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July 31, 2017

Book Review:Upheaval: The Refugee Trek Through Europe by Navid Kermani


Upheaval Cover sm.jpg Upheaval: The Refugee Trek Through Europe by Navid Kermani, published by Polity Books, recounts the author's travels along Europe's refugee road. He traces the path of those seeking asylum in his native Germany as they make their way from Turkey to Lesbos in Greece and then on through Eastern Europe to the relative salvation of Chancellor Angela Merkel's welcoming borders.

Of course the refugees' journeys didn't begin in Turkey, they began in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. They have walked, paid smugglers exorbitant fees for passage in unsafe boats to make it this far. Now they find they have to make their way across Europe to find the one central European country willing to give them sanctuary. For while Scandinavia has continued to welcome refugees, Europe, especially Eastern Europe, has been returning to its old patterns of antipathy for anyone different.

Kermani follows the refugee trail backwards across Europe. In Hungary they're herded into public parks serving as way stations as they wait for transportation to Germany. The government actively ferments public disapproval through billboards featuring a beautiful blond model saying she objects to illegal aliens. The author meets with those who have tried to help the refugees and finds them nervous and worried. One, a writer, says the enemy isn't Muslims, its anyone different; gays, Jews, Romani, a critical media or any sort of opposition.

Many might find some sort of irony in this, but Germany is the one country in Europe welcoming the refugees - they've taken in over a million by the time the author is writing this. Kermani isn't sure what caused Merkel's change of heart - she had initially opposed open borders - but change she has and Germany has become a beacon of hope for those fleeing terror and oppression.

Through Kermani's eyes we see refugees trudging up the road from the beeches on the island of Lesbos in Greece after completing the passage by water from Turkey. We see them huddled in groups on the shores of Turkey waiting for the smugglers willing to run the blockade of Turkish patrol boats to take them over to Greece. We hear of how they pay far too much money for passage in overcrowded boats.

Yet, people still persist in saying there might be terrorists lurking among them. What Kermani finds is the refugees, from young men to families, are just as worried about terrorists as everybody else. After all they're fleeing them. Whether from Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan they are running away from Islamic State or some other variation on that theme.

Upheaval: The Refugee Trek Through Europe was originally commissioned as series of articles for the German newspaper Der Spiegel but has been updated and expanded upon for the book. You can hear/see the author striving to maintain his journalistic objectivity, but in the face of what he witnesses it's next to impossible. When a young Afghan man, who has had all his money stolen and is nearly without water or food, offers him a drink from his only bottle of water you can almost hear Kermani's heart breaking.

Of special note are the photographs by Moises Saman which accompany Kermani's words. They are stark glimpses into a reality few of us can even begin to understand and serve as the perfect compliment to the text. While pictures of families clinging to each other tug at the heart strings, his photo of a refugee's bare exposed bare feet is a more compelling testament to the trials these people are experiencing than anything else I've seen.

Kermani has done a great job of not only capturing something of what the refugees are experiencing as they take the last stage of their journey to what they hope will be a new world, but the mood of the people whose hands they pass through. He shines a light in the dark spaces of our current world and exposes the dirty and shameful way we treat our fellow human beings.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Upheaval: The Refugee Trek Through Europe by Navid Kermani)

June 5, 2017

Book Review: A Peace Divided by Tanya Huff - Peacekeeper Book Two


Cover A Peace Divided.jpegIn A Peace Divided, being released by Penguin/Random House June 6 2017, author Tanya Huff returns readers to the world or ex Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr and her team of ex-marines and civilian specialists who are working to maintain a delicately balanced intergalactic peace. After fighting a war which turned out to be an experiment conducted by a hyper-intelligent, organic plastic, shape shifting, super intelligent being, to see how various sentient beings would react under certain circumstances, most inhabitants of known space are just trying to pull their lives back together.

However, as Kerr and her team have discovered there are those who would rather take advantage of the ensuing confusion for either their own gain or to push forward a personal agenda. While The Confederation is made up of a incredibly mixed bag of species, ranging from humans to what is basically an intelligent giant spider, its not the big happy family the government wants everybody to believe.

There are those among the races who were brought into fight the war, (humans, di'Taykan - who are the most sexually indiscriminate race in known space and are said to have invented flavoured massage oil before the wheel - and the Krai, who can, and will, digest almost anything) who are feeling just a little pissed that no one figured out they were killing and being killed for no good reason and are looking to get a little of their own back. Unfortunately this resentment is also causing people to fall back on old species prejudices and blaming everybody else for their troubles.

With a whole lot of ex military, from both sides of the war, and military hardware now floating around there are plenty of opportunities for folk to create a little havoc. Hence the government creating teams like Kerr's to try and put out fires before they can become infernos. In this instance a group of scientists doing an initial exploration of an ancient civilization have been taken hostage. Further complicating matters is the fact the hostage takers include both members of the Confederation and their former enemies (The Primacy) in the recently ended war.

In order to keep everybody happy, Kerr and her team are joined by former soldiers from The Primacy on this mission. (Those who've read Huff's previous books about Kerr will recognize the Primacy soldiers from Valor's Trial) As they've already worked together before integration of the two teams of ex-soldiers while not seamless, isn't difficult.

Anyone who has read any of Huff's previous books featuring Kerr, both "Confederation Books" and the previous book in this new "Peacekeeper" series , knows of her amazing ability to combine action, plot, and character into a wonderful melange that makes her books a joy to read. On top of this she also manages to seamlessly work in some subtle, relevant, social commentary. Nothing big enough to stand out, but casually so we can notice if we want; same sex partnerships or the lack of help for veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are just two examples.

This is what separates Huff's work from others of the military/science fiction genre, there's more to them than just find the bad guys and kill them. In fact she's careful to distinguish between those who are genuinely nefarious and those who have been so badly damaged they are desperately hanging onto something familiar in order to retain their sanity. While damaged people can still be dangerous, they aren't the problem. The problem is those who would exploit them for their own ends.

A Peace Divided is an intelligent, well written, and far more complex book than one would expect from the genre. However, it does live up to expectations readers have of Huff's work. If you've read and enjoyed any of the previous books featuring Torin Kerr you will be thrilled with this one. If you've never read one, stop denying yourself the pleasure.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: A Peace Divided by Tanya Huff - Peacekeeper Book Two)

May 25, 2017

Book Review: Nest in the Bones by Antonio Di Benedetto


Cover Nest in the Bones copy.jpgIt's been over 30 years since the death of Argentinian writer Antonio di Benedetto and finally his books are being translated into English. The latest is a collection of short stories, Nest in the Bones released by Penguin/Random House and translated by Martina Broner. The stories assembled here were written over the length of his writing career - dating from the 1950s to the last years of his life in the 1980s.

The stories in this collection range in length from a few pages, "The Impossibility of Sleep", to the almost novella sized, "The Affection of Dimwits". However, no matter story's length you'll soon appreciate the author's use of language to create both atmosphere and character. Di Benedetto had the amazing capacity to pull his reader into a story's circumstances with just a few choice words.

The difficulty with writing a truly great short story lies in ensuring the reader is drawn in with as few details as possible. Baiting the hook with just the right tantalizing morsel is an incredibly difficult task which Di Benedetto manages with an amazing amount of adroitness. In fact you don't even realize how deeply you've been immersed a tale into you're well into it and discover you can't put the book down until you find out how it ends.

Like his more well known fellow countryman Jorge Luis Borges or the Columbian Gabriel Garcia Marquez Di Benedetto infuses his work with a kind of otherworldliness. However, he doesn't go quite as far into the realm of magic realism, or even fantasy, as either of them. There is a grittiness and awareness of the darkness in life permeating the stories in this collection that keeps it firmly rooted in reality.
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A good example of this is the story simply named for its main character "Aballay". After hearing a priest's sermon about mystics who sat high in the air on poles in order to remove themselves from society as a form of penance for sins, Aballay is inspired to strive to do something similar. However, he elects to sit on a horse (actually two, allowing one a break from continually carrying him) as his way of atoning for the sin he committed.

In the hands of another writer this could have turned into a kind of homily on the nature of good and evil or something along those lines. In Di Benedetto's world this becomes more about the mundane practicalities of how Aballay can survive living on a horse. How can he sustain himself if he never climbs down from his horse? What about going to the bathroom? The kinds of questions no one ever thinks to ask when they hear about hermits or secluded mystics.

Of course it also explores more than just that, as we follow the lead character on his journey. However, these practical details are what keep the story firmly rooted in its environment. The absurdity of Aballay's self-imposed situation is made all the more poignant by the fact he doesn't seem to be able to actually achieve the inner peace you'd expect from someone on a mystical journey.

Perhaps Di Benedetto's darker view of the world was a result of having been imprisoned and tortured as a political prisoner in Argentina during the infamous "dirty war" of the 1970s and then exiled to Spain. Or perhaps because he lived outside urban centres he saw some of the harsher realities of life and they affected him and his writing. For even the stories written before his time in jail don't have the dream like quality that characterizes some of both Borges' and Marquez's work.

However, just because his work is a little more depressing than other writers doesn't make it any less magnificent. Di Benedetto's eloquence makes the stories in Nest in the Bones works of exquisite beauty that are hard to resist. If, like me, you had never read any of his work until now this is a perfect introduction to a great author.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Nest in the Bones by Antonio Di Benedetto)

May 10, 2017

Book Review: Nature Poem by Tommy Pico - An Epic Poem


Cover Nature Poem sm copy.jpgNature Poem, the new long form poem from Tommy Pico published by Penguin Random House is as brilliant a piece of social/cultural commentary as I've read in a long time. On top of that, its also as exceptional a piece of poetry you're liable to read this year. I say piece, singular, because at first it may seem like a collection of individual poems but as you read they begin to transform into a kind of stream of conscience, Homeresque, Odysseus, trying to navigate his way through the obstructions on his way home.

However, in this instance home isn't necessarily a tangible place - it's more like Pico is trying to discover his place in the world as a queer positive Native American who loves living in the city and wouldn't write a Nature Poem if you paid him. So, don't expect any New Age like peons in praise of being one with nature or some other noble savage shit. This is urban, slick, and very much part of today's world. He uses the language of twitter - hashtags - and the abbreviations common to text messages in his work - with none of the degradation of the language's power you'd expect.

In fact, you'd best leave aside any and all expectations you might have about poetry, Native Americans, and anything else before you start reading this book - because nothing will be as you expect it. For someone, whose texting and twittering skills are as close to luddite as you can get without smashing phones with hammers, the short forms and short cuts in language utilized by idiom were initially a barrier.

However, Pico's use of abbreviations became something that blended into the surroundings of his poetry. They take place in the fast pace of the urban environment where everybody is sending messages, which aren't necessarily the same as the signals they're sending, and the information is coming rapid fire and from all directions.

However, there is no dross in these texts. In fact the sparseness of the short form is like an emotional punch to solar plexus in places. Sharp and to the point the words catch you off guard as your mind catches up their implications a few seconds after you read them.

I can't write a nature poem bc English is some Stockholm shit, makes me complicit in my tribe's erasure - Why shd I give a fuck abt "poetry"? It's a container for words like whilst, hither and tamp. It conducts something of permanent and universal interest. Poems take something like an apple, turn it into the skin, the seeds, and the core. They talk abt gravity, abt Adam, and Snow White and the stem of knowledge. To me? Apple is a NDN drag queen who dresses like a milkmaid and sings "Half Breed" by Cher

This one stanza tells me more about the state of living as a conquered/colonized person than any number of ernest political rants. How can you use the shapes and forms of the culture responsible for trying to eradicate your own to express something about yourself? Even the difference in his use of the word Apple is an interpretation defined by a cultural reference most people reading this review won't understand.
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A constant refrain running through the book is Pico's continued argument with himself and nature about writing the dreaded "Nature Poem". However, the more he struggles with everything about it, including the nature of their relationship and his desire to embrace his new urban landscape, the deeper he delves into his otherness - what separates him from those around him.

He might not have that spiritual relationship with the land New Age books stores promise us the indigenous people of North America are born with, but he can't stop talking about the land his people come from. He might be in New York City but he writes about the Viejas Reservation his Kumeyaay nation lives on in California an awful lot. However, it's in these writings that Pico best captures what's it like to be a so-called Urban Indian. The struggle to find a place among questions like, "What's your NATIONALITY?"...."but I know when he says NATIONALITY he's saying you look vaguely not like a total white boy".

Nature Poem is a brilliantly written piece of work. While the language may be a mash up of text abbreviations and urban slang, it not only doesn't detract from the poem's emotional impact, it actually increases it. Like e e cummings before him, Pico has taken the vernacular of his time and turned it into high art. If you read only one book of poetry this year, make sure this is it.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Nature Poem by Tommy Pico - An Epic Poem)

April 26, 2017

Book Review: Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs - Book 3 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children


Cover Library of Lost Souls.jpegThe Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs, the third and final book in his "Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children" series, has just been released in paper back by Penguin Random House. Like the previous two books Riggs has created a beautiful combination of text and antique photographs that will not only delight readers but stretch their imaginations.

The story picks up from the cliff hanger conclusion of the second book, Hollow City, where the series' main character Jacob Portman has just realized he can control Peculiar's deadliest enemies, Hollowgasts, or Hollows for short. Up to this point Jacob was the only Peculiar alive who could even see these monsters who were once Peculiars and love suck the souls of their former brethren. Now he has just somehow prevented one of them from killing him and his two companions, Emma Bloom, who can create fire with her hands and Addison MacHenry, a talking dog with the ability to track lost Peculiar children and their caretakers known as ymbrynes.

The three are going to need every bit of their abilities if they are going to rescue not only their ymbryne, Miss Peregrine, and their Peculiar friends, but other ymbryne and Peculiar children as well. For Wights, Hollows who have eaten enough Peculiar souls to regain a human form, under the leadership of the diabolical Caul have kidnapped both children and their caretakers from the safe haven of their loops (short periods of time which have been frozen by ymbryne's to safeguard their children) for some nefarious purpose.

Using Addison's amazing abilities the three track their friends to a loop created out of the worst 19th century London England slum you can imagine. Actually Devil's Acre is probably worse than anything you can imagine. It's only fitting the only way to reach the loop is by a ferry boat piloted by a Peculiar named Sharon - a play on Charon, the ferryman from Greek legend responsible for transporting souls across the river Styx to the underworld realm of Hades.
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Pestilential and rotting, Devil's Acre, is filled with all kinds of different horrors. Riggs has obviously allowed himself to be influenced by The Inferno, the great Renaissance poet Dante Alighier's masterwork describing the nine circles of Hell, in his depiction of the layout and evils to be found in this desolate place. Aided by the reluctantly conscripted Sharon the three make their way through the loop only to find their hardest task still remains, freeing their friends.

Riggs has done a remarkable job of combining action, atmosphere, and character development to ensure the story moves at a pace that will keep even the most attention deficit deprived mind interested. However, he also allows enough breathing space so characters and situations can be fully appreciated. Although the story is told in first person from Jacob's perspective we're still able to understand and appreciate those around him through their conversations with him.

Riggs also allows time for Emma and Jacob to try and figure out their budding romance. While filled with the typical doubts that beset any sixteen year old about becoming involved with a girl, Jacob also has to deal with fact that because she'd lived in a loop her whole life, Emma may look his age but is a hundred years old. Riggs does a fine job of giving them little moments within the action where they take a second for themselves without allowing it to become the central focus of the story.

Library of Souls is a book obviously written for a young adult audience but there's no reason it can't be enjoyed by an adult. Its as well written and thoughtful as any so-called adult fantasy, with far less pretentious extraneous baggage. While the use of the antique photos scattered through-out the book does bring up a certain chicken and the egg query, which influenced which - the photos or the story? - they add a wonderful visual element to the story. It's fun to compare ones own imaginings of a person or setting to the picture describing their reality.

All in all this is a fitting conclusion to a wonderful series. Read it for the simple pleasure of enjoying a gracefully imagined and elegantly executed story.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review - Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs - Book 3 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children)

April 4, 2017

Book Review: American War by Omar El Akkad


Cover American War by Omar El Akkad.jpeg With American War, published by Penguin Random House April 4 2017, former journalist Omar El Akkad has given us a stunning portrayal of how a terrorist is created. Set in a dystopian future, the last quarter of 21st century America, we follow young Sara T Chestnut, called Sarat because a teacher slurred her first name and middle initial together, as she grows from childhood to her final shaping as a weapon of mass destruction by her handlers.

The United States had descended into a second civil war towards the end of the 21st Century. This time the division is based on the use of fossil fuels. As the oceans have risen coast lines including Florida and most of Louisiana have vanished. When the oil reserves start to run dry the federal government took the drastic step of banning the use of all fossil fuels. Texas and a group of other Southern States rose in protest.

When a pro-fossil fuel demonstration at an American army base in the South results in the death of protesters - nobody can agree on the how or the why - the Free Southern State, comprised of Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and parts of what used to be Louisiana, seceded and declared war on the rest of the United States. While the war has basically petered out into sort of a numb peace between the two side when we meet Sarat and her family in 2075, ongoing terror attacks by Southern forces periodically provoke the North into retaliation.

When Sarat's father is killed while visiting a border post in one of those terror attacks, she and the rest of her family - older brother, twin sister, and mother - are evacuated to a refugee camp in Mississippi run by the Red Crescent society. For as America has crumbled into ruin, countries in the Middle East have finally thrown off their despotic rulers and united to form the Bouazizi Union or Empire. So instead of them being the ones receiving aid from the West, they're now sending aid workers to America.

It's once in the refugee camp that we witness the gradual development of Sarat as a terrorist. We watch as she's selected then groomed by the mysterious Mr. Gaines. Under the guise of befriending Sarat, he begins the careful process of gaining her trust and making her feel like she's part of something important. At first this involves her simply running errands for him - delivering cash to various people within the camp - but gradually develops into the dehumanizing of Northerners so they are no longer seen as anything but an enemy.
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When the camp is attacked in retaliation for the ambush of a Northern supply train Sarat's mother is killed and her brother badly injured. This is the final straw required to make her the tool Gaines has been shaping. Formed in the crucible of war and the barbarity of human atrocity she becomes the ultimate in disposable weaponry.

Akkad has created a world which may seem dystopian to us in North America but is pretty much a reality in any number of war torn countries. His ability to make life in the refugee camp seem almost normal lulls us into a false sense of comfort. It's only when we step away, think about what we've been reading, we realize how abnormal these circumstances are and the desperation they must fuel in the hearts and souls of those force to live under these conditions.

He also displays a masterful hand in laying out the story. We see it through the eyes of a number of characters; Sarat, her mother, the nurse who is hired to care for Sarat's brother after they leave the camp, and finally, Sarat's young nephew. Akkad even includes historical documents; testimony from congressional committees, news accounts of the events leading up to the war, and other similar materials which help create both atmosphere and verisimilitude.

All of these points of view help to create a world both realistic and chilling. What is especially frightening is the fact that we can even understand and sympathize, to an extent, with Sarat. It is remarkable how easy it is to become a terrorist.

While this book is being classified as Science Fiction, mainly because it is set in the future and the world has changed so radically, there is far too much reality contained within its covers to simply dismiss American War as another piece of genre fiction. This is a warning shot across our bows letting us know the circumstances that create the terrorists we fear so much can be created anywhere - even here.

Akkad is a masterful storyteller and American War is one of the most compelling books you'll read this year. It will explain what's going on in the world a whole lot more honestly and clearly than any news cast or politician.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: American War by Omar El Akkad)

July 21, 2016

Book Review: The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker - Book Three in the Aspect Emperor Series


The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker, published by The Overlook Press July 5 2016, is the third book of the author's "Aspect-Emperor" series. It sets the stage for the conclusion of events he first began depicting in "The Prince of Nothing" trilogy - the world of The Three Seas verging of the precipice of the Second Apocalypse.
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The first series depicted the rise of Anasurimbor Kellus to the position of Aspect Emperor and the first stages of his conquest of The Three Seas. We learned of the world's history and the various players who would shape the course of events for the decades to come. Most importantly we came to understand the history of the name Anasurimbor, and how, according to the teachings of The Mandate School of sorcery (or schoolmen as they are known in this world) it was steeped in dread and wonder. For it had been foretold the name was a harbinger of the Second Apocalypse and the rise of the Mandate's ancient enemy The Consult.

In the first two books of the "Aspect-Emperor" series, The Judging Eye and The White Luck Warrior we witnessed the beginnings of the Kellus' war on The Consult in an attempt to prevent their domination of man. With an army composed of hundreds of thousands he sets out to conquer Golgotterath, the home of The Consult. To accomplish this they must travel beyond the known lands through territory controlled by Sranc - semi-human creations of The Consult who feed on human flesh.

In The Great Ordeal we not only find Kellus' army dealing with the constant grind of fighting a running battle against the Sranc and a lack of supplies, we see how his enemies in the heart of his empire are trying to take advantage of his absence by attacking the capital of his empire. This book also continues the quest of his first teacher, Drusas Achamian - a former Mandate schoolman - to discredit the emperor by discovering his true origins. Accompanying Achamian is Kellus' step-daughter, Mimara, who is equally determined to bring Kellus to heel for her own reasons.

Finally Bakker also takes into the heart of ancient history - the kingdom of the Nomen. They are the world's original inhabitants who after thousands of years of life have slipped into a type of madness. In order to win their allegiance against The Consult Kellus sent them one of his daughters, one of his sons, and the king of one of the realms he conquered as hostages.
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Bakker does a magnificent job of maintaining all four story lines. He transports us from the horrors of the battle field to the intrigues of the palace in capital city of Kellus' empire with ease. He has the uncanny ability to set a scene with such minimal effort there is nothing jarring about these transitions. Whether we're travelling through desolate wilderness with Achamian and Mimara or descending into the pits delved by the Nomen in their mountain home, we are instantly acclimatized to the location and what's taking place.

Bakker's use of language is equally as stunning as his storytelling ability. While he sometimes describes horrors that could push one to the limits of their sanity, he does so in a manner which gives them the power of myth. We feel like we've walked into one of the great sagas of our world's history and are witnessing the deeds and thoughts of people almost beyond our ken.

However, he also has the knack of bringing us up close and personal with each of his characters. The result is we witness and experience events through the eyes of men and women who are every bit as real as we are. We share their innermost thoughts and feelings - including their hopes and fears - to such an extent we can almost believe what they describe is taking place.

He has created a world of magic, wonder, and horror; yet one that is also all too familiar. For it is dominated by religious wars, political and personal ambitions, and the cruelties, personal and otherwise, humans are capable of inflicting on each other. Even the rhetoric spoken by Kellus and other leaders contains eerie echoes of words we have heard, and continue to hear, in our own world.

This series explores human behaviour in ways few epic fantasies have dared in the past. Not only do we witness the depths of depravity which we are capable of stooping to, we hear the words and thoughts granting permission for these acts. While each of the lead characters do anguish over their decisions, they all, in the end, acquiesce to the notion of the ends justifying the means. At the end of the day we have a hard time distinguishing who, if anyone, is a hero.

In The Great Ordeal Bakker has continued to expand upon what he first started six books ago. In the process he's brought to life characters who are both human and compelling, created a world that for all its differences bears a remarkable resemblance to our own, and a sprawling epic tale of the grandest type. Bakker's work carries on the epic story telling tradition established with Homer and the tales of Rama from the Indian sub-continent. Amazingly he is not out of place in this illustrious company.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker - Book Three in the Aspect Emperor Series)

June 10, 2016

Book Review: Magic In Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight


Don't be fooled by the title of Michael Muhammad Knight's newest book. Magic In Islam, published by Penguin/Random House, does not have him doing for magic what his first novel, The Taqwacores did for Islam and punk rock. Rather this is a serious, well mostly serious, academic study of the history and antecedents of the Muslim religion.
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Knight has gone from being an outside the box, iconoclastic, but always reverent, convert to Islam to an academic teaching and writing about his chosen faith. However, this doesn't mean he no longer pushes the definition of Islam beyond what most, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are willing to accept. What he sets out to prove in this new book, via his examination of magic in Islam, is how there is no definitive version of Islam which can be used as the basis for saying this is right and this is wrong.

In order to prove his thesis Knight takes us on a history of not only Islam, but the region in which the religion was born. This enables him to show us how the faith did not grow in a vacuum but was influenced by everybody from mythological figures in ancient Egypt (Thoth) and Greece (Hermes). The prophet Enoch of the Jewish/Christian bible evolved into Idris in the Qur'an and Knight traces this figure back to ancient times.

At one point Knight says this book sprung out of a desire to write a response to all the "What Is Islam" books that have been published since September 2001. Most of those books have looked to only one source for their definition, the Qur'an. Knight's argument is that while the Qur'an is obviously an important source of information for understanding the faith, it can't be the only one we use to define the religion.

Not only are there countless other writings which are used to define the belief and practices of the faith, like other religions there also exist a myriad of different ways in which its expressed. From Mali to North America the various cultures who have adopted Islam have done so through the prism of their own needs and desires. In other words they have made it work for them.

While many would argue against Knight's thesis that Islam allows for this variety of interpretation, he builds his case carefully with impeccably footnoted sources and documentation. If parts of the book read like an academic dissertation, it's no wonder, as Knight has recently completed his doctorate. However, while it makes parts of the book drier than what we have come to expect from him, it also makes his points far more creditable.
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Of course Knight being who he is can't help but let his idiosyncrasies peak through. These not only lighten the tone, but also give the facts a human face. Knight is also pretty straight forward about where his personal prejudices lie when he says "... I have no interest in attempting to patrol the limits of Islamic authenticity or "orthodoxy"; if anything, I want to dig secret tunnels or find holes in the fences." In other words he's perfectly happy with Islam being the glorious mish-mash it is today.

From China, India, North America, and across Northern Africa Islam comes in all shapes and colours. From the Sufi mystics of Pakistan to the 5 Percenters in Harlem, New York - they all consider themselves Muslim even though their practices are widely different. In Magic In Islam Knight has done a fine job of proving the religion's history give precedents for this variety of interpretations.

Like all of Knight's writings on Islam, this is a thoughtful and intelligent book. Not only does it offer insights and observations we rarely hear, they are substantiated with historical facts and references to legitimate sources - a refreshing change from the constant barrage of poorly researched and badly sourced information we normally receive via the internet and television. Sure, you're going to have to make a bit of an effort, and maybe even use your brain a bit, in order to appreciate this book - but isn't it worth it to be properly informed?

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Magic In Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight)

May 27, 2016

Book Review: Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms by Arsalan Iftikhar


Given the horrible rhetoric we've been hearing from various sources during this election year (2016) in the United States, Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms, a new book from human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar published by Sky Horse Publishing, couldn't be more timely. Television viewers might be familiar with Iftikhar as the "The Muslim Guy" - as he calls his website - CNN and other major networks haul out after every so-called Islamic incident for comment.
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"Scapegoats" is in part a distillation of the message he tries to present during these spots - a small group of insane idiots don't represent the majority of Islam. However, as his voice always seems to become lost in maelstrom of sensationalism and fear mongering television seems to delight in - what sells better than fear and mayhem? - this book offers readers a chance to hear his arguments without distraction.

If you think this book is only going to be about Donald Trump and his ilk, you'll be in for a big surprise. Sure it mentions the usual hate mongers and supposed charitable foundations who fund them, but Iftikhar also points out some of the even more insidious attempts to smear Muslims.

One of the most noxious was Congressman Peter King's decision to hold congressional hearings called "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response". Very rightly Iftikhar likens this to Congressional witch hunts of the past and says it legitimized singling out a segment of the American population and deeming them suspect because of their religious beliefs - beliefs that are protected by the American Constitution.

Iftikhar quotes Richard Clarke, who worked for both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as a counterterrorism czar, as warning this type of inquest would aid America's enemies. "To the extent that they (the hearings) are the object of fear-mongering, it will only serve Al Qaeda's ends", by wrongfully portraying that America is somehow at war with Islam.

However, it's not just conservatives who Iftikhar takes issue with. It's also those so called liberals who hide their fear and hatred behind supposed concern for civil rights and liberties. Those who do their best to make martyrs out the drawers of obscene cartoons and purveyors of hate speech.

He doesn't say the killings at the Charlie Hebedo offices were justified by any means. At the same time he doesn't see them, or the right wing Danish newspaper who published the infamous cartoons of Mohammad, as the great defenders of free speech everyone has made them out to be. How would people have reacted if those publications ran obscene cartoons of Jesus? (The Danish newspaper actually refused to run cartoons of Jesus by saying they wouldn't appeal to their readership)

People can say Muslims shouldn't be so sensitive to people making fun of them or shouldn't be allowed to oppress the free expression of ideas. Yet no one seems to raise much of a fuss when conservative Christians pressure advertisers into dropping support for TV shows they don't like or having books removed from libraries and school districts.

Iftikhar actually does say he thinks Muslims should learn to ignore these obviously deliberate provocations. While he may not like what the cartoons depict, he also doesn't agree with any of those who think they should take to the streets in protest against them. Call it hate speech, explain why these sorts of things are offensive, but aside from that don't give them the attention they desire.
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Iftikhar also deals with how the media differs in its depiction of similar crimes committed by non-Muslims. How is it that someone who opens fire on the clients and staff of an abortion clinic in the name of his God is not a Christian terrorist? Or a white man who walks into an African American church and shoots nine people isn't called a white terrorist? Yet when two people of Muslim background indiscriminately kill people, including Muslims, as happened in San Bernardino California, the media are quick to label it an act of Islamic terrorism even though the couple in question had no connections to any terror groups.

Scapgoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms is a reasoned and passionate defence against the hate filled rhetoric which has been filling American airwaves and print since September 11 2001. In it Iftikhar shows not only how unreasonable the calls for restrictions on Islam are, but how they contravene the American constitution - Freedom of Religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

He also does a fine job of showing how Americans are actually aiding and abetting their enemies through the rhetoric of hate. By making it look like America, from the government down to the media, are attacking Muslims, they give ammunition to those who would whip up support for armed attacks against Americans all over the world.

Unfortunately Iftikhar is only one voice in a very loud wilderness. While he does his best to write in as direct and straightforward manner as possible, his arguments can't be reduced down to a thirty second sound bite. Whether or not the people who need to read this book will be bothered to, or whether it will change anybody's mind about the subject, is questionable. This is a well written and passionate book defending reason and rationality. But the world is no longer a rational or reasonable place.
(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms)

April 28, 2016

Book Review: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay


There are very few authors who manage to create fictional worlds of depth and beauty but are also able to people them with complex and real characters. In his latest book, Children of Earth and Sky to be released May 10 2016 from Penguin/Random House Canada, Guy Gavriel Kay, demonstrates the deft hand of an artist through his abilities to bring both people and place to life.
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As is his wont Kay has taken an era from history as his starting point and extrapolated his story from the events of that time. In this case he's focused on what we'd know as the region from Venice to Istanbul - with especial attention paid to the Baltic and Eastern European regions - during the tumultuous times of the Ottoman Empire's expansion into the region. While countries, city states, and regions have been re-named, they're described with enough detail the discerning reader should have no problem identifying, if not their exact identities, their geographical locations. (Readers of Kay's previous books The Lions of Al Rassan, Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors will not only recognize the place names but find poignant references to the latter two scattered throughout the book.)

While the earth shattering events of the time are important to the story, Kay's focus is on how their reverberations spiral outwards to impact on lives everywhere. From the proud merchant city states of Seressa and Dubrava to the small fortress town of Senjan and even to far away Asharias, home of the Khalif of the Osmanli Empire. It's these events combined with fate, circumstances, or simply pure chance, that bring the four central characters together initially. From seemingly random beginnings, their fates are irrevocably intertwined.

Danica Gradek is a young woman from the fortress town of Senjan. The Senjans are condemned as pirates by the Seressa and Osmanli, for their practice of raiding merchant ships travelling between the two, while praised as heroes by the Holy Emperor for their willingness to fight the heathens whenever required. A warrior in a society where women aren't supposed to be fighters she would seem to have little in common with those who become her companions; Marin Djivo, the youngest son of a Merchant family from Dubrava, Pero Villani, an impoverished artist from Seressa, and Leonora Valeri, a young woman being sent to Dubrava as a spy for Seressa.

When Villani is commissioned by the ruling council of Seressa to travel to Asharias in response to the Khalif's desire to have his portrait done in by a Western artist, the first stage of his journey is aboard a ship owned by the Djivo family which Marin has accompanied as the family's representative. It also happens to be carrying a doctor and his wife travelling to Dubrava, although Leonora Valeri is only pretending to be the doctor's wife as a way to enter Seressa's rival as a spy.

When the boat is boarded by a Senjan raiding party, including Danica on her first raid, events conspire to change the lives of these four people, and their companions, forever. While each of their tales began some time earlier, this is the moment when they all converge. The first of a series of seemingly random happenings, which will seed all of what is to come. There are many more chance encounters upon each of their roads that will cause both convergences and divergences in their paths.
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What's wonderful about Kay's books is how he builds to each of these moments. We see how nothing, and nobody, exists in a vacuum. Not only does he give us each character's story, showing us how a particular twist or turn brought them to a point. Kay brings us into the council chambers and courts of Emperors, Dukes, and Regents to demonstrate how decisions made in these lofty circles have ramifications for people perhaps thousands of miles away.

