viral for all the worst reasons.

Dr. Philip Sharpe, absentminded professor extraordinaire, teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto and is one of Canada’s most combative public intellectuals. But when a live TV debate with his fiercest rival goes horribly off the rails, an oblivious Philip says some things to her that he really shouldn’t have.

As a clip of Philip’s “slip” goes viral, it soon reveals all the cracks and fissures in his marriage with his young, stay-at-home wife, Grace. And while the two of them try to get on the same side of the situation, things quickly spiral out of control.

Can Philip make amends and save his marriage? Is there any hope of salvaging his reputation? To do so, he’ll need to take a hard look at his on-air comments, and to conscript a band of misfits in a scheme to set things right.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Review of Weathervane in The Winnipeg Free Press

Well, Google Alerts has once again failed me, as there was a really great capsule review of Weathervane in The Winnipeg Free Press a couple of weeks ago, which I totally missed. The review is written by the omnivorous Jonathan Ball (you may recall he also wrote the paper's review of Sad Peninsula back in 2014) and is included in a packet of pieces looking at books by fellow poets Kim Fu, Stephen Heighton, and Susan Holbrook. The review calls Weathervane "a taut, confident debut from an already accomplished author" and has other nice things to say about it. As always, I'm very grateful for the ink and the publicity.

I also want to apologize for radio silence here on the blog over the last little while. I realize that I posted exactly nothing in the month of July, and didn't do a ton of entries in June, either. I have multiple excuses: a European vacation, edits on my latest novel, The Slip, due to Dundurn, and another writing project outside of fiction and poetry that is eating up the time I usually devote to blogging. Anyway, please know I am alive and well, and will try to post more often when I can.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Major new academic essay, in which Sad Peninsula features prominently

Let's call it the "snooping self on the Web" discovery of the year. I was checking out Sad Peninsula’s holdings on worldcat.org yesterday when I found that someone has published a major new piece of scholarship on comfort women novels, in which my book features prominently. Professor Jeongyun Ko of Dong-A University has written “‘Good’ Comfort Women Novel? Ethics and Representational Tactics of Korean Comfort Women Novels in English” for the academic journal Korean Association for Feminist Studies in English Literature. Professor Ko’s essay touches on the various themes and tropes found throughout the corpus of comfort women fiction, but she focuses her analysis on two recent novels to join the genre – mine and Kalliope Lee’s Sunday Girl (Psychopomp Press, 2013).

I know by now that one must take all literary “accomplishments” with a certain grain of salt, but I find myself especially chuffed by this delightful news. While academic journals don’t typically have a broad audience, I have to believe that a large scholarly essay such as this one is less ephemeral than your average work-a-day book review. This paper may well be read, discussed and cited by like-minded academics over the years, and hopefully lead some of them to Sad Peninsula. What’s more, many authors have to wait until they’re dead before they have any scholarship written about them, so I’m grateful that this work of mine has gotten some academic love less than two years out of the gate.

As well, Professor Ko has many flattering things to say about Sad Peninsula. In comparing its narrative approach to other comfort women fiction, she writes:

Sad Peninsula concedes two new important thematic focuses that have not been fully explored in other comfort women novels in English. First, the question of ethics and representation of comfort women is scrutinized within the text through the depiction of “foreigner” Michael’s fascination with Eun-young’s past as a comfort woman. Second, Eun-young’s narrative, which unfolds her life back in Korea, not just the enslavement experiences, presents a powerful voice of a Korean female heroine who is more than just a comfort woman trapped in a victim trope.

To read the essay in full, go to the journal issue’s landing page and then click on the “4.Ko.pdf” link (you may have to hunt for it – it’s tiny!) to download the file.

Monday, June 13, 2016

My Numero Cinq review of Benjamin Hale's The Fat Artist and Other Stories

Yes, yes, a book reviewer's work is never done. While I wasn't expecting to see this piece published until later this summer, it was great to see Numero Cinq post my review of Benjamin Hale's masterful new short story collection, The Fat Artist earlier today. Since submitting my review, I've been singing this book's praises to anyone who will listen - my wife, coworkers, strangers at the bank. I think what I appreciate most about it is how Hale is able to write in several different registers and adopt so many different perspectives in these stories. His is a massive talent and I am a proud convert. Go put this book on your summer reading list. You won't regret it.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Speaking of Quill and Quire ...

... my Q&Q review of Torp, by Michael Mirolla, is now online. Rereading the review, I now wonder if readers may think that I have direct experience of being in Vancouver during the FLQ crisis in 1970. I don't. I wasn't born until 1975. Which I guess just means Mirolla did a great job of creating a believable zeitgeist in his novel. Anyway, an interesting book with interesting things happening in it. Go check it out!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

My Quill and Quire review of Rich and Poor, by Jacob Wren ...

... is now online at Q&Q's website. You, like me, may find this novel by Jacob Wren somewhat apropos, what with the catastrophe that is Donald Trump's presidential run unfolding down south. Wren's narrative plants us firmly inside the dynamic between a callous billionaire and the impoverished, failed musician who wants to murder him. While my review points out that this book could have benefited from a bit more realism on the billionaire's side of the coin, overall Rich and Poor is very readable, occasionally funny, and generous in the sense that it provides some interesting food for thought. Anyway, read the full review here.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review: Prairie Harbour, by Garry Thomas Morse

I first encountered Garry Thomas Morse’s poetry in one of the best ways that any small-press author can discover another small-press author: we both had work in the same literary journal. In this instance, it was in the September 2010 issue of The Quint, a small online periodical out of a university in The Pas, Manitoba. Upon reading the issue, I was immediately struck by the musicality of Morse’s verse, the way he manipulates line breaks and spacing to create a fiery momentum on the page, one that both subverts and satisfies the expectations of our readerly eye.

