Friday, December 14, 2012

Q&A with Melissa Leong/Wynne Channing

It has been radio silence over here for a couple of weeks and I'm sorry about that. December has been a little nuts – I'm knitting all my Christmas gifts (if you're a family member, do not click that link) – and although I've been reading a tonne, I haven't had any time to write about it. I am super looking forward to lots of book writing (that is, writing about books) in the New Year, but in the meantime, how about we turn things around a little.

I met Melissa Leong when we sat two desks away from each other in the National Post Arts & Life section a year and a half ago. We've both since moved (she to Financial Post and I to news), but let me tell you, she's an excellent writer. When I heard that she'd self-published a YA novel, I was both impressed and not surprised – Melissa always comes across as one of those amazingly energetic people, and that she'd want to branch out from journalism seemed natural. Anyway, What Kills Me was released earlier this year (under the pseudonym Wynne Channing) and tells the story of a 17-year-old exchange student who accidentally becomes a vampire and then has to fight for her life when the vampires think she is embodiment of an ancient prophecy and destined to kill them all. 

If you're thinking that doesn't sound like normal Books Under Skin fodder, well, you're right, but I always have time for good writing, and something different. To that end, Melissa and I did a little Q&A about her book, the process of self publishing, and how she found time to write a novel while also working full time. If you have a vampier fan on your Christmas list (and these days, who doesn't), I can't recommend What Kills Me highly enough – not only will you be buying a well-written, fun novel, but you'll be supporting a great author. How can you go wrong?

Q There are a lot of vampire novels out there and it would be easy to think the market was saturated – what prompted you to write your novel? Did you think there was something lacking in the genre (are vampires even a genre)?
A I was told that that the market was saturated with vamps; but this was the story that lived in my head and the story that I wanted to tell. I didn’t write it in response to Twilight or to push new boundaries. I wrote the novel as if there was no comparison.

Q Okay, that was three questions in one, sorry. During the day, you work as a reporter – did you find it hard to slip off that writing style for fiction?
A No worries. I’m a reporter. I love questions. I don’t find it hard to put my author hat on. Storytelling is storytelling. But being a young adult author is starting to affect my day job: I talk a lot with my fans via Twitter, Facebook, and emoticons and exclamation marks are creeping into my work emails. (Hi Mr. Cabinet Minister, I’d LOVE to interview you about the budget :-P TTYL!)

Q As a full-time reporter and a dance instructor, when did you find time to write a novel?
A I have no clue. Seriously. No clue. Someone needs to tell me how I did this so I can do it again and finish the sequel. I think I mostly kept the hours of a, uh, vampire and wrote in the middle of the night.

Q In your National Post article about self-publishing, you give a really good primer of sorts on what to think about then going that route. What surprised you most about the process?
A did not anticipate two things: Promoting your novel is a full-time job (see earlier comment about vampire hours). Second, indie authors are freakishly friendly. They rally around you with advice and support. I’ve never experienced anything like it. And I’ve totally drank the juice — I’ve got the “welcome” sign on my chest for newbies and I’m happy to lend a hand.

Q You mention in the article that you have a second novel as well. Now that you know the ropes, do you think you'll continue to self-publish?
A Right now, I enjoy being an indie author. You have total control of everything: price, timelines, the cover, etc. And I’m really excited to put out the sequel next year. Now that I know what I’m doing, the entire journey will be that much more awesome.

Q Speaking of second novels, all the reviews I've read about What Kills Me end with the reviewers' eagerness for book two. Is this destined to become a series?
A I wrote it as a three-part series. The reason for the delay is that I wanted to gauge reader reaction before I continued with Book Two. You never know what people will like, right?

Q Officially, What Kills Me is by Wynne Channing, which is obviously not your name. I always thought pen names were to distance an author from a novel, but you've shown no signs of that. Why did you choose to use one?
A Since I was writing about my experience for the National Post, I wanted to choose a neutral name, one that had no attachment to my journalist self. I wanted to see if I could make a run at this publishing thing all on my own. And my journalist self might want to write non-fiction one day so this leaves all doors open.

Q Not that I think of you as especially scandalous, but has engaging with a younger, YA audience made you think differently about the way you present yourself in public (social media, and whatnot)?
A I’m not scandalous but I swear. A lot. I work in a newsroom. We use profanity as much as we use punctuation. That, I’ve had to cut down on via Facebook and Twitter. Not that I think the YA crowd can’t handle it, it’s just not nice.

Q That age group tends to be very good at fandom – do you hear from your readers?
A Several times a week! It’s my favourite thing in the universe: fan mail. And it comes so readily through social media.

Q Where can people find your book? I know What Kills Me is available for the Kindle, but if you don't have an ereader, is there a way to buy hardcopies?
A Yes! It comes in digital form, and in paperback for traditionalists.

Click here for more about What Kills Me.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Blondes

As far as I can remember, I've never dyed my hair. It's possible I used one of the 12-wash dyes in the summer once, but I have no real memory of doing so. This is less a style thing than a laziness thing, since once you start dyeing your hair you kind of have to keep going, and because I'm one of those people who only gets two or three haircuts a year, it just wouldn't work out. How is any of this relevant to a book blog? Well, after reading Emily Schultz's novel The Blondes, I haven't been able to stop thinking about hair colour and natural vs. synthetic colours, and it has made me think more deeply than I would have thought possible about my own dyeing choices.

Off the top, I should say this isn't a non-fiction book about the history of hair colour or anything like that. It's a novel, and although it has various plot lines, the one relating to the title is that of an epidemic affecting only girls and women with blonde hair – either dyed or natural. This "disease" – dubbed Blonde Fury because it drives these blonde women to attack others – spreads like wildfire around the world, forcing airports into lockdown and governments into creating "containment areas." The pandemic, though, is only half of the story, which is narrated by Hazel Hayes, who has just discovered she's pregnant.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ender's Game

It will shock approximately no one when I say that I am a public reader. That is, I do most of my reading in public, especially during my work commute, although I also happily read in cafés, on the street corner, and while waiting in line. I read everywhere, and generally, no one notices. Or, at least no one obviously notices. I do see people peaking at my book cover from time to time, but only very, very rarely does anyone ask me about my book, or try to use it to start a conversation. (This is where I should add that every single time someone has asked me about my book, it has been a man. I'm not saying they're trying to pick-up, but it does seem fishy.) Anyway, all of this is to say that I rarely get interrupted when reading in public; that is, until I started Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Apparently it's a sort of seminal text for men of a certain age, because in one week I had at least three men tell me what a good book I was reading. One guy didn't even stop: I was standing on the subway platform and, somehow he caught the cover and timed his "that book is awesome" comment for just when he was walking down. It wasn't a conversation starter, it was a commendation, and while it was surprising, it was kind of nice. Who doesn't like a little positive reinforcement every now and then, after all?

