Saturday, December 31, 2011

5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge- December Roundup (Sticky Post -- Scroll down for most recent post)

How to add your link:
1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as John Mutford (Anne of Avonlea)

Also, in the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. This brings me up to 1/13)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Year in Review 2011- Fiction

Finally, the last of my year end countdown lists: fiction (not including poetry and plays). My reading total is only slightly higher in 2011 than in 2010, but the overall Canadian content is definitely higher. Owing to the fact that this year I started the 5th annual Canadian Book Challenge, I've tried to up my Canadian content to levels even the CRTC could be proud of. Here, from my least favourite to favourite, are my 2011 fiction reads:

25. Guy Gavriel Kay- Ysabel
24. Louis Maistros- Anti-requiem
23. Margaret Hutchison- Tamarac
22. Frank Oppel (compiled by)- Tales of the Canadian North
21. Kathleen Molloy- Dining With Death
20. Bernard Assiniwi- The Beothuk Saga
19. Ben Mikaelsen- Touching Spirit Bear
18. Sylvia Olsen- Yellow Line
17. David Adams Richards- For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down
16. J. K. Rowling- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
15. Jamie Bastedo- Tracking Triple Seven
14. Angie Abdou- The Bone Cage
13. Alan Bradley- I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
12. Richard Van Camp- Angel Wing Splash Pattern
11. Mordecai Richler- The Incomparable Atuk
10. J.K. Rowling- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
9. Lucy Maud Montgomery- Anne of Avonlea
8. J.K. Rowling- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
7. Linden MacIntyre- The Bishop's Man
6. Ivan Coyote- Missed Her
5. J. K. Rowling- Order of the Phoenix
4. Corey Redekop- Shelf Monkey
3 Richard B. Wright- Clara Callan
2. Amanda Boyden- Babylon Rolling
1. Lynn Coady- Play the Monster Blind

Which of these have you read? Any strong agreements or disagreements?

Reader's Diary #789- Alan Bradley: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

While far from my least favourite novel of 2011, it's definitely one of my year's biggest disappointments. For the past few years all I've heard of is Alan Bradley: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,
The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, Red Herring Without Mustard-- 3 of the most popular Canadian titles in recent years. When I saw that there was a Christmas-themed Flavia de Luce mystery, I jumped at the chance to finally see what all the fuss was about (mine was a free review copy).

Unfortunately I still don't know. Feeling quite underwhelmed by the whole thing, I suspected that maybe this was Bradley's first misstep in the series. Perhaps it was just a poor time for me to be jumping in. Alas, reading all the positive reviews of this book-- equal to the previous three-- I'm left to conclude that the problem is with me.

I found the whole thing rather silly. A movie production crew shows up film at Flavia's family estate just before Christmas. They wouldn't wait until after? Then, conveniently, they all get snowed in on the night a murder takes place-- leaving a house full of suspects. Flavia, whom everyone seems so gung-ho about, came across as a two-dimensional caricature: a precocious eleven year old girl who compares everything to chemical reactions and who confides in Dogger, a family assistant, who seems a little too reminiscent of Punjab from Annie. Without these connections I wasn't drawn into the mystery at all and could hardly have cared less who committed the crime.

Last week I supposed, after reading an equally underwhelming Sherlock Holmes story, that mysteries are perhaps not for me. I can see how people would consider them comfortable diversions, but I'm still not sold on the genre.

Reader's Diary #788- Frank Oppel (Compiled by): Tales of the Canadian North

Tales of the Canadian North, a 500 page collection of essays and short stories from the late 1800s and early 1900s, was the most difficult book for me to get through in 2011. It wasn't the worst book I read this year, but it was certainly a tough slog. Not only was it 500 pages, but each page was divided into 2 columns and the font was ridiculously small. And a good many of the stories were so monotonously boring.

But not all. It was a bit of a surprise for me in one regard. Given the title, I expected it mostly to be north of 60 stories. For the Canadian Book Challenge I'm aiming to read 13 of such books. While I'll include this book in my total as some of the stories were indeed set that far north, it seems that "Canadian North" was more loosely defined here as the Canadian outdoors. Though given that a great number of the authors were American adventure travelers, I guess all of Canada was technically the north.

Tales of the Canadian North is full of manly men and canoes. Some are clearly fictional accounts, some are clearly not, some deal with outdoor peril, the others deal with murderers and traitors. It was interesting to see such a pan-Canadian book feel so similar no matter the province or territorial setting. For all the modern talk about our regional differences, there is certainly a common vein in our collective history.

Of course these are all told by a certain type of author as well. Though I recognized few authors besides Canada's Charles G. D. Roberts, it became apparent early on that they were all white, outdoor enthusiasts, hunters predominately, and as many of them* seemed to easily be able to put their (mostly American) lives on hold and hire guides to take them through the wilds of Canada for several months at a go, I'd venture to guess that most were also independently wealthy. Many of the stories originally appeared in the American publication Outing magazine. So the common vein and feel of the stories may also have been a product of a very narrow perspective.

It's also a very dated perspective. For the most part the "Indians" are untrustworthy and inferior and woman are irrelevant (unless betraying someone). Any nostalgia for the good old days of exploring the great unknown, matching your wits against nature, and so on are tampered by the bigotry. But still, Tales of the Canadian North gives an informative, albeit limited, view of Canadian history.

