Category Archives: Reviews

Wrapped in Plastic, by Andy Burns

bookcover-wrapped-in-plasticThis slim collection of essays is an infectious appreciation of arguably (well, you get no argument from me) one of the most influential and defining creations ever to come out of television, the David Lynch / Mark Frost collaboration Twin Peaks. Author and pop culture aficionado Andy Burns (editor-in-chief of pop compendium web site Biff Bam Pop!) has packed his reflections with myriad details that will captivate longtime fans of the surprisingly short-lived show, bolstered with unique interviews with Twin Peaks writers, cast members and other principals and expanded accessibly with cultural and historical references and antecedents. The book also recommends itself as a great starting point for those new to Twin Peaks, as it moves forward from the show’s 1990-91 run to current programs that were clearly influenced by, benefited from and have paid homages to the Lynch/Frost pioneering creativity.

Wrapped in Plastic is a great accompaniment to a revisit/binge watch of the original program, especially the stunning and singular pilot movie. (I know, because that’s what the book inspired me to do, perfectly timed to some rainy afternoons during a cottage vacation week.) The book also reads well with such related books as The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer by Jennifer Lynch and Lynch on Lynch, creator David Lynch’s fascinating conversations with Chris Rodley about the Lynch oeuvre in which Twin Peaks is clearly central. Come to think of it, even Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity offers insights into both his process … and even that of charming and enigmatic Twin Peaks protagonist FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. The book is also a marvellous stopgap as those captivated by the original show await its continuation and/or resolution and/or who knows as it is reimagined by Mr. Lynch in the near future.

The Broken Hours, by Jacqueline Baker

Over the moon only starts to describe how thrilled I am to welcome Canadian writer, poet and playwright Leslie Greentree as a guest reviewer here. Her second collection of poetry, go-go dancing for Elvis, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. (Enjoy excerpts here and here.) I reviewed her short story collection A Minor Planet for You here. Oral Fixations, Greentree’s first play, co-written with Blaine Newton, was premiered in late 2014 by Ignition Theatre in Red Deer, Alberta. You want to follow her on social media, where her thoughts on things literary and theatrical are insightful and damned funny. You want to pay attention to her book recommendations and keep your ear to the ground for future literary announcements of her own …!

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1936. A bleak and rainy night in Providence, Rhode Island. An impoverished Arthor Crandle makes his way to the home of his mysterious new employer, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Crandle is desperate for work, unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s fictions, and all too ready to overlook his employer’s idiosyncrasies. Crandle’s approach to the dark house is met with words of foreboding from a neighbour and, once within, no sign of his employer. And his initial ascent up the dim staircase becomes his first encounter with the dark presence that inhabits the landing.

The reader needs no familiarity with the work of H.P. Lovecraft to delight in the slow, delicious burn that is The Broken Hours. This work of gothic-style fiction is based in a solid knowledge of the work of H.P. Lovecraft and the final year of his life; from those points of fact, Jacqueline Baker builds her spooky world with a masterful hand, piling eerie moment on eerie moment, interspersed here and there with an uneasy, short-lived relief.

That first night, as Crandle makes his way past the landing, calling out to his unresponsive employer, he pauses for a moment, chilled at a sudden thought: “The unnatural, studied silence coming from the other side of the door was neither that of someone having just gone out nor of someone at focused work or even in deep sleep. Rather it was the stillness of someone’s strained listening, just on the other side. Watching, perhaps, through the crack there.”

The passive Crandle continues on to bed, clutching a letter that he discovers on the hall table. He adjusts to communicating with his reclusive employer through sporadic notes, and begins his work transcribing a haunting Lovecraft story. And then the beautiful Flossie arrives, bringing a certain light – and even more questions – into the house. Where is her roommate? In fact, where are all the women referenced by Lovecraft, and Crandle himself – an aunt, a mother, an estranged wife – a bevy of women just out of reach, apparently on their way back to this creaking, breathing house where the furniture shifts, where mysterious lights and figures appear and disappear? And what of the white-clad girl who drifts through the night garden?

The book is replete with images of damp, of bloat – a gleeful celebration of the moist and its shuddery effect on readers. Rain, damp clothing and heavy, humid skies are only the beginning. When Crandle first encounters the presence on the landing, he says that the air changed: “I do not know how else to describe it. It darkened, became more dense. The carpet grew unpleasantly thick beneath my shoes, a swollen thing.” Ugh. Lovely.

