Monday, October 31, 2011

Reader's Diary #772- John R Little: Following Marla

John R. Little's "Following Marla" opens with a soon-to-be bride revealing to her soon-to-be groom that she had once faked her own death and changed her identity in order to get out of an abusive relationship. Remember that from Sleeping With the Enemy?

Silly Hollywood beginning, made even sillier when you realize it's not even essential to the plot of the rest of the story. Basically the bride, Marla needs to die in order for the rest of the story to happen. But at the hands of an abusive husband who had believed her dead and coincidentally on her wedding night? Good lord this is stupid.

Then there's rest of the story. I admit, he was beginning, ever so slightly, to draw me in at this point. The new husband, Andy, kills himself to go to the afterlife and get her back. But then I realized that premise too was ripped off from What Dreams May Come and that John R. Little needs to watch less movies.

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

The 5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge- October 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)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reader's Diary #771- Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko: Boo!

Robert Munsch is a marketing genius. Someone having a new baby, line up for your copy of Love You Forever. Know a kid into hockey? Just One Goal makes a perfect gift. And of course, how about those holidays? Primary teachers just love themed classroom libraries, and you'd be hard pressed to find a Halloween collection in Canada that doesn't include Boo! written by Munsch and illustrated by long time collaborator Michael Martchenko.

You've got to admire that savvy, even if you're not wild about his books. As for me, I like Munsch in small doses. Essentially, you've read one Munsch book, you've read them all. Their formulaic, no doubt about it, but kids at least seem to love the formula. Drop in ample doses of repetition, escalate the silliness, and you can just about plug any plot in there.

In Boo! the silliness revolves around Lance, a boy determined to have the scariest painted face on Halloween. Not even a remotely scary book, it does have a chuckle or two as Lance proceeds to frighten the living daylights out of people answering their doors to trick-or-treaters. They pass out, he proceeds to rob them of their candy (it's Munsch, so such a moral issues is, as is typical, ignored). Finally he meets a teenager who might just be his match in the scary face department...

As usual, I enjoyed Martchenko's art, which it seems, in his later career is getting more retrospective. He seems to have a hidden trademark of sticking a pterodactyl somewhere, regardless of its relevance to the plot or setting. Likewise, he seems to be adding more characters from past books. At the end of Boo! we see someone dressed as the Paperbag Princess. Of course this too might be marketing, as younger readers are getting introduced to the back catalogue of Munsch.

You'd be correct in assuming that I have mixed feelings about Munsch books. Fortunately, my kids don't pick up on it. They are easy books to adapt and they're as fun as you make them. I read the characters with silly voices, and in Boo! my son loves to read the "Boo!" parts, at which I scream way too loudly for a bedtime read.

At age 6, Boo! is a perfect Halloween read.

(And according to this interview, he has written a couple Christmas books that are-- as of yet-- unpublished. $)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reader's Diary #770- David Adams Richards: For Those Who Hunt The Wounded Down

It was back in August that I revealed the 20 glaring omissions in my Canadian reading and I've finally knocked it down to 19. I hope I'll be able to express my feelings towards those 19 better than this one.

In some ways For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down is very typically Canadian. It's set in rural Canada, it's depressing as all hell, and lacking any trace of humour. Is a bleak style better than no style? I guess.

But in another way, it's different from a lot of Canadian writing of which it shares its sense of melancholy. Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence-- none of these women write with as much sparseness as Richards. His sentences are short and blunt. It seems to fit the feel of the book. And again, I can't really say if that's a good thing or not.

One of the wounded being hunted down, and the most important person at that, is Jerry Bines. He's just been acquitted of a murder and returns home to a Miramichi, New Brunswick mill town. He's under a microscope, he's feared, he's idolized. He's also quite misunderstood, arguably even by himself.

This is one of the rare cases where I found the blurbs on the back cover essential to my interest and understanding of the book. In particular, quotes from the Canadian Forum ("Invested with a passion and acuity that strip away false fronts of smug misunderstanding and ideological or moral comfort...") and Whig-Standard, Kingston ("Richards wants us to avoid easy explanations, the ones that separate us from 'the wounded' and just explain them away.") helped me focus on particular characters and their motivations.

Recently a friend of mine remarked that we're not meant to understand serial killers, pedophiles, and the like. Not understanding is what separates us from them. I've had that thought before, and I found myself nodding in agreement. But I have to admit, like the quotes above suggested, there's a certain comfort in that thought. I can't understand it, therefore I'm a better person and I move on. The characters in For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down are not content to settle for enigmas, they draw quick, black and white conclusions. If David Adams Richards is able to challenge both us types in a single go-- those content not to understand and those who mistakenly believe they do-- then great. Who doesn't love a challenging book?

