Author Archives: Valerie Mills-Milde

About Valerie Mills-Milde

Valerie Mills-Milde lives, works, and writes in London Ontario. She is the author of the novel After Drowning (2016), which won the IPPY Silver Medal for Contemporary Fiction and The Land's Long Reach,(2018) which was a finalist for The Miramichi Reader's 2019 "The Very Best!" Book Awards. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous Canadian literary magazines. When she is not writing, she is a clinical social worker in private practice. Valerie acknowledges that the land on which she lives is the traditional territory of the Attawandaron, Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, and Lunaapeewak peoples who have longstanding relationships to the land, water and region of southwestern Ontario.

The Last Good Funeral of the Year: A Memoir by Ed O’Loughlin

The title of Ed O’Loughlin’s memoir refers to the funeral of an old flame which takes place in February, at the start of the pandemic. O’Loughlin hadn’t been involved with the woman, Charlotte, for more than twenty-five years, and he writes that their relationship had been fleeting, that it had not been love, that it belonged to a former time, a time in his youth.

But Charlotte’s death opens a door through which O’Loughlin encounters himself, dissociated and split-off from the tidal pulls of a life. In the course of his work as a foreign correspondent, O’Loughlin witnessed no shortage of trauma, death, and abject suffering; Rwanda (“a few weeks too late”), Israel, Palestine, and the Goma refugee crisis. “What he cared about most was what he might see next, hoping that it might distract himself from whoever he was.” But a singular, very personal trauma, delivered with blunt force, relentlessly pursues him, catching him, finally, in the months following Charlotte’s funeral – the death of his brother Simon who took his life years before. The difference between Charlotte and Simon, O’Loughlin writes poignantly, was that Simon had “lived and died alone.”

“This is a searing book, reminiscent of Joan Didion’s masterpiece, “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

O’Loughlin, fuelled by a new urgency to reclaim the scattered pieces of experience within himself, strives for a sense of chronology. “Time becomes spastic in grief,” he writes. “Time collapses . . .”  He begins to obsess about the last time he saw Charlotte, to discern the real course of their relationship. “The fact remains, his memory has gaps in it, and some of these gaps may be strategically placed.” He recalls trying to sift through all the messages that Simon left behind, trying to make sense, trying to make meaning, finally recycling a message he found through a character in a novel he was then working on. All this effort at retrieval is fuelled by guilt which, though of a particular Irish-Catholic variety, is universally inevitable. “He should have known Charlotte was dying. He should have been in contact with her. He should have said – what? Goodbye? No. He should have said hello.” And with respect to Simon; “Maybe they could have done more for him. Maybe they could have understood him.” Grief, we come to understand, takes one through a minefield of guilt. With deep suspicions about himself, he begins to look for the reasons for the gaps in his experience, the gaps in himself. Does he have Asperger’s? Is it his hearing loss?  He peers at his life like he is studying a blueprint, puzzling out the order and structure in its unfolding.

But the answer is within him, his humanity, the very nature of trauma and loss. It is striking for a memoirist to not use the first person in telling the tale. He refers to his daughters only by their ages, and refers to himself, in relation to Simon, as “the eldest brother.“  We understand why, mid-way through the book. “For years, he prided himself on this old school detachment. Maybe the I whom he rejected wasn’t general, but specific . . . Maybe it was specifically the I who couldn’t bear to keep a diary, who was so dismissive about his past, and his own achievements . . . Maybe renouncing this wasn’t such a selfless gesture. Maybe It was just a shedding of baggage, another excuse for hurrying past.”

The Last Good Funeral of the Year isn’t particularly a pandemic narrative. Covid, when it appears, is really a stand-in for our mortality, the low soft hum O’Loughlin hears which strangely makes him, and us, feel our common humanity, even if paradoxically we find ourselves alone. This is a searing book, reminiscent of Joan Didion’s masterpiece, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” It wheels between the waypoints in O’Loughlin’s life with remarkable dexterity, honesty and grace, and the writing is deeply resonant. What I found here was an exquisite portrait of grief – how it is timeless, utterly self-absorbing, perhaps even self-indulgent. How it visits us in dreams, sneaking past our conscious minds and our unique talents, subsuming our wounds and our idiosyncrasies.  How it takes us and deposits us just where we must be – in the shock of cold, clean waters, in the beautiful and the terrible surge of now.