*The complete list of authors listed in order of first appearance: Lawrence Mott, William Bleasdell Cameron, Andrew J. Stone, William Davenport Hulbert, P.T. McGrath, Tappan Adney, Agnes C. Laut, Therese Guerin Randall, Leonidas Hubbard Jr., Charles G. D. Roberts, Geo. W. Orton, H. Christie Thompson, R. G. Taber, Herman Whitaker, A. Hyatt Verrill, Fitzherbert Leather, Frank H. Risteen, John C. Martin, Vingie E. Roe, Emerson Hough, James C. Allan, W. A. Fraser, Robert Dunn, Rex E. Beach, Robert T. Morris, A. J. Stone, Maximilian Foster, Ernest Ingersoll, Caspar Whitney, Edwin C. Kent, Riley H. Allen, Duncan Campbell Scott.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reader's Diary #787- J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

. 7 books, 8 movies. My daughter and I have finally finished the series. And we're both of mixed feelings about the whole thing. It was a wild ride, and was definitely a bonding time for the two of us these past 2 years. But now it's over and it's hard to imagine another series that will win us over as much. I've considered getting the Tales of Beedle the Bard but figured it best to just leave the series and Rowling for a while. My kids and I both loved Jeff Smith's Bone series as well, but none of the spin-off projects have lived up to the original, to the point where I think it soured the original experience. Why risk that with Harry Potter?

I quite enjoyed the last book. With Dudley's apology and Hedwig's death so early on, I think Rowling did a remarkable job setting the tone for the novel to follow: one of closures and tragedy. Holy cow, talk about a high body count! It's a bloodbath worthy of Shakespeare himself. Meanwhile there are also a few crucial plot problems worthy of M. Night Shyamalan-- nothing as bad as Goblet of Fire, though, so I still enjoyed it.

I was taken aback by the language though. No f-bombs or GDs, but loads of damns, hells, and a few bitches and bastards thrown in for good measure. I admit I censored when I read it aloud. My daughter is 8 and though I didn't initially think we'd make it to the last book in the series at this age, I changed my mind based on my daughter's maturity. As for the language, it's not that I necessarily think hearing it would damage her, I'm sure she's heard it on the playground before or read it in the graffiti around town, but I just couldn't bring myself to say them in front of her. But I'm sure my censorship won't damage her either! I also don't think Rowling is necessarily wrong to have written it in. Harry and his friends are all 17 at this point, mild swearing is tame compared to what 17 year olds actually say and do.

And now we try to find our next series.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The 2011 Book Mine Set Short Story Online Anthology

52 weeks, 52 short stories. Here, ranked from least favourite to favourite, are the 52 stories I read in 2011-- or links to my reviews of them. Everyone of these stories were available for free online at the time I read them, and embedded in each review are links to the stories themselves, but no promises that all the links are still active. If you'd like to read more short stories in 2012, I hope you consider participating in Short Story Mondays.

52. John R. Little- "Following Marla"
51. Owen Wister- "Mother"
50. Justin D. Anderson- "Colloid"
49. Oonah V. Joslin- "A La Descartes"
48. Daniachew Worku- "The Voice"
47. Sherry D. Ramsey- "Little Things"
46. Hayden Trenholm- "Like Monsters of the Deep"
45. Michael J. Cunningham- "Family Thanksgiving"
44. Stephen Crane- "A Dark Brown Dog"
43. Alice Dunbar-Nelson- "Violets"
42. Langston Hughes- "Thank You, M'am"
41. Guy de Maupassant- "A New Year's Gift"
40. Helene Christaller- "Brother Robber"
39. Anton Chekhov- "Easter Eve"
38. Joan Sennette- "Amanda's Special Gift"
37. Ania Vesenny- "Lace"
36. Evan Hunter- "The Last Spin"
35. Sharon Erby- "Parallel"
34. José Eduardo Agualusa- "If Nothing Else Helps, Read Clarice"
33. Clarice Lespector- "The Hen"
32. Eden Robinson- "Minnows"
31. Badriyah Al Bishr- "The Well"
30. Arthur Conan Doyle- "Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"
29. Song Zelai- "Jingzhen, Taiwan 1978"
28. Kate Chopin- "Old Aunt Peggy"
27. Dorothy Parker- "A Telephone Call"
26. David Barthelme- "City of Churches"
25. Gaustave Flaubert- "A Simple Heart"
24. Isak Dinesan- "The Blank Page"
23. Wayne Johnston- "Catechism"
22. Luigi Pirandello- "War"
21. Margaret Atwood- untitled doctor/ corpse story
20. Steven Mayoff- "Milk, Milk, Lemonade"
19. Leena Krohn- "The Three Buddhas"
18. Poppy Z. Brite- "Marisol"
17. Donna Tartt- "A Garter Snake"
16. John Geddes- "Only Five Minutes"
15. Alexandre Dumas- "Solange"
14. John Buchan- "Skule Skerry"
13. Charlotte Perkins Gilman- "The Yellow Wallpaper"
12. Lawrence Hill- "Meet You at the Door"
11. William Lychak- "Stolpestad"

The Top 10!!!

10. Wame Molefhe- "Where is the Rain?"
9. Kathleen Winter- "Madame Poirier's Dog"
8. Ray Bradbury- "The October Game"
7. Stephen King- "Herman Wouk is Still Alive"
6. Nicole Krauss- "The Last Words on Earth"
5. Susan D. Rogers- "A Poor Boy's Piano"
4. Sarah Selecky- "This Cake is for the Party"
3. Barbara Bruederlin- "Buona Sera, Kiss Me Goodnight"
2. Tim Waggoner- "When God Opens a Door"
1. Panu Trivej- "The Sky Blue Jar"

(*not including short stories I read in anthologies)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reader's Diary #786- Guy de Maupassant: A New Year's Gift

Interestingly, there seems to be way more stories about "the other woman" than "the other man" but Guy de Maupassant's "A New Year's Eve Gift" takes it from the latter's perspective.

