Friday, February 26, 2010

Reader's Diary #585- Jeff Smith: Bone 6, Old Man's Cave

Those of you who are sick of my Bone reviews will be happy to know that this book puts me past the halfway mark of the series. My kids and I are halfway through the 7th, I just bought the 8th (the 9th was out of stock), and we even have the prequel from the library. I'm pretty excited to finish the series. Truth be known, I've never finished any series. Harry Potter, the Gunslinger Series, Earth's Children, I've started each but have come up short.* But Bone might be it. Incidentally, at the Boneville Shop, you can buy the entire series in a single volume. On the plus side, it's a hell of a lot cheaper to buy it this way ($40), but on the negative side, it's the black and white version. I wonder if Scholastic has any plans to combine the colour version in a single volume.

Getting back to the story, there is a feeling that the end is in sight. On the one hand, the action is building up to a climax, but on the other hand more loose ends are being tied up and questions are being answered. On top of the stellar art work, fun and intriguing characters, and intricate plot, Smith has also managed to pace his tale superbly. Epic.

*Actually, I may have finished Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books when I was a kid, but I can't say if that's definitely the case. I might count J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Ring Trilogy as well, but without having read The Hobbit, I don't really feel that I should.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reader's Diary #584- Marcel Theroux: Far North

Last week I commented that Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo had a dystopian feel about it. Oddly, Marcel Theroux dystopian novel, doesn't have such a feel.

It didn't have much of a feeling at all. Set in Arctic Russia, presumably in the near future, global warming has wiped out most of humanity. With a food shortage and unbearable heat, most of the southerners that hadn't died out, ventured north to find food and cooler temperatures. Not surprisingly, hostilities flared and wars pretty much took care of the rest of the population-- with some exceptions, of course.

The most notable of the remaining survivors, to Theroux at least, is Makepeace, the daughter of religious and idealistic American expatriates, part of a wave of families who settled and created towns in remote ares of Siberia. Finding herself alone, Makepeace sets off to...

To what exactly? We're too assume she is lonely and she's off to seek other people. However, Theroux doesn't spend a lot of time inside Makepeace's head and I didn't really feel loneliness. Actually, she comes across more as someone who'd rather be alone. Plus, her plan seems wishy-washy. She seems to go at the convenience of the author, who takes her from one pseudo-adventurous vignette to another. She befriends a pregnant Chinese woman, she is kidnapped, she becomes a slave. She travels here, she travels there, she travels here again. On the surface, the book sounds like it would have potential, but it lacks emotion and direction. Covering more than five years of Makepeace's life, there seems to be almost no growth or change.

Equally as disappointing for me was the setting. While in Russia, it was also supposed to be the Arctic part, and I expected at least some similarities to my own experience. Not really. There's an occasional mention of the Tungus (a Northern Russian indigenous group now called the Evenks) and once or twice a caribou is mentioned, but little more. I didn't get any sense of Makepeace's world.

To try and liven things up, Theroux plans little surprises along the way (Makepeace's gender isn't revealed until the 3rd chapter), but even these become predictable after a while. The same second that a question would pop in my head, I'd brush it aside. Who cares? It'll be all spelled out for me 50 pages from now.

Dystopian books present a bleak outlook by their very definition. But bleak doesn't need to be boring.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Great Wednesday Compare #5- Louisa May Alcott VERSUS Thomas Hardy

The final winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Louisa May Alcott Vs Sylvia Plath ), with a final score of 5-2, was Louisa May Alcott!

This week we say goodbye to Sylvia Plath again. Plath, at least, seemed to be saying goodbye for most of her short life, so this should come as no real surprise. Actually, I'm reacting more on the Plath stereotype than any real knowledge. I've only ever read a collection of her poems called Ariel. And yes I found her morbid, but also darkly comedic. I often enjoy dark comedies, so I was quite taken with her. I'm looking forward to reading more of her work.

Moving on.

Remember, vote simply by adding your comment below, base it on whatever merit you choose, voting does not end until Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. (March 2, 2010), and if you want your book to get more votes, feel free to promote them here or on your blog!

Who is better?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Reader's Diary #583- Stacey May Fowles: Three-Legged Dog

I need to get something off my chest before I begin. Stacey May Fowles is NOT the "First Lady of Canadian Fiction" any more than I am the King of Canadian Blogs. Where did she get that title? I sure hope it wasn't Fowles herself because an arbitrary title of grandeur doesn't make it truth. And seriously, shouldn't Fowles have to pay a lot more dues than she has to get such a nickname? Not Margaret Atwood, not Margaret Laurence, not Carol Shields, not Alice Munro, but Stacey May Fowles? Even putting the question of a certain lack of popularity aside, she's published just two novels. Two.

Where does this rant come from? Stacey May Fowles has a book in the National Post's Canada Also Reads, and, as you may have heard, I'm a panelist (defending Steve Zipp's Yellowknife). As you may not have heard, we will not really be debating the other books as much as we will be defending our own. I only found out that I was a panelist on February 9th. We are not being given the other 7 books to read (actually the Workhorsery was kind enough to send me a free copy of Jocelyne Allen's You and the Pirates) and even if we had, few of us would have the time to cram in 7 novels in less than a month. But I'd still like to know a little something about the competition. I'm now relying on short stories to get a feel for their writing.

