This year I did a few final readings from Army of the Brave and Accidental, my retelling of The Odyssey, though the best moments came when I was invited to Thin Air, a Winnipeg literary festival in the fall of 2018. I’m still feeling proud of the book and while it wasn’t quite the response I hoped for, the book didn’t go without acknowledgement. I wrote some thoughts on it for Goodreads, mainly to include some comments from a Canadian Notes & Queries review by Alex Good that was really positive.

Here’s my annual list of books I enjoyed this year, including fiction, short stories, nonfiction and graphic novels. Mereading

Novels: It was a little hard to be patient with the slowly unfolding plot of Brooklyn (Colm Toibin) but ultimately it’s easy to enjoy as a well-written novel and a great example of a pace that allows characters to feel real.

Speaking of Ireland, The Wonder (Emma Donoghue) forges a very compelling novel out of real historical incidents: someone believing they don’t need to eat because God sustains them. Compelling and carefully written.

The Bookshop (Penelope Fitzgerald) is concise and meaningful, subtle, deeply British and enjoyable, even if the ending leaves the reader wanting more.

The Little Snake (A.L. Kennedy) is a quite remarkable short fable, clearly written in the modern age but designed to be timeless. The writing is very precise but I was most impressed with Kennedy’s way of capturing the kind of human she admires, even if the mirror-image appalling human is basically left out, their military aggression mysteriously unexplained. Perhaps that’s fair, as there’s no decent explanation, is there?

The Pleasure of My Company (Steve Martin) is a small, quiet and pretty much perfect novel. The Magician (Maugham) was utterly compelling with subtle meaning, as usual for Maugham, and I was reminded I’m really impressed when I read one of his novels, this one apparently based on Aleister Crowley. Bottled Goods (Llewyn), is a concise novel that employs a bit of magic realism in telling the story of struggles in 1970s communist Romania.

Titus Groan (Peake). An opening paragraph demonstrates how superbly and carefully written it is, even as it creates a world of its own. A remarkable book that’s quietly and deeply symbolic of different elements of society, and part of a trilogy I hope to continue soon.

Assorted Canadian Novels: The Sisters Brothers (DeWitt) was really well written and something I thoroughly enjoyed, particularly as someone who loves Westerns. Inventive, entertaining and grim with real-feeling characters, this felt to me a little like watching a Coen brothers movie.

Small Claims (Kaufman) has a character in personal crisis even as he’s mildly obsessed with the fairly pitiful struggles found in small claims court. It always gets on my nerves a little when novelists write novels about people writing novels, but ultimately like a good poem this hints at some important ideas about the daily struggles we face as humans.

Dear Evelyn (Kathy Page) is an impressive, empathetic account of a long marriage that has remarkable moments bringing the characters – and humanity with all its flaws – to life, even as I found it a little unsatisfying for the jumps in time that required the reader to resettle fairly routinely.

All My Puny Sorrows (Toews) is loaded with empathy for the characters it creates, and the world in general, and tells a compelling tale of a close family. Sometimes I’m tempted to resist when a novel so thoroughly and plainly tugs on my heartstrings, but I did ultimately enjoy this one.

Congratulations on Everything (Nathan Whitlock). I don’t think it’s as easy as it looks to write a concise, everyday epic that includes characters, dialogue and events that feel quite real even as insights are slipped into a straightforward narrative (Simply put, a character opens a bar and meets assorted people along the way). Whitlock provides the occasional sublime line, but the reader gets the sense he prefers a straightforward style, and story. In fact, overlong and overdone novels get a jab at one point, when a character is reading one: “It was the size of a small briefcase, and so heavy it made her wrists ache when she read it.”

I suspect Whitlock likes everyday people and quiet heroes. Stalin gets a mention, but only because a character is reading a plump biography of him. For once, the historic personalities are in orbit of the everyday people living their lives, trying to carve out a bit of space to be happy while the clock ticks, aware they have a finite amount of time: “Their father didn’t like to talk about getting old. Getting old was getting old — what alternative was there? It was as pointless as trying to imagine the forms life might take at the far end of the universe. We’ll know when we know.”