About the Author

ED O’LOUGHLIN is an Irish Canadian author and journalist. He is the author of four novels, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist Minds of Winter, the critically acclaimed Toploader, and the Booker Prize–longlisted Not Untrue and Not Unkind. As a journalist, Ed has reported from Africa for several papers, including the Irish Times. He was the Middle East correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age of Melbourne. Ed was born in Toronto and raised in Ireland. He now lives in Dublin with his wife and two children.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ House of Anansi Press (March 15 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 208 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1487010605
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1487010607

This article has been Digiproved © 2021 James Fisher
Acknowledgements: Valerie Mills-Milde
Some Rights Reserved  

The Hours: Stories from a Pandemic By Bruce Meyer

Bruce Meyer’s  latest book, The Hours, Stories  from a Pandemic opens with an epigraph attributed to the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez; “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” This, it seems to me, captures perfectly the philosophical, sometimes mystical perspective found in this collection of six distinct stories.  

Meyer uses the term “pandemic” generically and for the most part, forgoes references to specific illness or contagion. Instead, he pins our attention to broader considerations of mortality, separateness, and the margins of circumstance that frame a life. Being hangs in a metaphorical balance. Existence is a frail thing, poignant and by no means certain. For instance, in the story, The Island, Meyer calls out the mythology of invulnerability. Pandemic, like a dirge, is ever-present in the background. “My father,” Agnes says recalling an earlier scourge, “arrived home [from the war] and three days later he didn’t get out of bed for breakfast and by the afternoon he was gone. My mother, poor soul, tried to haul his body down to the road after sewing him in the sheet he died in, but she stopped, exhausted in the doorway of our house.” Resilience is possible only through a collective and self-denying response. “Grief makes a family of us all,” one character says, and then, in the final line, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, I am nothing if I do not have charity.”  

“Meyer is a storyteller of considerable power.”

In other stories, pestilence is a stand-in for death, sometimes patient but inevitably exacting. In the story, Yellow Jack, passengers and crew on a forsaken plague-ridden cruise ship, darkly named the Tarantella after an Italian death dance, play out their socially prescribed roles until all hope is gone. “The Yellow Jack was still flying from our stern, flapping madly in the wind. During the night it had begun to shred, so that its fingers of black and yellow seemed to grab at the sky, reaching to hold on to what it could not seize.”  

In Zoom, the husband of an intensive-care nurse observes as his wife, donning her PPE, “like a Joan of Arc, being sealed in her armour for battle” becomes increasingly remote in the wake of losses associated with her work.  

An ailing college student in The Dolphin swims out too far, only to encounter a magical creature, who, like a spirit companion, guides him to a beautiful death. “In an instant, he turned, in horror and then in wonder, as white wings stretched from his shoulders, their pinions dripping in rainbows of iridescent droplets and their span growing wider and wider until they began to paddle the air.” 

Likewise, in The Hours, a sublime and yet humble presence observes and sanctifies a woman’s final passage. Here, life’s transitory nature is laid bare when the dream of creating a garden paradise melts away in a punishing heatwave. “Carefully, Angelo removed the thorns from the length of the stem. Even in its tinged and shrivelled state, the crisp petals held their perfume. And though they might have made a fine bowl of potpourri, Angelo realized that a beautiful vitality had left the world and that holding on to its remains would be a mockery of life.”   

 The people encountered in these stories often manifest their isolation in physical characteristics, as is the case in Our Love is Here To Stay, in which a man sustains a war wound that results in a lifetime of deafness. His wife, elderly and gravely ill with the virus, writes a note to the paramedics who come to assess her. “My husband is deaf and he tunes pianos.” The man’s story is close to miraculous, and although they must part, the couple’s love is transcendent.    

Meyer is a storyteller of considerable power. The writing is highly symbolic, with an allegorical feel, and at times while reading I felt I was watching an Ingmar Bergman film. Characters are often representational, eliciting a curious mix of fascination and compassion. The author gives a bittersweet nod to the ferocity of human attachments – the stubbornness of love, the astonishing expansiveness of loyalty, but the narrative is ultimately fatalistic.  While these stories may not be intimately relatable, they exert an undeniable pull and at times, are nothing short of revelatory.      

​Bruce Meyer is the author of more than sixty books of poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and non-fiction. His previous collections of fiction are A Chronicle of Magpies (Tightrope Books, 2014), A Feast of Brief Hopes (Guernica Editions, 2018) and Down in the Ground (Guernica Editions, 2020).

