Tag Archives: review

Standing Ovation for Diana Koch’s “Prime Time Stories”

He couldn’t remember growing old. It hit him like a freak thunderstorm on a sunny afternoon– Diana Koch*

 Local author Diana Koch’s work appears flawless. The only wrinkles in Prime Time Stories, her debut short story collection, are found on the faces and hands of her characters. Almost all of her protagonists are older, coping with various challenges in the later stages of their lives. The suspense (what they ‘do or don’t do’) propels the reader to turn the page in rapid succession.

Prime Time Stories Cover

“Prime Time Stories” (Greenstone Press, 2016) by Diana Koch is “a collection of 24 stories about men and women whose lives have been influenced by secrets, betrayals, regrets, illness, and even death”.  Cover image by the author.

Meet Mary, the woman who was now as withered as a forgotten summer apple that had rolled unnoticed under a storage bin. Sneak into Ivan Leeson’s barn as this widower/farmer touches the sinewy roughness of a rope as he contemplates suicide.

Will Mrs. M., a retirement home resident, lonely and confined to a wheelchair, be scammed by one of her visitors? What will become of Taylor Montgomery, a rich woman who steals trivial items to cope with her husband’s affairs? As Koch writes, Youth, in a slow trickle, is seeping out of her.

This focus on ageing (in its various forms) is like the yolk and egg whites that hold the nourishing bread of her book together. Consider it a loaf of 24 stories sliced and packaged with crusted secrets, yeast-bubbled humour, heart-warming sugar, flour-coated hauntings, unexpected crumbs, and cinnamon-twisted endings.

Like a baker or pastry chef, Koch slips in special ingredients to enhance the flavour of her work. Most notable is her use of the five senses such as scent: the captivating fragrance of “Promise Me” wafting around her like an exotic butterfly, the sweet smell of wood shavings and sound: the slamming of screen doors…his heavy steps on the stairs…water running in the bathroom…the ring of a telephone… the clanging of cutlery….

With a dinner-knife-sharpened imagination, she spreads her thoughts out like butter. The rhythm and flow of her words are silky-smooth and her sunny-yellow disposition slips between the sandwiched narrative and dialogue of her short stories.

Diana Koch Author Photo by Klaus Koch

Local author Diana Koch says writing fiction became a serious past-time after she retired. Photo by Klaus Koch.

There’s a caring motherly-maturity in her literary voice and yet, her intelligence fueled by her long career in the educational field adds a layer of depth to her writing. Don’t let her mild demeanor fool you. Some of her fictional material is more sinister than her settings let on.

Her characters are easily recognizable with just enough quirkiness to make them interesting. One of my favourite descriptions is from the story “Albino” where she writes, He stomped through the mire of daily living with bricks in his shoes, and a neon sign on his head that challenged people to gawk at him as if he were an invasive species.

Another strong description appears in “Assassin of Dream” where it was her unusual eyes that made people turn and stare at her. One was the brilliant blue of a summer sky, the other as brown as a chestnut.

Koch insists her stories are just average tales not worthy of notoriety. Those who are familiar with her work would disagree. Her fictional narratives are too strong to sit in a drawer.

The first time she shared her work aloud at a local writers’ workshop, I was mesmerized. The first time she submitted a story to a contest, it won first prize in the Ten Stories High Annual Short Story Competition organized by the Niagara Branch of the Canadian Authors Association.

When she officially released Prime Time Stories last November 27, 2016 at The Book Keeper in Sarnia, her family and friends applauded loudly.

Diana Koch Author Prime Time Stories Book Launch at The Book Keeper November 27, 2016 Photo by Klaus Koch

“Prime Time Stories” by Diana Koch was officially launched last November at The Book Keeper in Sarnia. Photo by Klaus Koch.

This summer, I asked Diana to share her thoughts about her writing process. Below are her responses:

Congratulations Diana on your debut collection of short stories! In a sentence or two, describe the theme or thread that binds your stories together. What inspired you to focus on characters in the ‘prime time’ of their lives?