The catch to that is a book that smacks of cynicism. Everyone's wrong? I'm not saying a book needs to be comforting (it's not Chicken Soup For The Souls of Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down), but I had to fight the feeling that I was having a finger wagged in my face. My hope is that what Richards was really was saying was this: it's true that we can't hunt the wounded down, we can't explain away their ills, but it's important to try, and really try, anyway. Our futile attempts keep us human.

Then, I could be way off.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Reader's Diary #769- Tim Waggoner: When God Opens a Door

Remember the old horror movie victims who seemed to make all the wrong decisions? Checking out that noise in the basement? That never ends well. If you've ever wondered what goes on in the heads of these people or if you've shaken your head at the implausibility of it all, then Tim Waggoner's "When God Opens a Door" is for you.

Through Darrell, Waggoner finally takes us inside the mind of such a person. It's still more horror than psychological thriller but it's almost an equal balance. I didn't come away sympathizing with Darrell, but I think I understood him. Most importantly, I was creeped out. A great story for Halloween. Thanks to Carol at Carol's Notebook for introducing me to this story.

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

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Trivial Sunday- Sequel? I had no idea.

The first book was wildly popular, the 2nd not so much. Can you name the unpopular sequels to the these popular titles?

Feel free to do all 10 at home, but only answer 1 in the answers below. That way 9 others will have a chance to play along. Try to answer the question you feel would be the most difficult.

1. Farley Mowat- Lost in the Barrens (aka Two Against the North-- see last week's quiz)

2. Island of the Blue Dolphins- Scott O'Dell

3. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory- Roald Dahl

4. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams- Wayne Johnston

5. Forrest Gump- Winston Groom

6. Holes- Louis Sachar

7. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs- Judi Barrett

8. Trainspotting- Irving Welsh

9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings- Maya Angelou

10. Catch 22- Joseph Heller

(Like reading obscure sequels? Why not write a review for my equally obscure blog, the not-so cleverly named "The Obscure Challenge." Also, feel free to add another lesser known sequel below!)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Canada Reads 2012- The Hype and Gripe

For those of you that still care, Canada Reads is back once again with another installment of their annual literary smack-down. And though book sales will soar and it'll no doubt be the number one book related program in the country, the naysayers will also be out in force. I've been the flag-waving super-fan, I've been the vitriolic super-annoyed. In the past couple of years however, I've been working on my moderation skills. I'd still consider myself a fan, but a true fan can still recognize when things aren't exactly as they should be. In fact, a true fan should because true fans care enough to seek improvement. In that spirit I bring you my praise (the hype) and my complaints (the gripe):

The Hype:
1. This year they're trying nonfiction. It's going to be interesting to see how a panel will handle these books. Will they focus on writing quality? The importance of the topics? Both? It's nice to see the Canada Reads crew experimenting with new approaches.
2. Return to older books. Last year they restricted it to books published in the past 10 years and I missed the opportunity to discover books I'd missed for whatever reason the first time around (King Leary, Rockbound, etc).

The Gripe (Unfortunately I have more of these):

1. This year they're trying nonfiction. Yes, I know, I'm hard to please. I do like nonfiction, but with the insane changes last year and now this, I admit it: I miss the old show. And besides, couldn't they just allow panelists to choose nonfiction if they wish? Is there something saying that nonfiction and fiction can't compete with one another? They've had poetry, short stories, and graphic novels take on novels, granted unsuccessfully, but what's to say nonfiction would suffer the same fate? If you look at book sales, nonfiction can certainly hold its own. But making it solely nonfiction? I'm not sure I like where this is going. Will next year's competition be restricted to cookbooks? Instructional manuals? Works of Margaret Atwood? Opening up the competition is a good idea, but only if they genuinely open it up.

2. The Top 40, the top 10, the top 5. We get it. CBC wants to milk this baby to death. Not content to simply announce the 5 books in November as was the tradition, readers are now asked to suggest and vote on their favourite books to create a top 40 list, which leads to another vote to arrive at a top 10, and then the five panelists will pick a book from that list to defend in the spring. Again, part of this plan is admirable-- fans get a chance to be part of the action. But this was my biggest beef with the program last year and biggest beef with the program this year. We're left with panelists who are potentially only there for publicity sake. Sure they pick the final five, but from a very short list. Compare this with panelists from past shows who were free to pick from any fictional Canadian book of their choosing. Who do you think would be more passionate about their choices? Don't say that last year's panelists seemed passionate because it doesn't compare when people are debating for the sake of debating versus debating for something they really care about. And besides, if they want to truly let fans participate we all know how they can do it: add one or two or five to the debating panel.

