Thursday, May 31, 2012

5th annual Canadian Book Challenge- May 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)

Reader's Diary #833- Anita Daher: Racing For Diamonds

Anita Daher's Racing For Diamonds, a book aimed at kids 7-12, was a read-aloud to my daughter. Set in the Northwest Territories, most of the action takes place on the Canol Trail, near Norman Wells. I've not been there, but I'd love to see it, or the Mackenzie Mountains at any rate.

Racing For Diamonds is the first in a series called the Junior Canadian Ranger Adventure series. Revolving mostly around a 12 year old girl named Jaz, the story begins with plans for a dogsled race, but soon becomes a story of kidnapping, diamond theft, and international intrigue.

It's certainly a thrilling book, full of cliffhangers and plot twists. Had it been longer, I think the constant drama would be too much, but coming in at little more than 100 pages, it should be able to maintain an adult's interest (kids will most likely love it-- as my daughter did). It also, as the title would suggest, provides a little education about the diamond industry (which is very important around these parts), though a Russian mafia bit felt like a leftover from the Cold War era.

I was also put off near the midway point that the previously established interpersonal problems and character building was falling to the wayside. Sure the adventure was exciting, but not so much that I'd forgotten about the rest: the problems with her divorced parents, her constant bickering with her sledding partner. But then towards the end it started to become clear that this was going to be the first in a series and I was a little more forgiving, figuring those issues might feature more regularly in the later books. I'm not in a huge rush to read the rest, but I certainly won't rule it out.

Full disclosure: I met Anita a few years ago at a Northwords Writers Festival (which I believe she played a role in creating) and she was quite a lovely person. Here's a picture of her and I.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Reader's Diary #832- Laura Boudreau: The Meteorite Hunter

After armchair travels to Scotland, Norway, and South Africa in recent weeks, I decided that for this week's Short Story Monday I'd stay home. Author Laura Boudreau is Canadian (though currently living in England).

Recently I read someone remarking on her blog that she didn't like reading about kids in peril. Several of us agreed, remarking that since becoming parents it's increasingly difficult to do so. Though today's story reminded me that non-parents can certainly empathize and share in the uneasiness. "The Meteorite Hunter" begins with a tense scene in a maternity room that instantly made me remember an old E.R. episode. Back in '94 I was in nursing school, 17 years old and fresh out of high school. Like all the nursing students, probably the world over, all of us living in residence were glued to the communal TV set on Thursday nights to watch the newest medical drama. In an episode entitled "Love's Labour Lost" a woman giving birth encounters escalating and life-threatening complications. Despite my age and my gender, I remember watching enthralled, but sick to my stomach. While the scene in "The Meteorite Hunter" is nowhere near as intense as that, and is mercifully shorter, it was reminiscent enough of the E.R. episode to serve as a reminder that even non-parents can relate to human drama.

Then the mood of the story takes a bit of a weird arc. The intensity established at the beginning is seemingly replaced with a more character driven plot. It's still engaging, but a reader's heartbeat would no doubt be returning to normal. And then...

Well, you'll just have to read it for yourself.

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

Friday, May 25, 2012

Reader's Diary #831- Natsuki Takaya: Fruits Basket Volume 1

The only manga I've read before is Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. It was one of the first widely popular manga titles on this side of the Pacific, and almost convinced me that perhaps I could like this form after all. After a childhood of not appreciating Astro Boy, I'd been skeptical.

But there was one part of me that still wasn't convinced manga was for me. Akira, as great as it is, was adapted to the North American market much more so than manga tends to be today; at least in terms of the layout. Akira reads like the rest of our novels: front to back and left to right. Most manga sold in North America today (correct me if I'm wrong) follows the original Japanese style: back to front (which I realize is a North American way to refer to it) and right to left. I've not read books told in this way before but I know it has an ever growing fan base here, so clearly we can adapt.

But I did find it difficult. It took me much longer to get moderately comfortable than I'd ever expected. Granted, I'm not sure how much is a manga thing and how much could be attributed to Natsuki Takaya, the author. Besides reading it in the opposite direction than I'm used to, I was also confused by the dialogue that sometimes appeared outside of speech balloons, or speech balloons that sometimes didn't point to any particular speaker. Lots of the time I didn't know who was saying what and more importantly what the heck was going on. This is what I figured out: a girl named Tohru Honda (shown on the cover) is orphaned and winds up living with a family who all are possessed by Chinese zodiac animals, plus one guy who is possessed by a cat (who, according to folklore, was cheated out of his chance to be part of the zodiac by the rat-- likewise, their human counterparts also don't get along.) Whenever these people are hugged, to their dismay, they turn into their respective animals-- making life rather difficult at times. But that's basically just the premise of the book and you can get that from Wikipedia. Beyond that I was mostly lost. Random notes from the author thrown in that didn't relate to the book at all didn't help.

