Archive for ‘reviews’

February 17, 2011

Book Review: The Witness House by Christiane Kohl

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THE WITNESS HOUSE
by Christiane Kohl

Other Press
(October 2010, $14.95, 272 pages)

What would happen if Hitler’s right hand men shacked up under the same roof as Holocaust victims? It’s actually a true story and is told in The Witness House, by Christiane Kohl.

The Witness House takes place during the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, after the fall of the Third Reich. Accommodated in Novalisstrasse, a boarding house on the outskirts of Nuremberg, are witnesses for both the prosecution and the defence of the Nazi regime’s war crime trial. Mediating opposing viewpoints in Novalisstrasse is Countess Ingeborg Kálnoky, a local appointed by American liberation troops. At the Countess’s every beck and call is Elise Krülle, Novalisstrasse’s chambermaid and waitress.

It’s interesting to see the level of intellect Nazi devotees have in this story. For example, Rudolf Diels, the first to head the Gestapo, claims he was never a Hitler supporter. He perpetuates the guise by acting like a ladies man as he attempts to charm the Countess by kissing her hand, among other flirtatious moves, but Kálnoky knows that Diels is a dangerous man and is on “room arrest” for a reason.

Erwin Lahousen also projects an air of mystery. He was on the front line during the war, often close to Hitler, but he claims he was a member of the Resistance and that he came inches from murdering the head of the Nazi party.

The Witness House offers lively scenes begging for analysis. For instance, Countess Kálnoky acts as a middleman between Lahousen and Hoffman, Hitler’s personal photographer and close friend. Lahousen is in need of soap and razors, scarce items in post-war Germany, which Hoffman has stashed away. The Countess cons these items into her possession and then passes them on to Lahousen. You can only ask, when would this ever happen in the outside world?

Kohl’s research into wartime Germany and the Nuremberg trials offers moments of serious awakening. Gerhard Krülle, the chambermaid’s teenage son, grew up as a hypnotised Hitler youth. He tells of how, under the regime, he believed in the Fuhrer but was rudely awakened when National Socialism fell and his mentor was exposed as a war criminal. The propaganda young Germans faced is a viewpoint rarely exposed and it is worth reflecting upon.

Concentration camp life is also revealed. Stories of SS brothels run by Nazi soldiers sicken the reader and shed light on a part of the war we try not to think about. The most gruesome scene comes by way of French prisoner Maurice Lampe. He witnessed political prisoners “forced to keep carrying heavy blocks of stone up [. . .] steps. One after another, the men had collapsed, and soon the stairway was covered with blood and corpses.”

Aside from telltale violence, it is the absurd which gives you nightmares. Stories of “daily roll calls, often lasting for hours, when the prisoners were ordered ‘Caps off!’ or ‘Caps on!’ again and again”; in the Mauthausen camp, “a macabre execution scene that [. . .] had been accompanied by music from a gypsy band forced to play the melody of ‘J’attendrai’ (‘I will wait’)” raises your neck hair.

Down the line, getting all the way through The Witness House becomes an uphill struggle. For the first half, and a good chunk of the second, each chapter focuses on a new arrival at the house. The writing is vibrant, the characters animated, but you find yourself fidgeting in anticipation of when the exposé will cease, and hoping a climactic fever will finally overcome redundancy. However, you shake the blues near the end, when some of the most dark stories of Nazi Germany are revealed. At times you really are amazed at the similarity to fiction this true story has.

– review by John Coleman

February 14, 2011

Book Review: A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

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A WIDOW’S STORY: A MEMOIR
by Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco
(February 2011, $27.99, 432 pages)

It is a rare opportunity to gain an honest glimpse into the private life of a public persona. When it happens, the reveal is often surprising because the discovery of the “real” life is quite different from the character known to the public. Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir of her husband’s unexpected death and the aftermath of grief over her loss is a deeply personal and honest look at her submersion into the ill-defined world of present-day widowhood.

In 1961, after a brief courtship and at the tender age of 23, Oates married the love of her life, Raymond J. Smith, in Madison, Wisconsin. Their marriage was her foundation for nearly 50 years. In her private life, she was Joyce Smith. She and Ray shared a deeply loving marriage marred by few upheavals, trials or separations. Their academic careers mirrored, they often taught in the same universities or at colleges located close together. In 1974 they founded a literary magazine, The Ontario Review and its publishing house The Ontario Review Books. Ray left academia to become editor of The Ontario Review and while Joyce continued to teach and write, she also took on the role of an associate editor. Their union, by her own definition was, “a marriage of like minds.”

A Widow’s Story begins with Ray’s hospitalization for pneumonia at Princeton Medical Center. Ray, an editor, runner, writer and husband, had been in good, if not excellent health, for all of his 68 years. His bout with pneumonia, requiring hospitalization, was unexpected but not catastrophic. Both patient and wife expected a speedy discharge with life quickly returning to its happy and peaceful domesticity. Oates was blindsided by the rapid decline of her husband’s illness: heart arrhythmia, admission to the Cardiac Care Unit and the close monitoring of low oxygen levels. Throughout, she expected that he was going to rally and return to his usual healthy state. However, within the week Ray was dead of a rare but deadly hospital acquired infection, E coli bacterial pneumonia. Ray’s sudden, brutal and unexpected death unceremoniously threw Oates into a panicked state of widowhood. She tried desperately to comprehend the wrenching loss of her husband.

Oates’ widowhood is dark, full of grief and provides a frank look at the abyss of absence. Her observations mirror some of the bleak themes she has explored in her own writing as her author-self, Joyce Carol Oats, to whom she refers to as JCO. A Widow’s Story is deeply personal and painful to read because it describes a wrenching end of a loving marriage. We as readers experience a Pandora’s Box of the unexpected and unwanted as she writes about the aftermath of death and of a life she never expected, wanted, or planned.

Ray was her life. They had only each other; there were no children, just two cats and a garden, (mostly Ray’s cats and Ray’s garden). She compartmentalizes the year following his death into 5 distinct periods of time: I. The Vigil, II. Free Fall, III. The Basilisk, IV. Purgatory, Hell, V. “You Looked So Happy”.

Oates is brutally honest with her reflections and recollections and she writes with a rawness that thankfully lacks self-deprecation or the canonization of the departed. She is truthful in her fear that she may not be able to carry on and writes poignantly about the difficulty of daily tasks and of wearing a brave face. Equally, she’s brutally honest about her perception of living up to others’ expectations of her as The Widow. Her grief does not follow any predictable stages. She is able travel and give speeches within a week of Ray’s death but she is unable to write. She cannot sleep, although she is perpetually exhausted. She keeps an exact inventory of pain pills, anti-anxiety pills and sleeping pills and, in the beginning of her life without Ray, she thinks often of making a quick and peaceful exit from her own painful existence. She has flashbacks of his death, she dreams that he is alive and she feels she is being watched by a reptilian creature who wants her to die. This honest recount of raw grief is painful, wrenching and lonely.

A Widow’s Story is not only a memoir; it is also a social commentary on widowhood in the 21st century where there are no set rules. The formalities that mark the phases of widowhood are nebulous and isolating. Oates finds herself buried in food baskets she can’t consume and plants she can’t care for. She is never able to write acknowledgements of Ray’s death nor can she even pick up the phone. Her most uplifting and meaningful correspondences are via e-mail. Oates takes a very difficult look into the modern age of widowhood, speaking to the greater societal issue of avoidance and of the compartmentalization of people who are no longer part of what was once a comfortable whole.

Yet, A Widow’s Story is not without humor and light: lives well-lived and full of love must have their glory. Thankfully, Oates reveals many of her beloved husband’s traits, characteristics and talents. She is able to describe the Ray she knew, lived with and loved for almost 50 years. She recognizes that while it is painful to imagine the loss, it is also an honor to share in the life. Her year ends with hope and with a small kernel of insight which reveals that grief, even fathomless and unimaginable grief of love lost, is worth wading through. Life will go on.

Sweetman

February 7, 2011

Book Review: Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

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SHADOW TAG
by Louise Erdrich

Harper Collins
(February 2011 pb, $14.99 , 272 pages)

We once lived next door to some rather inscrutable neighbors: friendly enough when caught in the driveway for a quick hello, but otherwise cool and aloof. Occasionally, we’d catch glimpses of their interior lives – a tearful phone conversation on the patio, voices raised in argument, a slammed car door and the racing engine of a hasty departure. There seemed no way to inquire about their well-being, to offer a hand, or a thoughtful word. They kept their distance quite efficiently. They never wanted to connect, never offered to reciprocate after we initiated the social niceties. But how much did we really want to know anyway? How much should we know? Where did they end and we begin?

Reading Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag is a bit like looking too long over the inscrutable neighbors’ fence. It feels like you shouldn’t pry, yet it explains so much. The irony in Shadow Tag – one of many – is that Erdrich’s main characters, the artist Gil and his wife, Irene, have become strangers to each other within their own home, erecting careful facades, putting together each other’s stories from miscues – and in Irene’s case, intentionally misleading clues.

Erdrich’s character development draws the reader in the same way looking too long over the fence might; you don’t want to keep listening, but you want to know – need to know – what’s happening and why. Although I don’t typically care for indirect third person dialogue (sans quotation marks in this case) it’s an effective device for the terse, tense nature of Gil and Irene’s marriage. The distancing created by the third person is akin to hearing a conversation through a wall instead of being in the same room with the speakers. When Irene meets her half-sister in a restaurant, it’s as if you’re in a neighboring booth, lacking context or facial expressions; it’s just a vignette of voices.

 

 

The line between internal thought and external dialog is blurred in Shadow Tag. Without quotation marks it all becomes one long stream of consciousness, flowing seamlessly from journals, to thought, to conversation and back – one big head game. Time is fluid in the novel. The past informs the present, the present puts the past in perspective and the story flows between histories both personal and cultural. Shadow Tag functions as art history, too, a gallery of arcane knowledge about paints, colors, and artists.