Back in January of '08 I read Mark Antony Jarman's "the Cougar." I had misgivings about it as I struggled to decide whether or not his style was unique in an experimental way or in a "I'm just trying to be cool" sort of way.

In February of '08 I read Leon Rooke's "Yellow House." I found it to be "relentless" and I remember how I didn't expect to enjoy a story with ample doses of magical realism, yet I did.

In February of '09 I read Jessica Grant's "Humanesque" and found it confusing but fun.

With their unique voices, I expect these three to be stiff competition come March.

So, I move on to try and familiarize myself with the others. Stacey May Fowles' novel Fear of Fighting is also a Canada Also Reads contender, being defended by Zoe Whittal. I found Fowles' short story "Three-Legged Dog" at the Lies With Occasional Truth website, which has the brainless audacity to call itself "The World's Greatest Fiction Magazine." (Remind you of anyone else's silly title?)

There's a psychology experiment I once read that goes a little something like this: subjects are shown faces from which to pick the most beautiful eyes, nose, lips, chin and so on. Next, the best features are all used to create a composite face. Finally, subjects are shown all the faces again, plus the composite face, and asked to pick their favourite overall face. Researchers are surprised to learn that the composite face is rarely chosen. However, most of the general population are less than shocked. We know that there is such a thing as too perfect. We know that so called imperfections are what keeps things interesting.

However, the narrator in Fowles' "Three-Legged Dog" seems to think this is unique to her and waxes on and on about it, crossing the line from navel-gazing to superiority complex as the story moves slowly forward. The first two thirds of the story is basically an extended and implied boast. An argument can be made that she takes the taste for the flawed to an extreme, but her incessant "look at how interesting I am" is annoying rather than charming. There is a suggestion of growth, of a realization, towards the end, but at that point I stopped caring.

I hope the narrator is not indicative of Fowles herself, and especially not of her other writing. Then again, if she's the competition, maybe I do.

I would like to say that I admire Fowles' for giving free ebook copies of Fear of Fighting away on her website until April.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Saturday Word Play- Canada Also Reads Borrowed Letters

In anticipation of the National Post's Canada Also Reads, I bring you the latest Borrowed Letters game. I'll give you a few familiar titles, with one word missing. Fill in the words and use the letters to complete the title of a Canada Also Reads selection. For instance, if I gave you:

Cormac McCarthy: All the ------ Horses
She Silverstein: Where the ----walk Ends
CAR Selection Jocelyne Allen: -ou an- th- ---a---

You could work out that the two missing words are pretty and side, and you could plunk the letters into Jocelyne Allen's title to create You and the Pirates.

As always, feel free to do all ten and home but only answer one in the comment section. That way, nine others can have a chance to play along.

1. Farley Mowat: Never Cry ----
Stephen King: Duma ---
CAR Selection Steve Zipp: --l----ni-e

2. John Milton: Paradise ----
William Golding: Lord of the -----
Stephen King: The ---- Zone
Alistair Mcleod: The Lost ---- Gift of Blood
CAR Selection Cathy Marie Buchanan: -h- --y Th- -a--- -t-o- -----

3. David Chilton: The ------- Barber
Gabrielle Roy: The --- Flute
CAR Selection Mark Anthony Jarman: M- ----e P-----

4. Robert Munsch: Andrew's Loose -----
William Shakespeare: ----- and Juliet
Irene Nemirovsky: ----- Francaise
CAR Selection Jessica Grant: C---, ---- --------

5. Margaret Atwood: The ----- Assassin
Ayn Rand: ----- Shrugged
CAR Selection Terry Fallis: -es- ---- P----

6. Louis Sachar: -----
CAR Selection Leon Rooke: Th- -ast ---t

7. Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the ----- Time
Gary Larson: --- Side
CAR Selection Stacey May Fowles: -e-- of F----i-g

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Great Wednesday Compare #5- Louisa May Alcott VERSUS Sylvia Plath

The final winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Joseph Boyden Vs Louisa May Alcott), with a final score of 5-4, was Louisa May Alcott!

This week we say goodbye to Joseph Boyden. Boyden, as I've said many times on here, was the author behind Three Day Road, a book I quite enjoyed. However, for some reason, I still haven't made it to Through Black Spruce, the 2nd in the trilogy, which sits impatiently on my bookshelf. I'm not sure why this is. I have the same issue with Mary Lawson's The Other Side of the Bridge: I loved its predecessor Crow Lake, but haven't made the time for the next. Ditto for Seeing, the sequel to Jose Saramago's Blindness. Do you ever have this problem? I think, for me, there are two factors to blame: 1. I'm always wanting to read new authors and 2. I'm slightly nervous about the sophomore syndrome, where the 2nd can't possibly live up to my expectations.

I digress. Meet this week's contender.

Remember, vote simply by adding your comment below, base it on whatever merit you choose, voting does not end until Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. (Feb 22, 2010), and if you want your book to get more votes, feel free to promote them here or on your blog!

Who is better?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Reader's Diary #582- Abby Gaines: So, how did you two meet?