It would perhaps be easy to chalk it up to a cultural gap. However, there are two problems with that theory. One, it and subsequent volumes are some of the bestselling manga of all time in the U.S.. Two, the person who recommended it to me was a white English Canadian with no Japanese roots at all. There's also the fact that it's shojo manga; that is to say it's aimed at teenage girls and that may have played a part. I didn't realize that it was aimed at that demographic, nor was I familiar with the term shojo, before I started reading it (perhaps the cover should have been a strong indication). Or maybe it was a combination of those reasons and more.

Unfortunately, being confused by the book, I dwelt perhaps too much on other details. For instance, I really thought the artwork was rather weak (then, Akira would be a tough act to follow). And I didn't give a rat's (or cat's) ass about the characters.

Reading Fruits Basket Volume 1 was a rather painful experience.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Reader's Diary #830- Hartmut Lutz (editor): The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab

It was Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues in which I first heard of Germany's "human zoos" and it was while researching if such travesties actually existed that I first learned of Abraham Ulrikab. Ulrikab was an Inuk from Labrador who, along with his immediate family and another family from a neighbouring community, was persuaded to go to Europe to be exhibited in zoos and tour on an ethnographic circuit. What sets Ulrikab apart from his companions is that he is literate and keeps a diary about his experiences.

Though it's called The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab, it's actually much more than that. Through letters written by people close to Ulrikab, newspaper articles, and even advertisements, a reader is able not only to get a sense of who he was as a person, but also the context of the time, including prevailing attitudes and values. The diary entries themselves speak volumes, but certainly don't take up as much space. At only 100 pages in total, Ulrikab's diary entries take up less than half those pages. I wasn't crazy about the layout. Presented as almost a scrap book, with letters posted below diary entries, newspaper articles and advertisements thrown in haphazardly, the flow felt interrupted and I found myself flipping back and forth. It wasn't a huge deal, of course, and some people might prefer such a style, but personally, I would have preferred the diary upfront and the rest of the information presented in an appendix.

Minor details, really, when I quite enjoyed the book and the information that was there was fascinating and provocative. I think what I enjoyed the most was the complicated human emotion that was exhibited. From a 2012 perspective, it's perhaps a little too easy to look back and see things in black and white: the Inuit were exploited and the white people were evil. It was, undeniably a disaster, and many people were most certainly wrong in their actions, but it more complicated when you look at all the history Lutz has compiled.

In the foreword, the late Alootook Ipeelie (who also drew the cover art), shares an anecdote from 1992 about a carver from Cape Dorset who was invited to Ontario for a conference on Inuit art. This man, Iyola Kingwatsiak, remarked in an interview that he felt like a piece of art on display, and that he wasn't really expected to contribute anything. It was a clever opening on Ipeelie's part to force this comparison to Ulrikab's circumstances. For the remainder of the book, it would be impossible not to constantly ponder whether or not we've progressed as a society.

Complicating the simple narrative is the fact that Ulrikab and others went willingly. Were they misled as to what they could expect or the reason why they were even invited? Even then, there isn't a simple answer. The Moravian clergy at Hebron, Labrador (where Ulrikab and his family lived) were opposed to it. When Adrian Jacobsen, the German in charge of "collecting specimens" first presented the idea, Moravian brothers W. Haugk Kretschmer and A. Hlawatscheck were vehemently opposed stating that they were "[not] willing to help him so that our christened people are exhibited outside and looked at like wild animals for money." At first glance, Kretschmer and Hlawatscheck appear to share modern day sympathies and pinpoint exactly what qualms we would feel about such an endeavour today. But even Jacobsen, who was definitely not a good guy in this story by any means (he even beats one of the Inuit at one point), is able to pinpoint why their statement was not exactly noble. "It is sad that a people are so suppressed," he wrote, "and still more so that Europeans demonstrate such power." It was still, ultimately, the Inuit's decision to make. It was the "our" in Kretschmer and Hlawatscheck's statement that undercut their nobility.

Kretschmer and Hlawatscheck weren't the only ones who could see the immorality in human zoos. Though most newspaper articles presented were horribly racist and ill-informed (one tells of how the polar bears who also shared the zoo were terrified by the mere presence of their natural enemies), one particular German journalist who simply went by J.K. wrote a brave and enlightened article criticizing the entire endeavour. Calling it repulsive and comparing their treatment to that of slaves, s/he goes on to call for a sense of "racial ethics" that would prevent "displaying our equals" in zoos [emphasis mine]. Considering that the world allowed such things to exist as "human zoos" at that time, I found it refreshing to know that there were at least some who recognized the inhumanity and inspiring to know that they were willing to stand up against the majority.