Short stories: Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (Richard Yates) was sad and beautiful and superbly written. The kind of good writing that didn’t draw attention to itself. The Ways of White Folks (Langston Hughes) was both a historical lesson and a superb set of stories. How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Lau) is an inventive and well-written set of stories. All three come highly recommended.

Graphic novel series: Irredeemable (Mark Waid) imagines a Superman-like hero turned evil and destructive and it’s very compelling (ten volumes), though his destructive acts are so appalling (particularly the first one) that later attempts to explain and humanize him don’t quite work as well as they might be meant to work. Wild’s End (Dan Abnett and I.N.J Culbard, who is among my favourite illustrators) puts an anthropomorphic twist on The War of the Worlds in a story set in and around small English villages and it’s gripping stuff (three volumes). Sweet Tooth (Lemire) is a grim, post-apocalyptic tale of struggle and survival well suited to the art Lemire produces. I found it compelling, even if I had to brace myself to read another volume.

Stand-alone graphic novels: Twists of Fate (Paco Roca) is a superb account of a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and then World War Two, using first-hand accounts of the events as told to the artist after meeting an alert, elderly veteran everyone assumed to simply be the local eccentric.

I’ve continued to really like Black Hammer (a refreshingly different take on the superhero genre) but Frogcatchers by Jeff Lemire is precise and poignant: at once accessible, profound, and like a meaningful dream.

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: An Introvert’s Story (Tung). Simply put, this thoroughly enjoyable series of anecdotes from an introvert helps explain introverts, and might actually help extroverts understand. We don’t dislike people, all right? It’s like having an inner battery that runs down, and then we’re emotionally wiped.

Memoirs of a Book Thief (Tota) may or may not be loosely based on a real story, but it’s a compelling story of a curious character entering the literary life of Paris in what would appear to be the 1950s. Not, apparently, the story of a famous writer but the story of the guy who was hanging around.

Clyde Fans (Seth) was promoted as decades in the making, and it was worth the wait. It’s a superb, subtle, poignant and beautiful story of two brothers over the decades and the fan company they ran. There’s something very Canadian about it, though not in a heavy-handed way. It’s nothing that ruined the experience, but in a handful of moments the print was too small for me to read, so I do wonder if it could’ve been packaged differently.

Nonfiction: Typhoid Mary (Anthony Bourdain) is a concise and readable account of an unfortunate life.

On Writing (Stephen King) is accessible, enjoyable, useful and curmudgeonly, beginning with the statement this is a shorter book because most books about writing are filled with “bullshit.” And here’s another line: “When it comes to scene-setting and all sorts of description, a meal is as good as a feast.”

Born a Crime (Trevor Noah) is an immensely readable account of life in apartheid Africa. Noah is skilled at both writing well and leaving out irrelevant moments, so that it’s both a personal journey and historically interesting.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Valeria) is “structured around the forty questions the author translates and asks undocumented Latin-American children facing deportation.” It would be hard to overstate how insightful and important this book was. I have a better understanding from this brief book, even as I continue to feel helpless.

James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations was a short book that routinely sent me looking for my highlighter given the number of remarkable quotes from Baldwin, particularly on life in America.

The Great War and Modern Memory (Paul Fussell) is a book I’m glad to have finally finished. I started it years ago and thought some of the anecdotes lifted directly from the experience — Fussell was among the first to go through diaries and journals from the war, some still with mud on them — were the most remarkable and memorable I’d read. For some reason I didn’t finish the book, maybe because it becomes more dry in the second half, but as a more mature reader I found it remained fascinating throughout.

Memoir: Born Standing Up (Steve Martin) reflects on his experiences working out his standup routines and how the experience was sometimes useful later in life when acting. More importantly, Martin is good company, briskly moving through interesting anecdotes. Not My Father’s Son (Alan Cumming) is a troubling (considering what Cumming went through) but well-written memoir of growing up in Scotland. There’s immense sadness here, and yet a struggle to understand.