Anyway, enough of that. The novel, written in 1985 but set well into the future, presents an Earth that has barely survived two massive wars with the extra-terrestrial buggers and is on the verge of a third. It is the fear of this third war that has led them to start training children – some as young as five or six – to be soldiers. These potentials are connected to a monitor (and by connected, I mean it's attached to their brain stem and thus records both what they see and what they think and feel) so the adults in command can determine whether the child has potential. The book opens with Ender Wiggin, age 6, having his monitor removed. He assumes this means he was a failure and is simultaneously pleased – it means his older brother Peter (also a failure) might stop bullying him – and disheartened (he is a Third, the third child born to his family despite the two-child policy, and the only reason his birth was permitted was because of his brother and sister's potential). Of course, this wouldn't be much of a novel if Ender wasn't recruited, so when it turns out that the military merely removed his monitor to then see how he would handle himself when no one was watching, it all makes sense. Ender is recruited and taken to military school in space.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Essential Tom Marshall

Kingston, Ontario, has got to be one of my favourite cities in Canada. For one, it's beautiful – think old limestone buildings covered with ivy overlooking the lake – and for another, it's where I did my undergrad, so I had four years to properly explore and get to know it. I even spent a summer there, something many undergrads never do in their university town, and I have to say, it just got better when the population dipped and the temperature soared. Above all, maybe, Kingston had a lively and varied arts scene, with both bands and authors constantly visiting (and, also making it there home). In all this richness, then, it is perhaps understandable that some of its artists would be forgotten; or, if not forgotten, at least not actively remembered. Such is the case with the poet Tom Marshall, who also first went to Kingston to attend Queen's, and ended up making his life there. Although I studied English at Queen's and was active in the creative writing community there, I don't recall ever hearing of him, which is quite surprising since, if the new collection The Essential Tom Marshall is to be taken as representative, he wrote a great deal about the city.

The poems in the collection were chosen by authors David Helwig and Michael Ondaatje, friends of the late Tom Marshall, and while it isn't clear whether the poems are presented chronologically, there is a cadence to their progression as Marshall's tone rises and falls. It is a slim collection, though, and as a result cannot feature many of of Marshall's longer poems – although a few are included. Reading through it, then, you almost feel you are reading many verses of a larger work, which allows the poems to both sit by themselves and slot into one another as images and emotions are repeated. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Age of Miracles

Sometimes the time at which a book makes its way to the top of my to-read pile is downright eerie. This week, for instance, during the "Frankenstorm" that was Hurricane Sandy – possibly the worst natural disaster to hit New York City in the last century – I was reading The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. I would have thoroughly enjoyed this book even if I hadn't been reading it with the backdrop of a hurricane and days and days and days of rain, but all of that gave the novel a kind of spooky feeling, as if I'd stumbled upon some kind of weird prophecy. I know it isn't really possible for a book to decide when it should be read, but I've had The Age of Miracles on my shelf for four months, so picking it up now makes me wonder a little.

Anyway. Thompson Walker's novel is set in more or less present-day California, where everything is just as it is now, except that the Earth's rotation has started to slow down. At the beginning of this slowing, days get longer by a half hour or forty-five minutes, and people start stocking up on canned food. When the news is broadcast for the first time, the narrator, 11-year-old Julia, runs outside to see if she anything looks different, but everything is just the same. Soon, though, the slowing becomes more noticeable. The days and nights start to stretch out until the clocks cease to make sense – 3 a.m. falls in the middle of the afternoon, noon in the morning, etc. The start time for school is announced each morning – that is, after sunrise – and a lot of kids stop showing up. Then birds start getting sick and falling dead from the sky.

The slowing, it seems, has started to affect the magnetic field, causing what is dubbed gravity sickness in people, and wreaking havoc with birds' navigation. In barely a month, there are almost no birds left in Julia's California town, and she's heard that it's like that elsewhere too. The longer days and change in gravity have also served to play with the tides, which are larger and fuller than ever. People have been forced to abandon their seaside mansions, which are now covered at every high tide.

Eventually, the days and nights grow to such exaggerated lengths that the government announces the country is going back to clock time. The rise and set of the sun will no longer have any bearing on what is day or night, they decide, on starting on a Sunday, the U.S. and countries all over the world, return to the clock. Floodlights are set up around Julia's school to when the students have to attend during dark days; quilts are hung over windows to block the sun on white nights, and soon the light and dark periods stretch to 48 hours each. Crops start to die, trees whither, and people begin to invest in green houses; Julia's mother's emergency stash of non-perishables spreads to the guest room.

As if all this weren't enough to try and deal with, Julia is in Grade 6, at that liminal age between being a kid and being something more grownup. Julia's best friend Hannah is sleeping over when the slowing is announced, and after she goes home that morning Julia doesn't see her again for months. Hannah's family is Mormon, so they return to Utah to prepare for the end of the world. When the rapture doesn't happen, Hannah comes back, but she has a new best friend now, leaving Julia more alone that ever. Julia's mother is sick – with gravity sickness – and as the slowing continues, Julia feels increasingly isolated. Until one day, when Seth Moreno, a boy from two streets over who Julia has been watching, invites her to the beach after school. A pod of whales has beach itself, and he wants to go and see and try to help. Although it doesn't happen right away, Julia and Seth become friends, best friends, half in love the way you only can be at 12 years old.

Thompson Walker so completely captures what it's like to be in Grade 6 – strangely aware of yourself and insecure and unsure and defiant – that even if you haven't thought about that time in years, Julia pulls you back there. It's this hyper-realistic experience that grounds the novel, making the other half of it seem not only plausible but frighteningly possible. This gives the title a dual significance, as The Age of Miracles is both the time of the Earth's slowing and puberty, when your body and emotions and everything seems to change both incrementally and overnight. It almost makes you wonder if the slowing is just a metaphor for what Julia is going through personally, but, of course, that it isn't makes the novel all the more fascinating. It is, I think, one of the most inventive novels I've read this year, and I can't imagine that you wouldn't enjoy it as much as I did.

The Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker
First published in 2012 (cover image shown from Doubleday Canada edition)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies on tour!

It has been quite a while since I posted on a Monday, but when Todd from The Workhorsery e-mailed me about a Halloween blog tour he was planning, I couldn't say no. Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies by Victoria Dunn is The Workhorsery's third book and, while this is unrelated to the blog tour, given the recent craziness in publishing it is really awesome to see an independent continuing to publishing interesting and fun Canadian work. The Workhorsery released a book trailer for Alice four months ago. It was the first book trailer I ever watched right the way through and then rewatched immediately. If you haven't seen it, it's posted below. 

So, with all of that in the background, when Todd asked me what I was interested in doing for my stop of the tour (today is Day 1) I knew I wanted to talk about the trailer. The impetus for promotion is increasingly placed on authors as publishing houses lose those resources (both staff and money) and I wanted to explore that a little. I was initially just going to post the e-mail Q&A I did with Victoria Higgins and Meghan Dunn (collectively known as Victoria Dunn), but they got into it even before my questions started, so I've included that part of the e-mail too.

Finally, before the questions start and the book trailer rolls (you really should watch it – the song will be stuck in your head all day), one last bit of business. The Workhorsery is holding a blog tour contest. Whoever comes up with the best answer to the question the best answer to the question "should zombies have human rights?" will receive a special Workhorsery prize pack, which will include:
  • autographed copies of all three of our novels (Victoria Dunn's Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies; Derek Winkler's Pitouie; and Jocelyne Allen's You and the Pirates)!
  • a genuine zombie crotchet doll, possibly from the book trailer itself, definitely specially-crafted by the author(s) herself/themselves! 
  • some other secret stuff related to the novel that we're keeping top secret!
  • a hand-made, super-limited addition Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies Workhorsery tote bag to carry it all in!
To win, e-mail your answer to or tweet them @theworkhorsery before Nov. 7.