This Valentine's Day, I went looking for a romance. Which publisher do you associate with romance? Harlequin, of course. Harlequin, many people don't realize, is a Canadian company. According to its website, Harlequin is Canada's most successful publisher, publishing a whopping 130 million books in 2008, of which only 5% were sold in Canada. This may help explain why they have a line of romances set around the NASCAR circuit (I'm not kidding), but none based around hockey. Harlequin's success is sort of like our music scene, isn't it? We export the multi-platinum selling Celine Dion and keep the Tragically Hip for ourselves. By the way, there hasn't been a single Harlequin book reviewed in 3 years of the Canadian Book Challenge.

So, like very few Canadians have done before me, I went looking for love at Harlequin. Not looking for a long term commitment, but more of a quickie, I figured they must have at least one short story available online. They didn't. However, I did Google some of their authors. Almost all of them had webpages, and one of those, Abby Gaines, also offered up a couple short story freebies.

"So, how did you two meet?" is about a doctor at a gerontology ward who is bothered by a woman visitor who likes to ask his female patients how they'd met their husbands so many years ago. According to her, she's simply providing a service to these elderly ladies who want someone to talk to and reminisce. According to him, she's dredging up old memories and reminding them of death and loneliness. A man and a woman who initially don't click? Gee, I wonder where this is going.

Despite it's predictability, I didn't mind the story. Like most romances (both real and fictional), there has to be a moment of magic. People have been trying to discern between love and Love and LOVE and Love for ages and Gaines hints around about at least a couple of those. The doctor, obviously representing the more practical side of love, talks about love beyond that first hookup. That's where the work and genuine long lasting relationships are made. But the visitor's focus on that initial chemistry isn't without importance. True, most romances seems to put too much importance on the latter, but it's a magic you almost need to believe in when you're first falling in love. Facts can come later.

Incidentally, if you have a nice "how you met" story, you might be interested in this.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Reader's Diary #581- Jeff Smith: Bone 5, Rock Jaw

The fifth book in Jeff Smith Bone series, Rock Jaw: Master of the Eastern Border, is my least favourite of the books so far.

Usually when the Bone cousins get separated, the story alternates back and forth, letting you know what the others have been up to. However, in this volume, the story remains only on Smiley and Fone Bone. We don't get to see what Phoney, Thorn, Grandma Ben or any of the characters are doing. This in and of itself isn't problematic, it's nice when authors switch their normal pattern up a little. However, I wasn't overly fond of Smiley and Fone Bone's story line this time, and found myself wondering what was going on with the other characters.

In an attempt to return the baby rat creature to the wilderness, Smiley and Fone run into a somewhat grumpy mountain lion named Roque Jaw. He happens to know quite a bit about the inevitable war, but for the life of the Bones, they do not know where his allegiances lie. I liked Roque Jaw's philosophical character, which is a bit of a risk in a children's book, and his pretentious lecturing. His message is basically that good and evil simply depends on what side you're on. However, they also meet a bunch of baby orphaned animals and that's where the problems began. There's just too many! Raccoons, possums, beavers, bugs, snakes, birds, lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my. Reading this aloud to my kids, I ran out of voices! Then the action became a little over the top as well. Kingdok, the head rat creature, pursues them. They escape into the clutches of Roque Jaw. They escape into the clutches of Kingdok, and the so on like a pendulum. It was more silly than exciting. But certainly it had humorous moments and wasn't without charm. As I said above, not my favourite in the series, but certainly not as bad as to turn me off altogether.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Reader's Diary #580- Steven Galloway: The Cellist of Sarajevo

Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo centers around real life events. In the early days of the Sarajevan siege (1992-1996), a mortar attack killed 22 citizens who were standing in line waiting to buy bread. To honour those victims, for 22 days in a row, professional musician Vedran Smailovic went to the site of their death and played Albiloni's "Adagio in G Minor." Though Galloway focuses instead on three fictional characters, it was important to keep the nonfiction in mind for a couple of reasons:

1. The cellist came to represent a lot of different things to different people. To Arrow, a female sniper sent to protect the cellist (unbeknownst to him), the cellist and his seemed to be the catalyst that helped her find compassion. To Kenan, a father on his way to take a dangerous trek across the city to get water for his family, the cellist spoke of perseverance, sometimes carrying on simply for carrying on sake. And to Dragan, an older man, who stayed behind when his family left for Italy just as the fighting broke out, the cellist provided a reflection on courage. To all of these characters the cellist helped them reclaim their humanity. Though Arrow, Kenan and Dragan are fictional, it isn't too hard to believe that the cellist and his song probably did mean those things and more to the people who listened and watched him during those bleak days.

2. The Cellist of Sarajevo feels like a dystopian novel. To a Canadian reader who's never experienced anything remotely like this, scenes of people risking their lives for water and bread, running through a city that's under sniper fire, seem almost surreal. They prey on our CNN-induced phobia of a terrorist controlled future. Add to that Galloway's sparse but immediate prose, a common feature of dystopian novels and it would almost be easy to convince oneself that Galloway's novel is but a scary vision of a world to come. But it's not futuristic. For the people of Sarajevo, it is fortunately the past, for others this is the present. Trying to hold on to humanity when your basic needs are not even met is something most Canadians don't give a second thought.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is a beautifully written book. It's about the importance of symbols, about hanging on, about who we are as a species.