Kay's books are a delight to read because he never rushes anything. Stories unfold in an elegant dance with all the elements choreographed. What at first might appear as random and unconnected steps gradually reveal themselves to have been the opening movements in a grand ballet. When you step into one of his books you find yourself surrendering to his pace and then being caught up in the sweep and turn of events to the point where you've read over 400 pages without even noticing.

Accenting his artistry as a storyteller is the fact the language he uses compliments the tone and nature of his work. Elegant, descriptive, and evocative of time and place, it somehow manages to not only capture the beauty and splendour of the Khalif's court in Asharias, but the horror and brutality of a battle scene. At the same time he is also able to convey the thoughts and emotions of his characters with such a clarity of detail they become more than just sketches on a page. These are living, breathing people with complicated motives which even they sometimes fail to fully comprehend.

In Children of Earth and Sky Kay works on a very broad canvas. Though he captures the scope of historical events, it's his attention to detail which makes the book captivating. While a painter might consider these details peripheral to the main subject matter of a work, Kay brings his picture alive by his ability to bring them to life. Through his examination of those who appear on the edges of history we gain a better understanding of what the world was like during this time than we would by reading a book about the rulers and their generals.

Everything about this book, from the characters to the world created - including the subtle elements of fantasy that imbue it - makes Children of Earth and Sky a wonder and a joy to read. Having read it once I can guarantee you'll want to read it again and again.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review - Children of Earth and Sky - Fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay)

February 5, 2016

Book Review: Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2015 by Richard Hell


As its title suggest Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2014 from Soft Skull Press is a collection of essays, critiques, and assorted other articles and remarks by Richard Hell. While Hell was initially known as the front man for such seminal New York City bands as Television, The Voidoids, and The Heartbreakers, he's also a poet, novelist, and a essayist.
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Aside from his personal artistic achievements, Hell is also a keen and intelligent observer of the arts and has written and spoken about everything from pop culture to the avant-garde in film, poetry, and the visual arts. He's also been closely associated with some of the foremost contributors to pop culture and art in and around New York City since the early 1970s. All of which gives him the awareness to put his observations in an historical and social context.

Reading Hell's work is an object lesson in being a critic. He makes no secrets of his personal biases or opinions, but still strives to be as fair as possible to the work he's talking about. His writings on film are a perfect example. He makes no bones of his preference for the work of people like Jean Luc Goddard to more mainstream work, but he's still able to critique a Hollywood movie fairly based on its own merits. He judges all art in this manner - by seeing how well it stands up to the standards set by works of a similar style and form.

What makes these articles even more interesting in Hell's personal knowledge of many of the creators. His writings on authors like Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries and The Petting Zoo) are made that much more interesting by his personal recollections of the person behind the work. We gain not only a deeper understanding of the artist in question, but we also begin to see their work in a different, more personal, light.

Of course, not all of the articles are going to be of interest to everyone, in fact some might even find some the work discussed in the book disturbing. However, art is not always a comfortable blanket we wrap around ourselves - it should make us ask questions and provoke a response. The aesthetic appreciation of a piece art extends far beyond whether we "like" it.

While Hell never comes out and says this directly, the diversity and range of expression he writes about in Massive Pissed Love gradually bring this point home to us. Art is not created to please us, but meant to challenge us to look at the world from multiple perspectives. Remember, works we now consider acceptable, the paintings of Picasso for example, were once scorned and ridiculed.
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While some of the articles in this book might be inaccessible to some, his writings on popular music are sure to appeal to most. One of my favourites is the piece comparing The Rolling Stones with the Velvet Underground - "The Velvet Underground vs. The Rolling Stones". He examines the albums each group released during the same time frame - the time the Velvets existed - 1966 -1970. (The Velvets' first public appearance was in '65 and their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, wasn't released until '67 but was recorded in '66 at the same time the Stones recorded Aftermath)

Not only is the article a in depth and careful analysis of both bands' output giving you a deeper understanding of their musical significance and appreciation for their work, its also highly entertaining. Lacking the pretentious bullshit language these types of articles usually end up being couched in, it becomes an honest and candid examination of two bands who seem to be at completely opposite ends of the pop music spectrum.

Massive Pissed Love is not arranged chronologically, rather arranged as to how the articles fit into the three categories of the title. Some are long - "Massive" - some angry in tone - "Pissed" - and others full of adoration for their subject - "Love". As Hell says in his introductory note "It was to dull just to divide it by subject matter". One thing you can be sure of, this book is never dull. Contrary, intelligent, opinionated and perhaps to some people's minds controversial, but always lively and stimulating. If you care at all about modern art and culture this is a must read.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: 'Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2014' by Richard Hell)

January 17, 2016

Book Review: The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf by Martin Millar


The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf by Martin Millar from Soft Skull Press is the third in his series of books featuring Kalix MacRinnalch, the youngest child of the ruling werewolf clan of Great Britain. As she's about to turn 18 Kalix finds herself still an outlaw (she killed her father the Thane) and living in London far removed from the ancestral home in Scotland.
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However, her living situation has improved somewhat since we first met her back in The Lonely Werewolf Girl. She's sharing an apartment with two humans, Daniel and Moonglow, and a Hiyasta fire elemental, Agrivex (known as Vex). While she's still suffering from panic attacks, an eating disorder, and a tendency towards self -harm - she's addicted to laudanum and cuts herself when her anxiety is at its most severe - life is still better. Her family is no longer actively having her hunted down and returned to Scotland (dead or alive) for her crimes and she has friends who care for her.

While things might be looking a little more positive for our werewolf heroine, plans afoot that could see her once more thrust into a horrible maelstrom. For the Avenaris Guild, werewolf hunters, are gearing up to see if they can finally destroy their historic enemies the MacRinnalch clan once and for all. Not only have they recruited new hunters from all over Europe they have found themselves a powerful alley in the person of Empress Kabachetka, the ruler of the Hainusta fire element dimension.

Kabachetka has long begrudged being outshone in the fashion world by Malveria, Queen of the Hiyastas and Vex's aunt. As Malveria's cloths are designed by Kalix's eldest sister Thrix, Kabachetka sees an alliance with the Avenaris Guild against the MacRinnalchs as the perfect opportunity to not only gain revenge but clear the field of all competitors for being the best dressed fire elemental in all dimensions.

If this all sounds rather confusing, and a little bit convoluted, well I've only revealed the tip of the iceberg. For as well as those named above the pages of The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf are peopled with the same host of characters who appeared in the previous two books; including Kalix's extended Werewolf family and the clans associated with them, other magical/mythical beings, and even a cameo appearance by Joan Jett. (Kalix is a big fan of Jett's first group The Runaways.)

However, Millar does a wonderful job of ensuring all the different threads in this story are woven together seamlessly. While he writes chapters that are sometimes merely short bursts of description or brief encounters between one or two characters, each helps to complete our picture of what's happening in the story. We watch as the story builds to its climax - the battle between the werewolves of the MacRicnnalch clan and Avenaris Guild - while coming to appreciate each character more and more.

At the same time, Millar continues to do a wonderful job of describing and detailing the effects of anxiety and panic disorder. It doesn't matter that Kalix is a werewolf. When we step inside her mind and listen to her thoughts we gain a deeper understanding of the fears people suffering from this condition experience. Even the simplest matters can become extremely complicated. What's especially wonderful about Kalix's character is how straightforward her thought processes and reactions are. These are thoughts any of us could have; that any of us could experience.

Of course not all of us our werewolves who were born in their wolf shape on a full moon - which we're given to understand is so rare an occurrence Kalix was the first - who during battle becomes a beserker who feels no pain and will let nothing stop her from ripping an enemy's throat out. It seems like a good way to vent.

There is nothing cute or romantic about the werewolves in this book. In their human forms they have all the same weaknesses and foibles other people have while being fearsome warriors who rip the throats out of their enemies without a second thought. That they design haute couture, use computers (difficult to type when you're in your werewolf shape) donate to art galleries, and play in rock and roll bands might bring them into the 21st century, but they won't back down when challenged.

The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf can be read as a stand alone book, but I'd recommend reading both The Lonely Werewolf Girl and Curse of the Wolf Girl first. Not only will you appreciate this book more for having done so, but they are well worth reading on their own merits.

Millar has a marvellously quirky style of writing that might take a bit getting used to, but once you get into the flow of the book you will find yourself swept along for the ride. There aren't too many authors out there who could have handled the demands of creating such a complex collection of characters and plots and made it so easy to follow without being simplistic. A great book and a fun read for anyone sick and tired of paranormal romance novels.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf by Martin Millar)

December 5, 2015

Comic Book Review: Ms. Marvel - Ms. Marvel Vol.1 No Normal, Ms. Marvel Vol.2 Generation Why & Ms. Marvel Vol.3 Crushed


Ms Marvel No Normal.jpgA couple of years ago Marvel Comics began the process of rebooting some of its original characters in non traditional ways. It was a way of making their universe a more accurate representation of the real world. Gay characters rub shoulders with new imaginings of traditional characters - a female Thor and a African American Captain America. However, one of the most interesting new interpretations has been how they've taken the character of Ms. Marvel and brought her into the 21st Century.

For those who missed Kamala Khan in her individual comic appearances as the new Ms. Marvel, Marvel has done you the sweet of repackaging them in four volumes: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1:No Normal, Ms. Marval Vol.2: Generation Why, Ms. Marvel Vol.3: Crushed and the soon to be released Ms. Marvel Vol.4: Last Days.

Kamala is the child of immigrants from Pakistan who settled in Jersey City, New Jersey. A typical sixteen year old girl is most ways - loves online RPGs and writes Avenger's fan sites - she also has to deal with the culture clashes most children of immigrants will find familiar. The overprotective parents, the older sibling who knows better and a high school community who think she's "interesting". Sure some of the restrictions placed on her are specific to her being Muslim, but in reality, she could just as easily be Sikh, Chinese or Indian.
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Of course it helps the comic that the head writer is G.Willow Wilson who came to the series with an already impressive resume. Her first novel, Alif the Unseen was winner of the World Fantasy Award for best novel as well as having worked on various other comic titles before tackling Ms. Marvel. Having lived and worked in Egypt as a journalist in her twenties she also has a much clearer idea of what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world than most Western writers.

The first three volumes collect not only the titles from Ms. Marvel's own book, but also titles from other books - Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. - she has made guest appearances in. While this sometimes is confusing for purposes of continuity, it also gives us the chance to see the character both in and out of the context of her own world and how she fits into the Marvel universe as a whole.

However, what really makes these comics work is how much Kamala's struggles coming to terms with her new superpower mirrors the struggles she has in finding her place in her community at large. For she wasn't born with her superpowers. After sneaking out to go to a party she's exposed to a mysterious mist which not only induces strange visions - the original Ms. Marvel and some of the Avengers appear to her speaking Urdu - it transforms her into Ms. Marvel.
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While she's always thought this is who she wanted to be, she quickly discovers being someone different doesn't solve her problems. She's not only still Kamala with all of the same difficulties fitting into both school and her parent's world, she now has the added problem of finding her way as a super being. The whole comic is a beautiful conversation on a young woman's struggle for identity which people of all backgrounds will be able to empathize with.

However, the comic doesn't just deal with immigrant life and teenage identity problems, its also got all you typical comic book action. Bringing both to life through short bursts of dialogue and illustrations is no easy task, but the writers and artists on this title do a splendid job. Not only do they bring their message across without being preachy, they also keep the action hopping and have created some exciting story lines for their readers. There's also some special guests along the way if you needed anything else to pique your interest.

Kamala Khan has now outgrown her formative years as a superhero, in current issues of her book she's joined The Avengers. For those who missed her beginnings and her early struggles these three collections are must reads before setting out to find out how she's able to balance being part of a super team and the rest of her life. It was hard enough saving Jersey City, but what if she has to go save the world?

(Article originally published at Blogcrtics.org as Comic Book Review - Ms. Marvel: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 No Normal, Ms Marvel Vol. 2 Generation Why & Ms. Marvel Vol.3 Crushed)

June 7, 2015

Book Review: Anger Is An Energy by John Lydon


Normally I don't read autobiographies. Especially ones written by rock and roll personalities. The ones I've read are usually too self-serving by half to be informative; all you find out are the levels of false modesty some people can achieve. However, there are always exceptions to every rule and John Lydon's Anger Is An Energy, published by Harper Collins, is every bit as original as its author.

Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, first came to prominence as the lead singer of the seminal British punk band the Sex Pistols. Although the band only released one studio album, Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols back in the mid 1970s, their influence on popular music can't be underestimated. While the band imploded after only a couple of years, Lydon went on to form PiL (Public Image Limited) and has continued to push the boundaries of popular music forty years after his career commenced.

In the hopes his autobiography would mirror his music career in both approach and content; unpredictable and exciting; I picked up a copy at a local bookstore. That I happened to be listening to Never Mind The Bollocks on my i-Pod when I walked in the store is just one of those weird coincidences. Lydon follows the typical pattern for books of this type by starting off with details of his childhood and moving forward into the present. However, that's about the only way its typical to the format.
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Lydon's narrative and story telling are rich in both detail and context. We start off in a London which is still in full recovery from being bombed in WWll, and the conditions he was brought up in. While this could have been an opportunity for someone to talk about their hard life, he never once stoops to that. Instead he describes what he learned from his life and how it benefited him. He even talks about his bout of childhood meningitis, which saw him hospitalized for six months and left him with permanent damage to his spine, in terms of how it helped shape the person he became.

Naturally music features prominently in his narrative; from what he heard as a child and a teenager to what he appreciates to this day. Any of you punk snobs out there who think you should only be listening to certain music can take a lesson from the diversity of music Lydon listened to growing up and continues to listen to this day. As would be expected most of the music talk is taken up with his life in popular music: the Sex Pistols and PiL.

He talks openly and honestly about everything from his friendship with Sid Viscous, the legal problems he had with Sex Pistols' management (former manager Malcolm McLaren tried to claim ownership of the name Johnny Rotten) and the ever changing line up of PiL. However what's truly fascinating about those sections of the book are what Lydon reveals about himself. It's not as if he is letting anything slip, more like it's just the proper context for him to tell us about his creative process and certain aspects of his character.

As is to be expected from someone who has been as outspoken in his public life as Lydon, he's not afraid of giving his opinions on paper. Life in Britain, New York City, punk rock, California (which he now calls home) the Sex Pistols, PiL, working in television, the music industry and all the musicians he's known and worked with are all talked about with his characteristic forthright bluntness. What was really nice is how much he continues to this day to defy expectations in who he likes and admires and who he has little time for. He makes no apologies for his opinions, but is honest enough to say they're based on his personal experiences and shouldn't be taken as gospel or absolute truths.
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The most refreshing thing about Anger Is An Energy is its complete lack of false modesty. I'm not saying Lydon isn't constantly aware of how lucky he is or grateful for being given the opportunities he has had and continues to enjoy. However he doesn't give us any of the "aw shucks bull shit, I ain't done nothing special" common to celebrity autobiographies. He knows what he has accomplished and is justifiably proud of his achievements.

Even better is the sound of the book. If feels and reads like Lydon is talking directly to you. Perhaps he dictated the content and it was transcribed directly to the page. Whatever the case, it somehow manages to bring the man alive as few memoirs ever do. Reading this book gives you a real sense of the man, warts and all. He neither hides his light under a bushel or tries to depict himself as other than what he is and where he came from.

The irony of Lydon is how he's become an icon for the iconoclastic. He's self aware enough to see the weirdness of this situation and to let us know he knows what's going on. In reading this book it soon becomes obvious his goal wasn't to become either famous or infamous, but now that he is he doesn't pretend not to be enjoying himself. However, he has remained insistent about always playing the "game" by his rules. This may mean he might not have enjoyed the success he could have garnered, but it does sound likes he's a far happier man for it.

Anger Is An Energy is one of those rare autobiographies which is both a pleasure and an education. John Lydon is not your average rock and roll star, and this is not your average rock and roll book. Its essential reading for anyone with any interest in both the history of punk rock and popular culture in the late 20th and 21st centuries.

Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Anger Is An Energy by John Lydon - Johnny Rotten Lives)

May 9, 2015

Book Review: Agapé: Heaven & Earth by Bob MacKenzie


Fifty years is a long time to be doing anything. Fifty years as a poet is almost unimaginable. Yet that's just what Canadian poet Agapé: Heaven & Earth, through his own Dark Matter Press, an anthology culled from the span of his career.

Of course there are many people who can claim to have written poetry for an extended period of time, but what really matters is what they have written and is it worth reading. Now some might say that judging poetry is a subjective thing. The old "I know what I like" argument. However, when examining an artist's body of work from an extended period of time, there are objective standards it can be judged against. It's all very well and good to say, well I like this or that poem, but when looking at a retrospective covering this span of years guidelines for its appreciation must be established.

First, and most importantly, is there a noticeable evolution in their work? Do they experiment with style, content and form, or do they just latch onto one approach and never change. Now, experimentation for the sake of experimentation can only take you so far. Content and a poet's ability to use words in order to communicate sensation, emotion or thought are just as important. Some poets are able to stay within one style their whole career because their command of language is such what they say is more important than how they say it.
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MacKenzie is one of those rare poets who is able to combine an adroitness with language and the ability to work in different styles effectively and seemingly effortlessly. While the poems in this volume aren't arranged chronologically, so there's no way of knowing how his style has evolved over the years, a simple examination of the writing shows his diversity. Everything from the formalized structure of haiku to long, prose like, free form verse can be found within the covers of Agapé.

It's in one of the former you get a brief insight into this poet's rather ironic sense of humour. The third poem into the book reads, "never my forte/these brief delicate flowers:/Japanese poems". Here he not only chaffs at the constraints of a highly structured format, but he also shows the self awareness to make fun of his own predilections. Mackenzie is definitely a proponent of allowing words the freedom to breath and create their own atmosphere instead of binding them up within the walls of structure. However, as he proves in this collection, it's not because he can't write a sonnet or a haiku, but that he'd prefer not to.

Instead of arranging the poems in the order they were produced throughout his career, MacKenzie and his editors, Nancy Wills and Faye Batchelor, have elected to gather them by theme or subject. What you quickly come to understand is no matter which point in his life a poem was written, this is a person who is very aware of the world around and his poetry is a reflection of that sensitivity. While the natural world is integral to his work, he is not blind to the human experience in all its pain and glory.

MacKenzie is not shy about telling us how he feels on any given subject either. He won't couch an idea or sentiment in a pretty phrase or obscure aphorism in order to soften its impact or protect a reader's sensibilities. He has no compunctions about directing a spotlight directly into the dark corners of human behaviour. At the same time he doesn't hesitate to celebrate the sublime beauty of a mountain scape at sunrise or the wonder of coming face to face with the wild.

However, that doesn't mean his poems don't have a lyricism to them. MacKenzie's use of language is wonderful. The words roll off the page and tumble around inside your brain until they gradually take shape. They bounce off each other forming thoughts and images which take up residence in your imagination and stimulate your mind and soul. Some of the poems might awe you, some might frighten you, but they can't fail to move you in some way.
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Mackenzie is not just a poet, he's a novelist, songwriter, photographer and illustrator as well. Being a multidisciplinary artist means he's open to more modes of expression than most artists. Perhaps this is why he's not fallen into the habit of letting conventions confine his poetry. Some might not appreciate his approach because, "it doesn't sound like poetry", but that's missing the point. Poetry is an expression of the human heart and soul - messy and chaotic places to begin with - so the expectation poems should fit some preconceived notion of structure and form is ridiculous.

Agapé: Heaven & Earth is a wonderful collection of poetry spanning fifty years of inspired creativity. If you've never read or heard of MacKenzie's poetry in the past, this would be the ideal collection for you to purchase. Even if you're familiar with his work it does a fine job of putting his career in perspective. As I said earlier, it is a remarkable achievement to do anything for fifty years; to be as innovative, creative and inspired a poet as MacKenzie has for that time span is astounding.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Agapé: Heaven & Earth by Bob MacKenzie - Celebrating Fifty Years Of Poetry<)

January 21, 2015

Book Review: John Lennon The Collected Artwork


It might be hard for those who didn't live through the arc of John Lennon's life to understand the impact this one man had on people around the world. Coming out of the darkness surrounding the end of WW ll and the paranoia of the 1950s, The Beatles were a breath of fresh air; a sound of hope and new possibilities. Today their songs from the early 1960s probably don't sound overly rebellious, but taken in the context of the times it was something new and liberating. Sure there was other pop music at the time, equally good if not better, but they managed to capture the imaginations of young people around the world like few others.

However, it wasn't just the music. Part of their appeal was the irreverent humour they projected in their of public appearances. While they all shared this characteristic, Lennon's humour and comments always seemed to have more of an edge to them than the others. This came to a head with his off the cuff comment about how The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. While this caused the type of backlash you'd expect in certain quarters, burning of Beatles' records, condemnation by fundamentalist Christians (sound familiar?) and warnings of "he better not show his face around here", it did nothing to affect their popularity around the world, proving Lennon right in his assessment.

While many of today's pop stars and celebrities have carefully cultivated images for public consumption, Lennon's public persona was his true face. Mischievous, sometimes caustic and often opinionated, what we saw in his appearances and heard in interviews was who he had always been. You only need to glance through a new book, John Lennon: The Collected Artwork, from Insight Editions, for proof. For the book contains artwork he created from his childhood onwards, and even in some of those earlier drawings we see manifestations of each of those characteristics.
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For those who didn't know, before Lennon was a Beatle he had attended the Liverpool Art School. Although he was unable to complete his studies as his music career took off, he continued to sketch and draw for the rest of his life as time allowed. Glancing through the book the first impression is of relatively unsophisticated line drawings that appear to range from doodles to sketches or cartoons. But upon closer examination you realize the looseness of style was a deliberate choice. One only need look at some of the detailed backgrounds in the work to realize the time and effort which were put into each drawing.

In his text for the book Scott Gutterman makes an effort to put the illustrations into not only a historical context in terms of Lennon's life, but also points out how they reflect on the way he looked at the world. While the first of the book's seven sections is paintings and sketches from his early years, the chapters are not in chronological order. Instead, they have been arranged to give us a sense of who Lennon was as visual artist, and what he attempted to accomplish with his work.

Most of the chapters' titles are self explanatory: "Self Reflection" (chapter 2), "Observations" (chapter 3) or "John With Yoko" (chapter 6). But chapter 4, "Japanese Translation Drawings", is different. After the birth of their son Sean, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono would make frequent trips to visit her family in Japan. Not only do the pictures in this section depict Lennon's attempts to learn Japanese, they also reflect his study of sumi-e, a traditional Japanese style of pen and ink drawing.
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The work in this section, and many of the pieces created in the years following reflect this new influence. However, we also see why he would have been attracted to the form. For while there are distinct stylistic differences; the lines are more definite and these drawings don't contain the same amount of detail as others, it's still a natural extension of the line drawings Lennon had been doing previously. On a more personal level, the new style of drawing also reflects the changes he went through during his retirement from 1975 to 1980 when he took time off to raise his new son. There's a stillness to them indicative of the changes he underwent transitioning from rock and roll star to his life as a house husband and father.

While Lennon will always be more remembered for his music than his output as a visual artist, the work contained in this book gives us a different view of him as a person and an artist. They may not be the most sophisticated pieces of art, but each of them reveal something of his nature. Whether his sardonic view of middle class values in the work "Squares", or his love for the simplicity of his domestic life through the depictions of his family in the last years of his life. Most impressive is how much he's able to communicate with a few strokes of his pen. It's like he was able to channel his passion or emotions through this very narrow conduit and have them show up on the page where we can all appreciate them.

Of course there's the question of whether or not we'd be seeing these works of art if he weren't John Lennon. The answer is probably not. However, that does nothing to diminish this book's importance as a record of Lennon and his life. Those who knew his work as a musician, or knew anything about him when he was alive, will be reminded of those things they admired in him. Whether or not the pieces will have the same appeal to others is uncertain, as in some ways you'd have to have experienced Lennon the person and musician to fully appreciate them.

John Lennon: The Collected Artwork is a beautifully packaged and presented book. The reproductions of his art are as good as those you'd see in any collection of this kind and the accompanying text does a good job of explaining their history and background. Lennon will always be best known as a musician, but this collection of his artwork provides a fascinating look into a different facet of an intelligent, opinionated and original mind. That alone makes it worth owning.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as John Lennon: The Collected Artwork)

June 18, 2014

Book Review: Spirit Quest by Bob Mackenzie and Sharlena Wood


Over the years humanity's relationship with nature has become sort of twisted. On the one hand we admire the beauty of a spectacular sunset or soaring mountains yet we also think nothing of destroying the atmosphere with poison gases or the water table with toxic waste. Further distorting our view of the world around is how we've come to believe nature is okay as long as it knows its place. Let it interfere with our lives though and all of a sudden it becomes an act of God or some sort of natural disaster. When did we become so self-centred as to believe tornadoes, earthquakes and tidal waves are something to be taken personally? These storms would have happened regardless of our presence.

To be able to see nature as something which exists independent of humanity is not something many of us are able to accomplish. One of the ways we have of bringing ourselves closer to nature is through the work of writers and artists. There's something about seeing things through the lens provided by somebody else's work that gives us a clearer perspective on the world we live in.
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The new book Spirit Quest, published by Dark Matter Press, from poet Bob Mackenzie and visual artist Sharlena Wood is a fine example of how the arts can give us a new appreciation of the natural world. The two artists have created a series of complimentary works; Mackenzie's poems recount visits to Canada's Rocky Mountains in Western Canada he took as a child while Wood's paintings bring the passion and wildness of the region to life.

Wood has not attempted to illustrate Mackenzie's poems. Instead what she has done is provide us with images which capture nature's untamed essence. In some ways they serve as contrasts to Mackenzie's poems of the human experience of nature as seen from car windows, camp sites and family vacations. It's almost as if the two have combined to show us how the world looks from both perspectives. Mackenzie's highly personal childhood remembrances, which say as much about the warmth of his family life growing up as they do about nature, are the ring side seat to the natural world while Wood pulls us right into the wild unchecked beauty which cares nothing for our opinions.

In his poems Mackenzie recreates the impressions of the Rocky Mountains he formed as a child through the filter of his adult memory and opinions. Remarkably he manages, after the passage of time and experiences, to still convey the sense of wonder and mystery they must have instilled in the younger version of himself. In "no visible means", a poem describing mountain sheep's apparent ability to defy gravity in clinging to mountain sides, we see a perfect example of a child's awe filtered through the mind of an adult. "this space overtakes me/as no book ever can/here the gods can be felt/and I feel very small".
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While the sentiments expressed are the amazement a child would feel at seeing the mountains and their sheer size, the vocabulary is decidedly adult. However, the combination of the two is highly effective as it allows us to remember the awe we felt as children when confronted with something beyond our comprehension. By showing us this world through the eyes of his younger self Mackenzie is able to depict nature as the raw force is can be. There's never the impression that it was put there for his family's enjoyment; it exists, is seen and described without editorializing or judgement.

The same can't be said for the occasional outside interlopers into Mackenzie's private world of family and nature. The occasional glimpse we receive of other humans isn't exactly flattering. In the poem "Bears" he describes the interaction between the bears in Banff National Park in Alberta Canada. "tourists come here to meet bears/brown bears so cute in daylight/at night fear bears in the dark/approaching their lamp lit tents/bears are in the camp at dusk/stalk between tent and washrooms/watch campers creep out in fear/make shadow art with their paws". The message we receive is that the majority of people seem to hold fast to the tried and true human opinion that nature is alright in its place, but it needs to know its place.

As Mackenzie uses words to describe the world of the Rocky Mountains in an attempt to capture their magical and wild spirit, Wood's visual creations for the book take us even further into the wild abandon of the region. From stark black and white images which express the power that can be found in the austerity of naked woods in winter to wild uncontrolled swirls of colour which wash across the eye, her work constantly reiterates the theme that nature exists for itself, not for our pleasure. There is a raw power to her work which sends shivers down one's spine as it captures the naked energy of both the mountains and the land around them.
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Anyone who has seen the Rocky Mountains anywhere in North America can't help but be reminded of the fact we are only a small part of the world around us. Most of us go through our lives in a sort of un easy co-existence with the natural world. We live in controlled environments where the rains and winds are at most inconveniences to be avoided and wild life is limited to the birds and small animals in our backyards. Spirit Quest is a reminder that the natural world exists in of itself without care for our concerns or worries. We are all that small person Mackenzie describes in "no visible means" whether we know it or not.

The poems and art work in this book do a masterful job of bringing both the natural world and human interaction with it to life. By showing the world through the eyes of himself as a child poet Mackenzie helps us rediscover the awe it can inspire while Wood's paintings remind us of its sheer unbridled power. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but on this occasion pictures and words have combined to create something which speaks volumes to any willing to listen.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Spirit Quest by Bob Mackenzie and Sharlena Wood)

April 29, 2014

Book Review: Irenicon by Aidan Harte


What if? Two of the most important words in any fiction writer's arsenal, take on special meaning to those who posit realities alternate to the ones we experience in their work. While some would regulate works of fantasy to a lower tier of literature than what they refer to as serious fiction, some of the world's greatest writers have taken us into alternate histories and realities. From the works of Shakespeare (what would you call The Tempest or Midsummer's Night Dream if not fantasy) to the work of the late great South American magic realists Jorge Louis Borge and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, fantasy when properly executed can be every bit as creative and literate as any other writing.

Which isn't to say there isn't a great deal of dreck being published under the fantasy label. Like all the romance novels being passed off as fantasy because the authors have thrown in a vampire or a werewolf as the dark brooding hero in place of the man with the mysterious past. Thankfully there are enough authors working at the other end of the spectrum to offset the piles of crap being dumped on us by publishers. Some of the better ones can be found penning the books which can be found slotted under the sub-category of either world building or alternative histories. While you can still find escapist fodder among these, the book equivalent of a Home Box Office mini-series, others are intricate and sophisticated works which not only bring a particular era of human history to life but also postulate fascinating ways in which a particular civilization could have evolved differently under the right circumstances.

Sculptor and author Aidan Harte's Irenicon, published by Quercus Books, is a particularly fascinating example of this style. The first book in his The Wave Trilogy, introduces us to a world based on Italy and Europe in the early days of the Renaissance, but with some key cultural and scientific differences. Unlike our world the son of God did not survive to be crucified and his mother Mary was tasked with the job of spreading the word of the new religion. While the new creed has still managed to become dominant across Europe, over the course of the book we gradually begin to understand how this difference has impacted on the philosophical underpinnings of this world.
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Much like our world at this time, the majority of this Europe is made up of independent city states. However, looming over them all as a constant threat is the Concordian Empire. Having conquered or subjugated most of the city states they are now bleeding them dry through annual tribute payments. The Empire's rulers are past masters of the divide and conquer mentality and have successfully managed to quell any potential resistance to their rule by turning their fiercest opponents against each other. No better example of this can be found in the city state which was their biggest obstacle to rule, Rasenna.

The Empire split the city in two by unleashing The Wave. They had learned how to harness and control water through a combination of science and technology and force it to obey their commands. They literally sent a wave through the middle of Rasenna which created a river dividing the town in half. The physical division successfully broke whatever unity existed in the city and set the various districts and their controlling families into conflict with each other in an effort to control the remains of the city. Similar to the Contrade (or districts) of renaissance Siena, each family and their followers guard their borders jealously. Occasional raids across the river via ropes and roof tops result in casualties on all sides and ensure the rivalry between the districts never abates.

Sofia Scaligeri, while residing and fighting with one of the main families embroiled in the conflicts, is also the heir to the title of Contessa of Rasenna. While the city's equivalent of a general assembly or town council continues to meet, factionalism has rendered it useless. So even if Scaligeri comes into her title she can't see much hope in bringing her people together under one banner. However aid comes to her from two very unlikely sources, The Empire itself and the aging Mother Superior of the local equivalent of a convent. The Empire has sent one of its infamous engineers, the same group of men who utilized the Wave technology to split the city, in order to build a bridge spanning the river.
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They need a bridge in order to facilitate the movement their armies in an attempt to consolidate their power in the region. However, the building of the bridge is also seen by some in Rasenna as an opportunity to reunite the two halves of the city. While some see it as a threat to their power base, the Mother Superior, who belongs to no faction, understands this could be the chance for the city to recover itself. However in order to do so they will need a leader who will be able to counter the Empire's technological control of water. For the nuns are the diametrical opposites of the engineers, they don't seek to dominate the natural forces of the world, instead they teach a practice of working with an element's innate power to give one strength.

What elevates Irenicon above the usual run of the mill fantasy read is Harte's ability to bring his vision of an alternate history to life. Instead of bogging the story down with explanations and descriptions of the world he's created he allows us the opportunity to gradually become immersed in its realities through his characters and the plot. While this might require some patience on the part of readers as we try and piece together the conflicting philosophies underpinning the various factions motivations and actions, the technique also allows readers to become completely immersed in the world.