The story opens with a man about to sit down, on New Year's Day, to write New Year's greetings to his friends. A charming scene. However, when he begins to write a letter to a woman named Irene, it is clear she weighs more heavily on his mind. Suddenly his concentration is broken by a knock on his door. It is Irene herself and she is clearly quite shaken.

I won't go further, and I especially won't state the ending, though I have to say I found the whole thing quite despicable. It's a well-written story and interesting, I suppose, but it left me feeling icky.

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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Year in Review 2011- Comics and Graphic Novels

A lot less graphic novels for me this year, but I was up in my nonfiction so I guess things balance out. Here, from my least favourite to favourite, is my recap of the graphic novels I read in 2011:

11. Liam O'Donnell and illustrated by Mike Deas- Wild Ride
10. Nicolas de Crécy, translated by Joe Johnson- Glacial Period
9. David Lester- The Listener
8. Ann Marie Fleming- The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam
7. Von Allan- the road to god knows...
6. Bryan O'Malley- Scott Pilgrim vs The World Vol. 2
5. Neil Gaiman, illustrated and adapted by P. Craig Russell- Coraline
4. Kevin Cannon- Far Arden
3. Josh Neufeld- A.D. New Orleans After The Deluge
2. Katsuhiro Otomo- Akira Volume 2
1. Bryan O'Malley- Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life Vol. 1

Still to come, fiction and short stories...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Year in Review 2011- Nonfiction

I love end of year lists-- other people's end of year lists. My own lists just reflect how out of touch I am with anything new. But I'll happily use your best of 2011 reading/ music/ movie lists to influence what I read/ listen to/ watch in 2012. Trendsetter, I am not.

The following list, therefore, is merely a ranking of what I've read in nonfiction this year. Very few were actually published in 2011. From worst to best, in my lowly opinion, here they are:

15. Karen Connelly- Burmese Lessons
14. Dr. Abdallah Daar and Dr. Peter Singer- The Grandest Challenge
13. Alex Debogroski- King of the Road
12. Ray Price- Yellowknife
11. Alice Blondin-Perrin- My Heart Shook Like a Drum
10. Nils Andrew Thompson- Looking For Momo in Tomo Domo
9. Albert Canadien- From Lishamie
8. Charlotte Gray- Gold Diggers
7. Annelies Pool- Iceberg Tea
6. Sandra Dolan- Wooden Boats and Iron People
5. John Gallant- Bannock, Beans, and Black Tea illustrated by Seth
4. Pierre Berton- Prisoners of the North
3. Miriatu Kamara- The Bite of the Mango
2. Ernie Lyall- An Arctic Man
1. John Vaillant- The Tiger

Stay tuned for fiction, graphic novels/comics, and short stories...

Reader's Diary #785- Dr. Abdallah Daar and Dr. Peter Singer: The Grandest Challenge

If you took the old adage about teaching a man to fish and added a bit about teaching a man to teach his community to fish and making sure they had access to a lake and a cheap source of bait, you'd have (besides an awkwardly long adage), the premise behind Dr. Abdallah Daar's and Dr. Peter's Singer's The Grandest Challenge.

You'd also have the book written for the layperson, which doesn't seem to have been a focus for either author or editor Sarah Scott. The Grandest Challenge promises to discuss how science can bring an equality to world health issues and how obstacles preventing that from happening can be overcome. I wanted to love this book, I suspected it would be a case of "preaching to the choir." I didn't love it and the choir was virtually ignored.

Towards the end of the book, they talk about the launch date of the Grand Challenges Canada initiative. "The room," they wrote, "was packed with notables from business, science and government." It's those three groups the book seems aimed at. But not belonging to any of those groups, it felt like I wandered into the wrong conference room. I tried to make my peace with the fact that I seem to be being told that besides my monetary donations, I have nothing to offer to the world's health crisis. Fine, I thought, I had no aspirations to be the next Stephen Lewis either but I admire what he does and a book about him or by him would still be interesting. But even as a spectator, The Grandest Challenge is not interesting. It's confusing and killed by endless repetitive examples.
The vaccine regimen consisted of priming with a canarypox vector carrying three synthetic HIV genes, followed by booster inoculations with two recombinant envelope proteins from two types of HIV (clades B and E).
Oh. I think I can find my way out.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Reader's Diary #784- Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

I finally found a Christmas story not about feeding the hungry. Though it does involve a Christmas goose, so I guess it's still food-related.

Actually, except for the goose (which is a pretty important part of the story), it has very little to do with Christmas. I am considering going to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie at some point over the holidays, and this is a Sherlock Holmes story, so there's also that.

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" is a pleasant enough little mystery that begins with Holmes profiling a man based solely upon the condition of a found hat. I don't often read mysteries, but when I do I always feel on guard and sort of like the author and I have entered into a contest of wits. Can he slip enough clues past me without my having figured out the culprit? I did guess who it was in this story, though it had more to do with the predictable way these stories are set up than any real giveaway. I don't think mystery is a genre I would ever really throw myself into, but it's fine for an occasional diversion.

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Reader's Diary #783- Troy Townsin and illustrations by Jennifer Harrington: 3 Canadian Christmas picture books

I once offered Kraft Dinner and a hockey puck as a prize in my Canadian Book Challenge. Lord knows I'm not against Canadian stereotyping. Canadian Jingle Bells, A Moose in a Maple Tree, and the The Night Before a Canadian Christmas, by Troy Townsin and illustrated by Jennifer Harrington, abound in such stereotypes. The children who are nestled have visions of poutine instead of sugarplums. I should love these books. Sadly, I don't.

What went wrong? First and foremost it's the poorly scanning poems. Try this to the tune of the "dashing through the snow" part of Jingle Bells: Up in Nunavut/ among the caribou/ we see an inuksuk/ and a seal-skin canoe. Awkward, right? Try this one from The Night Before a Canadian Christmas: He touched his finger to his nose and/ just stepped out into the night,/ where his beaver team were on/ the deck having a snowball fight.