By the way, you can feel free to throw out the idea that this was a completely unbiased review. I knew Steven would be in town for a Northwords Writers workshop and reading, and that's why I read his book at this point in time. I can say that I truly, truly did enjoy it, but you don't have to believe me. Here's Steven and I at the Bullocks Bistro, a local joint that serves freshly caught fish.

Here he is signing the ceiling. The entire place (ceiling, walls, tables, venting ducts, etc) is filled with autographs and graffiti. It's a must-do place for any visitor.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Reader's Diary #579- Jeff Smith: Bone 4, The Dragonslayer

Last month, in my review of Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira Vol. 1, I moronically suggested that all graphic novels should be in black and white. I whined that I'd not come across any that were colourized well. Apparently my memory had not been working that day, as I failed to recall the wonderful job that Steve Hamaker has done for the Scholastic editions. Rich, realistic and magical at the same time, it's hard for me to even remember the black and white version that I started with. Note to other colour artists: a little shading goes a long way.

Moving on from my retraction, I have to begin by saying how much my kids and I are enjoying this story. Each night we read another chapter and now, as we're about to move on to the 6th in the series (my review of #5 coming soon), we just getting more and more into it.

In the Dragonslayer, Phoney Bone's character (the grinning guy on the cover), is developed more fully. This is important since we're told almost from the get go that he will play a crucial role later on down the road. Or at least a Bone with a star on his chest will, and as of yet, he's the only one. Until now, Phoney's cousin, Fone Bone (not as confusing to keep track of as it sounds) has been the primary focus. However, as potential heroes go, Phoney isn't all that likable. In the course of four novels, he's gone from mildly and amusingly selfish to dangerously opportunistic. It'll be interesting to see where Smith takes the character and whether we get stuck with an imperfect hero or if there'll be redemption. A third possibility is that this is all been a red herring. Maybe Fone Bone will end up wearing Phoney's shirt. For those of you who know the answer, please don't spoil it for me!

We're also introduced to a few more characters in this volume, most notably the baby rat creature. Not only is he adorable, but he'll hopefully offer more insight into rat creature psychology and the whole nature versus nurture debate (because you know kids pick up on things like that). He'll be an interesting character to watch for sure.

The Dragonslayer has probably been the more violent of the books so far, with a war brewing and a small battle that results in one character's arm being sliced off. It's not graphic, but then again an arm is sliced off, so maybe it should have been. Anyway, the kids didn't seem to mind and while I debate whether or not that nonchalance is a good thing, the story moves on and we're in too far to turn back now.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reader's Diary #578- The Good News Bible: Esther

It would not be difficult to analyze Esther, one of the more narrative books of the Old Testament, from a feminist perspective. Given that it's one of only two books in the entire Bible to be named after a female, I'm sure this has already done to death and I needn't get into here.

Esther begins with Xerxes, a king of Persia, calling for his wife Vashti to come and present her beauty to some visiting dignitaries. She refuses. She was too busy preparing for her big gig at Lilith Fair that evening. Xerxes, embarrassed by his wife's disobedience and lacking the ability to think for himself, asks his council for advice. His council strings a few grunts together to suggest that they are scared by the precedence Vashti has set (What if my wife refuses me? What if she suddenly wants to vote? What if she gets a talk show and book club?) and advise Xerxes to strip Vashti of her title as queen. That's when Simon Cowell enters the scene and begins auditioning virgins to be the new queen. After some rather embarrassing versions of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," the potential mates get whittled down to one winner, the enchanting and (shhh!) Jewish, Esther.

From here the story takes a shift and becomes one of political intrigue and betrayal. Xerxes' newly chosen Prime Minister, Haman, invites the royal officials to become his Facebook friends, but one man refuses: Mordecai, Esther's cousin. Now the Jews at the time were opposed to Facebook (a kosher version had yet to be developed), so Mordecai had good reason to decline. However, Haman felt slighted, and, as we've all done when slighted by someone of a different race, demanded that all the Jews be killed-- a motion supported by Xerxes. Esther has a big decision to make. Should she come clean that she, too, is Jewish and risk being demoted and wind up marrying K. Fed? Or will her admission convince Xerxes to come to the rescue of Mordecai and the rest of the Jews? Suspense.

Esther is a great short story. There's an unfortunate wrap-up at the end that somehow manages to interpret Xerxes and Mordecai as the heroes, but we all know it's Esther. I wonder if, after she'd grown some courage and confidence, she didn't leave leave Xerxes and exploit the whole thing in a tell-all book? I bet the ending would be better.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Canada Also Reads Me!

Notice the 2nd book in the 2nd row?* Guess who'll be defending it in the very first Canada Also Reads, the National Post's alternative book bash!

I'm more than a little nervous about doing Steve Zipp's Yellowknife justice, and I have a few logistics to work out (I'm flying to Japan the same day that they're having the live discussion), but overall I'm extremely excited and pumped to have this opportunity.

(*Update April 27, 2015: Of course not, the picture has since been removed.)

The Great Wednesday Compare #5- Joseph Boyden VERSUS Louisa May Alcott

The final winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Joseph Boyden Vs David Adams Richards), with a final score of 5-4, was Joseph Boyden!

