Friday, November 30, 2012

The 6th Canadian Book Challenge- November Roundup (Sticky Post— Scroll down for most recent post)


PRIZE ALERT!!! If your link falls at #30 or #60 in the above link this month, you will win the latest Leaders and Legacies book, Showdown at Border Town, written by Caroline Woodward and published by Fireside Publishing:

Reader's Diary #907- William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night

Apparently the twelfth night refers to the twelfth day of Christmas. That's not why I chose to read it at this point in the year, which is just as well considering there's nothing obviously Christmasy in the play. Not even drummers drumming. It is believed to have been first performed during post-Christmas festivities and the tone of merriment is meant to be instilled by the title.

The focal point of the play is involves a couple of fraternal twins named Sebastian and Viola. They are shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria, where they wind up but separated from one another and believing the other to be dead. Viola disguises herself as a man (again with the cross-dressing!) and finds employment as servant to the local Duke. One of her tasks is to convince a woman named Olivia to marry the Duke. Unfortunately, Olivia starts to have feelings toward the disguised Viola instead. (People fell in love so easily in Shakespeare's day, don't you think?) When Sebastian shows up, Olivia mistakes him for Viola, proposes and they get married. Blah, blah, blah, the Duke marries Viola, and because three weddings are even better than two, a couple of lesser characters named Toby and Maria tie the knot as well. Hugh Grant probably showed up.

However, it's with the secondary plot that I took issue. After being reprimanded for partying by Malvolio— this play brought to you by the letters V and O— Olivia's uncle, his friends, and her servants, team up to get revenge by convincing Malvolio to act like an idiot, after which they get him locked away for being crazy. I'm not sure what purpose this plot served. The love triangle (square?) certainly didn't need comic relief, and thankfully so, as I kind of felt Malvolio was being treated quite cruelly. Your neighbour asks you to keep the noise down so you get him locked in a padded cell? Seems more harsh than funny.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reader's Diary #906- Mary Pope Osborne: Magic Tree House #5 (Night of the Ninjas)


Debbie and I alternate which kids we read to at bedtime. Now that they're on chapter books, it's a pretty good system. However, after I read through the Harry Potter series with our daughter, my wife insisted that she be the one who introduced Harry to our son. Harry Potter is such a big deal and with it comes some great bonding. No fair that I'd get all the cool books. I understand entirely.

But I'm often scrambling as to which books to read to my son. Lately however, he's obsessed (ridiculously obsessed) with Lego Ninjago. So, when I saw Mary Pope Osborne's Night of the Ninjas on our bookshelf, I figured it would be a hit.

Night of the Ninjas is the 5th book in Osborne's wildly popular Magic Tree House series. (At one point in 2006, it even kept Harry Potter out of the number one spot on the New York Times bestselling series list.) The series itself has 28 books in the original series and another 21 in the spinoff series, Magic Tree House Merlin Missions.

I read a couple or so to my daughter before so I knew the basic premise and knew it hardly mattered that you read them in order, even though there are some multi-book story arcs (for example, finding clues that will eventually free a sorceress/librarian friend named Morgan le Fay). Besides le Fay, brother and sister Jack and Annie are the protagonists. Books in their tree house transport them to various times and places throughout history.

Clearly there's ample opportunities for learning to take place, but for better or worst, the adventure comes first. My son learned more about ninjas and samurai (he was surprised to find that ninjas are so quiet-- apparently Ninjago are not) but there needed to be some counter-learning as well. Why, for instance, could ninjas in feudal Japan speak and understand English? I'm not sure. Maybe we did need to read the whole series after all. Anyone know if and how Osborne addressed the language issue?

It was entertaining, but almost too simplistic. It was clearly aimed at an even younger audience than the Harry Potter series, but a little more character development would have been nice. It was hard to connect to Jack or Annie or to really suspend our belief that these kids were anything more than characters in a book.

However, it had ninjas and it was fast paced so my son enjoyed it. I'm sure he'll quickly forget it but that's okay.

(Remember this picture of my son when we visited Japan a couple years back?)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

2012 Ninjamatics' Canadian Weblog Awards Nominee!

2012 Canadian Weblog Awards nominee
Well, it looks like I've been nominated for a Canadian Weblog Award under the "Blogs about Writing and Literature" category. Here's the list of my competitors:

Bella's Bookshelves
Giraffe Days 
Krissy Media Ink
Literary Hoarders 
Quelquepart 
The Book Mine Set (not one of my competitors)
thriftymommasbrainfood 
Waiting for an Echo 
Word Salt 

Just based on the couple others on the list that I know (Bella's and Giraffe Days), I'm pretty much screwed. Based on the judging criteria (which is not based on voting), I'm also pretty much screwed. A lot of points are given for design aspects* and I'm a dunce when it comes to that stuff (as you've probably been able to tell). In any case, to whoever it was that nominated me, thank-you. It'll no doubt drive some visitors to my blog (as I plan on checking out the other nominees as well), so I appreciate the recognition.

