Posts tagged ‘fiction’

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

January 11, 2011

From our ‘zine: Fiction by Dorene O’Brien

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Suspension Bridge
by Dorene O’Brien

I told him that I was a professor of 16th century Italian art. What else could I do? I’m a 33-year-old court clerk whose mother still demands kisses over the telephone. I have a blind cat and a Twix bar addiction, and I’m clearly not fast on my feet.

We met in front of the knockoff portrait of Madame Cézanne at the Baldwin Public Library when he steamrolled my large and copiously corned left foot while making a beeline for the men’s room.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, engaging in a little bladder-tension hop.

“S’all right,” I said, even though the pain was far worse than when the drugs wore off during my root canal.

When he exited the restroom I was sitting on a bench with my eyes closed, envisioning thousands of miniature carpenters mending my ailing foot, filing down the calluses, planing the skin to an even finish.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “Can I get you some water?”

“For my foot?”

“No—”

“Forget it,” I waved him off. “I’m all right.”

“Well, I’m Tony.” He sat beside me, his expression pained and guilty.

“I’m Aboline.”

“That’s pretty,” he said. “Are you named after a relative or did your mother love Texas?”

“Actually,” I said, “my mother loved scotch and misspelled Abigail on my birth certificate.”

Tony’s laugh was hard and real, and I understood then that he was the only person in town who didn’t know the story.

Continue reading

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January 6, 2011

Book Trailer of the Week: Charles Jessold, Considered As Murderer by Wesley Stace

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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 24, 2010

Our 2010 Favorites

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BY THIS ZINE STAFF

Yes, it’s the time of year to reflect on our favorite books of the year. We asked our staff to give us some insight on what they’ve loved this year from what they’ve read. Keep in mind, not all the books were necessarily published in 2010, just enjoyed in 2010.

 

 

 

NICHOLAS Y.B. WONG
Louise Gluck’s A Village Life, no doubt about it.

 

JOHN COLEMAN
This Cake Is For The Party by Sarah Selecky is a great contemporary vision of mid-life Canadians’ issues, written with the sharpness of a sword.

The Sentamentalists by Johanna Skibsrud Giller Prize-winning novel, showing underdogs can dominate Can Lit, in both style and subject matter.

 

SWEETMAN
I love to love books more than I love to hate them – honest! My “Top Shelf” books for the year include:

-Stoner by John Williams
This was the best book of 2010 and possibly one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

– Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne
A travel book from the seat of a bicycle, Mr. Byrne’s essays and observations while on his bike were insightful, interesting, funny and evocative. A great book to take-along for intermittent reading.

– First Lessons in Beekeeping by C.P. Dadant
This beekeeping book was written in 1917, revised and rewritten over the years by Dadant’s descendants, has everything for every level of beekeeper. One of the best beekeeping books out there.

– Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
It held up despite the controversy, Franzenspec and Oprah. Dragging parts aside, Freedom was well done.


– Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese
This book was placed in my hands by a bookstore manager and it was possibly the best novel of 2010 that I’d never heard about. I completely lost myself in this beautifully written novel.

– Tinkers by Paul Harding
This small novel, elegantly written, is a hefty, substantial read and has stayed with me since I finished it.

– Up In the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
My finest library find of 2010, this a collection of stories about New York city from the 1930s and 1940s that are so well done, I traveled back in time with these stories in my hands.

– The Man In The Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam
The prequel to my second-favorite novel of 2010, this is the story of Betty Feathers, wife of Old Filth. Jane Gardam is one of the most insightful, sharp, skilled and brilliant writers I have had the pleasure to happen upon.

– The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam
This collection of stories demonstrates the versatility and wit of my new favorite author.

– Old Filth by Jane Gardam
I finished this book wishing I hadn’t read it so I could enjoy it again. This was the first Jane Gardam novel I read and, as you can see by my list, I couldn’t get enough of her. Old Filth was her masterpiece. A close second to Williams’ Stoner for me.