But mostly, it’s a literary portrait of a family in turmoil, framed by the ethnic and popular culture of their times. History must have a narrative, Irene says at one point. Shadow Tag is the narrative that brings her and her family to life and also puts the reader at a safe distance, though perhaps too safe a distance. With no frame of reference for the Native American cultural issues – it took me a few page rereads to figure out what “enrollment” meant with respect to tribes – and the third person dialog that never quite lets readers into the conversation, or fully invites them into the experience, I found it hard to connect with the story or find some commonality with the characters. Not that you’d necessarily want to be part of their experience, which is a generally dark and dysfunctional one with a somewhat predictable outcome.

While I think the book is well written, I don’t feel that I took away anything of value from it. I didn’t find it transformative in any sense, nor was it particularly enlightening or escapist in the way of taking me on a journey of self-discovery, intellectual revelation or entertainment. I found much of the story frustrating. Although perhaps, like a game of shadow tag, you take away from Erdrich’s novel only as much as you’re able to make out in the dim light of the characters’ lives, what you’re able to piece together watching from the periphery of their existence, and then perhaps only within the framework of your own family history.

In the end, I found Shadow Tag masterful, but depressing. But maybe that’s how it is when you look over the neighbor’s fence too long.

Theresa Willingham

February 1, 2011

Music Review: Warpaint’s The Fool

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Warpaint
The Fool

Rough-Trade Records, 2010

It’s a struggle to get a sense of how LA hipster-garage outfit Warpaint pull off such a provocative offering on their first full-length record, The Fool, released in October. The Fool does nothing less than hypnotise with a blinding trip-factor of layered, reverb-drenched guitar harmonies and rhythm structures so intricate and entrancing there are points when even the most straight-edge scenester will worry about being slipped a hit of acid.

Albeit Fool and Warpaint’s other release, 2009’s mass-hailed EP Exquisite Corpse, were produced by ex-Chili Pepper John Frusciante, which explains the clean, surfy approach, but there’s more to dropping distortion that makes this band so admirable.

Warpaint’s sound is an eclectic mash-up of influences unbelievably encompassing a pop-music past that is misconstrued and re-sorted into a Picasso-esque offering. Yes, Warpaint hits the epitome of what post-modern rock and post-punk represents right now much more than all their LA and London buddies, who only tend to recycle what the last guys did.

The mark of this prophet is in influence. “Undertow”, Fool’s poppiest tune, has distinct shades of sixties, Luv’d Ones style girl-garage with a foundation of traditional chords and psychedelic vocals. (Somehow, the song even makes a two-word Nirvana reference, right?)

Elsewhere more influences bleed through the facade, favourably on “Baby” and “Shadows” which obliquely play on Johnny Thunders’s near-folk but drearily alt-acoustic style. You can just see Emily Kokal strumming away in a manly fedora as a 70’s tranny-punk inverse. Nerds rejoice, these and countless other oldschool markings, embedded deep in Fool and barred only by slight mocking flair, impress beyond belief.

But aside from being clear rock ‘n’ roll high school grads, Warpaint has a stark sense of originality. With nine five minute-plus songs that spread over two LPs, Fool subdues your stream of thought with convoluted leads and complex rhythms rooted firmly in bass-laden foundation. The sharp-toothed guitar tone is the most unique approach in the LA alt-cum-indie scene yet.

Almost to downplay its freshness, numerous areas of Fool – notably on tracks like “Undertow” and “Set Your Arms Down” – are radio friendly. But, like on every track, the near indefinable Warpaint-ness eventually illumines. “Composure” wittily hints at an overwhelming clash with familiarity; Kokal proclaims “How can I keep my composure? “ amidst guitar leads so reverberated, the panicky thought mirrors the sound, emphasizing the disconnect from structure.

It’s tough not to envision the women of Warpaint – Theresa Wayman, Jenny Lee Lindberg, Stella Mozgawa and Kokal – as a cliquey gang, locked up in a members-only clubhouse, working away at their very own Rumours amidst scattered records, ashtrays and herbal tea. Obsessively concerned with reinventing, there isn’t a moment on Fool where you will say, Nah, I’ve heard that before. I can butter it up to no end but Fool is what modern music needs to be catchy, knowledgeable, but above all, new.

John Coleman

January 12, 2011

Book Review: Stitches by David Small

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STITCHES: A MEMOIR
by David Small

W. W. Norton Company
(September 2010 paperback, $14.95, 329 pages)

In the well done graphic novel the story surpasses both words and illustrations. With Stitches, David Small brilliantly writes and illustrates such a graphic novel.

Stitches is a sad autobiographical tale of Small’s childhood in Detroit, Michigan in the 1950s and the bulk of it is drawn from the memory of boy from age 6 to 15. A child of a wretchedly unhappy home where furious silences speak louder than screaming fights, the reader enters a world in which a mother’s silent fury is realized by a cough, a slam of a cabinet or the placement of a fork on the dinner table. For reasons unknown to Small as a child, his mother sets the dour tone of the household for hours, days or weeks at a time.

The youngest son of a radiologist father and a 1950’s housewife mother, Small brilliantly illustrates the tale of his neglected youth as a byproduct of his parents miserably unhappy marriage. Because words are never assigned to the deep unhappiness that envelopes his childhood, each family member develops a language to process the frustration and anger. Small’s father beats a punching bag in the basement. His older brother Ted bangs on his drums. Small gets sick. Born an irritable baby prone to bouts of colic and respiratory illness, he gets home-treated with shots, medicine and enemas. Thanks to the marvels of 1950’s medicine he also receives multiple sessions of high dosage radiation therapy for his sinusitis, administered by his father.

A growth appears on Small’s neck at age 11. Brought to attention by a friend of his mother, it takes three years for his parents to actually pursue diagnosis and treatment. The growth turns out to be a malignant tumor due to the repeated radiation exposure. This truth he discoverers on his own rather than being told. He undergoes radical neck surgery. His right vocal chord is cut and he is left without a voice. The surgery leaves his, “smooth young throat slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot.” Small struggles to find a voice and to conquer the demons of his youth.

This is a jarring tale. However, it manages to avoid the maudlin pitfalls of the “survivor” who overcomes tragic odds. It does not make Small a stereotypical “hero” who conquers the demons of his past. These are the all-too predictable pitfalls in many graphic novels. Instead, this tale is a truthful look at a painful past. With insight, Stitches illustrates memories of place and time which take the reader into Small’s consciousness. At times whimsical and magical, then is suddenly devastatingly sad and harsh, Stitches is moving yet it is never burdened with self-pity, or miraculously, with spite.

Small’s ink lines and washes are masterful. His use of space and expression illustrate volumes of words that are never spoken. He perfectly captures adult expressions from the eyes and understanding of a child: his mother’s crushing fury, his father’s aloof distance, his grandmother’s inconceivable insanity, a disapproving and confused frown from his parents friends and the kind eyes of his psychiatrist. Minimal use of ink and dialogue paint the greater picture of Small’s vulnerability during his childhood. Small remarkably and exquisitely captures the essence of the time and place without imparting distorted feelings or superimposing adult interpretations. This cathartic memoir of deep, disturbing loss is ultimately a testament of acceptance, forgiveness and moving on.

– reviewed by Sweetman

January 8, 2011

Book Review: This Book Is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson

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THIS BOOK IS OVERDUE: HOW LIBRARIANS AND CYBRARIANS CAN SAVE US ALL
by Marilyn Johnson

Harper Perennial
January 2011 (paperback), $14.99, 304 pages)

I’ve often wondered what would happen to libraries in a world with instant online access, so I selected This Book Is Overdue with high expectations. Marilyn Johnson begins with a brief historical example and an explanation of how librarians have helped libraries (and, especially, their patrons) adapt to this ever-changing online environment.

The first few chapters are full of stories from librarians illustrating their invaluable knowledge that a computer alone cannot provide, from helping the unemployed create resumes (usually people who have never even heard of resumes) to making themselves available to answer questions 24/7 through web blogs. The chapter, “Big Brother and the Holdout Company,” was extremely disturbing. I didn’t know about the gag-order on librarians during the debates on the U.S.A. Patriot Act until I read this book. If you value your privacy and you live in the U.S, you will find this chapter relevant to your life. Similarly, the chapter “Gotham City” was a fascinating revelation into information about librarians not known outside the field.

Another chapter, “How to Change the World” showed how some librarians use technology to improve the quality of life in less-fortunate countries. Though interesting, this chapter didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the book because it was focused mostly on available technology – not unlike an infomercial. I almost felt like I was reading another book entirely.

After that, the author seemed to wander away from the direction she established in the beginning. She spends several chapters making a big deal about librarians who don’t look like the stereotype: blue hair, tattoos, using obscenities, etc. Had Johnson stuck to the transitional experiences of librarians, especially in regard to the modernization of libraries and librarians’ personal dedication to sharing knowledge, instead of sensationalizing the career by discussing topics like librarians who enjoy swearing, I wouldn’t think this book was such a huge disservice to librarians and library science.

I want to make sure people understand that my review is not a reflection of my opinion of librarians (I worked in a library for nearly five years). Unfortunately, This Book is Overdue lacked a serious focus, and strayed from the product description. Instead, if you love libraries, Library: An Unquiet History is a better choice.

– review by Ursula K. Raphael

January 4, 2011

Book Review: The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe

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THE ELFISH GENE:
DUNGEONS, DRAGONS AND GROWING UP STRANGE
by Mark Barrowcliffe

Soho Press, Inc.
(November 2009, $14, 288 pages)

I have a confession. While in high school during the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was fascinated by odd, awkward and distant boys who played Dungeons & Dragons, fascinated almost to the point of a forbidden crush. They were so different, marching around in heavy black trench coats and big black boots. They avoided attention because it was usually derogatory and spoke to each other in a sophisticated nearly foreign language about things of which I could relate only vaguely back to J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. They seemed to possess a knowledge of a secret world which buoyed them during the boring and sometimes cruel existence of life as a teen on the outside of normalcy.