Plus I'm not so sure about Townsin's references. Santa's reindeer, for instance, were replaced by beavers named Gretzky, Trudeau, Shania and Loonie, Bob and Doug, Suzuki and Toonie. Cute, but I'm not sure how many of these kids would get. It's less problematic than the the difficult rhythm of the poems, as kids don't need to get all the references and like the movies aimed at this age group, I'm sure it's just to keep the adults smiling. But I just suffered through the latest Chipmunk movie and I'm less tolerant. (Seriously, a "I'm king of the world" joke? No kid gets the Titanic nod and every adult is tired of that joke from a thousand other spoofs. Enough!)

And the illustrations, while passable, aren't spectacular enough to save these books.

But it is Christmas, and I should say on a positive note, after hearing them all on the previous day, my son did, on his own accord, choose the Moose in a Maple Tree book for a nighttime read-aloud. I would agree that it's the most tolerable of the 3 books but his endorsement should mean more than mine in any case.

I should also add the disclaimer that these were given to me as review copies and partial proceeds from the sale of these books go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I hope you realize what a moral dilemma it gave me to give such a negative review. So to ease my guilt I've donated $60 (the cost of these 3 books) to the Make-a-Wish foundation. In the meantime, if I've discouraged you from buying Townsin's books but you still want to find some Canadian titles for the holidays, I made this list a few years back and just last month, fellow blogger Medea came up with this list. And give generously to the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reader's Diary #782- Joan Sennette: Amanda's Special Gift

A few morality thoughts this week. First, how do you feel about Google books? Each Short Story Monday I highlight a short story that I find for free online. But this week I wanted to read a Canadian Christmas story and couldn't find any except for some at Google books. I know Google books is controversial but at least they provide a link to the publisher and the anthology, Tales of Christmas, in which Joan Sennette's "Amanda's Special Gift" appears is found at Breakwater Books for just $2, if you're interested.

2nd morality thought: last week, Teddy Rose, avid Short Story Monday participant, commented on my review of "Brother Robber":
I don't usually read Chrismas stories because I don't celebrate the holiday. However it sounds like a good message. I just hate Christmas stories that send the message to not let people starve on Christmas, because it seems to me they should never starve.

I thought the comment interesting, especially as I'd not really noticed that there was a preponderous amount of such stories. However, when the first story I stumbled upon this week also dealt with hungry people at Christmas, I thought maybe Teddy was onto something. So then I reflected upon the rest of her comment.

Of course, it's true, no one should starve at any time of the year. So why then am I, as I'm sure many people are, more likely to donate food at Christmas then other points of the year? And is this necessarily a bad thing? I'm not suggesting that I'll find an easy answer, but I do want to try and address her very valid observation.

I have a number of reasons. One, if I was personally homeless at Christmas, I think I'd find the day even more difficult than the others. Christmas is a special time for me and to be that down and out at this time of the year would be almost unbearable. If someone could alleviate my hunger, if someone reached out to me, I think it would help lift my spirits. But even if I did not celebrate Christmas, I think seeing others being happy and well-fed and even frivolous, would make my situation feel even worse. Again, knowing that I was at least considered on that day, might help. I say this all without ever having been even close to such a situation, and I don't presume to know how homeless people might feel. Yes, I realize that they, as would everyone, prefer to always have food, not just at the holidays, but if taking it one day at a time, Christmas is a good a day as any, I would imagine. And if I can't afford to be donating food everyday, there's certainly no harm in making it Christmas day is there? I would hope that if everyone donated at Christmas, food banks might even take in a surplus and use it for the other 364 days of the year-- no different really than if they made an arbitrary day Food Donation Day. Say March 3rd. If Christmas shoppers want to spend some cash on something less frivolous, even if just to ease their conscience, is that bad? Should food banks not take advantage of this? Again, I don't really know. To me Christmas is a peaceful, hopeful time. If I donate some food or clothes or whatever to someone less fortunate at Christmas, I hope it provides some temporary relief, and I hope long term relief is just around the bend.

On that note, "Amanda's Special Gift" is about Amanda, a little girl who has her first encounter with a homeless woman. She decides to help her out and her enthusiasm for the task is caught by those around her. But seeing the potential in everyone, it leads to a lifelong career for Amanda. I've given away the ending, I know, but it captures the hopefulness that I feel at Christmas while, most importantly for this post, hopefully addresses Teddy's concern about charity beyond Christmas.

Anyway, thanks to Teddy for the food for thought. Pardon the pun.

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

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Reader's Diary #781- Richard B. Wright: Clara Callan

My faithful readers might recognize Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan as the book that has somehow eluded my clutches the longest. I've had this paperback since it was first released in 2002, though I didn't buy it. Back in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut the laundry room at our our apartment building was an anonymous book trading depot. We'd read a book, stick it on a shelf in the laundry room, take someone else's donation, and no one ever discussed it. There couldn't have been more than 25 couples in the whole building, we were all reading each others' books, we were all even social with one another-- yet no one ever said, "what did you think of the Life of Pi?" Odd. It was there I picked up Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan. Unlike the others, however, it never made it back to the laundry room. It traveled with me as we moved back to Newfoundland, then back to Nunavut (this time trying out Iqaluit), and 3 years ago found itself in a suitcase full of books trekking its way over to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories.