Alright, let the blog tour begin!

(E-mail correspondence below. I'm in black, Victoria Dunn is in purple.)

First, I’m not sure if you would rather answer as Victoria Dunn or as Victoria and Meghan, so I’ll let you choose.

We answered as Victoria Dunn, our evil hive mind, using the royal we. But we’re not stuck up, honest.

But, can you let me know? If you choose to answer as yourselves (or, individually, as the case may be) can you indicate who is saying what? That way, if you squabble about an answer, we can all be in on it.

Victoria Dunn frequently argues with herself. Although rarely about anything pertaining to writing. The most recent argument was whether the cups suit in our zombie tarot deck represents sex, or if zombies and sex are two great tastes that do not taste great together. However, we do agree that tasting zombies is not generally a good idea.
Some background for your readers: Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies began life as an entry in the 2009 International 3-Day Novel Contest, a Vancouver based contest held every Labour Day weekend. We won 3rd place in that competition, and we’ve been doing all of our first drafts this way ever since. We’re both big fans of the creative rush of writing tens of thousands of words all at once, and the inevitable sleep-deprivation leads to some inspired – and occasionally insane – plot twists. 

1. When you were writing/had just finished Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies, did you give any thought to how you might promote it? Did you know that might be part of your job, as authors?

We were working on the promotion before the book was even done. Victoria works at a bookstore, so we understand how important it is to make sure the book gets into people’s hot little hands. We were stalking Trevor Strong of the Arrogant Worms before we even had a publishing contract, having discovered that he writes songs to order (after all, every novel needs its own theme song…). So, at our first meeting with our publisher, the Workhorsery, we were able to propose some ideas for promoting the novel including the book trailer and zombie beauty contests etc. 

2. Whose idea was the book trailer? Had you seen any previously?

The problem with having an evil hive mind is that it’s impossible to figure out which ideas belong to which person. Or even who wrote what originally! Certainly the book trailer was something we agreed on from very early on, sometime between the midnight deadline of the 3-Day Novel contest and beginning the second draft a few months later. Which was, incidentally, when we noticed that in the first draft our airplane had crashed upside down, but had magically righted itself by the end of the chapter. It was several more months before we noticed that we’d accidentally handed a suicidal character a fully loaded gun. You’d almost think it had only been written in three days…

3. As compound authors, you’re obviously okay with collaboration, but were you ever worried about letting someone else handle to creative process when it came to the video?

We trusted Trevor completely, especially as neither of us has any musical ability at all. We still suffer flashbacks to traumatic middle school music classes. One of our music teachers was a Hungarian who’d fled the Soviets and liked to make students cry– this is when young Victoria became a Communist sympathizer.
The rest of the video was entirely our creation. In fact, it was the first video we’d ever made! Can you tell? (The constantly shifting light levels might be a clue.) 

4. Where was it filmed?

On the floor in the room at the front of Meghan’s house that really doesn’t have a name. She has fantasies that someday it will be a library with built in shelves and a sexy rolling ladder. Meghan believes in dreaming big!

5. The very, very catchy song was written and sung by Trevor Strong – did you consult? Were you ever worried he wouldn’t “get” your book?

It’s quite the earworm, isn’t it?
When we hired Trevor, he gave us the option of telling him as much or as little about the book as we wanted. Some people who have hired him have apparently only shared the title of the book, but that seemed counterproductive to us. We wanted more than “Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies is a book! Please buy it!” on an endless loop. So we gave him characters and the basic plot, and confessed our ambitions for becoming fabulously successful authors and selling the movie rights. He ran with it, and we were delighted with the result. 

6. Whose idea was it to crochet the characters?

Meghan was already making little TV characters out of crochet, such as tiny crocheted Starsky and Hutch facing off against little crocheted Satanists. Since we couldn’t afford to pay actors, it wasn’t a stretch to think that we might as well make them.

7. I see you’ve made the zombie pattern available on your website – are you hoping to inspire some Call Me Maybe­-esque spin-offs?

That’d be wonderful! We’re also completely cool with fan fiction, even the really smutty kind (especially the really smutty kind). We promise never to stalk our fans and issue cease-and-desist orders, unless they’re making money off of our book and won’t give us a cut!
We’re also encouraging our friends to come up with creative book covers, like the literary one on our website. One of our friends is currently working on a pulp 1950s magazine style cover. Can’t wait to see it! 

8. With a story this fun, I feel like the sky is the limit when it comes to promotion. Besides the trailer and the blog tour, what do you have planned?

We’ve got more ideas than we have time or energy to execute. But on Halloween night we’ll be doing zombie tarot card reading at Collected Works bookstore. We’ll also be attending the Small Press Book Fair, Fall Edition in November, and in December we’ll be teaching teenagers how to crochet their very own zombie Christmas ornaments at a local high school.
We really enjoy events like the Ottawa Geek Market and Toronto Word on the Street. We also visit bookstores, and have been known to pounce on complete strangers in the street and terrorize them into buying our book. 

9. Both the book and the book trailer have been really well received. What do you think makes the zombie so appealing?

Zombies are adorably tenacious. It doesn’t matter if they lose an arm, a leg or half their body, they never give up on their goals. They don’t get stressed out about failure, either. Despite the whole hunger for human flesh, zombies are never malicious. They don’t hate you. They’ll never judge you. They just want to get up close and personal, because they think you’re a tasty treat. And that’s really a compliment when you think about it.

10. Will you be dressing up for Halloween?

Thanks to the zombie novel, we’ve been hanging out at the local Punk Flea Markets and buying pretty dresses with skull and zombie prints. Also, we have a growing collection of zombie t-shirts. It’s amazing how often zombies are exactly the right fashion statement to make.
Zombie wear also works as a marketing tool, too! If someone asks about the t-shirt or the dress, it’s an opening to hand-sell the novel, or at least give them a bookmark.
Meghan’s considering handing bookmarks out with the Halloween candy this year. If she does, she’ll definitely give them with candy, not instead of candy, because she doesn’t want her house egged.

Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies is available from your local independent bookstore. PLUS, the tour continues tomorrow and Wednesday! Check out The Eyrea on Tuesday and Open Book Toronto on Wednesday for more about Victoria Dunn, Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies an, well, zombies in general.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Too Much Happiness

It's funny how certain books seem to just have a right time to be read. Often, these are books that you buy with the full intention of reading them immediately, and then for one reason or another, they sit on your shelf unread for years. This is not unusual with gifts – books that look interesting and suit your taste, but that weren't on your mental (or perhaps physical) to-read list, and so get slotted in and then put aside until their time comes. For a book purchased with excitement, though, it seems strange that you wouldn't open it right away. Nonetheless, that's what happened to my copy of Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness. I bought it the Christmas after it came out – soon enough that it's a hardcover, but late enough for it to have a cover line announcing its Man Booker win. I have meant to read it many times since then, but it wasn't until we decided to read it for CanLit Knit that I finally cracked the cover.