The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe brought me back into the secret world that I had wondered about. This memoir is a lively, honest, hilarious and at times heartbreaking recount of Barrowcliffe’s adolescence as a committed Dungeons & Dragons Gamer.

At age 12, Mark Barrowcliffe chose an obscure path of wizard, warrior, evil priest or dwarf over the the more conventional path of typical rebellion. He didn’t tread lightly. He dove right in and immersed himself entirely in a world where the socially awkward boy from Coventry, England became Alf the Elf, Foghat the Gnome or Effilc Worrab, an elf warrior with the head of a mule.

Barrowcliffe describes his total preoccupation with Dungeons & Dragons as, “an obsession, a way for damaged people to damage themselves further.” The Dungeons & Dragons game became a connecting lifeline for ostracized, similarly obsessed dweebs in the mid-1970s. It was an unprecedented narrative story game that armed the players with paper, pencils, oddly shaped dice and exquisite imagination. The game typically went on for days, which for the school-aged Barrowcliffe, was from Friday afternoon to mid-Sunday afternoon. He played non-stop with a cast of memorable characters, including the most remarkable, Billy, who welcomed Barrowcliffe to the gaming table with, “Sit down between the wind and his nobility!” He then let out an enormous fart.

The Eflish Gene exposes the world of geeks and role-playing gamers. Barrowcliffe spares no humility; he was the lowest echelon in his world. His frank, self-deprecating observations of his own annoying mannerisms and over-the-top enthusiasm while playing are amusing. The responses and reactions of the other players to Barrowcliffe’s Alf the Elf are cruelly entertaining. The unforgettable characters live for the secret world of superior knowledge. They are smug in their sequestered realm which is in reality just an escape from the cruel world of normalcy. It was boys’ world because there were no girl players. Girls would destroy the game. It was a world of “bullied, power hungry twerps with no discernible skills and absolutely no hope of a girlfriend.”

Girls ultimately provide the escape ladder for Barrowcliffe’s painful extraction from the fantasy obsession of his awkward youth. The recount of his extraction from the world of Dungeons & Dragons and its circle of cloistered misfits is a bit sad yet necessary in order to for him to successfully navigate the real world. Typical of most superior-minded nerds, he takes on a tone of snide disdain when revisiting the Dungeons & Dragons gaming tables. Perhaps this is a reflection of wasted youth? Regardless, reading about this fantasy world of war gaming geeks is well worth the time spent.

Sweetman

December 25, 2010

Don’t Read These Books: Our Least Favorites of 2010

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BY THIS ZINE STAFF

“Best Of” and “Favorites” lists have been coming out all month long (we published our own yesterday), but what about the worst books of the year? For a cheat sheet on which books to avoid, check out our least favorites of 2010.

 


JOHN COLEMAN
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
A good attempt at a fresh Holocaust story, but the book’s hefty devotion to an inner-story play turns it into a train wreck. Martel should have done like his character and written an essay on revitalising Holocaust representation instead of attempting to depict it.

C by Tom McCarthy
McCarthy needs to get out of the Victorian era if he wants the new generation to read his books.

In addition, John’s “on the fence” about David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris : A relevant and needed look at the lives of war parents. Although not as drab as Martel's 2010 offering, there are times when Morris whines about his life in excess. If you don't want to read about male menopause, don't read Morris.

 

SWEETMAN
Sweetman’s 2010 Hit List – because some books are just so much fun to hate!

The Entire Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer
Dreadful with dull teeth. I never thought I’d get tired of seeing the word sparkling. I reviewed them on my blog but don’t feel you have to read the ranting – just believe me, I loathed it to the point that Stephanie Meyers really, really, really, really hates me – oh, sorry, I start to write like her when I think about the books!

The Help by Katherine Stockett
A young white woman in the 1960’s in Mississippi is the only person on the planet who strives for racial equality in really annoying Suthun’ patois. Took the book clubs by storm and took every ounce of Sweetman’s will to not throw it against the wall because she was reading a friend’s copy.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
Cursed with Jane Austen praise, Ms. Goodman fell far short of any Austen comparison. A long, overwrought, drivel about…well there were a few cookbooks in there somewhere.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
I was disappointed in this quick read due to the lack of depth. It read like a condensed version of a more substantial novel.

House Rules by Jodi Picoult
I can’t honestly comment on this because I didn’t finish it. Ms. Picoult appears to have a burning desire to write about the wrenching societal dilemma of the moment with as much engaging flair as the list of ingredients on a cereal box.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
I was confused, disappointed and felt stupid because I just could not get into this book! Was it the translation? The violence? The irrelevant details? The boringness? What did I miss? See the movie.

The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar
Boy did I struggle with this biography of writer Patricia Highsmith! Call me rigid and inflexible but I find it easier to read a biography in chronological order and found myself wanting to call up Ms. Schenkar to ask her if that would have been so difficult given the maniacally rigid order that Miss Highsmith reportedly kept of her life and writing.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Ugh Ugh Ugh.

 

URSULA K. RAPHAEL
One of the biggest waste of trees that I’ve ever read was This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson.

Want to know why? Read Ursula’s review, forthcoming in our blog.

 

LACEY N. DUNHAM
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
All the hipsters and Brooklynites will hate me for this one but I found Auster way overrrated, especially after I considered the superb meta-fiction of Mark Z. Danielewski and read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas about a month after I finished The New York Trilogy.

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis
A sort-of sequel to Ellis’s first novel, Less Than Zero, which so perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the ’80s, Imperial Bedrooms attempts a Raymond Chandler-esque noir and fails to hit anywhere near the mark. While the prose keeps very much to Ellis’s typical style, he can’t seem to successfully merge the type of provocative writing from which he’s largely built his fame and the type of genre writing perfected by others.

So Much For That by Lionel Shriver
Shriver’s novel, shaped by the issue of health care in the U.S., was released shortly before the eventual passage of actual health care reform (or Obamacare, depending on your politics). In a novel so carefully wrought, so precisely personal, it’s too bad So Much For That’s stiff prose and exhausting machinations of plot lacks the muckraking ululations for change.

In the Land of Believers by Gina Welch
Welch’s undercover foray (as a writer, not a journalist) into the world of Evangelism at the Thomas Road Baptist Church (founded by Jerry Falwell) offers strong writing but lacks new insights into the life and beliefs of Evangelical Christians and certainly doesn’t add much to the conversation between Evangelicals and non-believers. Walking a fine line of respect for her subjects, Welch eventually comes clean to her friends at Thomas Road that she’s an atheist who doesn’t need Jesus to save her soul, but only after her book contract is wrapped up and her editor gives the green light.

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
So little action occurs in the first two-thirds of Kostova’s novel that even the overarching sweep of a mysterious woman inching the narrative forward is too minuscule to make me care about what is, ostensibly, the real story that happens in the last hundred or so pages. Even when the mystery is resolved, there is no satisfaction in the predictable ending, nothing that makes the long wait through six hundred pages pay off. Without any real definition to her characters, a lackluster plot, and an ending the fizzles rather than bangs, Kostova delivers a wholly forgettable book.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen
Ugh, this was awful. I mean, seriously, terrible. It reads fast and still I couldn’t get through it. Yet, it seems to be popular among book clubs, which is why I don’t belong to any book clubs.

December 14, 2010

Book Review: The Matter with Morris by David Bergen

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THE MATTER WITH MORRIS
by David Bergen

Harper Collins
(September 2010, CAN $29.99, 254 pages)

A link is drawn between Morris Schutt, fifty-one year old writer and main character of David Bergen’s Giller Prize-nominated novel The Matter With Morris, and Haggai, whom Bergen’s third person narrator tells us is “a less than minor prophet [. . .] who in the Bible gets two chapters.” The image of Haggai – a silenced prophet – is a lot like Morris. Once a syndicated columnist read by people worldwide, he loses his writing contract when his thoughts turn sour. Wouldn’t yours after your son dies at war?

Indeed, the matter with Morris and the Schutt family is the death of their son and brother Martin while serving in the Canadian army in Afghanistan. The fallen infantryman haunts this text; his absence tears apart a modern family along with their aging home. Solemnly, Morris and his wife, Lucille, part by way of a death they never expected. And Morris holds squalid relations with his daughters: Meredith, a working class mother with a grudge toward her selfish father, and Libby, a distant teen too smart to be trapped by adulthood’s hypocrisy. In a touchingly realist depiction of the new millennium as war era, the Schutts are today’s army family strewn by tragedy.

Living alone in a condo, Morris is patted down by moral anguish. Museless and desperate, he focuses on his life’s worst moment: a father-son huff, daring Martin to join the army. To boot, Martin was killed accidentally by one of his own men. For Morris, it’s just as well as pulling the trigger himself.

Mentally and spiritually unhealthy, Morris copes through self-destruction. Most pertinent of all, he is hooked on a woman’s touch and hires prostitutes to relieve his inner tension. There is also Ursula, an American reader of Morris’s column who, too, lost her son to war (in Iraq). Ursula and Morris become intimate pen pals, and eventually meet. Contemplating his choices in a hotel room as Ursula sleeps, Morris yearns for the solace he is searching for. Eventually, he does declare a breaking point. Things will change, he will get his family back, even if it takes some extreme measures.

Bergen admits in Morris’s afterword to borrowing ample inspiration from Cicero, Plato, Socrates and Bellows when creating Morris’s deep philosophical rhetoric. For some readers, his pondering of freedom, humanism and rabid individualism may seem pretentious, constantly lathered on without letting the last big question settle. However, I empathise with the abstractness needed to make sense of this character’s gall-filled world.