Crandle’s passivity, at first the recognizable response of a desperate man, begins to take on an eerie tone of its own: he arrives at Lovecraft’s home penniless. He’s also faint with hunger, but he sets aside the meagre and unappetizing fare Lovecraft provides. The house has no mirrors. As the narrator occasionally catches glimpses of himself in windows, he realizes he has lost weight, neglected to shave – indeed, become unrecognizable to himself.

And then there’s the letter Crandle’s employer has begged him to deliver to Lovecraft’s hospitalized mother. He can’t seem to do it; the days get away on him, only partly through Flossie’s welcome distractions. The unfulfilled mission builds anxiety in the reader’s mind even as it seems to escape Crandle’s. And the reader’s sense of unease with our narrator builds.

The creepy beauty of this novel lies in Baker’s steady, relentless build of atmosphere, a slow piling on of realizations and new questions. She sets us inside striking colour palettes: the gothic greys of dim rooms and heavy skies are offset by occasional moments of gilded light over distant buildings, flickering lights seen through night windows. And Crandle notes a lighter palette of cool purples and mauves in moments of reprieve: in the morning light, and as splashes of violet cushions and drapes that Flossie incorporates into her apartment. The same palette that offers temporary respite, however, is then mirrored in threatening skies that don’t quite rain, and – in perhaps the most disturbing scene of the entire book – in a monstrous, bruise-coloured tentacle Flossie and Crandle discover on the beach.

This is a book filled with moments where the reader feels – as Crandle does – that much of the action is happening just at the corner of your vision. Baker knows how to chill a reader more effectively than through ghouls shrieking out from the dark places. Things slither, our imagination grows: a jar of baby teeth scatters across the rug in a dimly lit room, a stone is lifted in a darkened yard, a hand passes over a nest of baby rats.

Early on, Crandle says, “I wonder, sometimes, what lives in us. I wonder what comes calling, what we invite inside.” It’s a sentiment the reader slowly catches up with – a slow and creeping recoil that leads inexorably to a twisty ending.

Crandle says, “If you want your secrets kept, they say, cloak them in candour.” On finishing The Broken Hours, you’re left with a satisfied crawling sensation, one that makes you want to wait a little while, to chew on what you saw and what you didn’t see, to move only slowly from the secrets of the moody mauve setting toward whatever candour you might find.

2015 reading list (so far)

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As I’ve done in years past, I’m taking a look at (well, near) the halfway point in the year at the books I’ve read so far, with links where they exist to books that I’ve reviewed (either here on this blog or briefly on Goodreads). As I’ve always pointed out, it’s a competition with no one but myself, but it is always useful and interesting to stop and reflect a bit where one is at with one’s reading, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Of the 24 books I’ve read so far this year, 2 were non-fiction, 7 were poetry and the balance of 15 were fiction (novels and short story collections). Three of the books were rereads. Two books were works in translation. Fifteen of the books were by Canadian writers. One book was read aloud in its entirety (er, over a period of time, not in one sitting), which is a wonderful way to share the experience with another reader/listener.

  1. The Gallery of Lost Species
    by Nina Berkhout
    (reread)

  2. Mrs Killick’s Luck
    by Christina Fitzgerald

  3. Hard Light
    by Michael Crummey
    (reread)

  4. Fire and Air
    by Erik Vlamincky, translated by Paul Vincent

  5. The First Bad Man
    by Miranda July

  6. 10:04
    by Ben Lerner

  7. Life is About Losing Everything
    by Lynn Crosbie

  8. The Devil You Know
    by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

  9. Into the Blizzard
    by Michael Winter
    (read aloud)

  10. Breathing Lessons
    by Andy Sinclair

  11. Backup Singers
    by Sommer Browning

  12. Her Red Hair Rises With the Wings of Insects
    by Catherine Graham

  13. Safely Home Pacific Western
    by Jeff Latosik

  14. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
    by Michael Chabon

  15. My October
    by Claire Holden Rothman

  16. The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out
    by Karen Solie

  17. Human Voices
    by Penelope Fitzgerald
    (reread)

  18. A Serious Call
    by Don Coles

  19. One Night in Mississippi
    by Craig Shreve

  20. Close to Hugh
    by Marina Endicott

  21. Daddy Lenin and Other Stories
    by Guy Vanderhaeghe

  22. I Shall Not Hate / A Gaza Doctor’s Journey
    by Izzeldin Abuelaish

  23. Something Crosses My Mind
    by Wang Xiaoni, translated by Eleanor Goodman

  24. Tell
    by Frances Itani

Currently in progress:

  • Just Kids
    by Patti Smith

  • Laws & Locks
    by Chad Campbell

  • Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau: 1968-2000
    by John English
    (read aloud)

How is your reading going so far in 2015?

Evergreen, by Rebecca Rasmussen

I’m delighted to welcome Celia Ristow as the latest guest reviewer to contribute to this blog. Celia is a respected technical communications professional with an abiding love for literature of all kinds. She offsets many hours spent in front of a computer with ample hammock-and-good-book time.

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At times touching and poignant, at others brutal, tragic and refreshingly honest, Rebecca Rasmussen’s Evergreen is a study in contrasts; and yet throughout, the story moves forward with the certainty and ease of time itself. Like the river that flows through the centre of this multi-generational epic, and the enduring beauty of the natural foliage for which it is named, Evergreen is a story of endurance, resilience and promise. Although somewhat overstated at times, Rasmussen carefully and skillfully develops a delicate balance between contrasting forces — contrasts in character, story and setting — emerging in the end as an unquestionable narrative of hope and redemption.

The plot opens with newlyweds, Eveline and Emil, as they set up their first home in Evergreen, a remote corner of the Minnesota woods in the 1930s. After Eveline’s somewhat unconventional arrival at their wilderness cabin — a Lady of Shalott figure, asleep in a rowboat without paddles — she and Emil eke out an existence from the land and river around them. It is a traditional, if somewhat familiar tale of two pioneers in unforgiving surroundings, full of struggle yet reward, a new baby boy, Hux, and marital happiness, until Emil must return to Germany to care for his ailing father.

The story becomes centered around a trio of characters at this point — all of whom paint a portrait of compelling conflicts and contradictions — as Eveline is sustained by her straight-talking, rough-around-the-edges neighbour and friend, Lulu, and her husband, Reddy. Rasmussen brings the characters of Lulu and Reddy to life with ease. Like her worn coonskin coat, Lulu has endured much and survived with a clear and unflappable view on the events and people around her. She accepts and cherishes Reddy for who he is — the “honourable” alcoholic who travels to town for regular drunken binges, but always returns with supplies; who once saved Lulu from a life of prostitution and now fills the role of “good father” to her son, Gunther. Within the larger story, Lulu and Reddy are two characters who have lived and continue to play out Rasmussen’s theme of hope and the redeeming power of love.

Like the somewhat tarnished pasts of Lulu and Reddy, the idyllic tale of Eveline and her friends is suddenly tarnished itself with the rape of Eveline by a seemingly charming government surveyor, Cullen O’Shea, and the subsequent birth of a baby girl. Here Rasmussen delves into the utterly dark world of a rape victim as she explains how Eveline had “never felt so deeply hated”, conveying Eveline’s shame, fear and self-blame as she cannot seem to forget the “boyish” dimples that led her to trust O’Shea in the first place. And yet throughout this dark episode and following it, Rasmussen never lets us lose sight of the beauty and reassurance in nature, whether it be the inevitable return of spring and “tender green buds” to Evergreen or the little bird, Tuna, who feeds and sings without fail outside Eveline’s cabin.

Fearing Emil’s reaction to the baby born of this violation, Eveline leaves the baby at the Hopewell Orphanage, a name fraught — perhaps not so subtly — with the same contradictions Rasmussen has evoked previously. A place of supposed “hope”, the head nun at the orphanage develops a torn love/hate relationship with the girl, bestowing one her the demon name, Naamah. Despite dreams of finding her mother, and her view of the enduring evergreens from the orphanage — “Green as far as she could see” — Namaah inevitably leaves Hopewell and winds up a prostitute.