I found myself thinking of Darwin's theory of natural selection, where new ideas and values could be compared to genetic mutations that prove beneficial and eventually become the norm. The analogy falls apart when you think of people who died for their radical beliefs, so I don't know, maybe it's more akin to artificial selection?

All I'm really sure is that there was a lot of food for thought in such a small book.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Reader's Diary #829- Zoe Wicomb: In Search of Tommie

In Zoe Wicomb's "In Search of Tommie," a South African male and a British woman discover they are half-siblings, both resentful of an absent father, but are at least united in this resentment.

Mostly following the son, TS's perspective, and amidst the bitterness, a reader can learn more about South African culture (there were, for instance, a few slang words that I had to look up); though I don't think TS represents the average South African. His unique personality easily prevent him from being a cliched character.

 It took me a couple of paragraphs to get into the style of "In Search of Tommie," but it was well worth the effort to stick with it. It ends on just enough of a note to give the story a push away from the negative outlook that dominated the earlier story, a subtle switch in tone that to me makes the story worth reading.

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

Monday, May 14, 2012

Reader's Diary #828- Johan Harstad (translated by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik) : To

I came across this on one of your blogs yesterday (though I can't remember whose, so my apologies!). Basically one of you clever folk had used TravBuddy to show where your reading has taken you. I decided to do the same using my blog to refresh my memory. It was a time consuming process (I find the Blogger search tool hit or miss) but seeing as I was shut in with a nasty stomach bug anyway, it gave me something to do. I counted all short stories and books written by authors born in a particular country or set in a particular country. I was somewhat surprised by the results. I thought I read a whole whack of stories from Africa last year but the map suggests I've got a long way to go. And I've not read anything from South Africa? Still, 32% of the countries covered isn't bad I suppose. To see the countries, just hover over the green areas to see the name or click here to see the list. (Incidentally, in real life I've been to 6%).
This week, I push to make it a third of all countries with Johan Harstad's "To" representing Norway. I have read Henrik Ibsen before, but not since I'd started this blog 7 years ago, so I didn't count him.

Anyway, "To" is about a old man in a hot air balloon dumping old photos of him and his deceased wife. Perhaps it was the balloon that triggered it, but it was hard for me not to shake the image of the old guy from (the equally short titled) Up movie. It's not exactly an uplifting piece (sorry about the pun), but it does hold just enough quirk to keep it interesting (versus irritating). Not only is the setting attention-grabbing, but the way the story is told-- as one half of a dialogue-- keeps a reader on his toes while adding to the loneliness of the story.

Read it and I think you'd agree that the title is perfectly suited.

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

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Reader's Diary #827- Carolyn Keene (ghostwritten by Margaret Wirt Benson): The Ghost of Blackwood Hall

Even as a kid, I was more interested in co-ed pursuits. While, like the other boys, I read a couple of Hardy Boys books, and like the girls, I read a Nancy Drew mystery or two, I mostly read the Bobbsey Twins. Sadly no one seems to remember the Bobbsey Twins. At our local bookstore, the only book of any of the aforementioned sleuths was a Nancy Drew novel, The Ghost of Blackwood Hall.

So I decided to introduce my daughter to the Nancy Drew series, though not to the mystery genre (she already reads a lot of Jigsaw Jones Mysteries). She seemed to enjoy it quite a bit, but perhaps it just seemed that way as she's a sucker for cliffhanger endings, and each chapter of The Ghost of Blackwood Hall seems to have one of those. "Read me the next chapter Daddy!"

As for me, I wasn't a huge fan. I haven't really been a fan of the genre since I was a child, but I think I could enjoy a good whodunnit if the clues were all presented before me and I could race with the protagonist to figure it out. In the Ghost of Blackwood Hall, it's impossible to figure it out beforehand and the story is a bit of a convoluted mess. Trying to cram it all into a nutshell proves to be difficult, but it's essentially about a bunch of con-artists who use seances to dupe people. Along the way, there's kidnappings, spying, quicksand, ghosts, and even a trip to New Orleans.

The pace was certainly exciting, and I love New Orleans so that was a pleasant surprise, but it all felt a little Scooby-Dooish, only more mature. Like Scooby-Doo meets Alan Bradley. Actually the maturity of the book was also a bit surprising. First off, I didn't realize that Nancy was an 18 year old who had her driver's license. Not that she's mature in any inappropriate sense (she doesn't as much as hold hands with her boyfriend Ned), but I think the topics themselves were sometimes on the adult side. The subtext of the book is that people who are having difficulty dealing with the loss of loved ones can sometimes be taken advantage of as they are in a fragile state of mind and believe what they want to believe. A child, most likely, would miss this subtext and the victims merely come across as none too bright and unsympathetic.