 Prime Time Stories introduces the reader to people who are faced with an emotional crisis that must be dealt with in order for them to move on with their lives. The characters in these stories are from diverse walks of life, but all have dilemmas that cause them distress. Prime Time provides the reader an intimate view of people who have already travelled through the spring and summer of their lives and must somehow find their way toward a satisfying future. (Spoiler alert – some are successful, others not.)

People are fascinating at all stages of life, but they become more interesting as they grow older. Over the years, we have many experiences and interactions with our fellow humans, some positive, others that bring discontent or even heart-break. We make choices that determine our destiny. On some occasions, Fate plays a role. Lives become more complex when there are secrets, betrayals, regrets. (Provocative recipe ingredients for stories!) In the end, we all search for happiness, or at the very least, a degree of contentment or peace of mind.

Which of your stories in this book is your most favourite and why is it important to you?

Although all the people in Prime Time are fictitious, I have come to know them well. Ivan Leeson in the story “When the Dog Barksis a favourite. I grew up on a farm and understand the pride and attachment that farm people have to their land. As people age, they are often forced to give up a way of life that sustained them economically and emotionally. Ivan Leeson finds himself in this unfortunate situation. Although he had hoped for a different ending to his life, ultimately, he faces his future with the courage of his pioneer ancestors. Ivan Leeson reminds me of my Dad.

Your story “Rats is the Cellar” won first place in the Niagara Branch of the Canadian Author Association’s Ten Stories High Annual Short Story Competition. I recall it was the first story you ever submitted to a contest and it won the top prize. How did it feel to receive this honour? Is it important for writers to enter their work into contests or to submit their work to literary journals or consumer magazines? Why or why not?

To say I was surprised to learn that “Rats in the Cellar” had been selected as top prize is an understatement. If you recall, I submitted the story at your suggestion. I had no ambition at that point to have any of my writing published. It was thrilling to see my work in print in the anthology Ten Stories High. The experience encouraged me to keep writing and helped me overcome the shyness of sharing my work with others. I believe that my writing has improved and matured because I gained confidence to have my work critiqued and considered for publication.

Many of your stories have a twist at the end. Where do you find the ideas for your stories?

People intrigue me. I like to watch them and have conversations.

Sometimes, a few words strike me as significant. That was the case when a friend, who volunteers at a retirement home told me about a resident who “sits and waits for visitors who never show up.” It inspired the story “Waiting for Rhonda”.

A few years ago while in Toronto, I observed an attractive, exquisitely dressed and groomed woman in a coffee shop. She was sitting alone, clutching her handbag and staring into space. Her sombre expression suggested that all was not well in her life. She became the protagonist in “Taylor Montgomery Plays Chicken”.

Newspaper articles can also be an inspiration for stories. I once read about a man who had spent considerable time and money building his own coffin. Why would someone do that? My musing resulted in “Magnum Opus”. 

Other times, I imagine what it would be like to lead a totally different life from my own. How would I feel? What would I do? How resilient would I be? “The Sewing Circle” is such a story.

The twist at the end of my stories? Isn’t life like that? We think we have a plan, a certain path we wish to follow, a goal in sight – then something unexpected happens and everything changes.

Diana Koch Author Walking the Beach Photo by Klaus Koch

Walking down the beach is one of Diana Koch’s go-to places to get her creative juices flowing. Photo by Klaus Koch.

You had a long and successful career in the educational field. When did you decide that you wanted to write on a more regular basis?

I have always enjoyed putting thoughts on paper. I took pleasure in letter writing when that was in vogue. From the time I was a child, I fabricated stories – not always with the blessing of my Mom! Writing fiction became a serious past-time after I retired. I find the process of creative thinking satisfying and relaxing.

Describe your writing process.

