August 30, 2008

Love Letters, Revisited


A while back I wrote a Sunday Salon post about Four Letter Word, a collection of fictive love letters edited by Joshua Knelman and Rosalind Porter. This is what I had to say, shortly before giving it a 5/5:
This book is amazing. I began it this afternoon and finished it this evening, on the couch for the most of it, and then sitting sideways in the computer chair, hurrying through the last two or three because I was so excited to write about it.

This book is about love. It’s about love gone right, and love gone horribly wrong, and sometimes love just gone. There are letters to lovers, and to former lovers, and to perhaps future lovers. There are letters to parents, to children, to strangers. There’s at least one letter “to whom it may concern.” There’s a love letter to a mountain. There’s a letter from a chimpanzee to Miss Primatologist Lady in the Bushes Sometimes. There is a letter to Santa — from Bigfoot.

I was looking for something to read this weekend, and I chanced the pick Four Letter Word up again. Love letters!, I thought, just the thing! And besides, I had loved it before, and surely had nothing to lose.

Except.

Did you know that was coming?

Upon re-reading, most of these stories have significantly lost their lustre. So many of them depended on the shock or twist ending that a second look completely stipped them of power. It was most disenheartening, in fact, and I have been left wondering what exactly it was that made me adore this book in the first place. The stories are good -- some of them quite good -- but I don't know if I would call any of them brilliant.

Could it be that all of them are craftedwith a similar flaw? Was I just not in the right mood? I'd give this collection about a 3.5 this time around; clearly something has changed.

Perhaps the difference was that the first time, I was reading the book in the glow of P having bought it for me ... and this time, simply because it was there.

It's a little bit upsetting, actually. How do you take it when a favourite book suddenly isn't?

August 25, 2008

Review: First Daughter, by Eric van Lustbader



I had been seeing this book advertised in Shelf Awareness for a while, and was intrigued by the premise, but was not able to procure a copy for myself on account of not living in the States. So sad (well -- for that reason only). But then I was offered First Daughter by the very friendly TJ at Planned Television Arts. I finished the novel a week or two ago and, surprise surprise, I have some thoughts.

But first, let's take a quick peek at the dust jacket blurb:
Jack McClure has had a troubled life. His dyslexia always made him feel like an outsider. He escaped from an abusive home as a teenager and lived by his wits on the streets of Washington, D.C. It wasn't until he realized that dyslexia gave him the ability to see the world in unique ways that he found success, using this newfound strength to become a top ATF agent.

When a terrible accident takes the life of his only daughter, Emma, and his marriage falls apart, Jack blames himself, numbing the pain by submerging himself in work. Then he receives a call from his old friend Edward Carson. Carson is just weeks from taking the reins as president of the United States when his daughter, Alli, is kidnapped. Because Emma McClure was once Alli's best friend, Carson turns to Jack, the one man he can trust to go to any lengths to find his daughter and bring her home safely.

The search for Alli leads Jack on a road toward reconciliation . . . and into the path of a dangerous and calculating man -- someone whose actions are as cold as they are brilliant, and whose power and reach are seemingly infinite.

Faith, redemption, and political intrigue play off one another as McClure uses his unique abilities to journey into the twisted mind of a stone-cold genius who is constantly one step ahead of him. Jack will soon discover that this man has affected his life and his country in more ways than he could ever imagine.

That's a mouthful, isn't it? And it's basically accurate. When I saw the ads I was particularly interested in the idea of a dyslexic hero ... both because P is dyslexic and I like to know things about it, and because it's not something you read every day. Big cop protagonist: that's normal. Protagonist escapes from abusive home: ho hum, don't they all these days? But a protagonist who battles terrorists and a learning disability, that's kinda neat.

Kinda neat ... but not really enough to sustain the whole plot. First Daughter starts extremely slowly, and it took six or seven chapters before I really felt like I was starting to get into it. And then I did, and it's a tolerably decent thriller. You know, good guy, crazy bad guy, helpless victim, shocking twist ending, and the like. There are some thinly-veiled current world leaders thrown in. It's actually pretty run-of-the-mill, dyslexia notwithstanding.

The thing that really turned me off, though, was that as much as First Daughter was advertised as a book where "faith, redemption, and political intrigue" interplay, it's really a story where anti-faith and political intrigue get together. The main message of the novel was relentlessly anti-religious, particularly anti-Christian --  Christians especially were consistently portrayed as massive hypocrites or simpletons or both. Now, I know that not everyone is willing to accept Christian doctrine -- but there wasn't any attempt here at intelligent debate or rational discourse on the subject. It was more like grade ones on the playground: "Booger-brain!" "Pumpkin-head!" "God-believer!" "Cauliflour-nose!". Not attractive. Instead of exploring issues, Van Lustbader resorts to snide remarks and jabs. The idea that Christianity is for morons is presented as a foregone conclusion. And whether or not you agree with that conclusion, it's still presented extremely poorly. Biblical stories are misquoted. It's a sloppy, sloppy, argument.

