Wednesday, February 29, 2012

5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge- February 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)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Reader's Diary #805- E Craig McKay: Abel Clarke; At Sea in a River Boat

"Abel Clarke; At Sea in a Riverboat" by E Craig McKay begins with the following disclaimer: Although set in Newfoundland in 1814 this tale is based only loosely upon the history of the times. There has been no attempt to depict actual historic characters or events-- which is fine as I don't often read fiction hoping to learn something. If I happen to along the way, great, but it's certainly not an expectation. Historical fiction, however, creates a whole other set of issues. What was the author's intent? To educate as well as entertain? Or to simply use a historical setting or event as a backdrop? McKay's disclaimer would suggest that his intent was the latter, but the story itself suggests that his intent was to teach.

The problem here isn't that McKay's motive isn't clear, it's that his "teaching" frequently interferes with his story. The story of an English settler in the early days of Newfoundland trying to escape from the French, it has potential to be a thrilling tale. However, too often I could sense the author's presence. Historical facts (if they are facts), are worked awkwardly into the narrative and distract from the action. For example, when Abel is off to warn Captain Daniels about a French invasion, he comes across a creek:
At this point the channel was little more than a creek which threaded its way through marshy bogs which would one hundred years later provide perfect spots of forage for moose. In 1814 moose were as alien to the Newfoundland landscape as snakes.
Flashing forward to educate readers about moose in Newfoundland's future is not only irrelevant to the story, it completely removes the connection to Abel, who most certainly wouldn't be making predictions about the success of imported moose.

At it's heart, "Abel Clarke; At Sea in a River Boat" has potential to be a great man versus nature survival story, akin to a Jack London style tale, but it's too bogged down with historical awareness-- even though we were promised that wouldn't be the case.

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

Monday, February 20, 2012

Reader's Diary #804- Kerry Clare: Georgia Coffee Star

I've been a casual follower of Kerry Clare's Pickle Me This blog for some time now, but I guess a bit too casual, as I somehow missed that she's also a writer of the non-blog variety. Thanks to Medea at Perogies & Gyoza for informing me via a glowing review of Clare's "Georgia Coffee Star," which was a winning entry in U of T Magazine's Alumni Short Story and Poetry contest way back in 2009.

"Georgia Coffee Star" is a gorgeously written story about a husband and wife winding up an Asian vacation in Japan. They're somewhat tired, physically and mentally, but that seems natural after a trip of such a magnitude. However, Clare very subtly starts to plant the idea that perhaps the exhaustion isn't all vacation related.

It was the subtlety that made me love this story so much. Thomas and Mo had booked a double room, but were given two twins instead. They were too grateful to have any beds to complain. It's the perfect setup for the story, maybe even the perfect symbol for the couple, but that's the mystery to be explored.

I was quite taken with the couple in "Georgia Coffee Star." The idea of a long term married couple as a unit is an old one, accepted, hardly challenged at all especially when the couple appears happy, and does things together, such as travel. While it's true two long time married people have to be different people than they were in their single life, and no doubt have found a way to be compatible, but it was nice to see the couple in Kerry Clare's story continuing to develop their own identities and idiosyncrasies. To a point. Is it possible to fall too deeply into oneself, even in a couple such as this? If the pieces of the proverbial unit are not constantly refitted, well, that's when trouble starts. Storms begin to brew.

I loved this story. Immensely.

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

Friday, February 17, 2012

Reader's Diary #803- Esi Edugyan: Half-Blood Blues

As I sat down to write this tonight, I found myself thinking about my wife Debbie. She's in California for a conference this week, so that's probably the main reason she's on my mind. But I'm also thinking about how difficult it is for me to recommend a book to her. I've got nearly a thousand books on my bookshelf, but when she asks me to pick something for her to read, I freeze. She's not into genre or pulp fiction, but she balks at slow, literary stuff. I know Debbie better than anyone else, but when it comes to books, I'm at a complete loss.

Though I do know what I wouldn't suggest to her, and I wouldn't suggest Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues. Personally I didn't mind it. The voice was authentic-- or at least, as I'm in no position to judge, it felt authentic, which is more important. The narrator, Sid, an American jazzman who lived in Berlin at the brink of WWII, has an infectious slang unlike anything I've read before. I also enjoyed the themes of jealousy and redemption. Sid, otherwise likeable, is woefully jealous over the prodigious talent of his much younger bandmate, Hiero. Which brings me to another positive: the perspective. I thought telling the story through Sid, and not the up and coming jazz phenom, was a stroke of brilliance. But-- and here's why I wouldn't recommend it to Debbie-- it was terribly slow. I enjoyed the ending, but I have to admit, it was a long time coming. I have far more patience for character-driven books than she does (we had quite the debate over Carol Shields' Unless), but even I yawned on occasion for Half-Blood Blues.