Almost always, the process begins with a main character. It’s important that the character has a name. From that point, physical attributes and personality develop. It often takes weeks, months, sometimes years before I truly know that character. Only then can I build a story. It happens in my head before I can write it.

I am a methodical writer. I need time to let a story develop and grow. However, once it is written, I seldom change either the character or the plot. I do many revisions to mechanics such as sentence structure and vocabulary, but the story remains the same because it is character driven.

What are you currently working on?

I’m still writing short stories. I like the variety and the neatness of completing a project in just a few pages and then moving on to something new. My writing style tends to be succinct and lends itself to the short story format.

I have one completed novel. It is a coming of age story that takes place in Germany during WWII. For years, the characters and story rattled around in my head until I finally succumbed to the irritating mental prod to write it.

Currently, I am also working on a second novel about a modern-day woman who is the reincarnation of a historical figure from the 19th century – basically a story within a story. At the moment, it’s causing me some grief. One of the characters is not cooperating. I will have to give her some one on one attention.

Diana Koch Author with her favourite book Photo by Klaus Koch

“Wuthering Heights” has been on Koch’s book shelf for over half a century. She purchased it for $1.05 while she was a student at the University of Western Ontario. She says, “it’s timeless. A book for all seasons.” Photo by Klaus Koch.

What are your future plans? 

I’m happy to continue writing at my own pace, with abundant time to think things through. Aside from completing the novel, I hope to revisit a collection of short stories called Loss of Innocence that I wrote several years ago.

Your work is so strong and yet you decided to self-publish your collection versus submit your work to a trade publisher. Would you follow this path for your next book? Why or what not?

My decision to self-publish Prime Time was an easy one for a number of reasons.

After doing some research, I discovered that books of short stories are not popular with publishers. I also wanted to experience the publishing process myself. I enjoyed the creative aspects of designing the actual book – format, font, and cover.  My writer friend Bob McCarthy was a great mentor in the process.

By self-publishing, I was able to get a sense of how readers respond to my writing. It has been a positive experience beyond my expectations.

Seeking a suitable agent and publisher is a time consuming task. So much more than writing is expected of authors. I’m still not certain that I have the talent or the resilience to deal with agents and publishers.

It gives me pleasure to write. My reward comes from readers who enjoy reading my work. With that in mind, I will have to make a decision regarding my completed novel, The Button Girl.

Thanks Diana. Over the years, you’ve shared several draft chapters of your books with various local and out-of-town writers’ groups. I can’t wait to see more of your work in print. I wish you continued success with your writing. Please keep in touch.

Diana Koch was born in the Netherlands. She arrived in Canada as a young child with her parents and younger sister. Raised on a farm, she developed a love for the outdoors and spent many hours reading in the apple orchard or daydreaming in the meadow. Her collection of stories Loss of Innocence (as yet unpublished) relates the experiences of an immigrant child growing up in rural Ontario.    

After graduating from the University of Western Ontario, she taught French and German at the secondary level, and a variety of subjects in elementary schools. She obtained a Masters degree in education and enjoyed the years in her leadership role as Principal.

Since retirement, she has spent many enjoyable hours reading and writing. Some of her work has been published in chapbooks and anthologies. Prime Time is her first published book.

A review of Koch’s debut book appears on Sharon Berg’s blog and on the Lambton Shield website.

Additional information about Prime Time can be found on The Book Keeper website.

*from the short story “When the Dog Barks” published in the book Prime Time Stories (Greenstone Press, 2016) page 50. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © Diana Koch, 2016 
PLEASE NOTE: Several other quotes from Prime Time have been reprinted with the author’s permission. They appear in italics within the body of the blog post.

Watch this blog for additional Canadian Author and Poet Profiles.                        