First Daughter was an okay read, but I would not particularly recommend it.

August 22, 2008

Review: When We Were Romans, by Matthew Kneale

There is something inescapably charming about galley proofs. I love seeing pages that say nothing but "Blank page viii" or "A Note About the Type -- TK". I like the little spot on the front cover that tells you that the book is a bound galley and not for sale. I like the tentative sale dates and tentative prices on the back. I like knowing that I'm reading something that still largely unavailable to everyone else. The whole package enchants me.

Of course, although I'm pretty keen on what I call the "Whole Book Experience" (that is, the physicality of the book being almost as important as the actual text) I know that an adorable galley does not a novel make. Fortunately for Matthew Kneale, I could have read a blinking-text version of While We Were Romans while hanging by my knees over a swamp and still enjoyed it. Because, you see, the text, also, is utterly charming.

Here's the blurb:
A young boy tries to hold his fragile world together in this funny and deeply moving novel from the prizewinning author of English Passengers.

Nine-year-old Lawrence is the man in his family. He carefully watches over his willful little sister, Jemima, and his mother, Hannah. When Hannah becomes convinced that their estranged father is stalking them, the family flees London and heads for Rome, where Hannah had lived happily as a young woman. For Lawrence, fascinated by the stories of popes and emperors, Rome is an adventure. Though they are short of money, and move from home to home, staying with his mother's old friends, little by little their new life seems to be taking shape. But the trouble that brought them to Italy will not quite leave them in peace.

Narrated in Lawrence's perfectly rendered voice, When We Were Romans powerfully evokes the emotions and confusions of childhood -- the triumphs, the jealousies, the fears, and the love. Even as everything he understands is turned upside down, Lawrence remains determined to keep his family together as he views the world from a perspective that is at once endearingly innocent and preternaturally wise.

When We Were Romans is beautifully constructed. It's narrated entirely in Lawrence's voice -- spelling errors included -- and although that's the sort of thing that could easily get tiresome, I found that the narrative maintained its freshness and believability to the end. I believed that Lawrence was a nine-year-old: a precocious, slightly gullible nine-year-old with poor but phonetic spelling, to be exact.

Lawrence is also an astronomy and history buff, and his explanations of astronomical concepts and historical events are interspersed throughout the text, often poignantly highlighting aspects of Lawrence's own journey. Here's a short astronomy passage, spelling (un)intact:
The black hole in the middle of the Milky way is quite small but its still terrible, its greedy like a big mouth and once anything goes in it never comes back out again, it is gone forever. There is a secrit line all round it, nobody can see it but it is there, its called the Event Horizon, and you must be really careful, you mustn't ever go across it by accident or you will get sucked into the black hole right away, nothing can stop you and you will never come out again.

There is lots of dust by the event horizon, its like a big disk, it goes round faster and faster until it falls in, so it is like water going down the plug hole. And d'you know just because its about to fall down the dust does a funny thing, it spits out lots of rays, they are X rays and radio waves, scientists can see them through their teliscopes, and they are awful actually. It is like the poor dust is screeming, its saying "oh no I'm getting sucked into this black hole, I will never come back, nobody will ever see me again, I will get squoshed flat, this is terrible" its like it is saying "help me." (p.192)

When We Were Romans is beautiful and sad, two of my favourite things for books to be. I'll definitely be re-reading it as time goes by.

Also reviewed by:

August 21, 2008

Review and Interview: What If . . .? by Steve N. Lee



I always get a little bit nervous when I get a book directly from an author. What if it's horrid? What if I hurt their feelings? What if I write a negative review and the author retaliates? I mean, you hear about things like this and this and this happening, and that's just not cool. So I think that I read books I get from authors a little differently than I read books I get from publishers or publicists... I read, perhaps, with a little more trepidation.

Most of the time, though, that trepidation is entirely in excess. I talk to authors and they are nice. I read their books and the books are good. Occasionally I even ask for interviews, and those are consistently interesting (to me, anyway). I'm always glad when things work out that way.