This empathy solidifies in many scenes that war parents and families can relish in. “[Morris] had heard of the Highway of Heroes near Toronto,” Bergen writes in sardonic prose, “he wondered how it was that he had come to live in a place where a fallen soldier was driven ignominiously past warehouses and big box stores.” Revenge is also offered through Morris’s habitual letter writing, one to the Prime Minister and another to the company who manufactured the gun that killed Martin. Morris notes the absurdity of sending a letter that will never be read, nodding at Bergen’s apostrophe technique and the simple closure the act offers.

Aside from lashing outward, Morris’s hurt drives hard toward nihilistic tendencies too. His son’s death causes him so much despair, loneliness, inadequacy, guilt, and scepticism, it’s no wonder he contemplates suicide more than once. His existential traits, borrowed from Kafka and Kierkegaard, lead him to declare solitude and to have feelings of despair and worthlessness. Don’t worry Morris, we hear your story, along with the 152 lonely Canadian fathers that live it every day. It’s the bleak story of modern global politics and its disastrous impact on the family. And, it’s something Bergen obviously wants us to consider.

John Coleman

December 13, 2010

Book Review: The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

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THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR
by Allegra Goodman

The Dial Press
(July 2010, $26, 416 pages)

I waited several weeks for my turn to throw myself into The Cookbook Collector because the wait-list at my library was that long. Was it NPR’s palavering reviews which bestowed the crown upon Allegra Goodman’s not-so-humble head as the modern-day Jane Austen? An honor Goodman neither accepted nor declined, she just side-stepped by stating she had many, many influences and inspirations, not just Jane Austen.

Hmmmm, not too modest for such high praise, I thought but I didn’t want to begin in the wrong frame of mind. I wanted The Cookbook Collector to be great. It was important for me as a Janeite and because 2010 was the summer of Franzenfeud, when Jonathan Franzen reigned supreme. There was a dire need of a strong female novelist to knock Jonathan Franzen out of his Ivory Tower. Alas, Ms. Goodman comes up decidedly short.

The Cookbook Collector is a confusing ramble into the decline of the shallow and greedy days of the Dot Com boom. The central characters, Emily and Jessamine, are sisters with opposite personalities and lifestyles around which this story — no, make that multiple stories or, better yet, multiples of multiple stories — revolve. Emily is a smart, reserved and successful CEO of a start-up on the brink of becoming incredibly successful while making her incredibly rich. Jessamine is the artistic, philosophic and free-thinking perpetual student/vegan who makes the reader wonder if she’s about to wander right off the pages of the novel in pursuit of a butterfly. Emily is focused and driven; Jess is scattered and flighty.

Their stories take the reader back and forth from West Coast to East Coast on a wild roller coaster ride of an IPO and up to the top of a protected Red Wood tree. Enter an array of characters, each with their own subplot: Emily’s ruthless and brilliant fiancee CEO, Jonathan, who just needs a set of jagged teeth and some fins to complete his image; Jessamine’s sanctimonious tree-hugging beaus; their father and his second family, Hassidic Bialystok Jews (also bi-coastal!); software programmers and their messy affairs; their dead mother who wrote the girls birthday letters until their 25th birthdays; a woman with a valuable cookbook collection looking to make a sale; and George Friedman, the bookstore owner and collector of valuables, he’s also a jaded Microsoft millionaire that delights in perpetually jabbing Jess with his wry insights into her chaotic life and loser boyfriends. The story shoots between Yorick’s, an antiquarian bookstore where Jess works at an hourly rate while Emily is prepared to rake in millions as CEO of her wildly successful company Veritech.

If that’s not confusing enough, throw in the Dot Com crash and 9/11, mix it with love, loss, more love, more loss, some misunderstandings, inconceivable connections that neatly wrap up all the loose ends and a happy ending for one, a sad new beginning for the other. Unfortunately, this is no modern Sense and Sensibility. It’s a distracting and predictable yarn that reaches far and wide but lacks heart and soul that allows the reader any satisfaction in its boring and overwrought finish.

The Cookbook Collector is loaded with inconsistencies that yanked me right out of the story. For example, the birthday letters from the sisters’ dead mother, an artistic woman, are written on the computer. This was designed to add depth to the story but was actually one of several events that brought my reading to a screeching halt. The time frame for the story was 1999. Was Microsoft Word around 20 years before the story took place? Wouldn’t a woman writing birthday letters for her daughters to read after her death prefer the touch of handwritten letter? Then there was George Friedman, the wealthy proprietor of Yorick’s antique bookstore. Curmudgeonly and jaded at the ripe old age of 39, he had lived through the hippy days of the 60s and 70s then landed a job at a little company known as Microsoft… wait a minute… a hippy in the 60’s? He was just born if he was 39 years old in 1999! Emily’s fiancee Jonathan owned one of the first Blackberrys, which sent me off to Google the history of the Blackberry. This is the first novel I’ve ever made the effort to factually verify.

It is also one of a very few novels I’ve continued to read after giving up on it out of sheer spite, which was probably a good thing for the author. Allegra Goodman had passages of stunning writing scattered throughout The Cookbook Collector but those brief and rare interludes simply hinted at her potential and provided nothing to improve her story. I bestow upon Ms. Goodman a quote from Jane Austen regarding The Cookbook Collector: “Commonplace nonsense but scarcely any wit.”

Sweetman

December 2, 2010

THIS Reads: Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Twihards

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BY SWEETMAN

Are you wondering what to give the tween or teenager in your life? Think books. Reading is a gift that never stops giving. Give books, real books, not anything electronic – kids today suffer from waaaaaaaaaay too much electronic crap cluttering up their brains. The act of reading sustains the brain’s ability to solve logic problems and operate on a higher level of processing and reasoning. And there’s nothing like the physical reminder of a thoughtfully given book.

I am not well-versed in books for babies, toddlers or young children although I’ve had two babies (then toddlers then young children). It’s been my limited experience that “popular” and “educational” are somewhat less satisfying for both parents and children. I always leaned toward the classics and books about trucks because I have two sons. Whatever you give to a toddler or non-reading child, make sure it’s something that you’ll love reading over and over and over again, too.

For school age to young adult, here’s what not to give: any of the Twilight books. I know they have a legion of followers breathlessly fainting into the pages because Edward is so amazing and Bella is so amazing and the Twilight books are so amazing and there you have it: indoctrination to repetitively bad writing. Let the tween or teen borrow Twilight from a friend or the library and let’s stop shoving money into Ms. Meyer’s overflowing coffers. There are far better things to read:

C.S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia
A classic masterpiece, Lewis’s seven book series takes the reader into the fantastic world of Narnia. Four children – Peter, Susan, Edward and Lucy Pevensie – find the magical world of Narnia through a wardrobe in Professor Digory Kirke’s mansion. In Narnia they join forces with the noble Aslan to save the wintry world from the evil White Witch. Readable chapter books for even the youngest children, The Chronicles of Narnia series has widely influenced and guided the talents of many influential authors, musicians, directors and artists since they were published in the 1950s.

J.K. Rowling, The Harry Potter Series
We can’t thank J.K. Rowling enough because she didn’t just ignite the spark of love for reading in young people: she set the house on fire. The Harry Potter Series, seven epic novels about Harry Potter, Hogwarts School for Wizardry and Witchcraft, and the battle of good versus evil, have become instant coming-of-age classics. J.K. Rowling masterfully narrates an epic and, at times, very dark tale full of memorable characters in a magical wizarding world. These books are excellent on many levels and the writing is superb. I confess I was reluctant – no disdainful – of the books when they first came out because I had no interest in the magical world of wizardry. Fantasy was not my genre but my sister gave a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stones to my youngest son for his 5th birthday. It was a gift that I believed was a curse because I had to read it out loud to him. However, before the first chapter ended I was hooked and waited as anxiously as all the other Harry Potter fans for the next installment. I read each word of all seven books to my youngest son, a literary experience like no other in my life.

Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events
Thirteen quick-paced, sharp and witty books chronicle the adventures of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, beginning with the fiery deaths of their parents and propelling them through a number of unfortunate events as they are pursued by their distant relative, the evil Count Olaf. The books in A Series of Unfortunate Events are cautionary tales with dark Grimm undertones but they are clever and engaging. It’s a series that is sure to develop and secure a young reader into a life of good reading.

In tomorrow’s THIS Reads, Sweetman discusses more beloved children’s books by Roald Dahl and E.B. White.

photo: Stephanie Skidmore

November 18, 2010

Book Review: Inside the Mirrors by Jason R. Davis

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INSIDE THE MIRRORS
by Jason R. Davis

CreateSpace
(December 2009, $13.99, 386 pages)

Inside The Mirrors by Jason R. Davis reminded me of classic horror: scary without excessive gore. This story crawls into your head and makes you leave the light on after you’re done reading. The plot centers on Rob Alleto, a Chicago cop who believes that moving to a small town would lead to a safer environment for himself and his family. When an evil spirit attempts to possess Rob’s neighbors through their mirrors, he discovers that there are things far worse than street criminals. As more people fall under the control of the “Winago,” all the plants and animals begin to die and even the buildings appear dilapidated overnight. Rob soon wishes he had never left Chicago.

The prologue grabbed my attention immediately with a man unexpectedly falling off a silo, but my interest began to fade with the drawn out raid on a meth lab. I understand that the author was trying to give us some background on Rob’s injuries and his decision to leave Chicago, but when I’m expecting horror, I don’t want to feel like I’m reading something from the crime genre.

Quickly after the raid, the story picks up pace with Rob in the hospital thinking about his upcoming move to a small town where he will work as a deputy. His wife, Robyn, along with their son, Jake, take care of packing for the move so the family can leave immediately after Rob is released from the hospital. The first chapter ended with a frightening surprise that hooked me for the rest of the book (sorry, anything more would be a major spoiler).

The following chapter switched point of view to two boys, Aaron and Josh, as they ventured into an abandoned house where a family murder took place. Only someone like Davis, with his great knowledge of horror, could write with terrifying suspense, one where you’re screaming at the characters, “don’t go into the house!”