His stories have won or been shortlisted for numerous international and national prizes including the Anton Chekhov Prize for Very Short Fiction, the Retreat West Short Story Prize, the Bath Short Story Prize, the Fish Short Story Prize, the Tom Gallon Trust Prize for Fiction, the Thomas Morton Prize for Fiction, the Carter V. Cooper Prize for Fiction, and the Strands International Short Story Prize.

He lives in Barrie, Ontario with his wife, Kerry, and their daughter, Katie, and teaches at Georgian College and Victoria College in the University of Toronto.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ AOS Publishing (April 8 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 105 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1777513901
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1777513900

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This article has been Digiproved © 2021 James Fisher
Acknowledgements: Valerie Mills-Milde
Some Rights Reserved  

Down in the Ground by Bruce Meyer

In the collection of short flash fiction, Down in the Ground, author Bruce Meyer brings both wit and philosophical curiosity to his musings on death. These stories are brief and sometimes startling. In other hands, the subject might be given a maudlin treatment but here, the tone is surprisingly restrained, and at times, ironic.

In the story, “In Place”, ducks, having escaped the guns of hunters, alight on the narrator’s pond only to become frozen in place. The narrator fights through fears born out of earlier near misses and losses. He acknowledges that much in life is beyond one’s control, but he attempts a rescue of the birds regardless.

“A duck’s life is about labouring to survive – fighting the odds, struggling with the world and what the world does to them, randomly, like a sudden phone call from the hospital or a north wind across a furrowed field dusted in a light snow that appeared safe in the darkness and, yet, tricked them, deceived them with its shallow resting place, its mask of safety.”

In some of the stories, death comes as a stranger, an interloper who can be bargained with or put off for a time. In others, death is an abrupt and mystifying disconnect. This is the case in “Consuelo” in which a man waits in a bus station, realizing that unusually there are no women waiting in the station with him.

“Meyer’s writing is direct, often wry and sometimes heartbreaking.”

“I waited ten, fifteen minutes or more because my bus wouldn’t be leaving for another hour in the middle of the night, and not a single woman appeared. There were only men, some of them old, some of them young, sitting, staring straight ahead, and empty-eyed as if they had all been struck dumb in disbelief. They didn’t speak amongst themselves. I couldn’t speak to them. I had nothing to say. And the kid from New York who kept asking someone on the other end of the cell phone call if they were there, repeated “Hello? Hello?? And slapped the phone in the palm of his hand several times as if it wasn’t working.”

The stories are often set in places where death and loss are intimately woven into communal narratives – mining families and slaughterhouses. Although broadly familiar, the experiences Meyer describes are painfully individual. Meyer’s writing is direct, often wry and sometimes heartbreaking. In “Bicycle Bell, a telegram boy for the Canadian Pacific delivers three telegrams to a woman, and sits with her in silence as her losses overwhelm her. Years later, he points toward a flower bed and tries to express his helplessness in the face of such unfathomable grief.

“Your grandfather planted roses there. Your uncle Jimmy and your Uncle Michael were prize-winning gardeners, too. I can still see them standing there, turning over the earth as if they were trying to find a shred of beauty in the muck, as if they were looking for the life they were certain that was down in the ground. All my life I’ve been looking for it, too, and never found it. I should have been better at what I did. I’ve never known what to say, never found the words to say it. I’ve been the shadow at the door.”

I recommend reading Down in the Ground one piece at a time, quietly and in singular moments where the wisdom in the stories, the light and the dark, has a real chance of reaching you.

Bruce Meyer is author or editor of 64 books of poetry, short fiction, flash fiction, non-fiction, and literary journalism, among them McLuhan?s Canary (2019) and A Feast of Brief Hopes (2018). He lives in Barrie, Ontario.

  • Paperback : 200 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1771834889
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1771834889
  • Publisher : Guernica Editions; 1st edition (Oct. 1 2020)

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This article has been Digiproved © 2020 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

Seeking Shade By Frances Boyle

Frances Boyle’s first collection of short stories, Seeking Shade, follows two volumes of poetry and a novella. Her skill and control are much in evidence here, the short story genre fitting beautifully with her spare and careful style and her clear-eyed grasp of intent.