In classic Munro style, the majority of the stories in the collection are set in southwestern Ontario, and while some are contemporary, many are set ten or twenty or thirty years ago. The collection opens with one of the more contemporary stories. Dimensions is the story of a young woman who, at the beginning of the story, has clearly survived some kind of trauma. She is visiting someone, or trying to, and she has a therapist she has talked to about it. She has cut her hair short and dyed it – very different than the way he liked it, whoever he is – and moved towns. She is quiet and fragile seeming. And slowly, Munro unfolds her story. Doree met Lloyd when she was 16 and he was much older and a nurse looking after her dying mother. They get married, she gets pregnant, and three kids later she's in her early 20s and living in a farm house, largely cut off from other mothers and people her age. Lloyd is controlling, although she doesn't see him that way, and their household swings from fights to uneasy peace. When Doree meets a fellow home-schooling mom, who has a van and can help her with the kids, she allows a tentative friendship to form and one night, after fighting with Lloyd, she goes to Maggie's house to wait it out. He calls, Maggie tells him Doree will stay the night, and in the morning, Maggie drives her home and Lloyd is sitting on the front step. Inside, Doree's children are lying dead. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mister Roger and Me

Last year, my friend Wendy and I went to the New Yorker Festival. The first event we saw was a panel discussion with the New Yorker's books editor and Jhumpa Lahiri, Geoffrey Eugenides, and Nicole Krauss, about what it meant to be a writer's writer. While the entire discussion was really interesting, one of the things I remember most was Jhumpa Lahiri talking about the power of the first novel. It is, she said, a book you write only for yourself, often for years, sometimes without anyone else knowing, and that kind of hard work and lack of outside pressure can make for a kind of purity. She went on to say that writer's writers were authors who were able to get back to the mindset of writing only for themselves, but I have to say that her idea that there is something pure about a debut novel (as opposed to tortured and agonized over, I suppose) has changed the way I read first novels. When I picked up Marie-Renée Lavoie's Mister Roger and Me, translated by Wayne Grady, I didn't realize it was her debut, but knowing that now makes me think Lahiri was really on to something.

Mister Roger and Me is set in Montreal in the early 1980s, and is the story of Hélène – although she would prefer you call her Joe – and her family and their neighbourhood. The story is told by the grown up Hélène (who is okay with being called that), and although there are a few times when she steps out of the timeline to reveal a detail about what happens in the future, the novel is a mostly linear account of her childhood, between the ages of 8 and 11. To begin with, I'll explain the name. Hélène is obsessed with a TV show on the Family Channel that features a young woman who, disguised as a man named Oscar, serves as one of Marie Antoinette's guards. For Hélène, Oscar is the absolute role model, and exactly the kind of man/woman she would like to be: brave, strong, in disguise. To begin her transition to an Oscar-type character, Hélène convinces people to call her Joe. She is quite disappointed by the lack of suffering and hardship in her life, but she does notice that her mom doesn't always have the money to purchase the necessary dinner items, so she lies about her age and gets a paper route.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Gone Girl

I have a tricky relationship with crime and detective fiction. On the ond hand, I love a good mystery. It is, in a way, the ultimate escapist fiction because a good mystery can pull you entirely away from real life while you're reading it, and then keep you thinking about it long after you've put the book away. Intelligent detectives/sleuths, good writing, a little humour – yes, I enjoy that very much. Then, though, there's the more extreme end of the genre, where the reader bounces back and forth between the detective and the killer (it's almost always murder). Generally, the level of detail is extreme, the plot is that much more suspenseful, and the outcome that much more bloody. Not to say those books are bad – I've just lost the stomach for them. This was the general duality of crime thrillers I understood to exist, and then I picked up Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl for a book club and everything went pear-shaped.

Gone Girl was not on my radar at all (despite it being a New York Times bestseller), but as a book club pick I was duty bound to pick it up. It begins on July 5, the day of Amy and Nick Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary. All is not well in the Dunne household, that much is clear, but it seems as though some kind of uneasy truce has been reached for the anniversary, and when Nick wakes up, Amy is in the kitchen making crepes. We are in Nick's head, in his first-person, when he goes downstairs for breakfast, which is how we know that the vision of his wife inspires dread. Later, when Nick is at work – he and his twin sister Go (short for Margo) own a bar called The Bar – he gets a call from an alcoholic neighbour saying his front door is wide open. Not thinking much of it, Nick drives home to check up on things and finds that the door inside is indeed open, that the living room furniture has been overturned, and that his wife is nowhere to be found. He calls the police.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Blue Book

When I was a kid, I went through a bit of a ghost phase. You know, played with Oiuja boards and read ghost stories and that kind of thing. Weirdly, though, I never really thought about death, it was more about the "life" that comes after that, if that makes sense. Death is a tricky thing for kids to understand, and while most people grow out of that – come to understand the completeness of death, to a degree at least – not everyone does. Or, they do, until someone close to them dies, and then they can't bring themselves to believe that person is gone. This, of course, is where the industry of mediums and psychics comes in, which is a business I am very skeptical of. It's also a practice I would never seek to read a novel about, but nonetheless, that is, in a way, what I got myself into when I picked up A. L. Kennedy's The Blue Book.

Wait. Let me back up. The Blue Book isn't precisely about mediums, though that's part of it. The novel itself, though, starts with a line-up to get on an ocean liner. The novel itself is entirely contemporary, except for this quirk of people travelling from England to the U.S. by boat. It's a seven-day journey, and not a cruise since the final destination is New York and there are no little sight-seeing ventures on the way. It is, in a way, a very long ferry ride, and Elizabeth Barber and her boyfriend Derek are along for the ride. In line, Derek is a total grump and Elizabeth is approached by a youngish man who introduces himself as Arthur, call him Art – about her age, which in itself is notable since everyone else seems to be pushing 70 – who asks her to pick a number between one and 10. It's a magic trick of sorts, and although Elizabeth finds it tiresome, she plays along right through to the end, by which time the line is moving again anyway.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

S.T.E.L.L.A.A. & Child Literacy

Not that long ago, I listened to a Radiolab podcast about colour and it blew my mind. Now, I'll be the first to admit that their brand of science-y storytelling can often do that, but this was different. In the show (which I highly recommend you listen to), they talked not only about how colour works and where it comes from and that sort of thing – they also talked about the language of colour. Specifically, they spoke to a linguist Guy Deutscher about William Gladstone's reading of The Odyssey and how, even though that book takes place mostly in locations surrounded by water, the word "blue" is never used. Not once. The conclusion? That blue didn't exist for Homer. He didn't have a word for it, so he couldn't express it (he instead describes the sea as "wine-dark"). Colour words, it seems, develop in stages that are consistent across cultures, with blue being the last major one to come into play. Crazy, right?

I have been thinking about this a lot since I listened to that podcast, so when Carrie MacMillan contacted me about being part of the S.T.E.L.L.A.A. blog tour, the two ideas meshed. S.T.E.L.L.A.A. works to eradicate poverty in Africa by providing literacy and educational tools to communities. It's a small thing, but it can have a huge impact. One of the ways S.T.E.L.L.A.A. provides these tools is through books donated in Canada and delivered to various African communities (part of their philosophy is to promote environmental responsibility, and reusing books is a great way to do that).

When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to grow up in a house filled with books. My parents were (and remain) readers, so from the word go I was surrounded by books. I was read to, I was encouraged to pick up books and flip through them (and later, of course, to read them myself). For me, books were a way to go somewhere else. I was never going to experience 19th century Prince Edward Island or the pioneer days in the U.S. for myself, but Lucy Maud Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder could take me there. I was never going to take a boat past Patagonia, but thanks to Sue Scullard's Miss Fanshawe and the Great Dragon Adventure I not only got to see the mountains of Patagonia, but also to follow along as the heroine discovered dragons at the centre of the Earth. I still have never been to the Netherlands, but because I was read (many, many times) The Cow Who Fell Into the Canal by Phyllis Krazilovsky, I was given a way to imagine it anyway.