Why has it taken me this long? If I'm being totally honest, the size definitely didn't help. I'm never keen to begin any book more than 300 pages or so. If I don't like it, that's a long commitment. But then, since 2002 I've read many books longer than 300 pages, many even longer than the 531 pages of Clara Callan. The cover also made me reluctant:It doesn't look all that exciting, doesn't look like they were marketing the book toward my gender (on my edition they chose a blurb from Chatelaine to grace the front rather than the Globe and Mail quote they stuck on the back). It's also described as "powerful" and "moving," which is most often code for pretentious and boring.

But enough of all that. I've finally read it and it was definitely worth the 9 year wait. It's an absolutely wonderful book. Clara Callan takes place in the mid 30s, and features the written correspondence between Clara Callan, a 3o+ year old school teacher from a small town in Ontario, with her sister and a friend living in New York.

It's not a fast-paced thriller, there's not a lot of suspense, and it's a very character driven book. In that regard many might consider Clara Callan to be quite typical of 20th century CanLit. Yet I found myself thinking of Jeff Lemire's Essex County graphic novels. Story-wise, it too was very typical of CanLit. Yet, it's the story-telling that sets both books apart. Of course, epistolary fiction isn't exactly a modern idea (going back to Dracula and earlier), but it's still not the norm, and it was definitely the form to tell Clara Callan's story. Not only does it capture the historical period, it also makes the story more manageable to take in. I'd read several letters and diary entries each night and it felt more like nibbling than trying to wolf down a lengthy chapter.

It helped that Clara was so likeable. Certainly that's not a prerequisite for a protagonist, but it helped in this case. Especially when readers must sense what a private individual she was. It could almost make a reader feel special to be privy to her thoughts, knowing more about her life and thoughts than even her neighbours. At the end I felt so connected with Clara that I even took exception to a blurb on the back from Kirkus reviews which called the book, "a wrenching chronicle of time passing and opportunity lost." Not only do I feel like whoever wrote that review missed the mark entirely, I found myself protective over Clara. Opportunity lost? Anyone who feels that Clara didn't take advantage of loads of opportunities has clearly got some major hangups against rural life. Clara's life may not have been for everyone, but at least for the four years in which this story takes place, she made the most of it.

And that I find myself talking about her as if she's real, as if I'm proud of her, would have been happy to know her? That's no small accomplishment. Great character, great book.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Reader's Diary #780- Helene Christaller: Brother Robber

Last week Margot at Joyfully Retired linked to this story at The Plough, which offers up a large assortment of Christmas tales. "Brother Robber" is listed amongst the Christmas stories for children.

Written by German writer Helene Christaller in the early 1900s, "Brother Robber" involves two monks. One, Brother Francis (later to be known as St. Francis of Assisi) chastises the other for turning away some hungry visitors because they were known robbers.

The overall message is of course a warm one, and as Margot pointed out, suitable for Christmas. Though listed as "for children," it's not juvenile. It's clean and appropriate for children, certainly, but it doesn't come that it was written specifically for children.

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

Thursday, December 01, 2011

5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge- 5th Update

I guess the colder weather be credited with November's high book count. Over 120 Canadian books read and reviewed for the challenge, making last month the most successful month since we began back in July. Personally, I've slowed down. November is a very hectic time for me at work, plus I'm sort of stuck in a couple of clunkers at the moment. But it's nice to see everyone else picking up the slack. I'm really taken aback by how many people who have met their 13 quota already. If you haven't though, don't fret. There's 7 months left and as I hope I've gotten across by now, it's not meant to be a race.

While certainly not a new topic, in November there seemed to be an upsurge in people talking about the very definition of Canlit. The Globe and Mail pondered whether or not Canadian novels were Canadian enough, the CBC got in on it, and the discussion even went international, prompting a Finnish newspaper to interview a few of us Canadian book bloggers for our thoughts. While I doubt anyone is seriously looking for any resolutions, it's still a worthwhile conversation. I encourage you to check out the above links and add your two cents.

On a similar note, this month's prize pack celebrates Canadian immigrant writers. Shields, Ondaatje, Munsch-- it's hard to imagine our literary landscape without the contributions of such authors. And they're just a drop in the bucket. This month, if you're a Canadian Book Challenge participant and you read and review a book by a foreign-born Canadian author, let me know in the comments below and you'll be eligible to win this wonderful prize pack kindly donated by Cormorant Books:

Pablo Urbanyi's Silver:

Pan Bouyoucan's The Tattoo:

The winner of the Scholastic Canada prize pack last month was Shonna! Shonna will receive the following prize pack:

Dear Canada: That Fatal Night by Sarah Ellis

and also by Sarah Ellis: A Prairie as Wide as the Sea:

Prisoner of Dieppe by Hugh Brewster:

And Shot at Dawn by John Wilson:

And courtesy of Kids Can Press, the following people will receive copies of Franklin in the Dark, 25th anniversary edition (just in time for Christmas!): Kate, Gypsysmom, Melissa, and Medea. Could you all (and Shonna) please send me your mailing addresses?

If you celebrate Christmas, hopefully there'll be some Canadian books under your tree this year (my wishlist includes Scott Chantler's Two Generals and Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues). And if you don't celebrate Christmas, I still hope you get a chance to get cozy with a Canadian title. Just don't forget to review them! Share your links at the round-up post here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The 5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge- November Roundup (Sticky Post-- Scroll down for most recent post)

How to add your link:
1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as John Mutford (Anne of Avonlea)

Also, in the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. This brings me up to 1/13)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Guest Post- Ann Weir's First 4 Reviews for The 5th Canadian Book Challenge

The Origin of Species – by Nino Ricci

Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species tells the story of Alex, a graduate student living in Montreal in the 1980’s, and the diverse set of characters he interacts with on a day-to-day basis. Alex is dissatisfied and distant in most aspects of his life, unable to focus on his work, avoiding his therapist and being generally uncomfortable in his friendships and relationships. He lives largely absorbed by his past, notably by his experiences with his Swedish lover Ingrid and his past live-in girlfriend Liz. A disturbing incident in the Galapagos Islands, which is described in the second half of the book, continues to haunt him.