Somehow Harte manages to combine a series of intricate plots lines, intriguing characters and the creation of his version of renaissance Europe without ever becoming confusing. At the same time he doesn't insult a reader's intelligence by spelling anything out for us. While there's always an element of escapism inherent to any work of fantasy, Harte proves the genre can be as thought provoking and intelligence as any other work of fiction. Anyone with a fascination of European history, in particular the Italian renaissance, will take great pleasure in his attention to detail involving all aspects of his creation. From its religion, its nascent technology and all the way through to its social structure, he has created a world that could have easily stepped out of any history book, but which is infinitely more interesting.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Irenicon by Aidan Harte)

March 10, 2014

Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub


I guess it's appropriate blockades have gone up again on the Tyndengia Mohawk reservation in South Eastern Ontario Canada as I begin to write this review. Here in Canada the First Nations people are usually out of sight and out of mind unless they manage to capture the media's attention with some event which inconvenience the population at large. While the fact the majority of them live in conditions equivalent to the destitution most in the developed world equate with the poverty of the developing world should be news enough in itself to keep them in the papers on a daily basis, we only read about them when anger and resentment over conditions reach the boiling point and spill over into angry protest.

Last winter's Idle No More grass roots movement pushed First Nations issues into the spotlight temporarily, but the government has done its usual good job of simply ignoring, it understanding if they say nothing the media will soon move on to something else. Canada, and by extension North America, aren't unique for their mistreatment and ignoring of the indigenous populations whose lands we now occupy. Around the world, from the South Pacific to the High Arctic, indigenous people are marginalized, starved, pushed off what little land we leave them and generally continue to face bleaker and bleaker futures while nobody seems to give a shit. We give them the worst land available and then pollute or steal it when we discover natural resources beneath it ripe for exploiting.

However, a grassroots collective of writers, activists, visual artists and musicians from indigenous communities around the world have started taking advantage of the communications tools offered them by the Internet in an attempt to get the message out. The Fire This Time (TFTT) has been facilitating the bringing together of musicians, poets and lyricists from indigenous communities around the world via their web server. Individuals can upload music tracks, songs, poems and beats for others to download and create new songs with. These dubs are then released on TFTT's record label, Indigenous Resistance (IR). To date 29 recordings featuring music from The Solomon Islands in the South Pacific to Brazil, mixed by artists from India to North America have been issued. This year they have also released something a little different, the book IR 30 Indigenous Visions In Dub, a collection of writings and images which have provided the lyrical content and visuals used in many of these recordings.
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A number of years ago I had reviewed one of the earlier recordings on the IR label, but somehow or other I lost track of their releases over the years. Which is what makes this book all the more interesting and valuable. For the texts they've selected to include not only deal with the major themes and stories from the indigenous world they've been trying to cover over the years, they also bring the words of some of the more insightful minds among indigenous people together in one volume.

Like the recordings the words gathered in this book come from all parts of the globe. They've included lyrics/quotes from musicians from the Solomon Islands (Tohununo and Pesio), stories about an incident which occurred in Brazil where an indigenous man was burnt alive by four wealthy youth (who received only minimum sentences), articles exploring the ties between the indigenous people of North and South America and African Americans, and quotes from two of the most interesting minds among the North American indigenous population, architect Douglas Cardinal and musician/poet/former chair of the American Indian Movement (AIM) John Trudell. While the story of the murder of the Pataxo Galdino in Brazil is sickening in the way it reflects the indifference of the Brazilian population at large to the indigenous peoples whose land the Portuguese stole it makes valuable reading, if only for the contrast it provides to how we normally see these people. Instead of being gaudily dressed props for pop stars' photo opportunities, these are flesh and blood people barely eking out an existence in some of the biggest and roughest slums in the world.

I have to admit while the points about there being common cause between the situation of African Americans and indigenous people through out the Western hemisphere are valid, some of the attempts to tie their spiritual practices together did stretch my credibility. To my mind the writer was making the same assumption far too many do of believing there is a universal "Indigenous" belief system, when not only would you find radically different beliefs among each nation, but from village to village within the same language group. However, there can be no denying the writer's points about the intermarriage between the two groups or the fact many indigenous populations in North and South America share many of the same physical characteristics of African Americans - the indigenous people of Puerto Rico for example.

To my mind the most fascinating readings in this book are the quotes from Douglas Cardinal and John Trudell. Cardinal's words on the nature of power and the way women are treated are stated so matter of factually it makes you wonder how anyone could act any differently. On women he sums things up very succinctly, "One has to state that all the premises that men have of women are basically wrong and you start from there. Even the language is wrong". He uses the same directness of language in his discussion on the nature of power, "I have learnt...that the most powerful force is soft power, caring and commitment together. Soft power is more powerful than adversarial or hard power because it is resilient".
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Trudell's words resonate with a different kind of power. He is someone who knows the power of the mind and the power of words (The FBI once referred to him as one of the most dangerous men in America simply because of the power of his oratory). In a poem quoted in the book he speaks out against the frameworks of European society imposed upon his people as being the instruments of their destruction. Why should he support purported democracy when all it has done is make of his people (along with African Americans and women) second class citizens who are treated like chattel? "We live in a political society/Where they have all power/by their definition of power/but they fear the people who go/out and speak the truth".

Trudell summation of his oppressors attitudes is spot on. Why, if they believe themselves to be so powerful by their own definitions (money and societal position being the two we value the most) are they so scared of those who speak out about injustice and the poverty of the few? Are they afraid people will see how insubstantial their claims to power truly are?

Our governments give occasional lip service to the plight of Native Americans and Canada's First Nation's people, but their policy of doing nothing and hoping the problem goes away has now become official. New acts passed in both the Federal legislations of Canada and the US are designed to ensure the numbers of registered, or status, indigenous people decline to the point where they can take back the reserves and reservations because there will no longer be enough "Indians". Yet anyone who dares speak this truth is called paranoid and deceptive. Who in fact are the more paranoid and deceptive - the ones cynically trying to get rid of "The Indian Problem" or the ones who are the subject to these draconian laws? (For anyone interested in reading about these new acts I recommend Thomas Kings's The Inconvenient Indian)

From the Sahara Desert to the Australian Outback, the rain forests of Brazil to the tundra of Siberia, the Black Hills of Dakota and northern Alberta Canada indigenous people are seeing the land promised them by treaties gradually stolen away from them. What lives they've been able to carve out for themselves in this post-colonial world are gradually being eroded and destroyed. Their culture is appropriated and turned into a commodity, they are depicted as stereotypes not humans and more and more government policy is being directed towards their destruction as distinct societies.

One of the few means at their disposal to remind people they are living breathing cultures is to find the way to speak with a unified voice - one that is loud enough to be heard around the world. Through their record label IR, TFTT is doing its best to provide the opportunity for those voices. IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub gathers together some of the most powerful words and images used during the creation of the label's 29 recordings in a single volume as an intense collage of ideas and visuals. It offers a far different perspective on indigenous life around our planet than that offered by either governments or your New Age book store. Isn't it about time you read the truth?

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub)

February 12, 2014

Book Review: Hijos de la Selva/Sons of the Forest


In the early part of the 20th century photographer Edward Curtis was funded by American businessman J. P. Morgan to undertake the extensive task of making a photographic record of Native Americans across the United States. While some of these photos are undeniably powerful and poignant, the motivation behind them of creating a portrait of "a vanishing people" resulted in him either doctoring the photos or dressing them up in "costumes" in order to eliminate any traces of so called civilized influences. While this does nothing to diminish the quality or scope of his work, when compared to the work of genuine cultural anthropologists or ethnographers, it does call into question their historical authenticity.

This becomes especially obvious when comparing his work his contemporary, the German ethnographer Max Schmidt. While Schmidt's work has languished in obscurity for years, its now been brought to light again through the publication of Hijos de la Selva/Sons of the Forest by Perceval Press. Edited by Viggo Mortensen and with text provided by scholars Federico Bossert and Diego Villar, this book not only reproduces many of the photos Schmidt took among the people of Paraguay and Brazil, it also goes into detail about his background, the philosophy upon which his work was grounded and how this differed from the more Eurocentric (or Amerocentric) approach taken by others working in his field at the time.

The book is divided into two parts; Bossert and Villar's essay on Schmidt, his work and its philosophical and academic underpinnings and a selection of digital reproductions of his original glass plate photographs taken of the peoples of the Brazilian and Paraguayan Amazon basin. Mortensen, Bossert and Villar, with help from people at the Museo Etnogafico Andres Barbero of Asuncion, Paraguay where Schmidt's original photographs are archived, began work on this collection back in 2009. In his introduction to the book Mortensen explains how after they had made their initial selection the original glass plates were shipped to California for digitalization and that the book's objective was to be a mixture of an academic appraisal of his work and an artistic appreciation of his photography.
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I have to admit the academic part of the equation gave me some concerns as I've been removed from the world of academia for close to thirty years and have memories of reading works which sucked the life out art. So I was pleasantly surprised upon reading the essay composed by Bossert and Villar to find it informative but not the dry as dust type of thing I had grown accustomed to reading years ago. Firstly, and most importantly, they placed his work in its proper historical and cultural context by going into both his background and the academic environment surrounding ethnography in his native Germany in the late 19th and early 20 centuries.

After they established a context within which to place Schmidt's work, they proceed to delve into his actual explorations and study. We learn about his first trips into the Amazon basin and his initial contacts with the indigenous peoples of the region. Here the author's have gone right to the source for their information as they quote substantially from Schmidt's extensive and exhaustive diaries. Unlike what was usual for the times Schmidt travelled simply, accompanied only by two guides and a mule. While this left him more at the mercy of the environment than was usual the impression I received from reading was it made him far less threatening a presence then any of his predecessors.

While the writing and descriptions of Schmidt's life and work were fascinating my understanding suffered from a lack of knowledge of South American geography. This is not a complaint directed towards the work's authors, rather a warning to anybody reading this they should make sure they have a good atlas or map of the region to hand. In fact reading Bossert and Villar's essay make one wish there were more written about this fascinating man who took it upon himself to make a record of the isolated people of the regions. For after 1929, he retired from his position at the Berlin Museum of Ethnography, and moved to South America where he continued his work independently.

While the academic part of the book makes for interesting reading, and gives us knowledge of the person behind the lens, for me it was the pictures making up the second half of the book which were most intriguing. For not only have the photos been reproduced, so have Schmidt's original captions and explanations. Unlike other photos of this type I've seen, most obviously Curtis', Schmidt's images not only tell you who the subject is and where they were taken, they often give you details of the person or the situation depicted. As a result these are real people, not some idealized, romantic version of the "nobel savage".

Even more intriguing is how Schmidt makes no effort to disguise any modifications his subjects might have made in their behaviour or dress due to contact with the outside world. As a result we see the rather odd juxtaposition of an image showing children in uniforms attending school next to images of naked adults going about their business. While they might have been taken among different people, it shows us their's was a world in transition. To our eyes the pictures might depict a life minus the comforts of civilization we can't imagine living without; primitive and deprived. However, when compared to images shot on the reservations and tribal lands of North America at the same time, these people don't have the same aura of defeat or loss about them as their northern counterparts.
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Which isn't to say they weren't under threat from civilization. As the text points out even in the 1920s and 1930s industrial expansion in the form of rubber tree tappers were making inroads into indigenous territories and killing anyone in their way. However, the images in the book also show people who still hadn't been defeated or overwhelmed. We also see from the photos how their geographical location made it far easier for them to avoid the advance of civilization than people in North America. Schmidt's accounts of the difficulties involved in travelling to where most of these people lived confirm the isolation depicted in the images.

However, all other considerations aside, the images are also a testament to Schmidt's skill and artistry as a photographer. He seems to have had some sort of innate ability to put his subjects at ease as the photos come across as a mixture of those one would see in a family album and documentary style shots of people going about their daily business. While that might not seem like a great accomplishment to us today with digital cameras, remember he was shooting glass plates which required a great deal of preparation and set up. It was very hard to be unobtrusive with the kind of equipment required for taking these kind of photographs, yet even in the obviously posed pictures there is very little of the formality we've come to expect from this era of photography.

Before reading Hijos de la Selva I knew nothing of the life and work of Max Schmidt, little of the study of ethnography and almost nothing about the people of the Amazon Basin. While one book can't, and this one doesn't claim to be, a definitive work on these subjects, it introduces the reader to them with intelligence and compassion. The carefully prepared essay gives us both an academic and personal history of Schmidt and places his body of work in its proper context so we can fully appreciate the significance of the accompanying photographs. Even more important, as far as I'm concerned, the book makes clear how Schmidt, unlike so many of his contemporaries in the same field, saw his subjects as fellow human beings, not just objects of interest to be studied. An example many of us could stand to learn from even today as indigenous people the world over still struggle against various types of stereotyping.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: Hijos de la Selva/Sons of the Forest)

January 30, 2014

Book Review: Dreams Before Extinction by Naeemeh Naeemaei


It's hard for us in the West not to have misconceptions of what life is like in countries where our perceptions are shaped entirely by what we read in the media. This is especially true of those countries which have attempted to isolate themselves and their populace from what they consider our corrupting influence. I have to admit I have my own prejudices when it comes to Iran. Having seen and read first hand accounts from those who have managed to either escape or smuggle out footage of things which have happened in the country over the last few years hasn't helped. (If you've not seen the documentary The Green Wave about how the unrest in Iran during the Arab Spring was shut down so brutally you should) Then there's the fact I'm also against any kind of theocracy, no matter what form it comes in.

All of which probably makes me as guilty as the next person at being surprised to find out individuals within Iranian society share many of the same concerns we do about the state of the world. With all that we read about the country's political and religious systems it's hard to believe we can have anything in common with those who live and work in such a society. At least that's what we tell ourselves. But why should we be surprised to read that Iran has set aside over 10% of its land for wilderness preservation and species conservation? Did you even know there was an non government organization known as the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation? I didn't.

Like any modern industrial state with a growing population, the major environmental concerns facing Iran are those caused by humans - habitat loss due to human encroachment and pollution and over hunting leading to extinction. It's these concerns which compelled Iranian artist Naeemeh Naeemaei to create the works gathered in the new book, Dreams Before Extinction, just published by Perceval Press. The works were first displayed at the Henna Art Gallery in Tehran, Iran in 2011.
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In his forward to the book, "A Call To Conscience" Kavous Seyed-Emami, Executive Director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, writes about the important role artists have in raising the public's awareness regarding the issues facing wildlife. "Artists have the ability to connect to a general audience on an emotional level and thereby promote awareness of the need for nature conservation". In her comments on her work and what she hopes to accomplish with it Naeemaei is even more specific, "I want to make some changes at least in my own people about their behaviour with regard to nature and the environment. Even for just a bit."

Even a cursory glance at the images in Dreams Before Extinction bear out Seyed-Emami's statement and impress upon the viewer the sincerity of Naeemaei's intent. For while each of the images features either an endangered or extinct species from the region, it's how they are presented which makes the work so powerful. Instead of merely showing them isolated from humans, Naeemaei has created work which forces the viewers to consider the animals as part and parcel of their own world.

She has also made sure the works have social and cultural links to the people they are intended to reach. Many of the pictures have features in them which would be instantly recognizable to an Iranian, and maybe even an Islamic, viewer. While this might be a little bit of a barrier for those of us who aren't familiar with Islamic iconography or Iranian/Persian folk tales, not only has the artist included explanatory notes with for each painting, the publishers have provided us with a comprehensive introduction to the work, "Silence of the Leopards" by co-editor Paul Semonin.

In his introduction Semonin not only provides us with information about the significance of certain details Naeemaei has included in her works, he places her work in a familiar context by comparing it to that of the late Mexican artist, Frida Khalo. Those who are aware of Khalo's work will know the majority of them were highly personal statements about the painter's life and her relationship to the world. By pointing this out to us, and comparing Naeemaei's inclusion of herself in these works to Khalo's self portraits, Semonin reinforces the personal nature of the art in this collection. Khalo would occasionally turn herself inside out on canvass, showing us her internal physical damage. Naeemaei, by including herself or a family member in all these pieces creates the same sort of intimate connection, but with the body of the world instead of her own.
Capsian Tiger by Naeemeh Naeemaei sm.jpg
By making no distinction between herself and the creatures she represents, by giving them the cultural and social characteristics most of her audience would recognize as those belonging to humans, she says these are my family. One of the most powerful pieces in the work in my opinion exemplifies this perfectly. "Caspian Tiger" is an image of this extinct species (last one died in 1959) surrounded by what are obviously women in mourning. The tiger bears bleeding wounds just under his ear and on his visible rear haunch. Two women are huddled together in the foreground, prostrate and holding each other, one leans on the tiger's back hiding her face in the palm of one hand and the last kneels in front of the tiger, head bowed as if in supplication and holding his face in her hands.

While the artist's note about the painting is heartfelt and beautiful ("The last one was killed in 1959, but there was no funeral and no one cried. I don't know where his tomb is to put flowers on it. I can only wail and mourn his passing in my own way") it's only by reading Semonin's introduction we'll understand the real significance of what we're looking at. For Naeemaei has drawn upon a famous painting depicting the martyrdom of the Third Imam of the Shi'a faith for her work. The original painting shows a group of mourning women gathered around the Imam's white horse who bears wounds identical to those seen on the tiger. In Iran there is a national day of mourning for this figure from their religious history. By depicting the Caspian Tiger in this manor Naeemaei, equating his loss with that of such a revered figure, she is telling her audience there should be no difference between the grief they feel for the Imam and the tiger.

Each of the paintings in this book are of equal potency. They make bold statements about how there should be no separation of the species and stress the artist's personal connections with the world around her. One of my favourites, "Silence of the Leopards", shows her in a stand off with a shepherd and his flock while she acts as a shepherd for a flock of leopards. In her comments she says how on the surface it would appear the sheep would be the ones who are in trouble, but the reality is the leopards are in the most danger. Over grazing by ranchers is destroying leopard's habitat, and the more sheep encroach into the wilderness the more their chances of survival are eroded. It's a beautiful juxtaposition which plays on people's perceptions of what is harmless and what is dangerous.

In the West we see Iran as a country of oppressed people whose lives are defined by the very narrow interpretation of a religious code. While there is some truth to this, it does not prevent people from having the same concerns about the world as we do, nor from finding ways to express what they are feeling. In the paintings collected in Dreams Before Extinction Naeemen Naeemaei expresses some of the most strongly "worded" and passionate pleas for the preservation of animal life you'll ever see. These aren't just depictions of endangered creatures, these are images which confirm the intrinsic bond between humans and the species we share the world with. When an animal species dies out it should be as great a calamity as the death of a human, that its not shows how far we have fallen.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: Dreams Before Extinction by Naeemeh Naeemaei)

January 24, 2014

Book Review: The Silence Before the Whisper Comes by Bruce Kauffman


Why would anyone write poetry? It's not what you'd call glamourous. You're never going to make money at it. The best you can hope for is if you manage to publish a few books of poems you could possibly get picked up by some university to teach a creative writing class or get some work editing for literary magazines. The best poets I've known or read have jobs working in book stores and coffee shops in order to pay the bills. Yet, still they continue to write and produce poetry which only, perhaps, a few hundred people will ever read. Why?

The answer can be found in the poetry itself. When you read work of such sublime beauty that it takes your breath away; when you come to the end of a poem that makes you question your own abilities as a writer because you can't imagine ever being able to write what you've just read or you find your eyes involuntarily filling with tears while reading a scant twenty to thirty words, it becomes obvious why some people write poetry. They really have no other choice. When you can see and hear the world around you like they do, you have to find a means of transcribing what you're experiencing as there's no way it can remain bottled up. Some people become painters to express themselves, but some few take the far more difficult path and paint their images with words.

One of the latter is Kingston Ontario Canada resident Bruce Kauffman. His latest book of poetry, The Silence Before the Whisper Comes, published by Hidden Brook Press, is the third of his books which I've reviewed, and while I have to admit to a certain amount of chauvinism as we share the same city of residence, he has to rank among the top living poets I've had the privilege of reading. While poetry, like all art, is highly subjective in its appreciation, Kauffman's work transcends anything so trivial as its readers likes or dislikes. Like the natural world it quite often alludes to it simply is, awaiting the discerning eye to glance upon it and appreciate the qualities which quantify its existence.
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Attempting to interpret another's poetry is often a perilous journey fraught with the minefields of our own prejudices and preconceptions. We can only guess at what somebody was trying to say through the filter of our own beliefs. However, in the case of the gifted poets, no matter whether they use metaphor or analogy, the words on the page do more than simply express some thought or idea. Instead of seeking some hidden meaning within the language, listen to the effect the accumulated words have on you emotionally. A poem should be the perfect marriage of heart and mind, the latter transcribing for the former to articulate its inner workings without ladening it with extraneous baggage or complications.

Kauffman's work in this book is as good an example of a poet bringing that union to life on the page as you're likely to find anywhere. While his poems are full to the brim with ideas and thought, there's no wading through tortured intellectual process to enter the emotional core of the matter. At the same time, he doesn't spell anything out for you allowing the reader to follow their own process until they reach a conclusion. You never once feel like you're being either led by the nose to see the author's point of view or made so confused you literally can't see the forest for the trees.

Considering Kauffman's use of the natural world in his poems as a means of expressing his opinions on the world around him, I guess that's a bit ironic. However, there's also a great deal of truth in it. For while some tend to try and overload their poems with imagery or ideas Kauffman's work reminds us of the beauty of simplicity. Instead of gushing forth a torrent of words in order to impress us with his emotional depth, Kauffman manages to find a way of communicating without overwhelming us. Whether intentional or not, his work is a perfect example of the credo less is more.
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As befits any artist, he doesn't limit himself to a single subject matter. Everything, from the act of writing to describing the scene of an automobile accident are talked about. However, the way he sees, and how he describes what he sees, make it feel while he might walk through the same world you and I inhabit, his vision operates in a different focal range from the rest of us. Not that he attempts to make the world something its not. Rather he directs our eyes to see that which is hidden beneath the obvious. The obscure, the beautiful, the ugly and the pain are caught by the simple act of being in a certain place at a certain time. If you didn't know any better you'd think things were waiting for him to come along so he could describe them.

I'm reluctant to quote from any of his poems in this review, because the words taken out of their overall context will lose their meaning. Even when scouring the longer poems, and some of them do stretch over a number of pages, I find it hard to remove a segment as an example of Kauffman's work. The words feel orphaned when separated from their main body. It would be like showing you an amputated limb and trying to tell you what the rest of the body looks like. Could you tell what a painting looked like if someone cut out a small section from the outer edge, or even the middle? You might get some idea of the artist's technique, but you'd still be none the wiser as to the paintings overall appearance. However, at the conclusion of this review I've included a copy of one poem, hoping that it will give you some indication as to the quality of his work.

It's easy enough to write a poem. What's difficult is writing a poem which offers its readers a chance to experience the world in ways they never would have thought of on their own. Most poets are content with offering you glimpses into their own lives or showing you their reflections in the mirror of their paper. Bruce Kauffman is one of those rare poets who turns his vision outward and then reflects it back onto the page for us to bear witness. This is not only the work of a gifted writer, but of a gifted artist. The Silence Before the Whisper Comes can be purchased from most on line book retailers.

blue rain (by Bruce Kauffman The Silence Before the Whisper Comes Hidden Brook Press 2013 pg.28)

with this page before me
waiting to catch moisture
there are times when words
no longer freely fall
from an
ordinary sky

and on those days i take
the lavender bowl to
the barrel beneath
the corner eve of the house

i draw from barrel's surface
the wet words
floating there

then with tongs
dripping black ink
i separate and pull words
from the bowl
and place them gently
on a page

they
content
to be there

but their heart
is still floating
in yesterday's sky

Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Book review: The Silence Before The Whisper Comes By Bruce Kauffman)

January 22, 2014

Book Review: How Music Works by David Byrne


We all listen to music. Maybe we only have it playing in the background, use it to help us sleep or meditate, or perhaps you sit and listen to it carefully. However, no matter how or why you listen, it can't help but have an effect on you. The majority of us just take it for granted that we enjoy the music we listen to and never really stop to think why. While we can talk about the song's lyrics or how the combination of melody and rhythm make us feel good, we usually don't take it much further.

While this passive approach to music may be sufficient for the majority, philosophers and scholars have been fascinated with the why's and wherefores of music since the time of the ancient Greeks. While most study through the centuries has focused on either the physics, the psychological or emotional nature of music, hardly anybody has combined those fields with the more practical aspects involved with the creation and appreciation of music. That is until David Byrne wrote How Music Works. Originally published as a hardcover, a revised paperback edition has just been published by McSweeny's (distributed in Canada by Publisher's Group Canada) allowing Byrne to include new material reflecting the ever increasing nature of the way music works.

Byrne, who is probably best known as the former frontman for arguably one of the most interesting bands to come out of New York's 1970s so-called punk scene, Talking Heads, comes at his subject from all angles. As might be expected he talks about how "music works" in terms of its creation, but he doesn't stop there. He covers everything, from the variety of business models available to musicians today, the effect of technology not only on how we listen to music but how its produced to the correlation between the basic music scale and planetary orbits. Now, in case any of you are feeling a little overwhelmed by the latter, let me reassure you, as somebody who washed out of a basic physics course dealing with light and sound, that Byrne has the amazing ability to render every subject he discusses into language both accessible and intelligent.
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Naturally, as a performer and songwriter, he spends a large chunk of the book talking about the whys and hows of music creation. Right off the top he shows he's not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom about artistic creation by stating there's more than just moments of inspiration or whispers from some transcendental figure like a muse that goes into the writing of any piece of music. He posits the theory that context is as much a factor as anything else, and lays out a pretty convincing argument to support this hypothesis. He examines the history of Western music and the way it has evolved as the acoustics of the space it was played in changed from the massive concrete edifices of cathedrals, whose echoes made it impossible to play music with multiple parts and complicated phrasings, to the concert halls of today where the complicated melodies of orchestral music can be discerned.

Of course when the technology which allowed music to be recorded and listened to at any time entered the picture that provided a whole new context, a context which is continually evolving as the technology improves and grows easier to use and becomes financially more accessible. Byrne talks us through recording technology from the earliest days of Edison's wax tubes to today's digital equipment. He carefully details how each development not only changed the way music is listened to, but how it affected those who created and performed it. He talks of musicians, most famously Glenn Gould the Canadian piano genius, who stopped performing live completely. Instead they turned their energies into trying to produce perfection in the studio instead of having to live with the imperfections of live concerts. Thus the context changed from seeking to entertain people in a public setting to how to create note perfect reproductions of a piece using both personal abilities and technology in the pursuit of this goal.

However, it's not just the creation of music Byrne talks about, he also talks about the practicalities of making a living in the music business. How the odds are almost impossibly stacked against the musician who doesn't sell millions of copies of his or her record to ever really come out ahead if they sign a traditional deal with a record label. Again he takes us through the history of popular music in the recording age as musicians began to be signed by record companies in the early part of the 20th century to the situation in the present day. While much has been made of how people like Amanda Palmer have been able to fund recordings and tours through crowd source funding, Byrne points out they are still the exceptions to the rule.

While it's true advances in technology have made it easier for bands to record their own music, manufacture, distribution and touring still require outlays of money most of them don't have access to. He outlines the various types of deals available to musicians today, including the pros and cons of each, showing just how difficult it is for them to make a living wage. While digital download sites are now able to sell an artist's work without having to recoup costs such as shipping and manufacturing of product, none of these savings are being passed along to the musician in the form of increased royalties. i-Tunes, and others, still take the same percentage the big record companies used to take off the top before a band see's a cent.
David Byrne sm.jpg
No matter what aspect of music Byrne talks about, his approach is wonderfully conversational. It's like being given the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about everything there is to do with the subject. On top of this he is able to illustrate each of his points with examples from his own career and experiences with the creation, science and business of music. Even when he starts talking about the physics, (and metaphysics) psychology and the various philosophies behind what music means to us as human beings and how it impacts us on emotional and spiritual levels, he manages to maintain this same tone.

The fact that he can make chapters about subjects with the potential to be as dry as the desert sands as enjoyable as his discussions about the early days at CBGBS with Talking Heads is one of the truly remarkable and wonderful parts of this book. True it's not a book you're going to sit down and read in one go, there's just too much information to be assimilated. However, at the same time, How Music Works makes some incredibly difficult and complex topics accessible without ever once talking down to its audience or assuming we share any of its author's experiences or inside information.

If you've ever had any interest in music, especially popular music, beyond listening to it, but haven't really had any idea of how to find out more about it, How Music Works is like owning your very own personal encyclopedia. Not only can you sit down and read it from cover to cover, you can also look up information on specific topics without having to wade through a great deal of extraneous detail. This book should probably be on the curriculums of all post secondary music programs, but can also be read with ease by anybody with even just a casual interest in the subject.

David Byrne has created some of the most interesting and intelligent popular music of his era, and this book he proves he's equally adept as a writer. Witty, insightful, thought provoking and always interesting, How Music Works isn't just for musicians, its for everyone who loves music.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: How Music Works by David Byrne)

November 8, 2013

Book Review: The Silvered by Tanya Huff


Fantasy literature, specifically pertaining to werewolves and vampires, has been seriously tainted by the rise of the unholy spectre of romance novels hiding their true nature in the guise of something called paranormal romance. While this plague has spread seemingly unchecked over the past few years, there are still a brave few willing to stand against the hoards and do their best to drive the stake of a well written werewolf (and vampire) stories into their malevolent hearts.

Tanya Huff has been writing great fantasy and science fiction for more then thirty years. She has not only taken on this new scourge on the literary front, her vampire detective series, Blood Ties has been adapted as a successful television series. While werewolves have made appearances in some of her earlier books in her latest, The Silvered, from Penguin Canada, they take centre stage as the rulers of the small country Aydori.

The world Aydori is part of sees Edwardian technology, steam engines, hot air balloons and gas lights, co-exist with a kind of elemental magic and werewolves. While some have no problem with this rather unique blend, there are those who see magic as a thing of the past and werewolves no better than beasts. As the Hunt Pack, the werewolves of Aydori, are male and only mate with female magic users, known as the Mage Pack, those who hold to this negative opinion of werewolves also condemn the women for sleeping with animals. Unfortunately for Aydori, Emperor Leopold of the Kresentian Empire is a firm adherent to this belief and also has a strong desire to rule his neighbours.
Cover The Silvered by Tanya Huff.jpg
So when his troops advance through neighbouring provinces and begin an assault upon Aydori, nobody is too surprised. Unfortunately the empire's technology has come up with a method of countering the Hunt Pack's superiority in combat; artillery firing rockets which unleash silver shrapnel. While members of the Pack can heal from normal gun shot almost instantaneously, silver will lodge in their flesh and can kill them. However, in spite of the Emperor's supposed disdain for magic, and desire for land, it turns out his invasion of Aydori is merely cover for a more sinister purpose involving specific members of the Mage Pack.

Mirian Maylin has washed out of university, told by her instructors her magical power is too unfocused for her to amount to much. While the reactions of the Hunt Pack to her, (werewolves are attracted to the smell of magic and pick their mates according to how they react to a woman's scent), say she has a latent source of power, she's never been able to produce more than the weakest and lowest level spells. However, when the Aydori forces are overrun and the leaders of the Hunt Pack are killed, she and the rest of the country are forced to flee to the Pack's mountain retreat. It's during this trip she witnesses a small group of Imperial soldiers capture five of the leading members of the Mage Pack. With a magical artefact designed to neutralize their powers, the five women are hustled away.

Unfortunately for Captain Sean Reiter of the Imperial army his orders were to bring back six mages, not five. So he sends the five captured women back to the capital and with a small band sets out in search of his sixth mage. Picking up the trail of Mirian, he and his men capture her as she's searching for any surviving members of the Hunt Pack to tell them of the kidnap. While most of them have been killed, young Tomas Hagen, the Hunt Pack leader's youngest brother, has managed to survive. Desperate with grief he has fled the battle field only to come across the strong scent of a mage. Finding Mirian held captive, he manages to help her escape.

Thus the stage is set against which the rest of the story plays out. Tomas and Mirian play a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Captain Reiter and his small troop while attempting to make their way to the Empire's capital city in order to rescue the captured mages. However, instead of merely telling their tale, Huff splits the narrative three ways. We not only spend time with the young mage and wolf, she also gives us Reiter's perspective as he attempts to recapture them. We are also travel further down the road with the captured mages and begin to learn why the Emperor has gone to such trouble to take them prisoner.

Huff's greatest skills as a storyteller has always been the strength of her characters and her ability to bring the world they inhabit to life. From deep space to times without technology she is able to immerse her readers in a book's environment. However, unlike others who use long descriptive passages to create a sense of place, she develops the picture gradually through the eyes of her characters. It's from young Tomas' descriptions of the battle field we learn of the nascent technology of the empire. Coupled with Mirian descriptions of the type of magic employed by the Mage Pack and Captain Reiter's dealings with his men, we discover both the nature of the relationship between the Mage Pack and the Hunt Pack and different people's different feelings about magic and werewolves.
Tanya Huff 2013.jpg
Thomas, Mirian, Captain Reiter and the other characters, including Emperor Leopold when we meet him, are drawn as complete human beings. While some, like the Emperor, we only meet through the eyes other characters, even then we are given as balanced a view as possible. For when Reiter is made a member of the Emperor's inner circle he sees the various sides of the man's character. On the one hand he's a loving and doting father who obviously takes pleasure in the company of his family. On the other he can casually order ghastly experiments be carried out on those he considers lesser beings. Its like reading a description of those who blithely sent millions to their deaths in the concentration camps during the day and were loving parents at night.