But of course, when I was offered What If . . .? by its author, Steve N. Lee, I was sceptical. I was mostly sceptical because of the title, let me tell you. I still am, in fact. I think it's a lousy title. The cover in general is pretty lame; readers are treated to a somewhat bluzzy picture of the creation of Adam and a title with drop shadows.  It's a little bit awful. But fortunately, the rest of the book more than makes up for it.

What If . . .? is a fairly fast-paced thriller with political, religious, and environmental overtones. It was described to me as an "eco-thriller," but I hold that such a description is not entirely accurate. Environmental issues do come into play, but What If . . .? is also a legal drama, a mob story, a medical mystery, a romance, and a quasi-religious human rights treatise. It's also quite difficult to talk about without spoiling the whole thing -- and there's a lot to spoil.

There's a lot that keeps you guessing, as well: things like the true identity of the hero, and of course, what happens next. One of the blurbs on the back raves that the ending is "remarkable and not to be read first!". (Of course, I immediately wanted to turn to the back and read the last chapter. But I am perverse.) I didn't read it first, but when I got to chapter 30, I thought I knew what the blurbist meant. And then I got to chapter 40, and I thought I knew what the blurbist meant. And then I got to the last chapter. Ka-bam, what an ending! It was remarkable ... and not to be read first, as counter-productive as such warnings might be.

I'm having a very difficult time trying to talk about the book without saying too much, and I think that I'm probably erring on the annoying side of vague as a result. I thought it definitely worth the read, though -- I give it a solid 4/5.

Want to know more? Steve Lee will tell you:

Tell us a little about yourself.

I live in Yorkshire, England with my partner, Ania. She's a teacher for kids with special needs (and, coincidentally, the great granddaughter of a writer: Wladyslaw Reymont, the winner of the 1924 Nobel prize for Literature.). I enjoy a cold pint of cider, backpacking to explore the world, rock music, and TV shows like House, Lost, Heroes, 24. I'm also lucky enough to have a successful blog, lionsledbysheep.com, on which I discuss environmental, conservation and human rights issues.

What were the sparks of What if . . .?? How did this novel begin?

The ending just popped into my head one day and I thought - ‘WOW! What an incredible climax to a story.' All I had to do was work backwards and discover what circumstances could thrust the hero into such a fantastic ending. And that's where the problems started.

A powerful ending needed a powerful story, and I simply didn't have one. So for years - literally - I brainstormed possible storylines that could do the ending justice. Of course, I could've gone with an earlier idea and produced a decent book but I didn't want a decent book - I wanted a great book. Finally, the bits and pieces started falling into place and, once I started writing, the ideas gelled and just came flooding out.

It was an incredible amount of hard work, but from the feedback it all seems to have been worthwhile.

Do you, like the hero, think that we can change the world? Or do you see our future as more dire?

The world can change, yes, but I'm worried it won't. People are too hung up on living a luxurious lifestyle to sacrifice too much for the sake of strangers struggling in countries they've barely even heard of. Add to that the power craving of politicians and greed of corporations and it's easy to see things carrying on pretty much as they are well into the future. That might seem depressing and cynical, but since when did anything ever change quickly because it was the right thing to do? (Unless there was a quick buck in it for someone!)

This is why I thought it would be a great story that readers would love to explore. If someone came along who had the power AND inclination to literally change the world, what would happen? Would they succeed? Or would the power-mongers try everything possible to stop them? And if so, who'd win?

That's the main reason it's set during a presidential election - it creates a whole other level of tension, fear and power-manipulation. And it's realistic, too, in that it paints quite a revealing picture of U.S. politics and corporate America.

Of course, there are all the traditional thriller elements, too - shootouts, conspiracies, car chases, double crosses, mystery...

Are you working on any more writing projects right now?

Yes. I've plans for at least one more thriller but the next project is a comedy. It's in its final stages, but it will be a while before it's completed and published because there's still so much to do with What if...?. For example, the possible movie deal I'm discussing with a European production company - I'd love a crack at the screenplay.

It might sound strange to go from thriller to comedy, but I'm determined not to get into the rut of having to churn out formulaic genre stuff that some writers unfortunately get trapped in, so the easiest option is to write something different immediately, then I won't get labelled ‘thriller writer'. That said, I'm not just writing a comedy for that reason, but because I've got a cracking story. My editor said it's the funniest thing he's read in years - let's hope he proves to be a fair judge!

What do you think is the biggest problem that the world faces right now?

Apathy. We're all horrified when we see Ethiopians starving to death on our TVs and yet, without skipping a beat, we'll jump straight into cars that do 20 to the gallon to go shopping for another Gucci purse, or dash to the drive through for a cheeseburger. Even when we see it's all related, we turn a blind eye to it because we believe it's simply too much effort to do anything about most of the issues we face, these days.