The next jump in point of view is to a homeless drifter, Coolidge, who sees a grotesque dead man appear out of nowhere. The dead man tells him to go home and continues to stalk and torment Coolidge until the drifter ends up in the same small town that Rob has moved to, which is when the various viewpoints begin to converge in the town of Standard.

Davis, the Director of the Chicago Horror Film Festival, self-published this debut novel and the final copies are riddled with typos. However, the raw editing doesn’t disrupt the flow of the story. Once all the major characters are in place, Davis takes his readers on a thrill ride through hell in the disguise of small town drama. The harder Rob tries to make sense of everything, the faster his life falls apart around him. Lots of people die, and a major sacrifice is needed to stop the Winago from overwhelming the entire town. When you’re done reading this book, you won’t want to linger in front of your mirror.

You can find out more about this new author, and his many ongoing horror projects, here.

-Ursula K. Raphael

 

photo: Elliott Pics

November 10, 2010

Live Show Review: A Powerhouse of Punk and Grit, The Delinquints Nod to Early Hardcore

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

The 8th annual Toronto Zombie Walk hit downtown T.O. Saturday, October 23, giving Hallowe’en lovers a chance to try on their costumes a little early. I caught one of the many after parties happening that night, this one at the Bovine Sex Club, where the Delinquints laid down a gritty and captivating set.

The Delinquints’ live performance is a powerhouse of noise. A raw, electric spectacle comprised of singer Jimy Delinquint’s dark, Misfit-greaser aesthetic; Beardo and Sarah’s classic punky-garage, U.K. Subs style guitars, coarsely distorted and frantically chugging away; and Dan Arget’s blistering drums continually cycling through high tempo, four on the floor beats. The Delinquints play heavy, monstrous punk, yet simple and with enough soul to stay out of the new hardcore-cum-metal spectrum. This is hardcore punk in the classic sense: Johnny Cash down on Avenue A. Back alley Elvis wielding stiletto. The Ramones on speed.

Of course, with so much punk history encroaching on their sound, the Delinquints had to pay homage to their heroes. This came with a much more core than Social D cover of Cash’s eternal psychobilly anthem “Folsom Prison Blues.” And three Misfits classics, “Horror Business,” “Hybrid Moments” and, which got everyone fist pumping, “Last Caress.” Belting out the songs at double speed, sounding almost exactly like today’s touring Misfits, all of the Delinquints’ covers were graceful nods to their forebears. This band isn’t out to prove they’re punk; they naturally strut in intimidating confidence.

Sending off guitarist Sarah Hoedlmoser in her last set with the group, plenty of Delinquints favourites were also on hand. These included “Punish The Wicked (With a 2X4),” “No Cure For” and “Criminalise The Poor.” Demonstrating their early eighties street, specifically anarcho anthem meets fifties garage sound, these tracks got local followers chanting. By the end of the set, the Bovine was packed shoulder to shoulder with people catching a glimpse of these punks who know that respect for elders trumps striking a pose.

 

photo: alexandra

November 3, 2010

THIS Reads: NaNoWriMo Killed the Literary Star

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BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

I always find myself frustrated by all the books I’m not reading. My “to read” list is always miles longer than the list of books I’ve finished. Compounding my frustration is that I’m a slow reader. I have friends who readily soar through three or four books each week and, unless all I do is sit in a chair for six hours a day intently focused on one book, knocking through multiple titles only days apart is something I rarely accomplish.

Then again, at least I’m reading, right? In an article at Salon in which she rails against National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Laura Miller complains that there aren’t enough readers and far too many writers. And while there are statistics revealing that many folks in the U.S. spend more leisure time watching television or using a computer than reading, I don’t believe the argument that there is a dearth of readers in the U.S. People are reading; what people are reading has changed.

In the age of technology, reading occurs outside of books with an increasing frequency, something Miller doesn’t acknowledge in her article (which I “read” online although, because it doesn’t occur between the pages of a bound book, might not count as actual “reading” in Miller-world). Each Sunday I read the New York Times Book Review, in print; I try to read most of the New Yorker each week. When I travel, I frequently pack back-issues of magazines and literary journals I’ve been meaning to get around to and haven’t: Bitch, Poets & Writers, Zone 3, Zoetrope, The Normal School. I don’t work at a typical desk job, but if I did, I imagine that a chunk of my day would be spent reading articles and blogs online. Does all of this, because I’m not purchasing my reading from a traditional bookstore or downloading it on a Kindle, mean I’m reading-deficient?

To be fair, Miller’s article mostly deals with the reasons why someone shouldn’t participate in what she calls the “self-aggrandizing frenzy” of NaNoWriMo: “…while there’s no shortage of good novels out there, there is a shortage of readers for these books.” She’s right: getting published is not half as hard as getting someone to purchase your book, read it, and recommend it to others who will also purchase it once you’ve been published. And it’s true that few authors are commercially successful. But reading novels and writing them isn’t a zero-sum game.

Maybe I’m touchy because I am participating in NaNoWriMo and I take it personally that Miller refers to writing as a “narcissistic commerce,” even if I’m not sure where the “commerce” part comes in. If I’m supposed to be getting wealthy from all this, I wish someone would have told me long ago so I could have the last laugh over my friends who elected law and business school.

Miller implies that Wrimos (NaNo parlance for participating writers) aren’t reading any books or, at least by her judgement, not enough of them. I disagree with this assumption, too. Maybe Wrimos aren’t reading the same types of books Miller would read (she goes on a long rant against self-help books in her article) but reading is reading, regardless of the material. And, unless it’s Nicole Richie’s latest novel, I don’t think reading in all its many forms is making anyone more stupid.

So in addition to all the magazines, lit journals (both in print and online), book reviews and newspapers this particular Wrimo has read over the last month, I also enjoyed Julia Glass’s novel The Widower’s Tale, a story shaped by four voices that represent various corners of modern American culture. Set against the backdrop of eco-terrorism, limousine liberals, and a longing for the past in the face of rapid change, Glass succeeds in illuminating the darkest corners of our hypocrisy and hopes, all with her characteristic tenderness and humor.

Leslie Marmon Silko has been a favorite writer of mine ever since I read Ceremony. The Turquoise Ledge is her first book in ten years and a beautiful memoir that fuses elements of her family’s mixed-race heritage with Native myths and reflections on the natural world. Her imaginative storytelling travels across boundaries of time to share aspects of her life as they are remembered; for example, her first divorce is discussed alongside the eradication of the Laguna language.

University of Chicago historian Thomas C. Holt presents a generational and nuanced portrait of African-Americans in Children of Fire, a uniquely framed history that traces the shifts in culture, policy, and social norms that have defined race relations and institutions of oppression in the U.S. from when the first Africans were sold in Jamestown in 1619 to the election of President Barack Obama. Holt’s history reminds us that lives mired in history as it is lived are far more complex and dynamic than the flattened accounts textbooks would have us believe. I don’t generally read histories but appreciated Holt’s perspective and sharp narration. Children of Fire is a long book but it doesn’t lag.

Finally, confidential to all the Wrimos clattering away at their keyboard out there: Carolyn Kellogg is on our side.

November 2, 2010

Book Review: What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

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WHAT IS LEFT THE DAUGHTER
by Howard Norman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
(October 2010, US$25.00, 256 pages)

At the beginning of Howard Norman’s What Is Left The Daughter, Wyatt Hillyer, a teenage boy recently orphaned by double parent suicides, embarks on an apprenticeship to his uncle Donald as a toboggan maker. Odd, but these two scenarios are more closely knit than you may think. They set up the depressing chain of events that this World War Two era novel follows.

Written as a letter to Wyatt’s long-lost daughter Marlais, this novel’s most striking trait is its focus on tragedy-touched characters. The fatal theme flourishes quickly, once Wyatt is moved from Halifax to Middle Economy, Nova Scotia, a small town in the maritime province where his aunt and uncle live. Here, Wyatt reunites with Tilda, his adopted cousin whom he secretly loves. Also in her late teens, Tilda decides to become a professional mourner – yes, she weeps alongside deceased loners whom no one else will pity. In diverse representation, Wyatt isn’t the only one full-up on sadness. The man Tilda eventually marries is Hans Mohring, a German exchange student of philology at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

And then there is Tilda’s father, Wyatt’s toboggan-making mentor Donald, overcome with paranoia caused by German U-boat attacks off Canada’s east coast. Donald withdraws from the family, gives up the sleigh racket, and starts bunking alone in his work shed like a soldier. On her last night in town before travelling to Newfoundland on a family visit, Wyatt’s aunt Constance, Donald’s wife, breaks the shield and sleeps with Donald between walls tacked up with war stories from the newspaper.

Things climax when a German torpedo takes out a ferry with Constance onboard. With this, Donald’s hate for Hitler peaks; his paranoia proves its worth. He even goes as far as smashing his beloved Beethoven and Bach gramophone records, the ones that always got caught in the last groove before the needle could lift: a broken record repeating its last note over and over again, like the newspaper and radio reports Donald couldn’t ignore.

In one last, foul move, Donald tricks Wyatt into inviting Tilda’s German husband, Hans, to their house, apparently to make peace. Instead, Donald’s rage overpowers wit when he kills Hans with a steel toboggan runner. Daughter takes on a small town, court drama feel for a couple chapters. Donald gets life in prison for the murder; Wyatt receives a couple years for his involvement.

Upon his release, Wyatt slowly becomes part of Tilda’s life again and one night they conceive a child: Marlais. However, Wyatt is once again abandoned when Tilda moves to Denmark with Marlais, and until the point that the book is written—March 27, 1967—Wyatt goes without seeing his daughter for nearly thirty years. The story ends with Wyatt encountering more death (from both important characters and not), old friends, and living his life as a dedicated gaffer at the Halifax Harbour.