This prowess is very much animated in Morse’s latest collection, Prairie Harbour. The book could be read as either a singular long poem or a collage of shorter(ish) pieces that possess similar sequences of images, tropes or preoccupations. The defining feature of Prairie Harbour can be found in its title: this is a poetry collection about juxtaposition, about placing widely divergent concepts in close proximity to each other to cut new paths of understanding in our minds. Morse weaves a great tapestry of opposites as he explores his own First Nations identity and its relationship with other fraught aspects of Canadian, prairie, and, indeed, global existence.

These kinds of juxtapositions leap from nearly every page. Morse writes in the dense, trickster-like tradition of the so-called Prairie long poem (see Kroetsch, Cooley, Arnason, Dueck, Marvin Francis, etc.), and to recreate his line breaks on a blog platform would risk offending the sophisticated arrangements he has created. But here is a small taste, from early in Prairie Harbour, of what I’m talking about:

Speak to me then

of trees on your farm
of succulent saskatoons
of visions in perfect colour
of music in crystalline

speak through the flame
& I will forgo
plaguing Europe
& shadows cast
across “primitive” minds

You can see how Morse loads together a series of disparate images or tropes – Canada and Europe; rural reality and the liveliness of music; clear-headed (“crystalline”) perspectives versus “primitive” minds – and finds a way to make them sing together.

There may be a certain amount of futility to parsing exactly what this rich experimental text is “about” in the traditional sense, but the reader willing to pay close attention will spot a series of unifying ideas. Prairie Harbour is, at its core, about the long and continuous attempts at erasure of aboriginal identity, and how the First Nations voice literally needs to fight against the margins, against the very idea of margin, to make itself heard. Morse lays out many aspects of his own heritage in doing this, but what he creates never feels forced or didactic.

What’s more, there are great flurries of other tropes that readers can latch onto. Music plays a huge role in this book: I caught references to the great folk tune from my own neck of the woods, “Farewell to Nova Scotia”, as well as countless allusions to classical music and classical literature from Europe. In this sense, Morse is steeped in several artistic traditions and can write from multiple points of reference.

Still, there is a darkness that underlines this collection. It is a shadow embodied in “the Company”, a reoccurring motif in Prairie Harbour that may represent a specific corporate entity (perhaps the Hudson’s Bay Company), or, more likely, a generalized concept of the marauding, colonizing force that has threatened native identity and existence for centuries. Yet, through the sheer musicality of his verse, Morse forces us to welcome this bleak underscore to our minds. His poetry energizes us to the threat of colonial erasure, hinting at the great spectrums of light that await us if we can move beyond the harm it brings.

In the end, this is a book committed to the reformative power of art, to the ability of poetry to slip gleefully out from between the fingers of “the Company” even as it tightens its grip. This is a book that does not hold back its sense of hope.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Announcement: My next novel, The Slip, forthcoming from Dundurn

A not-atypical page from The Slip's
first draft. (My markups, natch.)
Well, this news found its way into Quill and Quire recently so I thought I should also announce it here on the blog. Yes, I will have a new novel out next year. The lovely people at Dundurn Press, who published my last novel, Sad Peninsula, will release The Slip in the spring of 2017. This will mark – good gravy – four books in four years for me, which is a fact I still haven’t wrapped my mind around yet.

Anyway, here is the back-cover copy for The Slip to give you a sense of what the new book is about:

Philip Sharpe is one bad morning and two regrettable comments away from going viral for all the worst reasons. 
In his wickedly funny new novel, Mark Sampson introduces us to the ultimate absent-minded professor, Dr. Philip Sharpe, who teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto and is one of Canada’s most combative public intellectuals. But when a live TV debate with his fiercest rival goes horribly off the rails, an oblivious Philip says some things to her — some heinous and wildly inappropriate things — that he really shouldn’t have. 
As a clip of Philip’s “slip” goes viral, it soon reveals all the cracks and fissures in his marriage with his young, stay-at-home wife, Grace. While the two of them try to get on the same side of the situation, things quickly spiral out of control. 
Can Philip make amends and save his marriage? To do so, he’ll need to realize the true nature of his on-air comments, and to conscript a band of misfits in a scheme to set things right.

Me, signing the contract for The Slip last July.
Like most of the literary news I announce here, I’ve known about this forthcoming publication for a while. I signed the contract for The Slip last July after Dundurn accepted the book on the strength of a proposal and three chapters. While I’ve had the idea of this novel and its characters since at least 2007 or 2008, I began working on manuscript in earnest in the fall of 2013, and submitted the full manuscript last February. I’ve been telling people who’ve asked that this book is in many ways the polar opposite of Sad Peninsula. That last novel was a deeply dramatic narrative about an uncomfortable part of twentieth century history, set over decades and told from two alternating perspectives. This new book is, by contrast, a wildly comic novel told from just one point of view and – with the exception of flashback chapters – set over just nine days in November of 2015.

The announcement in Quill and Quire.
The Slip is already available for pre-order (and has been since before I submitted the full ms, which was weird!) from the usual suspects, including Amazon, Chapters-Indigo, McNally Robinson and, of course, Dundurn’s own website. Naturally, I will keep you all posted on other developments – including cover design, launch dates and such – as they arise over the coming months.