3. The lack of transparency. On the surface Canada Reads looks like it's all about transparency. It's one of the reasons that fans, like myself, appreciate the show. If you've ever wondered what conversations go on behind the scenes for the Giller or Governor General's Prizes, Canada Reads should be right up your alley. But the voting process this year seemed fishy. Here's a comment I submitted to their website, which they published but neglected to answer:

Just a thought from us impatient folk who submitted our recommendations and have yet to see them posted: could you please offer an explanation of your process? Will all recommendations eventually be posted or are they screened in some way? How long should we wait until we inquire about whether or not you actually received our recommendation? If our recommendations don't get published online, are they still considered when you do your final "support" tally for the top 40?

When they asked for submissions, they said that the 40 books with the most votes (i.e., nominations) would make the almighty top 40 list. Fine, so my submission (Cassie Brown's Death on the Ice) probably didn't enough submissions. However, I don't think it was given a fair chance. You see, each day they published some submission "highlights." They apparently got thousands of submissions, so I understand that they couldn't publish all of them. However, when they publish some submissions while the vote counting is still underway, the daily published submissions are more likely to get more votes. If, for instance, my Cassie Brown suggestion was published, who's to say that other people wouldn't say, "Hey, I remember that book! It was great! I should nominate it, too." Instead they published four or five submissions for Karen Connelly's dreadful Burmese Lessons, which in turn made the top 40 list. I'd ventured to guess that maybe they were simply publishing the submissions that already appeared in the lead. But then, they also published three or four nominations for Charlotte Gray's typo-ridden Gold Diggers and yet it was her Mrs. King that made the cut. If it had a rhyme or reason, they really should have communicated it better. Otherwise, it looked like the producers manipulated the outcome, picking their favourites and promoting them accordingly (sometimes working, in the case of Connelly's crap book, or not working, in the case of the Gray's Gold Diggers). In any case, mine wasn't the only comment of complaint, and while I understand that they don't have to, can't, and shouldn't address every single whiny letter they get, there were a bunch of us with similar complaints, their credibility is shaky enough as it is, and clearly they got the damn complaints as they moderated the comments and still chose to publish them.

If you read all the above, I assume you care somewhat about the program. If you do, go check out the top 40. Vote if you want and/or voice your concerns with the direction of the program. I personally want it to succeed, but I think the producers need to sit down and seriously discuss what the fans want and question where they want the show to go.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Reader's Diary #768- Panu Trivej (translated by Marcel Barang): The sky-blue jar

If Walter Mitty was a bit more fatalistic, if James Thurber explored meta-fiction, if, if, if...

From what I gather from "The sky-blue jar," Panu Trivej would love that he inspired this "what if" game. It's exactly the kind of story I love. It's playful but thoughtful, easily read but encourages multiple reads.

It's also not the Thai sort of story I expected. By most accounts, "The sky-blue jar" could almost be anywhere. Short of the character names, there are hardly any cultural markers to anchor the story. I like this from time to time. I've felt that way about northern books, for instance. You almost never read a novel about someone getting divorced or visited by aliens in the north. No, usually our books involve someone getting lost in a canoe. It's not that getting lost in a canoe can't be interesting and that writers shouldn't sometimes write about such a thing, it's just that not every facet of our lives here depends upon us being in the north. Trivej proves the same about Thailand.

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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Trivial Sunday- AKA

For political reasons, for financial reasons, for cultural reasons, for legal issues, for inexplicable reasons, sometimes books are found under various names. Below, I've given you some popular book titles. Do you know the alternate names?

Feel free to do all 12 at home, but only answer 1 in the answers below. That way 11 others will have a chance to play along. Try to answer the question you feel would be the most difficult.

1. Lost in the Barrens - Farley Mowat
2. Someone Knows My Name - Lawrence Hill
3. The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul - Deborah Rodriguez
4. Shadows in the Sun - Wade Davis
5. What the Stones Remember - Patrick Lane
6. Cross Stitch - Diana Gabaldon
7. Northern Lights - Phillip Pullman
8. "A Visit From St. Nicholas" - Clement C. Moore
9. Ten Little N*ggers - Agatha Christie (the book, not the play)
10. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J.K. Rowling
11. Schindler's List - Thomas Keneally

Bonus: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (according to Jerry Seinfeld)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reader's Diary #767- Karen Connelly: Burmese Lessons

One of the first things to strike me about Karen Connelly's Burmese Lessons was the lack of Canadian reference. True, it is a memoir of her time in Burma (or Myanmar as I know it), but as a fellow traveler I find it hard not to compare countries I visit to Canada. In fact, Connelly spends more time comparing Burma to Greece than to her home for the first 17 years of her life (and the country which partially funded her trip there). But I'm not the patriotism police, I merely found it curious. For those who stick it out for the duration, readers are rewarded on page 425 with a bit of insight as to where the Canada avoidance comes from.