Huff is one of the best story tellers I've ever come across. Aside from her ability to create characters and intricate, but understandable, plots, she also has a knack for inventing new and intriguing forms of magic. While she's used elemental based magic systems in the past, here she's expanded upon it to include metals and healing as well as the more traditional elements of air, water, fire and earth. Most of the Mage Pack are able to control one of the elements.

As their proficiency increases their eyes acquire flecks of colour associated with their power. In the rare case when a person is able to work with multiple elements, like Mirian, their eyes gradually turn silver. This is isn't the only transformation she goes through as her power increases, and watching her and Tomas deal with her transition into a person of power is one of the more intriguing aspects of the book. Aside from the whole "with power comes responsibility" thing, there's also a personal cost to be paid. Huff handles the two young people coming to grips with Mirian's new reality in the same practical and straight forward manner she deals with all issues. There are no histrionics or melodrama involved, just a very real description of a young woman's fears and how she copes with overcoming them with the help of a close friend and companion. (By the way, for anyone concerned about the seemingly hetro-centric nature of relationships in the book, rest assured we meet a happily gay werewolf and his soothsayer partner.)

Tanya Huff has always shown a flair for making the fantastic realistic and believable and The Silvered is no exception. If you've given up hope of ever reading about werewolves without having to wade through the treacle of romance novels, this book should ease your mind. While a romantic relationship is obviously starting to flourish between Mirian and Tomas, it's a perfectly normal and natural development based on their experiences together. Their relationship is indicative of the book as a whole, everything happens organically and with good reason. The characters might be mages and werewolves, but they're firmly grounded in reality.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The Silvered by Tanya Huff)

November 5, 2013

Book Review: Alice In tumblr-Land And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation by Tim Manley


"Curiouser and curiouser" was Alice's commentary on the world she found down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carol's Alice In Wonderland. While the land she found herself in was populated by hookah smoking caterpillars, pocket watch bearing white rabbits, vanishing talking cats and other strange and somewhat scary beings, it probably wasn't half so strange as the rabbit hole of social networks we currently live in.

There is no mythical or fantastic country I can think of stranger than the lands of a thousand unknown "Friends" which is Facebook or the 140 characters of sometimes meaningless chatter constituting Twitter. Mobile phones and tablets are the looking glasses of today. Faces glued to screens, oblivious to the world around them, people enter into a cyber world as unreal and made up as any created by the Brother's Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. All of which makes a new book by Tim Manley, Alice In tumblr-Land (and Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation), published by Penguin Canada a pleasure to read on many levels.

Snow White, King Arthur, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and the rest of the fairy tale/folk hero gang, live in the world of social media. Chicken Little feeds her paranoia by Googling illnesses, Snow has fantasies about Ryan Gosling while perusing online photos and Beauty worries what her chic friends will think of Beast. Cinderella divorced the Prince (he wasn't gay, just kind of a prick) and moved back in with her stepmother, vowing never to wear glass slippers ever again - it's Crocs all the way for this modern girl while Arthur and Lancelot have jobs in the sharp end of the service industry and are typical twenty-something slackers.
Cover Alice In Tumblr-Land.jpg
Manley, the creator of the blog, Fairy Tales For Twenty-somethings, has put the book together along the lines of blog posts or daily status updates on a social media site. Instead of chapters telling each character's story, each page contains a small blurb and an illustration (all illustrations by the author) of what at first appears to be meaningless pieces of information. All right, it's sort of cute Snow White has the hots for Gosling. (He's not related to the Ugly Duckling is he?) Or, how after pulling the sword from the stone, before becoming king, Arthur takes off on a road trip which includes stops at Burning Man and learning how to make a guitar out of cigar box on the streets of New Orleans.

But like status updates they are merely moments without context or substance. You don't learn anything about a person, or a character, from these types of truncated thoughts. Thankfully Manley understands this, and doesn't just leave it at that. For he uses these blurbs to gradually tell us each person's story. As we continue to read he keeps circling back to his characters gradually revealing more and more about each one.

As the book unfolds you start to see the imaginative and mischievous ways Manley has brought these classic figures into the modern world. He's taken elements of each story and combined these with a character's most distinctive traits to create thoroughly modern versions of the folk/fairy tale. Poor Robin Hood is having a hard time spreading his message of social equality. The whole robbing from the rich and giving to the poor thing just doesn't seem to be working. Changing the world is a lot harder than he thought it would be. Sure it was working on a local level, but what about nationally and globally? Going on the Sheriff's day time talk show wasn't any help - as a firm proponent of trickle down economics he and Robin had a hard time finding anything they could talk about except their mutual liking of ice cream.

As if things weren't bad enough Robin found he was having a hard time opening up about what was on his mind to those closest to him. He was even reticent around his oldest friend Little John. Is this what aging does to you, you slowly just stop talking about things he wondered? However, not to worry. Robin eventually figures things out and develops a whole social media campaign to get his message to the world.

While some people might have problems with some of the choices Manley makes in bringing his characters into the 21st century; Arthur gay, Rapunzel giving up on guys and taking up with a hot girl friend and Mulan having a sex change - she'd always been happier being one of the guys; you never have the impression he's made any of his decisions casually or simply to shock. In fact there's something quite realistic about the way he describes what happens to each of them. Sure it's done with humour, but the process each character goes through is as honest as anything you'll read anywhere else.
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Originally fairy tales and similar stories were written as a means of teaching a moral lesson or something simiilar about the world we live in. Over the years, and thanks to the sentimentality of a certain entertainment conglomerate based out of Florida and California, the lessons have either been diluted or lost. Not only has Manley updated the stories and the characters, he has also restored their original purpose. I don't mean he has made them into modern day morality tales, but he uses them to help us see what's happening in the world around us just a little more clearly.

While it might be funny to think of Sleeping Beauty as suffering from depression, Chicken Little from panic disorder and anxiety and The Ugly Duckling using her superior intellect to cover up her insecurity about her appearance, Manley's descriptions of their conditions gradually becomes uncomfortably accurate. In fact the more we read about each of them, the more poignant their stories become. However, like all good fairy tales, each of their stories has a happy ending. Chicken Little goes into therapy to deal with issues from her childhood and starts hot yoga classes, Sleeping Beauty met up with her old buddy the Prince for coffee and he listened and understood why she was sad which made her feel better, while The Ugly Duckling saw some pictures from her high school reunion posted on Facebook and realized, while she might not be beautiful, she looked right.

As we read about each of the characters we begin to think of them less in terms of who they were originally and more as people dealing with life as we know it. While Manley's illustrations remind us of their fairy tale origins through his use of familiar distinguishing characteristics, his writing turns them into something quite different. They are more than just cute cartoons or figures from stories in our past, they are characters whose concerns and problems are ones we understand. Of course humour is a big part of the book, but underneath the laughter is an insightful mind who understands the foibles and frailties of being human with compassion and empathy.

Social media is a fact of life whether we like it or not. Marshall McLuhan said the media is the message. Through their choice of media some people attempt to send a message or even comment on the media itself. Manley, while maybe poking fun at people's obsessions with social networks and the Internet, embraces the form required for its utilization and gives us an indication of its potential as a means of real communication while neither condeming nor advocating its usage. In his stories the Internet is an accepted part of life just as it is for all of us.

Alice In tumblr-Land (And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation) is a humorous and intelligent look at life in the 21st century as seen through the eyes of familiar figures from the fairy tales of our childhood. While its sub-title implies the book is geared towards a specific generation the content and humour will appeal to almost anyone. Not only is it a lot of fun to read, it is also thought provoking and smart. Like the fairy tale books of our childhoods Manley's illustrations complement the writing and play an integral part in their telling. Unlike those books however, these stories are firmly based in our current reality and the happy endings aren't dependant on anyone being rescued by a handsome prince.

Article originally published at the Empty Mirror as Review: Alice In tumblr-Land And Other Fairy Tales For A New Generation)

October 8, 2013

Book Review: T. C. Boyle - T. C. Boyle Stories II


In some form or another the short story has probably been around as long as man has had the desire and the ability to communicate. Oral tales told around the fire at night aren't going to be long drawn out affairs. Neither are they going to deal with more than one subject. While they might not have been stories in the way we think of them, early ones were probably embellished tales of successful raids on other tribes or descriptions of hunts, the format they followed wouldn't have been much different from the ones we read in books today. They would have recounted a particular incident or time period in an individual's life.

Leaping ahead to the 19th century with the introduction of mass media, specifically periodicals, a demand for stories to serve as popular entertainment developed. While Charles Dickens might have been serializing his epic works, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing the adventures of his famous detective for the Strand Magazine as short fiction. In the early part of the twentieth century the short story was both the province of those writing genre fiction like Robert E Howard and literary fiction, James Joyce. The short story has continued to endure because of its versatility as a vehicle for expression. Whether a sword and sorcery adventure or an introspective examination of the human psyche, the short story can be anything to anyone depending on what its author chooses to do with it.

T.C.Boyle is probably one of contemporary fiction's premier short story writers. There are very few today who have equaled his output in terms of quantity and quality. Proof of both comes in the release of the 900 plus page T. C. Boyle Stories II by Penguin Canada. The volume of work he's managed to produce in the twenty or so year period this book represents is impressive enough (especially considering this is the second of two volumes). However, you'll also quickly discover he is no hack churning out story after story as if on an assembly line. Each is an intricate and surgical examination of human behaviour, unflinching, and rather terrifying, in its honesty.
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I say the latter for while there are undeniably humorous moments in some of the stories, the weaknesses of the characters in them are described so accurately we can't help recognize what we have in common with them. It's far too easy in reading some of his stories to see how given the right sets of circumstances, or the wrong ones, how you could have followed the same path his people end up taking. Like figures out of classical tragedy whose downfall comes about because they refuse to moderate their behaviour, his characters' paths are caused by a similar fatal flaw. However, as they are acting out their lives in surroundings or circumstances we're familiar with, their actions not only ring true, we can see the elements of ourselves in them.

What impressed me the most about the work I read in this collection, (I defy anyone to sit down and read all 900 plus pages of stories contained in this volume in one sitting) was how much his work has evolved since I first read it back in the mid 1980s. While his material was as biting as it is now, it wasn't quite as insightful or nearly as concerned with the hows and whys of his characters. The stories were more general social commentaries instead of the far more sophisticated character studies they have become.

One thing which has remained consistent over the years is his ability to write without sentimentality. Anybody looking for the type of feel good story you'd find in Reader's Digest or Saturday Evening Post have come to the wrong guy. He's not about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or heartwarming in any shape or form. People in his stories make messes of their lives, and no matter what their good intentions might be, don't often manage to clean up after themselves. However, just because he's not sentimental, doesn't mean he isn't without empathy for those he writes about. We wouldn't be able to read these stories if the characters were cruel or stupid or Boyle didn't feel anything for them. He manages to imbue even the most down and out of them with the humanity required to make them both believable and to keep us interested in them.

It's inherent in any author to be able to postulate "What If?" It's what fires their imaginations and breathes life into the worlds they create on the page. Boyle's ability to look at an idea or situation and ask "What If?" is at the same time the most imaginative and the most grounded in reality I've ever read. Like science fiction and fantasy writers he excepts any premise is possible, yet like a realist his settings and people stay incredibly normal. "After The Plague" is a perfect example of this. The population of the world has almost been completely wiped out by some sort of disease and only a few people, who happened to be in isolated situations, managed to survive. In most instances these types of post apocalyptic settings end up being excuses for zombie attacks or mutations of some sort or another resulting in constant battles for survival.
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In Boyle's universe life just goes on as it did before with far fewer people around. As the protagonist, a teacher who was on sabbatical in an isolated cabin, discovers, just because somebody else survived doesn't mean the two of you are going to get along. Personality clashes can happen even in Eden when you're trying to recreate the world. In fact, the end of civilization as we know is a rather prosaic event. Sure everybody's off the grid now and has to become self-sufficient, but since the grocery stores are still well stocked with canned goods, there's plenty of fresh water and material goods are there for the taking, nobody is lacking for anything. What does it matter if you're now sharing the roads and sidewalks with bears and mountain lions, there's plenty for everybody.

The odds of the planet being hit by an astroid or other object from space big enough to cause the type of calamity which wiped out nearly 75% of all the species on earth including the dinosaurs during any individuals lifetime are roughly ten thousand to one. Which just happen to be the same odds you have of being killed in an automobile accident in the next ten months or living to be a hundred with your spouse. When Chicxulub hit the earth 65 million years ago in the area where the Yucatan Peninsula now sits it left an impact crater 120 miles wide, was six miles across and is thought to have been travelling at a speed of roughly 54,000 miles per hour. In the story named for the asteroid Boyle uses details of a variety of different similar strikes to help us fathom what it would be like to lose somebody in an accident.

What are the odds your daughter will be walking down the road at the same time somebody who had too much too drink will begin to make their unsteady way home down the same road? If the odds are the same as those of the earth being hit by an interstellar object capable of destroying civilization, will not the damage be equal as well? For anybody who receives the phone call in the middle of the night telling them their daughter has been involved in an accident wouldn't it be the equivalent of their world being destroyed, their universe crumbling? What at first seems to be a means of distancing us from the experience actually ends up bringing it into proper perspective. Their shock at what's happened is made even more real when we begin to understand how unlikely an event it really is. By comparing the death of a child to the end of civilization we are brought into the heart of the experience and made to understand it with chilling clarity.

Whatever Boyle chooses to write about he always manages to find a way to bring us into the heart of the central character's experience. The usual distancing effect of fiction doesn't seem to exist in the worlds he creates. We are plunged into the lives of his characters with all the chill of diving into a mountain fed stream. Like a portrait painter who doesn't gloss over warts or beauty marks Boyle's work is compelling for all that it is frightening. This is the work of an uncompromising artist. Don't expect to find much comfort among his words, but be prepared to be amazed at the images he creates and the emotions he's able to stir within you.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Review - T.C.Boyle Stories II)

August 19, 2013

Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali by Andy Morgan


Can you imagine what life would be like without music? If somehow it became illegal to listen to CDs, i-Pods and even cell phone ringtones in public. Or, if you were a musician, to live in constant fear of having all your equipment taken away from you and destroyed in front of your eyes and the threat of torture, prison or death hanging over you all the time? Maybe you could still play music in the privacy of your home, but only if you made sure all the windows and doors were shut and there's no way the sound would leak out into the street where somebody passing could hear.

Sounds pretty far fetched doesn't it? There's no way it could happen. Well that's exactly what happened in Northern Mali from around March 2012 until very recently. For Malians what made this even worse was how large a role music plays in their culture. Not only does music provide them with the same pleasure it does everybody else in the rest of the world, it is also a significant part of their cultural identity. From those who rely on traditional bard type figures known as griots, oral historians to their people whose songs can recount everything from the history of a family to a listing of the significant moments in a nation's history, to people like the nomadic Tuareg who rely on music to pass on cultural traditions, music is the backbone of their cultures. If music were eliminated for any length of time it would result in cultural genocide.

So how did this atrocity come about? How did music, and Mali has become famous for producing musicians of international calibre, end up being made a criminal offence and being a performer meant risking your life? The story is both simple - Northern Mali was taken over by Islamic Jihadist who imposed their version of Muslim religious law - and incredibly complicated - there are real problems in Mali which paved the way to make the take over possible. However, a new book written by Andy Morgan, Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali published by Freemuse ( a kind of Amnesty International for musicians) does a wonderful job of not only detailing what happened during that awful period, but explaining why it did, and how it could easily happen again if things don't change.
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Morgan is able to provide information from first hand sources you're not liable to read elsewhere because of his personal connection to the area. He was the manager of the first Tuareg (or Kel Tamashek as they refer to themselves) band, Tinariwen to become well known outside of Mali, for seven years. Through them he not only became known and trusted by the Kel Tamashek, he established relationships within the musical community throughout Mali. So, unlike reports you'll have read in the newspapers which have only told the bare minimum, Morgan is able to not only give us first hand accounts of people's experiences during these events, he supplies us with information about the various factions involved with the uprising, the details of what happened and the historical, political and social context which made it possible to begin with.

Mali, while its population is predominately Muslim, is a secular country, meaning the church has no influence over its governance. The majority of the people follow an Islamic tradition heavily influenced by their own tribal beliefs. They don't adhere to any of the restrictions on men and women associating, the prohibitions against alcohol or any of the more repressive tenets of the conservative fundamentalists. So it doesn't sound like a country ripe for an Islamic government of the kind normally associated with groups like the Taliban. However, over the past fifteen years there has been a gradual increase in the presence of foreign financed and taught pressure groups trying to influence public opinion in favour of this kind of society.

Mali has been victim, like many of the poorer African nations, of corrupt governments and military coups during its short lifetime since independence in the early 1960s. This has led to the type of unstable social and economic atmosphere history has show us is how groups promising stability and order are able to gain power. Of course its only once they gain power anybody finds out their version of order is to take away everybody's freedom. In Mali, they have been working just this kind of campaign - advocating a return to traditional Islamic values as the cure for everybody's ills, without actually saying what that means. Thus they've been softening up the ground for a potential takeover.
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The other important thing needed to know about Mali is the longstanding dispute between the central government and the Kel Tamashek people. Nomads whose territory once stretched from Algeria in the north to Niger in the South, their way of life has been seriously impacted by the encroachment of cities and industry into their lands. A series of rebellions over the years finally resulted in a treaty being signed between the Malian government and the Kel Tamashek in 2006 which guaranteed them certain rights and economic assistance. Unfortunately the Malian government has reneged on the majority of the treaty. As a result early 2012 saw another Kel Tamashek uprising in the North. By March they had succeeded in capturing the three major cities in the region and send the Malian army packing which precipitated the military overthrown of the Malian government.

Unfortunately for the forces fighting for the Kel Tamashek, one of their more powerful factions was led by a convert to radical Islam and had established ties with Jihad groups in Algeria. As soon as the battles were won, he and his allies ousted the Kel Tamashek nationalists and set up their own fiefdom. While the Kel Tamashek's goal was to create a homeland for themselves in Northern Mali, their usurpers saw it as a springboard for taking over the whole country.

Morgan does an excellent job of outlining all the players and the details of what happened in Northern Mali in 2012. However, more importantly he shows us how susceptible developing nations are to this type of take over, with or without the general populations support. As one of the people interviewed said Malians have become so used to being pushed around by the military and corruption they have reached a point where they're just grateful to be alive and have forgotten they deserve more than just survival.

Morgan's connections to people in Mali, both in the music business and otherwise, gives him a perspective on the situation few others can offer to the outsider. Not only do we learn the details of how the music ban has affected culture in the country, but how the uprising has brought disruption into the entire region. While the combined forces of France, Chad and Mali have been able to retake the major cities in the north, the future remains uncertain as the terror groups have simply retreated to their bases outside the country or into the desert.

While there are reports of a new treaty brokered by the French between Mali and the Kel Tamashek it remains to be seen whether the Malian government will be any better in honouring this accord than the ones previously signed. As Morgan so astutely points out, as long as conditions throughout Mali, and by extension the Sahara region as a whole, do not improve, there's no saying we won't see a resurgence of terror activity.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali by Andy Morgan)

August 12, 2013

Book Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon


The issue of race in North America, specifically the relationship between people of African descent and those of European ancestry (white people) is something most of us don't want to talk about. While there are no laws left on the books discriminating against people of colour, nothing we legislate is going to prevent the way people think or feel. Of course its not just race at issue, it's gender, religion and anything else that marks one group of people as different from another. The problem is further exasperated by the tendency to refer to distinct groups as communities. So in stead of communities being made up of the people living together in a geographic area, a geographic area is made up of various segregated communities

Of course there are those who are always willing cynically make use of the word community in order to further their own ends. How many times have you hear a business man or professional athlete talk about giving back to the community? How opening a chain of fast food restaurants or other business is anything but a grab for a neighbourhoods disposable income is beyond me, but it's amazing how often businesses openings are called gifts to a community as if they're supposed to be grateful for more minimum wage service industry jobs. Also which community are they talking about? Is it everybody within the geographic area, or just the people who are the same colour, sexual persuasion or religion as the person making the announcement?

The notion of community and its subtext of race plays a major role in Michael Chabon's most recent release, Telegraph Avenue, first published by < a href="http://www.harpercollins.ca">Harper Collins Canada in 2012 in hardcover and scheduled for release as a trade paperback in October 2013. There aren't many artists today both talented and brave enough to enter into these types of dangerous waters without seriously floundering or running ashore on some shoal or another. However Chabon not only navigates them safely, he does so with such aplomb its only after you've finished and enjoyed his story you realize the keenness of his observations regarding modern urban life.
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Set in what the author refers to as the freewheeling borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland California circa 2004, with a couple of sojourns into the 1970s, in an ethnically diverse but still predominately African American neighbourhood, Telegraph Avenue details the lives of two families who have intertwined professionally and personally. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are co-owners of Brokeland Records, a used/collectible record shop barely hanging on by its fingernails financially. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva run Berkeley Birth Partners, mid wives performing home and hospital births according to their clients' wishes and needs.

The two partnerships have worked amicably, with the women's financial success compensating for the men's shortfalls, but events are about to become turbulent enough to shake the foundations of everything they have built. For the boys the threat comes from ex- professional quarterback Gibson Goode, the fourth richest African American in the US, and his plans to open his latest "Dogpile Thang" just down the street from them. Goode's multi-story entertainment complexes not only contain all the latest in entertainment diversions, they also include large used record emporiums selling the same mix of jazz, soul, funk and other classic African American music as Brokeland and at much "competitive" prices.

While the boys fret over what looks to be their impending doom, the women have their own problems. When a home birth develops complications and they're forced to rush their client to the hospital they work with, Gwen gets into an argument with the doctor on call. Patronizing and condescending he pushes all her buttons until she loses it. Unfortunately the consequences of her actions result in him filing an official complaint against the two, which means they could have their hospital privileges revoked and their business ruined. Just to make matters worse the husband of the woman who had to be rushed to the hospital intends to sue them because of what happened.

With Gwen expecting her's and Archy's first child the threat to their finances couldn't come at a worse time. Further straining their marriage is the sudden appearance of the child Archy fathered with another woman before he married Gwen. Compounding Archy's difficulties is the sudden reappearance in his life of his deadbeat father, Luther Stallings, former martial arts champion and star of a couple of Blaxploitation movies in the 1970s. Stallings brings with him not only the smell of failure, but a history with the city politician in Goode's pocket, who also doubles as the local undertaker and is one of the prime movers and shakers in the neighbourhood. Stallings relationship with said undertaker dates back to the days when the Black Panthers and drug dealers vied for control of the streets. Stalling hopes to cash in on this relationship due to his knowledge of certain events and information about the role played in them by the undertaker/city politician.

All these characters and plot lines play out against the backdrop of the faded beauty of the American urban landscape. Chabon's lively mix of people drawn from all ages, backgrounds, gender preferences and ethnicity are the mortar holding this crumbling, but still standing edifice together. When the politicians and business people who look down on them from their lofty perches of commerce and ambition talk about the good an enterprise like Dogpile Thang will bring to the "Community", they are playing a game of divide and conquer. They are trying to sell an image of African American prosperity. However, the reality is a store with little or no economic spin off for other businesses that will create a couple hundred minimum wage service industry jobs while lining the pockets of its owner and his supporters.
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Chabon has captured the way in which these type of people cynically manipulate the race card in order to feed their own ambitions. By making it sound like the opening of the store is some sort of benevolent gesture on their part, giving something back to the "community", all they're really doing is cloaking their greed in a veneer of fake "black pride". Opening a homeless shelter, sponsoring a lunch program for local schools or providing the funding for a recreation centre for neighbourhood people is giving back to the community. Opening a mega store is expanding your retail empire.

On the other hand the crazy mixed up and jumbled mess of people, businesses and streets Chabon describes in Telegraph Avenue is a real community. The premises Archy, Nat and Brokeland records occupy was a barber shop in a previous life. The men who gather in the record store on a semi-regular basis to talk music, life and the whole damn thing are continuing a tradition of community gatherings dating back sixty years or more. The store is a microcosm of the community at large as black, white, Indian, old and young congregate to while away the time in the useless conversations men so dearly love and have specialized in for eons no matter what their backgrounds.

Communities grow from the ground up and can't be created artificially or imposed by those from the outside. These flawed utopias, like the one Chabon describes so beautifully in his book, exist all over urban North America. While the fight between Brokeland records and Dogpile Thang ends in an unexpected way it also shows how change isn't a bad thing for a community, but only if it comes from within and isn't imposed on it. Like any living thing they need nurturing, and if there is any message to be taken away from this book its we've all missed the boat on what's needed for urban redevelopment. Instead of trying to impose order from without, governments and whomever need to help them build from within. Anything that will improve the quality of life for those living in a community from school meals to community health clinics are of far more use than more minimum wage jobs with no future.

Chabon writes in a kind of free flowing stream of conscious. As we move back and forth between his four major characters as they travel through their world and try deal with their situations, their perceptions and observations bring their community to life for us. We join them in the very public ritual of a funeral for one of the community's long standing fixtures, a musician and friend of the boys, and for the very private ritual of the birth of Gwen and Archy's child. We listen in as they do their best to try and hold on when events move so quickly they can't keep up and how they each manage to find a way to meet the needs of the occasion.

Chabon has managed to capture the essence of community. Whether its a family group or people loosely connected through geography and a shared appreciation for the history and traditions of the region, his descriptions of how people manage to coexist, if not in harmony than at least in a state of mutual acceptance, is remarkable. There's nothing neat and tidy about a community, or life, which is what makes them both all the more valuable. Telegraph Avenue is a wonderful celebration of this glorious mess which is a pleasure and an inspiration to read.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon)

August 9, 2013

Book Review: I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell


Where do ideas come from? How does an individual up with an idea that starts a whole movement? Does he or she think it up in a momentary flash of brilliance which causes them to have some sort of magical insight? Or is their insight born of a natural progression of events they have experienced up to that point in their lives combined with the environment they find themselves living at the time? Artistic movements don't just spring out of the ground without any antecedents, so the people, or person, who are the motivating force behind them must have come from somewhere as well. What is it about a person, what type of personality does it take, to be the individual who shapes an entire genre of artistic expression?

As it turns out, not very different from the rest of us in the beginning. According to his autobiography, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, recently published by Harper Collins Canada, Richard Hell had a pretty much normal first few years growing up in America of the 1950s. So how did this guy who was weaned on Howdy Doody and other staples of middle class America stolidity become the person most now credit with founding the look and sound of punk rock in 1974? How did this person turn into the guy behind the short spiky hair, ripped clothes held together with safety-pins and the unbridled anger and irony which was copied so faithfully by punk rock bands and its fans from the early 1970s until today?

According to Hell his life started out conventionally enough. Born Richard Myers in 1949 in Lexington Kentucky, the son of two academics. His father parlayed a PHD into a professorship at University of Kentucky and his mother put off a career to raise her family. Who knows how he would have turned out if his father hadn't died of a heart attack when he was eight years old. For he describes an incident which occurred just a few weeks before his father died. Hell and a couple of buddies were planning on running away to sleep in a cave near by. The plan was they would meet up at midnight. When his father stumbled across his preparations for running away - a stash of cookies and other foodstuffs under his pillow - instead of punishing Hell he made him a deal. He would drive his son to the cave for midnight and if his friends showed up he could stay with them. However if the friends didn't show up he would have to come home with his dad.
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According to what Hell writes his academic career peaked in grade six and it was all downhill from there. Even though standardized testing in grade seven showed him to be one of the smartest kids in school throughout junior high school he was consistently close to failing. Although he would stay up all night in fits of anxiety over not being prepared he still couldn't bring himself to do the work properly. He describes the feelings this evoked in him in words akin to those one would normally use to describe the symptoms of withdrawal from drugs. Even then he resented the authority teachers had over him, and he says he elicited a promise from his future adult self to never forget how arbitrary and unfair adult rules were. He promises himself a life of adventure as an adult. The most important thing to remember as he grow older is to never let anyone tell him what to do.

However tempting it is to dismiss this as the self-fulfilling prophesying of somebody trying to impress readers with how deep his anti-authority roots were planted, he wouldn't have shown us how they were rooted in his resentment of those who were accepted by authority or the anxiety his refusal to bow to authority caused him initially if this the case. The behaviour is in keeping with a lot of kids - resentful of having to do work just because someone has told them to, but being too concerned about the consequences of not doing it to do anything about it. He shared the concerns, but still refused to do what was needed to assuage his anxiety shaping a pattern which was to continue for a good chunk of his life up until he quit music.

When he went onto high school the pattern of behaviour only intensified especially when he found another out cast to partner up with, Tom Miller. This was the beginning of a relationship that would see the creation of the seminal band Television in the early 1970s. Myers and Miller would eventually become Hell and Verlaine and be the founding fathers of New York's punk scene. What I've described is a compressed version of Hell's his early days and meeting with Verlaine. On the surface his story reads rather simplistically. Two young guys, far too smart for their own good, bored out of their minds by what the world has to offer, go looking for something, anything to stimulate their minds and imaginations.

While Verlaine was able to get some satisfaction out of forming Television and trying to perfect it, Hell was a different kettle of fish. Once the initial thrill of creating something was complete, he needed to move on to the next challenge and the next one after that. Of course the other problem with Television was the fact neither of its founders were willing to submit to anybody's authority which resulted in inevitable conflict, If either of them had even a semblance of emotional maturity they might have been able to resolve their problems, but the truth of the matter is both Hell and Verlaine come across as emotionally crippled and completely lacking in the ability to communicate any emotion aside from contempt.

Hell is brutally honest about himself. For while his younger self is busy sneering at those around him, the Hell who's writing the book tells us he was every bit as arrogant and self-serving as those he's busy deriding. We watch as the downward spiral which began in junior high continues to plunge him deeper and deeper into a pit as he descends into the abyss of heroin addiction. What's terrifying is how easy it was for him to go from lost teenager to adult searching for the next great adventure he promised himself as a youngster. It's hard reading about how he would degrade himself and others in his search for adventure. However, there are occasional flashes of brilliance which illuminate the pages and make you understand just what a gifted artist Hell has become.
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It seems like it's almost in spite of himself Hell was able to make an impression on both his peers and others in the music industry. Music critics from local rags to the New York Times raved about his final solo album, Destiny Street, with Robert Palmer of the Times going so far as to name it the best album of 1982. In 1976 Chris Stein, lead guitar player in the band Blondie, showed him a picture of four British musicians saying, "hey these guys all look just like you".

It was the Sex Pistols. Their manager had been in New York in 1974 and had been taken with Hell's look. He'd even offered to manage his career, but Hell didn't want anybody telling him what to do. So Malcolm McLaren went home to London and created his own band based on the template provided by Hell. Maybe punk would have happened without Hell, but he was definitely a major catalyst. No matter how inert he might have thought himself, he was the ingredient the music industry needed to shake itself out of the lethargy it had fallen into after the fall of the hippies.

Hell cuts the story of his life short at 1984, the year he quit music and began the serious quest to stop heroin. As he says there's nothing much more to tell - he's still alive and a writer, and there's nothing really exciting about the life of a writer. You do much the same thing day in day out. Aside for a little trouble at the end of the 80s and in the early 90s he was drug free from that day in 1984. His life of running from adventure to adventure was over. If one didn't know better you could say he had grown up.

While its by no means an easy read, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is worth every moment spent in its pages. There are moments of sheer poetry among the dirt and grime which shine out like beacons guiding us ever onward in the hopes we will find something redeeming in this story of self-destructive genius. However Hell isn't interested in redeeming himself in our eyes. He concludes by saying if he had died at the point where this book ends, 1984, "there would have been left such scant evidence of me that my life would be mostly just a sad cautionary tale... My life is not different for having written this book - my life only comes into being by having been written here."

This isn't one of those life affirming autobiographies designed to inspire any of us in our own work. Instead its a glimpse into the creative mind pushed to its extreme in its search for stimulation. Anyone who still might have stupid romantic notions about artists and drug use will soon be cured of them after reading Hell's book. It's impossible if you're a creative person of any sort not to identify with at least parts of Hell's story and at some point I guarantee you'll think - there but for the grace of who the fuck ever, go I.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell)

August 7, 2013

Book Review: Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young


Most celebrity autobiographies I've had the misfortune to read have been self-serving exercises in ego flexing and self congratulations. The worst are the ones where the subject confesses to all sorts of sins in an effort to portray themselves as some of sort humble person seeking redemption for their evil pasts. Not only do these confessionals smack of self-aggrandizing hypocrisy, I usually end up feeling like the person in question is trying to sell me on how brave and heroic they are for having managed to stop behaving like a spoiled rich brat. Who really cares how many and what drugs they took or how many people they slept with?

Thankfully there are some famous people out there who understand they aren't the centre the universe; not their's or anybody else's. The especially aware ones manage to tell the story of their lives as part and parcel of the events going on around them at the time. They may play a major part in the proceedings, but they're not the only player and they can talk about more than just themselves. Even when they do talk about themselves it's only because they want to tell you about somebody else or to try and share some of the wonder they have experienced during the course of their lives.