On a side note, I was quite intrigued by Berlin's "human zoo" that is mentioned only briefly. I had no idea such a thing really existed and I was especially interested in the mention of the "Eskimo specimens" on display. I know there have been other cases where Inuit people were kidnapped and brought to foreign lands, but the zoo brings it to a whole new level of inhumanity. I did a little Internet research (I Googled and found a Wikipedia page) to see what I could find on the topic and that's where I learned of Abraham Ulrikab. While Ulrikab wasn't technically kidnapped, and he wouldn't have appeared in 1940s Berlin, his story would be similar. His diary was published in 2005 and I'd love to get my hands on a copy. A few month's ago I asked my readers which Canadians they'd love to read a full biography of, but of whom none yet exist, and I didn't quite know who to suggest myself. This past month I found not one, but two contenders: Everett George Klippert and now Abraham Ulrikab.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Reader's Diary #802- Randy Freeman: Stories From Yellowknife

In the forward to Randy Freeman's Stories From Yellowknife, he gives credit to his "bother Barry" for doing the illustrations. Stories From Yellowknife, as you may have figured, is self-published.

It's unfortunate to have a typo put you on guard right from the start.

To his credit, the stories contained within are mostly entertaining enough, and otherwise sufficiently well written, so that the typos don't distract much from the book. I'll get to the stories first, but I'll have to get back to those pesky mistakes later.

Stories From Yellowknife takes a look at Yellowknife history mostly from a character by character basis. Gold thieves, game-show contestants, and beauty queens all reflect a little bit of the flavour that is now the city I call home. It's not that all these people helped shaped the town as much as their stories highlight something about the town's psyche. It's told in a roughly chronological manner, but it's not a history book as we've come to think of them. It's popular history akin to popular science. While most are on the amusing side, a couple more serious issues creep in and a favourite of mine would probably fit under that banner; "No Place For The State in the Bedrooms of the Nation." This story, which takes its title from a Pierre Berton quote, is actually more about Pine Point than Yellowknife, though it has pan-Canadian repercussions. I've had a soft spot for Pine Point, a NWT ghost town, since I first heard of it through The Goggle's brilliant NFB interactive documentary. The idea of a mining town that basically existed just long enough for one generation to go through the school system, then completely dismantled, is fascinating enough as it is. But I don't recall anything in that documentary about Everett George Klippert. Thanks to Freeman to drawing my attention to this individual. How Klippert has not had a full-length biography written about him, I have no idea.

Sadly, back to the typos. Even in the aforementioned story, Freeman at one point inadvertently refers to Klippert as Kippert. Maybe some people don't get hung up on such minor details, maybe some don't even notice. But holy hell, I find it distracting. Klippert's story, as I mentioned before, had me totally engaged. Then, blam: Kippert. It was one of many typos, but serves to highlight an important point to be made. Freeman clearly knows the difference. He, like most writers, makes silly mistakes from time to time. But why, oh why, when authors decide to self-publish don't they invest in an editor? I'm sure you can find a half dozen or so typos on this blog page even now.* I'm human. But if you were paying to read this, you'd deserve more.

(*For the record, when you notice typos on my blog, don't let them go! Tell me about them in the comments or send me an email. When I go back and read my posts that are rife with obvious spelling mistakes and the like, it's embarrassing-- way more embarrassing than someone giving me a friendly heads up! Before you get too trigger happy, my blog title is intentionally misspelled.)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Reader's Diary #801- Mojca Kumerdej, translated by Gregor Timothy Čeh: Hepatica

Not long ago I commented on the number of Russian visitors showing up on my blog stats. I was confused that despite the relatively high number of Russians who appear to check out The Book Mine Set, I've never had a single comment from a Russian. I wasn't, however, confused by the number of Russian visitors; I once participated in an online Russian Reading Challenge and I figure most visitors are probably looking for stuff on particular Russian authors. It's in stark contrast to the very few Japanese visitors that I get. I think I could mention Japan in every other post and they've yet to make a dent in my stats. Then there are the Slovenes. For some reason Slovenia consistently shows up in my stats. Last week, for instance, I apparently had 146 visitors from Slovenia, which made it my fourth largest national group of visitors (below the US, Canada, and China). Yet as far as I can tell, I've never even mentioned Slovenia at the Book Mine Set before, let alone review any Slovenian authors. And like the Russians, they've been silent in my comments. So this week I've decided to pander to my readers. I bring you "Hepetica," a short story by Mojca Kumerdej, and translated by Gregor Timothy Čeh.