Nino Ricci’s writing has a lyrical quality and The Origin of Species is a beautifully written book. The diversity and character of the city of Montreal are nicely described, making me want to join Alex on one of his walks around the city. The story is populated by a diverse set of interesting characters, the inspiring Esther, the courageous Maria, Alex’s colleague Jiri who intrudes on Alex’s life and Desmond, Alex’s irksome Galapagos travel companion.

However, the personalities of Ingrid and Liz are ill defined and hard to relate to. It is also difficult to like Alex, or to understand what others see in him. When his experiences in the Galapagos Islands are revealed, the cause of his current problems becomes clearer. After understanding this part of Alex’s life, the story seemed to hang together a bit better for me. But despite being touching and thought provoking, the lack of a sympathetic main character made The Origin of Species a challenging and long read.

Hannah Waters and the Daughter of Johann Sebastian Bach – by Barbara Nickel

Barbara Nickel has written a book for all ages with Hannah Waters and the Daughter of Johann Sebastian Bach. The story is set equally in modern day Saskatchewan, where 12-year-old Hannah Waters has moved with her father after the tragic death of her mother, a professional violinist, and in Cohen, Germany in the 1720’s, the home of Catharina Dorthea Bach, aged 11, the only daughter of Johann Sebastian Bach. The two girls “meet” while experiencing stressful times in their young lives and imagine they see and hear each other while listening to or performing music.

Two common threads connect the girls lives, the first being their relationships with their parents. The struggle each girl experiences with her respective fathers is woven nicely throughout the story. While Catharina struggles largely in isolation, Nickel provides Hannah with other adult figures to rely on, with the benefit of adding some interesting characters to the book. The girls also share a love of Bach’s “Concerto for Two violins in D Minor”, also known as the Bach Double, one of Bach’s most famous and respected works. Nickel plays with the timing of when Bach composed the piece to fit the storyline. Both girls fall in love with the music, for Catharina as Bach composes it and for Hannah as she studies it. The time-stretched friendship is an unusual concept and in this case, it feels real, balanced nicely between imagination and reality.
Although written as a pre-teen story (ages 11+), I would also recommend this book for adults as it is a thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting read.

River of the Brokenhearted – by David Adams Richards

David Adams Richards’ River of the Brokenhearted is a family saga of three generations of the King family which is set along the banks of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick. After several setbacks in England, George King immigrates to New Brunswick in the 1920’s and marries the much younger Janie McLeary, a New Brunswick native of Irish descent. George and Janie are both talented musicians and after several failed attempts at business, George decides to buy a movie projector and open a theatre. Their success puts George and Janie at odds with Joey Elias, a successful local businessman. Joey has a relationship with the Druken family, also recent immigrants who coincidentally have a long standing feud with the King family carried over from England. The book covers the relationship between the Kings, the Drukens and Joey Elias over the next 75 years.

Having read a lot of Richards’ novels before, the themes of envy, greed and pettiness are familiar, as are the inclusion of some very sad and some very brave moments. However, I found his writing style different in this story, which is told from the viewpoint of Janie and George’s grandson Wendell. It reads very much like a story someone is telling their children or grandchildren about their family’s history. I felt a great deal of warmth and sympathy for Miles King, Wendell’s father, as he weathers the cruelty Rebecca Druken, one of the few truly evil characters that Richards has created. I found Miles’ respect and love for his wife and children so touching, rounding out his fascinating character. If you are a Richards fan, I think you will really enjoy this book.

The Flying Troutmans – by Miriam Toews

The Flying Troutmans is the story of a struggling family based in Manitoba who head out on an unusual road trip south of the border. Hattie Troutman returns home from Paris after receiving a desperate call from her 11 year-old niece Thebes. Hattie’s chronically mentally ill sister Min is in serious trouble and Thebes turns to Hattie, needing help for herself, her mother and her 15 year-old brother Logan. After successfully delivering Min to the psychiatric ward, Hattie, who is feeling overwhelmed at home with the two kids, decides to take them on a search for their estranged father Cherkis. With little to go on, Hattie packs up the kids and a van and heads south.

The story mainly focuses on Hattie’s growing relationship with Thebes and Logan and on their brother/sister relationship. The dialogue in this book is so well written, feeling absolutely natural and being quite funny at times despite the underlying sadness of the story. Thebes and Logan are great characters: quirky, funny, mature and talented. The author uses a series of flashbacks to shed light on Hattie’s relationship with Min and their parents as well as on Min’s experiences as a mother. The memories of Min with her children were the most touching, helping me to understand the source of their confidence and optimism. One of my favourite conversations Hattie has with Logan occurs while he is playing basketball:
“What do you think about when you shoot?”

“Oh really? You just concentrate entirely on shooting?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Do you worry that the ball won’t go in?”
“No, I always believe that it will. Every time.”

“Seriously? Even when you’ve missed a bunch of shots?”
“Yeah, I think it’s gonna go in every time.”
“And then, so, when it doesn’t go in do you feel all disillusioned?”

“No, not at all, ‘cause I’m always sure the next one will go in.”

I found it took a few chapters to warm up to this book, as Hattie’s situation is very difficult at first. But with a bit of a twist at the end, I felt genuinely happy and optimistic for Hattie, Min, Logan and Thebes.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Reader's Diary #779- Sarah Selecky: This Cake is for the Party

For the record, I'm a bigger fan of Margaret Atwood than Stephen King. Atwood crafts a sentence like nobody's business, but-- and this is odd considering his specialty is supernatural horror-- I'd give King the points for capturing domesticity.