From here, Rasmussen moves the story forward easily, re-introducing the themes hope and redemption when Hux goes in search of and eventually finds his long-lost sister. The story now focuses on a new trio in Evergreen, Hux, Naamah and Lulu’s son, Gunther, who like the previous generation, continue to live a rough but idyllic life in their (now deceased) parents’ former cabins. As the story progresses with Gunther’s marriage to Naamah and the birth of their daughter, Racina, it becomes increasingly evident that the struggles and conflicts within Naamah have not dissipated. Afraid she “will do something terrible” to Racina, she abandons her, leaving her to be raised by the rough but dependable Gunther — a slightly over-stated echo of the past with Eveline’s abandonment of Naamah, and Lulu and Reddy’s predictability, but this thread weaves the generations and the story together in a way that seems perfectly natural and in its own way, reassuring.

Throughout Evergreen, Rasmussen evokes the beauty of the wilderness with vivid detail, taking its fundamental contradictions of brutality versus beauty, isolation versus connection as a backdrop to the struggles within the characters themselves. Occasionally somewhat forced — the image of Racina running into her mother’s arms at the conclusion of the story might seem somewhat Disney-like to some — and the evergreen imagery a little insistent at times, the story is compelling. The internal struggles of the characters are well-developed, and the plot moves forward at a steady pace so that we cannot help but read on. It’s a feel-good story, an honest portrayal of troubled lives, but reassuring in its simple yet affirmative final phrase, ‘Love was’.

Thank you to the author, Rebecca Rasmussen, for providing a complimentary copy of Evergreen.

My October, by Claire Holden Rothman

bookcover-my-octoberClaire Holden Rothman reimagines Hugh MacLennan’s Canadian literature classic Two Solitudes through the eyes and voices of an extended family touched in various ways by Quebec’s October Crisis. Rather than using her characters as symbols and thematic representations, however, Rothman creates palpably believable human beings touched by social, political and cultural forces, not just those buffeting Quebec in the 1970s, but reaching back to World War II. Beyond those external forces and influences, other connections and secrets are interwoven in the lives of prominent francophone author Luc Levesque, his wife Hannah, who is also the English translator of his works, and their troubled teenage son Hugo. There is an imperative tone to the “My” in the book’s title, driving home that what has happened in this pivotal month affects each character very differently, tests their strength and resourcefulness as individuals and challenges them collectively as a family.

Sprinting (like a super hero!) through The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

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Even bookish super heroes need sustenance on reading sprints …!

“One City One Book” community reading programs, where a city promotes to its citizenry the benefits of reading the same worthy book at the same time, are a comparatively recent phenomenon with an already lively and generally respected history. Usually promoted through a city’s public libraries, every year there are more and more activities associated with bringing readers together, giving them the opportunity to meet the author, discuss and explore a book’s themes and more.

What am I doing, sitting in Toronto (which has its own “one book” programs via the Toronto Public Library) … taking part in a “one book” program based in Chicago?

  • For starters, I have always wanted to read this particular book. In fact, I’m long overdue to get lost in a book of such immense charms.

  • I’ve been curious about online reading initiatives such as sprints (offered via different social media platforms, including using the #readingsprint hashtag in Twitter), to see if they do spark reading and discussion.

  • I’m interested in the activities and tools that the Chicago Public Library is providing to its participants to encourage coming to the book in various ways convenient and comfortable to a range of readers. (Thanks to Bibliocommons for access to the special e-reader provided to Chicago library patrons.)

And so far?

  • I’m falling in love with this vivid, compelling story that grabs all of the senses. It’s captivating.

  • I’ve intentionally booked specific times in my calendar to just focus on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. I look forward to those times, make the most of the one-hour time slots and feel like they’ve helped me establish some great reading momentum.

  • The special e-reader is a fun way of enjoying the book, because it allows you to not only easily page through, highlight and bookmark as you go along, but the sharing tools also allow you to easily capture, tweet and share passages you particularly enjoyed. From sprint to sprint, I find myself changing up between the e-reader and my physical copy of the book, which I love because it’s a fine, thick paperback that somehow feels lovely and right for the rollicking subject matter.

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  • The social media interaction via the #readingsprint hashtag has been intermittent, but is at times a nice way of connecting with other readers. (I get more responses sometimes from people curious about what I’m doing or who have already read the book and are confirming what a good choice it is.) Some of the other activities associated with the Chicago Public Library program are also featured online, the fruits of which are very interesting to see.