Changing things by acting responsibly would mean disrupting our luxurious lifestyles so it's never going to happen without a drastic shift in mindset, both at grassroots and government level. We're like kids in a sweetshop (candy store) - just grabbing anything we want with no thought of the consequences.

I explore all this kind of thing - the environment, human rights, conservation - on my blog Lions Led By Sheep.

Can you point out any good resources for people who'd like to learn more?

That's easy. There's my blog, for a start. Plus, I did a ton of research for What if...? and communicated with people all over the globe - England, America, Canada, France, South Africa, Australia... Links to many of these people/organizations are on my website, steve-n-lee.com/links.htm. There's everything there from Buddhism to rainforests to whales to origami!

The research was a lot of work - a LOT of work - but these issues had to be explored for the central character and the story to be believable. I knew just the kind of images I wanted to create in the reader's mind of what we're doing to the world but as What if...? is mainstream fiction not a textbook on ecology, I needed to create those images in as few words as possible so they added to the thriller aspect as opposed to slowing down the story. I wanted quick, slap-in-the-face mental images. It was absolute murder finding the info to do that but it was twice as hard making all these issues fit seamlessly in with all the car chases, double crosses and everything ‘thriller'. I struggled on till I did it, though, because I knew it would add an incredible depth to the story that would set it apart from other thrillers.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I'd just like to thank you, Christine, for giving me this opportunity and to thank your readers for their interest in my work. I hope you enjoy What if...? and if you pop by my blog, be sure to say, ‘Hi' (I try to reply to every comment posted).

Also reviewed at:

August 19, 2008

Review: It Starts with You! by Julia J Austin


It Starts with You!: Every Woman's Guide to personal growth and a successful Love Relationship is another one of those books I wanted to be so much better than it was. The premise is pretty simple, really -- this books answers the unasked question, "Have you ever noticed that the common denominator in all of your problems is you?"

Here's the blurb:

When you read this book, you'll learn how to define where to begin on your journey to success in relationships.

By following these simple guidelines, you'll know what to look for when considering a man as a lifetime partner. This book offers several discussion provoking questions for you to go through with the special man in your life to determine if he is the right man for you.

This book concludes with suggestions on how to make your relationship a priority, some practical tips for a happy marriage and how to keep your romance alive.

Note what that first sentence -- "you'll learn how to define where to begin on your journey..." -- promises. You won't find success in your relationships. You won't begin your journey to success in relationships. You won't define where to begin your journey to success in relationships. You will learn how to define how to begin etc etc. I realised as I was typing this that the blurb of a book isn't necessarily relevant to its contents, but this interests me nonetheless. I mean, how vague can you get?

The answer: pretty vague, just like the inside of the book! Many of the topics covered are treated in a few sentences, with such caveats tucked on at the end:

There are many good books that can help you to do this. You may be able to find some or all of these books at the library so you don't have to go out and buy them all. Another suggestion is if you have a girlfriend who is also interested in self-improvement, you can share books (p. 31).

Golly gum golly! I never would have thought of checking for books in a library. See, this is the biggest problem with It Starts With You: The target audience -- at least as far as I can figure out from the almost constantly condescending tone -- is, basically, dumb people. Dumb people who need to be talked down to.

Here's another choice excerpt:

Don't be a slob. Pick up after yourself and put things away. If you don't have a place to put everything away, then either you live in too small a place, or you have too much stuff, or a combination of both. [...] The only man who will enjoy living with a slob or pack rat is another slob or pack rat. If you really want to live in a dump, then you can ignore the last two paragraphs (pp. 29-30).

Classy.

The advice given in this book is, for the most part, basic common sense. But even common sense is rendered unpalatable by the bossy, superior tone of the advice given. It's also not very well-written even looking beyond the contents; semicolons are particularly abused and the author apparently has a "fascination" with using "lots" of "quotation" marks, often inappropriately. It's full of platitudes and dopey little cartoons ... I think the way I'd describe the entire thing is that it's as if it was written by Mary Worth.

I read about the first three-quarters and then decided that it wasn't worth finishing.

August 16, 2008

Challenge Update: Canadian Books, Eh?

The 2nd Canadian Book Challenge is well underway, and I am progressing well toward my goal -- well, sort of. I'm doing well with the reading of books. I'm not doing so well with the reviewing, or with reading the books I originally set out to do. But, I am sure that John Mutford will be lenient (right, John?) as I am providing a comprehensive mid-challenge update here!