I thought of this while reading Sarah Selecky's "This Cake Is for the Party" in November's Walrus. The 2nd sentence goes, "David is on the couch, cleaning under his fingernails with a corner of his Safeway card, and I’m in the kitchen, plucking red petals off a mini-rosebush plant, hoping they’re edible." No character in an Atwood novel would ever use a Safeway card. That's classic King.

And yet the story is far from supernatural horror-- it's about a couple going to visit friends who have recently engaged for a celebratory party. It's a subtle piece. It's a typical relationship, not perfect, and it probably won't last but this is never stated. It has the whitish smell of an orange just before it turns moldy and inedible. This is more Atwood.

King and Atwood make an interesting recipe for a story, I'd say.

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

Monday, November 21, 2011

Reader's Diary #778- Leena Krohn (translated by Anselm Hollo) : The Three Buddhas

As I mentioned yesterday I was contacted recently by a journalist named Verna Kuutti from Finland who was writing an article about Canadian literature. In return, it got me to thinking about Finnish authors.

Fortunately I was able to find a short story by Leena Krohn, a Finlandia Prize winner for literature, online. "The Three Buddhas" was originally written in Finnish but translated into English by Anselm Hollo.

Interestingly, much of the earlier part of the story is set in Japan. Still not down from the high of my Japan vacation two years ago, this was a pleasant surprise. It also had one of the best sentences I've read this year. Talking about Finland's stunted trees, she writes, "Their wood is dense and tough, their annual rings remain as narrow as engagement rings." I find that simile very poetic.

"The Three Buddhas" is an interesting story about believing in the supernatural, getting subtle messages or hints from some great beyond. As a skeptic who'd actually like to believe in magic, the story spoke to me. Rationalizing everything as a coincidence is my specialty. The most logical explanation usually isn't a ghost. But it would be nice.

I didn't love "The Three Buddhas" mostly because it felt like two stories in one, but the first half I quite enjoyed.

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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Finnish your CanLit

Recently I and a bunch of other Canadian lit bloggers were contacted by a Finnish journalist writing about contemporary Canadian literature. I just visited Bella's Bookshelf where Steph posted her answers to the questions. I was quite impressed with her answers and felt, in hindsight, that I may have rushed mine. But I was even more impressed with the discussion that developed in the comments following her post. In the spirit of keeping that discussion alive, I've decided to follow her lead and post my responses as well. Feel free to disagree. In fact, looking it over again today, I think I even disagree with myself on a few points. In particular, when asked about a common factor that would describe the newest generation of Canadian writers, I reply that there are more female novelists than males. I have no idea if that's true and it was pretty irresponsible of me to suggest it. I'm sure that's just one of the points people may take exception to, but if something does bother you please let me know! As for the recommended book blogs and websites, I apologize in advance if I didn't include your blog. I just picked a few that came to mind and that would change at any given moment.

Enough with the disclaimers and apologies, here are my responses:

This year most of the nominees for important literary prizes were relatively fresh names. Do you think a generation shift is happening in Canadian literature? Or is it something that the media invented?

I do think there's a generational shift. Fairly or not, I think the younger generation considers the old club as stuffy: boring and way too serious. I don't think the media invented it at all. In fact, I think the media has held on to its hero-worship of some of old guard of writers longer than the general public. To be fair, the new generation of readers can also be somewhat fickle. There are, of course, some exceptions (Miriam Toews springs to mind), but fewer new authors will ever achieve the fan base of Margaret Atwood or Carol Shields. Not that the next great talent isn't out there, I just think newer readers are bigger risk takers. Instead of sticking with an author they know will be a safe bet, they want to try new names, new styles, and so on.

Could you name five of the most interesting writers that have published their first book after 2000?

1. Jeff Lemire 2. Scott Chantler (You'll note that my first 2 choices are actually graphic novelists. While still meeting some of the usual resistance, for the most part graphic novels are being accepted into Canada's literary scene with open arms. Definitely not the superhero variety - though Lemire does that, too-- I think Canada could lead the way with literary comics) 3. Joseph Boyden (Probably one of the more traditional novelists, in terms of style, on this list. But even with the shift in styles, it's good we aren't throwing out the baby with bath water.) 4. Stacey May Fowles (who does quirky right) 5. Ivan Coyote (technically, her first book came out in 98, but close enough. The master of self-reflection, Coyote's writing challenges social norms but with such humour people actually listen.)

Is there a common factor that would describe the newest generation of Canadian writers?

For starters there seem to be more female novelists than males. Other than that, I'd say quirkiness. The quirkiness is a mixed blessing. Certainly not as stuffy as before, but sometimes the quirkiness feels so forced it's hard to relate to any characters. And while urban literature is definitely on the rise, rural lit is still quite popular here despite most of our population living in larger centers.

What are the strengths of contemporary Canadian literature compared to literature coming from other countries?

We're actually getting a pulp fiction, or pop fiction, base now with genre writers like Alan Bradley, Robert J. Sawyer and Kelley Armstrong leading the way, but I think Canada is odd in that this is new. We've always been a literary sort of country. We've never had a Stephen King or Dan Brown equivalent. And while that might make us sound snooty, I do think the newer Canadian writers are "lightening up" so to speak, and the result is intelligent but entertaining writing.

Canadian indie music is quite well-known around the word – do you think Canadian literature could become an international brand, a guarantee of quality and a certain freshness? Or is it artificial to try to group young writers by labelling them ”Canadian literature”?

Hmmm, I'm not sure. On the one hand, I'd like to think that our novels speak of common human conditions, but on the other hand, Canada's identity issues (defined more by what we aren't than what we are) shape our writing. We're coming, I think, to terms with our personality being a disjointed personality. I hope that it, and the locales and references, would be of interest to outside readers, but I'm not in a position to judge that. While I love Canada's indie music scene and that it's gotten world recognition, I think a book is more personable than a 4 minute song.