(*One of the criteria is that blogs have their own domain name. i.e., no "blogspot" type extensions. I'm not sure why that's a big deal, but I figured since all the cool kids are doing it, I've gone and registered "bookmineset.com" It'll take up to 24 hours to take effect, but the old URL will still work, even afterwards. So, no need to change your links!)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reader's Diary #905- Frances Hodson Burnett: The Secret Garden

I decided to read Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden when I discovered that Missoula Children's Theatre would be putting off a production of it here in Yellowknife. (My kids both had roles.) I'd only vaguely been aware of the story beforehand. I could have told you that it had been a movie, but that's it. However, when I mentioned it to people who were familiar with it, none seemed overly enthusiastic. "It's just kind of boring," was the most common response. Now, I've seen a couple or so MCT shows before in the past and knew they didn't do boring. The shows are usually funny, fast-paced and have a positive message. Clearly they were going to take many liberties with the original book. So before I took in the adaptation, I felt it necessary to read how it was intended.

I won't say it was boring, but it's the difference between realism and fantasy. Like comparing Anne of Green Gables to Harry Potter. There is a lot of death (especially in the first chapter), illness, and depression, so I'd say more morbid than boring, though even that is turned into a happy ending, for the patient readers. It's long and the language is dated (her favourite word to describe something odd is "queer"), so it certainly wouldn't be for everyone.

What I found interesting was the left turn that the book takes. It's almost as if Burnett set out to write one book but changed her mind halfway through. It begins centered around a girl named Mary Lennox, who is orphaned in India after her parents died of cholera. She returns to England to live with her uncle but is practically neglected in his huge but miserable mansion. She prowls through the house discovering empty rooms. At this point Burnett seems to be dabbling with fantasy. Think of the books that a similar premise (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; Coraline; etc). There are eerie noises, not the least of which is a sobbing sound. A ghost perhaps?

But it turns out to be her uncle's son, who she'd never even knew existed. That's when Burnett seems to scrap the original idea and the book is suddenly focused entirely on this cousin, Colin Craven. And instead of fantasy, Burnett goes all out with new agey philosophy, trading in supernatural magic for natural magic.

The shift in focus aside, I still enjoyed the honesty in Burnett's writing, especially her characters. Adults are given more dimension than I'm used to in a children's novel. They're flawed, but complex, not mere stereotypical villains and heroes. Children and adults alike have their fair share of emotional pain to work through.

Emotional pain? So how did Missoula Children's Theatre deal with such a topic? Really, they focused on the uplifting message rather than the plot. Obvious details are of course kept the same (character names, general plot) but Burnett's psychological insight and metaphysical musings are almost entirely replaced by catchy, silly songs. That's not a condemnation by any means, it works as a children's play. But it's a very different beast than the book.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Reader's Diary #904- Khushwant Singh: Karma

Yesterday I stumbled upon a Flavorwire article titled "The 10 Grumpiest Living Authors." Of those that I'd heard of, it was not a surprising list (I'd heard that Maurice Sendak could be a bit on the cantankerous side), but there were some names I'd not heard of before. So, I figured I'd check one of them out today, crossing my fingers that I'd like the story and not suffer the wrath of Khushwant Singh.

I did enjoy "Karma" even if the title does somewhat spoil the surprise. It's about Mohan Lal, an Indian man who fancies himself superior to his other countrymen, even his wife, because he has adopted the language and mannerisms of the British. They are at a train station and after his wife finds her seat in a general compartment, Lal makes his way to the first class compartment, which is the compartment usually frequented by the British. He plans to impress the others with his British knowledge and customs, but they don't exactly give him a chance.

It's hard not to have mixed feelings for Lal. It's tempting to say it was karma and he gets what he deserves for shunning his own culture. But then, it's also tragic that he'd have this sort of cultural loathing. I'm reminded of the comments that I often get when it's revealed that I'm from Newfoundland. "Oh, really? I can't hear any accent!" often said as if this was a compliment. The thing is, I don't know exactly how I lost it. Debbie isn't from Newfoundland. When we met, was I subconsciously ashamed of the way I talked and worked to lose it? I certainly used to have one. And I've met plenty of other Newfoundlanders who've lived away longer than I have yet still speak with a thick accent. A part of me regrets having lost it, but then it'd be silly to try to affect one. Like Madonna's British accent.

Anyway, if Singh believes in karma, how does he feel about his "grumpy" label? 

Getting back to the grumpiest author article. There were no Canadians on the list and I know we're known as such a polite nation, but I'm sure we could come up with a similar list. I haven't met any of these authors but I know Atwood, Davies, Richler, and Mowat have a reputation for crankiness, whether they deserve it or not. Any that you'd add to this list?

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

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reader's Diary #903- Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities


At the risk of offending people with sharp pointy objects...

We've all been at boring meetings and presentations. I envy those that can focus for a long time. Or at least nod at just the right times to appear like they're focused. I am a doodler. I do it discreetly though. I look up periodically. "See, I'm so interested, I'm even taking notes." I know I'm not alone in this. Us doodlers, we play the game. We want to look professional, to not offend the speaker. The speaker probably knows. She must have drawn the occasional die or eyeball in her margins. But the game is tolerated. We'd all be horrified if someone took out their iPhones and started playing Angry Birds; that would be just rude. So why in recent years has it become socially acceptable to knit during presentations? I'm not paying any more attention to the speaker as are the knitters, but at least I'm discreet about it. Why hate on the knitters? Needle-spiders, that's why. When I was a young boy, a recurring nightmare that my parents still like to tease me about was of needle spiders. Something my twisted 6 year old mind conjured up. Hairy spiders, the size of cats, with 8 long knitting needles for legs, click-clacking across the floor, ready to jab me at any second.To this day tapping fingers can send shivers down my spine. It might even explain my hostility towards those who just want to knit a scarf on company time.