Advertisements

Poet Profile: Marsha Barber Reflects on All The Lovely Broken People

This is a poem/for when you are broken…Marsha Barber*

The front cover of Marsha Barber’s latest book includes a snapshot of a rag doll with its head tilted and severed at the neck. Symbolically, it reminds me of childhood innocence and how easily it is lost.

book launch photo 2 for invitation with shadow

All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) is the latest poetry collection by Ryerson journalism faculty member Marsha Barber.

At some point we all break and need to find a way to ease the pain.

As an award-winning Canadian poet, Barber cradles this universal theme of family ties, loss, brokenness, and grief and through poetry tries to make sense of it all.

For example, in her first poetry collection What is the Sound of Someone Unravelling (Borealis Press, 2011) she introduces the reader to the joys and tragedies of life and death. As she writes in her introduction, the book “begins with the suicide of someone else’s father and ends with the death of my own father.” It is her way of “trying to understand both the small and enormous losses that make up all our lives.” Her 62 poems are divided into three sections: Remembrance, Graveyard in Summer, and Watching My Father Rest.

This unravelling of emotions continues with her second book All The Lovely Broken People released by Borealis Press in 2015. The 98-page collection includes 64 poems divided into five sections: Inside the House, Difficult Journey, Swimming for My Father, Guided Tour, and Small Joys.

As a journalist and a documentarian, Barber hones in close to her subject matter and writes in a clear and accessible manner. In her poem, “Photo of the Doomed Man”, she examines the struggle between the journalist’s need to share the news and to protect the victims. At one point, she writes: “We’re inured/to gutting open/the fragile moments between/life and/death/like a Halloween pumpkin.”**

Marsha Barber photo from Ryerson website

Canadian Poet Marsha Barber writes about grief and healing in her two poetry collections published by Borealis Press. Photo Credit: Gary Gould

Her work is deep: both analytical and close to the heart. Of particular note is her use of the five senses, especially the sense of smell: “Inhale the smell of coffee and damp coats/still flecked with snow, like white icing.”***

In a Verse Afire review****, Canadian poet John B. Lee wrote: “Marsha Barber’s poems are consoling in their beauty and fortifying in their faith in the quality of a good life well lived and also in the purposefulness of dying well. She writes of loss and of the pain resulting from the terrifying awful things we humans are capable of inflicting at our worst reminding this particular reader of Yeats’ line “…the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” And she confesses more than once in these poems that she does not always understand. And it is that lack of understanding that renders her insights all the more luminous. Her poems are more than an anodyne to soothe the troubled mind. They often kick sideways into the dark realm of true experience.”

By the end of the book, Barber offers the reader hope: “This is a poem to sew those torn pieces/into ribbons//and eventually/into kites.”*

A few weeks ago, I asked Barber about her writing process. Below is her response:

Congratulations Marsha on your latest work. Describe your new book. What inspired you to write it?

I write about what’s important to me and this book was inspired by needing to write about themes that range from the intimate and personal, to events unfolding in the wider world. The poems are my attempt to make sense of those worlds.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Perhaps they’re more accessible than some. I love words and form, and have written experimental poems, but for me the real test of a poem is whether it will move readers. Will they relate to it? Will they laugh, or cry, or pause to think? Perhaps that comes from a deep desire to communicate with each person who is reading my book or hearing my words.

 

poems book cover McNally Robinson

What is the Sound of Someone Unravelling (Borealis Press, 2011) was Marsha Barber’s debut poetry collection.

 

You were a journalist first. How has your documentary experience influenced your poetry writing?

As a journalist, my goal is to tell an interesting story to an audience. That’s made me very aware of the power of narrative and storytelling. Just as journalism uncovers truth, I aim to get to the heart and inner truth of what I write about. Also, I’ve been told my work appeals to the senses, including the visual. Perhaps that stems from my work as a documentary maker. And finally, the best broadcast writing is clear and concise and words are chosen carefully. I’ve learned from that, I think.

 What inspires you and who are your mentors?