Finally, a big thanks to Dundurn, and especially editor Shannon Whibbs, for taking another chance on me. I’m very excited that this book is coming out and can’t wait until you all get to meet Philip Sharpe for yourselves.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Another upcoming Toronto event

June is shaping up to be a busy month. On top of the reading I'm doing on June 10 with Kyp Harness and Matt Cahill, I'm happy to announce I'll be taking part in another book launch one week later, on June 17. My friend Mike Knox is releasing his new novel, Harshly Purring, with Now or Never Publishing in Vancouver, and he has asked me and Aaron Tucker to take part in the celebration. It's going to be a night of excellent readings and celebratory pints. Here are the details for those of you in Toronto who can make it out:

Where: The Burdock - 1184 Bloor Street West, Toronto.
When: Friday, June 17.
What time: 9 pm.
Who: Mike Knox, Aaron Tucker and me.
The Facebook event.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Another upcoming event: June 10 in Toronto

Well Toronto folks, if you couldn't make it out to the Black Swan on Tuesday night to see me read from my debut poetry collection, Weathervane, at the Art Bar reading series, you have another chance. I'm happy to announce I'll be part of an event on June 10 with two other authors: Matt Cahill (The Society of Experience) and Kyp Harness, who is launching his debut novel, Wigford Rememberies.

This event is a joint production between our respective presses: Nightwood Editions, Wolsak & Wynn, and Palimpsest Press. The venue, the Belljar Cafe, will be contributing some delicious vegetarian food to go along with the evening of literary frivolity.

Anyway, here are the particulars:

Where: The Belljar Cafe, 2072 Dundas St. West, Toronto.
When: Friday, June 10th.
What time: 7 pm.
Who: Kyp Harness, Matt Cahill, and Mark Sampson
The Facebook invitation.

Some come out if you can!


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Upcoming event: Art Bar Poetry Series

Hey Toronto: Just a quick note to say I'll be reading from my poetry collection, Weathervane, at the Art Bar Poetry Series next week. Here are the details if you're looking to come out.

Where: The Black Swan Tavern, 154 Danforth Avenue
When: Tuesday, May 10
What time: 8 pm
Reading with: Liz Worth and Sneha Madhavan-Reese

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Reminder: Reading tomorrow night in London, ON

Just a friendly reminder to anyone out there in the London, Ontario area: I'll be in town doing a reading tomorrow night along with my fellow Palimpsest Press authors, Dorothy Mahoney (Off-Leash) and John Nyman (Players). Here are the specifics:

Where: Brown & Dickson Books, 211 King St., London, Ontario.
When: Thursday, April 28, 2016
What time: 7 pm
Facebook event page

Come on out and say hi if you can!


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Publication: CNQ 95

So yesterday I received in the mail my lovely contributor's copy of the new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries (CNQ), which contains my review of Mark Anthony Jarman's most recent short story collection, Knife Party at the Hotel Europa. This was on the same night that I attended the Toronto launch party for this issue, which introduces the magazine's new editor (Emily Donaldson, one of Canada's busiest book reviewers) and also takes on the theme in its feature articles of games and gaming. It looks like a fascinating issue. You should go check it out.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Reminder: Poetry launch tonight in Toronto

Okay, Toronto peeps: Just a gentle reminder that I'll be launching my debut poetry collection, Weathervane, tonight at Another Story Bookshop on Roncesvalles Ave. I'll be reading alongside fellow Palimpsest Press authors Shawna Lemay (Rumi and the Red Handbag) and John Nyman (Players) starting at 7 pm. There will light refreshments and riveting conversations, so if you can make it out I would love to see you there.


Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review: The Panic Button and The Rajapaksa Stories, by Koom Kankesan

The tragedies and farce that led the small nation of Sri Lanka down the road to chaos and war loom large in Koom Kankesan’s two published works. Both The Panic Button, a novella released by Quattro Books in 2011, and The Rajapaksa Stories, a hybrid novel/short fiction collection published by Lyricalmyrical Books in 2013, use Sri Lanka and its political and ethnic angst as a springboard for Kankesan’s prodigious imagination. I’ve been acquainted with Koom personally for a while now (he and my wife were in school together) but nothing in our relationship prepared me for what I encountered in these two books.

The Panic Button, on the surface, tells a very familiar tale of immigration to Canada. Our narrator, who goes by his persistent nickname “Thambi”, has been smuggled out of Sri Lanka along with his mother and his older brother, Roshan, and into the drab but safe community of Scarborough, in east Toronto. Thambi’s father is unfortunately unable to make the journey with them and remains trapped in Colombo as the conflict there intensifies. The years pass – more than 25 of them –  and the boys grow older as their mother works to keep the family afloat. Their dad, meanwhile, remains but a voice on a telephone line paid for with calling cards.

Thambi and Roshan acclimatize well to their new home in Canada, but one pressure from the old culture continues to persist in their lives: the pressure to get married to a nice Sri Lankan girl. This works out for Roshan when he meets a sweet (if sometimes overbearing) girl named Lakshmi, and they soon become engaged. Thambi, meanwhile, starts an illicit affair with a white girl named Emily, whom he meets through his job as an IT support for a company that sells, among other things, an electronic device comically named The Nipple. Needless to say, Thambi must keep his tryst with Emily, which, weirdly enough, includes elaborate sexual encounters that involve the use of carrots, a secret.

There is an expected twist to the story as Roshan and Lakshmi’s wedding day approaches: Thambi and Roshan’s father is finally able to free himself from Sri Lanka and reunite with the family in Canada. The results are disastrous. The old guys does not approve of the way Thambi and Roshan have been raised, and he does not adapt well to having sons with minds of their own and who are not above defying their parents. This tension comes to a head on the night of Roshan’s bachelor party, when the various strands of the novella come together in what has to be the quintessential screaming match between father and son.

Kankesan’s does a really great job of creating compelling relationships between the characters - especially Thambi and Emily - and uses the strength of those relationships as the fuel to move the story along. The tension that comes to the household after Thambi's dad arrives from Sri Lanka is truly palpable. I also liked the relationship between Thambi and Roshan - it struck me as very true of brothers, the skylarking and competitiveness, but also the deep bond and expectation each one had on the other.

But if The Panic Button is compelling, its narrative is also played up serious and straight. Yet we learn, diving into Kankesan’s second book, that his real talents lie in comedy, in farce, in the games an author can play when fiction’s reality becomes elastic and malleable. The Rajapaksa Stories is unlike anything that I have found anywhere else in Canadian publishing. Here, Kankesan inhabits the very consciousness of Sri Lankan overlord Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ran the country for 10 years starting in 2005 and did everything he could to scupper the peace process. Kankesan intersperses his antihero’s narrative with the voice of Rajapaksa’s dead mother, who chimes in to offer the reader obscure Sri Lankan recipes as a way of counterbalancing her son’s lunacy.

Rarely does a Canadian work of fiction tread such wildly comic and unpredictable terrain. The Rajapaksa Stories offers a playfulness similar to that of Rushdie, a humour that is almost Wodehousian, and a sexual charge reminiscent of Roth. The only work I can truly compare this book to is Julian Barnes’ short, dialogue-heavy novel The Porcupine, which takes us inside the mind of a committed authoritarian. But whereas Barnes’ work was an experiment in earning a reader’s sympathies toward someone with dictatorial leanings, Kankesan is happy to keep his protagonist in the realm of the repugnant.

In this collection of stories, Rajapaksa has all manner of adventures as he tries to maintain his grip on power. He is delusional as he jostles with various family members for control of the country. He gets involved in an online sexual tryst that turns out to be with his own brother. He even travels into space, where the wide expanses of the galaxy prove too small to hold the scope of his ego or his sexual energies. The insouciance in which Kankesan constructs this reality is anything but scattershot. By setting its prose in a perfectly chosen comic key, this book allows all things to be possible.

But the best section in this remarkable book is when Rajapaksa travels to Toronto in 2013 and ends up forging a relationship with its notorious mayor, Rob Ford. These scenes are among the funniest of any I have ever read in literature. The two men end up, among other things, stealing a typewriter from a fellow politician, buying dope from a prepubescent, carving their names into a tree as if they were in love, and painting their faces to resemble the members of the rock group Kiss. These scenes are a cornucopia of delicious boobery. Kankesan then skillfully swoops us back to the serious when Rajapaksa and Ford begin talking candidly about which of them is a worse human being. In a moment that is both comical and deeply horrendous, Rajapaksa wins the discussion by informing Ford that he is responsible for the death of tens of thousands of civilians, a feat that Ford admits he cannot match.

The Rajapaksa Stories is beyond a doubt one of the most creative, exuberantly written, wildly imagined, and flawlessly executed works of comic fiction I have ever read. It is, sadly, also probably one of the most obscure. I was hitherto unfamiliar with its publisher and knew nothing about this work, and I suspect that if you're reading this, you are in the same boat. But if you can seek it out, I can’t encourage you enough to do so. It is one of craziest, most accomplished books I’ve read in a long time. You will not be disappointed if you part its pages.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Reminder: Reading tonight in Windsor

Just a gentle reminder that I'll be in Windsor, Ontario tonight to read from my poetry collection, Weathervane, along with Dorothy Mahoney, who is launching her collection, Off-Leash. We're at the Biblioasis bookstore (1520 Wyandotte St. E) and the fun kicks off at 7 pm. Hope you can make it!


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Interview the Second

So there is now a second interview with me talking about my debut poetry collection, Weathervane. This one is up on the Palimpsest Press blog and was conducted by the lovely and talented Elizabeth Ross. (Check out her own fabulous collection, Kingdom. It's wonderful!) Anyway, this interview goes into a bit more detail about the poetry and my various meanderings. Thanks to Liz and the whole Palimpsest team for putting it up.

And if you're reading this from the Windsor, Ontario area, just a gentle reminder that I'll be in your neck of the woods on Wednesday night of this week, reading at the Biblioasis bookshop with Dorothy Mahoney as she launches her new collection, Off-Leash. Come on out if you can!


Friday, March 18, 2016

Q and A with me on Steven Buechler's blog

Well, I've done my first interview in the wake of Weathervane's release earlier this week. Steven Buechler was kind enough to conduct a Q&A with me on his Library of Pacific Tranquility blog about my poetry, my prose, my reading habits, my impressions of Toronto, and more. Steven generously did a review of my latest novel, Sad Peninsula, on his blog back in 2014, and so I'm very glad he wanted me back with this new book. Anyway, check it and the rest of Steven's blog, full of great book reviews, out for yourself.


Monday, March 14, 2016

My Numero Cinq review of Bret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs by Lina Wolff ...

... now on the Numero Cinq website. This novel (or is it a collection of short stories?) is causing quite a stir over in Europe, and I was happy to be asked to review it here. Wolff's prose and structure will prove a challenge to anyone overly comfortable with linear narrative and the pat executions of theme. There are many provocative scenes of sex, violence and corruption, and they all come bundled in a style that feels very sharp and contemporary. Here's a sample from my assessment:

Men are dogs. This is the prevailing theme of Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, a debut novel that has already turned Sweden’s Lina Wolff into a literary sensation. Wolff’s project – a text at once fragmented enough to pass for a short story collection and yet untraceably centred on the character of Alba Camb√≥, a writer of violent, horrifying tales who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer – draws a connection between the canine-like nature of human males and the limitations of revenge against their more animalistic natures by women. Setting Alba’s story mostly in colourful Barcelona, Wolff renders it into a kind of narrative kaleidoscope, told through the eyes of her friends, lovers, and acquaintances.

Anyway, read the full review here.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Weathervane launch dates announced

So I'm very excited to let you all know of the confirmed dates I have for launches and readings coming up for my debut poetry collection, Weathervane, to be published by Palimpsest Press on March 15. These events will be happening in Windsor, Toronto and London and will see me share the stage with other illustrious Palimpsest authors. Here are the particulars:

Windsor, ON launch
Where: Biblioasis, 1520 Wyandotte St. E., Windsor, Ontario.
When: Wednesday, March 23, 2016, at 7 pm
With whom: Dorothy Mahoney (Off-Leash)

Toronto, ON launch
Where: Another Story Bookshop, 315 Roncesvalles Ave, Toronto, Ontario.
When: Tuesday, April 5, 2016 at 7 pm
With whom: Shawna Lemay (Rumi and the Red Handbag) and John Nyman (Players)

London, ON launch
Where: Brown & Dickson Books, 211 King St., London, Ontario.
When: Thursday, April 28, 2016 at 7 pm
With whom: Dorothy Mahoney (Off-Leash)

For those of you in those cities, I hope you can make it out!

And for those of you not in those cities, just a reminder that the book goes on sale March 15 and you'll be able to order a copy from your favourite retailer, including Chapters-Indigo, Amazon, McNally Robinson and others!

I'll post about other readings planned later in the year as soon as I've confirmed the details.


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Review: The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

Allow me to join the chorus of readers to heap praise onto this second novel by Patrick Dewitt. The Sisters Brothers won a trophy case-worth of awards here in Canada following its publication in 2011 – including the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize, and the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour – and with good reason. The book is a “western” in the sense that it is set in the United States in middle of the 19th century and has two cowboy-like characters travelling across the territory on horseback, but it is, obviously, so much more, too.

Charlie and Eli Sisters, the novel’s titular brothers, are two hitmen working for a gangster-like figure known simply as “the Commodore.” The brothers’ latest assignment is to track across the country to California to a kill a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm. A second man, Henry Morris, has been sent on ahead to gather information about Warm and to help guide the Sisters brothers to his location. But things go awry when they discover that Warm is in possession of a chemical formula that reveals the location of gold in riverbeds, and the brothers and Morris decided to join Warm in his pursuit of gold rather than kill him. But it is soon revealed that the formula is highly toxic, and in a tense, highly stylized climax, the Sisters brothers barely escape the formula’s grip with their lives.

Of course, like any western, the real pleasure here is the journey rather than the destination. The meat of this novel involves the various adventures the brothers have as they travel to California – adventures that oscillate between the lightly comic and the grossly violent. I’m not particularly well-versed in the western genre, but even I could spot the elements of homage that this novel pays to True Grit – including scenes involving violence against a horse, and a series bumbling moments involving gun fights.

Indeed, this novel draws a lot of its power from its liberal use of light humour: I was especially amused when Eli meets a young woman at a hotel on the road to California with whom he wants to have relations, but she tells him he is too fat for her to find attractive. So he proceeds to go on a diet, which leads to a couple of humorous scenes in a saloon as he tries to order a “lighter” meal. For a ruthless killer, Eli is charmingly insecure about his appearance, and he has even taken up a new-fangled invention called a toothbrush, which also leads to a few comic moments.

The Sisters Brothers may indeed attain “instant classic” status here in Canada. It’s a novel that wears its humour and its violence well. DeWitt’s writing is sharp, clever, incisive and fearless. This novel will find its way to many readers for many years to come.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Review: Tarcadia, by Jonathan Campbell

I first learned of Tarcadia after reading and reviewing an anthology that its publisher, Gaspereau Press, put out in 2007, which included an excerpt from Campbell’s novel. His was one of the stand-out pieces in that collection, and so I jumped at the chance to buy his book when I found it in a used bookshop in Charlottetown while home on vacation last summer.

Before I praise Campbell’s writing further – and there is much to praise about it– I do want to get one negative comment out of the way first. This novel suffers from what I have come to call “drowned brother syndrome”, a trope that keeps cropping up in numerous works of Canadian fiction. It has become a running gag in our household whenever I discover yet another Canadian novel that uses a beloved brother drowning in a lake, or a river, or the ocean, as a kind of quick-and-dirty shorthand to imbue one’s protagonist with an air of tragedy. To his credit, Campbell creates a unique twist on this trope by the end of his book, but I nonetheless groaned after reading Tarcadia’s opening sentence.

Now. Despite the dour presence of this “drowned brother” premise – and it is present throughout the narrative, as Campbell chooses to tip his hand on the first page and then work backwards from there – what we find in his prose are sentences that hum with both keen observations and startling humour. The story, set in Sydney, Cape Breton in 1974, details the life of 13-year-old Michael and his older brother Sid, who build a raft out of scraps they find around Sydney harbour and use it to sail around that town’s polluted tar ponds. This crafty invention provides the boys with a much needed refuge from the various trials of life: their parents’ crumbling marriage, looming concerns over their own academic performance at school, and the precarious economic outlook of Cape Breton itself.

The literary allusion here is obvious: this is an homage to Huckleberry Finn, the protagonist of which builds his own raft in order to hide away from some difficult truths emanating from the adult world. But Campbell’s book is also uniquely Cape Breton in its focus, uniquely Sydney. My own father’s side of the family is from there and I made annual visits to the place as a child, so I’m well aware of the details Campbell captures of its culture and its struggles. The steel plant, coal mines, and other sources of industrial wealth can both give and take away; and the families who choose to stay there must live in acceptance of the region’s economic vicissitudes. This is the biggest metaphor in Tarcadia: Michael and Sid’s raft is cobbled together by what the place throws away. “Salvage rights” is a term that crops up numerous times in the story, and it could be a summation of Sydney. It could be an alternative title for this novel.

What sometimes feels missing from Tarcadia, however, is a solid plot. Beyond the framing structure of the “drowned brother” incident, there isn’t really a cohesive narrative arc that holds the book together. Consequently we get what seems like a very episodic story, with the episodes varying in degrees of quirkiness. There is a scene in which the family’s kitchen table collapses right at the start of Christmas dinner, acting as a harbinger of doom. There’s a car accident that nearly kills a young girl. There’s that time Sid went away to cadet camp and came back with stories to tell.

Thankfully, Campbell’s writing is so lively, so fresh and humorous, that we never find ourselves bored even as these narrative installments don’t quite cohere. For a book that reveals its main plot point on the first page, Tarcadia comes with a surprising amount of tension. What’s more, you will no doubt want to live vicarious through the boys’ many sails across the tar ponds as they seek out a life of adventure for themselves.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Publication: The Puritan

So I'm very chuffed to announce that I've got a piece included in the Winter 2016 edition of The Puritan literary journal, published earlier today. Specifically, it's a lengthy book review of three new-ish titles, all centred around the functions and disfunction's of sleep: Sleep, by Nino Ricci, Bright Eyed, by R.M. Vaughan, and Assembling the Morrow, by Sandra Huber. The first is a novel, the second is a book-length personal essay, and the third is a hybrid scholarly tract and book of poetry.

The issue is also jam-packed with a number of great writers, including Shane Neilson, Emily Shultz, Matthew J. Trafford, and others. I'm really looking forward to tucking into this one, and I hope you are as well.


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review: Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope

Never underestimate the allure of symbolism, the gravitational tug of a good analogical image. This is our chief takeaway from Jessamyn Hope’s debut novel Safekeeping, a book steeped in Judaism, a religion and culture deeply reliant on the symbolic, on age-old images.

Hope actually employs two emblematic devices in her story: the first is a kibbutz called Sadot Hadar, where the majority of Safekeeping is set. Hope frames her kibbutz as a symbol for, and miniaturized parallel of, the state of Israel itself. Sadot Hadar has survived for decades as a socialist commune in the truest sense, but one, like Israel itself, under constant threat from the forces of change.

The second symbol is a centuries-old brooch, brought to the kibbutz in 1994 by a drug addict from New York City named Adam. The brooch in his possession is ancient and gorgeously crafted, and is probably meant to represent Jewish culture as a whole. Adam has come to Sadot Hadar for the sort of reason that only makes sense in overly self-conscious “literary” fiction: he wants to deliver this brooch, which belonged to his now-dead grandfather, to a woman named Dagmar, an old flame that his grandfather had on the kibbutz in the 1940s. The fact that she will show no interest in taking the brooch from Adam proves to be no deterrent, as this gesture will hold the key to his much-needed redemption.

Along the way, Hope introduces us to a passing cast of supporting characters: Ulya, a citizen of the recently dismantled Soviet Union looking to escape to America; Ofir, the aspiring musician turned Israeli soldier who is wounded in a terrorist attack on a bus; Claudette, the Catholic from Canada who has found herself mixed up in life on the kibbutz; and Ziva, the wise old woman who holds the secret to Adam’s desperate, intercontinental endeavour.

Safekeeping’s biggest strength is its meticulous research and keen eye toward describing life on a kibbutz. Hope has obviously immersed herself in the finer details of this culture, and she writes about them with confidence and passion. She has also done a superb job of rendering the zeitgeist of 1994: the internet and cellular telephones are barely a presence; people listen to Walkmans (though perhaps “Discman” would have been better); and the image of Rabin and Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn is a recurrent one. As well, the character of Adam, despite his lack of a plausible motivation, is deeply compelling. His love for his grandfather and his need to salvage some hope for his life is palpable in every scene he’s in.

The other characters, unfortunately, are not nearly as well drawn. I felt throughout the book a certain distance from Claudette and Ofir and the others, as if their emotional worlds were not nearly as accessible. This was a strange feeling, considering there were times when Safekeeping felt desperately overwritten, as if too much character detail was included that didn’t quite cohere to the grander structure of the novel. Each member of the cast of supporting characters felt, to a certain degree, in a state of desperation (and what is the state of Israel, really, except a state in a constant state of desperation), but it just felt like Adam’s situation was privileged over the others.