If you've ever read A Tale of Two Cities, you know the above isn't completely of topic. You'll also know that Madame Defarge has effectively destroyed any chance of my making my peace with the knitting folk.

The image of Madame Defarge and her knitting needles puncturing the air is just one of the reasons I found A Tale of Two Cities to be such a visual book. Often I'll read a novel and it's obvious what an influence TV and movies have had on literature. Authors will sometimes describe a scene in such a way that you can just imagine a camera swooping in or focusing on a particular detail. If the author didn't consciously hope someday to have Hollywood come a-knockin', it's still likely they've imagined it from angles we're accustomed to seeing on the screen. (I once heard Jay Ingram explain that it was only after colour TV was introduced that people began to argue that they they did, in fact, dream in colour.) But my theory is thrown out with Dickens. Clearly predating such media, you'd swear he wrote some of these scenes specifically for movie directors. Red especially plays a significant part; whether it's wine being spilled in the street, the sunset glow coming into a carriage, blood, the red hats. And there's a favourite scene of mine in which people are quietly gathered, looking out the window for an oncoming thunderstorm. I didn't realize this was such a common human experience. I love that feeling and Dickens captured it beautifully. How has Hollywood not given this the blockbuster treatment since the 30s?

I also quite liked the oh-so-famous beginning ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Etc.) I think it really struck me as I found myself revisiting it a lot with different theories as to what he meant.Was it a comparison between London and Paris? Was it like two cities within a city? One for the aristocrats, one for the common people? Funny thing is, I kept finding new ways to interpret it and they all seemed to make sense. Perhaps the versatility of the introduction was intentional.

I read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables over the summer, and given the setting (A Tale of Two Cities being partially set in France with the French revolution playing a significant role) it was impossible not to draw comparisons. A Tale of Two Cities is full of melodrama and there are more than a few cliched characters. As is Les Miserables. However, A Tale of Two Cities is what Les Miserables could have been with all the historical notes and philosophy edited out. Take that as either a good thing or not. And it's not like Dickens book is pure soap opera. The idea of peasants revolting and then becoming corrupt and cruel in their own right is a common theme in literature (done best with the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm), and I felt a cynical undertone with Dickens. If you change the "was" to "is" in the best of times/ worst of times statement, you could easily prove that it holds as true today as it did then. For some people on Earth right now, it's the worst of times. For others, the best. The powerful and the exploited might trade places from time to time, but the message I took away from A Tale of Two Cities was that such groups will always exist, collectively and in the long run, no one is better than the other. On the personal level, A Tale of Two Cities has a brighter outlook. Perseverance, redemption, forgiveness, justice and love are also major themes. It's very much a sociology vs. psychology kind of book. I quite enjoyed it. Despite the knitting.




Friday, November 23, 2012

Reader's Diary #902- The New King James Version Bible: The Book of Hosea


Last week when I wrote about the Book of Daniel, I commented that as it was becoming rarer, the further I delved into the Bible, it was nice to still come across familiar stories. The Book of Daniel had the stories of the lion's den and the writing on the wall. The Book of Hosea didn't have any stories of which  I was previously familiar.

It did however explore a lengthy metaphor about God's relationship with the Israelites using marriage to an unfaithful woman as a comparison. Modern feminists might take issue with the comparison and some of the extended points, but from a purely literary point of view, it was an interesting metaphor, made all the more curious with God intentionally creating it, telling Hosea specifically to marry such a woman. God takes it further by naming Hosea's children with prophetic names. God being shown to acknowledge and use the power of literary techniques? God as a writer? A writer as a god? The mind boggles with all these metaphors.

It's a short book, perhaps light on plot, but the figurative language keeps it compelling.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Reader's Diary #901- Corey Redekop: Husk


Corey Redekop's Husk is the 2nd of two Canadian zombie novels I've read in past couple of months. It's inevitable that I'd compare the two. Let's get it out of the way: between Redekop's book and Victoria Dunn's Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies, Redekop's wins hands down. While both are satirical horror-comedies, the writing in Husk is tighter and more focused, the characters are more fleshed out (get it?), and the jokes seem relevant to the plot. Plus Redekop doesn't flinch on certain topics. He knows you're wondering how zombies use the bathroom, so he goes there. On that note, he also goes for the gross out, so it may not be everyone's cup of tea.

Of course, it's also inevitable that I'd compare Husk to Redekop's previous novel, Shelf Monkey. I wouldn't declare this contest as clear cut, but I'd have to go with Shelf Monkey. To be fair to Redekop, I'm a bit of an anti-zombite. It's weird, I was all over monsters as a kid: vampires, werewolves, mummies, but even then, I couldn't get behind zombies. I just found it all too silly and I couldn't get behind them. The only zombie movie I've ever liked was 28 Days Later, and I'll argue until I'm blue in the face that it wasn't really a zombie movie. So Redekop can hardly be blamed for my lack of interest in the topic. Though he can be blamed that Shelf Monkey was of a topic that was dear to me: books. So, it's Shelf Monkey for the win.