Daughter is a bleak and empathetic story, dissolved slightly with pockets of classic, uppity, home front war era scenes. To Norman’s credit, there are many unforeseen right turns that follow constant tragic foreshadowing. From page one, death is on the mind, and the avenues in which the theme is experimented with are not obviously revealed. Like any wartime novel, Daughter does have flavours of stories told once before. Hitler’s encroach on Middle Economy, even though he and his troops are distant, is represented only by a foreign sit-in. When it’s revealed that there are Nazis posing as RMC soldiers roaming around Nova Scotia and that a friend of Wyatt’s was attacked by them, you start to sympathize with Donald, the unabashed defender of reasonable revenge. Although he sacrificed an innocent bystander, he had the right intention. I guess that’s the worth of any good war novel: breaking down misconceptions loaded with controversial politics.

John Coleman

October 30, 2010

THIS Reads: Have a Booktacular Halloween!

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BY SWEETMAN

Shortening days, a nip in the air and wind that promises to find a way to chill your bones: oh yes, it’s time to hunker down in the dark, quiet night with a good ghost story and hope the creaks and rustles you hear are the usual sounds that always happen when night falls and the house settles. Yes, you better hope for that. And shut your eyes tight when you think you see a shadow pass your door because it’s probably the headlights of a car driving by or the stupid cat creeping around. Yes, you better hope for that too.

A good ghost story has a delicate way of easing a reader into a terrified state. It is a subtle art that raises the pulse and sends chills down the spine. A good ghost story makes the reader leave the light on long after the book is closed, moved off the night table and thrown into another room. A good ghost story stays with the reader for a long time and quite often begs to be re-read despite the lost sleep.

I usually dig out a book of ghost stories when the leaves begin to change. Halloween is my favorite time of year, I love to be scared – not terrified, just scared in a fun way that I know it’s going to end. Unfortunately, many of these ghost stories don’t exactly end when the story is over. They do linger and pop into my head at the most unfortunate times, like when I’m throwing laundry into the dryer late at night and I suddenly have to run up the stairs because something was there.

I am always on the look out for great ghost stories. I’ve read a lot of horror, terror and slash-and-kill stories, all of which never have the same chilling effect. These stories and collections are by far the best I’ve read.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Penguin, 1959)

Hill House, an eighty year old mansion, has been rented by Dr. John Montague, a paranormal investigator who hopes to confirm the existence of the supernatural. He brings along three “assistants:” Eleanor, Theodora and Luke. They were chosen by Dr. Montague because they have all had previous paranormal experiences.

Hill House is the protagonist in Jackson’s slightly dated but extremely well-written novel. It is eerie and cold, awake and watchful from its blank windows, “a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, nor a fit place for people, for love or for hope.” It is full of odd angles and sudden cold spots as well as mysterious noises. As the characters settle in, the house begins to play upon their fears. None of the characters experience the same fright, which makes each terror a singular event with the other characters wondering what is happening.

Jackson masterfully plays upon the psychological terror of the unknown. The eeriness of the novel crept up on me. While there is never a clear, defined event to confirm the presence of ghosts or the paranormal, the hints and individual interpretations of phenomena are by far more scary. It is a chilling novel despite the occasional stilted dialogue, one that I was certain wasn’t frightening in the least when I started out reading it on a cold night but soon decided it was best read during the daylight hours.

The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers by Henry James (Penguin Classics, 1898)

Henry James wrote one scary novella in The Turn of the Screw. Instead of blatant ghoulies and ghosties, this is another eerie tale of psychological terror and is well worth the concentration it will take to get the hang of Henry James’s style of writing.

A governess agrees to take charge of two orphaned children and moves to the countryside from London to find herself with two charming but odd children and a surly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who readily gives over the children. The governess is also most entirely alone with her charges and has been instructed by the children’s uncle that he is not to be bothered.

The tension begins when the governess starts seeing a young couple around the property. They appear at random times and seem to cause no interest or concern in any other occupants of the house. The governess becomes convinced they are the ghosts of the former governess, Miss Janse, and her illicit lover, both of whom, she learns from Mrs. Grose, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Things get a bit creepier when the governess becomes convinced that the children are seeing the ghosts as well.

This is Gothic writing at its best. Fear and tension build in the governess’s evolving awareness of the of the evil surroundings she has found herself. James is masterful in the implication of doubt: is the governess overreacting or are these frightening things really happening?

The Aspern Papers, though not a ghost story by any means, is the story of an obsession and a very quick read. It is well-written and very readable and I highly recommend it as a nice follow up if you want to get the eeriness of The Turn of the Screw out of your head.

SPOOKY New England: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore by S. E. Schlosser, illustrated by Paul G. Hoffman (Globe Piquot, 2003)

This is a collection of strange happenings, weird tales and ghost stories gathered from towns and places all over New England. Some are very old and familiar, some are obscure and quite chilling. Schlosser has a simple style and an easy way of drawing the reader into the stories. It is something of a travel book as well, especially if you are interested in ghost hunting. I have several, creepy favorites: “The Man Who Could Send Rats,” “The Black Dog Of Hanging Hills,” and “The Lady in Black.” The wood cut illustrations are clever and well done. Schlosser has created a regional series of spooky stories which has an appeal for those in the areas of which he gathers his tales.

Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre by H.P. Lovecraft, illustrated by August Derleth. (Ballentine, 1987)

H.P. Lovecraft, the Über master of modern horror, earned that reputation for a very good reason. His stories are legend for their psychological thriller elements. His protagonists are rational, normal human beings who are placed in the incomprehensible and inconceivable and his stories are disturbing, weird and unsettling. Edgar Allen Poe was an obvious influence. He loves to play with the unknown, which I believe is one of the most terrifying elements in a scary story. This compilation is an excellent grouping of his “bests,” although read through in one sitting they can become formulaic and predictable.

A few of my favorites from this collection of short stories and novellas are:

– “The Rats in the Walls”: an inherited ancestral mansion has walls filled with scurrying rats.
– “The Picture in the House”: a house of refuge in a rainstorm has a disturbing picture on the wall.
– “In the Vault”: a grave digger has to dig himself out of a crypt.
– “The Whisperer in Darkness”: a scientist goes to Vermont to disprove the existence of fairies.
– “The Haunter of the Dark”: a writer creates a horrible being that can only live in the dark.

Lovecraft, practically unknown in his lifetime, set the stage, tone and a very high watermark for today’s horror writers.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (Bantam 1962)

This was my first horror novel and boy, did it do a number on me as a kid! Not only did it fill me with ideas regarding the significance of dates and hours of birth but I developed a belief in the powers of inanimate objects and it forever changed the way I feel about carnivals, carny folk and tattoos.

The story takes place in a small town that is preparing for the arrival of a carnival with fliers advertising “Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.” The two heroes, best friends Jim and Will, who were born two minutes apart on either side of Halloween, discover this is no ordinary carnival when they sneak out in the middle of the night to watch it set up. When they begin investigating during the daylight, they notice very strange things about the rides and the effect it is having on the townspeople.

Bradbury’s carnies are perfect, creepy, sleezy, dark and skeevy. There’s G. M. Dark, the tattooed freak, and his evil partner, J. C. Cooger. The carnival is also populated with The Dust Witch, a blind fortune teller, The Skeleton and Tom Fury, the dwarf. These are the carnival people you can’t resist but who fill you with terror and dread if you find yourself alone in their presence. A merry-go-round and a house of mirrors will never be the same after you read this novel.

Something Wicked This Way Comes, a classic tale of good and evil, is well written and the Gothic horror theme works well in its small-town setting, proving that even wholesome places are vulnerable to evil forces.

My, my, my how the cold winter nights will fly as you settle down with these stories and hope for spring.

October 28, 2010

Book Review: Darwin’s Dreams by Sean Hoade

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DARWIN’S DREAMS
by Sean Hoade

May December Publications LLC
(September 2010, $12.95, 200 pages)

Religion and science have struggled to coexist throughout history, especially when Charles Darwin introduced his theories of evolution and natural selection. To this day, creationism and evolution continue to be the topic of great debate, which makes Darwin’s Dreams a poignant novel illustrating the inception of Darwin’s famous theory.

Darwin’s Dreams is a fictional story based on the real voyage of the HMS Beagle from December 1831 to October 1836. This was actually the second survey expedition of the Beagle under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy. During this time in history, command of a ship could lead to overwhelming stress and despair, as in the suicide of FitzRoy’s own uncle. In addition to his personal need for a traveling companion, FitzRoy felt the expedition would benefit from the addition of a geologist. After being turned down by two others, FitzRoy’s superior, Captain Beaufort, received recommendations for the young Charles Darwin.

Hoade begins his vision of this historical endeavor with the first meeting between FitzRoy and Darwin while the Beagle is docked in Plymouth, England in 1831. During this conversation, FitzRoy warns Darwin, “Whatever you put into your head, the spirals of vertigo will whip into the most vivid images while you sleep.” This excellent foreshadowing by Hoade sets the premise for the novel; the author creatively uses dreams to convey the thoughts and emotions that Darwin experiences on his journey, both on the Beagle, and afterwards, when Darwin writes about his overseas experiences. Hoade uses the interlude dreams to divide the chapters, propelling the reader forward from 1832 in Brazil to the Down House in 1865, and laying out the path that eventually leads to the publication of The Origin of Species.

Hoade demonstrates the depth of his philosophical background by deftly describing famous writings of well-known philosophers and scientists, such as Gottfried Leibniz and William Paley, and through his interpretation of Charles Darwin’s subconscious. The visions Darwin experiences while he sleeps illustrate, not only what he has been reading, but also the reasoning behind his deductions and the influence of the great thinkers. Anyone familiar with classic writings of philosophy will recognize the works that Hoade incorporates into the story of Darwin’s inner struggle between science and religion. Some of my favorite dream interludes were The Ark, with an interesting explanation of mythological creatures and dinosaurs, and The Hindoos, who are able to literally see the connection between every living soul through “mesmerization.”