 

LACEY N. DUNHAM
My favorite book of the year was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is the type of novel that converts you to an author and leaves you determined to read everything he’s ever published. This novel is the type of meta-fiction that puts Paul Auster to shame: clever, beautiful, and intricate without descending into flashy showmanship. My other favorites of the year include:

– Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in our Times by Eavan Boland
An autobiographical meditation on the act of writing poetry as an Irish woman, Boland’s breathtaking prose and shrewd synthesis of the traditions of poetry, both as a male pursuit and as a political act in the Irish tradition, is required reading for women as readers of good poetry and literature and for women intent on carving themselves a name as a writer.

– A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
The story of five generations of women unable to reconcile the dissatisfaction with their lives to their heritage as progeny of a revolutionary, Walbert reaches forward and backward in time to shape this vibrant, richly expressed narrative through each woman’s voice.

– The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Set in post-WWII England, the myriad specters that haunt Waters’ novel – social class, class envy, sexual repression, and the rapidly changing world – are vibrantly rendered as the isolated and suffering gentry family at the tale’s center witness increasingly violent and preternatural acts. The Little Stranger is a chilling Gothic novel enveloped by beautiful prose that imbues the malevolence with careful restraint.

– Wolf Hallby Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel utilizes every aspect of history to re-create a vivid world while providing dramatic tension from a contemporary vantage point and knowledge of history. Her prose is perfect. Her themes ring true to the current political climate (and, one suspects, to every political climate).


– The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
Mengestu’s novel is set Washington, DC’s Logan Circle neighborhood which, as a DC resident, I thought I knew well. Reading Mengestu’s novel taught me how wrong I was. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is more than an immigrant story: it’s a novel about missed opportunities – in relationships, in life – and the inevitability of, sometimes violent, change. What is gentrification if not sanctioned class violence against the less privileged? And in a country built by immigrants, how does the contemporary, unfiltered immigrant experience compare to the mythology of America’s promise? Mengestu speaks to both of these questions in this stunning, beautiful novel.

– Tinkers by Paul Harding
For the first 40 or so pages of Tinkers, I was unconvinced that Paul Harding should have won the Pulitzer for this father-son novel. However, as the two stories about father and son enter the same frame the magic of Tinkers comes through in its striking imagery and gentle pacing that quietly build momentum through to the powerful ending.

 

photo by Ethan Anderson

December 21, 2010

Book Trailer of the Week: Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

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A novel about revenge, old age, and Southern charm, Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s Revenge of the Radioactive Lady is due from Doubleday in February 2011.

December 17, 2010

Book Review: Laidenn The Dark Elf by Lyle Perez-Tinics

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LAIDENN THE DARK ELF
by Lyle Perez-Tinics

CreateSpace
(November 2010, $8.99, 134 pages)

The great thing about zombie authors is their dedication to the genre. Just when I think they have reached the limits of the imagination, I stumble upon something that expands zombie fiction into other genres – engulfs them, really. NOM NOM NOM! While other genres add glitter to their monsters, one author has brought the zombie culture to the North Pole.

When I read the introduction to Laidenn The Dark Elf by Lyle Perez-Tinics and realized that I would be reading a story about vampire snowmen and zombie elves, I didn’t know whether to laugh or beat myself with my laptop. After carefully noting that Perez-Tinics loves Christmas and the holiday season, I decided to approach this book with the same seriousness I would give to any fantasy tale. Keep in mind, this is young adult fiction, with the goal of appealing to both children and adults, so not quite as dark as you might expect, and age appropriate for grade school and up.

There are Light Elves and Dark Elves. The Light Elves make the toys and are enjoying a well-deserved night off at an enchanted amusement park when Laidenn realizes that they are about to be attacked by vampire snowmen. Perez-Tinic’s talent for detail shows when Laidenn prepares to fight with bags of salt. As Laidenn tries to make the other elves aware of the impending danger, we learn more about how light and dark magic work at the North Pole. We also discover that there are actually two different breeds of vampires as well.

I laughed at the description of the horrible things that took place in Santa’s workshop, such as Barbie heads with Ken bodies! Santa defends his workshop with the stealth and swiftness that would make Van Helsing proud. Don’t let the fat, jolly appearance fool you – this Santa has the moves of a warrior. He also has command of zombie elves! This is the Santa I want at my house.