As for Husk itself, it is as I've said, a satirical book, that merely uses zombies to make points mostly about western, or more specifically, pop culture. (At one point I was convinced it was a thinly guised commentary about Charlie Sheen's most recent breakdown.) It focuses on a man named Sheldon Funk who awakens during his autopsy, only to discover that he has died and for all intents and purposes, a zombie. Keeping the book light is both a blessing and a curse. If you're like me, it'd be hard to take a zombie seriously anyway. You expect that with the killing and the like for it to be dark, but a dark comedy. But Redekop's characters (the main characters anyway) are usually so rich, it seemed like a difficult balance to maintain. Sheldon contemplates his relationships and career a lot, even the physiology of his zombie-ism, but I sometimes found him too nonchalant about the fact that his life, or body, will never be the same again. Then, had he dwelt too long on these kind of matters, it risked the book becoming too serious, too much of a downer. On similar lines, but this time no real fault of Redekop, the cannibalism reminded me too much of Luka Magnotta. I know I should be able to put that out of my head. The book was written and published before anyone even heard of him, but it disturbed me too much and too recently to shake it off while reading Husk. Not that I think such topics are off-limits for comedy, and probably most readers wouldn't draw any significant comparisons. Had Magnotta not been all over the news this past summer, I'd have been fine with the cannibalism in Husk; Jeffrey Dahmer and other such whack-jobs probably wouldn't have even crossed my mind. Again, my issue, not Redekop's.

In any case, even with my hang-ups, I quite enjoyed the book and am quickly turning into a huge fan of Corey Redekop!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Reader's Diary #900- Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman: No One Here Gets Out Alive


I'm a huge reader and a huge music nut, so you'd figure I'd combine my loves more often than I do. Meanwhile the only music biographies/ autobiographies I've read are of Fleetwood Mac, Grace Slick, the Clash, Stompin' Tom, Madonna,  Bono, and now Jim Morrison. I remembered seeing it once topping a list of best rock biographies and so I had it built up. Today though when I Googled "best rock biographies" it only seemed to show up in the occasional list, and never in the top slot. And though such lists are arbitrary, after reading it for myself, I'd say its reputation is about right. Of all such books that I've read, it's the best of the lot. But there's certainly room for improvement.

I feel the need to clarify here: I was never a huge Doors fan. I liked a lot of their music, I enjoyed the Oliver Stone movie, and I even went to his grave in Paris. But I've met and hung out with Doors fans. They seem to feel the need to emulate him. Me, not so much. Still, it would be hard to deny the fact that he was interesting character, whether you thought is was a artsy poser or the real deal. And in that regard, The No One Here Gets Out Alive book is also interesting. Compelling. This despite the fact the substance abusing rock star story has been told umpteen times, before and after Morrison came and went.

Why compelling? Perhaps it's because of what's not said. Not far into the book, I began to be impressed with the research gone into it. They even had former university profs recalling Jim and his assignments. That method triggered a lot of personal reflection. Who would biographers have to talk to to find out about the real me? Certainly my university professors wouldn't offer much insight. Even the few that still vaguely remember me. Even my university friends. Even my current friends. I mean, there'd be a pretty interesting composite picture, but it got me questioning the proverbial masks that we all wear. How much we keep hidden, how much we share. How often we change said masks. For the record, I think longtime readers of my blog have some sense of me as a person, but I'm scant on the facts of my life. Then, there are others, extended family for instance, that can probably tell you the facts, but don't know what I'm all about. I guess neither version is necessarily false, but no one's version of me is identical to my version of me, and theoretically, I'm as wrong as the rest of you. Deep, eh?

Likewise, I'm still not sure if I know who Jim Morrison is. He is said to be loyal to his fellow Doors (vehemently resisting when anyone tried to turn the spotlight on him), and yet, he either wasn't close to them or the authors failed to show it. Sure they had artistic chemistry on stage, improvising and feeding on one another's energy, but they didn't seem to associate much outside the band. He was an ass to women, but for better or worse managed to find a life partner of sorts with Pamela Courson. He clearly wanted something, but what that was is a little hazy. To be truly appreciated for his art? To die? To experiment on the world? I got out of the book alive, but I'm still not sure how.

What good music biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs have you read? Any you'd like to? 

Play the game.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Reader's Diary #899- William Shakespeare: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The last Shakespeare play I reviewed was The Merchant of Venice. A couple of points I made at the time bear mentioning again.

First, I accused the modern readers who didn't see the antisemitism in the play of wanting to whitewash history. I feel that I'm risking doing the same thing with The Merchant of Venice. Certainly to read it on a surface level, it appears to be a very misogynistic play. When one of the two titular gentlemen makes unreciprocated advances towards his friend's (the other gentleman's) love interest, he threatens to take her by force if necessary. When gentleman number two (Valentine) discovers that gentleman number one (Proteus) has the hots for his girl (Sylvia), Valentine not only easily forgives Proteus, but basically offers to hand Sylvia over to him, like a piece of property.

But I want to suggest that Shakespeare was doing all of this in ironic contrast to his title. Proteus and Valentine are neither gentle, nor men. (That sounds like a topic Linda Richman would throw out to talk amongst yourself.) Without this interpretation, the characters are wholly unlikeable; they're fickle, melodramatic, and as stated above, misogynistic. Don't get me wrong, with the ironic interpretation, they're still those things, but at least the ironic reading allows us to feel better about Shakespeare and the fact that these two creeps are the stars of the show.

A second comment I made for The Merchant of Venice was that I was growing tired of Shakespeare's drag characters, saying it was a device he overdid and was a bit ridiculous that no one ever recognized the true identity. C.B.James made a good argument that Shakespeare's audiences would have had an easier time with the idea, seeing as they were already suspending their belief with the fact that all the actors at the time would have been male. The female characters would already be males in drag. But this is made more complex when, as in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a female character goes in drag as a man: it's a male playing a female playing a male.