The second thing that struck me was how little I liked this book, not to mention--and I truly hate to say this-- the author. Did you ever read Corinne Hoffman's The White Masai? Admittedly, I have not, but I did see the movie and I had similar feelings watching that I as did while reading Burmese Lessons. I also had Pulp's Common People (the William Shatner cover) stuck in my head. Replace Common with Foreign in that song, and you'd almost have Hoffman's and Connelly's philosophy summed up. As if sleeping with a local and pretending it's love is somehow a superior souvenir.

Do I sound harsh and judgmental? I wrestled with that for 300 pages, trying my hardest to give Connelly the benefit of a doubt. She was young, I told myself (she was 27), and young people are supposed to be naive and make mistakes, that's how they learn. Enjoy the energy and freedom of youth, I said. But nuts to that. Her irresponsibility amounted to selfishness and I couldn't take it. Especially when

I had expected to read about Burma, not some silly pseudo-love story. One or two pages about the torture of Burmese dissidents and a couple hundred pages of the author having unprotected sex with a man she just met? Self-indulgent or what?

I can't believe this book has gotten good reviews. It even won the Governor General's Award? You people must be a patient lot.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Reader's Diary #766- Michael J Cunningham: Family Thanksgiving

Michael J Cunningham, as far as I can tell, is probably not the same Michael Cunningham that wrote The Hours. I could be wrong, but I doubt many Pulitzer Prize winners are submitting their short stories to Backhand where, according to their submission guidelines, writers don't get paid.

Not that there still couldn't be gems to be found for free, of course. Over the past few years of hosting Short Story Mondays I've found many wonderful and free short stories online, by well known and lesser known authors. I can't say, however, that I'm particularly impressed with thankful for Michael J Cunningham's "Family Thanksgiving."

"Family Thanksgiving" begins with the author describing how at family gatherings he finds himself taking mental vacations. The sky here, he muses, could be the sky over the Bahamas, and thus, with his mind elsewhere, he can cope with familial stress. Though I disagree that the skies are the same wherever you go (it's been my experience they are shockingly different), I can relate at least to the sentiment.

But that's where my attachment to the story ended. I found the narrator, to be honest, too annoying. With a little more humility, this story about an extended family thanksgiving could easily have been a Stuart McLean tale. With more crotchetiness, it could have been a Mordecai Richler story. But somewhere in between doesn't work and many of the jokes just aren't funny.
I suspect others at this shindig don't particularly enjoy being near Uncle Jack any more than he enjoys being near them. I picture the family sitting on a beach, sipping pina colladas, and soaking up the sun, when suddenly they look up to see Uncle Jack staring down out them-- they all look at one another and scream, and suddenly they're all back in an autumn leaf strewn backyard, having to face reality that they're stuck having Thanksgiving together.

I, on the other hand, am quite thankful for my small family of four this year. No offense to uncle Jack.

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

Friday, October 07, 2011

Reader's Diary #765- William Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well

Last year, on another blog, there was a debate on the merits of reading challenges. A frequent beef against challenges seemed to be that quantity is often pushed over quality. People shouldn't rush books, the folks on this side argued, they should take the time to savour the book, to question it, analyze it and so on. But surely they wouldn't advocate for the way I read William Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well either. I didn't rush it, that's for sure, but I think I lost more by taking too much time.

To read a play is to accept that much will be lost in this usually unintended format. Written for the stage, I know I will not benefit from the performances, the costumes, the direction and so on. So, when I read a play I usually like to read through it quite quickly. If I get get an idea of the story and characters I want to run with it. Otherwise, as was the case with this play which I read piecemeal over the last month or so, I found myself forgetting who was who, I didn't really connect with anyone, and I had to keep reviewing the plot.

The plot isn't bad, even if the characters aren't exactly likeable. In a nutshell, a woman named Helena convinces the King of France to force a man named Bertram to marry her. Bertram feels he is too good for Helena, and though he doesn't disobey the king, goes off to war before consummating the marriage. Helena follows him without his knowing, many people assume she is dead, and Bertram tries to sleep with another woman but unknowingly sleeps with Helena instead. They wind up together at the end, but it's hard to decide what the point of all this was. Nothing really ended up well, except perhaps that two equally despicable people ended up together and in all likelihood would make each other miserable.