What an interesting vote last week. Never has it alternated back and forth as much. One vote Boyden, one vote Richards, one vote Boyden, and so on, coming down to a 4-4 tie. But as always in the case of a tie, I get to decide the winner (it is my blog afterall). It's probably no surprise that I'm going with Boyden. I really enjoyed Three Day Road, and when I met him in person, he turned out to be supremely warm and modest and funny. Granted, Richards might be those things too, but alas, our paths have never crossed. You may be asking who cares what he's like as long as he's a better writer, but I've only read one of his books, the nonfiction Hockey Dreams, and wasn't overly impressed. So book for book, I'd still pick Boyden.

This week's newest contender is probably coming out of left field.

Remember, vote simply by adding your comment below, base it on whatever merit you choose, voting does not end until Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. (Feb 16, 2010), and if you want your book to get more votes, feel free to promote them here or on your blog!

Who is better?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Reader's Diary #577- Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake: The BFG

Our third Dahl book together and my daughter and I are now die-hard fans. James and the Giant Peach, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and now the BFG, or as my daughter calls it, my BFF the BFG.

I'm still not sure I could yet declare a favourite Dahl, but I definitely enjoyed parts of this one more than the others, and definitely enjoyed parts less.

For pure silliness, the BFG wins hands down. It's impossible not to be amused by the Big Friendly Giant's speech patterns and mispronounced words:

They would be putting me into a zoo or the bunkumhouse with all those squiggling hippodumplings and crocadowndillies.

(Read it with a bad Cockney accent for extra effect.)

The plot, involving a crew of grotesque giants who steal kids from their beds at night and eat them*, needs ample doses of comedy to offset such violence and Dahl delivers.

But perhaps too well. I suspect that Dahl got a little carried away. Just like with the Bridge to Terabithia which I read recently, it takes about 100 pages or so for the story to go anywhere. Granted, the giants and their lifestyle are wildly interesting, but there's too much sacrificed for all this info and fart jokes and dream sequences. Most notably and regrettably, we never learn much about the BFG's captive, a little girl named Sophie. Without her, there would be no story, yet Dahl has shone almost all his light on the BFG. Does Sophie care that she's been snatched from her home? Is it supposed to go without saying that since she's an orphan, that no, she probably doesn't care? Willie Wonka and Charlie at least got equal air time. Sophie needs a new agent.

But for sheer amusing entertainment, the BFG was a wonderfully fun read.

One question: Do you like Quentin Blake's illustrations? I've never said much about them, because I'm not sure how I feel. They aren't really my taste, but I appreciate they have a distinct style. Still, I'd like to see someone else have a go at one.

*Oddly, this is my second book about a child-eating giant this year.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Reader's Diary #576- Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Ambitious Guest

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Ambitious Guest." The story opens with a quaint little scene of a family sitting around a fire. The mother and father's faces reflected gladness, the children laughed, the eldest daughter was the image of Happiness, and the grandmother, the image of Happiness grown old. Ahhh. Let's all get cozy in the cottage, shall we? Not so fast. This cottage is in a cold spot and a dangerous one; for a mountain towered above their heads, so steep, that the stones would often rumble down its sides and startle them at midnight.

Foreshadowing right from the get go is a risky business. I mean, readers haven't had much of an emotional attachment as of yet, so why should we care when they inevitably meet their demise? Because we're human and caring for our fellow human beings is what we do.

Wrong. I think what Hawthorne has done is exposed our sadistic side. What an idyllic setting Hawthorne has created. Yet it's the promise of its destruction that keeps us reading. Perhaps this is why Hawthorne doesn't personalize the characters too deeply, we might up caring too much. Keeping them 2 dimensional surely makes our sinister thoughts more palatable.

Is Hawthorne pointing his finger at us for this attitude? I should hope not. I think Hawthorne himself shows even less restraint with the rest of the story. If killing off the happy family is our focus, Hawthorne isn't content to leave it at that. With the introduction of a traveling stranger who hopes to make a name for himself before he dies, Hawthorne ups the ante. Thinking of Hawthorne's cruel treatment of these characters, I felt better about my own.

Many readers will see this tale as a story about the folly of worldly ambition, but I found the set up, and Hawthorne's omnipresence, to be much more interesting. We often get to see writer as creator but it's far less common to see writer as destroyer, at least this unabashed.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Guest Post- Debbie Mutford and 3 More Canadian Book Challenge Reviews

I think I may, for the first time, succeed in meeting the challenge of reading thirteen books by July 1st! In addition to other posts, I have three more reviews to add.

1. The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre - Admittedly, I have been sitting on this book for several months. Although fictional, its controversial issues have found their way in Canadian headlines repeatedly throughout the years. I like how much MacIntyre leaves to the reader. The emotions are what run the story, not explicit details.

2. Raven, Stay By Me by Luise Van Keuren - A novel for children, Raven, Stay By Me is an introductory story of ignorance and prejudice. Inga is separated from her family in Greenland when their ship is wrecked in a storm. She finds herself adopted by the Inuit inhabitants of Newfoundland and Labrador and later in a position of needing to choose from the two cultures afraid of each other due to lack of knowledge and understanding. For a children's book, it was pretty good.