Girls who are boys
Who like boys to be girls
Who do boys like they´re girls
Who do girls like they´re boys
Always should be someone you really love
- BLUR


For some reason I found the Two Gentlemen of Verona to be one of Shakespeare's easier reads, and I always enjoy the ones I understand more (d'uh), but I did find it hard to like the characters. It's not necessary that I do, but I was looking forward to not reading about them again.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Reader's Diary #898- Dawn Curtis: Low-Hanging Fruit

I was more than a little pleased to discover another local talent this week. Not that I "discovered" her, like I was the key to her success or anything like that, just that I was previously unaware of Dawn Curtis or her writing, though she lives right here in Yellowknife. What can I say? Sometimes Yellowknife seems like a really small place, other times it doesn't.

Anyway, "Low-Hanging Fruit" was a runner up story in WOW! the Woman on Writing Quarterly Flash Fiction Contest. It's about a teenage girl basically coming to terms with her body and becoming a woman. Needless to say, I felt like a bit of an outsider with this one, but I still enjoyed it nonetheless.

I was somewhat perplexed by the setting however. The story begins "A cantaloupe and a rutabaga." It's catchy, and a nice contrast of images (even though a rutabaga isn't a fruit), but when she goes onto talk about undoing her corset, I'm let to wonder where and when this is happening. Certainly not in Yellowknife. Any Yellowknifer modern enough to know what a cantaloupe is wouldn't be wearing a corset. Where would they have had cantaloupes and rutabagas back in the days of corsets? Italy? I settled on Italy. Later there's a mention of a Mr. Sartopolous. Okay, Greece. I wasn't too far off. But then there's a mention of Toronto at the end, so I'm not sure. Wikipedia tells me corsets started going out of fashion at about 1910. Would a teenage Greek girl at around say 1900 possibly be daydreaming about Toronto?

Who knows. Not really the point of the story. I figured this diversion was my male way of dealing with a tale that was clearly not a male story. So I read it again and paid more attention. (It's flash fiction, so a 2nd reading is easy enough to do.) I like the story. It's simple, and while there's a depressing tone, the sense of wanting out, wanting more is ripe.

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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Reader's Diary #897- Beth Goobie: Jason's Why?

Sometimes, when a novel is told in the first person, we really need to work hard to suspend our belief that such a character could actually write this book. As in, wow, who knew that on top of being a drug addicted 13 year old, Baby could also use such poetic description?

In Jason's Why, Beth Goobie tries to meet us halfway by writing in the style of a 9 year old boy. The sentences are short, almost clipped, and the vocabulary is quite simple.

I am at our living-room window. I'm waiting. I can hear my mom. She goes around our house. She goes up and down our stairs. She carries green garbage bags to the door. All my stuff is in those bags. There are three of them.

The problem, in case you can't tell, is that it makes for a rather annoying book. I'd hoped that I could adjust to the style, but I just couldn't. I'm not sure why, but I think I believed in the character even less. Perhaps it's because he's the same age as my daughter that Jason just didn't ring authentic. Granted, my daughter does well in school and comes from a loving home, whereas Jason is in a group home and is in constant trouble at school, so his writing would be different, and probably weaker. Maybe if you're going to that route you need to go all in. Have him screw up the punctuation. Spell words wrong. Or most likely it's because it came across as as adult woman assuming to know the thoughts of a nine year old boy.

To be fair, Beth Goobie has worked in treatment settings for children, so she'd have an insight most of us wouldn't have. But there were times when I just couldn't let go of that fact that this is Beth Goobie writing a novel, not Jason, and I never ended up buying in completely. When Jason describes his feelings as "a bubble of mad" it comes across as a counsellor's words. An instruction on how to visualize one's emotions. Or when the workers explain what restraints are and why they sometimes need to use one? A not so subtle clue that this is in fact a self-help book for troubled kids, not a novel at all.

It's a noble idea, I just think it wasn't executed well.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Reader's Diary #896- The New King James Version Bible: The Book of Daniel

As I trudge along through the Bible, more and more of the stories are becoming obscure. It seems like all the best known tales (Noah's ark, Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus's crucifixion) bookend the Bible. The middle seems to have been largely ignored. With some exceptions of course, such as Daniel in the den of lions and to a lesser extent, the writing on the wall.

It was good to come across such familiar stories again, but I think what I found most fascinating was the heavy emphasis on dream interpretation. In novels, I usually find dream sequences annoying. I personally believe most dreams are gibberish. However, in the Book of Daniel it was fun to see the emphasis on symbols and try to figure out what Daniel's interpretation would be before he said it.

I also found king Nebuchadnezzar to be a pretty interesting character. Powerful, but the epitome of insecurity.

Next up, the book of Hosea.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reader's Diary #895- Neil Christopher and Alan Neal, illustrated by Jonathan Wright: Ava and the Little Folk


The last time I read a Neil Christopher book, he introduced me to giant mythological beings from Inuit folklore known as the amautalik.This time he once again highlights Inuit legends previously unknown to me. I swear I listened for such stories when I lived in Nunavut, but I guess I still had lots to hear. Better late than never I guess.