That's the point, really. Reading, and being read to, as a child feeds your imagination with a world of images and and situations and places that you might never experience first-hand, but can dream about nonetheless. As kids, my sisters and I weren't allowed to watch much TV, so our free time was spent reading and playing, and the vast majority of our games were fuelled by our incredibly active imaginations. Even though there were certainly times when, like Homer I suppose, we lacked the word for whatever it was we wanted to describe, we had the imaginations to come up with something else.

In Orwell's 1984 there is the suggestion that if we lack the word for something, we can't think it; fostering active imaginations in children defeats that, because if you have an imagination, there is always a way to express yourself. (No word for blue? Fine then, I'll say it's "wine-dark.")

As my contribution to the S.T.E.L.L.A.A. blog tour, I'd like to encourage you to donate your (gently) used books to their cause. Local libraries are certainly deserving as well, but even if you put every second or third book aside, it makes a difference. In addition to picture books and fiction, S.T.E.L.L.A.A. needs text books. Subjects such as math and basic science – in which not a lot really changes between editions – are greatly appreciated, and put to excellent use. Education and imagination are extraordinarily empowering, although it's easy to forget that living as we do in a society where both those things are so normalized.

Now, it's tempting to say that every book will be appreciated, but it's important to remember the context in which these books will be read. Cookbooks, books about home decor, etc. are of little use to communities looking to improve education. Yes, they can be tools for imagination, but they depict a reality so incredibly different that at best they are useless and at worst, insulting. S.T.E.L.L.A.A. also stays away from evangelical and political work, so please consider that when planning books to donate (an illustrated book of parables may have been a family favourite in your house, but may not jive with a community it's sent to, and respecting that is important). The full list of guidelines for donation are here – for the most part, your books are welcomed with open arms.

All the drop-off points are in Toronto; however, I asked about sending books by mail, and was given this address:

9200 Weston Road
PO Box 92092
Vaughan, ON L4H 3J3
If it's a big donation, though, they ask that you get in touch with them about sending it.

Although I often have the opportunity (both through this blog in in my day to day life) to champion books and literature, it's rare that I get the chance to do more than simply recommend a book or encourage someone to shop at local independent bookstore. If you feel similarly, consider donating books S.T.E.L.L.A.A. – Allegra Young is planning to run a book drive in the New Year, so perhaps I'll talk to her about co-hosting. Either way, stay tuned!

Also, this is the second-last day of the blog tour, but if you'd like to read more about S.T.E.L.L.A.A., and learn more about the organization, please take a tour through all the stops:
Sept. 8: Tour launches with Terry Fallis
Sept. 9: Vanessa Grillone
Sept. 10: Amy McKie

Sept. 11: Jenn Lawrence
Sept 12: Allegra Young
Sept. 13: Here!
Sept. 14: Mara Shapiro

Thursday, August 30, 2012

One Good Hustle

Stories about con artists, hustlers, and small-time thieves are usually pretty happy go lucky. I remember picking up Paper Moon as a kid and being totally fascinated by the world of tricks and sleight of hand that saw a father and daughter travelling around the country to make their fortune. For the most part, their crimes seemed victimless, and you just knew everything was going to work out. If this is what you're expecting when you pick up Billie Livingston's new novel One Good Hustle, prepare yourself: her perspective on cons is totally different.

The novel is the story of Sammie, the 16-year-old daughter of hustlers, and takes place during the summer between Grades 11 and 12. Sammie is living at a friend's – almost more of an acquaintance at the beginning – because her mother is depressed, suicidal, and has substance abuse problems. When Sammie decided she couldn't take it anymore (her mother could kill herself, but she didn't want to be there to watch), she left. Of course, that doesn't mean she isn't thinking about her mother, or worrying about her, or wondering where her dad is (her parents split up years ago), or hoping he'll come and take her away with him.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Art of Fielding

It is no secret among those who know me that I love baseball movies. I love them. Not more than all other movies, but definitely more than all other sports movies (as a group, anyway, specifics can prove to be exceptions). I think some of that has to do with being a kid in the late-'80s and the '90s, when movies like The Sandlot (probably my favourite childhood movie), Rookie of the Year, and Angels in the Outfield all came out. When I got older and realized that all the great baseball classics started either Kevin Costner and Robert Redford, I was hooked. I mean, Bull Durham? The Natural? Field of Dreams? Do sport movies get better than that? Anyway, the reason I'm bringing any of this up on a book blog is because I only recently discovered baseball books, and, at least as far as Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding is concerned, the appeal is much the same.

What I have always loved about baseball movies, and now books, is that they are never really about baseball. Baseball is the catalyst, it happens regularly throughout the movie, but it isn't what the thing is really about. Or, maybe it is, but it manages to tie in so many other things that it doesn't matter how much about baseball you know in order to enjoy it. Everyone gets the baseball metaphor, and that's enough grounding in the sport to understand any action that takes place on the diamond. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Every once in a while, a book comes along that challenges the way I see myself as a reader. I like to think that I'm a good reader, that I'm generous to authors and open to unusual scenarios or styles, and able to tease out allusions and images and all that "between the lines" stuff. I probably don't get everything (hence my continued joy of rereading), but I usually feel like I do okay, which means it's rare for me to have a complete turnaround on a novel when I'm more than halfway through. This is why I was so surprised by my experience reading Rachel Joyce's novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

It's possible that I got stuck on the simple-seeming premise: essentially, the novel is about Harold Fry, who one day receives a letter from a woman he used to work with who is dying. He's very upset, and when he leaves to walk to the post box to mail his reply, he decides to instead walk to see her in person. This doesn't sound like much, but Harold is in his 60s, has no history of taking long walks, and lives in the south of England. Queenie Hennessy, however, is in a hospice in the north of England, practically on the border with Scotland. Harold doesn't return home to equip himself, and instead just continues walking in his yachting shoes, wearing a shirt and tie, with a rain jacket slung over his arm.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

Short stories, as I said in my last post (sorry that it was two weeks ago – summer is messing with my schedule), make for great summer reading. Generally speaking, they require much less commitment than novels, meaning that if you forget your book at the cottage, or put it down for a few days, picking it up again is easy and relatively guilt-free. For more or less the same reasons, I think short story collections make for great book club picks. If someone can't finish (or has barely started), they can still be part of the discussion, there's less pressure not to spoil the ending, and chances are even if all the stories aren't universally liked, everyone will find one or two they connected with. At least, that's certain to be the case with Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, which was the pick for the inaugural CanLit Knit book club meeting.