Will I keep at it? Yes, indeed – this has really sparked my enthusiasm. I’ll be avidly taking part in future sprints … and I’d definitely consider this approach to kickstarting my reading in future.

See also:

Life Is About Losing Everything, by Lynn Crosbie

bookcover-life-losing-everythingLynn Crosbie’s Life Is About Losing Everything is a gritty song cycle melding a dizzying array of short story, poetry, microfiction, memoir and more. The story traces a path through depression, addictive behaviours and destructive relationships, seeming to circle back repetitiously but always – sometimes imperceptibly, but always – moving forward. Crosbie wields dark humour, salted with sly, wry but sincerely passionate pop culture references and at times painful self deprecation and loathing. Through grief that is sometimes self inflicted, sometimes simply not fair, she poignantly acknowledges connection with others, even as it fails or is slipping away:

I smiled at her as the snow hit the window and the night darkened into the nights I will miss her, all my life.

She ruefully but doggedly (pun intended, for one of the most enduring relationships that bolsters her throughout …) mines for hope:

In the galaxies that reach out to heaven, my grandmother’s words are converted to stars: We are roses, she said, and must be cut down, sometimes, so that we may grow more beautifully.

By turns fragile and feisty, Crosbie/Crosbie’s heroine drives towards a determined renewal. The litany of woes and abuses is admittedly frustrating and off-putting at points, due in large part because you see the spirit and intelligence there and just want for it to fully emerge and, well, for her to get on with it. You cheer her on her journey and are grateful to her for sharing how arduous it was at times to reach her destination.

See also: Review of Life Is About Losing Everything by Kerry On Can Lit

Thank you to House of Anansi Press for providing a complimentary copy of Life Is About Losing Everything by Lynn Crosbie.

What I read in 2014

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Here are the books I read in 2014, with links to reviews (here on this blog or on Goodreads) where I have them. As I’ve done in previous years, this is an exhaustive, “all of” list, not a “best of” list. (I definitely have “best of” list fatigue this year, more so than usual.)

I continued my commitment in 2014 to a daily devotion to at least one poem … and usually more, as friends on Twitter continued to generously share their poem choices and reflections via the #todayspoem hashtag. Now three years in, I haven’t missed a day, both contributing and enjoying selections from others in this edifying and vital communal experience. I’ve now pondered the works of nearly 650 unique poets, writers, songsmiths and wordsmiths I’ve revisited or unearthed myself, and countless more via others wielding that often revelatory hashtag. On into its fourth year, I’m continuing with my #todayspoem habit every day heading into 2015, and I hope many will continue or join anew.

I also celebrated some more beautifully built books in 2014, including:

The books I read, reread and read aloud in 2014 …

  1. All the Rage
    by A.L. Kennedy

  2. Life After Life
    by Kate Atkinson

  3. A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love
    by Eufemia Fantetti

  4. how the gods pour tea
    by Lynn Davies

  5. Maidenhead
    by Tamara Faith Berger

  6. Crazy Town – The Rob Ford Story
    by Robyn Doolittle

  7. The Luminaries
    by Eleanor Catton

  8. Prairie Ostrich
    by Tamai Kobayashi

  9. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life
    by Hermione Lee
    (read aloud)