In Ava and the Little Folk, the mythological beings are the Inugarulligaarjuit. As Christopher points out in the introduction, they have different names for them in different regions around the north, but there were still some similarities in their characteristics: they were great hunters, could persuade the weather to change, could walk through rock, and were little. I was reminded of the intro to Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl in which they discussed the popularity of fairies and like-folk around the world. An important distinction with the Inugarulligaarjuit is that they were little by choice. It seems that they can also change their size at will, which would give them an entirely different outlook on their surroundings and life.

But this is also the story of Ava, an Inuk boy, who feels ostracized from his village. He first encounters the little folk as he wanders away looking for solitude. The little people wind up teaching Ava valuable lessons in confidence and acceptance, and eventually take Ava in as one of their own. It was a curious ending and at first I was a little nonplussed that there didn't seem to be a resolution with Ava's original village. Did they ever miss him? Wonder where he went? Regret the way they had treated him? But when I considered how open and accepted adoption was in the Inuit towns I've lived in, I kind of saw this as an adoption story. Ava found a family that could and would love him and that was all that really mattered.

If it all sounds feel-goody, preachy, or heavy, it's better than that. There's also a lot of humour in the book. For instance, when Ava first meets a tiny Inugarulligaarjuk man, he's at a loss for words.
"You... you're... you're a..." Ava stammered in belief.

"That's right," the tiny man said, stabbing the ground with his spear. "I'm a hunter."

"But you're so..." Ava's hands darted around in the air as he tried to find the words. The stranger's eyes followed the hand movements calmly. "You're so..."

"So well-dressed?" The man shrugged, stretching out his arm. "My wife is a talented seamstress."

The only problem I have with the book— and it's similar to my issues with Stories of the Amautilik— is the imbalance of text and illustrations. Jonathan Wright's watercolours are beautiful. However, for every illustration there's an accompanying page filled with lines and lines of text, tiny font text. It would be a very awkward read aloud. Still, for those that like that to read by themselves and are still open to picture books, the story is well told and entertaining.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Reader's Diary #894- Eric Wilson: The Inuk Mountie Adventure

When I was a teenager we used to think it was hilarious to mock those public service announcements aimed at age group and instructing us on how to deal with peer pressure. "Come ONNNNNN!" someone would sneer, "EVERYbody is doing it." They'd hand you a cigarette. "It'll make you look OLDER." As if anyone ever said that. We may have been young, and we didn't always make the best decisions, but we even we could sense and scoff at melodrama. Did adults believe we were incapable of subtlety?

It was an important recollection for me as I came close to letting Eric Wilson off the hook for my lack of enthusiasm towards his YA novel The Inuk Mountie Adventure. I almost caught myself saying, "yes, but young teens would probably find this exciting," which would have sold them short.

When a southern author decides to write about the North, I think my gut instinct is to assume they'll get the facts wrong. I'm not sure why that is. More often than not, the authors have done their research. In this Wilson is no exception. According to the "About the Author" page at the back, he did actually travel to Gjoa Haven (then part of the Northwest Territories, now part of Nunavut) in order to research the setting. That part rings true.

Unfortunately it's the only part that rings true. The Inuk Mountie Adventure involves a prime minister who has somehow managed to convince Canadian voters that they should amalgamate the country with the United States. He has ulterior motives but has gone through great lengths to keep them hidden. Too bad for him, there's a damning micro-cassette in Gjoa Haven with more than enough evidence to not only bring the amalgamation to an end, but to put the prime minister behind bars. It's up to Scooby and the gang, Tom Austen, a teenager who happens to be visiting the northern hamlet for a school trip, to find it. If that's not far-fetched enough, characters say cliched things like, "You lousy no-good Eskimo" and "my people value emotional maturity." Not that racism doesn't exist and not that an Inuk couldn't discuss cultural wisdom, but with Wilson's heavy handed approach it all comes across as disingenuous as those PSAs I spoke of earlier. It's all so very cheesy. There's also not much of a mystery; you can smell the red herring from a mile away and the real villain is so painfully obvious, it makes you question why this gullible Tom Austen kid is the star of his own series.

But, I'll give some credit. Like Robert Munsch (of whose writing I also have some issues), it's admirable that Wilson has chosen to set his books in various locations across Canada. And, if kids are okay with over-the-top plots and hackneyed dialogue, they'll probably also learn from Wilson's in depth research.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Reader's Diary #893- Sharon E. McKay: Charlie Wilcox

Earlier this year, my family and I had a wonderful opportunity to visit the battlefields of France. As a Newfoundlander, our first stop was Beaumont Hamel. (You can read more about that trip and see some photos here.) With those memories in mind and with Remembrance Day in November, I decided on Sharon E. McKay's Charlie Wilcox as my most recent read-aloud with my daughter.

Charlie Wilcox is about a Newfoundland boy who decides to stowaway on what he believes to be a sealing vessel heading for the ice floes. Instead he winds up at Beaumont Hamel, France during World War One.

It's a fantastic story, with a titular character that is likeable in his bravery and determination, but flawed in his naivete. It's a coming of age story, but no more so than most war stories. Who could make it through a war and remain the same person? At first I thought it was slow to begin, with the book almost half over before he stows away, but my daughter remained interested and in hindsight it was probably necessary. With a back story about Charlie, his clubbed foot operation, and his father's legacy, it lends a little more credibility to Charlie's stubborn persistence. War isn't really on his mind at all for this part of the book, which is not only realistic, but makes the coming shock all the greater. When Charlie does arrive at that fatal day, when approximately 90% of the Newfoundland Regiment is wiped out, McKay doesn't hold back. It's important that the young people who read this hear the truth. My daughter remarked several times that she doesn't get war. Good.