I have been reading a lot of untraditional short stories lately (both successful and less so), but Gartner's collection was by far the most intriguing. Her stories are set largely on the West Coast, and mostly in Vancouver in a sort of present-adjacent. That is, the world of her characters is, on the surface at least, not very different than ours, but things happen that are just strange enough to make you question whether they're possible in the world we know. This kind of questioning, though, is what I loved most about Gartner's stories, because it forces you to wonder whether the action is actually happening, or if it just appears that way to the narrator.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Summer reading list

Instead of the regularly-scheduled review I would normally run, today is going to be all about summer reading. If this seems like a cop-out, well, it is and it isn't. Besides being a place where I get to think and write about books every week, this blog is where I point people who ask me what I've been reading lately and ask what they should read next. Never do I have this conversation more than in the summer, when people want to know what to bring with them to the beach or the cottage, or just what they should be reading on the weekends. It seems that, even when people aren't on vacation, summer is their designated time to read for pleasure, whether that means it's filled with guilty-pleasure books of just time to read, period. 

So, in the spirit of summer, I thought I'd do what I did last year and recommend some great summer reads, and also come clean about what I'm planning to read (I mean, you'd find out soon enough, but I guess this way you can track my success, or read along with me). I did this last year as well and people seemed to like it, so I thought I'd try it again.

Six books you might want to read this summer:
The Antagonist by Lynn Coady – Suitably set in the summer, The Antagonist is a one-sided epistolary novel about Rank, a one-time enforcer, who is trying to set the record of his life straight. It's funny, it's heartfelt, and Rank is so fully-realized you'll almost think you've stumbled across a trove of someone's private correspondence. It's riveting.
Irma Voth by Miriam Toews – The story of Irma, a mennonite living in Mexico, has a lot of elements that, now that I'm thinking about it, hearken back to the summer books I loved as a kid. It's a kind of coming-of-age story – certainly it's about discovering who you are and what you're capable of – and it's filled with Toews' signature humour and insight. It's exactly the kind of book that offers up equal parts excellent writing and entertainment, and it is not to be missed.
Touch by Alexi Zentner – If you are not such a fan of the heat, perhaps you can take vicarious comfort in the dark and freezing winters Zentner evokes in his haunting, beautiful, and magical story about family legends and how thin the line between folklore and reality becomes in the dark, empty woods. It's a masterful story, beautifully told, and offers a little something different if you're a fan of the mysterious but tired of detective fiction.
Up Up Up by Julie Booker – Summer reading is often done either in long leisurely chunks, or in short breaks in between lots of activities, and a short story collection is an excellent way to bridge the two. Booker's stories are especially suited to summer because many of them have to do with travel, as well as how to fill the boredom that can set in when our regular schedules are suddenly altered. It's great reading, perhaps even better because it gives you the space to pick it up and put it down guilt-free.
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright – Romance is traditional summer fare, but Enright turns things around a little by writing about a relationship that began as an affair, told from the perspective of Gina, one of the lovers. I've written quite a lot about it already, but suffice to say, it is a gorgeously constructed novel and will more than hold your attention wherever you engage in your summer reading.
The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock – Non-fiction doesn't make everyone's summer reading list, but it almost always makes mine. This is an alternate to the juicy celebrity memoir, telling instead the story of an 18th century woman who invented her own art form. Truly, Mary Delaney's life story is absorbing and juicy enough to stand up on its own, that she managed to become such an incredible artist is the icing on the cake. I'm tempted to point this book toward gardeners especially, since Delaney's art was the immaculate recreation of flowers out of paper, but really it's the kind of intricate and inspiring story that would capture the attention and imagination of almost any reader.

Five books I'll be reading:
Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
(Obviously I will be reading more books than this, but these are at the top of my list.)

So, there you go. What would you recommend people read this summer? What do you plan to read? And, perhaps most importantly, where do you plan to read your books and does that affect what they are? (For example, I try not to take hardcovers to the beach so I don't get sand in the spine, but maybe that's just me?)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Professor and the Madman

I'm not sure its really possible to be an avid reader and not love words. Oh sure, you can get caught up in a plot or start to fee at home with certain characters, but deep down, there has to be some kind of abiding word love, or you'd just watch lots of movies. Some people write interesting words down in lists, either to remind them to look up their meaning or just as a reminder to try using them – whether you do this or not, it is proven that readers have much wider vocabularies than non-readers (although whether or not that vocabulary is on display is another thing entirely). I am not someone who compulsively looks up words, but when I need to, I go to the dictionary – the OED, to be precise. For simple spelling, it is sometimes easiest to just use Google, but for meaning, or if there's likely to be a disputed spelling (American vs. Canadian, for example), I pick up the hard copy. I have been told that this is "old fashioned," but I don't care; there is something so lovely about leafing through pages and finding new words and/or discovering new meanings for words you thought you understood. But for all this, I never put that much thought into how my little dictionary came to be, which is why Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A tale of murder, insanity and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary was so particularly attractive to me when it first caught my eye a few years ago. (Nevermind that it took me years to actually pick it up and read it).

Winchester splits his narrative, more or less, between two men (as indicated, I suppose, in the title): James Murray, the titular professor who helmed the OED through the majority of its making, and William Minor, the American "madman" who helped. The relevant thing here, if you are only familiar with the concise or "little" versions of the OED, is that in the big, authoritative volume, the words are all accompanied by several quotations from literature that indicate not only their meaning(s), but also their history of use. It seems like no big deal now to find any old quotation, but in the late-1800s and early-1900s, when the dictionary was being compiled, everything had to be discovered manually, which required a whole lot of readers.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


It's strange how, sometimes, a book you really want to talk about leaves you without the words to do so. Certainly there are books that leave you so shellshocked that the very idea of starting a new one seems crass and somehow inappropriate. It's too soon, you think. At the opposite end are those books most often referred to as "beach reads," which hold you in their thrall until the last page, at which point you toss them aside and pick up another, typically only remembering their finer plot points when walking home by yourself late at night (assuming, of course, that your beach reads are terrifying, which mine almost always seem to be). There are, I'm sure, lots of kinds of books in between these two extremes, but the two I most often seem to encounter are books I can't stop talking about, and books I want very much to talk about but can't manage to do in a sensible way. Even that sentence borders on what I'm talking about. It's as if you want your words to be so precise, to do the book justice, but in the face of this author you feel yourself unworthy. Bare with me, because this is how I feel in the face of Lisa Moore, and most recently about her short story collection Open.

Open is so hard for me to talk about, I think, because Moore's style is so distinct, and her characters so full, that it's very hard to step away and shake your head clear in order to engage in any kind of critical thinking. The layered descriptions, the scraps of memories, the various characters, all continue to play through your imagination long after you've finished reading. This is something I love about Moore's writing, but also something that frustrates me. The through-line that binds the stories in Open together is relationships. In each story, a relationship – and often more than one, with friendships balanced against marriages – is in flux; in all the stories, characters' memories are overlaid with their present circumstances, which creates a swirl of images that can at times be disorienting for both the character and the reader. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Above All Things

As the world gets smaller, it seems that of all things, Everest is what gets closer. I know a disproportionate number of people who have been to the Everest base camp. When I was in Nepal volunteering a few years ago, a helicopter ride around Everest was a fairly common tourist activity, if an expensive one (I did not to it). Beyond base camp, though, it seems to be more a matter of money than one of skill to actually climb the mountain. Since the last Everest tragedy, numerous reports have come out from experienced climbers who have watched as first-timers have used oxygen the entire way up, or are learning to belay (a fairly basic technique) on the upper slopes. The reality of Everest today loomed large for me while I read Tanis Rideout's debut novel Above All Things, in part because her ability to carve out the historical grandeur of Everest is all the more impressive for its modern ubiquity.