Mix this light social commentary in with all those implausible coincidences and dated slang (flimflamming!) and I think you'd have to be the most nostalgic of fans to suggest this is a good book. Or else you're an easy to please 8 year old who will still, most likely, be reading a Jigsaw Jones mystery next week.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Reader's Diary #826- Mary Edward: Beyond Repair

With a title like "Beyond Repair" it should come as no surprise that Mary Edward's short story isn't an optimistic piece.

"Beyond Repair" begins with a woman accidentally running over a doll with her car. It's a simple set up, but the greatness of this story is the layering and unlayering that follows.

The more tragic "Beyond Repair" becomes, an element of danger also begins to appear and Edwards carefully uses both to challenge the reader's prejudices and pity.

Dark, but wonderfully written.

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

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Reader's Diary #825- Ken Dryden: The Game

In my recent review of Mavis Gallant's Paris Stories, I remarked that though not a general rule, if I'm taking an extremely long time with a book, it probably means that I'm not enjoying it. It was Ken Dryden's The Game that made me throw in the part about not being a general rule. I started this one way back in February I believe and just finished it this week, but I did enjoy it. I had designated The Game as a bathroom book, so you can attribute the length of time it took me to read it to the lack of fiber in my diet, not to a lack of interest.

Enjoyed it, didn't love it. At one point Dryden talks about some games simply feeling slower than others. The Game was one of those games. It was pleasant. I earmarked more passages that I enjoyed than those that I didn't, and I enjoyed Dryden's non-threatening musings and recollections, but it wasn't exactly an exposé of hockey's seedier side and there wasn't a lot of dirt dishing, nor did I want there to be. Still, I expect older hockey fans would have enjoyed it more...

Which I was lead to believe wouldn't be the case. As someone who's hardly ever followed the sport, yet appreciated it nonetheless, I've read a surprisingly large number of hockey books that I've quite enjoyed; Night Work, King Leary, especially. The Game, according to some, is "still widely regarded as the best book about hockey ever written, and one of the best sports books of all time." And during this year's Canada Reads debates, Dryden and his book's defender, Alan Thicke, suggested that the book had universal themes, it was about growing up, and the Canadian spirit. I expected the book to be about hockey, of course, but I was sort of hoping and expecting that it would be more than that. In Night Work: The Terry Sawchuk Poems, Randall Maggs managed to simultaneously tell a hockey story and a story of humanity, I'm not sure Dryden consistently achieved that. Sure there were a few times when a reader of The Game could take hockey and turn it into a metaphor for some aspect of life, sure the back story of Dryden's looming retirement could tug some heartstrings, and sure Dryden managed to show that team hockey players still manage to hold on to their individual personalities-- none of which could be considered small achievements-- but 90% of the time, the book is hockey, hockey, hockey and if you're not into it, it's going to be a dull game.

I think where Dryden's book doesn't hold up as well, and where Thicke's reasoning is dated, is that hockey possibly doesn't have the same resonance to the Canadian psyche as it used to. Sure we say it does, but now it's akin to waving the Canadian flag, with it's giant red leaf, in Nunavut, where maple trees--any trees for that matter-- can't even grow. We enjoy the patriotism more than the sport itself.

When my father was a child he lived and breathed hockey. He couldn't afford skates so he sometimes wore his brother's hand-me-downs and sometimes played in his boots, he played on a pond, no one wore equipment, and he gathered with his friends at a neighbour's house to listen to games on the radio. It was about fun. When I was a boy it became somewhat of a sore spot between us that I didn't share his enthusiasm for the game. The more he pushed, the more I resisted, until I eventually won. But as there's a certain sick sense of cosmic humour, my son came along, and lo and behold, he's a jock. Vowing not to get into the same rut as my father and I, I made a promise to support my son's interests, even if I didn't understand them. Hockey, it was. I can't say I enjoyed it. He was four years old and had practice 3 times a week with ridiculous ice times, the fees and gear were outrageously overpriced, and I was surrounded by parents who weren't going to be satisfied until his/her kid was drafted into the NHL. I found myself wondering again why people enjoyed this. Then my dad visited and I took the opportunity to find out; I'd take him to see one of my son's practices. Surprisingly he didn't enjoy it either. In fact, it made him angry. "When will they get to play?" he demanded. Not today, I had to tell him, today they were doing skating drills. "Tomorrow then?" No, tomorrow was stick handling and passing. But they usually spend the third day playing. Or at least half of it. And they get three minute shifts. My dad quickly realized that there stood a chance he'd get to see my son play hockey for a mere 15 minutes. "What kid's going to enjoy this?" he asked. And looking out at the ice, there were a few. Some kids love drills. Some kids draw the connection that they are learning skills to make them better for actual games. Some kids just love following orders. Most, including my son, actually didn't seem overly thrilled. Sure, my son got up, put on his gear and went, but my dad had a point. My son's initial enthusiasm to join hockey had waned. And mostly because this wasn't what he had in mind. As parents, my wife and I were interested in him getting exercise and having fun; to be the next Gretzky or Crosby wasn't in our plans. Sadly we were outnumbered. My dad's disgust was all we needed. The next year we joined him up to soccer. It's cheaper; at just one practice per week, less pressure; he's getting exercise; and while he's still doing lots of drills, he's playing actual games-- at EVERY practice! Most importantly, he's having fun.