In addition to Darwin’s Dreams, Sean Hoade is the author of the noir-thriller, Ain’t that America. Hoade teaches English and creative writing and his short stories, poems and cartoons have been published internationally. He is currently at work on a graphic novel, teaching an online writing class, and making waves in the zombie community with his horror shorts. He loves to receive email from his readers.

Ursula K. Raphael

October 21, 2010

Book Review: The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar

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THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH: THE SECRET LIFE AND SERIOUS ART OF PATRICIA HIGHSMITH
by Joan Schenkar

St. Martin’s Press
(December 2009, $40, 704 pages)

Before you think you are going to settle down for a glimpse at what made Patricia Highsmith tick, prepare for a chronologically challenged, confusing and often repetitive narrative of the ins and outs of obsessions, ruminations, ideas and idylls that gave Highsmith’s novels like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train their stylized edginess and cold calculation.

Patricia Highsmith the Writer was a woman to admire: she wrote in a straightforward yet brutal manner that pulls the reader right into the hard heart and cold soul of her protagonists. It is thrilling to become immersed in Highsmith’s novels because she had a grip on bad that made it so good. While difficult to categorize her in a specific genre, she was a pioneer. Highsmith may be best known for her Ripley novels but her body of work includes twenty-two novels, eight short story collections, a suspense writers instruction guide and a book for children. She published a ground-breaking lesbian novel The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952.

Patricia Highsmith the Woman was, quite possibly, someone best avoided. Labeled a psychopath and a “black cloud,” she was a raging alcoholic for most of her literary life. In many ways her art imitated her life – or at least the dark recesses of her psyche. She believed life didn’t make sense without a crime in it. In her one of her many self-observations she stated, “If I were to relax and become human, I could not bear my life.” A talented but flawed Miss Highsmith, indeed.

Joan Schenkar tasks the reader mightily as Highsmith’s biographer. She forgoes the traditional chronological approach and instead groups the book into Highsmith’s themes/obsessions: How to Begin, A Simple Act of Forgery, La Mamma, Les Girls, Alter Ego, Greek Games. Nine divided parts jump into different times and places in Highsmith’s life. It is a meandering wander, a hippy Christmas that is difficult to follow and makes for unsettled reading. Schenkar’s method is the polar opposite of her subject; Miss Highsmith kept detailed lists, diagrams, maps and charts throughout her life. Schenkar’s unusual style does allow one to flip through the book without really missing a beat. Unfortunately, it is a beat that resonates with an uneven repetition of themes regarding Patricia Highsmith’s internal drives, which were apparently fueled by alcohol and cigarettes. There were women – many women – and occasionally a few men, in addition to her racist attitudes and actions, her aversion to comfort, avoidance of truth, self-history revision when convenient and an intense desire for privacy. Ah yes, and the collection of three-hundred snails Highsmith kept as pets. Highsmith loved snails because of their ambiguous shell and difficult gender identification. When bored at a dinner party, as she often was because she disliked food, Highsmith would pull a snail out of her purse or bra and play with it on the table cloth.

The eight years Schenkar spent perusing 18 diaries, 38 cahiers (writer’s notebooks) and 8,000 pages of her unpublished work sit uneasily in nearly 700 pages. Patricia Highsmith’s personal thoughts and opinions are not pleasant places to linger, despite her talent. It is disturbing to see her age ungracefully from svelt sphinx to a craggy, hunched gargoyle. Phobias and fantasies become more prominent in her later years. After reading her biography, it can be safely said that one of Highsmith’s most admirable qualities of character is that she wrote about her demons rather than acting upon them.

Sweetman

October 19, 2010

Book Review: The Countess by Rebecca Johns

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THE COUNTESS
by Rebecca Johns

Crown
(October 2010, $25, 304 pages)

The Countess opens with a passage from the Brothers Grimm tale Snow White, which serves as a bit of foreshadowing of Bathory’s jealous rages. The story begins with a letter Reverend Zacharias writes to a colleague that describes his failed attempts to convince the countess to repent of her crimes. He also mentions his discovery of personal letters written by Erzsebet Bathory to her only son, Pal. The story of her life is told through these letters, and paints a less dramatic picture of her activities than any other Bathory novel I have read.

Erzsebet has been sealed away in a tower in her own castle, with only a small space through which to pass her food and drink and take away her chamber pot. To pass the time, she writes to her son about her life, hoping to enlighten Pal to the dangers around him. She shares a story about a horrific punishment her father carried out against a gypsy while she was a young girl. She moves through stories of her arranged marriage, her affair, and the death of her husband.

I was halfway through the book when I wondered if there would be any mention of the crimes that inspired all the legends that surround her name. Eventually, she does use severe punishment for her servants, justifying her actions by explaining how lazy and insolent they had been, “rutting” with stable boys and stealing from the household. However, aside from the extreme and brutal beatings, usually with a whip, the punishments are not described in much detail and are hardly mentioned.

The transitions from one chapter of her life to the next are separated by accounts of what is happening to her in the tower as she writes to her son. What she says and does elicits little sympathy, however, as she sounds very much like someone who is self-centered and living in her own little world. Even though she speaks a great deal about her relationships with those around her, she gives very little consideration to their thoughts and feelings. If someone does something she doesn’t approve of, Erzsebet assumes it is a personal attack on her happiness. The more she accuses others of being jealous and malicious, the more she appears to be a sadistic and cold-hearted woman.

I thought this was the blandest account of Bathory that I have ever read; every scene seemed to lack any real emotion, which was unusual, considering that Bathory is telling her own story. I’m not sure if the author’s intention was to portray Bathory as a different sort of monster than the usual bloody tales. Despite her unlikeable character and her atrocious attitude towards others, this novel is worth reading at least once if you are interested in a new perspective of the life of Countess Bathory. Readers will either love it or hate it – there’s no middle ground with this book.

However, don’t mistake my disliking of the character’s attitude for a disliking of the author’s writing style. Rebecca Johns has vastly improved her story-telling since her debut novel, Icebergs. Johns also maintains a blog called Illiterati, featuring an exclusive interview with the deceased Bathory.

Ursula K. Raphael

October 12, 2010

Book Review: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Undead by Don Borchert

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THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER AND THE UNDEAD
by Don Borchert

Tor Books
(August 2010, $13.99, 304 pages)

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain is about a young boy growing up in a small town along the Mississippi River. It’s also the latest novel to be zombified. I’ve amassed so many mash-ups of classical literature and zombie fiction that if future archaeologists ever found my collection…well, the historians would have a field day with the discovery…probably the psychologists too. Some novel hybrids are just the originals with zombies jammed in, while others offer a spectacular blending of genres. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Undead falls somewhere in the middle.

Don Borchert’s take on this classic started out rather boring. The editor’s note, written from the world of the Zum, was extremely hokey, completely unnecessary, and did more harm than good. If a story is interesting, it should not need an explanation of the plot in advance. Read the editor’s note at your own risk; you have been warned.

In the first half of the book, the story follows the original pretty closely with a few minor changes, tailored to fit in the Zum – the name of the zombies that have overrun the United States. For instance, instead of being required to paint the fence white, Aunt Polly tells Tom to sharpen the tops of the fence posts. There was very little mention of Zum, which is a let-down when “undead” is in the title. More attention is given to descriptions of the survival modifications to the village that Tom lives in than the Zum or the infection.

I kept finding excuses to put the book down, and, truthfully, I only continued reading because this book was a gift. I also have a policy of only reviewing books that I’ve read from beginning to end. I was shocked at the difference in the narrative once “Injun Joe” made his entrance into the story: more Zum scenes, plenty of action, and lots of surprises. This novel is the perfect example of why people should read the entire book before they form an opinion. (Or you could just start on page 95.)

Before reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Undead, Zombiephiles should know:

1) most Zum are mindless shamblers, but there are a few thinking-Zum
2) source of infection is unknown and can be spread to animals
3) headshots don’t necessarily work; burning bodies is necessary

If you like mash-ups between genres or anything to do with zombies, it’s worth reading at least once. If Don Borchert decides to try his hand at The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I hope he works in more Zum hunting.

Ursula K. Raphael

October 11, 2010

What Does Karkwa’s Polaris Prize Win Mean for the Canadian Underground Music Scene?

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

Polaris Prize season is always exciting for Canadian music journalists. The hype around the heftily weighted $20,000 purse acknowledging the best independent album of the year takes on a feverish holiday feel. This year, after a summer of waiting since the longlist was announced on June 17, and the shortlist on July 7, music nerds were getting antsy. For months, record biz insiders, journalists and music fans were making their predictions known all over social networks. Leading up to the special day, September 20, people were wishing each other a “Happy Polaris Prize Day” on Twitter and Facebook.

Now it’s all said and done and, I am pleased to announce, the winner of the 2010 Polaris Prize is Montreal indie rock group Karkwa for their record Les Chemins De Verre. The band has been around since 2003 and have released four albums on Audiogram Records.

Much like the hype preceding Polaris day, after the winner is announced there is always strong reaction from media and music listeners alike. Last fall I was happier than a punk with a bottle of malt liquor when I heard one of my favourite bands, Fucked Up, won for their record The Chemistry Of Common Life. But after the Toronto hardcore-turned-experimental troupe took home the oversized cheque, reaction ensued, and critics unleashed. People couldn’t believe that a curse-named punk band could beat out more radio friendly underground music. “For heaven’s sake,” mainstream snobbies protested, “Metric was up for the award – and Fucked Up won?!”