When I read Laidenn The Dark Elf to my five-year-old (we’re talking about a kid who has already acted in a zombie film), he thought this would make a great movie and I agree. (Maybe a joint Pixar and Full Moon production?) This is a great holiday story for the whole family, especially if you’re already fans of the classic monsters: vampires, zombies, and the like. I know Christmas will never be the same at our house again.

Lyle Perez-Tinics is the writer and creator of UndeadintheHead.com, a site dedicated to zombie books and the authors. He dreams about opening a bookstore filled entirely with the horror genre. You can contact him at Contact@undeadinthehead.com or follow him on twitter www.twitter.com/Lyleperez

Ursula K. Raphael

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 3, 2010

THIS Reads: Classics for Kids

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BY SWEETMAN

Serial books are terrific gifts because they can be given individually over the years or as a set, particularly if there’s more than one young reader in a household. Individual books by a multitude of young adult authors – the genre churns out more books than I can follow – I like to give for gifts as well. A few timeless and enjoyable old school books impart a love of reading thanks to the excellent caliber of writing. They are true gifts to bestow upon young readers.

E.B. White
White is one of the most eloquent and writers I have ever read. He has a wonderful way of writing incredibly appealing novels for children that avoid the pitfalls of “writing down” to young readers. His stories include The Trumpet of the Swan, Stewart Little, and, of course, Charlotte’s Web. These classics should probably be given with a box of tissues.

Roald Dahl
What fun it is to read novels from a child’s point of view about evil villains (and villainesses) when you’re a kid. Roald Dahl’s children’s stories are full of dark humor, mistreatment and peril – and kids love it. These short, funny and very engaging books for young readers are hilarious to read out loud. Dahl, a disciplined father of five, allegedly regaled his children with these dark tales at bedtime before writing them as novels. Some classic Dahl favorites include The Gremlins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Reading shaped my life when I figured out the beauty of words on a page. I was never without a book, hence I was rarely bored (although I was almost always late.) Of the all the books and authors mentioned above, Roald Dahl probably influenced me the most. I love dark humor, I adore an evil villain and the best stories for me are where good conquers all. I never consciously reflected on the influence, though I named my sons James and Charlie.

Many, many of these stories have been made into movies, some good, some not so good but they are nothing in comparison to the actual novels. So give books this season and give the gift of reading. Kids today are so connected, scheduled, sheltered and overloaded with electronics that they need the freedom of imagination and to learn that the power of words has the ability to take you anywhere.

Read Sweetman’s previous THIS Reads: Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Twihards

photo: July

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 26, 2010

November/December Issue is Here!

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Tired of hanging out with your family? Want to avoid work? Read our November/December issue, featuring the works of eleven poets, four fiction writers, one essayist and a partridge in a pear tree.

Let us know your thoughts!

November 18, 2010

Small Book Wins Big Prize: Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists Snags the Giller

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists winning the Giller Prize, Canada’s highest literary achievement, does more for CanLit than for Skibsrud. That’s taken lightly though, because the young, thirty-year-old author of a highly esteemed novel will feel the Giller effect of worldly recognition and mass sales in the ball park of 75,000 copies. But even that sounds miniscule compared to the real story behind The Sentimentalists. When this novel was first published in 2009 by Kentville, Nova Scotia micro-press Gaspereau Books, it was in a wiry run of 800 copies.

That’s what makes this year’s Giller so unique in the world of CanLit, and so groundbreaking. The Sentamentalists is the smallest book ever to win the prize, which pays a pleasant $50,000, and beat out two big commercial novels, David Bergen’s The Matter With Morris and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel. Winter’s novel was also nominated for the Writer’s Trust and Governor General’s awards. Last year’s Giller winner was long time CBC newscaster Lynden MacIntyre for his widely successful novel The Bishop’s Man. In its fifteen year existence, past Giller winners include Alice Munro, Joseph Boyden and Margaret Atwood. No one saw the major literary award centering in on something as obscure as Skibsrud‘s novel, an account of her father’s life as a soldier in the Vietnam War.

At the same time, The Sentamentalists contended with other underdogs, including Sarah Salecky’s This Cake Is For The Party and Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting, two considerably smaller books, thought their quantities were at least in the thousands when recommended by the jury.