The collection roves effortlessly between time periods, location, circumstance, gender, and Boyle displays credibility in all of these. Many of the stories deal with the passage of time, inevitability, choice and consequence. Events seem ordinary in the moment while carrying great significance for what is yet to come. I had the sense while reading these pieces that I was witnessing small moments of profound unfolding.  In “Long Term Lease”, set in a remote northern camp, time has almost run out for a couple’s marriage when they feel the strain of secrets, shifting identities, the press of their divergent priorities.

               Peg, bifurcated: She is sitting here with her friends, yet also back in Toronto, in Char’s hotel room. She runs her tongue over the inside of her lower lip, still tasting a slight rusty tang of blood from where Char bit it.

In “Cold Air Return”, Jacqui clears out the apartment of her ex-partner Matt after he is arrested on drug-related charges in Florida. When Matt’s ex-wife Carol shows up, the two become unlikely co-excavators in sorting through the detritus of his life. An unexpected collaboration develops, and Jacqui emerges with a new grasp on what is essential to her.

               The brisk November wind slams Jacqui when she steps out onto the porch. She lets it blow over her face, pull her hair. She feels cold, but that is just fine. She didn’t realize while she was inside how hot the apartment is. How close.

 Boyle’s approach is keenly intelligent. The writing is sophisticated, the language often crystalline and always precise. The characters are sympathetic without hijacking the narrative; one has the impression that well-conceived ideas underpin these stories.  I felt, after finishing the volume, that many of the stories found here deserved a second reading.

A final note: both the cover design and overall production of this book are exceptional. It was a great pleasure to handle it and to turn its pages.  Simply put, Seeking Shade is a very fine collection.  

Frances Boyle has practised corporate law, volunteered for a number of feminist, arts and international development organizations, and served as a board member and Associate Poetry Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine. She is the author of a novella (Tower, Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2018), two books of poetry, (This White Nest, Quattro Books, 2019 and Light-carved Passages, BuschekBooks, 2014), and several chapbooks. Seeking Shade is her first collection of short fiction. She lives in Ottawa with her partner and a large standard poodle who believes he is a lap dog.

  • Paperback : 160 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 0889844356
  • ISBN-13 : 978-0889844353
  • Publisher: Porcupine’s Quill (April 1, 2020)

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This article has been Digiproved © 2020-2021 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

People Like Frank: and other stories from the edge of normal by Jenn Ashton

Jenn Ashton’s short stories are peopled with humble and forward-leaning characters, the collection aptly called People Like Frank.
Like many avid readers, I enjoy a good and satisfying dive into dark waters. I regularly embrace contradictions, twists and moral ambiguity. So it was completely unexpected for me to find myself quite simply relieved by the optimism in this collection. People Like Frank felt like a balm, particularly coming as it did during violent social unrest and a pandemic.

Each story in the collection is closely aligned to a singular view, carefully drawn and made credible by intimate observations. Many of the characters are solitary, their worlds conscribed, and Ashton applies a sympathetic but hyper-focused lens to their habits, their thoughts, the details of their daily lives.

“Never too sweet or patronizing, Ashton’s descriptions are precise without being obvious and she doesn’t impose herself on the voices of her characters. The writing is direct and true making it a pleasure to read.”

Valerie Mills-Milde

In “Nest”, the lead story, a Goodwill employee named Francine, “who knows a bit about abandonment”, makes a discovery of what strikes her as a special item. As she dedicates herself to its reinstatement, we are uncomfortably aware that we expected less from her. We are astonished by our misconceptions about people like Francine – humbled by her sense of mission, her resourcefulness. (Would I go to such lengths, I wondered?)
“She enjoyed the Christmas morning feeling of opening a box with no idea what was inside of it, like it was a gift just for her. Sometimes, when she was done, she would mouth the words “thankyou” as if the giver was in the room.”

Never too sweet or patronizing, Ashton’s descriptions are precise without being obvious and she doesn’t impose herself on the voices of her characters. The writing is direct and true making it a pleasure to read. In “Pee”, a woman who has recently suffered an immobilizing stroke tries to navigate her way to the bathroom when her caregiver fails to show. “Her plan, now that she had decided to do it, involved a number of steps, a number of small perfect movements, that would see her come off the bed gracefully and make her way to the bathroom without much effort at all.”

An appreciation for perseverance runs through the collection, and the reader has the sense that the characters value their own lives, no matter how insignificant or unimportant they may seem to others. There is a wakefulness to small experience, a curiosity, a delight. There are gratitude and a celebration of effort. I particularly loved the inclusion of Ashton’s drawings which are whimsical, poignant and funny.