  10. Bark
    by Lorrie Moore

  11. Waiting for the Man
    by Arjun Basu

  12. The Lease
    by Mathew Henderson

  13. Grayling
    by Gillian Wigmore

  14. Sun Bear
    by Matthew Zapruder

  15. Ocean
    by Sue Goyette

  16. Cockroach
    by Rawi Hage
    (reviewed for bookgaga by Paul Whelan)

  17. Dog Ear
    by Jim Johnstone

  18. New Tab
    by Guillaume Morissette

  19. Congratulations, by the way
    by George Saunders

  20. Based on a True Story
    by Elizabeth Renzetti

  21. Americanah
    by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  22. All My Puny Sorrows
    by Miriam Toews

  23. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers
    by Tom Rachman

  24. Swann
    by Carol Shields
    (reread)

  25. Everyone is CO2
    by David James Brock

  26. Juliet Was a Surprise
    by Bill Gaston

  27. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
    by Eimear McBride

  28. Elizabeth is Missing
    by Emma Healey

  29. The Couch of Willingness
    by Michael Pond & Maureen Palmer

  30. Gone Girl
    by Gillian Flynn

  31. The Alphabet in the Park
    by Adelia Prado, translated by Ellen Watson

  32. In the Approaches
    by Nicola Barker

  33. Broom Broom
    by Brecken Hancock

  34. Us Conductors
    by Sean Michaels

  35. Paradise & Elsewhere
    by Kathy Page

  36. [Sharps]
    by Stevie Howell

  37. Lila
    by Marilynne Robinson

  38. Love Enough
    by Dionne Brand

  39. Thunderstruck & Other Stories
    by Elizabeth McCracken

  40. Paddy the Wanderer
    by Dianne Haworth
    (read aloud)

  41. American Innovations
    by Rivka Galchen

  42. The Gallery of Lost Species
    by Nina Berkhout

  43. Out of It
    by Michelle Kadarusman

  44. Sweetland
    by Michael Crummey

I read 30 works of fiction (novels and short story collections), 9 poetry collections and 5 works of non-fiction.

The 44 works I read this year were written, co-written or translated by 46 individuals – 33 of them women. While I thought the #readwomen2014 effort was an admirable initiative, I didn’t purposely set out to focus or skew my reading in any fashion, but I’m still happy to see that it turned out this way.

Currently in progress, heading into 2015:

  • Hard Light
    by Michael Crummey
    (reread)

  • Into the Blizzard – Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead
    by Michael Winter
    (read aloud)

Looking back fondly on my 2014 reading, looking forward eagerly and with anticipation to my 2015 reading, I’ll simply conclude (as I’ve done in previous years) …

It’s not how many you read that counts. It’s that you read that counts.

Satisfying Clicking Sound, by Jason Guriel

“Avoid writing if you can. If you can’t, avoid cliché, and be precise. Don’t try to ‘express yourself’; self-expression usually amounts to expulsion. Try, rather, to connect with another: picture a smart but demanding reader, and try to hold her attention.”
– Jason Guriel … on hoarding and keeping your best lines off Twitter

I’m pleased to welcome back guest book reviewer Rebecca Hansford, who previously reviewed Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood here on the the Bookgaga blog. Rebecca recently graduated from Queen’s University, where she studied Biology and Psychology. As she previously observed, “Majoring in science instead of English was a tough choice for me as I have an electric passion for reading. I particularly enjoy fiction that integrates scientific facts, environmental issues and dystopian societies.”

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In Jason Guriel’s Satisfying Clicking Sound, the poet explores the contrasting elements of nature and technology currently existing in our society. Guriel’s style is of writing demands the reader’s attention in a profound yet disturbing way. For instance, Two Girls Splitting a Set of Earbuds describes two girls as flesh conjoined by an iPod, illustrating our dependence on our newfound technology and our inability to communicate without it. This brutal yet honest style of poetry is seen throughout his work, causing any reader to pause and ponder his thought, even possibly becoming repulsed at times. In his poem Poetry is Barbarous, Guriel fully exposes the vulgarity of his writing, as he compares a snowfall burying plastic swans and rabbits to real animals being buried to the throat. This vicious, yet captivating style of writing is seen throughout most of Satisfying Clicking Sound.

Although most of Guriel’s poems are blunt and difficult to digest, there was some free verse poetry with a more flowing style. In the Washbasin, Guriel compares painting and watery reflections to emphasize how the narrator feels he can live up to his father’s shadow. This poem was genuine, and the painting metaphor was beautifully tied into the poem. Dead on Arrival was another poem that appealed to me. Guriel remarks that stars are not aware of the fact that they burned out light years ago and therefore, they may not be aware of who they are themselves. Similarly, since we live our lives with the knowledge that we will die, is life futile? Will we ever know who we truly are?

In short, Jason Guriel’s Satisfying Clicking Sound is a fantastic read if you are interested in a more modern style of poetry. However, the last half of his work does bring forth some beautiful poetry with a less hard-hitting and vulgar style. Nonetheless, Guriel uses imagery in an astounding manner as he broadcasts his ideas regarding technology and society in a brutally honest manner. He will almost certainly hold your attention throughout his work.