Once the 2010 Giller longlist was announced, Gaspereau owner Andrew Steeves turned down commercial offers to mass produce copies of The Sentamentalists. “If you are going to buy a copy of that book in Canada, it’s damn well coming out of my shop,” Steeves proclaimed in an interview with the Globe and Mail. He’s since changed his tune, telling the press on Monday that Vancouver publishers Douglas & McIntyre will be producing 30,000 paperback copies by the end of the week, with an additional 20,000 lined up when demand bubbles again.

Also currently hitting the news is a dash of Giller controversy. Ali Smith, British author and one of the three Giller jurors this year, reportedly tipped off a publishing friend during the middle of deliberations about her love of Skibsrud’s novel. The National Post reported that Smith’s friend, Tracy Bohan of The Wiley Agency, may have taken the advice a little too seriously, because she sold foreign printing rights of the book to a UK Random House imprint with a release date set for next March. Giller president Jack Rabinovitch acknowledges the information sharing was out of line, but was done innocently.

Meanwhile, Steeves at Gaspereau in Kentville, Nova Scotia is trying to keep his head above water while pumping out 1,000 hand-printed and hand-bound copies a week, with enough on backorder to keep them in business until e-books really do take over the world. Oddly enough, The Sentamentalists is available online as an e-Book from Kobo. Since the announcement of Skibsrud’s win last week, Amazon.ca has her novel topping the bestseller list ahead of Keith Richard’s Life and George W. Bush’s Decision Points. Beating out famous names like that is no little feat.

November 15, 2010

From the ‘zine: Fiction by Kris McGonegal

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But Here
by Kris McGonegal

Do you remember that game we used to play? “Anywhere But Here” I think we called it. How we used to play it after the days so crappy we didn’t even have the energy to commiserate with each other? We’d each pick the one place in the world we’d love to be. If you don’t remember, its okay, it’s been years. I didn’t remember it until last week.

I remember how you’d always pick the strangest places, like Greenland. Who in their right mind would want to go to Greenland? Or Belize? I swear sometimes you’d make up places just to see if I’d notice. I don’t think I ever did. For my part, I always had one place: the hill by my grandmother’s old farm house. Continue reading “But Here.”

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 1, 2010

THIS Reads: Sense and Serendipity

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

I find it interesting how we stumble over the things we end up reading. What makes us pick up a certain newspaper, magazine or book, only to have it become one of our favourites? In hindsight, I sometimes realise odd licks of fate that initially guide me to a certain trend in writing, only to view it later as something monumental. For instance, I’ll always remember the cornerstone novel in my life being Orwell’s 1984. I first read it on a philosophical whim when I was thirteen years old; I was coming of age and getting interested in world politics, and had heard how prolific was the novel’s satire of modern democratic society, derived from a premonition. I not only fell in love with Orwell (since having read most of his catalogue), but 1984 influenced my perception of the world. Whenever I reminisce on how I forged my left-wing, anti-establishment, down-with-globalisation ways, I often think of how trapped Winston Smith is, constantly evading Big Brother, and how the thought of becoming him forever changed my outlook.

It seems like lately, in a much less momentous way, I have oddly stumbled over more reading when titles jumped out at me for some reason and became some of my favourites. Here are a few that I have tripped over in the past few weeks.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
I fell upon Packer while reading an article about the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list in this a few months back. Skimming through the finalists, the words Drinking Coffee Elsewhere pulled me in for a couple of reasons. One: It reminded me of the movie “Coffee and Cigarettes,” one of my favourites, a documentary about rock and roll warlords. Two: Because it sounds so good (I know, but if you share this sentiment, you know what I mean). Thankfully, the witty title of this collection of stories was not a guise to lure in readers, only to have them disappointed at some lame, poorly written life story. Contrarily, ZZ Packer’s style is sensational. She not only attacks identity and gender theories, racism, and other contemporary controversial topics in Coffee, but does it with some of the best writing I’ve ever read. I highly recommend.

Anton Chekhov
I recently reviewed a book of modernised Chekhov tales and while doing so realised that I had never actually read anything by Chekhov. It’s hard to say this as an English major, but true. I had only heard of his prowess – how he is the best Russian story writer of all time and second to Shakespeare in the world-scope of bards. And, I’m pretty sure a few Simpsons episodes are taken straight from Chekhov‘s pages. Needless to say, I had to do some buffing up. What I mainly love about Chekhov’s over two hundred stories (and a number of plays) is the focus on everyday life. Whether drawing characters from working class Russia or writing about important national landmarks, Chekhov had an unbelievable knack for depicting reality in a highly important era.