Good poetry inspires me. I’m a traditionalist in my tastes, so books of poetry by Keats and Yeats are never far from my bedside. I love the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy and Jane Kenyon and Dorothy Livesay, among many others. The Canadian poetry community, which is wonderfully generous, is full of people who have been inspirations and mentors.

Describe your writing process.

I write my first drafts late at night. Usually I sit on the bed with my Hilroy notebook and start to write. I always complete my first draft in long hand and I write fast. Revisions are a different matter. Usually I type out the draft and revise as soon as I wake up in the morning. Reading the poem aloud helps with that. Then I let time pass before I return to the poem so I can see it with a fresh eye before I do additional revising.

 What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on my third poetry book. This spring I was in Europe on sabbatical and some of the poems were written overseas. It was inspiring to write in a new setting in the middle of intense new sensory experiences.

What are your future plans?

More writing. I’ve written since I could hold a pencil so I imagine I’ll continue until I can’t hold a pen anymore. I think the impulse to create is as powerful as the impulse to draw breath. For me, it’s largely what makes life worthwhile.

Thanks Marsha for the interview and for allowing me to share a reprint of one of your poems. I look forward to reading your future work.

The Condolence Call

By Marsha Barber*****

I cradle the phone gently.
You are so far away.

Your grief surrounds you now
like a moat full
of dark water.

I cannot reach
far enough to comfort you.

My words flit around, useless
as flies.
What, after all, can be said?

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, you say.

I imagine I would have howled.
I imagine I would have rolled on the floor.
But in the end, I cannot begin to imagine.

I’ll be okay, you say,

but your voice is so remote as if
you’ve left us all
behind,
for a bleaker planet

where the air is charred,
and you cannot find the path
that leads
back home.

Marsha Barber’s next reading will be at the 100,000 Poets for Change event, Saturday, September 17, 2016, 5 to 8 p.m. at Mây Restaurant, 876 Dundas Street West in Toronto, Ontario. Hosted by Pat Connors and Steve O’Brien, the event will also include readings by Mahlikah Awe:ri, Sharon Berg, Luciano Iacobelli, Donna Langevin, Max Layton, Jeannine Pitas, Robert Priest, Dane Swan, and Anna Yin. More information here.

Marsha reading on train

Barber shares her work during the 2015 Great Canadian PoeTrain Tour.

Additional information about Marsha Barber can be found on The Ontario Poetry Society website.

Descriptions about her books are located on the Borealis Press website.

*from the poem “All the Lovely Broken People” published in the book All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) pages 94 and 95. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © by Marsha Barber, 2015

**from the poem “Photo of the Doomed Man” published in the book All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) page 69. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © by Marsha Barber, 2015

***from the poem “Writing in Cafés” published in the book All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) page 82. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © by Marsha Barber, 2015

****The full book review by John B. Lee appears in Verse Afire, A Tri-Annual Publication of The Ontario Poetry Society, Jan. to Apr. 2016 issue. Reprinted with permission.

*****“The Condolence Call” originally published in the book All The Lovely Broken People (Borealis Press, 2015) page 26. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © Marsha Barber, 2015  Please note due to formatting limitations of this blog, the phrase “as flies” in the fourth verse could not be indented as it should be. My apologies to the author and Borealis Press.

Watch this blog for additional Canadian Author and Poet Profiles. 

.

 

I Have Never Been to the Atlantic Ocean but Now I Feel I Have~~~

Well, I have and I haven’t! Oh, this is so confusing! One of my literary goals on my bucket list is to dip my toes in the Atlantic Ocean and then write a poem about it. I don’t know when I will get there but about three months ago I started reading a poetry book that not only made me feel like I was already splashing through the salty waves in my rubber boots but that I needed to pack up my fishing nets and head to the east coast today and for real! Ready or not, here I come! Books can do that, transport me to locations I have never seen and may never get to in person. My apologies for the late review, long overdue but I was hoping to polish up my French for the trip. That’s on my bucket list too!!