Genre: Semiosis (Sue Burke) is an impressively imagined, compelling story of a human colony on another planet, each chapter taking place a generation later. Not only does this allow for the long view, in terms of the decisions characters make and the consequences – not even in their lifetimes – but each chapter becomes like a related, well-realized short story. Or it feels that way until the final chapters detail the fate of the entire brief civilization in some of the most compelling reading I’ve done in years. Don’t believe online reviewers saying the science overwhelms the plot. A few dull passages aside, Burke knows the science should be the spice, not the main course.

The Fireman (Joe Hill) had a great premise: a new plague has people simply burning up, quite literally, and society is in chaos as a result of all the spontaneous combustion. Hill creates memorable characters and presents a stark reality that blends well with a society headed for climate disaster: choose if you’ll be meeting the problem with grace and dignity or panic and prejudice.

Moonraker (Ian Fleming) was, I thought, one of the better Bond books I’ve read, with only a light smattering of the sexism that sits in some of his other books like lumps in your oatmeal.

Sherlock Holmes: last year I really enjoyed a new Holmes novel called The House of Silk but this year I found The Patchwork Devil (Cavan Scott) to be a pleasant surprise. It ain’t easy to play with the toys created by the giants of literature and manage to look pretty good, but I found lots to appreciate here: a brisk pace, a style that feels like Conan Doyle, and a 1919 setting that allows for some commentary on life after the war, even as the Great War isn’t simply used casually for backdrop but portrayed as the appalling loss of life it was. Add to that a bit of a distinct, older and somewhat more sassy Watson narrating the story, and a crossover with another famous genre novel (possibly franchise would be the word) you can probably guess from the title. On top of that, clearly some research went into portraying the setting and the era. This was an excellent diversion laced with some meaning as well, and so thoroughly enjoyable on more than one level.

Poetry: Bad Habits (Fraser Sutherland) is a new collection broken down into a dozen subjects, and carefully measured poems.  I also really enjoyed How to Avoid Huge Ships(Julie Bruck), and very much look forward to the new Chris Banks collection.

One final note: when looking for something for a Kindle or Kobo search “Tor.com” for affordable, inventive and well-written SF short stories, and “Vintage Short” for another impressive series, this one a mixture of fiction and non-fiction.


Bad Habits

01Dec19

I’ve been reading Bad Habits by Fraser Sutherland. Such carefully measured poems, and a book broken down into a dozen subjects. Sutherland has written for decades, and these are such a pleasure: “it is good to have a garden / and someone in it.” New from Mosaic Press and highly recommended. Here’s a link to a question I asked him about a previous book of poems and a meditative quality they enjoy. 

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In his clear-sighted and thoughtful essays, Orwell considers a wide range of subjects, and even the simple act of making amends comes up in A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray: “It might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground. And, if even one in twenty of them came to maturity, you might do quite a lot of harm in your lifetime, and still, like the Vicar of Bray, end up as a public benefactor after all.”

Of course, the title of my essay is meant to be eye-catching. Orwell didn’t live long enough to see environmental movements. But certain quotes are enough to make you wonder if he would have eventually been an environmentalist, and I think it’s reasonable to say he’d have been pleased with some aspects of modern life even while deeply troubled we’re driving straight for a cliff-edge. Politicians still fail to invest in clean energy or they rail against a carbon tax, even as scientists warn us about eventual crop failures, major cities flooded, and millions of climate refugees. The Orwell quote suggests he had an instinct for balance, for living in a measured way on the earth that predates our idea of a carbon footprint or recycling.