This year, it’s much of the same jealousy fired at Karkwa. I guess it is tradition for people to lash out, usually in defence of the bands that don’t need twenty grand. Mostly I’ve seen people angry about popular bands like Tegan and Sarah and Broken Social Scene being sidelined by the judges in lieu of an underdog. I confess, I haven’t heard Les Chemins De Verre entirely, yet, but from what I’ve Youtubed I like. I applaud Karkwa for proving Edge102 radio and MuchMusic aren’t the be all, end all to what’s hip in Canada.

However, I wonder why some well-known underground bands were left out this year. Although one of my favourites, The Sadies, made the shortlist (much to my surprise), I think some other Canadian albums should at least have been considered, like Bison BC’s Dark Ages, which I heard back in March and immediately declared the best Canadian album of 2010. I also would have nominated Fuck The Facts Unnamed EP, which to your next door neighbour sounds like the heaviest metal of all time but is really one of the smartest, genius punk/grind records ever.

I’ve kept quiet on my thoughts because, frankly, I know it will be a while before a heavier bands take the Polaris. For some reason hardcore and metal are too out of reach for vogue listeners. This is why it still amazes me that Fucked Up won last year. If the judges heard any of their music prior to Chemistry, I’m sure they would have barfed in disgust and declined them any right to acknowledgment in the arts scene.

October 10, 2010

Book Review: Henry VIII: Wolfman by A.E. Moorat

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HENRY VIII: WOLFMAN
by A.E. Moorat

Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
(July 2010, $9.55, 416 pages)

Once upon a time, I was offered the chance to review Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, A.E. Moorat’s first novel. I almost passed on it because I was a little wary of historical fiction mash-ups, but I knew it had zombies in it, so I figured it was worth reading at least once. In the novel, Queen Victoria fights the evil clan of Baal with the help of the Royal Protektor, Maggie Brown. Most of England is completely ignorant of the demonic dangers, so the Royal battles are suppose to be kept secret.

It turned out to be one of the best novels I have ever read. I was expecting a mix of Brian Keene & Phillipa Gregory; instead, Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter was more like “Army of Darkness” meets “The Mighty Boosh”: a very entertaining fantasy-adventure, but not quite horror. The novel made me a Moorat fan, so I was very excited to read the next novel.

In Henry VIII Wolfman, the King also deals with the clan of Baal but the novel is very different from Queen Victoria. In an extremely long and elaborate flashback between the prologue and epilogue, mainly told from Henry’s point of view, Henry VIII: Wolfman is an alternative historical account from a universe completely different from the believable, behind-the-scenes story of real historical events in Queen Victoria. Even though I didn’t find Wolfman nearly as amusing as Moorat’s first novel, it was a great psychological-horror story about a king struggling with a major life change while trying to save his people.

In the prologue, Henry has transformed into a werewolf and has devoured the Queen, though which wife is not specified. He then remembers everything that led up to the moment described in the prologue: Henry is beginning to get fat, he’s in the Palace of Greenwich and Anne Boleyn catches his eye. There are also hints at a romantic interest with Jane Seymour, who turns out to be quite the noble woman.

Henry’s major problems begin when a wolfen cell, led by a werewolf Malchek and tired of being the lowest rung on the ladder among the Baal descendants, uses King Henry as a pawn by infecting him with lycan blood. The king tries to hide this turn of events from everyone at court. Meanwhile, Sir Thomas More is falsely accused of being a werewolf by fake witchfinders and, due to court politics, Thomas Boleyn and the Duke of Norfolk refuse to come to his aid. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who is searching for More, is desperate to find a reason for the Pope to declare war on the Wolfen, despite the treaty signed at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, or else convince the King to abandon his quest for revenge.

The best parts of this story, for me, were the witchfinders, Hob and Agatha. These two reminded me of the entertaining Lord Quimby and his man-servant Perkins in Queen Victoria. I wish there had been more of their humor in this novel. I wasn’t sure what type of mash-up the author was trying to write aside from the obvious twist on Henry’s reign. I am still a fan of Moorat, though I’m hoping he will finally give Lord Quimby and Perkins from a spin-off novel of their own.

Ursula K. Raphael

October 8, 2010

Two Videos of the Week: Vampires and Camp

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We couldn’t resist – with so much mind candy on the Internet, how can we only put one video of the week on our blog? So, dear readers, a special treat: two awesome videos that we think you’ll enjoy.

The first video begs the question What Would Jim Henson Think? The cast of Sesame Street take their own unique twist on “True Blood,” the popular vampire/werewolf series based on the novels of Charlaine Harris.

Our favorite moment? The Muppet version of the character Lafayette sashaying through the foreground at the beginning of the video.

 

 

 

In the next video, Ron Charles at The Washington Post reviews Michael Cunningham‘s recent novel By Nightfall. True to Ron Charles form, only he would find a way to bring the Twilight franchise’s Taylor Lautner into a review for a character-driven book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

Due to copyright restrictions, you’ll have to click here to watch the video review.

October 2, 2010

Book Review: Frankenstein’s Monster by Susan Heyboer O’Keefe

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FRANKSTEIN’S MONSTER: A NOVEL
by Susan Heyboer O’Keefe

Three Rivers Press
(October 2010, $15, 352 pages)

If you’ve ever read the original story Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, or loved movies like “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” and “The Bride,” you need to read this novel. I couldn’t pass up a chance to read this sequel; it picks up where Shelley wrote, “borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance,” revealing what happened after Dr. Frankenstein died on the ship.

Frankenstein’s Monster: A Novel, by Susan Heyboer O’Keefe, begins with a detailed journal entry by Captain Robert Walton. He addresses this particular entry to “Margaret,” who is later revealed to be Walton’s sister. He describes the friendship & brotherly feelings he had for Victor Frankenstein and explains why he feels obligated to hunt down the monster that Frankenstein failed to kill: when Walton had found the monster standing over Frankenstein’s body, he realized he realized Frankenstein’s ramblings were not those of a madman after all. Walton immediately gives chase across the ice, planning to kill the monster so he may return to his quest to reach the North Pole. Instead, he loses a finger to the monster, and barely survives the encounter himself.

The story then switches to the monster’s point-of-view and is also written in journal format, with location and date at the start of each entry. Walton has tracked him to Rome, so the monster flees to Venice where he finds companionship with a beggar, Lucio, and a mute woman, Mirabella. O’Keefe does an excellent job of evoking sympathy for the monster, sharing his most intimate thoughts in his journal, with bits of poetry and quotations from the many books that he reads. Despite his acts of violence, I am reluctant to refer to him as “the monster,” but he doesn’t take a name for himself until later in the story, eventually adopting the name Victor Hartmann.

When Walton destroys Victor’s meager life in Venice, he becomes the novel’s obvious villain. Victor blames himself for putting his friends in harm’s way; having been hunted down repeatedly by Walton over the past ten years, Victor feels he should have realized Walton would never give up his obsession. Victor finds out that Walton has family in northern England and plots his revenge, not unlike what he did to Frankenstein’s family in the first book.

After finding Walton’s family, Victor also finds his journal, which reveals Walton’s twisted view of the events over the past ten years. While Victor writes his own journal entries, he includes passages from Walton’s journal as well. Walton’s words highlight his madness; Walton’s sister, Margaret, and her daughter, Lily, contrast sharply with Victor’s ideals of what it is to be human and their characters hint at a sickness that runs in the family.

I was crying by the end of the novel; the epilogue (a personal letter from one of the characters) was a superb finish to a tragic tale of a life that wasn’t wanted. A reader’s guide is also included at the back of the book.
This novel is the first one Susan Heyboer O’Keefe has written for an adult audience; previously she has written several children’s books, and has been nominated for numerous literary awards. You can read more about the author here.

– Ursula K. Raphael

September 22, 2010

Oversung and Underpraised: Overrated and Underrated Canadian Writers

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

The National Post recently ran two pieces in its literary section, The Afterword, entitled Don’t Believe The Hype: 10 Overrated Canadian Authors, and, the next day, Flying Under The Radar: 10 Underrated Canadian Authors. The articles were penned by critics Alex Good and Steven W. Beattie.

In response to the articles, I would like to play devil’s advocate. Albeit I agree with some of Good and Beattie’s slams on big time CanLit monopolisers (I won’t sour you with my opinions), I feel that more than a few toes were stomped on in the more than pretentious analytical/critical slice of opinion. Below I reflect on what they think of CanLit today.

First off, the word Overrated. It’s no doubt that Yann Martel made the list, especially since his recent novel, Beatrice and Virgil, got almost all negative, and really negative, reviews. Yes guys, you saw the headlines too, thanks for the recap. Also on their hitlist are Douglas Coupland for being too much like Kurt Vonnegut; Michael Ondaatje for romanticising the new millennium in a cliché manner; and Anne Michaels and Jane Urquhart, more or less for having top sales.

If I may interject with one opinion, Joseph Boyden should not be on the overrated list. Good and Beattie knock Boyden’s two novels Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce for being stylistically and interpretively off the mark. Missed, however, is an acknowledgment of Boyden’s attempt to slash the colonial view of Native culture. Maybe if more than a handful of Native authors would be accepted into the scene, Boyden could be ruled out for bad writing. Until then, I praise any NativeLit authors, Boyden included, who truly represent Native culture in literature – a form, I remind, absent until the nineteen-eighties.

To give Good and Beattie some credit, they publicise writers who a lot of people don’t, although should, know in their Underrated list. And I agree, if it weren’t for corporate publishing labels worried most about the bottom line, there would be a chance for amazing writers currently dwarfed by Coupland, Michaels, Munro and Atwood. Almost all in the Underrated list were praised for stylistic mastering and pushing unconventional form, such as Sharon English, Clark Blaise, and Ray Smith. These authors, among others, are highlighted on the list for the average daily newspaper reader.

Enough about my take, what do you think? Is one of your favourites deemed overrated? Does an unsung writer you know fit the role of an underrated CanLit author? Are we just becoming too snobby? Or, is commercial literature an oxymoron – should it be chastised for ruining smaller writers’ chances? Leave a comment and have your say; one voice can’t speak for all of us.