To begin with, here's my original list of picks:

  1. The Sacrifice, by Adele Wiseman

  2. The Wars, by Timothy Findley

  3. Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

  4. Solomon Gursky was Here, by Mordecai Richler

  5. The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields

  6. Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan

  7. The Roaring Girl, by Greg Hollingshead

  8. Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje

  9. The Loved and the Lost, by Morley Callaghan

  10. The Book of Secrets, by M.G. Vassanji

  11. Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, by Vincent Lam

  12. Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay

  13. A Good House, by Bonnie Burnard

Here's what I've read from that list:

  1. The Wars, by Timothy Findley

Um ... that's it. But I haven't been avoiding Canadian fiction. On the contrary, in fact. Here's what else I've read since the July 1 kick-off:

  1. Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munro

  2. Great Canadian Short Stories, ed. Alex Lucas

  3. The Fire-Dwellers, by Margaret Laurence

  4. Yellowknife, by Steve Zipp

That brings me up to 5 Canadian books total since July 1, of the 13 to be read before the next July 1. I'm almost halfway done! But more important than the numbers game, I've definitely enjoyed the ride.

Great Canadian Short Stories, as I mentioned in a recent monthly wrap-up, is exactly what the title promises: short stories which are both great and Canuckian. There are twenty-seven, and while they're all at least thirty years old (exactly, in fact; it's a collection from 1978), the editor, Alec Lucas, chose the stories that most struck his fancy rather than by any specific criteria. It's not a collection that tries especially hard to treat all provinces equally, or all themes equally, or such. It's just a collection of really good stories. I enjoyed it very much.

I just reviewed Yellowknife and I will direct you there, because it is wonderful (the book, I mean, not necessarily my review).

As to The Wars, I can't imagine why it's taken me so long to read this. It is amazing. Timothy Findley kicks some serious literary butt -- if I can use so inelegant an image for so precisely-constructed a novel. It's gorgeous.

Hmm ... great, really good, wonderful, amazing, gorgeous ... it clearly must be Mellifluous Adjective Day here at shereadsbooks. Well, so be it. I don't want to stint on my prose, because theirs is good enough to deserve such lauds.

Next up! The Fire-Dwellers, by Margaret Laurence -- which I just noticed I had put down as written by Margaret Atwood, which is kind of an awful mistake to make. Margarets Laurence and Atwood, I apologise. You're both much too enjoyable to get confused with other writers. I read The Diviners last year, but I think that I liked The Fire-Dwellers even more. This might be a good one to start with if you're new to Laurence.

I also quite enjoyed Lives of Girls and Women, but Alice Munro -- more I think than Who Do You Think You Are? (although, interestingly, that question does also  come up in Lives of Girls and Women as well). It may not be coincidence that I'm enjoying the books I'm reading in the summer more than those I read in the school year for a very dull class...

Coming up next for this challenge I'll be reading The Road Past Altamont, by Gabrielle Roy, and Amnesia, by Douglas Cooper. I am excited.

August 15, 2008

Review and Interview: Yellowknife, by Steve Zipp

I literally have nothing bad to say about Steve Zipp's Yellowknife. It's gorgeous. The binding is beautiful. The writing glimmers. The plot is perfect. And you guys know that I don't use those sorts of adjectives when I write reviews. I usually deal with "pretty good" and "moderately interesting" and "fairly well-paced." But Yellowknife is -- hands down -- the best book I've read this year, and so I'm going to be be breaking out the big words. You know, "luminous" and junk like that.

Here's the back cover:
The time is 1998. The millennium looms. Yellowknife, capital of one-third of Canada and home to beasts and bureaucrats, is about to become a player in the world diamond market.

People come here for the damndest reasons. Something to do with the North Pole, maybe. It attracts them, I think. Like, there's metal filings in their heads or something.

A penniless drifter, a businessman obsessed by bones, an artist with a baseball bat, a fallen academic who lives at the dump, a biologist with a son named after a fungus, a native man older than Canada, a Mounty with a jaw of steel.

He dropped several boxes of ammo into his pocket, little plastic containers with sliding lids, the shells lined up like tiny lead soldiers waiting to do their duty. He contained an impulse to throw back his head and howl.

Our Lady of the Lake Trout, the Paradox of the Ravens, the Ice Road Café, the Mosquito Research Institute, Y2K, and the birth of Nunavut. A legend, a myth, a mystery.