I encountered a great deal of kindness in People Like Frank. As I finished the final line of the last story, I recalled thinking “we need more of these”.

A writer from the age of six, Jenn Ashton was first published when she was fourteen. She has written fiction, non-fiction and children’s books as well as editorials and articles for periodicals and journals. She sits on the board of the Federation of BC Writers and the Indigenous Writer’s Collective. Jenn is a graduate of Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio where she now works as a teaching assistant. She lives in North Vancouver.

  • Publisher : Tidewater Press (Oct. 6 2020)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 200 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1777010160
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1777010164

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This article has been Digiproved © 2020 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

Migrante by J.W. Henley

Author J.W. Henley states pointedly in the forward to his novel, Migrante, that “this is not my story”. Henley is not a migrant worker from the Philippines. In fact, he describes himself as a white, middle-Class Canadian, of English, Dutch and Ukrainian heritage. He has not experienced exploitation and he has never been poor. That being said, he has produced a book that is utterly convincing.

He came to the stories of migrant workers through a woman named Jasmine, a caregiver from the Philippines with an interest in music and entertainment. Jasmine might have selected Henley, at the time a music columnist for the Taipei Times, because of his sympathetic connection to punk and metal – or in his own words, because of his “rebellious spirit”. But the connection between himself and Jasmine would evolve far beyond the musical realm. Jasmine introduced Henley to several other migrantes. One by one, they poured out their hearts to him, “recounting tales of abuse, exploitation, heart-break, and humiliation.” To bring their stories to a broader audience, Henley decided to create a composite of their experiences – a fictionalized account.

The story begins with a boy named Rizal who lives in a Manila slum with his mother. Their home is a cemetery, inside a mausoleum, “shared with the remains of an old Chinese family that had forgotten it’s departed”. Rizal’s is a twilight world – populated with scavengers and junkies and nightwalkers. It is unclear in this kind of underworld whether the inhabiting souls are closer to life or to death. They certainly exist on the margins of society, forgotten, dispossessed, hopeless.

“Rizal took a heavy breath. The silver edges of the clouds had begun to bleed into their centers. He tasted rain. Later the bones of the dead would wash through lanes turned to torrents of dog shit and trash.”

Rizal, having made the decision to escape the cemetery, seeks out an agent to secure work for him overseas. In an appalling twist, Rizal, charmed by promises of prosperity and a better future, takes on debt in exchange for work and safe passage thus ensuring his excruciating entrapment. From this point on, though its hard to imagine, Rizal’s experience devolves even further into dehumanizing exploitation, abuse, abandonment and cruelty. Henley carefully illustrates how the cozy, self-satisfying inter-relationships between labour brokers, employers and corrupt systems of justice leave Rizal with nothing but dead ends. Unable to rise above his debt or to outrun his contractual obligations, ultimately Rizal’s fate is unclear.

Some of the most affecting sequences in the novel take place on a fishing boat, the scene of Rizal’s first employment after arriving in Taipei.

“Out of equal parts desperation and practicality the four men stripped down to their underwear, laying their sweat-, seawater-, and fish-gut-soaked clothing to dry on top of the wheelhouse and over the railing. Many a time Datu swore, shifting the mat from the upper portion of his body to lower when he felt his skin begin to burn. Silently they cursed the sleep that wouldn’t come, the approach of night and the return to sea that was inevitable.”

There is something of the grotesque in this novel, Henley’s language blunt, unsparing, at times deliberately heavy-handed. With few exceptions the characters are drawn without the luxury of introspection. Characters don’t suffer inner conflicts and they are not burdened by choice. Human moments between the characters are few and far between. There is an inevitability in the narrative which at points, made me want to turn away, and yet, I remained pinned because I believed it all. The lives represented in Migrante feel agonizingly true.
If Henley’s aim in writing this book was to show the powerlessness of migrant workers – to shine a cold, clear light on how cruelly they are used, how they have nothing but despair – he can count his novel as a success. For my part, I am unlikely to forget the lives I have encountered here and that, I think, is the point.

  • Paperback: 310 pages
  • Publisher: Camphor Press Ltd (July 16 2020)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1788691938
  • ISBN-13: 978-1788691932

*Please note if you choose to purchase this book through Amazon using the link below, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link:  Thanks!  

This article has been Digiproved © 2020 James FisherSome Rights Reserved