Saturday 28 March 2015

Nothing to Hide by Nick Simon

  Nothing to Hide

  by Nick Simon
   Deux Voiliers Publishing

   ISBN 978-1928049258
   April 2015

   Ottawa 2015

Reviewed by Frederick Vermote

From the first page of Nick Simon’s Nothing to Hide, a gripping, post-epidemic dystopian novel set in a disturbingly familiar present/future Vancouver in which civil rights have been curbed and government monitoring put in place to enforce new health standards, I was sucked in. In Simon’s Vancouver new health codes, enforced by drones and syndics have been put in place to prevent future epidemics, and people are observed through cameras everywhere by the Vancouver Public Health Bureau to make sure they comply. 

Simon’s protagonist in all this is William Potenco an office worker in a small, start-up social network for intellectuals called Eureka!. In William we see all the contradictions of the outside world laid bare. While he shares his innermost feelings in his online dairy and with his best friends and his girlfriend, a camgirl named “jewels,” online he simultaneously resents the idea that the state would in anyway be interested in what he has to think or say. 

William, like the system around him also excels in processing and categorizing data, both at his job at Eureka! and for a online company set up with his friends in the new virtual economy. Unknown to William, however, is that he is being watched. The novel opens and is mostly narrated by Doctor Officer Elias Degair, an official in Vancouver’s Public Health Bureau, who has taken notice and been observing William. 

As Degair’s observations take the reader deeper into the personal life of William, he becomes convinced he has discovered a new disease – William’s Disease – a mixture of depression, introversion and anti-social behavior. Only happy, healthy and fit people are tolerated in Vancouver, and William no longer fits. 

In Simon’s novel the characters are beautifully rendered as happily controlled. As a kind of modern proletariat operating in an age of information they log into their computer no differently than nineteenth century workers punching in at the factory. Control operates both at work and in their private lives. Big money and government lie in bed together, personified in the character of Sydney Rothsteen, Simon’s stand in for greed, and the owner of the biggest social network, Real. For Rothsteen people are products or data. In Simon’s world the disturbing idea is that most people, no matter how educated they are, no longer care at all about who is using their personal data for whatever purpose – whether it’s social networks selling data to advertisers or to spying governments, people have all together lost interest.

Enter Thomas Vickers, a graduate school dropout and recent new employee at Eureka! who begins to clue William in to how the virtual reality William lives in is actually perpetuating the influence and control of people like Rothsteen and the Vancouver Public Health Bureau, and things go pop. Degair interprets William’s desire for escape and new found enlightenment as his disease manifesting itself and must step in. What happens next occurs in Degair’s office at the Public Health Bureau and it determines William’s fate and perhaps the fate of all humankind.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Twisted Reasons by Geza Tatrallyay

 Twisted Reasons


   by Geza Tatrallyay

   Deux Voiliers Publishing
   Ottawa 2014
   ISBN 978-1-1928049128
   November 2014

by Richard Renneboog

Stories are easy to tell. It is not easy to tell a story well, and even more difficult to tell a story exceptionally well. Twisted Reasons is just such a story, and Tatrallyay has told it extremely well. Set in locations including New York City, Vienna, Chelyabinsk, and several others, Twisted Reasons weaves together the twisted threads of nuclear ambition in the post-World War II days of the Soviet Union with those of the present day. 

At the heart of the story is semi-successful crime-drama writer Greg Martens, who is drawn to Vienna, Austria, by an invitation to deliver an address at a literary conference sent to him as a result of mistaken identity. This is an opportunity to reconnect in Vienna with his boyhood friend Adam Kallay, to take a trip into Hungary and see the homeland of their respective families. Kallay is the second central figure in the story, an agent working to oversee the reduction and processing of the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal. The third central character is Anne Rossiter, an Interpol agent working from Vienna. Kallay has informed her of the theft of an amount of highly enriched uranium (HRU) from the site he has been monitoring. The HRU is weapons grade, and will no doubt be smuggled out of Russia and sold to a terrorist group. He wants to meet with Rossiter to give her the details of what he knows. The plot twists begin when Martens arrives in Vienna and learns that Kallay has apparently been killed in a hit-and-run accident that same afternoon, which was also the very day he was to have met with Rossiter. Martens and Rossiter meet at the morgue the next morning, puzzled by the fact that Kallay's body has already been cremated.

Through various incidents and inquiries, they are lead to a young Russian woman named Julia Saparova whom Kallay had supposedly been helping to obtain legitimate work as a nuclear physicist. She is the innocent connection that brings them into contact with men who are in actuality the purveyors of the theft of HRU. As the story develops, Martens and Saparova, and eventually Rossiter as well, come to realize that Kallay was not killed, and has instead faked his death in order to go into Russia to 'hunt down' the thieves and recover the nuclear material. By leaving various clues, Martens is able to follow him into Russia, where he comes to understand the stark reality that was the Soviet Union and that still lingers in the present day. The twisted paths by which the various characters travel through the story eventually brings them together in a show-down that sees one half of the HRU recovered, and the other half lost into the hands of terrorists. Duplicity abounds, and it is never entirely clear until this denouement whether Kallay is a bad man pretending to be good, or just a good man gone bad. Perhaps, given the bits and pieces of his life story that are interspersed throughout the tale, he is both.

The introduction to the story is equally fascinating. It is an account of how the workers forced to build the first Soviet nuclear reactors at the Mayak site in Chelyabinsk were treated in 1947. Scientists and engineers all, many undoubtedly brilliant minds who would have made incredible contributions to the advancement of science and the good of the world, were instead wasted en masse and disposed of like so much useless garbage. In order to push the production of a Soviet nuclear bomb, they had been made to open nuclear fuel rods by hand after an accident in order to recover the enriched uranium inside. After just six days of such prolonged exposure, radiation poisoning was so advanced that workers were loaded onto trucks, driven away from the gulag where they had been ensconced, and shot. Their bodies were then dumped into the nearby lake. The introduction tells of one such man begging his friend to deliver a letter to his wife, if he can, because he knows he will die the next day. This man was the grandfather of Greg Martens. The incident is a relevant tie-in to the present day in the story, as the history and condition of the Mayak site is described.

Throughout, the story is punctuated by reflections and memories from Greg Martens' past, of the stories his grandmother would tell while sitting on the front porch of a summer's eve. They range from the night her husband was taken away in Hungary to end up a victim of the Mayak fiasco, through accounts of her subsequent life in Soviet-era Hungary, their escape to Austria and then to the United States. The poignancy of the stories underscores the narrative beautifully and the recollections are never overdone.

Twisted Reasons is at times quietly intriguing, at times lurid with gritty reality, at times tension-filled and explosive. Above all, it is well written, well founded in history and presents a scenario that is all too chilling in its plausibility. It lays bare the manner in which the mistakes and ambitions of the present day are constructed on the errors and blind ambitions of the past, and reveals that simple truth stated so succinctly in the phrase “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Twisted Reasons is highly recommended reading.

Sunday 5 October 2014

Stage Business by Gerry Fostaty

  Stage Business
   by Gerry Fostaty
   Deux Voiliers Publishing
   Ottawa 2014
   ISBN 978-1-928049081
   Release - November 2014

Reviewed by Arielle Lerner

Gerry Fostaty's Stage Business quickly sweeps the reader into the slightly dark and incredibly intriguing universe of its narrator, Michael Dion, a relatable Toronto-based actor. The novel begins with Michael learning about the possible disappearance of a teenaged boy, the family friend of a woman Michael is interested in. Looking for any excuse to get this woman's attention, Michael offers to help - unwittingly throwing himself head-first into what soon becomes a full-blown search and rescue mission.

With the assistance of an unexpected group of friends (fellow quirky stage actors and crew), Michael devises a scheme that triggers an incredible sequence of events, bringing both the characters and readers on a journey through an unexpected side of Toronto, touching on the city's drug culture and underground rave scene. Having a group of actors as the main characters allows for the development of some creative, over-the-top scenarios, while maintaining the authenticity of a modern-day reality.

Much of the story's brilliance lies in its simplicity; the language is straightforward, the plot does not overreach, and the narrative moves at a very satisfying pace, providing just enough detail to set the scene, but never dwelling on the insignificant.

The reader can't help but remain completely invested as Michael and his colleagues find themselves caught up in a chain of troubling events, with an ever-growing sense of danger and drama. Each chapter ended on a note of suspense, and left me wanting more.

This is Fostaty's first work of fiction, and I'm sure it won't be his last. With Stage Business, he masters the balance between the dramatic and the humorous, keeping the narrative light and quirky, while maintaining a level of suspense and intrigue throughout the whole novel. The story had me captivated from the first page, and has stayed with me days after finishing the last. The plot is compelling, the characters are genuine, and the fast-paced, conversational dialogue makes the reader feel as though they are part of the adventure. Best of all, the ending leaves just enough room for another book to take place in the same universe. A truly fabulous read!

Stage Business is published by Deux Voiliers Publishing for release on November 1, 2014.

Friday 5 September 2014

Kirk's Landing

by Mike Young
Deux Voiliers Publishing
Ottawa 2013
ISBN 978-0988104860

Reviewed Martin Bueno

Have you ever wanted to become invisible at will? You could walk unseen into a crowd or enter restricted places without being noticed. Indeed, you could certainly get yourself into a lot of trouble with the law if you had a penchant for mischief, but not if you were an undercover RCMP officer like Corporal Dave Browne busting inner city Toronto street gangs for drugs and crime. Unfortunately, his supernatural power to ‘fade’, which came to him naturally from the aboriginal spirit world, was not as he learned, always one hundred percent reliable. The novel begins as Dave suddenly re-appears at a biker gang meeting and upon being discovered, barely escapes with his life.

Forced into exile by his superiors, Dave is sent to a remote community in Northern Manitoba in charge of a police detachment in Kirk’s Landing. His intention is to bide his time and lie low until he can safely return to the big city, however, that is easier said than done as he finds himself entangled in the lives and issues of the locals including a disappearance,  a pollution cover-up at a high tech paper mill, and conflicts between natives and the white community.  There is more to learn about his native roots (an Ojibwa grandmother) and his acquired native powers from the Chief and the elders and from the Chief’s lovely daughter, the local barmaid JP. 

From the skillful hand of Mike Young, readers are captivated by the larger than life characters and of the likeable Mountie who in the end will always get his man.

This book is highly recommended to anyone who would enjoy a crime fiction with an added magical twist.

Monday 23 June 2014

A Tangled Web

Palawan Story

By Caroline Vu
Deux Voiliers Publishing
ISBN 978-1928049012

Reviewed by Alex Binkley

There now are more refugees and displaced persons around the world than at any time since the end of the Second World War. Images of cars and boats of desperate people fleeing religious or territorial conflicts are regular occurrences in newscasts.

The danger and fear these people face until they reach safety and a chance for a new life is the underlying current of Palawan Story, a novel by Montreal writer Caroline Vu, who left Vietnam as a child. Palawan was a refugee camp in the Philippines for thousands of Vietnamese who fled the Communist takeover of the southern part of the country in the 1970s.

The fortunate ones like Vu's protagonist, Kim Nguyen, were able to create a new life elsewhere. In a case of mistaken identity, Kim is adopted by an American family and becomes a medical student in Montreal. But Kim is haunted by memories of her past and unable to find out what has happened to her parents and sister, Kim visits Vietnamese communities in California and returns to Palawan and eventually Vietnam to look for them and to understand what actually happened in her past. While there is much disappointment, she can finally separate fact and fiction and get on with her life with a loving and supportive boyfriend and her adoptive family.

Palawan Story is a personal, at times raw, account of life. It works on both the intensely personal level as Kim struggles and obsesses with her fears and her memories. She painfully works her way through them. The writer clearly describes the power of memory, in the absence of facts, to shape or distort our lives. In the process, she also delivers the reader a powerful message about the hell people go through trying to escape war zones in the Middle East, the Ukraine or Asia. Or the boatloads of refuges who drown when the rickety vessels they have paid to take them to safety sink.


Caroline Vu will be launching Palawan Story in Ottawa, Paris, the UK and Costa Rica in June, July and August 2014. Visit the Deux Voiliers Publishing's events page for details on these and other upcoming events.!dvp-news-events/cg5v

Sunday 1 June 2014

Cycling to Asylum

  Cycling to Asylum

  by Su J. Sokol

  Deux Voiliers Publishing

  Montreal 2014

  ISBN 978-1928049036

Reviewed by Frank Côté

I spent the last few days in chaos, during which time I read Cycling to Asylum for the purposes of this review. It was time well spent.

Here is the short of it. Su J. Sokol's eloquent prose takes us through a fascinating near-future landscape that is uncomfortably familiar. The distinctive, vivid voices of her characters make Cycling to Asylum a joy to read.

The world is stark and at times brutal but in other places so wonderful and alive. The plot took me to places I didn't expect to go, but each time, I enjoyed the ride.

They say that characters make the story, that the plot is just a skeleton that you hang the characters on. Cycling to Asylum is an excellent example of this. The world Su Sokol presents at times threatened to push me away with the brutality of future New York but the characters always drew me in. Their humanity held me in a warm embrace and kept me reading. It wasn't that the story wasn't good, but the little moments of humanity, of unity just kept me reading. Those moments were warm beacons of hope and asylum in a story that needed a lot of both. Laek, Janie, Siri and Simon make a family that is a joy to get to know. Su Sokol shows them off brilliantly. I simply loved it.

I would like to linger now, with more detail, on some of the elements of Cycling to Asylum. 

Cycling to Asylum isn't perfect but there isn't much to complain about and so much to enjoy.
Cycling to Asylum's two main settings consist of future New York and future Montreal, with a little idyllic nature in between.

The severe environment of New York (and one assumes the rest of the United States) is familiar to anyone who reads the news in this post 9/11 world and fears where it all might lead. It's all the more scary by its familiarity. It's the perfect setting for the characters to define themselves. Su Sokol does a masterful job of introducing and describing this world without going too far in extraneous prose. I enjoyed the care in which Su takes to give humanity to this setting. It's not the plot elements (a demonstration leading to a clash with police) that make it real but the places, people and small moments. I loved the moments Laek and his family spent in the park. Su reminds us that even if things get bad (brutal law enforcement, gulag-like school systems, privatized assisted living) there's always something good, be it a nice park, music or just a 'capture-the-light' game for the kids.

In contrast, the future Montreal is almost a utopia. In fact it's described as such by Laek during his appearance before the Immigration and Review Board. Montreal is my home, and as much as I love it, Su gave it a lot more love in her words than I could and I enjoyed every moment the story spent there. The streets, the harsh winter, the neighborhoods, it was all there and lovingly described. It soothed me after the time spent in New York.

I can't say much about the plot. From the start, we know what will be happening in broad strokes. Laek and his family will travel north to Montreal in their bid for freedom. Siri's "kidnapping" by Michael's parents was the one surprising twist near the end and I enjoyed it. I considered it icing on the cake.

The story elements that Su chose to dwell on, were never quite what I expected. At the beginning I expected to be told the story of Laek's trip north to Montreal but this ends up being glossed over a bit. I expected to hear more about his past and the events that made him who he is, but this does not happen until much later in the book and not at the level of detail I expected. This happened here and there throughout the book but the surprising thing to me was that every time it did, I enjoyed where I ended up much more than I think I would have enjoyed going where I expected to go.

The characters of the book are the gems that make it great. Laek and his family are solidly written, well fleshed out and a true joy to get to know. I don’t usually enjoy multiple first person POV works, but this was done well and felt true to the book.

Laek, the main character is the most unreal to me. This isn’t because of any lack of skill in Su's portrayal but because he's the furthest out from my own experience. He's both broken and whole. He is heroic in his goodness. He’s a pacifist with experience in violence from both sides of the equation. He experiences savage rape in New York, relives traumatic torture in Montreal and dishes out implied violence to his daughter's would be violator. I enjoyed getting to know him during his POV chapters because I wanted to know him.

Janie, Laek's spouse, felt the most real. Loving, fiercely loyal she is both the ideal lover and mother figure to Laek and their children. I enjoyed her both in her POV chapters and seeing her through Laek's, Simon's and Siri's eyes. This sort of character can easily become a cliché but Su's handling of her vulnerable moments where Janie is fearful for her family, desperate in her love for them really hits home and avoids that.

Siri is Laek's and Janie's twelve year old pre-teen daughter was my least favourite character by a small margin. She is self-centered and self-absorbed, oblivious to the hideous environment she lives in. I found myself annoyed by her at the beginning, but her romance with Michael was sweetly done. I have a minor quibble in her portrayal because I don't feel that 'Mommy' and 'Daddy' would be the way such a child would refer to her parents. Siri is redeemed in the last quarter of the book. The strip poker incident with Gabriel and her kidnapping at the hands of Michael's parents really allow her to grow as a character. Although I feel Su could have gone further here with Siri, but it was by no means badly done.

Simon, Laek's and Janie's nine year old son is my personal favorite. His childlike view of the world delighted me and his growth throughout the book was a joy to see. I did find him a bit immature at the start but this adjusted itself in Su's writing as the book progressed. I loved his struggle between his desire for violence to avenge his father and his pacifist nature. His portrayal was well done and I usually smiled through most of his POV chapters.

Of the secondary characters, there's not much to say. Only Philip, Laek's friend, really stands out. I didn't really 'get' Philip or his dynamic between Philip and Laek but I felt I didn't really need to. 

"Just go with it" seemed the order of the day there.

There's a lot to Cycling to Asylum. You want themes? Ideas? Warnings of dystopian futures? It's all in there. I could write a whole other article to discuss it, but in the end for this review, here's what I took away from it. It's all about the humanity. No matter how bad things get, there's always light and love somewhere. Find it, and you have your asylum to heal and get back out there. The family moments between Laek and his family were so well done that I treasured them while reading and will continue to do so. People are people is another idea that stuck and I enjoyed Simon's last POVs that put a neat little bow on that, with both the friendly police officers buying ice cream and his thought process on his earlier desire to kill the cop that hurt Laek.

Cycling to Asylum is a great book. I enjoyed my time reading it, I enjoyed meeting the characters. I'm not sure I want to visit Su's vision of future New York, but I loved future Montreal and who knows? There might be more than a few Laeks, Janies, Simons and Siris to meet there as well.

Saturday 26 April 2014

Humanity's Saving Grace by Alex Binkley

Humanity's Saving Grace

by Alex Binkley

Loose Cannon Press 

Ottawa 2013

ISBN 978-0986787966

Reviewed by Mike Young

Ottawa science fiction author Alex Binkley' debut novel explores a fresh take on the classic sci-fi theme of first encounters with aliens. This is not an invasion. Calling themselves Beings, the aliens approach very cautiously and peacefully, claiming to need our help to defeat a threat to their planets - and eventually to ours. They have bred any warlike tendencies out of themselves, so are in need of our blend of aggression and primitiveness.

These Beings share their society with vast numbers of manufactured helpers, who at first seem to be merely tools. However, maybe there is more to these servants than is first apparent. And what are the links from our past with the Beings and their enemy, the Nameless? The stage soon fills with characters from all sides, and leads to a series of battles worthy of any space opera, via technology that is a good stretch, yet believable.

Alex gives us a skilful blend of dialogue and description, with a generous sprinkling of tongue-in-cheek references to various sci-fi books and movies, and a bit of romance. All in all it's a good read.

Friday 7 February 2014

Mãn by Kim Thúy

Éditions Libre Expression

Montréal 2013

Reviewed by Con Cú

Kim Thúy’s newest novel, Mãn, clearly surpasses her earlier work. And that is no mean feat as her first novel, Ru, garnered this Montreal author the Governor General’s Award for French Fiction. Thúy’s writing has considerably evolved since Ru. Unlike her debut novel, which enchanted readers with exotic vignettes of Vietnam and entertaining anecdotes about integration into Canadian life, Mãn delivers at a higher level.

The protagonist Mãn is a young woman from Saigon who agrees to a marriage, arranged by her ailing mother, to a Việt Kiều, an overseas Vietnamese. Transplanted to faraway Montreal, Mãn devotes herself to fulfilling the desires of her husband and the customers in his small restaurant for the culinary delicacies of their home towns and villages. Her fame as a cook soon draws hordes of lonely men who live through her dishes memories of a country they fled decades before.

When Julie, a French-Canadian aficionado of Mãn’s cooking, proposes to expand the restaurant and collaborate on a recipe book, Mãn’s world expands to include talk shows and international books fairs. In Paris for the city’s Salon du Livre, Mãn meets Francine, an editor who grew up in Saigon and loves all things Vietnamese. Francine introduces Mãn to her brother, Luc, a celebrated Parisian chef who shares Mãn’s passion for food and Francine's longing for Vietnam. Mãn soon finds herself gliding from her world of duty into Luc's embrace.

Kim Thúy’s novel is more than a love story, and certainly breaks with the Western paradigm of romance. The torn hearts, heightened emotions and conflicted morality—the hallmarks of European literature since Thomas of Britain wrote Tristan and Iseult—are happily absent from Thúy’s work. Instead, at the speed of dew drops off lotus petals, her quill transforms her heroine from a Confucian child bride into a fully blossomed woman.

Reading Mãn in the French original text is sheer pleasure. Thúy’s rich vocabulary rings with the musicality of a finely attuned ear. The novel will soon be available in English translation, but the translator’s task will assuredly be a daunting one. Whatever the language, in which readers choose to read Mãn, they will delight in this skillful intersection of tradition and passion, of duty and the frailty of the human heart.

Saturday 30 November 2013

Bone and Bread

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

House of Anansi Press

Toronto 2013 

ISBN 9781770890091

Reviewed by

Ian Thomas Shaw

Remarkable. In the currents of Canadian literature, there are few writers who can meld the longing of the human soul with a story so believable and engaging as Saleema Nawaz has in her debut novel Bone and Bread. Her superb writing lures you first with grief and absence and then seduces you by painting the mundane on a canvas of life’s small absurdities.

Beena and Sadhana Singh are unlikely heroines. Their parents, a free-thinking Sikh pastry cook turned Jewish bagel shop owner and an Irish mother who teaches yoga and dabbles in Eastern astrology, induct their children into a world of non-conventionalism, self-dependence and resilience. Two years apart in age, the two girls are inseparable. The death first of their father and then of their mother leave the sisters adrift in a world where their only relative is “Uncle,” their father’s younger tradition-bound brother. The lifelong bachelor is incapable of understanding the emotional needs of his nieces, and tries unsuccessfully to inculcate them with old world values and teach them how to be “good girls.” At sixteen, Beena throws herself into her first love, with eighteen-year-old Ravi Pattel, a ‘bagel boy’ in the family business in Montreal’s multi-cultural neighbourhood of Mile End. When Beena becomes pregnant, Ravi slips away, abetted by his upper class Hindu parents. Even Uncle’s attempt to bribe Ravi’s family with a sizable dowry fails to rescue Beena from single-motherhood. While Beena drops out of school and prepares herself for the challenges of being a teenaged parent, Sadhana, unable to overcome the loss of her mother, descends into life-threatening anorexia.

Ironically, both sisters find themselves in the same hospital the day that Beena’s son, Quinn, is born. His existence fills a void in the two sisters’ lives and restores their bond to each other. Sadhana excels on Montreal’s vibrant theatre and art scene, attracts to her numerous lovers and falls and recovers from serious bouts of anorexia. Beena plods along, raises her son, moves to Ottawa to find work as a free-lance editor, and her love life is occasionally punctuated by suitors who invariably fade away, leaving behind only disappointment. The love of the two sisters for Quinn is the glue that holds them together until Sadhana’s death under unexplained circumstances. Haunted by the thought that she may have contributed to her sister’s death, Beena returns to Montreal to piece together the last secretive weeks of Sadhana’s life. Quinn, now 18, accompanies his mother to Montreal, but on a quest of his own—one that will revive painful memories.

Saleema Nawaz's Bone and Bread won on November 19, 2013 the prestigious Paragraphe – Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. She will read on December 8, 2013 at the Magical Evening with Canadian Authors in Montreal (Restaurant Souvenirs d’Indochine, 243 Avenue du Mont-Royal Ouest – 7 pm).

Friday 21 June 2013

Texas: A Poetic Critique of Political Subversion

 by Claudio Gaudio
 Quattro Books, 2012
 Toronto, Ontario

 ISBN 978-1927443095

 Reviewed by
 Ian Thomas Shaw


Claudio Gaudio’s highly experimental style in his novel Texas is poetry trespassing on the contours of prose.

Texas is neither an easy read nor a page-turner. The rapid-fire cadence of the narrative is best savoured in small doses—one page here, another there. For every four lines of text is a poem, and Gaudio’s mastery of allegory and epigrams invites the reader to journey through a devastating criticism of power politics and post-colonialism.

The plot, or rather the shadow of a plot, ostensibly has as its protagonist a diplomat, whose primary function appears to be to wheel cartloads of dollars through various third world countries, subverting their regimes and imposing more acquiescent governments in their place. The name Texas is a thinly veiled euphemism for the US.

The diplomat, having run his course of luck on several continents and leaving behind chaos and misery, is suddenly kidnapped in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, with a striking resemblance to Iraq, although perhaps seasoned with a little of Afghanistan. The diplomat, imprisoned in a barren room in a non-descript suburb, awaits his impending execution. His warder Hakim, his only human contact, is an infrequent visitor.

As the diplomat loses all hope that his political masters will ransom him, he confides to the only other living creatures in his surroundings—a bird and a mouse—his inner thoughts about his long career in financing revolutions and coup d’états, quelling rebellious nations and “state-building.”

Poetry as political criticism is not new, but Claudio’s exceptional talent in weaving it into a thoroughly enjoyable full-length novel is, at least for the Canadian literary scene.

Texas is Gaudio's first novel and is published by Toronto's Quattro Books.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Sumer Lovin'


Sumer Lovin’

by Nicole Chardenet

Deux Voiliers Publishing 2013
Aylmer, Quebec

ISBN 978-0-9-881048-4-6  

Reviewed by Carlos Savanera

Canadian humour?! Since Leacock? From Toronto? You gotta be kidding! Well, that was my first reaction when Sumer Lovin’ was pitched to me for a review. I was wrong. Nicole Chardenet has certainly pulled off a Canuck version of Woody Allen. Beyond a doubt, this hilarious story is the best humour from Canada in a decade.

Sumer Lovin’ combines a mischievous poke at Canadian über-politeness and Toronto's unter-machismo with a wicked use of Sumerian mythology. The heroine, Rachel Brinkerhoff, is a very attractive 41-year-old New Yorker, who has fled the Big Apple and her psychotic ex, Austin, a Homeland Security Rambo. Her goals are to re-establish her matchmaking business in Toronto and find a Canadian soul mate. Pretty simple, eh? Well, Toronto ain’t New York and finding Jewish singles to match up is pretty slim pickings. As for finding a new soul mate, as author Nicole Chardenet puts it, it is BYOB – bring your own boy.

The solution? Rachel teams up with Mahliqa and Amita, immigrants from Pakistan and India, who run Love Comes Later, a service to counsel Canadian parents who want to “arrange” marriages for their hapless progeny. Thus enters Dave the Tarantula Guy and Dave the Gerbil Guy, typical IT nerds who are more drawn to arachnids and rodents than to the vivacious, albeit demanding, women that Rachel, Mahliqa and Amita line up for them.

When all seems hopeless, an earthquake mystically shakes up the libido of Torontonians and opens a portal to an ancient underworld. Out of the fountain at Nathan Philips Square, emerges the lascivious Lamashtu, a Sumerian demigoddess. The divine Lamashtu, famished by her centuries-long celibacy, goes right to work to replenish her powers by sucking out the energy of the city’s myriad male virgins. When her Sumerian sights set on Dave the Gerbil Guy, Rachel is caught up in a wild rescue plan to save her client from Lamashtu’s nasty and lethal little “surprise.”

Lamashtu is not the only trimillenarian to cross through from the underworld. An army of Canaanite warriors march forward, guided by their map-challenged scribe who confuses Canada for Canaan. Their mission is to lay claim to their ancestral homeland and boot out every “squatter” since the first millennium A.D. When the Canaanites realize that their land claim is six thousand miles off the mark, they offer their martial skills to help Rachel and her friends save Toronto from Lamishtu's murderous intent. The new alliance proves promising in more ways than one as Rachel finds herself drawn to the bronzed and well-muscled Canaanite leader, Ammishtamru. 

Chardenet, herself an American transplant, has earned her spurs in Sumer Lovin’. The humour is on par with the best of Canadian comedians, who have made their names on the silver screen – Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Martin, John Candy, Dan Akroyd and the list goes on. Sumer Lovin’ is a delightful, absolutely zany story, which pushes the boundaries in many directions. A highly recommended read for 2013. 

Thursday 18 October 2012

Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls

Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls

or La Galaxie des lumières tardives


A Novel of Kindness

By Con Cú

Reviewed by Michael Scott-Harston

Looking for an intriguing but accessible good read? Ready for a break from your normal North American-Euro-centric fare? You would do well to consider Con Cu’s first novel, Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls. It is set against a very broad, even sweeping set of cultural and physical land and seascapes peopled by an equally diverse set of characters. The plot consists of many seemingly unconnected strands which the author splices in unexpected but plausible ways.

As this multi-titled work indicates, it is often acts of kindness which bind the characters together and enable the story to progress. Opening in Montreal, the novel unexpectedly eliminates a core character and then takes us back to a radically different past to relate who she was, how she came to be in Canada, the nature of her family and its journey to our shores.

The book focuses on the relations and unexpected links between families from three different cultures. For those readers who remember the waves of “boat people” arriving in Canada and other countries following the end of the Vietnam war, Con Cu reveals the circumstances from whence this new wave of Canadian immigration emerged, what its members endured to get here and how they fared and adapted on arrival. Some of the story is brutal and cruel but hope appears in unexpected ways from unlikely sources. Their story is intriguing – for me it was a definite page-turner.
Working at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade exposes many of us, to varying degrees, to Canada’s on going immigration story. But it does not normally enable us to glimpse, let alone assess, what happens to immigrants in the years following their arrival. Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls takes us along on this two way process of change and adaptation. And Con Cú draws on the full range of his international experience to analyze a new aspect of Canadian immigration – the collision of worlds between Canadians born in Canada and immigrants from very different cultures and more intriguingly between immigrants/New Canadians and their counterparts from vastly different cultures and locations. Both growth and hope emerge but Con Cú does not shy away from examining the undesirable side of the immigration story – crime, hate, selfishness and betrayal at times also accompany our immigrants.

The global setting for Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls is an intricate part of this book. Con Cú uses his familiarity with the diverse settings of Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Germany, Rwanda, Palestine, B.C. Quebec and Ottawa to create authentic settings for his story. The locations are not just colourful settings à la Hollywood. They and their contemporary history are a full and vibrant feature of the novel. A portrait of the current human condition emerges. As his many characters develop, we share their sorrows, joys and loves in a true kaleidoscope of events. While there is cruelty and tragedy this is counterbalanced by lust, passion and well crafted erotic love.

Michael Scott-Harston is a seasoned Canadian diplomat.

Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls is published by Deux Voiliers Publishing, distributed in Canada by Red Tuque Books ( and sold on-line through Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, the Book Depository and various other on-line booksellers.

Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien


Dogs at the Perimeter

by Madeleine Thien

Reviewed by Con Cú
September 17, 2012

I have just finished reading Dogs at the Perimeter on the shores of Lake Beira in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In the magical land of Ondaatje, the sultry air caresses my thoughts and body as I pen these short reflections on Thien’s powerful work of friendship, closing a circle of longing, suffering and uncertainty.

Madeleine Thien’s narrative is a spell-binding odyssey into a dark and painful past. Janie, now a medical researcher in Montreal with a caring husband and a loving son, must relive the tragedy of her childhood in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Her return to this world of horror and absurdity is triggered by the sudden disappearance of her friend and colleague, Hiroji Matsui. Hiroji is a brilliant doctor, whose brother, Junichiro, vanished in Cambodia thirty years earlier while working for the Red Cross. Janie’s bond to Hiroji quietly unfolds in the opening chapters. While he is not her lover, at least not in the traditional sense, she is drawn to him through their common loss of loved ones in a distant land, and he becomes her soul mate. His unexplained absence crushes her existence and distances her from her husband and child. Convinced that Hiroji has returned to Cambodia in a renewed attempt to find Junichiro, Janie embarks on a physical and metaphysical voyage to a land that she has long locked out of her thoughts.

On the cover of my edition of Madeleine Thien’s entrancing novel, fellow Canadian author, Johanna Skibsrud, has graced Thien with the recommendation “If you read one Canadian book this year, let it be this one.” A fair comment but erroneous in adding “Canadian,” for Thien’s work transcends geographic boundaries and national identity. Nor is it really a “book,” but rather a cloud of thoughts, an experience as heavy and penetrating as the languid air of Lake Beira.

With Dogs at the Perimeter, Madeleine Thien has ascended into the inner circle of timeless authors who entrap your soul with their first lines of prose and subsume your thoughts into theirs until the last.

Dogs at the Perimeter is published by Emblem (McClelland & Steward) and is available at the Collected Works Bookstore in Ottawa.

Con Cú is the author of Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls published by Deux Voiliers Publishing.

Monday 6 August 2012

The Ordinary Adept by Phyllis Straub reviewed by Con Cú

The Ordinary Adept by Phyllis Straub

reviewed by Con Cú

The Ordinary Adept by first-time novelist, Phyllis Straub, is truly a remarkable journey into cosmic mystery solving. The story’s heroine, Tess, has experienced the worst possible form of a mid-life crisis—desertion by a spouse, the loss of employment, a recurrent disease and the death of a family member. In the midst of these ordeals, Tess begins a gradual transformation from her rigorously scientific mindset developed by two decades working in Toronto’s bio-tech industry to a more spiritual side. Before long she discovers new abilities that she had earlier dismissed as hocus pocus. 

Driven at first by her intellectual curiosity, she begins to delve deeper into the esoteric teachings of a Buddhist lama, the secrets of the North American mystic Edgar Cayce and the healing power of Chios energy. Like many confronting for the first time the scientifically unexplainable, Tess battles with balancing her newfound powers and spiritual companions with the fast pace of a demanding new job and her love for her new down-to-earth husband, Stan, who would rather settle for just a quick evening of snuggling and a video.

The precision in Straub’s narrative leaves the reader wondering whether the novel is not an autobiography. If it is autobiographical, Straub has had one of heck of a mid-life crisis. Fact or fiction, the Ordinary Adept is a perfect primer for modern spiritualism, psychism and energy healing. Straub’s eloquent style and sense of humour endear even the most sceptical of readers to the resilient, at times pugnacious, Tess, who struggles with two fundamental questions—“Oh my God, why is this happening to ME and is ANYONE going to believe it?” Oh well, Tess is not the only one asking those questions, is she?

The Ordinary Adept is published by Author House and distributed in Canada by Red Tuque Books. It is also available for on-line ordering from and Barnes and Noble.

Canadian author Phyllis Straub has now left Toronto’s steel and concrete jungle for desert skies and owl-watching in British Columbia’s southern Okanagan.

Con Cú is the author of Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls published by Deux Voiliers Publishing.

Monday 2 July 2012

The Lebanese Dishwasher by Sonia Saikaley

Reviewed by Con Cú

Fellow Ottawa writer Sonia Saikaley has struck gold with her novella The Lebanese Dishwasher. Based on a love story between two Arab immigrants to Canada, her work of fiction transcends the social firewall between heterosexual and gay love to deliver a universal message – love conquers all.

The setting is Montreal in the late 1980s – a city where I also lived during the same time period and knew many in the local Lebanese and Palestinian community. Amir, a dishwasher approaching his thirtieth birthday, flashes back to his adolescence in Beirut in the mid 1970s to mid 1980s. A teenager during most of this period, he is only mildly attentive to the intensifying civil war in Lebanon as he struggles personally with repressing his attraction to other men. Homosexuality for his conservative Christian family is simply unacceptable, and Amir decides to immigrate to Canada. In Montreal, Amir soon finds that his Middle Eastern university diplomas cannot land him a professional job. For five years, he works as a dishwasher in a Lebanese restaurant, and his only connection to the rest of Canadian society is his sexually insatiable English-Canadian girlfriend, Denise.

Salem, a Palestinian cook and co-worker, takes pity on Amir, whose frustration with being unable to get anything better than a dish-washing job is apparent to everyone in the restaurant. Salem believes that Amir has “potential” and offers to introduce him to eligible Arab women. When Salem invites Amir home for supper, Rami, Salem’s nephew, takes an immediate interest in Amir, provoking again Amir’s dilemma with his repressed sexuality. Amir resists Rami’s overtures, but the younger man is persistent. Both try to cover up the true nature of their relationship—Amir with Denise and Rami with his uncle Salem and family, but neither can suppress the growing suspicions around their “friendship.”

The brilliance of Saikaley’s story is that she takes the reader out of the mindset of reading gay literature into a world where love is simply love. This is a story for readers of all sexual orientations. While there is a clear criticism, in Saikaley’s writing, of Arab social attitudes toward homosexuality and toward women, she focuses primarily on developing a story largely devoid of villains. Even the stereotypical Arab macho, Salem, comes off rather sympathetically as he faces his own dilemma of dealing with the relationship between his co-worker Amir and his nephew Rami. Apart from Amir's neighbour in Beirut, Walid, a truly despicable character, the only villain in the story is that of social and cultural prejudice, which drives people to violence when they feel shamed by the “taboo” behaviour of a family member.

The Lebanese Dishwasher is a charming story that keeps the reader’s interest from beginning to end. Saikaley’s story-telling ability, her economy of words, clear and engaging plot and characters with real depth all point to her potential as one of Canada’s most promising new authors. A highly recommended read. 

The Lebanese Dishwasher is available through Quattro Books and Amazon and on sale at the Collected Works Bookstore in Ottawa.

Con Cú is the author of Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls published by Deux Voiliers Publishing.