It's a bit sentence-fragmenty, but intriguing, no? I thought so too. Steve emailed me and asked if I'd like to read his book as part of the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge or whatever it's called. I downloaded the book and read the first chapter, and then had to delete the file so that I wouldn't spoil everything before I got my actual copy. And then my copy came through the mail -- oh frabjous day -- and I devoured it, and then made various family members read it. Holy cow, Yellowknife is good. It's full of very strange people in a very strange place: detectives and fishermen and lost explorers, dogs and mosquitoes, old men and young boys, neurotic biologists and, oh, all sorts of people.

You guys, it's so good. Go read the first chapter and see if you don't agree with me. I give Yellowknife an unequivocal 5/5.

And in the course of writing this review, I also had the chance to interview Steve Zipp, which was exciting. Our conversation follows:

Tell me a little about yourself.

Well, I've knocked around a bit.  Lived and worked in 6 provinces and 2 Territories.  Taught school in Africa.  Banded ducks, tagged polar bears.  Toured Newfoundland with a travelling theatre company.  But always, always, a writer.

I've lived all my life in Southern Ontario and have never been closer to the Pole than to Thunder Bay. What should I know about the North?

If you go there, you'll return a changed person.  Wilderness is all around you, and infiltrates your soul whether you realize it or not.  Above all, respect the land and the people.  Listen to elders. In Yellowknife, read Walt Humphries's newspaper column, "Tales from the Dump."

Where did this novel come from? What was its spark?

My next-door neighbour.  One day while skating he fell through the ice, and his description of what happened, of the icy calm that descended upon him while his life hung in the balance, charged my imagination.  I began thinking of ways to incorporate it into a story.

What went into the decision to release Yellowknife online as well as in hard copy?

Corey Doctorow.  He makes all of his books available online.  I like his rationale.

Can you talk a little bit about the last chapter? Why/how did you decide to narrate from Neptune's point of view.

There is animal imagery throughout the book, and there are hints that the animal nature of some characters is closer to the surface than usual.  Plus, there really was a dog named Neptune on Franklin's last expedition, which I thought was a good way to tie things up.

My mother is worried about Hugo. Any inkling as to how his story ends?

I like fiction with loose ends, fiction where characters come and go, or pop up unexpectedly.  So (with apologies to your mom) all I can say about the person washed up on shore at the end of the book is that, yes, his survival is in question.  But we don't know who he is.  He could be one of two people.

I notice that you've written "Mounty" for a member of the RCMP, whereas I'm more used to seeing it as "Mountie". Is that a regional convention?

Heh heh, no, it's a stylistic one. There are other altered spellings in the book.  The most important is "North-West Territory" instead of "Northwest Territory" -- a hint that we're not in the same place currently found on maps.  Hence, the police in the story are NWMP not RCMP.

I hope that this novel is drawn from life. Is Yellowknife as breathtakingly bizarre as you've portrayed it to be? I think I might be a little heartbroken if it isn't.

Well, bizarreness is like beauty, isn't it?  One also has to remember that novels condense life, and Yellowknife is the distillate of many years in the North.  Even so, I couldn't fit in everything I wanted, like the early clubhouse at the Yellowknife golf course, the fuselage of a crashed plane.

Still, there are things in the book that are fabricated, though readers unfamiliar with the North might not distinguish them from stuff equally fantastic but real, such as Mars camp on Devon Island.  This was a conscious decision on my part, thinking (hoping) that readers would enjoy being discombobulated.

Is there anything else you'd like to say?

I like telling the story about driving south with my kids, born in Yellowknife, their sweet little heads bobbing in the car window as they watched the scenery go by.  Suddenly the blank-eyed forest gave way to a field of cows.  "Look, daddy, caribou!"

August 12, 2008

Interview: Mary Lewis, Publicist

I got to know Mary Lewis a little bit a few months ago, when she contacted me to find out if I'd be interested in reviewing a few books that she was publicizing. She's the lady behind Blog Stop Book Tours, for whom I read (and loved) Springtime on Mars. Mary has a brief bio up on her site, but I always want to know more about people -- and so I asked if she'd like to be interviewed.

If you've ever wondered what exactly it is that a publicist does, there might be some answers here for you. And if you're interested in reviewing for Mary, you can write to her at blogstops[at]gmail[dot]com for more details.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I'm a coffee fiend with an addiction to words. Nothing made me happier than when bookstores partnered with coffee shops. I read constantly.

I have four children - ages 18, 17, 11 and 6. The oldest is my only girl. I'm married to my best friend, who never ceases to amaze me. Cooking (from scratch), gardening, hiking and bicycling fill what little spare time I have.