Above All Things is the story of George Mallory's third and final Everest attempt in 1924, and Rideout divides the narrative between the mountain, moving between George's perspective and that of young climber Sandy Irvine, and England, where George's wife Ruth waits for news. The division is beautifully done, and allows Rideout to maintain the tension and suspense of the climb while providing different insights in what was at stake as well as rounder perspective on George Mallory himself. That being said, Ruth's presence in the novel is not simply to serve as a vessel for facts about her husband: she is as deep and broad a character as he is. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

All Wound Up

I was never a Seinfeld superfan, but it is pretty much impossible to avoid the show, so I've probably seen close to two-thirds of the episodes. There are lots of funny moments and quotable lines, but one of my favourites is George Costanza's fear about his worlds colliding. This is usually only a concern if you're a different version of yourself at work than you are at home (or whatever), and to be honest, I embrace it when my worlds collide, because it's too much work to keep things separate. In this case, I suppose it's my blog worlds that are colliding. In addition to Books Under Skin, which I've been maintaining for nearly three years, I also have a more traditional life-y blog (mostly about knitting, but also cooking, travel, etc.). I have no plans to merge these blogs (or start reviewing pattern books), but a book did recently cross my desk that fit both blogs too well to pass up. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's All Wound Up is a collection of memoir-style short stories, wonderfully written and thoughtfully organized, and largely about knitting.

It's a bit niche, I'll admit, but All Wound Up is hilarious, and since much of the stories Pearl-McPhee tells involve her adventures parenting three teenage daughters (something my parents would relate well to, I suspect), you absolutely do not have to be a knitter to enjoy her work. I often read books about cultures, places, time-periods, and professions I have no experience with, and I enjoy them very much. Those books are a way for me to engage with something I would otherwise be cut off from; certainly, when I read a book set in a town or city I know well, I feel a different connection to it than I would if it were set somewhere I've never been, but in both cases, if the writing is good and the story is compelling, that added knowledge is just a bonus, not a necessity. So it is with All Wound Up, which made me laugh a lot – sometimes with the half-guilty laugh that comes when you recognize yourself in a situation, but more often because Pearl-McPhee can somehow make everything seem fresh and funny, and do so without being in the least bit mean-spirited.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Complicated Kindness

Generally speaking, when I start reading a book, I keep going until I finish it. Lately, I've had the excellent luck to pick up one good book after another, but it doesn't always go like that. Like most avid readers, the sheer number of books I read means every once in a while I'm going to get a dud. For some reason, I don't like with the characters, I don't care about the plot, or whatever. It happens to everyone. For a lot of people I know, if they aren't hooked by a certain point, they stop reading; there are too many good books out there, they reason, to keep going with one that isn't keeping them up at night. Fair enough. I, though, usually stick it out. I have faith that something is going to happen (someone saw something in the book to make it worth publishing), so I plow on, and sometimes I'm rewarded and sometimes I'm disappointed, but very rarely are unfinished books left in my wake. Somehow, though, a really good one was. For the life of my, I cannot remember why I left Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness after only a dozen pages – I was probably distracted by something else – but I am so glad I picked it back up, because my goodness what a wrenching, funny, hoot of a book it is.

A Complicated Kindness is the story of Nomi Nickel, a teenage Mennonite living in East Village Manitoba in the late-'70s/early-'80s, I would guess. Half of Nomi's family – the better looking half, according to her – are gone, which leaves just her and her dad, Ray. Her mother, Trudie, has been gone for a while, and her older sister Tash left before that. Their whereabouts is a mystery, which leaves all possibilities open to Nomi's imagination. Ray is quiet, religious, and affectionate in a buttoned-up sort of way. He writes Nomi notes suggesting she go to school that day, he appreciates her system of cooking dinner based on an alphabet system (m-day might mean macaroni, or meat, or mushrooms, or whatever). Nomi runs wild.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Magnified World

Not that long ago there was an interesting discussion on Twitter about how (or if) knowledge and experience with the setting of a novel affected the way you connect with the story being told. (If you aren't on Twitter and this seems to go against everything you've heard about the medium, let me just say that it all depends on who you interact with and that, yes, there are a lot of interesting literary discussions being hashed out in 140-character bites.) Personally, I love finding a book that's set somewhere I'm familiar with. Reading Ami McKay's The Birth House, for example, was a thrill partially because it's set in my home town (albeit nearly 100 years before I lived there). Likewise, as I become more comfortable with the idea that I now live in Toronto, books set in neighbourhoods I'm familiar with pop out at me in way they perhaps would not have five years ago. Nonetheless, the geography of a novel is, in some ways, incidental to whether or not I'll enjoy it, because even if I'm reading about somewhere I'm familiar with, I'm still experiencing it through the eyes and emotions of a fictional character, which means, in a way, that my experience doesn't matter. I had to remind myself of this a few times while reading Grace O'Connell's gorgeous debut novel Magnified World, though, because not only do her descriptions mimic the way I remember certain places, but her character Maggie feels wonderfully familiar, as if I've bumped into her before.

Magnified World is set, since we're on the subject, mostly in Toronto's West Queen West/Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhood. Queen Street, certainly, figures into the story a lot, as does College Street and Kensington Market. If you are familiar with these places, reading O'Connell's descriptions offers a warm buzz of recognition; if you aren't, though, be assured that this is not an insider's look at Toronto: the descriptions are vivid and accurate in the way that lets you unconsciously map out a character's movements, without feeling overwhelmed by comings and goings. It's my favourite way to read about cities, really – detailed without becoming clinical.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Headmaster's Wager

I don't think I ever realized it before, but reading a hardcover vs. a softcover really changes the way I read a book. In large part, I think this is because I do most of my reading during my commute, and therefore tend to take off the dust jacket so it doesn't get ruined. This strips a hardcover of most of its distinguishing characteristics, including its cover design, plot synopsis, blurbs and little author bio. If I take the dust jacket off before I've properly read all of this, and before I've started the book, then I end up starting to read blind, with no pointers as to what's coming in the story or biographical clues as to the narrative. Usually I have a pretty good idea of what a book is going to be about, and then in suspenseful moments I can return to the blurbs to reassure myself. When reading Vincent Lam's The Headmaster's Wager, though, all I had were bright red covers and a black spine to turn to when the intensity shot up, forcing me to catch my breath and return to the story without any idea whether things were going to be okay or not.

The Headmaster's Wager is set in Vietnam, beginning right around the beginning of the Vietnam War. I think it would be impossible to live in the West and not have had your notions of the war consist mainly of images from American movies (my formative ideas about it come, I'm sorry to say, from Forest Gump). Lam, however, positions you on the other side of the conflict; not with the Viet Cong, but with a Chinese immigrant living in Saigon. Headmaster Percival Chen runs an English academy, and although many of his students go on to work with the Americans, he is unconcerned about the war, and actively works to learn nothing about what's going on. He is Chinese, the war is about Vietnam, thus, it does not concern him. This nationalistic streak proves dangerous, however, when the government decrees that all schools must teach Vietnamese. Percival refuses, both on principle and because he is trying to demonstrate his Chinese pride to his son Dai Jai. This small act, coming right at the beginning of the novel, becomes the fulcrum for everything that follows – a small act of defiance that changes everything.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Hark! A Vagrant

When we were kids, my sisters and I devoured Archie comics. We literally had bags of them. People gave them to us as gifts, my mum would buy old ones at flea markets – we had hundreds. We read enough of them that now we can refer to specific Archie adventures when playing games like Taboo and not have it seem obscure. Eventually, though, we started running into more and more reprints and began to grow out of Riverdale. Archie is kind of a gateway comic, I guess, and after years of reading about his friends I moved on to Gary Larson's Far Side comics. After I got through those (probably around Grade 6) I didn't really read any comics (besides the ones in the newspaper) until I discovered webcomics a few years ago. Of those, Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant was one of my most favourite, and when she put out a book last year I was thrilled.