When I picked up Neil Young's autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, just released by Penguin Canada in trade paperback after a successful run in hard cover, I was pretty certain it wasn't going to be a typical celebrity autobiography. However, what I wasn't prepared for was how much he would be willing to reveal of himself. Considering what an intensely private person Young is, I was extremely surprised at how casual he was about letting readers in past his defences. I'm not sure if he's even aware of how much he's let readers into his life and how much of his soul he's left on the pages of this book.
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I say this because of the wonderfully casual way the book is written. Reading it is like having a rambling conversation with a close friend. When you pick the book up after putting it down, it feels as if he's been waiting for you to come back into the room so he can pick up where you left off. No matter what he's been talking about it doesn't matter, what matters is the book makes you feel he's talking directly to you. Although he talks about the people, his friends and his family, throughout the book, you still end up feeling like your one of his closest confidants.

Like the best conversations this book covers a lot of ground. It wanders through time and geography from Northern Ontario in the 1950s to Hawaii and California in 2011. One of the first things he tells us is he's stopped drinking and smoking pot. After the surgery to repair the aneurysm in his brain his doctor recommended he stop smoking and he decided to follow his advice. We then learn this is making him a little nervous as he hasn't written music straight in over 40 years and he's concerned with what will happen. So to distract himself from worrying he talks about the various projects he's undertaken over the years which have served to give him a break from music whenever he's felt like he's needed it.

While he's no longer a majority owner of Lionel Trains he still loves the trains the company produces. Occasionally he and you will retire to his train room where he will regale you with details of his set up, the advances in train technology and his dreams for their future. While model trains have been a passion of his since childhood and is something he's quite willing to share with anyone who is interested, it's still something very personal. On the other hand the other two projects, outside of creating music and his family, which take up most of his time have the potential to be much more far reaching.

Lincvolt is the name he's given the project to create a luxury, full sized series hybrid electric car powered by biomass. Using a vintage Ford Lincoln Continental as the prototype he's set out to prove a car doesn't have to be small in order to be safe for the environment. He's perfectly aware North Americans are in love with their big cars and nothing anybody does will convince the majority to give them up. So he's made it his mission in life to sell people on the idea you can have your big car and save the environment too.

Naturally music is very important to him even when he's not making it. His biggest concern these days is the loss of sound quality caused the use of compression technology. The old analog sound we used to listen too when we bought records was much fuller than anything produced digitally. However, instead of just whinging about the good old days, Young is actually trying to do something about it by creating a new type of digital technology called PONO which will offer listeners as close to analog sound as possible with all the convenience they've grown used to from the digital age.
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Of course Young talks about his other plans for the future. Every so often he mentions how he's going to prepare for his next recording with Crazy Horse. He talks about how he and the band are going to set up their gear and spend a year with the music and seeing what they're able to create. However, every time he starts to talk about this he shies away from the subject and diverts off to something else. Eventually it comes out he's worried about over thinking the music. He doesn't like to think about creating, preferring to let it flow naturally.

However, the situation as he's writing the book, having given up pot and alcohol, is making him think more about it than it seems he likes. So every time he starts to become excited by the idea of making a new album, he always manages to change the subject. He lets on he's worried about what will happen but tries to tell us he's happy with what he has. However you can tell he will be devastated if the music is gone. No matter how much he tries to convince himself and us that writing this book is a substitute for creating music, and maybe he'll write more books, or how he needs the other things in his life to keep music fresh, without music his life will be irrevocably changed.

Having been around music as long as he has Young the majority of his friends are in the business. However, this isn't either a name dropping kind of book nor a book about other people. He talks about the people he's loved as friends who've passed on, his lasting friendship with Steven Stills, and occasionally mentions his friends Paul, Bruce and Bob with the same sort of casualness you or I would talk about the people we know. It's not name dropping, these are just happen to be the circles he moves in. These are the people who send him gifts in the hospital when he's recovering from brain surgery, who help him and his wife out when they want to raise money for a school for developmentally handicapped children like their son Ben they have created, and who can understand and appreciate the type of life he leads. There aren't many people who life in the same strata as Young, who have survived this long in popular music, and it's only natural for them to know and respect each other.

Unlike a number of memoirs, Young's book is firmly planted in the present and looking towards the future. Sure he talks about how he got to where he is now, and over the course of his book he retraces his career, but he continually comes back to the here and now. This isn't a conclusion to a life, rather a pause to refocus and evaluate before he starts out on what's next. Young has never lived his life attempting to please others by giving them what they want, one record company actually tried to sue him because his music wasn't enough like what he had done before, and he's still as mercurial as ever.

Waging Heavy Peace is a wonderful trip inside the mind of one of popular musics most enduring figures. He doesn't have any axes to grind - when someone asked him whether his trying to find a way of creating better quality digital music was a declaration of war on Apple his reply was he was waging heavy peace - he just wants to share with us his gratitude for having been able to know some incredible people and being able to do what he wanted to do. If you haven't had the opportunity to read this book yet take the time to spend some time with one of the more intriguing and interesting minds in popular music. You won't regret it.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young)

July 8, 2013

Book Review: Let's Start a Pussy Riot Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot


On February 21 2012 members of the Russian feminist performance art group/collective Pussy Riot put on an agit-prop performance in a priests only section of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Accused of religious hatred, two of the members of the group, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnnikova are now serving two year sentences for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred in separate penal colonies - forced labour camps by any other name. A third member of the group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was also arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment, but her sentence was commuted to probation.

The defendants were held without bail from the time of their arrests in March 2012 until their trial on July 30 2012, an indication of how the course of justice is being perverted in this case. The trio claim their performance was not an act of hatred agains any organized religion, rather a protest against the increasing ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia's President Putin. Considering how immediately after their performance in February the Church called on the government to make blasphemy a criminal offence, and it was only after this a criminal case was opened against the band, they have a point.

In Russia, the charge of "hooliganism" is used as a catch all for prosecuting unapproved behaviour. The final indictment of the three women for what was only a one minute performance ran to 2,800 pages. Its rife with statements condemning their blasphemy and corruption of Russian moral values through the importing of feminism and the idea of gender equality. One group, The Union of Russian Orthodox Women, went so far as to warn the population these ideas would inevitably lead to gay overpopulation and Russia vanishing from the world map. The only stumbling block for conservative commentators in their condemnations is the Russian language lacks the equivalent of the slang word "pussy". Which meant television viewers were treated to the site of priests mouthing the word vagina and "mad vagina" as a substitute for Pussy Riot.
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As the Russian government of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church attempt to turn back the clock to the dark ages, groups and individuals within and outside of Russia have begun the process of trying to secure both Alekhina and Tolokonnikova's release through actions and fundraising activities. One of these fundraising projects is a new book being published by Rough Trade Books called Let's Start a Pussy Riot. As the title implies this is more than just a project to raise funds for the two women still incarcerated, its also a celebration of what the Pussy Riot collective stand for.

Artists from a variety of media and gender have all contributed samples of their work which either reflect support for the cause of feminism or are expressions of their own liberation as individuals not willing to be defined by anyone else's idea's of who and what they are. At issue of course is the continued assault on women all over the world in a variety of situations and circumstances. Whether women being raped as acts of war, subjugated for reasons of religion or just treated as second class citizens in general through the roles their society's designate for them.

In Russia, the United States and other countries feminism is being denigrated as being against the values of respective societies. Who's values? What are they based on? Why are one group of people allowed to stipulate values specifically designed to control the behaviour of another group of people? What gives anyone the right to designate one gender identity more acceptable than another? When we are dealing with something as benign as gender and personal identification what do values have to do with the issue anyway? It's not as if whether a person is gay, straight, bi, female, male, heterosexual, transgendered or whatever is going to affect anyone else's life. The state should take issue with what people do, how they treat others, not who or what they are.

These basic inalienable rights, the right to be yourself, are what each of the artists in this book are defending in their own way. Call it feminism if you wish, but the reality is the fight isn't about equality for women, the fight is for equality period. The fight isn't about women wanting to act like men or becoming men. It's not about gays and lesbians wanting to take over the world and corrupt our youth. No it's about accepting each of them for who they are and letting them be themselves no matter what role they want to play in society as individuals.
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The work in this book has been donated by artists, male, female and transgendered, who are concerned with the issues raised by Pussy Riot. They are concerned at the way simple human dignity is being denied people because of their gender identification. From an essay and interview with Antony Hegarty, lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, the opening and closing court statements of the three members of Pussy Riot, to contributions from Peggy Seeger, Yoko Ono, Peaches and an amazing variety of artists from across all media and styles, each in their own way are starting a Pussy Riot. Their work will make you think about the issues the collective raises in terms of gender equality and feminism in particular and why the notion that feminism is something whose time has come and gone is a dangerous lie.

Some might be offended by some of the images in the book and not understand what they have to do with the topic at hand. However, you have to remember feminism is about reclaiming control of one's own identity and the freedom of expression that goes with it. The point of this book is to show support for the women arrested and to defend creativity as a means of both protest and an expression of ideas. On page eight appear the words "Call For Action" and they are followed on page nine by a brief explanatory poem/manifesto explaining what the book is about.

"Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a celebration:/A celebration of freedom of speech,/of visibility, of not taking our own situations for granted/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a creative response:/culture and creativity to form our activism and inform our minds./Writing, painting, singing our opinions in order to get our message heard/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a call for action:/To use what we have at our fingertips to fight/To show support for those brave enough to speak out/To challenge injustice through dialogue and conversation/To create a response that can say something larger than ourselves."

Supposedly freedom of expression and speech are one of the keystones of democracy. Art in all its myriad forms is humanity's purest form of expression as it allows us to express ideas and emotions realistically, metaphorically and symbolically in ways that stimulate thought and conversation. Once anyone starts to try and limit the means of expression through control of content they are putting limits onto what we're allowed to think and talk about.

Let's Start a Pussy Riot, in supporting the right of a group of women to express dissent, is more than just a book about the rights of women and gender equality. Its an expression of support for everyone who has the courage to stand up and be heard in the face of those who would keep them silent. While the money earned from sales of the book will go towards helping pay the costs of trying to secure the release of the members of Pussy Riot still in labour camps, in spirit it supports every artist around the world.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Let's Start a Pussy Riot - Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot)

June 29, 2013

Book Review: The President And The Provocateur by Alex Cox


Its a conspiracy theorist's dream. Forget UFOs, the assassination of John F Kennedy, (JFK) the 35th president of the United States, on November 22 1963 remains to this day the most pored over, talked about and controversial event in modern history. No matter how loudly the official version stating Lee Harvey Oswald fired the only shots and acted on his own is shouted from the rooftops, there have always been other voices shouting other theories almost as loudly.

Depending on who you talk to JFK was killed because of a communist plot hatched by a combination of KGB and Cuban interests or a right wing conspiracy of anti-segregationists, the Secret Service, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and right wing members of the military. Of course there are various offshoots of each and even wilder and more outlandish theories to be heard as well. One goes as far as saying Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the 36th and 37th presidents respectively, were principal movers behind the plot. Trying to the various scenarios straight, let alone judge their credibility, is next to impossible. It's just too much to sort through on your own. Without some kind of semi-objective overview there's not even much point in even trying to make sense of it all.

Amazingly enough, that's exactly what Alex Cox has done with his new book The President And The Provocateur published by Feral House Press. Best known as the director of the films Repo Man and Sid and Nancy Cox is also something of a conspiracy theorist himself. However, anybody coming to this book hoping he will reveal some brand new theory on who killed JFK will be disappointed. Instead what Cox has done is do his best to unravel tangled mess of information and weave it into something resembling coherency with an eye towards as an objective a view as possible. The only slightly subjective note he strikes in the whole book is his scepticism of the official view, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating Kennedy, as expressed by the Warren Commission.
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Instead of starting with any pre supposed theory about who killed JFK Cox has written a combination history/biography of the era the events took place in and the two men who have become the central protagonists, Kennedy and Oswald. Starting with their early years Cox switches back and forth between the two men in relating their childhoods, education and service records. Of course the differences in their lives are obvious from the start. The Kennedys were and still are the American equivalent of aristocracy and JFK's life was one of privilege from the moment he was born. Oswald on the other hand was born into a poor family in New Orleans and would have lived out his life in anonymity if not for a couple of decision as a young adult.

As the book moves forward we not only learn about the details of each man's life, we are also treated to a history of events occurring the States which end up being relevant to the matter at hand. It's once we hit the 1950s the action for both men picks up. Kennedy's dad, Joe, starts buying his son's political future by bankrolling his campaigns for Senate in preparation for the big push at the presidency in 1960. Meanwhile it was during the 1950s Oswald, a Marxist, defected to Russia where he renounced his citizenship and took up permanent residency in Minsk. As a Marine he had been stationed at facilities where operations involving the U2 spy planes were planned. However, it does not appear as if he was ever debriefed or even questioned by Soviet intelligence, the KGB. He merely took up the life of a factory worker in Minsk where he met the woman who would become his wife. However, while Kennedy was prospering back in the States, Oswald was discovering life in the Soviet Union wasn't all he had hopped for. Claiming he was bored and missing the material pleasures of the States, he negotiated with the Russians for exit visas for him and his wife and permission from the Americans to return home.

It was also during this time, the Eisenhower presidency of the late 1950s, things were starting to heat up domestically in the US. The slow progress towards the end of segregation had begun in the southern states and in reaction to the baby steps taken by the federal government attempting to ensure voter rights extreme right wing groups began organizing and bolstering their memberships in order to fight back. This was also the time America began stockpiling and testing nuclear weaponry, including early Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching targets in Russia.

By the time Kennedy took office in 1960 the ultra militant right wing had established not only various organizations through out the South, including armed militias, the Ku Klux Klan and other even more shadowy organizations, but had established a network of well placed operatives in the military, intelligence and police communities, including most members of the White House Secrete Service team. Cox's book, drawing upon FBI records and other reputable sources, does a very good job of not only detailing and offering credible proof as to their funding, power and influence, but detailing their memberships as well. Serving army generals, police chiefs, CIA field officers and millionaires who made their fortunes from oil were all on record as supporting one or another of these groups advocating violent opposition to government interference.

However, while this information is vital for establishing there were plenty of people with the motivation to kill Kennedy, Cox explores the even more intriguing way Oswald seems to have been able to be in two places at once many times over the course of his life. While the discrepancies in the accounts of where he and his mother lived when he was a child are easy to understand and explain away, the same can't be said for accounts of his movements in the weeks leading up to November 22nd 1963. According to the CIA Oswald supposedly made a trip to Mexico where he visited the Russian embassy. However, according to what J. Edgar Hoover told LBJ after the assassination, no one matching Oswald's description was seen near the premises. As the FBI routinely photographed everybody entering and leaving the embassy they would know. In fact there is no record of Oswald having ever made a trip to Mexico when he's supposed to have been visiting the embassy.

Cox raises all sorts of other questions about Oswald which not only calls into question his ability to be the assassin but also makes it look like he was set up to take the fall for whoever actually carried out the job. How did Oswald get from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository down to the lunch room on the fourth floor where he was seen shortly after the assassination took place so quickly after the shooting when there was no elevator to the top two floors? Why, out of all of his employees, did the manager of the Depository mention only Oswald's name to the police as being someone who left the scene when he had sent half his employees home? How is it the police knew in advance Oswald would be involved in the shooting of a police officer in a suburban Dallas neighbourhood shortly after the assassination? Why would Oswald, after shooting the president and then a police officer in two separate incidents, go and see a movie? Why was Oswald never allowed to speak to a lawyer after he was arrested?

Of course those questions are nothing as to the ones Cox raises about the actions of the people who were supposedly there to protect Kennedy on November 22 1963. Dallas had been the last stop on Kennedy's tour through what he and his advisors considered key states he would need to win to be re-elected in 1964, Texas and Florida. In each city prior to Dallas the president's motorcade had an escort of police motorcycles riding on either side, and secret service agents walking either beside the car or standing on the running boards. Why were neither in place for Dallas?
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Motorcades were not supposed to travel along any route requiring the president's car to slow down or break speed significantly, making it an easy target. Why was the motorcade taken on a route which saw it having to navigate both severe left and right turns, making Kennedy an easy target for a shooter? If the president's car comes under fire the driver of the vehicle is supposed to immediately accelerate out of the location. Why did his driver on hearing the first shot ring out bring the car to a complete stop?

These are only samples of the types of questions Cox's raises about the assassination. They are more than enough to raise reasonable doubts about Oswald as a lone nutter theory. Even if you can somehow swallow he was lucky enough to kill Kennedy using a cheap rifle he supposedly bought through the mail, with no previous experience as a sniper or any military records indicating he was any sort of sharp shooter, the idea he was able to carry it off without help is ridiculous.

Now some might be tempted to dismiss Cox's book as the ramblings of yet another conspiracy theorist. However, the only conspiracy he sees is the one which has kept the truth of the assassination from the world until now. He has been incredibly scrupulous in his research and nothing he says or claims is idle speculation. The footnotes for each chapter are in some cases nearly as long again as the chapters themselves as he makes sure to point out the sources for all his facts and quotes. He will on occasion give us his opinion of the source or let us know if he thinks information is suspect. However he is equally sceptical of the wilder claims made about who was in on the conspiracy to kill Kennedy as he is of the Warren Commission and other official reports on his death.

Anyone who has seen one of Cox's films know he is a great story teller, and this book is no exception. He lays out the history of events leading up to and after the assassinations of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald in a clear and easy to understand manner. He not only does a remarkable job of bringing the charged political atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s to life on the page, but does his best to be as objective as possible. However, what I found most impressive was how he concluded the book. He doesn't end by accusing anyone, or even hinting at where the finger should be pointed. What he does say is the American public deserve the truth. Not just the truth about the Kennedy assassination, but the truth about every contentious issue which has ever captivated the public's imagination.

The President And The Provocateur is not another book postulating some wild and unfounded conspiracy behind the assassinations of President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Instead Cox has taken the killings and put them into their historical context. He has also assembled what seems like every scrap of information ever reported on or recorded by a human being concerning the murders. While he makes no claims to know what exactly happened, who or how Kennedy was killed, the points he makes calls into question what currently stands as the official explanation for his murder. If reasonable doubt is grounds for acquittal in a court of law, shouldn't it also be grounds for a careful re-examination of history? The evidence Cox provides in his book is more than enough to raise reasonable doubts about the findings of the Warren Commission and any subsequent official inquiry into the killing of the 35th president of the United States of America.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The President and the Provocateur by Alex Cox)

June 24, 2013

Book Review: Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson


History books are full of the names of the so called great leaders who have been responsible for the great moments in human existence. However, if recent history has shown us anything leaders are the ones who capitalize on popular movements started by people like you and me who generally pass unnoticed. Look at all the uprisings which have taken place over the past few years, from the Occupy Movement in the West to the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and what do you remember most about all of them? Scenes of masses of people spontaneously demonstrating against their leaders. In Cairo, Tunisia and other capital cities in the Arab world the middle class joined forces with students, house wives and workers to topple their governments.

So who were these "unseen" individuals who helped bring down dictators? How did they all of a sudden find the strength and will to stand up to and take on not only the state but armies, police forces and secret police whose jobs it was to ensure this type of dissent shouldn't have happened? In her book, Alif The Unseen, now available in trade paper back from Random House Canada, American author G. Willow Wilson gives us not only a portrait of one of those disaffected individuals, but one potential scenario for how these momentous events could have happened.

In a fictional unnamed emirate somewhere on the Persian Gulf lives a half Arab half Indian computer hacker named Alif. He and his mother, the second wife of a well to do Arab, live in the poorer district of the city, out of sight of his father's Arab first wife. Alif has two major preoccupations. One is providing protection for bloggers and dissident voices of all stripes from the state's secret police. The second is Intisar, the daughter of an aristocratic Arab family with whom he's been carrying on a clandestine affair. His dreams of the two them running away together come crashing down when she lets him know her father has arranged for her to marry an important member of the royal family.
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Heartbroken and angry Alif does two things which will change the course of his life forever. In a fit of pique he has his childhood friend Dina, a properly veiled and draped Muslim girl, deliver a box containing the sheets displaying the marks of Intisar's lost virginity on them to her. He also writes a piece of code which can identify a person from the way they use their keyboard. This will allow him block out any and every communication from Intisar without having even check his email. When Dina returns with an old book Intisar has instructed she give to Alif he thinks nothing of it, except to note the oddity of its title, The Thousand and One Days, the inverse of the famous The Thousand and One Nights.

More dangerous, at least as far as he's concerned, is the discovery The Hand, the state's super hacker responsible for trying to track down and arrest the people Alif is shielding, has somehow co-opted the program he wrote to identify Intisar's presence on line. The Hand has been able to plant the program virus like on all Alif's client's computers and will soon be able to not only trace all of them, but Alif as well, if he hasn't already. As one by one his client's go silent, Alif hastily tries to shore up his own defences. However, when Dina warns him a member of the secret police has tried to frighten her into turning Alif in, he knows he was too late, and they are both forced to flee.

Up to this point the book has read like a pretty straight forward adventure story with only its non-Western setting separating it from other books of its kind. Computer whiz kid stumbles on government plot to silence dissent having to flee with childhood friend who he's been ignoring in favour of some exotic rich beauty could be the plot of any young adult science fiction story. The difference, and a wonderful difference it is, is who and where they end up fleeing to. A friend recommends they seek out a mysterious underworld figure named Vikram the Vampire in the hopes he can help spirit them out of the city to somewhere safe. It turns out "spirit" is an appropriate word for describing Vikram, because he's one of the race of djinn, the magical, beings of Islamic myth.

The djinn exist unseen by most of those around them. While they appear to be human shaped, if you happen to look at them in just the right way you begin to notice differences in their physiology. In the case of Vikram, there's something of the giant cat about him. His legs seem to bend in ways a man's shouldn't be able to and he's able to move faster and in ways that shouldn't be possible. It's Vikram who recognizes the book Intisar gave Alif as more than just a simple collection of stories. Long ago a djinn had been coerced into dictating the book to a human alchemist. Hidden within the text of the stories are some of the deepest secrets of the djinn waiting to be uncovered by the human who is able to see the unseen.

With the help of an American woman convert to Islam studying at the emirate's university, Dina, Vikram and Alif try to crack the secrets of the mysterious book. Alif's quest for knowledge leads him into strange and horrible places including the Emir's prisons and the unseen world of the djinn. However, it turns out the knowledge he was looking for was his all along, it was a just a matter of learning how to see inside himself and find out what he really wanted from life. The Hand wants the book because he believes it will give him the means to exert complete control over the emirate. What he doesn't understand is its power isn't something which can be used for exerting control. its power is in what it can teach us to see.
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Normally I'm suspicious of books set inside a culture written by someone from another background. However, Wilson is not a carpetbagger looking to exploit someone's else beliefs and traditions. She has done a wonderful job of bringing a modern Arab state to life. It's a world filled with computers and smart phones just like ours and populated by people as diverse in their beliefs and habits as any place in the world.

She even has the courage to make fun of herself in the form of the white American woman convert - who is almost always referred to as "the convert" in the book. For she is an outsider, no matter how much she wants to be a Muslim. This is shown by her inability in the beginning to see Vikram for what he truly is. Initially, she was not steeped enough in the tradition and culture to appreciate the subtle nuances of belief allowing him to exist. She literally has to be impregnated by him, to become part of the culture, before she is completely comfortable and able to accept every aspect of her new faith.

There are many ways a person or a people can be unseen. Some of us are unseen because we choose to be - covering our faces with veils or out identities with an alias. Than there are those who aren't seen due to the nature of the society they live in. From the faceless masses who go about their lives, one among millions, without recognition to those who others consider so far beneath them socially they don't exist. Finally there's the unseen who populate the worlds on the fringes of our belief systems - the fairies, the djinn and all the other vaguely defined mythological creatures who we are lucky enough to sometimes glimpse.

However, as recent world events have pointed out even the invisible have the power to change the world. In Alif The Unseen Wilson shows us the many ways the unseen exists around us and how easy it is to learn how to see. Everybody has his or her blind spots, people or things we choose not to see for one reason or another. Maybe if we open our eyes a little bit wider we'll find we have more in common with each other than we might have thought. The people in this book might dress differently then us and use words for god we might not understand. All we have to do is learn to see past those small differences to see the people beneath. This is a fantastic story filled with far more than meets the eye at first glance while being a great deal of fun to read.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson)

June 20, 2013

Book Review: How The Light Is Spent by Gail Sidonie Sobat


The compulsion to tell stories is probably as old as humanity itself. Originally histories were recounted through the simple act of passing information from one generation to another orally. When we first started to record information it was in the form of long poems, similar to the way the stories had been told when sitting around the fire or hearth. Eventually as we grew more sophisticated prose replaced poetry and the stories became more impersonal. Instead of telling the history of a family or a village histories have turned into a listing of events. However, while it is no longer our main means of written communication, poetry is still used on occasion for the recounting of personal and family histories.

In her newest collection of poems, How the Light Is Spent published by Wintergreen Studios Press, Gail Sidonie Sobat gives us poetry relating to her family's history in Western Canada, her personal adventures travelling in Turkey and finally meditations on various people and moments in her life. Each of the book's three sections, "Badlands", "Sailing To Byzantium" and "How The Light Is Spent", provides the reader with a collection of poems who's cumulative effect is to describe events in such vividness we are left with an emotional and intellectual understanding of the histories prose could never match.

In the early part of the twentieth century Canada desperately required people willing to settle its three prairie provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Opening the country's doors to immigrants willing to settle on the prairies resulted in a large influx of Eastern Europeans, especially Ukrainians, into the region. Lured by the promise of free land they came to Canada and attempted to build new lives for themselves. Not only did they face the challenge of clearing the land, building housing and dealing with a harsh climate, they were treated as second class citizens and given the derisive name of Bohunk. Although originally a degradation of the word Bohemian - an area in what is now the Czech Republic - the word quickly became slang for any person of Eastern European extraction.
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In "Badlands" we find ourselves among poor immigrant farmers and coal miners. Like their counterparts in the United States the badlands in Alberta Canada are an unforgiving and fierce environment. While Sobat doesn't spend much time describing the surroundings the people in her poems live in, she still manages to convey the role it played in their lives. In "Bohunks From The Hills" she describes them thus, "those badlands are lonely lands/despite childhood joys/misplaced memories/these hills hold neither charm nor hope/remind instead that loss/is so sadly permanent."

The poems in this section follow the maternal line of her family from when they first arrived in Canada down through the generations. Occasionally a poem will be from the perspective of one of her ancestors, describing how she fell in love with the man she married, while other poems fill us in on the attitudes of other people towards the "Bohunks". As many of the immigrants ended up working in the coal mines, references to coal and the toll it took on those who dug it run through a number of the poems like a vein of the ore they suffered to bring to the surface. "coal seeps into pores, the mind/sullies a man's outlook/steals the sunlight and substitutes/a black vitriolic madness." ("Coal Mad"- How The Light Is Spent, Sobat, Gail Sidonie p8)

As we follow the lives of the women the poet describes we see how they we're shaped by the way the mines affected husbands. In one poem, "From Rosedale To Cambria Suite" we learn the details of one woman's childhood. Her father working in the mines and coming home embedded with coal. Her mother growing old before her time in the constant struggle to feed and shelter her family until finally "your mother's heart burst at last/worn out from trying to live". Her father remarried a woman with five children of her own and at ten years old she wasn't wanted, at fifteen she was sent out in the world to earn a living.

Each of the poems in this section describe another piece of the journey along the road this woman travelled in her life. From falling in love at seventeen, her boyfriend's refusal to tie himself to the mines and decision to join the army as a way of avoiding digging coal, to her being left widowed with a young daughter in 1943. As well as the poems, Sobat has included photos of the people she talks about, the photos from her family albums which inspired the work. They stand posed and smiling for the camera creating a veneer of happiness to be pasted over the truth of their history. However as the final lines in "P/O M. E. VanDeKinder" say "there are no happy endings/just the brief joys of living/and if lucky, loving/a boy from the hills even once".
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The section of the book titled "Sailing To Byzantium" deals with a description of a voyage to Turkey. While some of the poems deal with the culture shock experienced by a Westerner travelling in a culture almost completely alien to them, others deal with the feelings of wonder at being in a place so completely different from what a person is used to. In "bottle blond on the golden horn" the poet reflects on the former, "I see the bridge and the minaret/against a filthy dawn sky/cough up yesterday's dirt and grime/wonder if there's anything/clean and pure to be found/in this Janus-faced city". However in "Istanbul #2" she is much more appreciative of the city's differences. "to touch the woven fibres/made by women sold by men/in centuries-old bazaar/sip hospitable teas/with barterers smiling benignly through tooth rot", is only part of her description of the wonders of the famous street markets of Istanbul.

However, what I found most interesting about this series of poems was her using the ancient Christian name of Byzantium for the region. I wondered why she referred to what was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire by this extremely archaic name? Is it to remind us of the impermanence of all empires? Or by referring to it by the name the region has often been called in Romantic poetry does she hope to heighten the contrast between the gritty reality she finds there and any romantic notions she might have had about the area prior to her arrival. If the latter, than she is remarkably successful. The descriptions we read in her poems about Turkey, Istanbul specifically, are of a big dirty city like any other, with only hints of its former glory.

After travelling in time and across the world with Sobat, the poems in the final section of the book show her turning her eye slightly inward. Here she reflects on various people and incidences which describe the simple acts of living and how her energy, "The Light", is spent on them. Whether it a celebration of a slightly hedonistic meal in "pilgrimage to Hardware Grill", and its honouring of the earthy delights of a gourmet meal and good wine; "smiling Russell suavely/sets before us verdant greens/succulence swims in sauce/garrulous garlic wafts willfully/tastes scents textures/exotic exacting/our glasses/our hearts/are full/and we give thanks"; or the more profane "Fecal Incident on the Sunshine Coast"; "the dog took a dump in the Pacific Ocean/as we horrified, mortified watched/even the seagull flapped off in disgust"; each poem in this section is a slice of an everyday life lived,

Here she shows us history is not only made up of momentous occasions from the past, nor do we have to travel half way around the world to have new and varied experiences. In fact each moment we live, each action we take, are part of the creation of history no matter where we are or who we are with. The stories we tell each other everyday are as redolent with significance as those we've learned about the struggles of our ancestors to survive or the adventures we've experienced among other people and cultures.

History is definitely far more than just the actions of famous people written down in text books for us and others to study in school. While history texts might tell us about the famous battles and the heroes and villains who fought on every side, it's the poet who looks between the cracks and tells us about the people who ate, worked, loved and died in these wars and the families they left behind. In How The Light Is Spent Sobat has created a personal history which not only tells the story of her family and her self in this world, but helps us see the world is far more complex, beautiful and awe inspiring place than any text book could hope to tell us. This is history as it should be, told through the pen of a poet with an eye for the important details of life.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review:" How The Light Is Spent" by Gail Sidonie Sobat)

June 4, 2013

Book Review: a seed within by Bruce Kauffman


Unfortunately most of us look upon poetry as something unintelligible and not to be read for pleasure. In fact most of us probably don't even think of poetry. If reading prose as a form of entertainment has gradually lost its popular appeal because of other entertainment on offer, poetry isn't even considered an option. However if you could bring yourself to read a book of contemporary poetry I think you'd be surprised at how easy it is for you to identify with what today's poets are writing about. Like any artist he or she looks at the world around them and does their best to recreate what they see in a few carefully chosen words. For while a prose writer might take two hundred pages to expand upon a theme, a poet tries to distill the essence of their subject in a couple of hundred words or less.

Initially you may think a poet is being deliberately obscure because they never seem to say exactly what they mean. Yet, it's the abstract poems which are not only the most powerful, but which end up being able to speak to more people than the one written in so called plain English. Like the abstract painter who captures an emotional moment on canvas anybody, no matter what their life experience, can relate to, the poet finds a way for their creation to be about something everybody can relate to. You need look no further than the latest collection of poetry by Kingston Ontario Canada poet Bruce Kauffman, a seed within, published by Hidden Book Press, to see wonderful examples of poetry which will strike a chord of recognition in anybody no matter their background.
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Kauffman's poems look at the world with a kind of wide eyed wonder. That's not to say they're naive or even childlike, it's more they suggest an amazed appreciation for the variety and diversity of the human experience and the universe. It's as if the poet has been able to put himself in a place where he is able to recreate what it would be like to experience everything for the first time. To his credit Kauffman doesn't limit these expressions to things we would consider positive, but covers the full spectrum of what might be experienced emotionally, physically and spiritually during the course of a lifetime.

He accomplishes this through the simple process of observing and recording. Each poem is like a delicate specimen pinned delicately and preserved in pristine elegance under glass for us to study at our leisure. Each carefully chosen word leads into the next, building upon each other's meaning, until jigsaw puzzle like, the individual pieces coalesce into an image. Unlike a puzzle, whose component elements are meaningless fragments, these pieces have a distinct character. Like life, none of the emotions or ideas expressed by these poems occurs in a vacuum and are always the result of some action or events.