Thank you to Véhicule Press for providing a review copy of Satisfying Clicking Sound by Jason Guriel.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride

In A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Eimear McBride takes you inside a young woman’s mind teeming so violently, body pained so volcanically, soul torn so profoundly that you’re left shaking by the last page … if you last to that point. You might not. As McBride inhabits this character at the cellular level, the effect is scorchingly intimate, uncomfortable, unbearable and possibly unreadable for some at times. The rewards and insights are great, though, for the reader that can persevere with this thorny, brilliant debut novel.

This young woman gives vivid voice to her troubled upbringing, her sexual abuse at the hands of a manipulative family member, and the self-abuse she plunges into to simultaneously feel and not feel what has happened to her. That voice is only tempered with tenderness and sweet, wry humour when she speaks of and to her brother, set back in his own life’s progress by early childhood illness that comes back to afflict him and unravel their already fractured family.

While always defiant and spirited, that vivid voice is not entirely discernible, however. Spewing a churning wellspring of language that is somehow both dense and fragmented, this unforgettable narrator’s words regularly tumble into inarticulate ranting, but can just as easily take exuberant flight as she wields her unique form of black humour. Even as strict meaning is sometimes blurred, though, you will somehow manage to feel, sometimes be strangely charmed and almost constantly be rendered uncomfortable but still compelled by this woman’s intensity, however desperate, misguided and destructive she is, to herself and those she loves.

Through her voice, you also gain a powerful sense of her physical presence. As striking and verging on impossible it is to take in the indignities visited upon her and that she seeks out, it is a comparatively minor impertinence with her deceased grandfather that oddly but most affectingly connects with the physical intimacy, sympathy and even empathy of the final days with her brother. Even if some of her capacity for fearless physical connection has been made in the most horrific ways, you can’t help but feel a breathless, twisted admiration at her perverse determination to survive.

Her particular ability to understand her brother’s confusion and humiliation is both disquieting and profoundly moving to witness – and still, miraculously, leavened with that feisty dark humour – even when her beloved sibling’s existence has ground down to the miserably mundane. Somehow, she alchemizes that misery into something expiatory and transcendent:

“Something. Words words. I’ll go on my own. Your temper that’s the devil up. Normal almost sight again. Pull the bed but melt like water. Gone to hell. All your muscles. You’d give me a hit but can’t. I. There. Lie back. Lie back. You have to. Don’t do this you say.

“Don’t. You have to. And I turn away. I say. Just go don’t worry it’s. Normal now. It’s fine. You. Strapped up in your body. You don’t live there. I. Don’t look. I hear you. Crying.

“Going in the nappy. Rage. Not fair. Not fair. You wait til I’m well. You can definitely kill me then I say.

“Quiet.

“Turn and you are back asleep. I. Know I life the cover. Clean up. And now you’re gone fast far. Breathing. Don’t see me. Don’t know I do. New one. Clean you. Put it in the bin. See. My one act. I might be a person. Beneath the. Where horrible can be a good act of contrition. Shush there. You there sleeping. My boy. My brother. Wish my eye for yours tooth for your tooth. You’re a better. No. It’s all fuck gone. Gone to the gone to the wrong wrong wrong. Be shush for you. I can.”

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is perhaps best read in as few sittings as possible to stay with the narrator’s linguistic and emotional rhythms. Ironically, maintaining that sustained attention is like gazing into the sun. You have to stop. You have to look away. You have to take a breath before resuming. In particular, the book’s last 50 pages (pretty much the entirety of Part V, The Stolen Child, an at least two-pronged title) are suffocatingly intense and emotionally lacerating as the heroine’s – yes, she is heroic – anguish reaches a crescendo.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing joins admirably other works known for distinctive if fractious voices that veritably leap off the page. The comparisons to Joyce are plentiful and warranted. More titles that come to mind include Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman and How late it was, how late by James Kelman.

Eimear McBride’s admiration of James Joyce and Edna O’Brien is immense and unabashed, as she reveals in this Guardian essay. Her tribute to Joyce can also be well applied to the rewards to the reader who stays with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing to the end:

Difficulty is subjective: the demands a writer makes on a reader can be perceived as a compliment, and Joyce certainly compliments his readers in what he asks of them.

See also:

Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for providing a review copy of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride.