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Summer Reads- Trevor Cole, Zsuzsi Gartner, Susan Juby

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I have been lax in my reviewing duties. June was the month from hell  – report cards, Play Day and year end parties. Then I had to prepare for my UBC course with Joseph Boyden, which meant 3 pages of critiques for each of the seven other students in my workshop. Right after UBC, I went right into teaching at the Fernie Writers’ Conference. I’m back now and will do a few posts to catch up on some summer reads.

Trevor Cole – Practical Jean and Fearsome Particles

If you haven’t read Practical Jean or Fearsome Particles, you’re missing out. Practical Jean is the winner of the Leacock Medal for humour. And it’s funny – a sick, dark funny. Jean, a woman who, upon losing her mother to illness, decides to give her closest friends the wonderful gift of not having to die a long, painful, drawn out death. The gift of one last blast of fun and then bam! Quick and merciful is the way to go. As a good friend, Jean takes care of that. Does she ever.

When Jean starts taking care of business, you’ll laugh out loud. Then you’ll stop and realize that it’s the kind of hilarity that is a little bit off, the kind of giggling that happens at the most inappropriate moment. At a funeral, for example. Under the black humour lies more than one universal truth about how we treat our dying, our friends and our spouses. It’s sleight-of-hand. It’s standing solid on a carpet that you have no idea will be ripped out from underneath you. It’s original, fun and heartbreaking.

I picked up Cole’s second book Fearsome Particles on the strength of Practical Jean. There is humour here, but it is more muted, the overall tone more melancholy. The characters are exquisitely drawn in such a fresh way.  It’s the story of a family in crisis, but it turns out it’s a crisis that has permeated their existence for a long time. The description of Vicky’s toenails alone is worth picking this one up. The title refers to those minuscule particles that enter our homes and our bodies, infecting us, sickening us.

In both books, Cole is able to amplify common feelings to near-absurdity. He takes what we feel, be it anger and sadness at the death of a loved one, or the paranoia that comes with our fear of literal or figurative “infection” and gives it free rein. (As a writer, I found his use of symbolism in this book brilliant.)

Zsuzsi Gartner – Better Living through Plastic Explosives

I read this book early this summer, just before heading to BC where I had the chance to meet Zsuzsi and listen to her speak on a number of panels. She’s hilarious. She writes like no other I have ever read. Her stories are biting and satirical and sadly funny. (Not “sadly, funny.”) It’s impossible for me to pick a favourite from this collection, but there are two I tell people they must read: The Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion and Floating Like a Goat. Both stories hold us as members of today’s society up to a bright light. What is exposed isn’t pretty, but it’s recognizable.

This book deserves its own separate review, but all I really need to say is: Read it. Soon. Now.

Susan Juby – Nice Recovery

In the 80’s, the average attendee at a 12 step-program was male, in his 50’s and was addicted to alcohol. The average attendee these days is 24, can be male or female and is addicted to many different stimulants, some all at once. On average they start drinking at twelve. Susan Juby stopped drinking at twenty. It’s nice that as a YA author, she is able to bring some strong lessons and support forward for young alcoholics and addicts. The book will take you right back to the eighties, with references to Nick Rhodes and leg-warmers, but it’s very pertinent today, too. It’s funny, written in a slightly self-deprecating (my favourite!) tone. It’s a hopeful book. She addresses how absolutely attainable a good, sober life can be. And she’s been sober over twenty years, so she has credibility. This is a book I would totally recommend to anyone, teen or not, who is on that long journey to sobriety.

I think that with my school commitments, my reviews will get shorter, though I am hopeful I can still stay on top of them. Thanks for sticking around.


The Canterbury Trail – Interview with Angie Abdou

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Angie Abdou answers a few questions about her latest novel The Canterbury Trail and writing in general. Thanks Angie!

FFF: I am going to start off by asking the c-word question. When your book first came out, there was a lot of discussion about “polite” society’s acceptance, or non-acceptance, as it were, of such a word. Tell me about that.

Germaine Greer says “cunt” is the only word left with true power to shock.  I suspect she’s right.  I never used it to shock, though.  To be honest, I never thought about it all that much or worried about what readers’ reaction to it might be, and I was, therefore, caught a bit off guard by people who objected to its inclusion in this novel. Mainly, I included it because it seemed real: that’s what these mountain-lovers would end up calling this trail. 

Also, while I was writing this novel, one of my students was reading a book called Cunt.  She was quite taken with it.  The premise was that we need to reclaim the word and that it’s only been made dirty and vulgar by misogyny and a patriarchal medical system.  While I don’t agree with everything the author has to say, the book and my student’s enthusiasm for it did influence my work on this novel. 

 Finally, I wanted to feminize the landscape. I needed to have the characters heading up the cunt and into the womb for the weekend, so that I could deconstruct some of our more naïve and romantic notions about nature as mother. 

 I haven’t really answered your question about politeness, have I?  To be honest, I haven’t given much thought to manners. I guess I’m not a very polite person.

FFF: I won’t ask you to pick just one favourite character, as there are so many, but which characters did you most enjoy creating and why?

I identified most with Loco, and if I had to pick a main character (other than the landscape), I would pick him.  I’m not sure why since he’s so different than me.  In my mind, though, he best captures that ambivalence about place that all the characters feel as well as the ever-present struggle with community. 

 In terms of most fun to write, Alison wins.  How could I not have fun writing a sex-crazed, voyeuristic journalist GORB?  I loved thinking about various modern manifestations of the lusty Wife of Bath.

 FFF: You’ve mentioned that you had other characters, other tales, that you had to cut to keep the length of the manuscript manageable. (I am sure we talked about this, but it may have been a dream. If so, ignore…) If you could have kept just one more of those characters in the novel, who would it have been?

 Believe it or not, I didn’t cut any characters. I fought and revised like crazy to keep them all in.  I did cut backstories to keep momentum moving relentlessly up the mountain.  The material I most resisted cutting was Loco’s backstory.  Maybe I’ll use it for a short story someday.  Maybe, though, that’s why I identified most strongly with him – because I actually took the time to write out his full backstory.

FFF:  Besides teaching at the College of the Rockies, in the past five-ish years you’ve written two novels, had two babies and finished your doctorate. Add in Canada Reads appearances and publicity tours for the new book. It’s hard to whine about having no time to write when you seem to be doing just fine. How do you fit it all in? Any advice?

 You know the saying – if you want something done, ask a busy person. I do find that when I get a bit of momentum going, I can really accomplish a lot in a day.   The other trick is simply: do not let writing be optional.  I put my daily writing task in my day timer along with the rest of my to-do list, and then it has to get done. If it’s optional, I won’t do it. 

 If I make sure to write at least a bit every day, then my brain is always working on my current project – so even when I’m busy with other things, my mind puzzles away on the novel.  In that way, I probably require less time sitting and staring at the computer than you might think.

 My main advice is: marry well.  You have to be surrounded by people who believe in and respect your goals.  Anything else would make writing impossible.

 FFF: I think many writers take teaching jobs to pay the bills, but having had you as a writing instructor, it’s obvious you enjoy teaching creative writing. What is your favourite part about passing on your knowledge of this crazy craft? What’s your least favourite part?

I love teaching. I’m too social to write full-time.  The contact with students energizes me. 

 Teaching is also good for my own work because I have to sit and think about what works and doesn’t work. I have to be able to articulate the details of my own writing process.  Once I do that, it saves me time – I don’t have to relearn to write with each project.  Teaching has taken some of the guess work out of writing for me (and along with it, the anxiety and doubt – some of it). 

 I also like carefully examining poems, stories, and novels that I love, figuring out how they “work” and what exactly the author is “doing.”  That’s the best way to learn to write, and teaching makes me take the time to do it well. 

 My least favourite part of teaching is the extent to which students focus on getting published as if that will solve all of their problems and catapult them into a state of ever-lasting happiness and confidence.  It won’t. 

FFF: Will your next project focus on extreme sports, or are you heading in an entirely new direction? (You can also just say you are working on a new novel, and I will change the question to reflect your answer…in case you don’t want to share!)

I’m working on a novel about foreign nannies, but Bikram Yoga plays a big role in the story.  The physical keeps coming up in my work, which makes sense since I’m a physical person as are the people with whom I share my life.  Also the physical (in many different ways) influences my understanding of what it is to be human – and isn’t that what fiction is always about?

The Canterbury Trail by Angie Abdou

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Full disclosure: I have known Angie since 2007 when she was my instructor at the Fernie Writers’ Conference. Because of this, I have been in the unique position of hearing bits and pieces about The Canterbury Trail as Angie wrote it. She held her cards close, but every so often she would drop hints about this pilgrimage tale she was penning. 

The Canterbury Trail is loosely based on that old, dusty, high-school tome The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Remember how all the boys in class perked up and giggled during the Wife of Bath’s tale? If they thought the Wife of Bath was a lascivious lass, they should spend some time with The Canterbury Trail’s Alison, the gap-toothed, wine-swilling, sex-crazed reporter from out East.

If you do recall your Chaucer, you will no doubt recognize this and other references to his timeless work. I’m a bit of a lit geek, so I enjoyed the little in-jokes in The Canterbury Trail that I actually got. The ones I missed, well, I’ll never know the difference, will I? It says something about strength of narrative that you don’t need to know the original story in order to follow the travails of this group of travellers to their Camelot. Camelot in this case is a back-country cabin set in the mountains above the fictional town of Coalton.

The book opens with Heinz, the town hermit and former English teacher. He spends his time carving signs that name all the beauteous spots of nature that surround his home on the mountain. He curses the very people who he knows are already making plans to invade his tranquil world.

Then we are off! With boisterous abandon, the pilgrims from the town of Coalton begin their journey up Canterbury Trail to indulge in some back-country playtime.  Fresh snow spews from the heavens as the diverse groups make their way via various means of transportation to the coveted cabin. Along the way to paradise, the reader experiences snowmobile trips, a hilarious mushroom trip, skiing UP a mountain and, upon arrival, buckets and buckets of puke – without the buckets.

As these outdoor enthusiasts are forced together within the tight confines of Camelot, allegiances are made and broken. The stakes are raised again and again until people and relationships start to unravel and suddenly, things aren’t quite so funny anymore.

On the last morning, the pilgrims wake to perfect conditions on the mountain. But perfect for what? The tension amps up as we watch skier, snowboarder and snowmobiler race to get the face shots and highmarks they’ve come for.

Angie’s strengths as a writer shine through not only in her dialogue, but also in her descriptions. The characters are spot-on. I will only name a few: Janet, the pregnant wife; Cosmos, the hippy; F-Bomb (best name in the book and my favourite character) the First Nations skier with a heart of gold; Loco the local who knows the land better than anyone; Michael, the real estate developer who sees green in all that white. Angie purposely and purposefully takes her characters right up to the line of being stereotypes – she gives us exactly what we expect to see, always with the express intent of turning those very expectations on their heads as the story progresses.

Angie makes the outdoors and the experience of the outdoors tangible. I have never back-country skied, but after reading this book, I, Queen of the Green Run, found myself pontificating to my bored ski-mates on the type of snow beneath my ancient pair of former rental skis. “Ah yes, this would be cream cheese snow. And over there, on that difficult run beneath the Deer Chair, well, that is known as elephant snot.”

I no longer have to clench my teeth in an uncomprehending smile when someone says something about skin tracks. I now know they have nothing to do with heroin. I’m now able to properly eavesdrop on all those cool kids at the coffee shop in Fernie when they talk about “telemarking” and “transceivers” and “pot cookies.” Not that I’ve ever heard anything about pot cookies. No sir. Not ever.

As a card-carrying GORB — oh, read the book if you don’t know what that means — I may not seem like The Canterbury Trail’s ideal reader, but the trip up the C—t* was nothing short of a rocking, shocking good time.  (And if the C-word at the end of this review surprised you, that’s nothing compared to the end of the book. You’ll see.)

*Look, Ma! I wrote this whole review and only mentioned the C-word once. Which is about eighteen times less than it is spoken, mentioned and referenced in The Canterbury Trail. Stay tuned for Angie’s interview when she will discuss this very subject. 

Memoir of a Good Death – Interview with Anne Sorbie

I was lucky to run into Anne Sorbie at a recent book launch and then again at a reading. She was kind enough to re-answer some of the questions I had for her on those occasions.

FFF — I was really impressed by the representation of the Bow River in your book, both as a metaphor, and the literal descriptions. You chose a river to tell your story. Why?

I’ve always believed that women’s lives are demonstrative of fluidity, and I wanted to include a physical aspect of the local landscape that would allow my narrative to show that. On a critical level I connect the idea of fluidity and women based on Irigiray’s chapter on that subject in “Speculum.”  On a narrative level the river is a character and like its female counterparts, is a source of life.

FFF — The relationships between the different women in the story are fascinating. Rhegan and Sarah have a complicated relationship, but the lines between the other women in the story are also strong. These are not cardboard characters. I would like to know more about Rhegan’s friend Nemit and her role in the story.

Nemit has been Rhegan’s friend since childhood. She’s gay and she and her partner Joy adopt a son, Adam. Like Rhegan she has split from her partner so there is a direct parallel between them in that sense. Her role in the story as a secondary character is to offer readers another opportunity to consider and understand  Rhegan’s outlook.

FFF — I’ve stayed away from discussing the theme of death, it seems, but it’s obviously an important one. Tell me about the different deaths in the book: actual, near, metaphorical.

As your question implies, there are a number of deaths in Memoir. My intent is that readers consider those, the literal, the metaphorical, and the near and decide for themselves which one is “good!”

FFF — At Wordfest, you read Rhegan’s death scene. It is a very powerful scene, but one might think you are giving away the ending by reading it first. Why did you read it, and are you glad you did?

I read the climactic scene at WordFest after being asked by Noah Richler to do so. This was prior to an event that included myself, Emma Donoghue, Drew Hayden Taylor, and Katherine Govier. Richler also asked each of them to read a particular scene…as in he asked all of us to forget about what we had prepared and to read excepts of his choice as a part of an interview style “chat.” When he asked me to do that I immediately said no! However, he asked me to think about it, and I had a deja vu moment. I had suggested the same thing to a writer friend. Long story short,  I read the scene and it was extraordinarily well received. Since then I’ve read it a number of times and the audience reaction has been consistently positive. I decided that if the scene was as strong as Richler said it was, people attending events like WordFest, the Galiano Literary Festival and local readings would still pick up the book to find out how Rhegan got to that point in her life. Just under half of the first print run sold between October, when the book was launched, and the end of December. That confirms for me that the scene is strong, intriguing and that it engages readers.

FFF — I mention in the review that, like Kroetsch and van Herk, your depiction of the land is brilliant. I am still struck by the way the various places were described. I have been many of the places you wrote about and your descriptions of Longview, or Carseland or Banff — they are anchored in truth. Long after reading What Crow Said or A Likely Story (Kroetsch), or The Tent Peg (van Herk) one is left with a clear sense of place. Memoir of a Good Death evokes similar feelings. Do you believe landscape can be a character in a novel?

Absolutely. And. I believe that the Bow Valley is one of the places in this land, this Alberta, in which our connection to the landscape is so profound. Our environment, especially our weather extremes for example, often affect our moods and our ways of doing things. These ‘truths’ if you will, offered fantastic opportunities on a number of narrative levels. I recognized that in particular works by my mentors Robert Kroetsch’s What Crow Said, and The Studhorse Man;  and Aritha van Herk’s The Tent Peg, and No Fixed Address. In Aritha’s work the female characters are strong, able, and infected by what I think of as a particular brand of movement mechanics. In Robert’s novels the characters are overtaken by their environments. Think about Vera Lang and the bees or the Hazzard character and his stallion. In the four aforementioned novels there are various degrees of magic realism and  surrealism at work. Couple these influences with my love of Marquez, Lorca and Neruda and you’ll get a sense of the degree to which I think connections between character and landscape provide limitless possibilities.

FFF — Who do you like better, Rhegan or Sarah?

Originally Rhegan was my favourite! In the earliest versions of the novel, I insisted that she was the protagonist. But Aritha van Herk, who supervised my Master’s thesis, Altar Ego, believed the opposite! She tried to tell me numerous times how strong Sarah’s voice was and that I should consider working with that. Being the resistant and stubborn student that I was, I ‘refused’ her excellent advice until AFTER my thesis was complete! It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I ‘let’ the Sarah character ‘speak’ if you will. I am endeared to both these female characters. Each represents unique elements of the female persona. I will say though that narratively Sarah and I still have a way to go: she has already made a significant appearance in the novel I am working on now!

FFF — You write of communities and areas along the Bow River. Is there a place you wish you’d had more space or time to explore more fully, both in real life and in the book?

No…I’m happy with the narrative explorations of places along the Bow in Memoir. As for personal journeys on the Bow, I’ve spent some wonderful blocks of time canoeing and hiking areas from Bow Summit to Carseland. I have a fondness for moving water and the Bow in particular and I know I will do more of the same in the future!

FFF — What is the next project you are working on?

I am currently at work on another novel. It too is set in Western Canada and    involves interactions between the landscape west of Turner Valley, and,  man reincarnated as a bear, a lost dog, and a host of other characters. All are searching for various things as they negotiate the Sheep River trails on foot and on horseback.  Most significantly perhaps is the idea that this particular place is akin to a cold heaven in which anything can happen! 

FFF – Thanks Anne!

Memoir of a Good Death – Anne Sorbie

Memoir of a Good Death is the first novel by Calgary author Anne Sorbie. The story is narrated alternately by real estate expert Rhegan and her mother Sarah, and details their struggles to come to terms with the death of Rhegan’s father and ultimately with their own fractured relationship.

The twist? We know from the opening pages that Rhegan is dead.

Sorbie follows in the grand tradition of Robert Kroetsch and Aritha van Herk and uses landscape to full effect in her story. In this case, we are treated to the sometimes calm, sometimes restless, sometimes downright violent Bow River. The action of the novel flows at times in tandem with the movement of the water, and at other times in opposition to it. Opportunities for metaphor abound in this novel and Sorbie employs them with surgical skill. She doesn’t push you fully clothed into the raging waters of her symbolism, but lets the seeping dampness advance a little at a time until you suddenly realize that you are awash in the beauty and sadness and strength and fury that colour the lives of her characters.

Rhegan sells property along the Bow River. To be in sales is to be ever concerned with the bottom line – black or red – and this is reflected in Rhegan’s strong personality. Her territory runs from mountain to canyon, through city and over prairie.  It floods. It recedes. Not unlike profits and losses. Like any good sales rep, Rhegan knows what she sells and she’s good at it. Unfortunately, she is not as skilled in her appraisals of those she loves.

Rhegan is somewhat hard to get to know even though she is forthright about the mistakes she’s made in her life. Her death has afforded her the chance to come to terms with the errors she’s made face the fact that she has hurt those she most loved. Her vulnerablility is revealed through her inability to dispose of one particular property in Calgary’s Inglewood neighbourhood. She cannot bear to let it go, and as she explains why, we connect with her and are pulled into her tale.

Sarah, her mother, is distant. At first it seems it’s due to the untimely death of her husband, but soon it’s clear that Sarah was always a mother who held back and didn’t engage with her daughter.  Her sections are written in the second person, which is a little hard to get used to at first, but even though I’ve never really loved that POV, it actually suits her character. Sarah was unable to forge an outwardly loving connection with her daughter, so it makes sense that she would have a voice that forces you to keep a bit of distance.

Rhegan’s story is told in the first person POV. This is perfect for her character. After all, it’s really all about her, isn’t it? Her mother, her exes, her father – they are like river currents that move around the island that is Rhegan. She knows this though, and doesn’t flinch as she lets us in on her self-centredness. It would be unfair to give away the details of Rhegan’s death, but I will say I held my breath throughout the three pages that described the action. Brilliant.

There are not many books out there that feature Calgary, and very few that feature the city in such lovely and loving detail. Anne Sorbie has crafted an original book that defies expectation. It is evident in the minute details of her story that every element was chosen to highlight what goes on underneath what we usually see, whether beneath deceptive calm waters of a river, or the person sitting next to you at breakfast.

Bats or Swallows – Interview with Teri Vlassopoulos

Teri agreed to answer some questions about her work – Looking forward to that forthcoming novel, Teri!

FFF: I mention in my review that the words in the title of Bats or Swallows can be taken as verbs or nouns. I was being a little facetious, but the intent of the title is clear — we must be certain of what we’ve just seen flying past our windows in the early morning light. I think that’s what I like best about the book. Everyone is searching, not just for answers, but the right answers. Did you plan to write to this theme, or did it just become more obvious as you wrote?

The stories in Bats or Swallows were written over a period of about 5 years, and include some of my first “serious” attempts at short story writing. I didn’t have a book in mind when I first started writing, and I definitely wasn’t thinking about theme. It was only after a few years that I realized that I had a series of stories that worked as a collection. Like most writers I write about things I’m interested in. It felt like a happy coincidence when I realized that I’d been interested in the same thing for awhile. Incidentally, it never occurred to me that Bats or Swallows could be construed as verbs until a friend of mine pointed it out last year – I had the image of the birds planted firmly in my mind. I could pretend I was clever enough to have come up with the double entendre myself, but I didn’t. Another happy coincidence!

FFF: The characters in Bats or Swallows have really stayed with me. I mentioned in my review that My Son, the Magician is my favourite story, but I think my favourite character is probably April, the teenager that works at the storage facility in Art History.  The characters in your stories are so complete, so well-drawn that we can easily imagine their lives before and after the small piece you allow us to see.

Which characters do you most feel an affinity for? Why?

Thank you, Kim! I tend to feel (maybe overly) sympathetic towards my teen girl characters, like April in Art History or the main character in What Counts. From my authorial god-like stance I want to reassure them that everything will be okay in the end, but they’re not real and it would be kind of weird if I whispered that to my laptop. Zoe from Swimming Lessons is probably the character I loved the most. Actually, I liked her so much that she’s one of the main characters in the novel I’m working on now.

FFF: Were there any characters that you disliked?

There are characters that might do things I don’t agree with, but, because I wrote them, I understand the motivation for their actions or feelings. It’s hard to dislike someone – real or imagined – when you have a deeper understanding of where they’re coming from. It’s annoying, almost. Life would be so much easier if we weren’t all so multifaceted!

FFF: Each story seems to have a symbol or a sign that could be said to be representative of the character or a plot point — roadkill, church signs, an earthquake. An international border. An extra pink line on a pregnancy test.  Tell me, in general, of the significance of symbols and signs in this book.

I’ve always been interested in the tendency people have (or fine, that I have) to look for signs when trying to discern certain life events, especially when these people (okay, me) know that ultimately these kinds of signs don’t have any logical bearing on real life. I’m also interested in how, in the absence of religion, people try to assign meaning to their lives. Like, why pay attention to your horoscope but not the Book of Revelations? Why go to a psychic instead of a priest?  So, I’ve assigned this characteristic to many of the characters in my book, and they do it both consciously and unconsciously.

FFF: When you write, what comes first, the idea for the plot, or the character?

What I like about short stories is that they can be written around a hook, whether it’s a particularly vivid character’s voice or an almost too clever plot twist. Usually I have a certain image or tone or idea, and the story will blossom from that.

FFF: You have worked on ‘zines in the past. How has publishing this collection of short stories differed from your past experiences in the industry? How was working on these stories similar to putting together a ‘zine?

I made zines primarily in my teens and early twenties before I thought seriously about fiction writing and before I even considered publishing a book. For me making a zine is such a vastly different experience from publishing a book that they don’t really compare. Zines are, for me, much more head/heart to paper, not much in between. They’re personal – I rarely include fiction in my zines, I have no editor, I don’t think much about promo. They sometimes have spelling or grammar mistakes, or maybe a sentence gets chopped off accidentally when it goes through the photocopier, and it’s maddening, but you live with it. I like being able to be looser with my writing in zines, but these days I prefer the rigour associated with writing fiction, getting edited, and, you know, not having missing sentences. I still occasionally make zines, though.

FFF: What are you working on now?

Who isn’t working on a novel these days? As I mentioned above, Zoe from Swimming Lessons is one of the main characters. The book is about small families, marriage, the Greek shipping industry and road trips. Kind of. I’m still figuring it out, and I feel a little superstitious talking about it out loud, but it’s well on its way. I also blog at

Thanks, Teri!

And thank you, Kim!

Bats or Swallows by Teri Vlassopoulos

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Bats or swallows? Verbs or nouns? The intent of the title of this lovely tapestry of a short story collection can be taken more than one way, but may contain more than a hint of what is to come. The tales found within are filled with signs and portents that could also be interpreted different ways by the characters. It forces the reader to pay attention and to engage with the choices they do make. To care what happens to them.

The first sentence of each story is like that thread that hangs from the collar of your shirt, one that you can see from the corner of your eye every time you move. You have to pull it. Then as you pull, you find a string of characters that are familiar enough, but also a little bit more. That thread twists a bit or maybe entwines with another. In My Son, the Magician, a psychic who doesn’t have all the answers makes an appearance. In What You Want and What you Need, a man aches to reconcile with his ex. As he helps her paint a room in her new condo, it’s clear it would be a bad decision. In Tin Can Telephone, a woman, newly pregnant, worries about telling her possibly barren friend her good news — but wait — the story is actually about sisters. With a feeling of loss that passes through the threads in our fingers, the title story, Bats or Swallows allows us to experience the loss a young woman feels over the tragic death of her brother.

But these are all simplifications of the textured realness of each of the people the reader encounters. They are imperfect people, people looking for answers in the signs, symbolic and literal, around them. They are not always likable, but this only makes them more engaging. Even the supporting characters are imperfect, searching beings. Vlassopoulos unspools their uncertainties and fears a little at a time, until we are left with a mass of delicate colour in our hands. From this, the women and men we meet must untangle their own fates, signs be damned.

My favourite piece, My Son, the Magician starts with a tremendous hook.

“My son, Jeremy, was usually a fireman, police officer or businessman. I liked it most when he was a businessman, the way he looked in the cut of his suit, his dress shoes all shined.”

You don’t find out what Jeremy’s job really is until a few paragraphs later, but when you do, the payoff is great. Written from his mother’s point of view, it’s easy to identify with not only her concern for her son, but also her wish not to meddle, even if this means letting him make his own mistakes.  By the end, we understand why he is introduced in the title as a magician.

These stories are filled with strands of detail and image that hold fast under numerous reads. Find familiar comfort in the pasty colour of a plaster cast or the recognizable sick chlorine-and-shampoo scent that lingers post-swim. But then, feel the helplessness in the sting and itch of a multitude of metaphorical and literal mosquito bites, or in the loss of balance of an earthquake that may or may not have happened.

And therein lies the loveliness and loneliness of these stories. What starts out as a simple thread that you can’t leave alone, becomes not a neat piece of fabric, but a colourful skein of real-life texture.