Looking at the poem "torrent" we can see Kauffman doesn't merely describe an experience, he allows readers to see and feel what has gone into its making. He starts by describing a rainfall, first from the perspective of the rain; "comes the rain/as if it knew/knows/a world/and a heart/wait to be/cleansed", and then from the rivers and waterfalls who have been anticipating its arrival; "knew of its coming/before the shadows of clouds/carpeted themselves on bank and rock". However, the final two stanzas reveal the "torrent" being described is something more than just a simple downpour, he's been describing the process of the emotional buildup leading to tears. "but how long/ does it take/ a teardrop/ to roll/ across a/ continent/and how long/before/it reaches/there/did she/taste/its salt"

We might be able to anticipate sadness like bodies of water have foreknowledge of a rainfall. However, there is a major difference between knowing something is going to happen and actually experiencing it. The words Kauffman has used in the poem not only suggest the complexities of emotion behind a single tear, but shows us the process of its development. Through his depiction of every stage along the way, we gain a deeper appreciation of both the emotion and how its created.
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As this poem shows, Kauffman's poetry is replete with images from the natural world. Yet he doesn't use them casually or in any of the ways we've become accustomed to seeing them employed. Instead of merely using nature as merely a source of metaphor it assumes its rightful place in our world. Everything we do is played out against the backdrop of the world around us whether we acknowledge it or not. Long before humans dominated the world with our presence the rocks and stones were here, and they'll still be here after we're long gone.

For while in poems like "friendship" he uses water to describe something of the nature of the word, "friendship is the water in our lives/coming with/moving against/the dryness/of calendar/clock", in the poem "threads" the natural world is the permanent fixture against which our transience is played out. "with air and water watching/each of us/endlessly moving/along this path/from that which was to that which is/". While the poem depicts how we are a continuation of what came before by describing our life as being a single thread "from the ball of all thread of lifetimes woven" and how, no matter what we do with our lives someone or something will come after us, "and each of us/the needle guiding this thread/this colour/into this tapestry of days and nights/and leaving again/at the end/a single thread", what stays with us is the opening lines, "with air and water watching".

No matter what we do, no matter who we become, and no matter how many generations came before or might follow after us, we will never be as permanent as the natural world. Those first five words remind us we're not the centre of the universe, but only a minor player in the overall scheme of things as far as the rest of the world is concerned. We build huge monuments to ourselves but time, water and air will erode them all. In this one poem Kauffman captures how we are a continuation of what's come before us and our part in shaping what comes after us while reminding us we're only part of something even bigger.

After reading a collection of poetry like a seed within you can't help but feel regret more people aren't interested enough to read poetry. Poets like Kauffman have the ability to not only bring elements of the human condition to life in ways which would help people understand themselves better, but to put our lives into their proper perspective in regards to the world around us. You'll learn more about the world and yourself by reading this one small book of poetry than you will from watching hundreds of hours of television or reading any number of books. Not only that, you just might find yourself enjoying it.

If you happen to be in the Kingston Ontario vicinity on Wednesday June 5 2013, Kauffman will be reading from a seed within at Novel Idea bookstore, 156 Princess St. as part of a double book launch starting at 7:00p.m.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: a seed within by Bruce Kauffman)

May 19, 2013

Book Review: W.A.R.P. Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer


What is it about the Victorian era that fascinates so many modern writers these days? Not only are people setting novels in the time period, a whole sub-genre of science fiction/fantasy has developed out of it, steampunk. While the stories are set in England of the 19th century, anachronistic elements from our time period are introduced to create a kind of alternate history. What makes the best of these stories work is when the author finds a way of taking the technology of the era and giving it either abilities equivalent to what we have in our world or imbuing it with fantastical gifts equivalent to magic.

This era also saw changes in the way people thought and the things they believed possible. For the beginning of the technological age also saw the beginnings of science fiction writing. Jules Verne and H. G Wells speculated about traveling to distant planets, under the oceans and through time long before the first two were considered possible. In fact, such was the nature of Victorian society, spiritualism and other marginal sciences flourished during the time, they would have been more willing to believe in time travel and other magical events more than either travelling to the moon or delving into the earth's oceans.

In the first book of his latest young adult series, W.A.R.P. Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin published by Disney-Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Publishing Worldwide, Eoin Colfer (creator of Artemis Fowl) has opted to collide the 20th century with the Victorian era. Along the way he gives readers the chance to experience the differences between the two societies and a taste of steampunk by transplanting some modern technology and ideas into the past through the book's plot.
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The letters WARP are the acronym for an Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) top secret witness protection program, Witness Anonymous Relocation Program. Even most of the FBI's agents have never heard of the program. The only reason young Chevron Savano finds out about it is because she has been sent to London by the bureau after the trial program she was a part of blew up in their faces. Recruiting high school students to monitor potential terrorist recruits their own age had seemed like a good idea, until Savano actually had to take action to protect her suspects. It was only then the bureau realized the shaky legal and ethical ground they were on utilizing underage agents. So Savano finds herself whisked out of the country guarding a basement full of equipment which looks like its straight out of a cheesy science fiction movie in order to avoid being questioned by the United States Congress.

It turns out to be the WARP program's nerve centre. Unlike other witness protection programs which create new identities, WARP transports people back in time to Victorian England to keep them safe. Savano only finds out its true nature when the machinery comes to life one evening and accidentally transports 14 year old Riley into the future. The apprentice of a Fagin type figure, Albert Garrick, ex-stage illusionist and now the 19th century equivalent of a contract killer, Riley was transported forward to the present because his master's latest target was the inventor of WARP. At the moment of his death he activates the machine and transports both his corpse and Riley into the basement where Sayano is waiting to receive them.

When Garrick highjacks the FBI team, including Sayano's direct superior, sent back into the past to pick up the pieces, he not only follows his young charge into the future, in the process his body absorbs the consciousness and knowledge of the agent in charge of the program. Something about the mechanism changes him on a molecular level resulting in Garrick obtaining superhuman powers. Not only is he still a murderous devil, but he now possesses the ability to change his appearance and assume the identity of the agent whose thoughts he's absorbed. This not only gives him access to all the bureaus' secrets, but allows him to put the blame for the deaths of the team sent into the past on Savano.

At first Savano and Riley's main preoccupation is staying alive and free. Fleeing both the FBI and Garrick they manage to slip through both their fingers and jump back to the Victorian era with Garrick in hot pursuit. It's while in the 19th century they start to uncover the secrets of the WARP program and unravel Riley's strange life story including the secret behind his relationship with Garrick. In the process Colfer takes us on a tour of London featuring stops not on most tourists agendas. From a seedy bar, the hangout of a criminal organization know as the Battering Rams, the well appointed mansions of the mysterious spiritualist Tibor Charismo (advisor to the Queen and the Duke of Westminster and author of such wonders as the symphony "Another Brick In Yonder Wall" featuring the crazed lutist Pinkus Floyd) and finally the horror of the city's slum life in the form of the Rookery, home to the dregs and castoffs of society.
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While the story clips along at a fairly rapid pace with Colfer switching between Garrick's and Savano's perspective of events, he still manages to find the time to fill out his character's history and personalities. As Savano and Riley get to know each other we begin to learn more about each of them until they become fully developed characters.We not only learn the particulars of their lives prior to them meeting, we start to find things in them we can identify with. The same holds true with Garrick, the more we spend time with him the more we begin to understand him. While his life story raises our sympathies, unlike the two young people he chases who have chosen to rise above their troubles, we see how he took the opposite path and chose to lash out at the world.

Colfer has also done an admirable job in bringing both the modern world and the past to life. By showing us 19th century London through Savano's eyes and its modern counterpart through Riley's and Garrick's eyes they both turn into strange and wondrous places. From the way the city smells to the sounds of daily life he reminds us how much we take for granted about our own existence and creates an extremely vivid picture of what life would have been like 120 years ago. Colfer does such a good job with his depictions the past starts to feel as familiar to us as the present and we feel equally at home in either era.

W.A.R,P, Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin is first and foremost a fast paced adventure story with enough twists and turns to keep readers on their toes from the opening chapters to its close. Colfer also manages the rather tricky work of making the two worlds his story takes place in, and each setting's respective characters, believable. While the contrasts between the two eras and the character's reactions to the culture shock of shifting time adds an extra dimension to the story, it's the way Colfer manages to integrate all the elements of plot, atmosphere and character development into one cohesive unit that makes it a pleasure to read. What he's created in this first book bodes well for the rest of the series and will have his fans awaiting each new instalment with the eagerness of those who used to anticipate the next edition of The Strand and further adventures of a certain pipe smoking detective.

(Article first published as Book Review: W.A.R.P. Book One: The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer on Blogcritics)

May 2, 2013

Book Review: Wake Up: A Simon's Cat Book by SimonTofield


The majority of animals represented in cartoons, whether animated or not, are anthropomorphized. While occasionally this giving animals human characteristics and motivations is funny, most of the time it comes across as a shameless attempt at creating a character who will appeal to a human audience. It also strikes me as a sign of laziness on the part of the those involved with creating the character. While creations like Bugs Bunny were given witty and intelligent dialogue to make them appealing, most of those responsible for creating cartoon animals today rely solely on the their "humanness" in order to make them popular.

It is far harder to take an animal and turn it into a cartoon representation of itself much as you would a human. Cartoons about humans rely on their creator's ability to exaggerate our characteristics in order to generate humour. The really good cartoonists also know not to exaggerate too much in order to ensure their audience can identify with the character. If we can see traces of our selves in the characters we are watching on screen, or reading in our daily newspaper, we find them much more appealing.

Obviously we're not going to see anything of ourselves in a cartoon animal if its being represented as an exaggerated version of itself. However if the cartoonist chooses an animal whose behaviour we're intimately familiar with, like a dog or a cat, he or she can work with those characteristics to make a successful and appealing character. One of the best examples of this today, in both live action and print, are Simon Tofield's series of books and videos featuring the animal simply known as Simon's Cat. Wake Up: A Simon's Cat Book, published by Penguin Canada and Canongate Books, the fifth book in the series is just as funny as its four predecessors in the way it brings its hero to life.

Cat owners the world over are well aware of the variety of means cats will employ to get their human's attention. Under most circumstances these range from the cute to the slightly annoying. Unfortunately a cat's need for attention doesn't change whether a human is asleep or awake and they will go to whatever lengths necessary to make sure their needs are met no matter what the obstacle. I'm sure everybody who has ever owned a cat can give at least one example of the means their pet employed to rouse them from a deep slumber.

As the title of this book suggests it does have cartoons dealing with the ways cats have of ensuring their human's wake up on demand. However, what makes it even more interesting is it explores all the variations on the theme of sleeping and cats you can think of, and some you may never have even considered. While there are a variety of cartoons depicting Simon's Cat waking up his human, ranging from the real (sitting on the chest and yelling) to the unreal (peeling back the human's eyelids or stuffing a toy mouse into his mouth) the cartoons dealing with other sleep related situations might even be funnier.

There's the cartoon of the human negotiating a difficult stair case and almost tripping and falling over the cat tucked out of sight asleep on a riser. He was lucky, usually this happens when your arms are full and you're trying to negotiate a particularly dark and difficult descent into a basement. Or, in another instance the hapless man is laying on his stomach reading and the cat curls up asleep on his back. Have you ever tried to dislodge a cat from this position? If so you'll know it's next to impossible. If you stand up too straight they will panic at the sensation of falling and dig their claws into - you. So the final frame in the cartoon of the man walking bent over with the cat on his back asleep looking for a way to remove the limpet from his back will be all too familiar to most cat owners.

Then there are cats' sleeping habits, specifically the places they chose to sleep. Who hasn't found their cat sleeping, and shedding, on top of a pile of fresh laundry as is depicted in the book? Of course there's also their astounding habit of trying to fit themselves into a box, or the equivalent, far smaller than them and either succeeding in contorting themselves into what looks to be an extremely uncomfortable position or destroying the item in question and falling asleep on its remains. Of course, nothing beats the contortions they will put themselves through in order to sleep on top of a hot water radiator in the winter. Once you've seen a cat cram themselves under a window sill in order to secure their position of warmth, you'll believe them capable of anything.

As Tofield depicts cats don't only victimize sleeping humans, they have no qualms about attacking members of their own species when they are asleep either. As the kitten introduced in, Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos shows, the dangling tail of a sleeping cat is an irresistible temptation for another cat. In fact, a sleeping adult cat in general is considered an ideal cat toy by kittens until the adult cat puts his paw down, literally.

While Tofield strays away from realism on occasion, the mice holding up a teddy bear to frighten the cat or a hedgehog popping the balloon he's carrying on his own spiny body, the animals rarely take on human characteristics. In his cartoons he relies strictly on the drawings to both tell the story and for humour. Even in the videos which first brought his creations to people's attention the only sounds are those cats would normally make (which are generated by Tofield) and incidental music.

What has always impressed me about Tofiled's creations are how he can accomplish so much with so little. Even in Wake Up, the second book of coloured cartoons, the majority of his illustrations are limited to just the cat and his immediate surroundings. Occasionally he will draw more elaborate panels, but his primary focus is always on depicting the cat's behaviour and its reactions. The result, as in all his other work, is one of the funniest cartoons of an animal you will ever see. At some point every cat owner who either reads or watches one of his creations will find themselves exclaiming, "Why that's just like (insert name of your cat here)".

(Article first published as Book Review: Wake Up: A Simon's Cat Book by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics)

April 23, 2013

Book Review: The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman


Whenever I've wanted to learn something about a culture I'd read the stories the people told each other. Not the stories others tell about them, or what's been written about them in history books, but the ones which have been passed down from generation to generation. They could be anything from myths to family histories, but they all contain elements of what a people believe in and their view of the world's history. The more stories you read the clearer a picture you begin to develop of how a people live and what matters to them.

In this era of globalization and cultural homogenization I think its even more important than ever to understand the things which distinguish various peoples from each other. It's become far too easy to make pejorative statements about an entire race or creed because we've not taken the time to understand the various nuances and distinctions among the wide variety of people who make up the population of a country let alone a religion. In the West we are especially guilty of making these types of generalizations when talking about countries outside North America and Europe. One of the most glaring examples of this is Afghanistan.

If ever a country has been the plaything of Western powers it's been this remote country bordering Pakistan and Iran. From the British and Russians manipulating its rulers back in the 19th century to the Russians and Americans using it to fight the Cold War in the 1980s and today's supposed ongoing war on terror being conducted by occupying NATO troops, peace is something that breaks out between what has been an almost constant state of war in the country for almost two centuries. Yet in spite of our countries direct involvement with the affairs of this nation, we know little or nothing about it.
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In the hopes of learning more about the country and its people I requested a copy of The Honey Thief written by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman published by Penguin Canada. Mazari immigrated from Afghanistan to Australia in 2000 escaping the Taliban. Technically speaking this book isn't about the people of Afghanistan, mainly because there is no one group of people who can be said to be Afghanistan. The country is divided along ethnic lines both geographically and socially and Mazari is Hazara. The Hazara now live, predominately, in the central mountainous region of the country known as the Hazarajat.

While the Hazara are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, one of the first things we learn from Mazari is they have been one of the most persecuted. From the 19th century well into the 20th century they were the victims of what amounts to systematic genocide by the ruling Barakzai family of Afghanistan. When whole villages weren't being exterminated by government soldiers their land was been taken from them. When the members of the royal family weren't busy plotting against each other, they were buying the loyalty of their soldiers and friends by giving them Hazara land.

While the history of persecution obviously colours and shapes the lives of the Hazara people it's only one thread running through the narrative of the people. The stories in The Honey Thief are filled with details which will never find their way into history books. We learn about their ingenuity and their will to survive in spite of what the world throws at them. In "The Snow Leopard", a British photographer is taken into the mountains by a Hazara guide in search of Snow Leopards to photograph, we are given a guided tour of the environment they live in. We learn how the valleys in mountain ranges are used to grow food and how if a valley doesn't have good soil, they will carry soil from other areas into the valley in order to grow crops.

We also learn a little of their philosophy regarding the world around them. In the book's title story, "The Honey Thief", a young man is apprenticed to a bee keeper to learn the delicate mysteries of collecting honey. His new master tells him how he became a bee keeper after he was caught stealing honey by the young man's grandfather. It was thought, he explains to his new apprentice, since he was able to steal honey from the bees without being stung he would make a good bee keeper because bees hate it when people steal the honey they've worked so hard to collect. The bee keeper goes on to explain to his young charge bees, like all domestic animals, are slaves to men, and we steal from all of them.

This tale isn't meant as a morality lesson, rather a lesson in the realities of existence. Be aware of exactly what it is you're doing in order to survive and you will understand why others act they way do in response. Is it any wonder chickens will attempt to hide their eggs or bees attempt to sting us when we keep them enslaved and steal from them as well? This is quite a bit more sophisticated and honest understanding of the relationship between man and the beasts we use for food and domestic work than we hear expressed by most people.
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While the stories are both profoundly beautiful and moving they also serve to fill in the details of everyday life among the Hazara people outsiders would only learn after years of observation. While they might have a natural mistrust of strangers, especially those from other ethnic groups, once a person has shown his or herself to be harmless they will be accepted. Or, unlike other subsistence people whose lives depend on what they can produce from their fields or by the labour of their own hands, they understand the value of education. If the chance arises they will send their children, both boys and girls, to school.

While every Hazara child learns from their parent basic precepts of respect and obedience for their parents and their God, they also recognize there are exceptions to every rule. In the story "The Music School", a mute teenager learns how to give voice to his thoughts with a musical instrument. He is desperate to tell the young woman he loves how he feels about her, but his teacher has forbidden him to play in public until four years have passed from when he began his lessons.

Fearing she will have found someone else in that time he disobeys his teacher, plays for the young women and wins her heart. When he goes to return his instrument to his teacher's house he fully expects to be punished and probably be forbidden from studying anymore. Instead his teacher gives him six gold coins to help him start his new family and tells him to take the instrument home and bring it back the next day for another lesson. As the young man is leaving, stunned by his good fortune, his teacher says to him "God is patient with the obedient, but he treasures the disobedient".

Trying to write out stories which have only previously been told aloud is one of the hardest tasks facing a writer. However Mazari and Hillman have done a remarkable job with this collection of capturing the immediacy which exists between the storyteller and his or her audience. In fact there are times when reading these stories you can hear them being told to you in your mind's ear. There's something about the writing style they've employed which makes them read like they're being spoken aloud to you. The more you read, the more this world comes alive until you can almost picture yourself amongst a community as they gather to hear their stories.

Mazari finishes the book off with a collection of recipes for various Hazara dishes. The instructions for preparing the dishes are stories in of themselves as the various asides offer us even further insights into the people's attitudes towards life. The Honey Thief goes a long way towards belying the impression we've been given of the people of Afghanistan as either savages or ignorant peasants desperately needing to be saved by the West. Stories like this collection should be required reading for every journalist or politician prior to them making public statements about Afghanistan.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman on Blogcritics.)

April 22, 2013

Book Review: This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't by Augusten Burroughs


I hate self-help books. It's not just because I feel they are basically about taking advantage of other's misfortune or on the whole useless. No the real reason I hate them is what the words self-help implies. It always sounds as if you don't get better after reading the book it's your fault because you don't want to help your self. Calling a book self-help is like saying to your readers you can cure yourself if you really want to. Which carries with it the cavil of, if the book doesn't help you it's not the author's fault it's yours because you didn't really want to be well. Nothing better than making someone who has serious problems feel guilty about them on top of everything else.

I'm a recovered substance abuser, have dealt with post traumatic stress syndrome brought about by being sexually abused as a child and live with a chronic pain condition. I had lots of help from two therapists, a yoga teacher and a acupuncturist with the first two issues and I see a doctor regularly for treatment of the latter. There was, and is, no quick fix and I might never completely heal. The one thing I never did was consult a self-help book. I read a couple of books by people who had been through things similar to what I had survived, but that was it. They made me realize others in the world had had similar experiences and had found ways to recover.

All of which might make it sound strange I would be interested in Augusten Burroughs' latest book, This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't, being released by Picador Books Tuesday April 23 2013. However, in spite of it being promoted as a self-help book, all that I knew and had heard of Burroughs made me suspect it wasn't going to be anything like the "I can cure you if you do exactly what I tell you to do" crap lining the shelves of every book store in the world. I didn't even have to get through the first chapter before I knew my suspicion was right: this is not a self-help book at all.
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What it is is a book for people interested in really helping themselves instead of looking for some sort of band aid which will make them presentable to the world. I knew I my first impression of Burroughs was right when he made the claim so called positive affirmations do more harm than good to people with low self esteem. I've never believed standing in front of a mirror telling yourself a lie in the hopes it will convince you to feel better about yourself would benefit anybody. Burroughs not only agrees with this, he quotes a peer reviewed scientific study which proved affirmations actually made people with low self esteem feel worse about themselves. The only people affirmations actually work for are those who already have a high self-esteem. The rest of us only feel like failures when we can't live up to the lie the face in the mirror is telling us - which doesn't do anything for our self-esteem.

Burroughs rips through the New Age gobbledygook pop psychology bullshit that has been permeating the airwaves since some moron said "I'm OK, Your OK" back in the 1970s and passed it off as a cure for what ails us. He shreds jargon with humour and compassion and dispels the myths we have been conditioned to believe about how we're supposed to feel and what our relationships should be like. Along the way he talks about love, death, illness, dieting, addictions, child parent relations and almost every other hot topic you can think of. However, don't come to this book looking for platitudes or expecting to find ten simple steps to a happy life. What you will find are some very simple, basic, common sense truths which might not make you happy, but will certainly make your life better or, at lease more fulfilling. However, be prepared to face another truth, they're might not be anything wrong with your life at all and dealing with that might even be harder than anything else.

Unlike most people who write one of these books Burroughs doesn't have a plan for you to follow. Instead he addresses each of the topics mentioned above individually and head on. He doesn't mince words or sugar coat anything when he gives his opinions. Instead he dissects everything about the subject and lays bare some very simple but breathtaking truths. If you've been dieting for twenty years trying to lose twenty pounds maybe it's time to question your obsessive behaviour? Or as he puts it "If you spend twenty years trying to get something and still don't have it, is it admirable to keep trying. Or did you pass admirable several miles back and it's getting close to straightjacket time" (Burroughs, Augusten -This Is How Picador, New York NY 2013 p. 31)

If dieting hasn't worked after twenty years isn't it obvious by now its never going to work? His suggestion of stopping dieting and just eat what you want and accept the results may not be what people want to hear. However, the reality is you'll be a lot happier and healthier. As he points out once you allow yourself to eat whatever you want (as long as there are no health issues etc involved) you will first get bored with overindulging and second, your body will take care of itself. The reason, he says, diets don't work is because we only want them to work, we don't need them to work. You must want to lose the weight more than you want the comfort you derive from eating.
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Of course this applies to almost anything. If you want to stop drinking, if you want to stop smoking, if you want to stop whatever, you must want to more than you want what ever pleasure you derive from the thing you're trying to stop. It's in this chapter on dieting he says one of the things which convinced me Burroughs knows what he's talking about. "If willpower is required to achieve this goal, that's how you know you don't want it enough on a deep, organic level. Mechanical failure will eventually occur." (ibid. p.35) I've been able to give up drugs and alcohol because I wanted to more than I wanted what they had given me, but I've not been able to give up cigarettes. Willpower got me through the first few months a few times, even a couple of years once, but each time the need for the comfort they provided has sent me running back to them.

Burroughs throws truths like this up in our faces all through the book. Sometimes it makes it extremely uncomfortable to read because, whether you know it or not, you start looking at yourself in the mirror he holds up. However, what's wonderful about this book, is you never feel like you're being judged. Its filled with humour (I now know the two things you never say to an Italian man about members of his family and they both make my wife laugh until she pees), but most of all you can feel his genuine compassion in every single word. Reading this book is like having a conversation with that friend who has never been afraid to tell you the truth but always does so with love in their hearts.

Burroughs doesn't have any letters before or after his name nor does he make any claims to having some great mystical insights (thankfully) into the mysteries of human behaviour. What he does have is a seemingly innate ability to draw upon personal experiences and observations of other's behaviour and distill from them carefully thought out conclusions. Occasionally he backs up what he's saying by quoting a scientific study, but even without substantiation you can't help trusting what he says. Best of all, while he's a firm believer in individuals taking responsibility for their lives, he never once makes you feel inadequate or in any way to blame for your circumstances.

We live in a world of instant gratification. Financial empires have been built around the reducing of human emotions to a commodity sold and packaged on day time talk shows by modern day snake oil sales people. Public self flagellation is not only encouraged, its rewarded with Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame. So when someone like Burroughs comes along and says what he has to say many will not want to listen. Of if they do, won't like what they hear. However, for those who are willing to listen they won't find a more understanding and compassionate voice anywhere. No one book will instantly make your life better, and neither will This Is How. However, it will point you in the right direction so you can begin whatever journey you feel you need to take. Which makes it worth its weight in gold.

(Article first published as Book Review: This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't by Augusten Burroughs on Blogcritics.

March 30, 2013

Book Review: River Of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay


When I was making my first tentative steps into the world of the arts it was the writers who used words to create works of wonder and beauty who inspired me the most. I remember being filled with awe at their abilities to make even the grotesque seem wondrous and amazing. But somewhere around the middle of the 20th century elegance and beauty began to be supplanted by harsh terse prose posing as realism. It was if we had become convinced the only way to convey the human experience was by sucking the beauty out of it and reducing it to its base elements. While it's true the excesses of romanticism needed to be checked, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

There was a time when writers like Dickens and Poe were considered popular fiction. Now, those who would strive to be their equals are relegated to the seemingly elitist genre of literary fiction thus deterring the average reader from experiencing their writings. As a result the publishing industry groans under the weight of the equivalent of fast food it produces each year and wonders why they are losing money. When someone rises from the dining table feeling stuffed but unsatisfied, not only is their health put at risk, but they gradually lose interest in what's set before them. With nothing to hold their attention they will only pick at their plates or be easily diverted.

The sad part is that most of the time we don't know what we're missing. When there's almost nothing to hold up as a standard against which to judge everything else, it's easy to think there aren't any options. However, there are still the occasional authors out there writing popular fiction able to create approachable work while aspiring to make reading an inspiring and special experience. As soon as you open the pages of Guy Gavriel Kay's latest book, River of Stars published by Penguin Canada, you know you'll have such an author.
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This is Kay's second book set in Kitai, a fictional version of Imperial China. Its predecessor, Under Heaven, was set in the period when the empire's borders were protected by the Great Wall and the world flowed down the Silk Road to fill its cities with splendour and wealth, a few hundred years have passed since then and much has changed. The Wall has long since fallen and the barbarian hordes it once kept at bay control much of what was the empire. Instead of deciding which of the tribal leaders they should prop up in order to best serve the empire, the Emperor's advisors must now ensure they placate the powerful among them with annual tribute payments.

In some ways Kitai has become a mockery of its former glory. In reaction to what were deemed the excesses at the heart of the civil war which tore he empire apart (see Under Heaven for details radical policy changes were instituted by the court. As it was a military governor responsible for the civil war martial competence is seen as dangerous and discouraged among high ranking officials in the court. The contraction of the empire's borders is the price they have paid for instilling the belief a person of breeding is above such earthy concerns. After all if the barbarian hordes are so adroit at warfare, than it ill behooves those at the centre of the universe serving the Emperor, the son of heaven, to sully their minds with with such lowly thoughts. So what if the empire send armies off to die when their commander in chief forgets to bring siege engines when ordered to conquer the capital city of another country.

The conservatism, or fear, which dictates policy in Kitai has also seen changes to the way women of higher rank are treated. More and more daughters and wives are pushed into the background. The idea that a respectable family would educate their daughter, teaching her to read and write, to have opinions and think for herself is unheard of. What use would that be to her when she is destined for a life of service to whomever she is lucky enough to marry..

This is the Kitai both Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are born into. The former is the son of a clerk to a provincial magistrate and the latter the only daughter of a scholar. Both are ill suited to the new realities of the empire. Ever since he was a boy Daiyan has dreamed of leading the armies of Kitai in reclaiming the territories they've lost to the barbarian hoards. Shan is equally ill advised in her ambitions as she writes poetry and even sets it to music. While she would not be considered a threat like Daiyan, her abilities have made her a figure of oddity in her social circle.
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Aside from their having unconventional behaviour in common, Daiyan and Shan are also fated to come to the attention of people of influence. While this helps Daiyan in achieving his dreams of becoming a military leader and allows Shan to be recognized for her abilities as a poet - even by as an exalted a figure as the Emperor - attention, intelligence and success aren't necessarily a winning combination in this world. When those in power notice you, they make use of you for their own ends and you may end up wishing you kept a lower profile.

While Daiyan and Shan are important to the story they are still only two figures on a crowded canvas in the elaborate painting of events Kay has brought to life. With great care and skill he draws our focus to events and characters at its furthest reaches. What happens on the periphery might at first seem inconsequential and have no bearing on the lives of those at the centre. However, as every brush stroke relates to the one next to it when the artist lays ink to paper, everything is interconnected. Over the course of the book Kay carefully brings together the disparate elements of plot and character to form a cohesive, multi-textured and vibrant image.

Through the careful attention to detail he uses to bring even the most minor characters and their environments to life, Kay is able to bring home to us the reality of what it must have been like when the empire was in its death throes. From the arrogance of the high court officials, the peasant who suffers the consequence of their leader's actions to the vengeful barbarian hoards intent on pillage and conquering we see the world through a multitude of eyes. Each of these perspectives is another layer of reality and serves to make Kay's work all the more vivid and arresting.

While he doesn't stint from depicting the brutal realities of the world, men think nothing of ordering someone beaten to death with bamboo cane or enjoy watching their enemies heads being eaten alive by fire ants, neither does he glory in them or sensationalize them. They are facts of life, nothing more, nothing less. However, and in some ways more importantly, he doesn't glorify the opulence of the Empire either. While we are given lovingly detailed descriptions of beautifully decorated chambers and the resplendent garden the Emperor has built, we are also given carefully detailed descriptions of their costs in lives and money. These are not the symbols of an Empire's glory, they are signs of its dissolute nature and arrogance.

Kay has the uncanny ability to depict the grand sweep of historical events through the eyes of those living through them. In doing so he lets us see how history is never the cut and dried thing it appears in history books. He shows us how seemingly unrelated events, both large and small. build upon each other until they finally reach a tipping point from which there is no return. While on the surface it may appear there was one pivotal moment upon which everything depended, no moment stands completely alone or is unaffected by what came before it.

What's even more amazing is how through his careful rendering of character and environments we are drawn into this history. The people and the culture they live in become more than just descriptions on the page as he manages to capture those elements of each which make them vital and alive. Yet there is more than just simple realism at work in his depictions. There is an emotional depth to Kay's work which takes it out of the realm of the he did this and then followed it up with that action we find in most fiction. Nor is there the hyperbole, melodrama or emotional manipulation which too often passes for "depth". His work is a delicate balancing act between 19th century naturalism/romanticism and the realism of the modern era that satisfies all of our emotional and logical needs.

River Of Stars is an exceptional piece of work. Right from the start we are drawn into a rich and exotic but very real world. The people populating this world are multi-dimensional individuals with an emotional depth one hardly ever sees in popular fiction anymore. While the book describes the grand sweep of major historical events, because we experience them through the eyes of his characters we never lose sight of the those who are caught up by their turmoil. History has never felt or been more real and reading about it such a pleasure.

Book Review: River Of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay on Blogcritics.)

Author photo John W MacDonald


March 28, 2013

Book Review: Tripping With Allah by Michael Muhammad Knight


The idea of using drugs in order to achieve some sort of spiritual enlightenment has been around for probably as long as humanity. Whether looking for answers to great mystical questions or just on a personal quest for enlightenment the use of external stimulants cut across all lines of race, creed and colour. However, there's also a lot of bullshit associated with the whole take drugs and see god line of thought. First there's the whole one man's sacrament is another man's criminal offence or sacrilege. Then there are those who will look for any excuse to take drugs and pass it off as looking for god in an attempt to justify their actions.

Complicating matters is the fact there seem to be just as many ways to achieve hallucinations without drugs as with. Is a vision more valid because you starved yourself until you were out of your mind instead of ingesting a peyote button? The intent is the same after all. You're trying to enter an altered state of conscience through artificial means. Of course, you also have to ask why does a person feel they need to have some sort of vision about their god. Are they looking to make themselves important because they've received some great communique to spread among the masses? If not that, what is it people are looking for when they try for these visions? They must feel like something is lacking if they are so desperate to talk to god they're going to put themselves through any of these ordeals.

It was with all this in mind I read Michael Muhammad Knight's book about drugs, Islam and his continued attempts to define his place in the world Tripping With Allah, published by Soft Skull Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada. Knight writes about himself with an honesty that borders on public flagellation. However, unlike most of those who write about themselves it's never his intent to either garner followers or his reader's sympathy. If he ever ended up on Oprah instead of her her audience of repressed middle class housewives' feeling all warm and cuddly from hearing about someone else's suffering, their world view would be so shattered they'd probably wind up trashing the studio before heading home to castrate their husbands.
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Okay, maybe that's a little over the top, but you get the idea. Not only do his books expose things about himself most people wouldn't admit even to their shrinks for fear of being strapped in a jacket whose sleeves face the wrong way, he also has a nasty habit of reminding white Europeans that most of what's happening in the world is as a direct result of actions carried out in their names. Whether it be our colonial history coming back to haunt us or our current form of colonial oppression in the form of global markets and the exploitation of developing nation's natural resources. What's even scarier about Knight is now he has a Harvard education, he can map out the patterns clearly enough, with examples, anybody can understand them, and then cite sources confirming what he's talking about. Examples in this book range from how the desire for sugar cane in Europe led to decimating the population of West Africa via the slave trade to how the colonial powers in Rawanda sowed the seeds of discontent between peoples which resulted in genocide.