Do you think there is a favorable and supportive climate in Canada for the emergence of new talents?

I'm sure a writer could answer this better than I, but I suspect so. I've heard some people knock the number of awards and writers festivals that we have, but I think promotion and recognition could only be a blessing. A couple of years ago Alice Munro withdrew her name from the Giller Prize shortlist as she stated she'd won twice before. That's support at its finest.

Does the wider public read contemporary writers?

Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants and Emma Donogue's Room have had amazing success, for instance.

If somebody abroad wants to follow what happens in the Canadian literary world, what sources (blogs/websites) should they follow?

The Book Mine Set, of course. Chris at Bookarama. The Keepin' It Real Bookclub. And the Globe & Mail online book page is quite good.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Reader's Diary #777- Isak Dinesen: The Blank Page

Isak Dinesen, a pen name for Danish author Karen Blixen, was the author behind Out of Africa, "Babette's Feast," and Seven Gothic Tales. I, however, was completely unaware of her or her writing until yesterday when I looked for a short story from Denmark. Though she died in 62, she certainly seems to have her fan base even still. Check out this website all about her life and works, maintained by Linda Donelson, a Dinesen scholar for over 30 years.

I set out to read "Babette's Feast" but couldn't find a free online copy so settled instead on "The Blank Page." It's framed as a story being told by an old lady who makes her living telling stories, as did generations of women before her. I get the impression Dinesen is describing a Gypsy character, though that term is never used. Fortunately the frame is as interesting as the story that follows, of a Portuguese convent that displays bedsheets donated from the royal family, sheets from the wedding nights of the princesses. It's a bit of a meandering story, but you do see the ending coming a little ways off. It's fascinating, and makes a strong case for the untold stories of the world.

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

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Saturday Word Play: Book Mine Set Review Wordles

Years ago, my future wife and I worked summer jobs on a crew of groundskeepers at Memorial University. Many days during our down times someone would throw out a simple trivia game: Name a band starting with N. Name an Al Pacino movie. And so on. It'd pass the time and was mild fun until one particular girl on the crew insisted on making it about her: Try and guess my favourite song! Who knows my favourite food? Irritating, but we've since had loads of fun at her expense. She's now the go-to reference when we make fun of self-absorbed people.

But today I'm the pot calling the kettle black. I'm turning all the attention on me. (Which is the point of a blog after all!) Really, I was just goofing around with Wordle, making word clouds of some of my past reviews to see how obvious it would be as to which book I was referring. How many can you recognize? Note: I think I've chosen some of the better known books than the more obscure books I've reviewed. I've also removed any reference to words in the title and the author's name.

As always, try to do all 10 at home but only answer 1 in the comment section. That way 9 others will have a chance to play along. Click on each Wordle for a larger image.

1.Wordle: Book Mine Set Mystery Review 1

2. Wordle: Book Mine Set Mystery Review 2

3. Wordle: Book Mine Set Mystery Review 3

4. Wordle: Book Mine Set Mystery Review 4

5. Wordle: Book Mine Set Mystery Review 5

6. Wordle: Book Mine Set Mystery Review 6
7. Wordle: Book Mine Set Mystery Review 7

8. Wordle: Book Mine Set Mystery Review 8

9. Wordle: Book Mine Set Mystery Review 9

10. Wordle: Book Mine Set Mystery Review 10

Like Wordles? Try my Quotable Wordles from 2 years ago.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reader's Diary #776- Sandra Dolan: Wooden Boats and Iron People

Published by the Mary Kaeser Library Board, I wasn't sure what to expect with Sandra Dolan's Wooden Boats and Iron People: The History of Fort Smith, NWT. With no offense intended to the board, I can't imagine they're often in the business of publishing, and outside of Fort Smith residents, I don't expect they'd count on a wide audience.

Which is unfortunate. Wooden Boats and Iron People is a charming book. With glossy photos, well-planned layouts, and most importantly, stellar writing, it comes across as a professional publication. And for Canadian history buffs, it's every bit as entertaining and enlightening as stuff published by large companies.

This summer I read a history of Yellowknife by Ray Price. For the most part I enjoyed it but complained that it got tedious with insignificant details. At a hundred pages, Dolan's writing is far more concise and yet covers much more ground. She starts way back in the days when Fort Smith was covered by the Wisconsin Ice Sheet and follows right up to the present day. She touches on treaties, the church, the schools, the fur trade, the role of Fort Smith as a transportation hub, John Franklin, mayors, landslides, and believe it or not, a whole lot more, without, amazingly feeling rushed.

As a bonus, I also found a few surprises. First-- and this actually relates more to all the northern nonfiction I've been reading lately-- is the interconnectedness of the towns in the Northwest Territories. Coming from a small outport in Newfoundland, I'm used to the idea of small remote towns being isolated and developing in a largely independent setting. While I'd have expected the towns of the Northwest Territories to be likewise, I'm quickly finding that's not necessarily the case. First off, the aboriginal people seemed to move around much more and secondly, as much trade and development depended on life along the various rivers, one town's growth had direct bearing on another. It seems they were not as isolated from one another as I'd assumed.

Secondly, it would appear that one of Fort Smith's largest resources is politics. I was quite taken aback by how many familiar politicians came from this town of about 2500 people. As the fourth largest town in the territory, it seems to have a disproportionate share of well-recognized faces. Good on them!

Wooden Boats and Iron People is by no means an objective book and is celebratory in tone. However it's also not an embarrassing tourist brochure that's high on praise, short on facts. It's an educational and entertaining read.