Still, there’s much to love about this well-crafted novel. Safekeeping skirts right up to the border of sentimentality without crossing over it. And the highly symbolic motifs – the brooch, the kibbutz, the Holocaust, Israel itself – never feel too obvious, and work really well together. For those interested in Jewish, and especially kibbutz, culture, this book will prove, for the most part, a satisfying read.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review: Myra Breckinridge, by Gore Vidal

I must admit, I am a real sucker for a “voice” novel. From Huck Finn to Money, from The Colour Purple to Everything Is Illuminated, from Come, Thou Tortoise to A Clockwork Orange, I am deeply susceptible to books that strive toward their own zany idiolects. (Full disclosure: I’m putting the final touches on my own zany voice novel now.) Gore Vidal’s shocking, subversive 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge definitely fits into the genre’s grand tradition; and through his wily, transsexual,  psychotic protagonist, Vidal achieves an idiolect as compelling as any you will find in literature.

The story goes: our titular antihero, obsessed with the golden age of film, arrives in Hollywood to take a teaching job at the “Academy for Aspiring Young Actors and Actresses,” a two-bit college run by Buck Loner, the uncle of Myra’s so-called deceased husband, Myron. She claims through Myron’s death partial ownership of the school, and while Buck attempts to substantiate her assertion, Myra takes on the chore of teaching classes called “Posture” and “Empathy.” The school teems with mediocre, untalented students (indeed, in the academy’s entire seven-year history, not a single graduate has managed to land a career in show business), and Myra latches on to two current ones: Mary-Ann Pringle and her strapping young boyfriend, Rusty Godowsky.

Myra is determined to force her dominating womanhood onto these two students, to drive a wedge between them so she can exact a kind of revenge on what she considers to be traditional masculinity. What ensues is a drawn-out, incredibly vivid, and utterly believable sexual assault on poor Rusty. Claiming he suffers from a twisted spine that is limiting his acting career, Myra lures him to the school’s infirmary to perform a late-night physical examination on him. By exploiting his implicit trust in her, and by gradually blurring the lines between a clinical interaction and a sexual one, Myra is able to get Rusty strapped face down on a table with his pants off. She then sodomizes him with a strap-on dildo, thus achieving her goal of shattering his manhood and destroying his relationship with Mary-Ann.
Yet the plot grows more complex on other fronts. Vidal introduces us to a cunning talent agent named Letitia Van Allen who shows an inordinate interest in Rusty that thwarts Myra’s plans (and also turns the boy into a star). Meanwhile, Buck Loner eventually uncovers the truth about this pushy, mysterious woman teaching at his school: Myra isn’t the widow of Myron at all; she is in fact Myron himself, following gender-reassignment surgery, a procedure that Myra underwent after encouragement from her therapist, Randolph Montag. She also, over the course of the novel, attends an orgy hosted by a group of men called the Four Skins along with some of the more sexually adventurous young coeds from the school.

The novel ends as subversively as it begins. Myra is involved in a car accident that results in her losing her silicone breasts and unable to take the hormones needed to maintain her femininity. She soon reverts back to being a man – at least, a castrated one – and ends up living with Mary-Ann. Vidal, through all this, is trying to undermine various notions around sex, gender, dominance and rape, and what he has created is a zesty, provocative exploration of all these things and more.

Vidal wrote this novel, or so the story goes, in just a couple of months, and it took just a few more after publication to sell 2 million copies. It’s a book everyone seemed to be talking about in the late 1960s, but not one that gets a lot of attention now. This may partly be due to Vidal’s overall standing in our literary culture, which has suffered greatly since his death in 2012. But this is a book that people should still be reading, because its themes and obsessions are very much relevant today. And as far as voice novels go, it is definitely one of the best.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: Hedda Gabler, The Pillars of the Community, and The Wild Duck, by Henrik Ibsen

It was somewhat fortuitous this month that I began reading a collection of Henrik Ibsen plays (picked up for 50 cents at a street-side yard sale in our neighbourhood last summer) as my wife and I had tickets to Canadian Stage’s production of Hedda Gabler going right now. I was hitherto unschooled in the works of this great Norwegian playwright – somehow Ibsen just never landed on my radar – and Hedda Gabler was a fabulous place to start.

Engrossing, comic, and tightly constructed, the play is an exploration of willful ignorance, career anxiety, and the manipulations of the soul. Hedda and her new husband, the recently graduated PhD student, Jorgen Tesmen, have just returned home after a luxuriating five-month honeymoon abroad. They move in to what Tesmen assumes is his bride’s dream house, and prepare themselves for Tesmen’s interview at a local university where he is all but presumed to land a position that has just opened up. But we soon learn that there is more to their marriage than first meets the eye: Hedda is deeply unsatisfied with life and looks for ways to shake herself free of her melancholic, housewife boredom.

The situation takes a turn when the couple finds out that a rival of Tesmen’s, a ne’er do well named Ejlert Lovborg, has returned to town and has just published a well-received book in the same area of scholarship as Tesmen’s. Now there is competition for the role at the university, and Hedda, driven by an unconscionable desire to cause harm to those around her - and her own complicated past with this rival - sets in motion a plan to stop Lovborg. Her wayward accomplice is a local judge named Brack, who is manipulating the situation from behind the scenes. Ultimately, the plan that Hedda launches backfires against her and she must now face the life that cannot be hers. With a nod to that famous Chekhovian maxim, she makes her ultimate decision.

The play does a tremendous job of examining Hedda’s psychopathy, her need to control the fates of those around her, to destroy lives at her whim so that her own life may have some meaning. The Can Stage production takes a gamble by moving the play out of its standard timeframe (the late 19th century) and into the 1950s. But the new adaption works, and actor Cara Ricketts is stellar as Hedda. Her longing and anguish is nearly palpable on the stage, to the point that we come extremely close to feeling something like sympathy for this play’s titular character.