So what the hell does any of this have to with drugs and Allah? Well, Knight looks at the world in terms similar to that of chaos theory. What are the ripple effects of him, and others like him, ingesting a drug. What's the history behind a drug's availability in the West and what's had to happen in order for this drug to end up in his hand? Then there's also the whole question of the cultural implications of a white guy taking a drug whose origins lie somewhere in the depths of the Amazon rain forrest and the indigenous people of the region. Doesn't this just make him another one of those New Agers with more money than sense? Taking some indigenous people's tribal rite and by turning into a commercial commodity (pay X amount of money for a weekend retreat with Shaman and drug and see god) make it impossible for them to afford it any more.

Of course there's also the whole question of whether or not there's a role for drugs to play in Islam. In spite of the myths about assassins and hash eating and tales told by the Beat generation of ingesting drugs in Muslim countries, much of mainstream Islam takes the lines in the Quran prohibiting prayer while intoxicated as the final word on the matter. The good scholar he is Knight collects and compares all the arguments for and against using drugs to aid in receiving messages from Allah. While there appears to be some wriggle room depending on interpretations and traditions followed, its really only the mystical Sufis who talk openly about utilizing drugs to achieve enlightenment.

Of course all these arguments and discussions are presented in Knight's own unique style. He flips between scholarly dissertation and free association/stream of conscience without skipping a beat or losing his thread. He circles around his primary subject matter of drugs like a bird of prey hovering over its target until he finally drops out of the sky and brings us smack dab into a moment. However, just as we settle into what are expectations have caused us to anticipate, as he brings us through his experience and their impact on his life, he slams on the brakes and begins to deconstruct the book your holding in your hands.

He had set out to write a book about drugs and Islam in the style of his early novels but Harvard University and academia wouldn't allow it. He worries aloud how and what his university education and studies have done to him. What happened to the wild and crazy voice which spoke to a generation of disenfranchised young Muslims? Has schooling doomed him to the world of footnotes and cited sources? Yet when he looks back on the days when he was the anarchist/punk author, describing the physical, mental and emotional abuse he put himself through, you wonder what he's missing.
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Yet in the midst of this furious retracing of his path he also has what I think is the most important revelation of the book. His drug of choice, his addiction if you like, is writing. He talks of those he's met who say they are writers yet have somehow never managed to put pen to paper. While he, on the other hand, can't stop writing. He's stayed up late into the night abusing his body writing, he has a variety of incomplete manuscripts stored in his desktop computer and he has his clearest visions through the spilling out of words on paper or into his keyboard. Other drugs have proven to be hit and miss in their effectiveness, but writing is the one he always comes back to and the one which always seems to deliver.

Knight is at his self analytical best in this book. For all his apparent flailing in different thematic directions he is carefully guiding us through his personal process. He has travelled the byways and highways of North America, Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia visiting shrines, holy sites, mosques, mosh pits, Seven-Elevens, punk clubs,gyms and wrestling rings looking for his truth. He has read the work of Islamic scholars dating back to the early days of the religion, the writings of Elijah Muhammad and listened to the wisdom of Clarence 13X who would become Allah, the founder of the Five Percenters, via the words of those in the movement today.

The voice he is so worried about losing is strong and clear - it is the culmination of all his experiences. He is a reflection of everything he has seen, been, experienced and prayed for and this book is both a summarization and conclusion to the journey he set out on when at the age of seventeen after reading the autobiography of Malcolm X he converted to Islam. Out of the chaos that has been his life, highlights of which are included in this book, he has come to the calm of acceptance. He's dealt with his personal demons and is now ready to move on to whatever awaits him as an artist, an academic and a Muslim.

Tripping With Allah may not be the great Islamic drug book he set out to write. Instead, Knight has treated us to a kind of post modern Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man. It now seems he's ready, as James Joyce put it, "to go forth to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his people". Don't come looking to this book for the answers to your own questions. What you will find is one of the more vivid descriptions of the artistic soul taking the next steps on its long road of creativity and one man coming to terms with himself and his beliefs written with passion and truth. It might not always be a pretty picture, but its always thought provoking and intelligent.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)


March 27, 2013

Book Review: Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer


Ever since Philip Marlow and Sam Spade roamed the back allies and dimly lit bars of American crime fiction readers have revelled in the adventures of anti-hero private detectives. With more in common with the crooks they hunt than those on the supposed right side of the law they not only moved in the shadow world of criminal behaviour but the darker recesses of the human spirit as well. Hardened by crime, corruption and hard living they offered readers a bitter and jaded view of the world. A view which had more to do with reality than what was usually on offer in the popular fiction of the day.

However, as the years have passed since they were first published the world has changed significantly and we're all too aware of the mean streets around us. We don't need hard boiled detectives to expose the rot beneath the pretty veneer of civilization when we can read about it in the headlines of our daily newspaper. So as the 20th century started winding down parodies of the tough private dick started to show up in popular culture. While some of these efforts weren't bad, the most common result of reading or watching something featuring one of these take offs was you'd end up missing the originals. For instead of having fun with the genre, most of those being made were making fun of it.

So I have to admit to having some hesitations when I began reading Robert J Sawyer's new book Red Planet Blues, published by Penguin Canada. Instead of the mean streets of some major city in North America, Sawyer's investigator, Alex Lomax, has set up shop in the rough and tumble city of New Klondike on the planet Mars. Like its namesake on earth it was once a boom town populated by a host of prospectors hoping to strike it big. However instead of gold or diamonds, on Mars they were after fossils. Artefacts of the ancient life on the Red Planet which were valuable collector items back on earth.
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As we learn from Lomax the fossil boom began forty years before the events in our story take place. Two explorers, Simon Weingarten and Denny O'Reilly, discovered the first evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet. By the time we come in the boom has long since busted and New Klondike is a city fallen on hard times. There are still a few prospectors chasing the dream of finding "the big one" which will make their fortunes, but mainly its a town filled with those who can't go back to earth for one reason or another. They may not be able to afford the passage, they may have been on Mars too long and their bodies won't be able to readjust to Earth's gravity or they may just like being outside the reach of Earth's jurisdiction. Whatever the reason most of them are just trying to get by, including PI Lomax.

Those wealthy enough can make the stay somewhat more pleasurable by transferring their brains into a new, nearly indestructible, body. Not only do Transfers gain a measure of immortality, they also gain a body which can survive the Martian climate. Everybody else has to stay within the confines of the dome surrounding New Klondike and make monthly payments to keep yourself supplied with life support. If you do have to take a stroll on the planet's surface you need to doll up in a hermetically sealed suit complete with its own life support system and internal plumbing. Those choosing to have the transfer done usually also go for a new improved version of themselves. While most of these upgrades are of the cosmetic variety, the new bodies are also far stronger and faster than their biological equivalents. The invulnerability and the extra strength come in handy for any number of things, including murder, theft and other nefarious activities.

Which, for those still hoping to find the mother lode of fossils, is of course extremely helpful. The investigation Lomax stumbles into via what at first appears to be a simple missing persons case ends up involving an almost mythical rumoured motherlode, transfers and a mystery dating back to the founding of the city. The two who first discovered fossils had died under mysterious circumstances and the knowledge of the location of their biggest fossil field died with them. The problem with fossil prospecting is there are no clues on the surface of the planet telling you what's buried beneath your feet. Unless you know where the fossils are, you could search for decades and not find anything.

With almost no fossils coming on the market demand for them, and the price people are willing to pay, has gone through the roof. So even a rumour somebody has a line on Weingarten's and O'Reilly's famous lost field causes shockwaves of greed to spread through the community. Lomax soon finds his simple missing persons case turning into a murder investigation stretching back four decades. While some of the leads might be cold, it doesn't stop things from heating up or the bodies, both biological and transfers, piling up in the present.
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Sawyer has done a great job in not only lovingly recreating the tough talking detective type made famous by Raymond Chandler, but in putting him in a setting where his talents can shine. There's nothing fancy or exotic about New Klondike, just like there's nothing glamourous about Lomax or any of the people he associates with. Like the plots in those great old movies with Bogart as the tough talking dick, there's some beautiful women along for the ride to provide distraction, including one or two femme fatales just to make things interesting for our stalwart hero.

Yet even more interesting is how Sawyer has made his lead a little more complex then his predecessors and we begin to suspect his hard boiled gum shoe shtick is a persona he puts on for the job. Lomax, who also narrates the adventure, does his best to convince us of his mercenary nature, at one point wondering if he can legitimately bill his client for time spent sleeping with a witness. However, for someone so interested in the almighty dollar he sure spends a lot of time trying to solve this mystery without a client to foot the bill.

The more we find out about Lomax the more we discover he has very set opinions on right and wrong and does his best to see people live up to them. Sure he's got to pay the rent, and for the right to breath oxygen under the dome, but once he gets the bit in his teeth he's not about to let anybody get away with murder. While we may initially like hanging out with him because of his world weary and slightly cynical take on his fellow beings, we actually end up liking him for what lies beneath the surface.

In Red Planet Blues Sawyer has found a highly original and fun way to pay homage to the great hard boiled detectives of the past. Mars, like the sun kissed streets of Los Angeles Philip Marlow once patrolled, may sound like its an exotic location, but underneath the glamour of being on another planet there's just as many dark and dangerous secrets as anywhere else. So its the perfect setting for a private eye willing to skirt around the edges of the law. You'll have a lot of fun wandering the mean streets of New Klondike and over the surface of the Red Planet with PI Lomax, and he might even give you a few things to think about.

(Article first published as Book Review: Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer on Blogcritics.)



March 7, 2013

Book Review: Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie


Have you ever noticed how people react when you tell them you're reading a collection of short stories? They've asked, 'What you reading?', and when told short stories their smiles sort of freeze in place and they quickly change the subject. If it had been a full length novel they would have probably continued asking questions, 'What's it about?' or even the dreaded 'What's it like?'. It's almost as if they don't think short stories somehow merit the same consideration as a full length novel. That they're an inferior form of writing and those who write them not as accomplished as novelists.

I've no idea where or how people formed this impression. For not only can short stories be just entertaining and intelligent as any novel, in some ways they are even more difficult to write. For while a novelist has a few hundred pages at his or her disposal in order to build his characters, develop his plot and establish the environment the story takes place in, the short story writer must be able to do the same in far less time. Of course they also have to tell their story at the same time. Which is why as far as I'm concerned a well written short story is every bit as deserving of our attention as any novel, and a collection by a good author is something to be treasured.

Anybody looking for proof of the short story's merits need look no further than the recently published anthology of Sherman Alexie's short stories, Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories, from Grove Press distributed by Publishers Group Canada. Alexie a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene born on the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit Washington, is not only a prolific short story writer but also a poet, novelist, screenplay writer and a performer.
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In this collection people familiar with Alexie's work will find some stories they've read before including "The Toughest Indian in the World", "This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix Arizona" (The basis for the movie Smoke Signals) "War Dances" and "Because My Father Said He Was The Only Indian To See Jimi Hendrix Play The Star Spangled Banner At Woodstock" (hands down the best title for a short story I've seen yet). However, this is not just a repackaging of old favourites and there are about as many new stories as there are previously published ones.

Whether new or old Alexie's stories wear their hearts on their sleeves and aren't afraid to speak their minds. Characters drink, take drugs, sleep in alleyways, marry, have children, work for a living, pan handle, live, die, love and hate. Just like the rest of the world. The only difference is most of them are either members of the Spokane or Coeur d'Alene nations, conquered people living among their conquerers. Sometimes you don't really notice any difference between the characters in his stories and those in other people's stories. You wouldn't even know they were from a different nation unless you were told.

Yet even those stories with seemingly assimilated characters still give the impression of being about those on the outside looking in. There's something about their lives which makes you realize they're always going to be separate and not equal no matter how much they try to blend. They never seem to want to talk about where they come from and they try to avoid thinking about their families. For it's when they do the pretence of belonging falls apart. How many of their friends have parents who drank themselves to death? How many have had to go more funerals then birthday parties before they left home?

Of course there are the stories where its bloody obvious you've entered a world completely alien to anything you've ever experienced. "Cry Cry Cry", the first story in the book, takes you into the world of desperation and hopelessness New Age bookstores and their talk of "Native Spirituality" pretend isn't reality. "Whenever an Indian says he's traditional you know that Indian is full of shit" says the narrator in reference to his cousin Junior, the drug dealing Pow Wow dancer. Maybe Junior's story, his descent from using drugs, to dealing, to serving time for dealing drugs to white people and screwing white girls is repeated in ghettos all over America. Maybe not.
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"Cry Cry Cry" is also about the person who has to see his friend and cousin go into free fall. The guy who's there when he finally goes off the deep end and kills someone, and is then considered a pariah for turning Junior into the cops. How far has a community fallen when the person who turns in a drug dealing murderer is considered a traitor? When he considers himself a traitor? These are dangerous questions to ask, but Alexie doesn't shy away from the nasty shit. When the narrator of the story takes up Pow-Wow dancing he does so thinking he's honouring his dead friend. However, the truth he comes to understand is something different. He's honouring all those who have died, he's honouring what his people once were and what they might be again.

How many people ask when they see the homeless Indian drunk on the sidewalk "How did this happen?" No, most are going say something along the lines of "Fucking drunk Indian" or "What do you expect there all a bunch of fuckin' lazy welfare bums who'd rather drink than work". In an "Indian Education" we learn the lessons most Indian kids learn in their formative years. The ones which are part of the answer to the question hardly anybody asks. Humiliation, despair, hopelessness, hunger, self-pity and self-loathing aren't on most Public School curriculums, but are the equivalent of the three "r's" of an Indian's education.

When a State Trooper asks why a guy who is happily married with kids, has a good job and is sober drives his car straight into a tree everybody shrugs their shoulders. What they don't say out loud is "...when we look in the mirror, see the history of us our tribe in our eyes, taste failure in the tap water and shake with old tears, we understand completely. Believe me, everything looks like a noose if you stare at it long enough." (Alexei, Sherman "Indian Education", Blasphemy Grove/Atlantic Press, New York, 2012 p. 292)

Alexie is one of those remarkable writers who are able to write about truly gut wrenching and heart breaking events without making you feel sorry for those in the stories. What good is pity to these people anyway. It won't put food on the table or take away the ingrained pain of being broken across the wheel of history. The people in his stories are real. Some of the situations they find themselves in aren't going to be ones very many of us can identify with. However, somethings are common to all of us, no matter who we are and where we come from. The heartbreak of losing a parent, feeling lost in an overwhelming world and the need to have our pain understood. Alexie uses these to bridge the immense gap between the world of the conquered and the conquerer allowing us to begin to understand what it would be like to stand on the other side of that divide.

There are very few authors who can write with the same amount of honesty Alexie brings to his work. Some of the stories aren't pleasant, others are hilarious and some are just sad. However all of them are brilliant, multi-faceted gems guaranteed to make you think.

(Article first published as Book Review: Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie on Blogcritics)


February 9, 2013

Book Review: The Theatre Of e. e. cummings Edited by George Frimage


Most people, if they've heard of him at all, will identify the name of e. e. cummings (Edward Estlin) as the American poet who didn't like capital letters. Even in the spelling of his own name he eschewed the normal use of upper case letters. What they might not know about cummings was the body of work he produced aside from poetry. There were his works of prose recounting both his time as a volunteer ambulance driver in France during WW 1, the enormous room, and his time spent in communist Russia in 1931 in the novel Eimi. He was also a painter. In fact he had initially set out to be a painter, travelling to Paris in 1919 to study art. While he eventually focused his energies primarily on writing, he continued to paint for the rest of his life and he published several books of poetry and prose which he provided the illustrations for.

On top of this extensive library of work he also wrote four pieces for the stage; three plays and a treatment for a ballet based on the book Uncle Tom's Cabin. While there have been a number of plays produced based on cumming's poetic works, of his three actual plays, Him, Santa Claus and Anthropos, only the first has ever been staged. While all four works for the stage were each individually published initially, only Him was released in something other than a limited edition. Eventually all four were gathered together and published under the title of Three Plays and a Ballet in 1967. Out of print since 1970, it has now been reissued under the title The Theatre of e. e. cummings by Liveright Press, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company and distributed by Penguin Canada.

In his poetry cummings dealt with themes ranging from the nature of love to social/political issues of his day. While he would put down American consumerism he was also opposed to anything he saw as a threat to what he considered sacrosanct, the individuality of the artist. His experiences with Stalin's form of communism garnered while traveling in Russia were enough to convince him there wouldn't be any room in that system for free thinking. Critics on both the left and the right dismissed his work as politically naive and overly romantic. However, close reading of his poetry shows he, like almost no other American poet, showed a man in love with the ideals upon which his country was founded. While everyone else might be giving lip service to things like the freedom of the individual, cummings celebrated its true meaning.
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It didn't mean a person should be able to do what he wanted at the expense of others. Nor did it mean everybody should desire to amass material goods and personal wealth. You should be free to celebrate the act of living, loving, being and experiencing the world. His poems were chaotic explosions of words which took readers on flights of fancy. They encouraged readers to think outside the box of success being measured by the accumulation of wealth. In the four works for stage in this volume not only are these themes expressed, you will see how throughout the span of his writing life cummings continued to experiment with language and the ways it could be used for communication.

Him, the earliest piece written in 1927, is a mixture of realism and absurdity. There are two central characters, the playwright Him and his mistress Me. Interspersed between their scenes together are, we are led to believe, scenes from the play Him is currently struggling to write. However the various scenes we are presented with seem to have no relationship with each other. They range from an elaborately staged musical number based on the folk song "Frankie and Johnny" to absurdist skits with a variety of characters. At various points characters who appeared in earlier scenes show up again, but are loosely disguised as someone else. It's clear cummings wants the audience to know this is still the same character pretending to be someone else.

The action between Him and Me takes place over what is apparently a number of years and follows the ups and downs of their relationship. His struggles with the creation of his art run concurrent with their struggles with love. While he doesn't appear to have any problems expressing his passion for his art, he always resorts to absurdities and playacting when it comes to expressing how he feels about Me. As a result the play contains some of the most beautiful and stirring language concerning the creation of art and the nature of love you'll ever read. ..."And always I'm repeating a simple and dark and little formula...always myself mutters and remutters a trivial colourless microscopic idiom - I breathe, and I swing; and I whisper: "An artist, a man, a failure, MUST PROCEED". (The Theatre of e. e. cummings (HIM) Liveright Press 2013 New York p.12)

Both Anthropos (1930) and Santa Claus (1946) are more in the line of social commentary and satire. Unlike Him both are quite short and focus on a single theme. In the first cummings uses cave men like beings, he calls them infrahumans, to comment on the role of art in society. For while three infrahumans are trying to come up with slogan to motivate their fellows one is busy creating a cave drawing depicting their life. While they eventually decide on evolution as their slogan, their means of devising it reduces it to something meaningless so it becomes just another cliche.
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In Santa Claus cummings has created a commentary on what he sees as the great imbalance in the world. We put great store in science and knowledge, but love is given short shrift. The character of Santa Claus, wandering alone and bereft, encounters Death. Death convinces him happiness can be found through Science and Knowledge. However, it's not until Santa Claus is reunited with his long lost wife and daughter, and by extension, love, he finds happiness. Subtitled "A Morality Tale", this short play is a little simplistic, but this does nothing do depreciate the author's point. Science might be able to explain things, but it can't teach us to appreciate something for its beauty. Its about finding a balance between the mind and the heart in order to fully appreciate the world.

The final piece in this book is probably the most difficult, the outline for a ballet based on Harriet Beatrice Stowe's book Uncle Tom called simply Tom. cummings divides the story into four episodes with each one depicting an important part of the book. However, instead of merely describing the action he gives detailed descriptions of the type of movements the dancers should be performing and the emotions that motivate them "George, right-frontstage,whirlleaps inward, catching Eliza when she is about to fall - files of dogmen swoop from left- and right-midstage convergingly outward - enter, right-and left-backstage, a group of men and group of women (the Friends or Quakers) all dressed in grey; all holding bibles over their hearts" (The Theatre of e.e.cummings -Tom Liveright Press New York 2013 p. 170)

Anyone familiar with cummings' poetry will recognize the manner in which he manipulates language in order to allow it to express more then it was originally intended. The above excerpt from Tom is a mild example of how he employed those techniques in this instance to both give instructions to potential dancers and choreographers and to heighten the experience for those simply reading the piece. In fact, one of the amazing things about reading Tom is how cummings creates the sensations of dance with just his words. His words actually convey movement and have a fluidity that catches the grace and expressiveness of dance.

The Theatre Of e. e. cummings sees the return to print of four pieces in the e. e. cummings' canon that have been unavailable for far too long. Fans of his poetry will appreciate how he manages to incorporate both his sense of the absurd and his appreciation for the beauty of the world around him into his prose. Plays like Him show not only was cummings breaking new ground in poetry with his experiments with language, but the conventions of the theatre as well. Further proof, if any were necessary, that he was the first great modernist American writer.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Theatre of e. e. cummings Edited by George Firmage on Blogcritics.)



February 3, 2013

Book Review: The Golden Door Book One Of The Doors Trilogy by Emily Rodda


When writing for a younger audience, the Young Adult or teen reader, an author has to find the perfect balance between going over his or her audience's head and appearing to talk down to them. What made books like J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series such a success was her ability to create characters who were not only believable but whom her readers could identify with. As our perceptions of the world she created were shaped by Harry's reactions any false notes in her characterization would have shattered the illusion of reality she had created. If a reader can believe in and identify with the character who we see the world through he or she will accept just about any reality they find themselves transported into.

Australian author Emily Rodda has obviously taken that lesson to heart judging by her most recent release in North America The Golden Door, the first book in her The Three Doors trilogy, published by Puffin Books and imprint of Penguin Canada. Following in the footsteps of generations of storytellers before her Rodda's story sends a hero out into the unknown on a quest. However, with the careful injection of her own ingredients, she manages to put a new spin on the ages old format.

Young Rye lives with his mother Lisbeth and two elder brothers Dirk and Sholto in the walled city of Weld on the island of Dorne. According to the city's legends it had been founded over a thousand years ago by a sorcerer Dann. Seeking a place of peace and refuge for him and his followers he had led his people into the secret centre of the island, surrounded by the mysterious Fell Zone, and with his magic raised a towering wall within which Weld nestled safe from the fierce creatures and barbarians that plagued the island. Generations later the city is ruled by a Warden, a direct descendant of Dann's original appointed heir.

As the years have passed the magic supposedly used to create The Wall (the citizens of Weld refer to it with a reverence akin to the way others talk about a god or a hero) has waned. Until recently this hasn't been a problem. So grateful are they for their supposed safety the people of Weld have willingly obeyed all the strictures imposed on them by the Wardens down through the years. Notices placed around the city in the Warden's name remind people to dress warmly in the cold months, tell children to be careful not to play too roughly in case they hurt one another and generally dictate every aspect of their lives.
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However all that began to change five years ago when the skimmers first appeared. Fell creatures from the sky with an appetite for warm flesh and blood, the skimmers fly over The Wall in the warm season and attack anything they find out in the open. As they are attracted by light, sound and the smell of flesh summer nights see the citizens of Weld locking themselves up into their houses. Sitting in the dark, eating cold meals and carrying on conversations in whispers they listen to the sound of leathery wings flying overhead. Even leaving a shutter over a window open a crack could be enough for the skimmers. Many a morning houses have been found cracked open like eggs and their inhabitants slaughtered.

As the attacks have grown fiercer and the measures taken by the Warden to protect the people have failed, disquiet begins to grown among Weld's citizens. Both Rye's older brothers, big burly brave Dirk and clever Sholto, the apprentice healer, have given voice to their frustration. So when the Warden calls for volunteers to leave Weld and search for the source of the skimmers its no surprise that both end up leaving as they each in turn come of age. When they both fail to return Rye obsesses over their fate. For although the Warden declares them dead after they have each been gone a year, Rye believes they are both still alive.

When disaster strikes Rye and his mother, skimmers destroy their only means of livelihood, they are forced to seek shelter in Warden's Keep, Rye's decision to lie about his age and volunteer to leave Weld is only inevitable. How though does one leave the city? For one of the oddities of Weld is there is no visible gate allowing exit or entrance. Hence the title of the series. For secreted well beneath the Keep lies a secret chamber containing three doors. Made of gold, silver and wood each of the doors leads to a different destination in the outer world.
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While Rye's first instinct is to pick the wooden door, his quest isn't to find the skimmers like everybody else. No, he is determined to find his two brothers and bring them back alive. Knowing his brothers as well as he does he realizes brave Dirk will have chosen the door of gold and Sholto the silver. Determined to bring his older brother back he's just about to leave through the gold door when he's interrupted. A girl his age climbs out of the fireplace in the secret chamber and demands he take her with him. He only gives in when she threatens to tell the Warden he's underage. So Rye and his unwanted companion, Sonia, step through the gold door into another world.

While its through the door Rye and Sonia's quest begins, they are also presented with another mystery which Rodda's establishment of their life within Weld set up. Growing up Rye was taught Weld and its Wall were the centre of their universe. But once out in the world he soon discovers its merely one, insignificant, part of something much larger. Things aren't as cut and dried as he'd been taught. While he goes about completing his tasks - finding his brother Dirk and rescuing him - as readers we feel his amazement at the size and diversity of the world beyond the shelter of his city.

While Rye himself is too preoccupied with his quest to begin the process of questioning what he has been taught, we're left no doubt that seeds of disquiet have been planted. Rodda is too smart a story teller to spell these things out for us, but from his reactions to what he sees and the things that happen to him Rye's world view is being shaken. As readers we begin to wonder about the real reasons behind the creation of Weld, its impenetrable wall and the amount of control exerted over its inhabitants by the Warden. Was The Wall created to keep the rest of the world at bay or to keep Weld's citizens in?

At first glance the characters of Rye's older brothers seem to be less real people and more types. However, as the story develops we realize this is because Rodda has done such a good job of telling the story from Rye's point of view. Until he understands the world more a younger brother sees his elders only in terms of their dominant characteristic and not as complete humans. As Rye's horizons expand with his travelling beyond Weld he comes to understand there's more to both himself and his brothers. He's no longer merely the younger brother who must be looked after and worried about.

With The Golden Door Rodda has created the beginnings of what has the potential to be a fascinating multi-layered adventure. Not only will Rye's quest to find his brothers and deliver Weld from skimmer attacks continue, there is also the mystery of Weld's creation and the nature of the world its located in to solve. Of course there's also the question of Sonia and Rye's friendship. While they started off in adversity, they quickly came to trust each other and gradually earned each other's respect and friendship. It will be interesting to see how both their characters and their relationship develop over the course of the trilogy.

All in all this is a very promising start. It's not often you find a Young Adult fantasy series which does more than recount the adventures of its heroes. Without being didactic or obvious Rodda raises some fairly sophisticated and pertinent social issues. In these days of heightened security we are being asked to surrender various rights in the name of safety. In Weld we see that carried to an extreme, with a ruler trying to dictate everything about how its people live for their own good. Isolation from the world around you might keep you safe, but at what cost? It will be very interesting to see what Rodda does with these themes while continuing to tell her story.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Golden Door Book One of The Doors Trilogy by Emily Rodda on Blogcritics)

January 5, 2013

Book Review: (Poetry) The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf by Bruce Kauffman


The great American poet e. e. cummings said "Poetry happens to be an art". If you look up happens in the dictionary you'll find when used as a verb, as in this case, it means something that ensues as an effect or result of an action or an event. However, when used in the phrase "as it happens" it can also mean "as a matter of fact". cummings wasn't one to use words idly, he could have said "poetry is an art", but he chose not to in order to say something about the nature of poetry. As the latter definition says much the same thing as the simple "is an art" statement, I think he was leaning towards the first definition. Poetry occurs, and it is an art.

However poetry doesn't just happen to be art by default. There has been plenty of verse, blank or otherwise, put down on paper no one would consider art. Heck, there's plenty of stuff fitting that description I wouldn't dignify with the name poetry, or its authors as poets, let alone art. Poetry as art only occurs as a result of the actions of a poet of singular abilities. Kingston Ontario, Canada resident Bruce Kauffman's new book of poetry, published by Hidden Brook Press, The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf, happens to be the work of such a poet.

The creation of poetry is akin to walking a tightrope. Words are shaped with the intent of stimulating the reader's intellect in such a way they create an emotional resonance within them. If the perfect balance between brain and heart aren't maintained readers either end up feeling manipulated or nothing at all. One of the first things you'll notice upon reading any of Kauffman's poetry is how he never slips to either side. Not once do you feel like you're being pushed, or even nudged, to feel anything. Instead, as you read you find yourself walking in step with him down whatever path he's exploring, but being given the freedom to experience it for yourself. He might point out the landmarks he thinks are important, but he leaves you free to react to them as you wish.
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One of the reasons Kauffman is such a good guide is his ability to bring the world of each poem to life. Instead of simply reading the words on the page visuals are evoked in your mind. However, unlike a work of fiction where the visuals you're inspired to create establish the physical environment a work takes place in, in this case they establish an emotional landscape. Using imagery taken from the natural world he is able create pictures in our heads which accentuate the emotional content of the poem. In the poem "Reading", describing listening to an author read, Kauffman gives us the following image, "her words/with the wings/of raven/flew into the twilight/and back through/the night/hung in the air/like a snowflake/in autumn/then turned into angels/as her voice/cleared the sky"

If you've ever been to a reading you'll know how at times you can enter an almost trance like state listening to an author recite his or her work. Words really do seem to fly across the room towards you and you attempt to catch them, and their meanings with your mind. Like an early snowfall the words are beautiful as they float down to earth but it won't be long before they vanish. Kauffman was also very deliberate in his choice of a raven in this piece. In some Native American traditions Raven is the creator of life. In Kauffman's preface to the book he talks about how a certain reading series he attended served to inspire his poetry and provided the impetus for him to start writing again. Describing the words as taking flight with the wings of a raven suggests both something of the creative energy residing in them and the urge to create they inspired.

In their attempts at creating atmosphere I've noticed poets will use words in one of two very distinct methods. There are those who wash words over reader in waves. In some ways the sound of the language employed is as almost as important as the word's actual meaning in conveying the emotional intent of the poem. Like the tide there is an ebb and flow to this type of work and the words eventually peak and in theory carry the reader along on their crest. While there is a certain appeal to this kind of work I find those poets who are able to communicate emotion through the careful selection of just the right word far more effective.

Whereas the former seems to be hoping if they say enough they will eventually have an impact on their audience, the latter shows a thoughtfulness that suggests an appreciation for the power of language and the artistry required to employ it effectively. Poetry is an example of a case where less is definitely more. If you had any doubts about this reading Kauffman's collection will quickly assuage them as you see how he is able to say so much with so little.
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Look at the lines quoted from "Reading" again and how much he has managed to convey. He has managed to describe what it's like sitting in an audience at a reading, the effect the words had on him personally, and comment on the power of the poet's writing. Each word has been carefully selected for what it communicates to the reader either directly or through suggestion. At the same time there is an effortlessness to their flow making it seem like the lines occurred to the poet spontaneously while sitting in the audience. Kauffman may very well have spent hours agonizing over his word choice, but you can't tell by reading them.

Poetry, like abstract art, jazz and classical music relies on the artist's ability to communicate emotions and ideas without spelling them out. The visual artist uses colour and shape, a composer uses sound and tempo and the poet words and how they appear on the page in order to convey their individual messages. Maybe I'm prejudiced but I think the poet's task is by far the hardest. For while colour and sound can make a direct appeal to emotions words must be processed rationally in order for us to feel anything.

Therefore the poet must not only find the words to express what he wants to say, but ones which will have the greatest chance of passing her message along to as many people as possible. If what you have to say is important enough for you to endure the struggle of putting it down on paper, you are going to want as many as possible to understand what you're saying. While Kauffman's poetry is by no means easy read, it's also not obscure or incomprehensible. In each poem, readers will find their own portal leading into the heart of the subject which, in turn, will open a door to their own hearts.

Kauffmans's The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf will be available as of January 11 2013. (If you're in Kingston Ontario on that day go to the Grad Club, 162 Barrie St for the book launch starting at 8:00pm). You can obtain a copy of the book by ordering from your local book store or through various Amazon sites world wide in either hard copy or e-book. Poetry of this quality doesn't just happen, its the work of a gifted writer and artist. Even if you wouldn't normally be drawn to buying a book of poems, do yourself a favour, take a chance and read this collection and discover how words can be used to move us just as readily as music and painting.

(Article first published as Book Review: (Poetry): The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf by Bruce Kauffman on Blogcritics.)

December 26, 2012

My Ten Favourite Reads Of 2012


As another year winds down we folk who review things bring out our lists of those things we deem the best of the year gone by. Realistically these lists are of no real value to anyone as they're incredibly subjective and reflect the views of the person writing them and nothing more. However, they're fun to put together and a good way of reminding yourself there were somethings of quality released along with the dross.