Death In Venice by Thomas Mann
The other day I was reading the arts section of the newspaper and came across a review of a new opera in Toronto, Death In Venice, based on the novella by Thomas Mann. Once again, and I don’t know why, this title leapt off the page at me. I instantly hit the library. Now, if there is one thing I love about literature, it’s being able to get entranced by writing. Venice opens with its hero Gustav von Aschenbach taking a very Poe-esque walk by the cemetery where he bumps into an eerie stalker. From this, I was hooked. But the story is more than a Gothic stroll; it deals with everything from ancient philosophy, Shakespearian tragedy and the Narcissistic archetype. Check this out if you enjoy quick reads and allusion rich literature requiring an afternoon or two full of research.

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 26, 2010

Fiction from the ‘zine: Cameron L. Mitchell’s “Vacuuming Again”

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Vacuuming Again
by Cameron L. Mitchell

Pretending your husband isn’t outside the trailer smoking a joint is easy enough when there’s so much to clean. Men are ridiculous, Bonnie thinks with a smirk on her face. They think you don’t know what they’re up to. If Bonnie had a nickel for every time Danny thought he was pulling a fast one over her, well, maybe she wouldn’t be confined to life in a trailer.

The electric hum of the vacuum cleaner calms her nerves. She likes keeping a clean and, dare she think, happy home for her family. This is the fourth time she’s unleashed the small mechanical wonder today against the powers that be, the unrelenting gathering of dust that tickles her nose, making her sneeze and sneeze, as well as all the other scraps and debris that stain an otherwise happy home. With Danny Jr. running around all over the place with folded pieces of sliced cheese in his hands, it’s no wonder Bonnie often notices bits and pieces of old, hardened food stuck in the carpet.

That’s kids for ya. They make a mess. And mothers clean up after their babies. Bonnie only wishes her husband wasn’t such a baby needing looked after as well. She has her hands full with Danny Jr. and little Michaela. Right now, while Danny smokes his joint, he’s supposed to be out there watching their son, making sure he’s not getting into any trouble. But what kind of mother does that make her, that she trusts her dimwitted man to see past the plume of marijuana smoke to keep an eye on anything?

Continue reading “Vacuuming Again” by Cameron L. Mitchell

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 15, 2010

Video of the Week: Emma Donoghue

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In the video below, Emma Donoghue reacts to a creative book display at the Next Chapter Bookshop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and discusses her book Room with an audience gathered for a reading.

Room was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

October 11, 2010

National Coming Out Day: 10 Recommended LGBTQ Books

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Today lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer folks across the U.S. celebrate National Coming Out Day, a civil awareness day to bring attention to issues that impact LGBTQ communities nationwide. With media attention on the number of teenage suicides connected to homophobic bullying and the stalled repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the U.S. military ban on gay and lesbians in the military, we decided to contribute something positive to the negative news.

10 RECOMMENDED LGBTQ BOOKS

1. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
Bechdel, who penned the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, reached both new audiences and a greater artistic depth with her autobiographical graphic novel about a family falling apart. Bechdel quietly examines how secrets and lies can undo the truth while simultaneously becoming their own reality.

2. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
This illustrated children’s book topped the list of the most banned and challenged books in the U.S. for three years running; this year, it fell to third on the list. The true story of two male penguins at the New York City Central Park Zoo who are given and egg to hatch is also a moving tale about love and family.

3. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler
Frequently critiqued for her obtuse writing style, Butler’s academic text has been a constant critical companion to gender and sexuality courses at universities ever since its initial publication in 1989. Drawing from French philosophers like Lacan, Foucault, Sartre and, of course, de Beauvoir, Gender Trouble is a seminal work on the paradigm and politics of gender identity that is not for the casual reader.

4. Three Junes by Julia Glass
Glass’s debut novel won the National Book Award – and rightly so. A compassionate, moving tale that weaves the lives of three characters over the course of three vital summers is both gently humorous and dramatically compelling: Paul, a widower, his self-protective gay son Fenno, and Fern, a young artist searching for love and meaning in her life. Through these and her supporting characters, Glass tells a tender, beautiful story of the circular nature of life and love.