Some Thoughts on the Common Toad has one of my favourite endings to any essay I’ve ever read. I once read the entire essay as part of a reading series — not a particularly good idea — and right before this final paragraph, told them if they’d tuned out to tune back in again for these final words: “At any rate, spring is here, even in London … and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”

But that’s what we’re finally doing, isn’t it? The bomb threatens to end everything, or perhaps not at all if we can someday dismantle them all. But now we’re slowly short-circuiting nature itself, blending and flattening the seasons into a blur of hysterical weather of one kind or another, killing off species, lifting a ban on pesticides linked to declining bee numbers without concern for how we might manage without them, marching towards a world in which no child grows up in a safe and secure environment.

Clearly, Orwell’s insightful, creative and lucid mind also wisely took pleasure in the natural world. But the lies streaming from the loudspeakers now could delay action on climate change beyond a tipping point into disaster, and what would quite simply be the end of civilized life. Think of all the immense struggles for civil rights and every sacrifice made in the name of defeating fascism — far too many brutal stories to possibly recount here. What do all those sacrifices mean if we open the door to lasting chaos? We should be speaking up calmly on streetcars to start discussions, painting slogans, and generally doing whatever we can to make climate disaster a part of our daily consciousness and ignite the desire for change. And certainly, we must make ourselves aware that some of the most brilliant minds of the last hundred years — including Orwell — would be truly appalled by our lack of action.


My thanks to Alex Good for reviewing Army of the Brave and Accidental and calling the book “timely, original, and profound.” It’s a very thoughtful review, and if you don’t subscribe to CNQ, you should consider it: you get three issues a year of longer articles and reviews. This particular issue has an impressive number of 2018 titles reviewed, not to mention a celebration of fifty years of efforts.

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Time once again for my annual look at the books I count among my favourites in the last year. All the graphic novels are available through the Toronto library if that particular system can be put to work for you too.

Fiction: Mrs Bridge (Connell) is a remarkable portrait of a character and an era, told in precise chapters sometimes short enough to fit on a postcard. So Much Love (Rosenblum) is as compelling as it is well written and Pockets (Stuart Ross) was poignant and beautiful. Sister Carrie (Dreiser) is a novel I didn’t finish as an undergrad, but I found it immensely readable this year. It’s hard to think of another novel that had me cheering for the main character more than this one, even as there was a growing sense of apprehension.leonard

The Moon and Sixpence (Maugham) is apparently based in part on the life of Gauguin, and it’s a story I found fascinating as an examination of societal expectations and the self. I also really enjoyed The Sense of an Ending (Barnes), which manages to capture something meaningful about life’s struggles to be self-aware and find meaning, even if the accompanying cynicism is fairly pervasive.

Nonfiction: One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery (Karyn Freedman) has great value, not only because Freedman is a skilled writer but because rape is so often mentioned in passing it’s meaningful to have an account of the impact on a life.

What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism (Dan Rather) should be requited reading in America and elsewhere given that Rather has a thoughtful and noble way of detailing all that matters, in terms of keeping society civilized and functional.

A couple of thoughtful meditations are well worth tracking down: Birds Art Life (Maclear) and One Year Wiser: An Illustrated Guide to Mindfulness (Medaglia) which takes the form of a graphic novel guidebook and attempts to show the reader the path to greater wisdom.

Essays: Moranifesto (Moran) collects work that ranges from light pop culture analysis to very poignant and passionate (not to mention articulate) attacks on more significant societal problems. Through the Window (Julian Barnes) is a set of largely literary but very well written and insightful essays. Me Talk Pretty One Day (Sedaris) needs no promotion from me, but I enjoyed it.

Mystery: The House of Silk (Horowitz) was a pleasant surprise given that I’m a Sherlock Holmes fan. Horowitz has managed a novel that reads like Doyle returned to tell another story that’s a little more biting and meaningful. Aside from that, it’s a really enjoyable mystery.

Graphic biography: Pablo (Birmant) takes a look at the life of Picasso. The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman (Voloj) is excellent. Superman is ultimately an immigrant story undoubtedly inspired by the lives of his creators, but beyond creating the character the rest of the story is quite interesting too. The Arab of the Future (Sattouf) is an autobiographical tale and very compelling reading.