3. The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill - I saved the best for last. Love this book, loved it, loved it, loved it. I was at risk of disappointment as all I had heard were great reviews (there's nowhere to go but down) but Hill pulled through. This book deserves all the praise it's received over the years. I won't get into details...just read it if you haven't yet.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Saturday Word Play- C is for Crappy Clues

It's a doozy this week. Mainly because the clues are so crappy. But more on that later. In the meantime, this week's quiz is devoted to Sue Grafton. You know, the mystery author behind the whole alphabet series, A is For... set of novels. I've never read one, but I admire the dedication to a theme. If you're going to be the sort of author to pump out 26 books (she's made it to U so far), you might as well be creative... or not creative; depends on how you look at it, I guess. It certainly doesn't help her defend against those that accuse her of being formulaic.

Anyway, I'll give you the first letter of each title, but you need to figure out the rest of the missing word, based on the crappy clues. Why are they so crappy? Because they're terribly ambiguous. There are several possible answers for each one. Guess the correct ones and the beginning letters will spell out the answer. Here's an example:

L is for
Three letter body part
Day of the week
Three's Company Character (first name)
Canadian capital city (province/territory)
Day of the Week
Twelve Days of Christmas bird

With good guessing and a little logic (you know R is not likely to follow the first L), you could work the clues out as L (given), Arm, Wednesday, Larry, Edmonton, Sunday, Swan = Lawless.

A quick tip: None of the answers have been used more than once, so pay attention to those that have been answered already (including those used in the example above). It'll help narrow things down.

Feel free to do all ten at home, but only answer one in the comment section. That way, nine others will have a chance to play along.

1. U is for
Noble gas
Playing card suit
Three letter body part
Rainbow colour
Three's Company Character (first name)
Rainbow colour
Canadian capital city (province/territory)

2. I is for
Coin (Canada)
Cardinal direction
Chinese zodiac animal
Three's Company Character (first name)
Three letter body part
Titular Dickens character (first name)
Five Alive citrus fruit

3. A is for
Five Alive citrus fruit
G7 Country
Rainbow colour
Rainbow colour

4. T is for
Original Six NHL team
Triangle classification (by relative length of sides)
Canadian capital city (province/territory)
Twelve Days of Christmas bird
One of the Bronte sisters (1st name)
Day of the week
Rat Pack member (1st name)

5. Q is for
G7 Country
Noble gas
Noble gas
Three letter body part
Rainbow colour

6. R is for
Triangle classification (by relative length of sides)
Three's Company Character (first name)
Titular Dickens character (first name)
Twelve Days of Christmas bird
Three's Company Character (first name)
Solar system planet
Day of the week

7. N is for
One of the Wright brothers
Country bordering Saudi Arabia
Three's Company Character (first name)
One of the Bronte sisters (first name)

8. J is for
G7 Country
Rat Pack member (1st name)
Rainbow colour
Day of the week
Cardinal direction
Solar system planet
Twelve Days of Christmas bird

9. F is for
Solar system planet
Five Alive citrus fruit
Part of Freud psyche
Day of the week
Country bordering Saudi Arabia
Rainbow colour
Book of the Bible named after a woman

10. P is for
part of Freud psyche
Three's Company Character (first name)
Canadian capital city (province/territory)
Five Alive citrus fruit

Friday, February 05, 2010

Reader's Diary #575- Lesley Choyce: Beautiful Sadness

"Or would his olive branch be torn apart by woodpeckers of mistrust?"

That's a question asked in the classic Simpsons episode, Behind the Laughter. I thought it was funny at the time and it sticks with me as an example of... of... I'm not sure what. But I still find it funny. In the Wikipedia article on the episode, the author refers to the line as part of a "hilarious series of nonsensical metaphors." But it's not nonsensical, is it? The olive branch (a clichéd symbol for peace) is destroyed and woodpeckers peck at trees, so technically it makes sense. Is it that an attempt at creating a cliché is funny in itself?

I ask because Lesley Choyce's Beautiful Sadness is full of woodpecker lines. I dogeared every page that had such a line and there wound up to be many corners of distraction. I just wish I had a name for this kind of cheese:

1. dreams are swept with moody brooms

2. driving station wagons of dissatisfaction

3. drain acid from the battery of my will

4. inside the garden of my heart

5. because black and white are cousins of the same autopsy

6. a tie clip pinching threads of order

The unfortunate thing is that I don't think Choyce wrote these with humorous intent. Certainly the rest of the poems containing one of these woodpecker lines (hey, I think I've found my term), usually weren't funny overall. Obviously such lines took away from my enjoyment.

However, and fortunately, all was not lost. I was hopelessly caught up in Choyce's sense of rhythm and when he was descriptive, he was beautifully descriptive. When he wasn't inadvertently cheesy, I quite enjoyed the poetic elements and word play.

I tried to find my favourite, "Newfoundland Kitchen" online to share, but was unable. However, I can't help but share the last four lines:

as you let the accordion roar
here in a room enameled to lightning gloss
and insulated from the dissonance
of the present

One of the poems from Beautiful Sadness that I could find in its entirety online was "My Father, Shaking Pepper." I thought it was fitting given yesterday's discussion of family dinners.