I am making the distinction here between comics and graphic novels, because Beaton's pieces are comics in the sense that they're written in strips. She has some recurring characters, and often does several strips on a particular theme, but her book is much like Larson's in that you can open it at random. Even reading it cover to cover is a little like opening at random, since you can go from several comics about Lester B. Pearson, to a few pages about "sexy Batman," and on to a strip about Queen Elizabeth at Tillbury. Clearly, Hark! A Vagrant is a little different.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Instruction Manual for Swallowing

If you read this blog with any frequency, you will have noticed (I'm assuming) that I don't give books rankings. I don't rate books with stars or out of 5 or 10, or in any other way compare them on a fixed scale. Lots of blogs do this; Goodreads does this; I decided not to from the get-go. I was not good at marking on a bell curve when I marked assignments as a TA and I'm not good at it as a reader. How does Roald Dahl compare to Michael Ondaatje? Does a 2/5 ranking mean a book isn't worth reading? How much better is a book that rated a 3/5? Ultimately, my fear is that I would compare a book to the ones I had recently read to try and find a numerical value for it, and if I were coming of a string of truly excellent reads (as I am now), it just wouldn't be fair; likewise, sometimes I pick up a book at exactly the right moment and it suits my mood perfectly, whereas reading the same book at the wrong time would leave me feeling very differently. Suffice to say, I'm glad I don't rank books because I would have a tough time deciding what to do with Adam Marek's short story collection Instruction Manual for Swallowing.

This introduction probably makes it sound like I didn't like this book, but if you've read my About page, then you would know I don't bother writing about books I don't like. (Is that disingenuous? I don't think so.) Anyway, Marek's collection of stories is weird. I tend to like weird, as I've said before, and indeed, I liked many of the stories in Instruction Manual for Swallowing. Take, for example, the first piece in the book, called "The Forty-Litre Monkey." It is a bizarre little story about a man who goes into a pet shop looking to buy a pet for his girlfriend. Her pets have both recently died: the cat tried to eat the lizard and then choked on it, so they effectively killed each other. Weird and darkly hilarious (my mum used to say we couldn't have birds/fish/rabbits, etc. because it wouldn't be fair to the cats, now I know why). In the pet shop, the man is enticed by the owner's description of the animals not my weight, but by volume, and when the owner invites the man to come and see his "forty-litre monkey" (no, that is not a euphemism), he takes him up on it. What follows is a look into the (fictional, I hope) world of competitive monkey rearing. The story is weird and dark and takes you somewhere unexpected: it sets you up for a lot, is what I'm saying.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Seen Reading

I do most of my reading on my commute, which is long enough that I can generally read a book a week without breaking a sweat. To get to work (and then get home again) I take a streetcar, a subway, and a bus – the holy trinity of Toronto transportation. It can be tempting, sometimes, to complain about how long it takes, or how many transfers I have to make, or how I pretty much never get a seat, but really, it's an hour and half of designated reading time, and how can I complain about that? Sometimes people approach me to ask about what I'm reading – how I like a certain book, whether I would recommend it, how I found it, etc. – and I often glance up from the page to scope out what else is being read in the vicinity. Clearly, I am not the only one who does this, although, unlike Julie Wilson in her new book Seen Reading, I've never kept good enough notes to construct lives for my fellow transit readers.

Seen Reading is a book of microfiction – think one-page short stories – that is entirely inspired by the readers Wilson encounters on her own Toronto commute. She takes notes of the reader's gender and appearance, what book they're reading, and what page they're on, and then uses these details to build a small story, sometimes with a clear connection to something about their appearance and book choice, sometimes not. As a premise, it's gold, but in lesser hands this slim collection of stories would fall flat, or become repetitive. It's a definite testament to Wilson's imagination and the constraints of a one-page story that make Seen Reading an engrossing little collection.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Alone in the Classroom

I recently realized that, although I've read a lot of books, I rarely get the chance to read multiple books by the same author. It's kind of weird, actually, because I distinctly remember choosing books specifically because of their author when I was a kid: Janet Lunn, L.M. Montgomery, Jean Little – all authors whose catalogue I plowed through with delight. I'm not sure when that stopped. I might be just that I'm reading more contemporary authors now, so there's less of a back-catalogue to devour, or, perhaps, that I find myself increasingly drawn to first novels. Whatever the case, when I was reading Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay I was struck by the fact that it's the third book of hers I've read, and that it's felt like a while since that was the case, and that being familiar with an author changes the way you read his or her work.

The last Hay novel I read was her Giller-winning Late Nights on Air (the first was A Student of Weather), which also gave me the opportunity to interview her for the Journal (the Queen's student newspaper, which I was very involved with as an undergrad). Hay has a lovely voice – simultaneously soft and strong – a fact I would never have remembered except that when I began reading Alone in the Classroom it took up residence in my head. It wasn't quite as if Hay was reading the novel to me (I didn't talk to her long enough for that to happen), but every once in a while, a bit of description would so remind me of Late Nights on Air, or the way she talked about writing, that there it was. Anyway, none of that really says anything about the novel, I suppose, but perhaps it's part of why I responded so well to it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


It's Easter this weekend, and even though ours isn't a family prone to big family get-togethers (we're too spread out), it is nonetheless a holiday steeped in family memories of egg hunts time together, so perhaps that's why I've been feeling the family nostalgia lately. When we were kids, for example, my parents, and my dad in particular, used to tell us stories about when they were little kids. Even now when we get together with our extended family from one side or the other, the evening or weekend or whatever inevitably (and wonderfully) becomes all about retelling the same big stories and, if we're lucky, a new one will slide in amongst all the familiar ones. A lot of these stories are ones I know so well that I'm sure I'll tell them to my kids, albeit in a heightened, more exaggerated form, because that's what tends to happen when family stories get passed down. In Touch, Alexi Zentner's debut novel, he ups the ante of the family story in dark and thrilling way to tell a story that is both familiar and completely his own.

Touch is set in the backwoods of B.C., in the (I assume) fictional gold rush/mill town of Sawgamet. The story is told by Stephen Boucher, now in his mid- to late-40s, who grew up in Sawgamet, left for Seminary school at 16, and has now returned to replace his step-father as the Anglican minister and to bury his mother, who is on the verge of death. It's winter in Sawgamet, but not the kind of cruel, punishing winter he remembers. Things have gotten better in Sawgamet, in part thanks to the demand for lumber instigated by the Second World War, which is raging in the far-away background of this novel (Sephen served as a chaplin during the First World War, but that details doesn't figure much into the novel). Stephen has returned home, and as his mother lays dying and he and his wife and their three daughters begin to settle into the rectory, he is understandably drawn to memories of his childhood and the family stories he heard growing up.

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