More graphic biography: It’s a Bird (Seagle) is a different kind of Superman graphic novel, telling a personal story of a period of time the author was contemplating an offer to write the Superman comic. Laika (Abadzis) tells the story of the charming dog the Russians sent into space, back when they did that sort of thing.

Christophe Chaboute: I thought his graphic novel The Park Bench (with its focus on one park bench over time) was charming, but I also read his gripping, short adaptation of the Jack London story To Build a Fire. Certainly planning on reading more by him.

Graphic novels: Sabrina (Drnaso) is the best graphic novel I read all year, capturing feelings of dread, disorder and paranoia. In short, our modern malaise. Poe (Hinds) adapts stories and poems by the great man. Killing and Dying (Tomine) is an excellent set of stories in graphic form. Essex County (Lemire) tells a fairly simple tale elegantly and manages to capture something about the Canadian spirit.

Speaking of Lemire: Black Hammer (two volumes, so far) is a compelling twist on the superhero story, with some unique and troubled heroes trapped in a place they don’t quite understand. It’s dying to be a mini-series of some kind, though the art in these comics is wonderful, and I only hope it wraps up in a satisfying way at some point instead of going off the rails or going on forever.

And yet more graphic novels: A Thousand Coloured Castles (Brookes) is a tasteful examination of Charles Bonnet syndrome and the accompanying hallucinations. Out of Nothing (Blandy) is trippy, philosophical and inspired, making it perfectly suited to graphic novel format. Coyote Doggirl (Hanawalt) was a stylish and thoroughly fun story. And finally How To Be Happy (Davis) is a set of sharp, brief and worthy stories with an impressive range.

Poetry: I really enjoyed The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory (Chris Banks) Know Your Monkey (Friedman) Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit (Harvey) The Wellspring (Olds), Rue Du Regard (Todd Swift), Be Calm, Honey (David McFadden) Blue Horses (Mary Oliver) as well as Penelope in the First Person (Goyette) and Complete Physical (Neilson).

SF: Embers of War (Powell) tells the entertaining and inventive story of a living ship and its crew in the aftermath of a great war. Borne (VanderMeer) had me sold on it as soon as I knew it was about a giant bear ruling a city in a post-apocalyptic future. Speaking of a fairly troubling portrayal of the future, True Born and True North (Sterling) are the first two volumes in a trilogy I plan to finish reading for the compelling story that skillfully keeps the reader engaged with its characters and themes.

Finally, Child of Fortune (Norman Spinrad) is a trifle long, but Spinrad (who wrote an original Star Trek episode before this was published in the 1980s) develops a futuristic language and finds unique moments in the story of a young woman leaving her home planet to find her path in life.


It was a bit magical to be out on the water as part of Word on the Street, reading from water-themed books on the Kajama along with Kerri Sakamoto (Floating City) and Andrea Curtis (Big Water). Deborah Dundas of the Star had particularly good questions. I also spent a few days as part of the Thin Air book festival in Winnipeg to participate in book discussions there with Sue Goyette (Penelope) Kevin Chong (The Plague) and Will Aitken (Antigone Undone). Great to have the chance to meet all of them and spend a few days discussing why we trouble to retell stories (I think, to be concise, we do it to reexamine who we are now). Happily, Army of the Brave and Accidental has also had a review in the Globe in an article that takes a look at three new literary time travel novels. Perhaps there was something in the drinking water. I have just a couple more readings from the book planned at this point, including this Wed, Oct 24 after 7pm at the Farside Studio. Also reading are Sam Shelstad, Jennifer Chen and Victoria Hetherington.

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Word

15Sep18

Very glad to say I’ll be a part of Word on the Street for the first time on Sunday September 23rd as part of a brief cruise called Across Water, Through Time. I’ll be discussing Army of the Brave and Accidental but the audience will also hear from Kerri Sakamoto (Floating City) and Andrea Curtis (Big Water). We set sail on the Kajama for about an hour. Seems like it will be a lot of fun, and if you wanted to climb aboard, tickets are available here. ArmyCover