I read this play because it was set in France and, as I've said a few times here, we're planning a family vacation there in March-- though I doubt very much I'll recognize anything of France from a 15th century play written by an Englishman!

Monday, October 03, 2011

Reader's Diary #764- Ray Bradbury: The October Game

The weather in Yellowknife at this point in the year is pretty much what most Canadians expect to get about a month from now. This past weekend the leaves, which had previously changed colour, took the final plunge, and on Saturday we had snow flurries-- they were short lived but it was snow nonetheless. Our kids will once again be trick or treating in the snow. When you move to the north you very quickly learn to buy the Halloween costumes a few sizes too big to ensure they fit over the snowsuits. In other words, we cope, right?

Well, not always and not exactly. Ray Bradbury's "The October Game" begins with a scene of a man named considering using a gun on his wife Louise. He decides against it, however, as it would not make her suffer enough. I'll state what I hope is the obvious here: I don't relate to Mich on that front. However, when Mich starts to contemplate October and what it foreshadows, I did find myself relating somewhat. You'd think, seeing as I actively chose to live in the north I'd be more of a winter person. Overall I don't hate it, I suppose, but I know how Mich can feel overwhelmed by it and come October almost fear it. It's darker, colder, and oh so long. Unlike Mich-- and this is an important distinction to make-- I am comforted that I have a loving family to help pull me through the bleakness of winter. Mich has a family alright, but he certainly doesn't appreciate them. October is the perfect setting for this story.

"The October Game" is dark and scary, but fun in a "Lamb to the Slaughter" sort of way. There is however one "problem." I use the quotation marks here not for sarcasm, but for doubt. Trying not to give anything away, there is a logistical question about three quarters of the way in, in that I have to ask whether or not it was intentional on Bradbury's part. More specifically, and again trying to avoid spoilers, one particular paragraph jumps to another without any mention that much time has passed. However, for the ending to be interpreted the way most readers would likely interpret it, there would need to be a sufficient time lapse. Was it a mistake on Bradbury's part not to directly address the time issue or did he intentionally omit it to plant seeds of doubt about what actually happened? Read it and decide for yourself.

Bonus: I also found an online comic version here.

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

Saturday, October 01, 2011

5th annual Canadian Book Challenge- 3rd update

I'm glad to see that most have you did not slow down in your Canadian reading last month. I, on the other hand, have almost come to a screeching halt. I've returned to work and am currently stuck in the middle of a couple of clunkers. Sure I managed to finish Richard Van Camp's Angel Wing Splash Pattern and Angie Abdou's The Bone Cage, but I'm definitely not coming close to the reading machine I was this past summer.

Collectively in September we read and reviewed over 80 Canadian books, not the least of which included a how-to watercolours books, a review of one of last month's prize giveaways, and a short story collection with a bizarre title. Some participants have just begun while others are well on their way. Good job to everyone.

Last month's prize, generously donated by Ronsdale Press, and consisting of these books:

1. Strongman: The Doug Hepburn Society- Tom Thurston

2. I Have My Mother's Eyes: A Holocaust Memoir Across Generations- Barbara Ruth Bluman

goes out to Swordsman, chosen randomly from those who submitted names of Canadians of whom they'd like to read a biography, autobiography, or memoir. Swordsman would like to find a biography on Joseph Wilcox, whom he refers to compellingly as the "ultimate Canadian traitor."
I'd not heard of Joseph Wilcox before but Swordsman seems to know so much, I'd encourage him to write the biography himself!

This month's prize is awards-based. In September the Scotiabank Giller Prize announced its long list, with the short list set to be announced on October 4th. I'm still annoyed as all hell that two thirds of the judges are not even Canadian, but I promised myself not to rant about that again, but it looks like I just did. Stupid-Giller-garbage-face-aside, I acknowledge the financial boost and most importantly, the increase in readership that a prestigious award can bring, and so next month I encourage you to read Canadian winners and nominees, of any award. If you're a Canadian Book Challenge participant, you read and review an award winning or nominated Canadian book in October, and come back here to leave a link to your review in the comments, your name will be entered in a random draw to win this wonderful prize pack from HarperCollins Canada:


This Dark Endeavour, a prequel to Frankenstein. Kenneth Oppel is the award winner of numerous awards including the Governor General Award, the Michael L Printz Honor Book Award, and the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for children.


Emma Donoghue's Room was the winner of the Rogers Writers Trust Award for fiction and was shortlisted for both a Governor General Award and a Man Booker Prize. And while it's not yet an official award, Room was also the most reviewed book of the 4th edition of Canadian Book Challenge.

And don't forget to keep reading and reviewing Canadian books in October. Share your links at the round-up post here.