I want a Kindle, but I'm waiting for the bugs to be worked out and the price to come down. The new Iphone has caught my eye, as well, but I'm not sure I need ALL those features just yet. And I'm probably the only audiophile on Earth who doesn't own an Ipod. I swore I would never be a "gadget girl", but the idea is growing on me. I'm just your average everyday geek.

How did you get into the book publicity business?

I got into the book publicity business because it seemed like a natural fit. I'm an avid reader and insatiably curious, I write, and I've been learning a lot about the publishing business. I've worked in marketing and promotions, off and on, for the last 15 years. It just so happens that everything came together now for me to focus on promoting books.

Do you seek out authors, or do they generally come to you?

The short answer is both. I actively look for books that grab my interest, but I've also been approached by authors.

Are you associated with certain publishers, or do you work strictly freelance?

I am not associated with any one specific publisher. The beauty of what I do lies in working with authors signed with big name publishers, small presses or self-published.

What's a typical day like for you?

I don't know that I ever have a typical day. With four kids, there are always surprises. My routine is usually to be up by 7 am, grab a cup of coffee and check emails. I get the kids off to school half an hour later, and then I blog. The rest of my day is spent networking, promoting, researching and reading for review or book tours. I spend time with my family from around 3 in the afternoon until 7 in the evening, then I finish up household stuff. I read for about 20 minutes before bed to wind down from the day.

How did Blog Stop Book Tours come to be?

Blog Stop Book Tours was born out of necessity and inspiration, with a little serendipity thrown in for good measure. I needed to create a business I could run from my home office, with the flexibility that would afford me. The inspiration came from many different sources. A friend and I had talked about the very beginnings of the concept of a virtual book tour four years ago. And it's stuck with me since. Then, I saw other people doing them. I let the idea sit for awhile until I had narrowed down how I wanted to do it. My son started Kindergarten. I had time to write, and plan and think, for the first time in a very long time. And then the Web 2.0 thing happened. All of a sudden, there were tons of ways to get the word out about new products to thousands and thousands of people in a very short time.

Last year, I read a news story that said that one in four of all Americans hadn't read a book, at all, in the last year. This left me dismayed. How could people not be reading books? I am extremely pro-reading. I've seen the joy in my children's faces when they begin reading a book that hooks them from page one to the very last word. I also thought about the 75% who are reading, and the fact that it's incredibly difficult for new authors to get promotion and/or shelf space at the bookstore. My purpose for starting Blog Stop is first and foremost to promote reading. In the process, I'm promoting books and authors and publishers and bloggers. That's a lot of bang for a very small buck.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to work as a publicist?

I wouldn't, mostly because I consider what I'm doing to be a vocation. My advice to anyone is figure out what your innate talents are and do what you love.

How much choice do you have when it comes to the books you publicize? Have you ever had to champion a book you didn't like?

The only things that limit my choices are time and the need for some sleep every day. I haven't championed a book I don't like. If I read a book I can't believe in, I won't review it or tour it.

Are there any book tours coming up that are particularly exciting to you?

Every book tour is exciting! Ellen Meister is touring her book, The Smart One, this month. I consider Ellen a good friend and I'm thrilled to be part of her promotion plan.

Three books are touring in September...

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

The River, By Moonlight by Camille Marchetta

Midwife of the Blue Ridge by Christine Blevins

I'm excited about them because they are all versions of Historical Fiction, which I didn't find all that interesting when I was younger, but now I love the genre.

And there you have it. If you have any questions, I'm sure that Mary would be happy to here from you. Go check out her website and give her a yell!

August 4, 2008

July Books

Books! In July! I read 'em! It was, in fact, a particularly excellent month in terms of my reading, especially as regards things I'd never read before (marked, as always, with an asterisk).

Here are the goods:

*V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore. My brothers had been bothering me to read this for a good while now. And so I read it, and enjoyed it. It's dark and gritty and graphic; I thought that the premise/world was exceedingly interesting.

*Runaway, by Steve Simpson. I highly recommend this book only because it is so unequivocally, hilariously awful. Read my full review for further details.

Great Canadian Short Stories, ed. Alec Lucas. This collection from 1971 lives up to its name, as its contents are (a) great, (b) Canadian, and (c) short stories. Intriguingly, both the first and last stories have to do with codfish. No joke. You should pick it up.

*Stealing Athena, by Karen Essex. See my review.

*The Last Plague, by Glen E. Page. As above, see my review for further (any) detail.

Letters to Karen, by Charlie W. Shedd. I don't feel like talking about this book. So I won't. So there.

*Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett. As much as I heart Pratchett, I would have to say that this particular offering was not very memorable ... since I am wracking my brains and can remember only the piddliest amounts of plot. But it was probably excellently funny at the time. There is also gumbo in it.

*Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett. MOAR PRATCHETT LOLOLOLOLOL?!?!?!

*Smilla's Sense of Snow, by Peter Høeg. I really enjoyed Smilla's Sense of Snow, although if you're someone who likes books to resolve nicely at the end you might not do so. It was particularly exciting for me because I've visited Copenhagen, and so I recognized some of the setting, which I thought was cool. I didn't yell about it -- but you should see me when I see my city in a TV show.

*Absolution by Murder, by Peter Tremayne. This was hideously dull, and a definite exception to the whole July-books-were-so-good theme. It read like a boring version of those Ellis Peters mysteries. I read the first three or four chapters, and then skipped to the last two -- the ending was predictable and uninteresting. I rarely give up on books midway, but in this case I'm glad that I did.

*Spanish Billionaire, Innocent Wife, by Kate Walker. So, DailyLit offered this on some special read-it-free promotion. This is interesting because usually the free ones are more or less limited to OOP books, and so seeing something recent offered for nothing was a draw. Plus, I keep hearing that you can make a packet writing Harlequins, so I thought I'd see what they're like for myself. It turns out: trashy, not particularly well-written, kind of morally vapid, but escapist enough that I could see someone making a living by cranking them out. I can't say much for Spanish Billionaire, Innocent Wife except that it's so handy the way the plot is spelled out in the title like that.

*What If . . . ?, by Steve N. Lee. Good book! Review and author interview are forthcoming.

*The Fire-Dwellers, by Margaret Laurence. I love Margaret Laurence's books. Oh gosh. She's so good.

*Yellowknife, by Steve Zipp. Yellowknife is as beautiful and strange as the Northland it describes. A review and author interview are forthcoming.

*Moving Pictures, by Terry Pratchett. Giggle giggle giggle.

Awesome Lavratt, by Ann Wilkes. (reviewed)

*Proust was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer. This book came in the mail to me courtesy of the lovely and generous Dewey. It is fascinating! I have a great interest in neuroscience (for which my spellchecker suggests "pseudoscience" and "bioscience")* and Proust was a Neuroscientist is extremely informative and well-written. It also has a very neat premise: Lehrer examines great artists -- Proust, (George) Eliot, Cézanne, Stravinsky, etc. -- and looks at how their artistry either used or foretold things about our brain that neuroscience would only "discover" years later. It is a very cool book, and the cover art has rays of glory bursting forth from a madeleine, which can only be counted as a plus, I think.

Of course, some of these books also fell into various challenge categories. Great Canadian Short Stories, Yellowknife, and The Fire-Dwellers were all read for the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge, although you'll note that none of them are actually on the list of books I thought I'd read for said challenge. I say: whatever.

I also read 17 books this past month, falling two short of my stated goal of 19. That means I'll have to count August for the 100+ Books Challenge, since I'm currently sitting at a total of 98/100. Ninety-eight! Good grief. I should have picked up two comic collections or something.

*My spellcheck also suggests "Overconscientous"  instead of "Neuroscientist." Um, okay there, buddy.

August 2, 2008

On "Sequels"

A catalogue got sent to me this week by a purveyor of books, and having a few leisurely moments this morning, I flipped through it to see what I could see. Here is what I saw: no less than 15 Jane Austen "sequels" on offer.

What on earth? Who is writing these things? Who is reading them?

Maybe I'm just a cynic,* but I can't imagine any of these being any good. Or perhaps they might be good in their own rights, but I can't imagine Elizabeth and Darcy Throw a Party** as being able to hold a candle to, you know, Pride and Prejudice itself. I note Pride and Prejudice as especially singled out -- but why? I know it's the most beloved book in the Austen canon, but why should that translate to "Durrr, I must write a sequel!"?

Here's the thing. You can't write a sequel to Pride and Prejudice because it exists as its own little ball of perfection. Darcy and Elizabeth need a sequel the same way I need all of my teeth to dissolve and/or explode.*** I know that in real life things don't tie up nicely like that -- that marriage is the beginning of the rest of your life, not the end of the story -- but from a narrative perspective, Pride and Prejudice told all of the story it needed to tell, and then stopped. We don't need more information than the epilogue gives us; that's moving into overboard territory.

I dunno. I just can't see the point.

Has anyone read this sort of thing? Are they any good?

* Okay, there's no "maybe" about it.

** Note to aspiring authors: I made this title up. You can write this book if you like, if you don't mind that I won't read it.

*** Don't laugh: I get nightmares about this.