I know hockey hasn't died, I really do. Nor do I wish it to be. I went to a staff function recently where a large number of the men and a few of the women had discovered a TV in a backroom on which they could watch a playoff game. They were missing for most of the night. I get it. The small part of me that used to envy such passion for a game and the comradeship that interest seemed to bring, is gone. I've given up trying to force an interest that I just never had.

My point with all this is that the Canadian hockey that Thicke and Dryden are describing, that's supposed to be part of the Canadian psyche, is dying. It's being replaced by something different, a business hockey, something that parents pay for and consider an investment. With that in mind, the hockey, hockey, hockey in Dryden's book might strike a chord with those who come from an older generation and remember it the way it used to be, but to pretend that it captures the modern day Canadian spirit is, sadly, a myth.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

5th Canadian Book Challenge- 9th Update

April seems to have just flown by. But I must say, I'm enjoying the longer days (especially longer when you live North of 60) and the break in those frigid temperatures-- it's supposed to hit the double digits, the positive double digits, by week's end. I'll believe it when I see it, but it's hard not to be happier and more optimistic in the spring is it not? Let's see.. segue... segue... Oh, longer days will mean more reading time, right? And speaking of reading, check out these highlights (imho) from the April roundup:
1. Amy reads a fascinating sounding book called Places Far From Ellesmere, which author Anita van Herke labels as geografictione.
2. Both Shan and Luanne review Will Ferguson's latest, 419.
3. Christa reviews Linden MacIntyre's Why Men Lie? which is not, as the title suggest, some sort of dating book. Instead Christa refers to it as a sort of companion piece to The Bishop's Man. MacIntyre is visiting Yellowknife in June for the Northwords Writers Festival.

Of course, I enjoyed reading all your reviews last month, as I hope you all did as well. What reviews stood out for you?

Moving onto the prizes, last month I asked put readers on a scavenger hunt to learn a little about some of the Canadian Book Challenge participants. Below are the clues and answers:

1. "A small-town, country girl. A teacher and an artist." - Melissa
2. "...a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries." Bill
3. "a software developer and mother of two who enjoys reading, knitting and playing word games." - Paulina
4. "live[s] in Toronto, Canada, with [her] husband, Gord, and [their] two kitties, Morgan and Crumpet." - Teena

And while I had many entries, I could only randomly choose one winner, and a hearty congratulations goes out to Anita. For her efforts, Anita wins the following fantastic prize pack kindly donated by Harbour Publishing:

1. The Odious Child and Other Stories (by Carloyn Black)
2. The Year of Broken Glass by Joe Denham
3. A Walk with the Rainy Sisters by Stephen Hume

Which brings us to the latest contest. This month I've drawn inspiration from Melwyk at The Indextrious Reader. Melwyk has themed her selections for the Canadian Book Challenge as "Small-Press Palooza." With that in mind, I've taken a partial list of small presses in Canada and included them below, most of which are gleaned from Melwyk's blog, but I've thrown in a few more as well. To win next month's prize, Jocelyne Allen's You and the Pirates, donated by the Workhorsery, all you have to do is check out the links below and in the comment section below tell me three books, chosen from 3 separate small Canadian publishers, as well as why you'd like to read them. A random winner will be chosen from all those who enter:
1. The Workhorsery
2.Cormorant Books
3. Coteau Books
4. Lazara Press
5. Goose Lane Editions
6. Brick Books
7. Brindle and Glass
8. Vehicule Press
9. Thistledown Press
10. Breakwater Books
11. Theytus Books
12. Arbeiter Ring Publishing
13. Arsenal Pulp Press

Don't forget to add your May review links at the roundup post!