Often reading a book I feel like I can envision it as a movie. Yet for Charlie Wilcox, I kept thinking it would make a great play. I'm not sure why this was. Maybe there weren't a lot of scene changes? In any case, when I looked into later, I discovered that someone else must have had similar ideas. Apparently Geoff Adams of Clarenville's New Curtain Theatre Company turned Charlie Wilcox and its sequel Charlie Wilcox's Great War into a stage production. I'd love to see that.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Reader's Diary #892- Isaac Asimov: The Machine That Won the War

Isaac Asimov's "The Machine That Won the War" is set inside a giant computer named Multivac, which doubles as a military headquarters. In this regard, the story clearly shows it's age. The danger of aging sci-fi to be this wildly off the mark.

But surface details aside, "The Machine That Won the War" could still resonate today, even with the varying interpretations one could make of the enigmatic parable. Basically this is a story about how the humans used a computer to finally wage a successful war against the alien Denebians. Or did they use the computer?

At least one interpretation could be that decisions, including moral decisions, ultimately come back to people and we are the machinery that will always be in control. Some might regard this as a happy message.

But it's what's not said that I found more compelling. Who were the Denebians and was there really no other way to end the conflict? Can it really be a good thing how flippantly the men went all renegade? What will be the long term consequences of all this? It would not be difficult to replace Multivac with parliament, the senate, or the house, though whether or not the few who take matters into their own hands are heroes depends on the outcome. Of course a secondary outcome that will have to be addressed as time goes on is that a positive primary outcome makes you question the whole machine in the first place.

Asimov certainly gives us a lot to ponder with this one.

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

Thursday, November 08, 2012

I'm part of the .002% - I've won a major award!

File this under odd news. This week I was contacted by a woman who told me that I was to receive a diamond jubilee medal. Sorry, Diamond Jubilee Medal. What for? Because of my commitment to promoting Canadian lit to fellow Canadians and the world at large. Well, I'll be.

My first reaction, I'll admit, wasn't one of great honour. I'm a pretty steadfast anti-monarchist (no, I didn't rush out to see Will and Kate when they visited last year) and there were 60,000 of those babies up for grabs-- more than the mintage of some commemorative coins.

I was still going to go and get it, don't get me wrong, but I've had to do some fancy knot-tying in my morals to convince myself I wasn't a hypocrite. Here's how I managed. I discovered that the nomination came from a close friend of mine (who is a monarchist, by the way, proving we can all grow together in a spirit of harmony and peace). He felt what I was doing with my blog was worth recognition and so it would have been pretty ungrateful for me to decline. I joked that I would show up in a Sex Pistols t-shirt but in the end settled for a tie. But again, all for my friend. Right.

I also decided that while I don't like all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the royals— as a former catering staff I once refused to serve Adrienne Clarkson's table because I wouldn't bow to her— I kind of like the Diamond Jubilee Medal. I know of course that it was merely an attempt to keep the Queen relevant, but the idea of Canadians celebrating in each others' accomplishments is nice. Something we should have been doing without the Queen, but nice nonetheless. (We'll ignore all those controversial nominations for the sake of this post.)

According to the speech that was read for me, I was honoured for the Canadian Book Challenge, my blog in general, my contributions to Canadian lit discussions, and my appearance on CBC's Canada Reads... um, what? I think they must have meant when I was a panelist for the National Post's Canada Also Reads, but close enough.

Here's a few poor quality photos that even Instagram couldn't shiny up:
Accepting my medal from premier Bob McLeod

With the premier and my MLA, Wendy Bisaro

I wasn't the only one?! (A full list of the Yellowknifers who received a medal yesterday can be found here.)

Must be a better way to add that baby to the blog banner

Making peace

The heft of my hypocrisy

Smile!


Okay, my friend made me take this one. I swear!


Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Reader's Diary #891- Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin: Tank Girl One

Way back in my university days, we were all given university email addresses. It was then I first dabbled in spamming. Well, not spamming exactly because I didn't send to large numbers by true spamming standards, but I did send out a lot of unsolicited emails. I wasn't selling something or trying to start a chain letter, I was sending out random pieces of my writing. It predated blogs so I guess I just wanted to have a way to be published without going through the real channels.

All of the stories revolved around a fictional character named King Smo. (The name having come from someone's clever rearrangement of letters in a "No Smoking" sign posted in the chemistry building cafeteria, where I usually ate lunch.) They were nonsensical, often offensive, filled with plagiarized bits of pop culture, self-aware, self-deprecating, and juvenile. I, of course, thought they were hilarious.

I was reminded of these while reading Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin's Tank Girl 1, a collection of comics about a beer-swilling, hyperactive, unclassy, cool, confident, Australian girl who— you guessed it— drives a tank. About halfway in I was growing bored and confused so I decided to see if the internet might explain what all the hype was about. It had popped up in a lot of "best graphic novels" lists, so I figured people must have had their reasons. On Wikipedia it was this sentence that had me harkening back to the mid 90s adventures of King Smo:
The strip features [...] stream of consciousness, and metafiction, with very little regard or interest for conventional plot or committed narrative.
Given that frame of mind, I thought I'd be able to enjoy it more. It was exactly like my old King Smo stories. If I could just get my head back in my late teenage years, surely this would be more enjoyable.

