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the daily review, tuesday, aug. 11

Reviewed here: Niceman Cometh, by David Carpenter; Sage Island, by Samantha Warwick

Veteran Saskatchewan writer David Carpenter is back, this time with Niceman Cometh, a novel about a freshly single mom named Glory making a go of it with her six-year-old, Bobby, as well as dealing with an unforgettably discombobulated cast of characters.

Terrifically plotted and perfectly paced, this multi-narrated romp dwells lovingly upon one precious, precocious and irresistibly typical preteen's reaction to the string of men who snake through his young life (thanks to his mother's many admirers). As well, its inventive and infinitely compassionate creator also nails a gonzo portrait gallery of characters ranging from the randy radio personality Rickey Bullerd to Glory's co-worker Jolene, mother of her son's playmate, Fern.

  • Niceman Cometh, by David Carpenter, Porcupine's Quill, 171 pages, $16.95

A friend of Glory's, Jolene calls 'em as she sees 'em: "Glory had a good eye for a sonofabitch." And Carpenter has a good ear for convincing dialogue, charming vignettes and fully realized situations.

The Niceman of the title cometh around Christmas in this year-in-the-life saga, but each chapter of the work is a lovely, beckoning present in its own light and a tragicomic gift in its own right. Dread and desire never had it so good, most likely because its handler possesses storytelling skills most writers rightfully covet, almost as much as the oddball collection of suitors covets Gloria in Carpenter's follow-up to the award-winning Banjo Lessons.

Montreal-born Calgarian Samantha Warwick's Sage Island, "inspired by true events," introduces Savanna Mason (a.k.a. "Savi"), a 19-year-old competitively swimming against the allegedly unbeatable and out-manoeuvrable Trudy Ederle in the legendary Wrigley Ocean Marathon - or is she? - a 22-mile race between L.A. and Catalina Island during Prohibition and flapperdom's heyday. (Think Marilyn Bell with bob, kohl-lined eyes, bee-stung lips and attitude to spare.)

Savi, on the verge of becoming one of life's long-distance losers and obsessed with acing the chewing-gum-sponsored 22-mile open-water swim, hits the waves while Warwick hits fever-pitch prose rhythms effortlessly, gliding into near-poetry that alchemically takes readers along for the marathon stretch, no doubt because she coached and swam competitively across the continent for seven years herself (1997-2004):

"I hear the ocean breathe inside me. I imagine the streamlined glide of first entering the water - the soaring, weightless sensation of being suspended - free. The first catch of the hand, the first pull, the first push, the loose recovery of the arm; music drums, stretches, constricts. A geyser of renewed force teems through my arteries, my blood and bones. This monotonous repetition of stroking through wild, open water - a primal sense of peace, cleansing atonement, the peeling, stripping, moulting out of myself, out of my skin, an estrangement from all things human, societal constraints, expectations, the disease of materialism, sex. The clearing out of everything, wipe the mind's slate clear - tabula rasa."

  • Sage Island, by Samantha Warwick, Brindle & Glass, 240 pages, $19.95

Sage Island, despite its minor fizzles (or because of its major flashes of a deftly drawn period of pendulous personalities and persiflage), will leave readers both satisfied and wanting more, as all fine first novels ought to do.

Apparently, Warwick's already diving into its follow-up. Good stuff (even when her romantic skirmishes dazzle in the footlights, no small feat at a time when drink, drugs, jazz and jitterbugs tend to take centre stage, they overcome the easy-out trappings of happy sappy endings). It's a thoughtfully engrossing charmer worth the price of admission.

Award-winning poet and literary journalist Judith Fitzgerald is working on Points Elsewhere, a new collection of poetry to be published next year. She also covers poetry for The Globe and Mail's books blog, In Other Words.

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