Reading The Pillars of the Community and The Wild Duck alongside Hedda Gabler reinforced what are obviously a number of Ibsen’s key themes. Pillars looks at the length a man in power will go to maintain his status in and influence over society. Reading this play, about an industrialist who manipulates those around him to gain access to a treasured piece of land, reminds us that there is a thin line between exploiting opportunities and exploiting people. The Wild Duck, in turn, conjures more Chekhovian references, with a death scene at the end that echoes the same, powerful conclusion to Hedda Gabler. All three plays reveal a writer obsessed with the derangement that comes when intense desires we don’t even understand feel just beyond our reach.    

Friday, January 22, 2016

Update: Time change for January 28 reading

For those of you looking to come out to the reading I'm taking part in here in Toronto, along with writers Jeff Bursey,S.D. Chrostowska, and Rebecca Rosenblum, please note: Due to a double booking on the part of the venue, Supermarket, we need to begin the event earlier. The doors will now open at 6 pm and the readings will start at 6:30 sharp. Hope y'all are still able to come out.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My Quill and Quire review of Last Words, by Hugh Graham ...

... has been posted to the Q&Q website. My review of this one was fairly mixed, though I did feel that Graham made the most of the (very well-covered) territory he chose to write about. Interconnected short story collections are always tricky, but I felt Graham handled the book's structure and characters fairly well. If the book sounds like something you'd be interested in, I recommend you go check it out.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Review: Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler

Where lies the nexus between obligation and love? This is a question that author Anne Tyler tackles in her 1991 novel Saint Maybe, about a family altered by tragedy and forced to confront the responsibilities that fate bestows upon them against their wishes. Along the way, we learn that all love carries with it some form of duty, and all duty, even when it’s not of our immediate choosing, can bring with it a kind of love.

As the novel opens, in the late 1960s, the Bedloe family of Baltimore, MD appears to have an idyllic life: Breading winning father, loving homemaker mom, and three children at the cusp (or just beginning) their adult lives and destined for happiness and success. Youngest son Ian is in his last year of high school; middle child Danny is a couple years out and has a good job at the post office; and eldest daughter Claudia is happily married and popping out the babies. But their perfect lives take a turn when Danny announces that he has fallen in love with a mysterious customer at the post office, a divorcee named Lucy who has two small children from her previous marriage, Agatha and Thomas. The Bedloes are somewhat stirred up by the sudden appearance of this strange woman in their lives, but are supportive when Danny announces that he and Lucy are rapidly getting married.

Seven months later, Lucy gives birth to their daughter Daphne, whom everyone claims was simply premature. But Ian grows suspicious, and he soon begins to think that there is more to Lucy than meets the eye. Convinced that she is cheating on his brother, Ian confronts Danny about his suspicions. Shortly thereafter, Danny is involved in a fatal car accident that may have been a suicide. The Bedloes are now on the hook to help Lucy with her children, even if one of them may not even be their own blood.

Things get complicated further when Lucy’s life spirals out of control and she dies from an overdose of sleeping pills. Now her three kids are orphans, and Ian, feeling guilty that his (as it turns out, unfounded) suspicions about Lucy caused his brother’s suicide, and, by extension, Lucy’s death, turns to an obscure religion called the Church of the Second Chance to help with his troubled conscience. The minister, a man named Reverend Emmett, tells Ian that he cannot simply ask God for forgiveness. He must act in order to be forgiven.

So Ian steps up to the plate to raise the children himself. By now he has completed less than a year of college, but drops out to assume the role of parent. He takes a blue-collar carpenter job to pay the bills. The years pass, and the novel details how Ian comes to raise these children who have a tenuous connection to him at best, and how the act of doing so causes opportunity after opportunity to pass him by. Even as the children age and find love and ambitions and desires of their own, Ian is forever saddled by both his guilt and by his devotion to his religion that keeps him in this position of penitence. The decades pass. Near the end of the novel, with Ian now in his early 40s and Daphne, Agatha and Thomas all grown up, Ian finds love with a 30-year-old woman named Rita. The problem? She wants to have kids, but Ian feels that that phase of his life has already passed. But the nexus of love and obligation meets again, and Ian ends up giving Rita what she wants and finds a way to make himself happy even though their wishes do not align.

There is obviously a lot going on in this expansive novel, but Saint Maybe never feels tedious or overwritten. Like a lot of Tyler’s writing, this novel seems to slip between genres. In this way, it reminds me a little of the works of John Irving: not quite commercial fiction, but not quite reliably literary either. What we do have here are the tropes of family and devotion and God and the sheer drudgery that is sometimes needed to meet the demands of each. Saint Maybe reminds us that the structures of our self image and the obligations that life that throw randomly at us are not necessarily at odds. They can be inescapably bundled together, and even in the face of something terrible happening that we did not expect, we can still use the vagaries of fate to build a life for ourselves that has meaning and purpose.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Upcoming event: Toronto

Hey Toronto folks: I'm very happy to announce that I'll be doing a reading from The Secrets Men Keep at an event later this month. I'll be sharing a stage with my friend Jeff Bursey (who will be in town promoting his new book Mirrors on which dust has fallen), along with S.D. Chrostowska and my wife, Rebecca Rosenblum. Here are the details:

Where: The Supermarket Restaurant and Bar - 268 Augusta Ave, Toronto.
When: Thursday, January 28 at 7 pm.
Admission: FREE. Books will be for sale.
Facebook invitationhttps://www.facebook.com/events/209369692737822/

So come on out for a great night of readings.