My Father, Shaking Pepper

It was his only vice, I think
for wars were waged at dinnertime.
My mother, silent, all of salt,
would watch his waving wrists with frowns,
his grip around the grey-white glass,
his mind intent on holding ground.

Read the rest here.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Reader's Diary #574- Scott Huler: Defining the Wind

As a child, I was fortunate enough to have a family that still sat down for meals together. It was nice. We'd squabble, pass the potatoes, squabble, talk about our respective days, squabble, and laugh. Depending on how early mom had supper on the table we'd get a good half an hour to an hour of quality family time. However, before long our near Latter Days Saints moment would be interrupted by by dad's mad scramble to turn on the radio that was perched on the ledge of the china cabinet. It was time for the Fisherman's Broadcast. It began with a tell-tale bombastic string number (up there with the original Hockey Night in Canada theme song in many Newfoundlanders' memories) and about halfway through the program a foghorn would announce the marine weather forecast. The rest of us carried on talking, but conversation with my dad at those moments consisted of a few grunts, a few shhhs, and a few blank stares. My dad spent a lot of time on the water. This was his life.

I was reminded of that program, specifically the marine weather report part, when reading Scott Huler's Defining the Wind (especially in his mention of an English radio program known as The Shipping Forecast). It was a nice memory, but it also served as a great reminder that for some folks, the weather means much more than an occasional minor inconvenience.

One of those folks, Francis Beaufort, is the subject of Huler's book and clearly the author's obsession. Apparently Huler was flipping through a dictionary one day when he came upon something called the Beaufort Scale. A descriptive scale of wind speeds, to Huler it was poetry. For the life of me, I cannot see poetry in this scale. I see a practicality in the scale, I see conciseness in the scale, and with Huler's help I was even able to see rhythmic meter in the scale. But Huler saw poetry and became obsessed, not only with the scale, but the man it was named after.

It's that obsession that both drives the book and makes Huler himself a central character. Early on in his research, Huler discovers that Beaufort didn't really have much of a hand in the scale's creation. An admiral who was in love with observation and detail, Beaufort was simply attracted to the work of others who had devised descriptive wind scales. He compiled their work, helped standardize it, and certainly promoted its use but really shouldn't be credited with its creation. In my opinion, the most practical application of the scale, didn't even appear in Beaufort's lifetime. It wasn't until a German sailor named P. Petersen developed an add-on, the state of the sea scale, that the scale became really useful out at sea, for people who still use the scale today. But despite uncovering these truths about Beaufort, Huler continued to proceed with his book, continued to cast Beaufort as the ideal observer, the representative eighteenth century man, a man who saw potential scientists in everyone as long as they had a sharp eye and a knack for innovation.

Fine, so Huler refuses to give up on his hero. That's not the problem. The real issue comes from his insistence on making Beaufort great by association. In his research on Beaufort, Huler finds it remarkable that he stumbles upon the lives of Charles Darwin, Daniel Defoe, James Cook and others. He also goes into needless detail about sailing, windmills, kites, hurricanes scales, British radio shows, and so on. If you've ever been quoted about the wind, there's a chance you're in this book. At one point Huler writes,
There was something about describing the wind that sparked expressive language and I think the answer is that the wind is invisible. You can’t describe it because you can’t see it. You can only describe what it does to things you can see - sails, the sea, trees, roof tiles. To describe clouds, trees, or anything else, you focus in on that specific thing, ignoring everything else. To describe the wind, you do the opposite: you look at everything else. It’s mind expanding.
I read another review that almost convincingly tries to use this statement to justify Huler's many meanderings. To understand Beaufort, he argues, you must also look at everything else.

Except Beaufort wasn't the wind, he wasn't invisible. That approach is stupid. Huler's book comes off as someone who set out to write a book on the inventor of the Beaufort Scale, realized very quickly that it wasn't Beaufort (besides, Beaufort's already been the subject of a couple of biographies), but decided to fill a couple hundred pages anyway. Let's say I had a silver spoon in my drawer that had been passed down to me as having once belonged to Napolean Bonaparte. Fascinating. So I go to write a book about it but with minimal research discover that the spoon was really just a stainless steel spoon purchased by my grandfather at Eatons 50 years ago. I scrap the book idea, right? Wrong. I get the truth out of the way in the first chapter, then proceed to write a bit about Napolean, a bit about how stainless steel is made, Eatons catalogues, my grandfather and maybe forks while I'm at it. All the while, I'm still convinced this spoon remains the single most fascinating piece of cutlery in the history of the world. What an unnecessary piece of writing.

The only thing that kept me going was the marvel of Huler's bizarre insistence. I wanted desperately to discover the psychology of the author. Alas, I never came up with anything more than someone refusing to admit he's wasted his time and now ours. Pride? Is that it?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Great Wednesday Compare #5- Joseph Boyden VERSUS David Adams Richards

The final winner of last week's Great Wednesday Compare (Ann-Marie MacDonald Vs Joseph Boyden), with a final score of 6-4, was Joseph Boyden!