FROM SHORE TO SHOORMAL

By Donna Allard and Nat Hall Broken Jaw Press and BS Poetry Society, 2013, 72 pages ISBN 978-1-55391-111-1

By Donna Allard and Nat Hall
Broken Jaw Press and BS Poetry Society, 2013, 72 pages
ISBN 978-1-55391-111-1

At first glance, From Shore to Shoormal could easily be described as a poetic travelogue where images of the Atlantic Ocean mesmerize the readers and lure them onto fishing vessels and along barren shorelines where the “high-spirited” raven keeps a watchful eye. In the poem “Treasure Hunt” the instructions are to “Get your map out”… “never lose sight of your compass”…and “Feel the last wave, follow the sun.”… For those who are unfamiliar with the coastal fringe of Acadia’s Shediac Bay and the shoormal of Shetland Islands, U.K., this book nudges individuals into the salt taste, damp fog, fishy scent and rugged characteristics of these two regions.

However, this collection of 25 bilingual poems by New Brunswick poet Donna Allard and Shetland-based poet and visual artist Nat Hall is more than just another geography lesson. As stated on the back cover this 72-page book is a celebration of the Atlantic connection between two voices: the persona of Allard’s acadianrose cresting like ocean waves in “From Shore” the first section of the book and Hall’s nordicblackbird flying strong in the second part dedicated “To Shoormal”.

While the cover image (Hall’s photo ‘vagabond mood’) appears stark and gloomy, it sets a melancholy tone for the poetic landmarks within.

For example, Acadia’s rich history unfolds as relic puzzle pieces and unearthed memories in Allard’s introductory poem “War Musket Grass (Bay of Fundy) where “they swear the land still smells of powder.” In “Northwest Passage”, the “mornin’ boats dot the water like fag butts” and the “morning sun zips its warm jacket and leaves”. The couplets in this poem and the metaphors throughout this section of the book are like the waves in the ocean, lapping the shore at a steady rhythm. The writing is tight and Allard often uses haunting words when describing the fisherman’s life, beer, his wife’s isolation, “icicled telephone wires”, “ghost ships that/appear at sunset” and eyes either “shipwrecked on déjà vu” or a “glassy reflection of dark tides”.

It is not an easy journey. As Allard states, “There’s not a road on this isle that does not bleed/from shore to shore.” Yet, Pablo’s poetic influence abounds “along the apple pathways of every heart in love.” In another poem, she writes “this memory shall live within me/until that sweet season when we meet again.” Death and love are common themes: “I drown, in the beauty that only the Bay of Fundy can offer.”

In the second section of the book, once the reader is seamlessly transported across the ocean, Hall resumes the Atlantic tour using the image of the raven and the wind in many of her poems. The writing is often gritty, sometimes gentle, written mainly in the first person point of view and is accessible to the general public. However expect some unique twists and turns of phrases. In her poem “On the Tip of My Heart” she taunts the reader “go ask the bird what it feels like inside the gale.” Hall explores the “Lady Mist”, “water washed words”, the turbulent storms of the Atlantic and the lighthouse beacon. In “The Tales from the Tides” she experiments with an acrostic riddle and later humours the audience with the unexpected language of canned fish. One of the most memorable lines of the book appears in the poem “Harva” where Hall states, “I taste the sea…I’m still drinking the Atlantic/like a long shot of/tequila.”

While both sections of the book are written in a free-style format, the addition of French translations and Shetland dialect provides a cultural echo and textured layer to the original English work. As Hall writes in the English version of her closing poem, “I love this sudden switch of tongue/sur toutes les lèvres du St, Laurent!/Now I feel home on either side of the Atlantic.”

Whether the reader is French or English speaking, it is not necessary to be bilingual to appreciate the depth of emotion and multi-layers of meaning in these poem treasures. Rather, here is a book that dares people to step outside their boundaries, to take a closer look and celebrate these strong voices that make the Atlantic coast so special.

For additional “official” information about the book, click here.