Peter Norman, Emberton

Late in the novel, Lance’s co-conspirator and love interest, a thinly drawn rogue etymologist named Elena, suspects that the building is now forcing the two of them to fall in love. She resists, telling him, “This isn’t how you and I would really end up together. Our story’s not this tacky. Is it?”

My latest review for the Globe and Mail is about murderous dictionary publishers, rogue etymologists, and the unlikely, illiterate employee who tries to bring it all crashing down.

Read the whole thing here.

Dorthe Nors, Karate Chop


Nors also has an excellent sense of proportion. She lets all kinds of fascinating details linger around the periphery, giving the reader glimpses of a larger fictional world that always stays just out of reach. “Female Killers,” for instance, is ostensibly about a man who stays up late reading about women like Aileen Wuornos (the serial killer who inspired the Charlize Theron film Monster) on the Internet. But the story’s opening and closing sentences alter the frame, very subtly, to include the man’s girlfriend; the story concludes with him taking off his shoes, “so as not to make a noise when he goes up the stairs to her.” Why end things this way? I’ve been turning that question over in my head, with relish, for days.

My review of Karate Chop is in this week’s Georgia Straight.

Read the whole thing here.

André Alexis, Pastoral

In a modern context, the pastoral, with its whole-hearted celebration of feeling the grass between one’s toes, feels dangerously earnest, even naïve. It’s easy to imagine a 21st-century take as nothing more than a rudimentary Blue Velvet for shepherds: revealing the darkness lurking just behind that rural tranquility.

How do you write a pastoral in 2014? I reviewed Andre Alexis’s attempt at genre resuscitation for the Globe and Mail this past weekend.

Read the whole thing here.

A.L. Kennedy, All the Rage

Kennedy is all too aware that stories are an inherently messy medium. Sometimes we forget the punch line. Sometimes we get distracted by what we see out of the corner of our eye. To trim off these loose ends, Kennedy argues, is to excise much of a story’s honesty.

This past weekend, I reviewed the most recent collection from A.L. Kennedy in the Globe and Mail. I am not on the fence about this woman. She is fantastic. Stop trying to put that fence under me. I will jump right off of it.

Read the whole review here.

Perrine Leblanc, Kolia (trans. David Scott Hamilton)

It might sound crazy to point out that a character born in a Siberian gulag in 1937 has it too easy in life, but that’s the unusual corner Perrine Leblanc’s debut novel paints itself into. Despite the fact that young Kolia begins his life surrounded by bodies either recently deceased or soon to be, the boy is handed one lucky break after another, eventually rising to the ranks of a nationally acclaimed circus clown in Moscow with an ease and fluidity that pushes past good luck and into the realm of disbelief.

In last weekend’s National Post, I reviewed Kolia, the debut novel from Quebec’s Perrine Leblanc.

Read the whole thing here.

Jennifer Quist, Love Letters of the Angels of Death

A particularly memorable sequence involves Brigs calling each of his siblings to let them know their own grandmother has died, in the process revealing each person’s unique mourning protocols. One tries to get out of having to drive to the funeral. One “responds to just about every kind of stress by getting mad.” And the third, Brigs’s youngest brother, starts bawling on the spot, even though he’s at work on a construction site.

So much humanity is revealed in these moments. Grief, after all, is a kind of pressure, and we all crack differently.

This week’s column is a review of a debut novel from Lacombe’s Jennifer Quist. I was pretty taken by this book, which surprised me time and again with its thoughtfulness and unapologetic take on love and mortality. You might want to check this one out for yourself.

Read the whole thing here.

Michael Winter, Minister Without Portfolio


Nothing makes me swoon like a good title, so let it be said right off the top: Michael Winter’s fifth novel has a very, very good title. Recognizable but intriguing, it can rattle around the reader’s mind for a long time without giving away all of its secrets.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have much more positive to say about Minister Without Portfolio, my review of which ran in this past weekend’s Globe and Mail. It sucks to have to write such a piece in a national newspaper, but sometimes that’s just how it shakes out. Winter has since contacted me to say he appreciated the candour and honesty, so I guess that’s something. (Plus, the other national gave him a rave anyway.)

Read the whole thing here.

Norm Sibum, The Traymore Rooms


One of the great joys of fiction is watching a novel set up a problem that only it has the tools to solve. With long novels, that problem also tends to involve a balancing act of the reader’s time invested vs. the stimulation received. But a novel as long and cyclical as Norm Sibum’s The Traymore Rooms wears its problem on its sleeve even more pointedly: It asks, “How little territory can I possibly cover over 600 pages?” And that comes with a built-in dare to the reader: “How long can I trick you into sticking with me?”

Over at the National Post, I reviewed a 600-page debut novel (my copy is actually 730+, but who’s counting?) where almost nothing happens. It’s more complicated than that, of course—and not only because its author is a seasoned poet who knows exactly what he’s up to.

Read the whole thing here.

Hello, Governor: ‘Three Came from Ville Marie’ (1941)


Right at the end, he even sneaks in some plutonium-grade aggrandizing philosophy, and all I felt was moved at how fragile those French settlements were—not in the face of some cartoonishly bloodthirsty Aboriginals, but at the harshness of the terrain and the unrelenting weather and the hugeness of the unknown that those Europeans looked out into. Remind me again why we live here?

Six months into my Ballast column, and I finally found a good one! Three Came to Ville Marie isn’t a masterpiece, but I liked it a whole bunch. Plus, it’s got 500% less racism than that other book I had to read about New France in the 17th century, which is nice.

Read the whole piece here.