This week we bid farewell to Ann-Marie MacDonald. I thought for a second, with 4 consecutive wins to her credit, she was going to take the whole shebang. She certainly has a lot going for her, doesn't she? I remember when I first read Fall On Your Knees. I'd known her as an actress and a journalist, then someone pointed out she was also a playwright and I believe she's a falconer, a feng shui master, and details vintage cars as well. Is there anything that woman can't do? I really didn't want to like her book. But gosh darn it all, it was great. A truly wonderfully written book. She's a lot for an insecure person to take.

But ha ha! The laugh is on her. Her career has surely careened to a halt with this latest blow. How can a writer recover from a devastating Great Wednesday Compare loss? I suspect she'll do what previous losers have done and pretend she hasn't even heard of my blog or the GWC. "The Great Wednesday Compare? What's that? Shouldn't it be 'Comparison'?" Nice try, MacDonald, but no swipes at my grammar will deflect from your loss. (And just wait to Oprah hears about it.)

Well. Glad that's out of my system.

Remember, vote simply by adding your comment below, base it on whatever merit you choose, voting does not end until Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. (Feb 9, 2010), and if you want your book to get more votes, feel free to promote them here or on your blog!

Who is better?

Monday, February 01, 2010

Reader's Diary #573- Monica Kidd: Still Life with Blake

I'll bore you with a bit of background before getting into my thoughts on Monica Kidd's short story "Still Life with Blake." In doing so, my post about her story will be longer than the story itself (it's flash fiction, postcard fiction in fact, meaning it's less than 500 words-- so you have no excuse not to read it.)

I stumbled upon Kidd's story looking for a Canadian lit magazine other than the Walrus (no disrespect to the Walrus), that have enough common and business sense to offer free short stories online. That search brought me to Geist, which in turn brought me to Monica Kidd's postcard story; short enough so that if I didn't like it, I wouldn't have wasted much time on it, and wouldn't bother reviewing it. But here I am, so the spoiler is out: I enjoyed it.

As I always do when I write a Short Story Monday post, I post a picture of the author. However this time I wasn't sure if that would be possible. I'd not heard of Kidd before and at the top of her story it said that "Still Life with Blake" was "an honourable mention in the 5th Annual Geist Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest" which I mistakenly took to mean that Kidd was probably an amateur and finding a photo online would not be easy. Turns out that I had heard of Kidd before. Pooker, one of my Canadian Book Challenge participants, read and reviewed a novel by Kidd (Beatrice) back in April. Which, of course, means that Kidd also isn't an amateur. She's got two novels, a non-fiction book, and a book of poetry under her belt. What's more, she's a photographer, a med-student (add her to the list of doctor writers), and filmmaker-- which takes me to the reason I'm giving you all this extra info. Originally from Alberta, Kidd now makes her home in St. John's, Newfoundland and one of her films, praxis: Twillingate, is about my hometown. I desperately want to see it but alas, couldn't find it anywhere online. However, I did track down a documentary video she directed in 2007 called Narrating Haiti. It's fascinating, especially if you want a glimpse of Haitian life before most of the world remembered the country existed.

Whew! That's quite the lead up isn't it? And to think, I wouldn't have discovered any of this had I not enjoyed her postcard story in Geist Magazine. So what's the story about? It's of a woman giving birth while the baby's father, Blake, walks in. Blake's capacity as a father remains to be seen, even if his status as a boyfriend does not. Let's just say the story is a slice of life.

It's thoroughly enjoyable, fully realized, and there's a few instances of clever wordplay going on that I'd not picked up on the first time around. Great story. And short enough to read many times over.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

The Canadian Book Challenge 3- 7th Update

Here we are, another month under our belt and past the halfway mark.

Before moving on, let's first acknowledge two of Canada's literary greats that passed away in January: P.K. Page and Paul Quarrington. Any favourite books or memories of either? Going through my archives I was surprised to find I hadn't reviewed any books by Page. I've definitely come across her work in plenty of anthologies and consider myself a fan. Here's one review I did a while back of a book introduced by Page. As for Quarrington, my only experience was with King Leary, which I loved and reviewed here. I've had The Ravine sitting unread on my shelf for a while now, but I'm still very much looking forward to it. I'm sorry, not the stirring tribute either of these people deserve, but I still don't feel I've gotten to know either of their work sufficiently yet-- only enough to say I want to read more. Any recommendations?

Now to lighten things up a bit, I've created a couple more Canadian literature themed Sporcle quizzes for your enjoyment: Cremation of Sam McGee Rhymes and Famous Canadian Authors. Have fun!

And now the Olympics. This month the world's focus is on Canada. British Columbia. Vancouver. And while I'm excited for a bunch of reasons (not the least of which is that a friend of mine gets to sing in the opening ceremonies), I also sympathize with the political issues surrounding the games. Thanks to Flying Buttresses and Matthew Good for reminding us this past week. For what it's worth, I agree with the concept of the Olympics. But has anyone ever handled it correctly? And is it even possible? Anyone have some easy answers to sell? In the meantime, just a reminder that you have one more month to read and review books for the Olympians prize pack.

Speaking of competitions, have you voted in the most recent Great Wednesday Compare? It features two canuck authors: Ann-Marie MacDonald and Joseph Boyden.

Moving on, this is a roundup after all, what Canadians books did you read and review for the challenge last month? Add your links in the comments below as well as your overall total so far!