Alas, that's easier said than done. I've no doubt that the John of '96 would of thought Tank Girl hysterical and the best thing since ever, but the 2012 John finds it all a little self-indulgent; filled with in jokes and trying too hard to define cool for everyone else.

However, what King Smo didn't have was kick-ass cartooning backing him up. The art-work in Tank Girl is very punk and every frame meticulously and stylistically drawn down to the finest detail. '96 John would have recreated it on his wall, coloured it neon and lit it with black lights. 2012 John isn't going to do that, but unlike the writing, he can at least still appreciate it.

(On an interesting side note, artist Jamie Hewlett went on to co-found Gorillaz with Damon Albarn.)

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Literary Characters A-Z (New Sporcle Games!)

Hi folks! Try my new Sporcle series by following the links below. If you like it, please give it 5 stars, favourite it, and all that jazz. If you don't like it, keep your mouth shut.

A
B
C
D
E
F
G
H
I
J
K
L
M
N
O
P
Q
R
S
T
U
V
W
X
Y
Z

Reader's Diary #890- Reneltta Arluk: Thoughts and Other Human Tendencies


When I saw how the good folks at CBC had divided up the country for this year's Canada Reads competition, I was at first disappointed to see how the North was handled. The Yukon was lumped in with British Columbia, while Nunavut and the Northwest Territories had to share with all three prairie provinces. It's now whittled down to the top 5 books from each region, leaving only Ivan E. Coyote to represent the Yukon, Elizabeth Hay to represent the Northwest Territories and no one for Nunavut. I still think they could have combined the territories into one Northern choice, but if I'm being honest it really would have been slim pickings. Not that the writing we get here isn't good, we just don't get a lot of writing! What we do get is mostly of the nonfiction variety and therefore would have been ineligible for this year's Canada Reads anyway.

So, when someone like Northwest Territories-born Reneltta Arluk comes along with a new book, a book of poetry no less, I get excited. I want to like it. I want to praise it from the high heavens. But about half way through Thoughts and Other Human Tendencies I finally conceded that I wasn't enjoying it, no matter how much I tried.

I like free form verse as much as I like form poetry, but I don't happen to believe no thought should go into the arrangement. With a few exceptions, the poems in Thoughts and Other Human Tendencies appear to be random thoughts and observations with a "poetic looking" approach to line breaks and punctuation. In Arluk's poetry there seems to be a lot of self-indulgence and pretension. She throws everything at the wall and tells us it has stuck. Sort of a Jackson Pollock approach to poetry? The problem is, we're never shown the wall and I'm not sure there's anything there. Worse than not putting much thought into the arrangement, I'm not convinced Arluk had a clear message in mind herself. That sounds profound, let them decide what it means. I believe readers, especially readers of poetry, should put some effort into it. Maybe we won't always come up with the same message as each other, or as the poet intended, but we should be able to arrive at something. And something specific. Otherwise, we'll just decipher our own thoughts.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Reader's Diary #889- Josef Essberger: The Winepress



After a month of horror stories for October I was looking forward to a break in November. Instead I decided to resume my short story globetrotting and went looking for something from Madagascar. It was then I came across "The Winepress" by Josef Essberger. While the author is British (I believe), it's set partially in France, partially in Madagascar. But, with a rather macabre plot, it could have easily fit into October's Halloween theme.

Nonetheless, I quite enjoyed it. It reminded me of Poe (as it did many others if you read the comments), which is somewhat strange considering it's by a modern author. Stranger still when it's posted on a site dedicated to learners and teachers of English. English is clearly my first language but I even added a few words to my vocabulary while reading it. In any case, it comes across as a legitimate short story (versus one written merely to teach someone English).

It's a story about a man, the Count de Gruse, entertaining guests at his place in Paris, recounting a tale told to him by a winegrower who had spent some time in Madagascar where the winegrower had met his wife. It has a bit of a twist at the end, but given that the Count de Gruse doesn't appear to really like his guests, Essberger wisely leaves open the possibility that he is an unreliable narrator.

Enjoy it with a glass of wine. Red wine.

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

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Reader's Diary #888- William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare is an interesting play, even if flawed and anti semitic. It's a story about a debt unpaid and a loan shark who is out for blood. This is very simplified, of course. There's also a marriage and a whole lot of religious intolerance and stereotyping.

Flawed is a matter of opinion but I would suggest that some elements were clear pandering to his audience. Specifically, the cross-dressing bit at the end. For some reason, Portia appears dressed as a male lawyer at the end. It's clearly just a plot convenience, an excuse to have a character in drag, when a an actual male lawyer could have made the very same points as she does. It's overdone in Shakespearean plays and more than a little silly that no one ever recognizes the person in disguise. Like Clark Kent's glasses.

One thing I found interesting was a bit about Portia's suitors having to choose the correct casket (between one filled with gold, silver, or lead) to win her hand in marriage. While I'm not sure of the logic as to why lead was the correct choice, it made me think of how often these kind of choices have appeared in literature, movies, and TV shows ever since. As for the anti semitism, I just knew that I'd be able to look online and find someone suggesting that that wasn't the case. We can't acknowledge that such a cultural and literary icon as Shakespeare may have disliked Jewish people, now can we? It does give me some hope that those who wish to whitewash history are in the minority and the majority seem to agree that yes, The Merchant of Venice with its stereotypically greedy Jewish Shylock character is anti semitic. The best defense one could give of the play is that at least Shylock has the opportunity, during his famous "hath not a Jew eyes" speech, to suggest that the Christians aren't much different.