5. Lockpick Pornography by Joey Comeau
With its fierce, hybrid cover that mashes the face of the Sesame Street character Bert over a pencil drawing of a leather jacket-wearing, crowbar-wielding thug, Comeau’s debut novel picked up considerable word-of-month buzz that sold out its first printing in just three months. Described as a “genderqueer adventure story” Lockpick Pornography is also a wild romp through violence, gender, family and societal values, and sex. It’s also not a recommended title to Google without quotation marks.

6. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
Winner of the 2004 Man Booker Prize, Hollinghurst’s novel fully encompasses England during Margaret Thatcher’s reign as prime minister and the fast gay culture of the ’80s while also examining the tangles of class, politics, and lust.

7. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
Aciman’s coming-of-age novel centers on the erotic longings and desires that frequently define our youth, whether left unconsummated or not. Seventeen-year-old Elio is attracted to the confident American university student Oliver. Their friendship gradually becomes a passionate and clandestine affair. Aciman draws a portrait of youthful obsession with intensity.

8. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Another coming-of-age novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is semi-autobiographical; the narrator and budding evangelical, Jeanette, must reconcile her Jonathan Edwards-style religious beliefs with her growing same-sex attractions.

9. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Following up on the lesbians-in-Victorian-England theme begun with her novel Tipping the Velvet and continued in Affinity, Fingersmith is a Dickensian melodrama replete with pickpockets, orphans, sooty London streets, and asylums. It’s also a sharp critique of Victorian moral and sexual hypocrisy.

10. The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin
Another writer whose novels are frequently compared to the works of Dickens, Maupin’s protagonist in The Night Listener, finds himself drawn to an abused but devoted thirteen-year-old boy and fan of the radio show he hosts. Suspenseful, humorous, and filled with pathos, the anxiety of the midlife crisis is examined alongside greater questions of the blurred line between art and reality.

October 10, 2010

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

by thiszine

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

by thiszine

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 4, 2010

Giller Prize Longlist; Shortlist Announcement Tomorrow

by thiszine

BY JOHN COLEMAN

The longlist for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the leading literary award for Canadian authors, was announced Monday, September 20. This year’s judges – Canadian journalist and broadcaster Michael Enright, American author and professor Claire Messud, and renowned UK author Ali Smith – decided on thirteen titles from ninety-eight submissions from a wide variety of Canadian publishers.

This year’s selections are diverse and somewhat surprising compared to previous years, with a balanced list of big and small presses, male and female authors, and novels and short story collections.

The 2010 Giller Prize for Fiction longlist is:

The Matter With Morris by David Bergen (Phyllis Bruce Books/HarperCollins)

Player One by Douglas Coupland (House of Anansi Press)

Cities Of Refuge by Michael Helm (McClelland & Stewart)

Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod (Biblioasis)

The Debba by Avner Mandelman (Other Press/Random House)

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (Dial/Random House)

This Cake Is For The Party by Sarah Selecky (Thomas Allen Publishers)

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Scabbard (Gaspereau Press)

Lemon by Cordelia Strube (Coach House Books)

Curiosity by Joan Thomas (McClelland & Stewart)

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart (McClelland & Stewart)

Cool Water by Dianne Warren (Phyllis Bruce Books/HarperCollins)

Annabel by Kathleen Winter (House of Anansi Press)

The shortlist will be announced at a Toronto news conference tomorrow October 5 and the 2010 Giller Prize winner will be announced November 9.

While I have you here, I’d like to mention that the five nominees for the City of Toronto Book Award were announced recently. They are:

Prince of Neither Here Nor There by Sean Cullen (Penguin)
Valentine’s Fall by Cary Fagan (Cormorant)
Where We Have To Go by Lauren Kirshner (McClelland)
The Carnivore Mark Sinnett (ECW)
Diary of Interrupted Days by Dragan Topologic (Random House Canada)

The Toronto book award has been running annually since 1974. This year’s finalists will read selections from their works at the Word On The Street book and magazine festival in Toronto on September 26. The winner will be announced October 14.