"Hepetica" is told from the perspective of a arrogant biologist-- make that a dead arrogant biologist. He's, like I have, donated what he can of his organs and instructed that the rest is cremated. He's skeptical on the supernatural, even now, so how is he telling the story? You'll just have to read it to find out.

I enjoyed "Hepetica," not just for its philosophical musings on afterlife, but also for the strong voice. It's not a likeable voice, by any stretch of the imagination, but well-defined.

And now, my Slovene friends, I would like an all-expenses paid trip for four to visit your beautiful country. But I'll settle for a "hello" in the comments.

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

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Canada Reads 2012- They picked a winner for Canada Reads? True story.

A year or so ago, a Filipino restaurant opened in Yellowknife. My wife and I were very excited. We love Yellowknife, and for the most part think it has a surprising lot to offer, considering its relatively small size. A wide variety of restaurants, however, is lacking (especially compared to Whitehorse which is only marginally larger). Unfortunately the Filipino restaurant was poorly managed and it folded in a mere month or two. What bothered me about this is the effect that it could have. Will people be reluctant to open another Filipino restaurant now? "Someone tried that before and it didn't work." Nooooo!!! It could work, it just needs to be run better!

I'm a little afraid such a thing could happen with non-fiction's status in Canada Reads. I don't know what their ratings were for the Canada Reads debates this week, but from my perspective there's been little hype about it in the blogosphere this time around. Granted, I've been very busy and sick and totally distracted, so maybe it's just me, but today when I checked the CBC site, I was shocked to find that not only were the debates this week, but they've even picked a winner already (Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter).

Assuming for a moment that it wasn't just me, that there really was a lack of public interest this year, I really hope people don't blame it on the non-fiction approach. I'd suggest it had more to do with the fact that they tried too hard to keep interest up ever since the books were announced back in the fall. It seemed like every day since then Terry Fallis or the in-house producing team was blogging something about the books. They even had the debating panelists share their thoughts on their chosen books well in advance of the debates. Really all they had left for debate week was the daily vote-off. If you spend all day at the udder, you'll just get sick of milk. Not a real saying, but who cares.

So next year, I really hope they try going back where they started. Let the panelists decide what books to champion (including non-fiction, if they want). Canada Reads needs to be kept simple and low key. The excitement will build from there.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Reader's Diary #800- Maggie Tiojakin: The Long March

Ever protested? I have, just once, back in university. I forget exactly what it was over, something about rising tuition costs I think. I don't even remember if we got what we wanted.

It wasn't the exciting time I hoped it would be. There was no tear gas, no riot police, no protestors being dragged away by the hair. I'm sure the cause, whatever it was, was important to us at the time, but I suspect lots of people were there, like me, to see what this protesting stuff was all about. Isn't it a rite of passage for university students?

"The Long March," by Maggie Tiojakin, is also about a university protest, but it is not Canadian. When Mara states, "I’ve never had to stand up for anything in my life," however, it's a statement many of us could probably make. The protest in "The Long March" is for government reform. "Impeach the president!" they shout. Maybe I still hold some Vancouver hockey riot resentment, but I think of the lack of meaningful protests in Canada: either we have it so good here that we have little to protest or maybe we've just grown too apathetic. "The Long March," shows us that even where protests are needed and have the potential to institute real change, the cynics and protest tourists are not Canadian concepts.

"The Long March" also employs a technique that we don't often see: flash forwards. Instead of flashing back, the story jumps ahead to tell us how the day ends, then goes back to the present. It's a neat little trick that makes us feel more sympathetic to the story's characters.

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

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge- 7th Update

Last month, a very hectic month for me, evidenced by the fact that I'm a little unsure how it got by so fast, was still quite a productive month for the Canadian Book Challenge participants. As a collective we read and reviewed over 90 Canadian titles in January.

And a hearty congratulations goes out Teddy Rose, who participated in last month's "Missing in Action" mini-challenge. For her efforts, Teddy will receive this wonderful prize pack, kindly donated by Random House:

Yann Martel- Beatrice & Virgil
John Vaillant- The Tiger
Michael Crummey- Galore
Jamie Zeppa- every time we say goodbye
Andrew Pyper- The Guardians
Anne Michaels- The Winter Vault

For February's pack, if you're a Canadian Book Challenge participant and this month if you read and review a Canadian book written by an author who identifies as either L, G, B, or T, let us know in the comments below this post, and your name will be entered into a draw for this prize pack, generously donated by Arsenal Pulp Press:

1. Missed Her by Ivan Coyote

2. Anticipated Results by Dennis E. Bolen

In the meant time, we have an extra day in February this year. Can you fit in an additional Canadian book this month? Share links to your reviews here.