For all the claims people make about traditional publishing being in trouble or a thing of the past, there were a number of quality books released from various houses. While the news of the proposed merger between Random House and Penguin Books generated more doom and gloom predictions regarding the traditional book industry, authors are still writing and presses are still printing. Unlike previous years where I was hard pressed to find enough books to fill a top ten I could easily have filled 15 places. Oh and none of the books were self-published.

Of the books I read published in 2012 the following were the ones to leave the strongest impression. Some are from big publishers while others from small presses but no matter who published them they all made my life more interesting. For all the modern technology at our disposal and the ever increasing options available for amusing ourselves, I'm still happiest curling up with a great story. Nothing anybody's invented yet comes close to stimulating the imagination or taking you out of yourself for hours on end. You don't need any special tools or appliances to experience a book - just your mind, enough light to read by and you're off.

William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an by Michael Muhammad Knight. Continues the author's examination of the various manifestations of Islam in America. In this book he looks at those members of the Beat movement of the 1950s who claim to have embraced Islam and tries to find ways in which he can relate to them. Another fine work of scholarly introspection on the nature of faith and religion and the history of Islam in America.

Tough Shit: Life Lessons From A Fat Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith. Smith is irreverent, rude, crude and probably offensive to any number of people. However, he also has more to intelligent things to say about the nature of art and what it takes to be an artist than any of his contemporaries. Scatological and brilliant in equal measures.

Throne Of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. For those who are tired of lily white fantasy heroes and swarthy villains battling in worlds based on Western myths this book will be a wonderful tonic. A great story filled with wonderful characters set in a world filled with djinn and other beings from Middle Eastern/Northern Africa mythology. First book in what promises to be a great series

The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity Edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray. A wonderful anthology of quirky, sometimes scary and often funny tales about how the fae are getting by in the modern world. Whether a transgendered werewolf living in the East Village in New York City or the Unseelie Court running a chain of discount department stores (putting a glamour on their "greeters" so they can get through a shift without killing anyone) they're doing their best to blend but not always with the greatest of success.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North America by Thomas King. It's the land stupid. Not really a history of Native people, more a history of what's happened since Europeans came to North America. They wanted land and had to figure out what to do about all those people who were already inconveniently living on it. King recounts the various methods used to separate the indigenous population of North America from their land. From massacres to removal the policies may have changed over the years, but the goal still remains the same today - get those Indians off the land they aren't putting to "proper" use.

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore. The art world will never be the same. One of Moore's best books in years is set in Paris during the late 19th century. The impressionist movement is taking the art world by storm, and its various artists are being targeted by the mysterious colour man and his beautiful accomplice. This wonderfully wise and comic tale is part mystery and part exploration of the nature of art. Populated by a mixture of fictional and some colourful characters from art history Moore's latest shows why he is one of best comic writers of his generation.

Forge Of Darkness by Steven Erikson. What do you do for an encore after writing a brilliant ten book epic fantasy series? Why start writing a new series set in the first one's pre-history of course. After bringing The Malazan Book Of The Fallen to a successful conclusion, Erikson hasn't wasted any time in finding new aspects of the universe he co-created to life. Equal parts fascinating and frightening, readers of the previous series will run into some familiar characters, but in totally new circumstances as he delves into the history of the enigmatic Tiste Andi, worshippers of Mother Dark. Another brilliant piece of world building from this master story teller - Erikson is the gold standard against which all fantasy work should be measured against in the future.

Except The Queen by Mydori Snyder and Jane Yolen. The number of women writing fantasy seems to be few and far between these days. (I don't count the romance novels with vampires and werewolves they call paranormal romance as fantasy - Harlequin with fangs doesn't fantasy make) Mydori Snyder and Jane Yolen have always been two of the best and this latest co-authored offering shows why. Not only do they have splendid imaginations they can also weave a wonderful web mixing the exotic and the mundane. Their talents are on full display here as they tear the fabric between our world and fairy allowing them to intermingle with startling results.

Blood and Bone by Ian C Esslemont. While Steven Erikson delves into the past, Ian Esslemont continues to recount events occurring during the time of the Malazan Empire in the world they created together. Here Esslemont takes us to a part of the world which up until now has been shrouded in mystery. A dark and dangerous continent ruled by strange magic and haunted by a cataclysmic past is the sight of a convergence of a variety of forces. Will history repeat itself or can those involved manage to find what they're looking for without destroying themselves and the continent in the process. A great adventure filled with characters who will both frighten and delight you.

The Art Book: New Edition by Various Editors. One of the great pities about North American society is how we've managed to make the fine arts inaccessible to the majority of the population. What great works of art we have are stashed away in galleries which seem more designed to intimidate than welcome most people. Even when collected into books they are out of most people's reach due to cost. The Art Book: New Edition not only provides readers with the chance to see quality reproductions of great works of art at a remarkably affordable price, it does so in a far less intimidating manner than any other collection of its kind. While art historians might be put off by the work being arranged in alphabetical order according to artist's name, the rest of us can revel in the joy of seeing examples of modern and medieval art side by side. With each piece accompanied by a short explanatory note explaining the significance of the work, this book serves as a great introduction to the wonders of the visual arts.

(Article first published as My Ten Favorite Reads Of 2012 on Blogcritics.)

December 23, 2012

Book Review: With Robert Lowell and His Circle by Kathleen Spivack


I've written the occasional poem, but under no circumstances would I ever consider myself a poet. There's a world of difference between writing a poem and being a poet. However, trying to articulate exactly what separates poets from the rest of us, from other writers even, is not the easiest thing in the world either. In her latest book, With Robert Lowell and His Circle, published by the University Press of New England (UPNE), poet and author Kathleen Spivack, has managed to pull the veil back on this mystery through her look back on her years with the great 20th century American poet Robert Lowell.

In 1959 Spivack received a bursary to study with Lowell in Boston in lieu of her senior year at university. Through the process of recounting her days as first his student and then friend and confidant she not only paints a picture of this great, and greatly disturbed artist, but introduces us to the other brilliant minds she came in contact with as a result of her relationship with Lowell. From her fellow classmates in that first year's seminar, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, to other lessor known but equally gifted artists, each of them are lovingly remembered as both individuals and as poets.

Initially we see these great figures through the eyes of the nervous and insecure student who finds herself alone in a strange and cold city. Boston, Harvard University, Boston University and New England are characters of equal, if not greater, significance than many of the individuals she meets. Intimidating, cold, rigidly bound by its conservative class structure and rabidly misogynist attitudes (as late as the 1980s Harvard University would boast it would rather face law suits than give equal opportunities to women) the atmosphere wasn't one guaranteed to set a young woman at ease. When combined with showing up in Boston only to find her teacher "unavailable" due to having suffered a nervous breakdown, it didn't make for a very auspicious start to her dreams of being a poet.
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Even when classes finally start she finds herself at sea. Lowell isn't what any of us would call a typical teacher. Our initial impression is of someone who is as far removed from reality as we can imagine. He obsesses about the meaning of a single line in a poem asking "What does it mean" over and over again. However it appears he's holding a conversation with himself as almost none of his students dare to interject. He also appears to be incredibly judgemental, asking whether some poet is "major or minor" with the answer being based on criteria nobody else is quite able to fathom. Imagine being a young and almost painfully shy student even daring to bring her own work to this class and having it put through this type of analyses in front of you.

However, Lowell, for all his eccentricities, does take her in hand and introduces her to those he thinks will be of help to her. In this manner Spivack is brought into the circle of poets who are both his students and associates. Through her meetings with Sexton, Plath and other female poets we are introduced to the horrors societal pressure can wrack upon a creative woman. The picture Spivack draws makes it clear how much the New England disdain, and especially Harvard University's, for women led to their downfall.Trying to conform to the dutiful housewife image expected of them by the society they found themselves in must have been bad enough. Compounding this was the indignity of seeing men of no greater talent receiving the recognition denied them through publication and acceptance. This must have been an incredibly bitter pill for them to swallow. Maybe both Plath and Sexton would have taken their own lives in the end anyway - Sexton seems to have had a fascination with suicide - but the circumstances they found themselves in couldn't have helped.

Of course it wasn't just the women who suffered. As we watch Spivack get to know Lowell over the course of the years, from 1959 until his death in 1977 from a sudden heart attack, we learn the breakdown he was suffering from when she first arrived wasn't an isolated incident. A manic-depressive, Lowell was in and out of institutions for most of the time Spivack knew him. Learning to recognize the symptoms of an approaching breakdown she would deliberately start to distance herself from him when they started to manifest. His behaviour, erratic at the best of times, during these build ups made him unbearable for her to be around. Ironically once he was committed, her house was one of the few places considered safe enough for him to visit on day release.

If Lowell was obsessive in his analysis of others work, it was nothing compared to the rigours he subjected his own writing. Spivack tells of knowing of upwards of 200 drafts existing in the case of certain poems. Even after a poem's publication Lowell would continue with his revisions, searching for the absolutely perfect word and line. Yet it wasn't necessarily the search for perfection that was so harmful. Like his contemporaries among the women poets the need to conform to society's expectations of gender played havoc on Lowell and other male poets of Spivack's acquaintance. Men were supposed to be hard drinking, stoical and above all unemotional beings who followed manly pursuits like hunting and definitely didn't do anything so effete as become poets.

While the men might have had the support of the academic establishment and those behind the scene in the literary world, they were still expected to be "men". Is it any wonder Alan Ginsberg wrote "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness" in his great poem Howl? Men and women poets, people with minds beautifully tuned to the rhythms of the universe like nobody else, were slowly driven mad by having live almost dual lives. Those among them who were homosexual suffered even more, but it was just as bad for the straights as well. Poets were all in the closet as they were forced to hide sensitive natures or steal seconds in which to write the poetry that allowed them feel alive.
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Spivack was blessed, and is wonderfully honest about admitting this, with being in the right place at the right time. Initially I was rather disconcerted by the fact the book seemed more autobiographical than about those whom the title suggests its about. However, as the book progresses and we see how the lives of these amazing poets come to interweave with her own I began to appreciate her decision to take this approach. Many of the figures in this book are known to us only through poems in anthologies or through dry academic biographies. Meeting them through Spivack's memories not only lifts them out of the books and off the page, it turns them into people of flesh and blood.

It also has the wonderful effect of breathing life into their poetry. After reading about the sweat and blood they would pour into each of their creations I want to go back and read their work again. For when I do, they won't just be words on a page anymore written by some anonymous person whom I'm supposed to admire because history tells me to, they'll be poems by a real person. Somebody whose kitchen I've sat in, who I listened to as they agonized over whether a line or even a word was right and who laughed and cried like any of us, but then had the bravery to attempt to put those feelings down on paper.

Spivack does the extraordinary of making the poets in her book both ordinary and special at the same time. Ordinary, in the fact they are her friends whom she sees on a regular basis during the 1960s and 1970s, and special for the legacy of brilliance they have left for us. Lowell, who mentored Spivack and other writers, suffered and struggled to overcome the antipathy the world around them had towards his passion not only managed to produce works of genius but take others in hand and help them fulfill their potential.

Spviack's portrayal of Lowell in particular, but the others as well, is both heartfelt and honest. Unlike an "official biographer" who is boringly objective in their depictions, she has no qualms about letting her affection for her subjects shine through or letting us know how much she admired somebody. However, she's not blind to their faults either and is unstinting in her honesty when listing them. At the same time she doesn't try to hide the fact these are her impressions of these people. She does give us indications of other people's impressions of them, Lowell especially, by including quotes from her contemporaries at the end of almost every chapter which address an aspect of their character.

While this book is by no means a definitive study of the work and lives of the poets you'll meet within its pages, it provides an even far more valuable service. It allows us the chance to look behind their reputations and the myths that have grown up around them to see them as the complex and interesting people they were. This book is probably the best introduction to the world of American poetry in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s you're liable to read.

Article first published as Book Review: With Robert Lowell and His Circle by Kathleen Spivack on Blogcritics.)

December 21, 2012

Book Review: Blood and Bone by Ian C Esslemont


It's not very often you have the opportunity to read the same story told from two different perspectives. Occasionally we will see the same events through the eyes of two separate characters, but how often do we have a chance to read a whole series of books which run concurrent to another series? Well this is exactly what Steven Erikson and Ian C Esslemont have been attempting to do with their epic fantasy series set in the mythical world of The Malazan Empire.

Erickson began the process with his ten book sequence The Malazan Book Of The Fallen, but Esslemont is quickly catching up with the publication of his 5th book set in the same world, Blood and Bone, from Random House Canada. As the books have been published over the years it's become obvious the two men are not just telling the story of an Empire, but recounting the history of a world, if not a universe. While there are occasions when the authors' work intersect and characters first met in one's work show up the other's, each of them are responsible for recounting different aspects of the history. At times events in one book are concurrent with those of the other series while on other occasions they take place at different times in the history.

While Erikson's books have predominately centred around action within the Empire, Esslemont switches back and forth between the Empire and characters and locations only briefly mentioned in the other series. As with a previous book Blood and Bone features members of an elite fighting force who have taken a vow of eternal opposition to the Empire. The Avowed of the Crimson Guard, who are nominally a mercenary army, have gained immortality with their vow to follow their leader Prince K'azz Davore until the Empire has been overcome. However, dissension within the company has caused a split leading to around fifty warriors to be disavowed by the Prince for betraying the spirit of their oath. Unfortunately merely disavowing them turns out to be insufficient, and the book opens with K'azz being forced to gather his forces and head out to bring the renegade members of his troop to heel.
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Unbeknown to the Guard the continent of Jacuruku where they are heading has become a lodestone for several powers who will all converge upon its shores simultaneously. Long ago the entire continent was under the rule of one so terrible a group of sorcerers known as the Thaumaturgs attempted to depose him by bringing a god from another universe down upon his head. Unfortunately all they succeeded in doing was killing themselves in the resulting conflagration, scattering pieces of the god all over the world, pissing their former ruler off and leaving the world vulnerable to the presence of a very angry and crippled alien god. Although his power was somewhat curtailed by various powers, the Crippled God has still managed to exert considerable influence in the world.

While Erikson recounted how the Crippled God's story was resolved, inBlood and Bone Esslemont focuses on how some parts of the world are still dealing with the repercussions of his landing. After the fall Jacuruku gradually came back. While the descendants of the Thaumaturgs who caused the original destruction have carved out a kingdom they rule by means of terror and magic, a huge swath of the continent is covered by jungle ruled by the goddess like figure of Ardata - also known as Queen of The Witches. While expeditions into her jungle have never been successful - few who set out have ever returned alive, the Thaumaturgs have decided to send an army against her.

An ungainly beast which would be almost impossible to move under ideal conditions, the idea of trying to take an army and the thousands of bearers required to carry supplies through the jungle seems to be madness of the first degree. Ardata need not send out troops to defend her borders as the jungle itself appears to be sufficient to overcome any invaders. However, they aren't the only invasion force heading into her heartland. A shard of The Crippled God buried near her land has attracted quite a bit of attention. The disavowed of the Crimson Guard have been sent by the Crippled God to try and recover this piece of himself in exchange for his patronage and protection. However, power attracts power, and the extremely powerful sorceress, Lady Spite, has hired a mercenary company made up of ex-Malazan marines and magicians to help her secure the same shard.

When the marines are stranded on the continent they are forced to attempt to cross through Ardata's territory. Having recovered the shard of the Crippled God, at the cost of losing their employer temporarily, they have become a lodestone for other beings of power. So not only are they forced to deal with the jungle's dangers, they also have to worry about what this piece of a god they are carrying around could call down upon them. While this struggle is being played out, a mysterious Warlord has landed on another coast with a mercenary force. He manages to unite the fractious desert warriors of the continent into an army and is now leading them in an invasion of the Taumaturg kingdom.
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If that sounds like way too many plot lines to keep track of, and that's not even all of them, you would be right if they were in the hands of a lessor author. Not only is Esslemont able to keep his hands firmly upon the reins of all the action taking place and tie them all together quite nicely, he also manages to bring the environment they take place in to life with remarkable vividness. Part dream world, part claustrophobic jungle and part nightmare we follow each party's progress through one of the most inhospitable habitats you've ever encountered. Even more impressive is what we learn about the various characters and their cultures from the way they interact with this environment.

It might sound odd to say this, but Esslemont also manages to deal with all these social and personal examinations without ever taking himself or the circumstances too seriously. Not that he turns the experiences his characters undergo into a joke, but the story never becomes bogged down in needless naval gazing on the part of either himself or the characters. After all this is a fantasy novel, not some 19th century naturalistic examination of the human condition. So while you can make the obvious comparison with Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, with its description of a journey into a land where the rules of civilization as we know them have vanished, there's one major difference.

For instead of depicting his characters as having descended into some uncivilized dark pit, Esslemont makes it clear a social structure governed by rules of behaviour still exists, they're just not the ones his characters are used to. Those who stubbornly refuse to adopt suffer while those who are willing to accept change have an easier time of it. Ironically, while the struggles of these characters seem loom huge in both our's and their eyes, events in the world beyond this small continent end up making most of their voyages irrelevant. However, this in no ways diminishes the book, as Esslemont has done such a fine job of taking us on each journey the lack of any finite conclusion is irrelevant.

Blood and Bone is the latest chapter of the magnificent epic sequence set in the universe created by Esslemont and Erikson. Somehow or other they have done the seemingly impossible of finding ways of fleshing out the world and introducing new and exciting ingredients and characters with each book. Esslemont continues to show he's every bit as imaginative and literate as Erikson. The ability to combine the fantastic with literary elegance is something I've come to take for granted with the writing of both authors, yet each time it catches me by surprise and takes my breath away. There really are no other books quite like them.

(Article first published as Book Review: Blood and Bone by Ian C Esslemont on Blogcritics.)

December 16, 2012

Book Review: House Of Cash: The Legacies Of My Father, Johnny Cash by John Carter Cash


As the only child of the marriage between two music icons, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash John Carter Cash grew up in what must have been a rarified atmosphere. When your parent's house guests range from Billy Graham to Bono and you spend much of your early childhood on the road it's fair to say that your upbringing isn't going to be what anyone would call normal. However, your parents are still your parents no matter who they are, and you see them differently from the way anyone else does. Seeing them before they have their morning coffee or at home out of the spotlight gives you a far different perspective.

Since Cash's death in September 2003, only four months after his wife, Carter Cash has been combing through the family archives. As the release of four compilations of previously unreleased Cash material in the form of multi-disc sets through the Legacy label show he has proven to be a careful and meticulous caretaker of his parent's memory. The musical treasures he has unearthed have reminded the world of not only the diversity of Cash's musical interests but the depth and breadth of his world view.

Now in an attempt to shine a light on the man he knew as his father, Carter Cash has opened the family vault a little wider. In a new book, House Of Cash: The Legacies Of My Father, Johnny Cash, published by Insight Editions, he has combined his memories of his father with an intriguing collection of Cash's personal papers and photographs to bring the man behind the myth to life.
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You might wonder what there left to tell about Cash's life. What with him having written two autobiographies, a movie having been made about his early life and courtship of June Carter and him always being so open about his struggles with addictions and the other demons in his life it's hard to imagine there's anything left to add to the story. If you're reading the book in the hopes of finding some startling revelations or unearthing new tidbits about Cash then you will be disappointed. However, this is a son's view of a very public figure, and as such we see the man from a far different perspective than any that's been offered before. In of itself that lends the book a validity it would otherwise lack if it were merely another biography looking to mine already overworked material.

Over the course of the book the picture Carter Cash draws of his father shows that in spite of his complexities, contradictions and celebrity he was still very much the down home country boy. In spite of living in fancy houses and being driven around in a limousine he still would go squirrel hunting and cook them up for supper. On Valentine's Day he might buy his wife fancy jewellery, but he'd also always make her a rough hand made card each year as well. A family shopping list included in the book reads much like any household's, including such staples as white bread, bologna and lard. True that would change latter in life as he and his wife became more health conscious (among the items included in the book are family recipes for among other things the Cash family version of a vegetarian burger) but that doesn't change the fact he seemed to make a special effort to keep his family life as home spun as possible.

Part of that attempt at keeping his family life grounded in the common place was both his and his wife's refusal to become attached to material items. While some might say the trappings of celebrity don't mean much to them, in the Carter Cash household those weren't just words. They would do things like sell their classic Rolls Royce in order to pay for a trip to Israel for their employees and their families. After his wife died, Cash started giving away everything he owned. He had always claimed she was what was most precious to him, and once she was gone nothing else seemed to have much value for him anymore.
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Of course things weren't always idyllic in the Cash family home. In the early 1980s Cash fell back into drug addiction again and Carter Cash tells about fearing his parents would end up divorcing the fights at home were so bad. One of the letters included in the book is a copy of one Cash wrote to his son from the Betty Ford Clinic during this time. He doesn't try to apologize or explain himself to his son. Instead he tells him what his days consist of, including how he attending a lecture on meditation and that's he learning how to meditate. He then goes on to define meditation as the listening half of prayer adding the codicil of "Isn't that neat?"

As you might expect from our public knowledge of Cash and his wife their faith played a very large role in their lives. While they were good friends with Billy Graham and Cash was never shy about stepping up and "testifying" about his beliefs, his son also remembers his father being completely without judgement about other people's beliefs and practices. When his eldest daughter, Rosanne, from his first marriage, was interested in astrology instead of disapproving he told her to read as much as she could and find out all about it. What comes clear in this book is that while Cash might have been a devout Christian he believed in every individual's freedom to find their own way.

No matter how much success Cash achieved musically he continued to remain an outsider and something of a rebel. Without a record contract in the 1990s and looking to record again he was reluctant to work with established Nashville producers. Which was when Rick Rubin walked into his dressing room and said, "Come into the studio with me and make the music you've always wanted to make. Sit in front of the microphone and sing your songs they way you want".

According to Carter Cash nobody had ever offered his father this opportunity before. When one of the resulting recordings, Unchained won the 1996 Grammy award for best country album without any support from Nashville or country music stations Cash and Rubin took out a full page advertisement in music magazines. Featuring the infamous "finger photo" the copy read "American Recordings (Rubin's label) and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville Music Establishment and country radio for your support".

Aside from his own memories of his father, Carter Cash has also solicited others close to his father for their recollections of his dad for inclusion in the book. These include friends of the family, Cash's daughters from his first marriage and friends like Kris Kristofferson and others from the music industry. Each of them comment on Cash's generosity and kindness to both them personally and others. While this was never something Cash spoke about when he was alive, both he and his wife dedicated themselves to helping others as much as they were able. Unlike others who might see these types of acts as photo opportunities, they did these things because they were in a position to do them. From giving a drunk on the street a 100 dollar bill to visiting sick people in the hospital it was all one in the same thing to them.
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The memorabilia included in this book, ranging from copies of everything from song lyrics in Cash's hand writing, examples of his home made Valentines for his wife to samples of his photography and his dabbles in painting and sketching, are more than just curiosities. Each of them, no matter how seemingly trivial, are another little piece in the overall picture that was Johnny Cash. They also add to the highly personal flavour the author has created by telling the story of his father's life as seen through his eyes growing up in The House Of Cash.

From the small boy who see's his father as a giant to be worshipped, the slightly older boy worried about the wonderful world of his father and mother falling apart for reasons he doesn't understand, to the young man and adult who realizes the amazing lessons his father taught him. Each stage in their life together is examined with honesty and while Carter-Cash never lost his respect for his father, he isn't blind to his faults. In fact it says more about Cash than anything else, that in spite of his flaws and the hard times he put them through, his children still can love him unconditionally.

Cash's legacy as a musician has long been established. In his new book about his father's life Carter Cash lets us know more about the man and the parent behind the guitar and out of the limelight. What comes clear is there wasn't really much difference between the two. What we saw on stage, for good and for bad, was Johnny Cash. As it turns out, while there were some hard times, the good won out in the end. As Carter Cash puts it so succinctly in describing his parent's marriage "Their life was not necessarily 'happily ever after', but rather 'happy after all'. Life isn't always easy and isn't always glamourous, but its what you do with what you have that makes it worthwhile. Carter Cash shows us how his father always did his best to make life for both hims and his family worthwhile.

Article first published as Book Review: House Of Cash: The Legacies Of My Father Johnny Cash by John Carter Cash on Blogcritics)

December 9, 2012

Book Review: The Ponderables by Tom Jackson


Almost since we climbed down out of the trees humanity has been trying to define the universe and our place in it. Gradually we developed methods by which we could codify and analyze the information at our disposal in order to formulate answers. At first these took the form of simplistic superstitions based on a myriad of belief systems and myths. However as the years passed and our knowledge grew we developed methods which allowed us to come up with answers based on facts. This in turn created a body of information common to all humanity independent of individual belief systems. It hasn't always been smooth sailing especially when discoveries have flown in the face of accepted wisdom or contradicted the teachings of powerful religious bodies.

For some reason people are more afraid of rational explanations and scientific facts than they are of mysticism and unfounded beliefs. Even today religious fanatics of many faiths not only refuse to accept proven scientific theories, but are insisting their individual beliefs be given equal status in spite of there being no proof as to their validity. One of the reasons they're able to get away with this is the majority of people know almost nothing about the various rational means used to define the universe. For some reason most of us see these areas of study as completely inaccessible and assume they can only be understood by a few people. A new series of books by British science author Tom Jackson, The Ponderables goes a long way towards refuting that sentiment. In fact, judging by the first three volumes; The Elements: An Illustrated History of the Periodic Table, Mathematics: An Illustrated History of Numbers and The Universe: An Illustrated History of Astronomy, this series will not only help demystify science it will remind people of just what an amazing and magical world we live in.
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Each of the three books shows how our awareness and knowledge of its subject matter has developed over the course of human history. However instead of merely recounting dry facts and figures Jackson manages to bring the individuals responsible for some of the world's great scientific breakthroughs to life by not only recounting their discoveries but telling us the story behind them. Divided up into a hundred great milestones in each area's history we are able to witness the growth of awareness and knowledge from the time of ancient Greece to the present day. Each book also comes with a handy dandy 12 page pull out timeline that can be used for quick reference. On the reverse side you'll find twelve pages of information specific to each subject. Seasonal star charts in The Universe, great mathematical enigmas in Mathematics and a chart of elements in their atomic order in The Elements

Aside from talking about the various individuals and their discoveries, each section not only contain illustrations which help to explain their significance, Jackson also includes explanatory notes ensuring readers won't have any trouble understanding what's being discussed. While this is not some simplistic "science made easy" type of book, Jackson has the ability to make the material accessible and interesting. Not being a person with a significant background in the sciences I was pleased to see he doesn't make any assumptions about his reader's knowledge. Yet at the same time not once do you have the feeling that he's talking down to you. It's like having a well educated and personable tour guide through the history of each subject.

Of course it doesn't hurt that he includes such historical events like Hennig Brand (a 17th century German alchemist) being the first on record to discover a new element. Boiling his urine down he watched as it began to glow in the dark and named the resultant powder phosphorus. But it's not just elemental scientists who know how to have fun, mathematicians are no slouches either. The Russian Ladislaus Bortkiewicz developed one of the main tools used in statistics in 1898 when he computed the odds of a Prussian cavalryman being killed when kicked by a horse. Or did you know astronomers have come up with a term for the opposite of The Big Bang which created the universe. They call it the Big Crunch - but don't worry they figure we've got a few billion years until all of matter collapses in on itself.
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Those unfamiliar with the history of science might also be surprised to discover that Astronomy has proven to be one of the most contentious issues down through the ages - at least in the Western world. Starting with Aristotle in ancient Greece it was believed the earth was at the centre of the solar system and everything, including the sun, revolved around us. This fit in nicely with the Catholic Church's view of the world and anybody who disagreed with them ran into all sorts of trouble with the Inquisition. In spite of being able to offer conclusive proof that the earth, and the other known planets revolved around the sun, Galileo Galilei, facing jail time and potential burning at the stake for heresy, was forced to recant his theories. It wasn't until 1992 the Vatican apologized for its mistreatment of Galileo.

Of course that wasn't the first time he had gone against conventional wisdom. There was also the incident with the two canon balls of different sizes which he dropped off a building and observed they both hit the ground at the same time. Up until then accepted doctrine was the larger object would fall faster than the smaller one, but Galileo's simple proof showed how gravity doesn't care about size and exerts the same amount of pull on all objects.

Watching human knowledge grow over the centuries is both fascinating and revealing. For not only do we grow to understand how its a cumulative process, we also realize that most of the information was there for anybody to discover, it was only a matter of observation. As our technology has become more sophisticated so has the equipment we use for making our observations. We've gone from watching the night sky through simple telescopes to high powered observatories to finally the Hubbell telescope in orbit. The observation of particles has graduated from microscopes to electron-microscopes to super conductors.

However, what I find most impressive about Jackson's books is how they manage to convey the wonder and magic of the universe we live in while showing there are rational explanations for all that we see. Knowledge helps us to understand the world around us and in the process deepens our wonder as we realize how special and rare it is. The Ponderables series introduces us to some of the most important people and events over the course of humanity's history who have been responsible for unveiling the world's mysteries. After reading them you can't help but be excited by the magic still waiting to be revealed.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Ponderables by Tom Jackson on Blogcritics.)

November 13, 2012

Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North Americaby Thomas King


That Thomas King is sure one good writer. He writes those funny stories about Indians. Not funny ha-ha, even though sometimes they are that too, but funny that's kind a weird funny. Like his Indians aren't Indians like you know them right. I mean some of them are doctors, some of them are lawyers, some are university professors, some are professional photographers and there's even some who are private detectives on the side. Hardly any of them ride horses or wipe out pioneers or hunt buffalo and they all talk really good English. Weird huh?

Still they're good stories, even though sometimes they're hard to understand. Sometimes he gets things mixed up like the way he has white people cheating his Indian characters or the way the government will try to pull a fast one on Indians by destroying their land with damns. I think he needs to read his history again so he can get his facts straight. Especially now after I read his latest collection of stories published by Random House Canada, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North America
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Whew, that's one long title that one, but the book sure is curious. For he goes on and on about the ways in which white folks have mistreated Indians. First of all there's not much that's funny about this book, that's for sure. Second of all there aren't really any stories in it. When you read it you'll see what I mean about how he needs to read his history books again though, cause the version of events he tells isn't what we've been told in movies or books that we read in school. I'm sure he's not meaning to tell things differently. I mean it's easy to be confused by history as its usually about things that happened a long time ago. But, I wonder how he could have come up with such different versions of events. Or there's other stuff he talks about I'd never read about or seen in a movie.

Okay, maybe that kind of reaction is unfair. However, from New Age bookstores, movies, history texts, memorial plaques and baseball stadiums you'll find Native Americans - or First Nations people as we say in Canada - being misrepresented, stereotyped and sometimes outright lied about. How many reading this aren't going to understand what's wrong with making a team's mascot a Native? You don't have to look very far to hear somebody say "We won didn't we - they should be glad of anything we give them and stop complaining".

King's book deals with the very specific history of what government after government on both sides of the 49th parallel, he doesn't even attempt to talk about the situation in Mexico, have referred to as "The Indian Problem". First it was a problem of what to do with them because they were on land that we wanted for settlers. Then it was the problem of what to do with them when the land we gave them was discovered to have valuable natural resources under them. Now it's a problem of what do to with them period. They didn't have the decency to die out when we tried to kill them and then they had the nerve to reject all the advantages we tried to force on them through residential and boarding schools.

There are those who say Indians should stop living in the past and forget what happened and concentrate on making a bright new future for themselves. Of course most of the ones saying things like that are those who would prefer they not learn the lessons of the past thus leaving themselves open to being dispossessed of what little they have now. King takes a look at this argument and shows why its so disingenuous and dangerous. The problem is, no matter how governments on both sides of the border word their policies, they still have the same goal as the ones implemented two hundred years ago. Instead of trying to figure out how peacefully co-exist with the original inhabitants, everything is still based on eliminating the "Indian Problem".

Instead of trying to kill Indians with bullets or forcing them to assimilate by locking their children up in the equivalent of jails being passed off as schools, governments are now trying to eliminate Indians legally. In both Canada and the United States there is an official government designation that qualifies a person as an Indian. In order to live on a reservation or be considered a member of a band one has to have that official designation. If there were no people with that designation there would be no need for reservations on either side of the border. So, why not just gradually eliminate the designations?

If you think that sounds highly unlikely consider this. King quotes Census figures from both America and Canada which show as of 2006 only about 40% of the Native population in North America are considered legally Indian. He then goes on to outline how both governments are now proposing new legislation, which if enacted, would work towards reducing that number even further and eventually to zero. The long term goal being the complete elimination of anybody who is a member of a band that signed a treaty giving them control over land.
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It's the land stupid. It's always been about the land. Which is why it's so important to look at the history. As King points out you don't even have to go too far back in history to find proof of that. As recently as 2006 real estate developers in Ontario Canada started selling and building a housing development on land that was claimed by the Mohawks of Grand River. It was on land given them by treaty, appropriated by the Ontario Government with the promise of it being returned, and then sold by local town council to developers.

That dispute ended with the government awarding a compensation package of $20 million dollars to, drumbeat please, the people who bought houses, the developers and local businesses for the inconvenience caused by Native people blockading the highway protesting their land being stolen. As for the treaty negotiations in regards to the disputed territory - well they might get around to them sooner or later.

So the easiest way to make sure this problem never happens again is to ensure there is no one around to make any legal claim to the land. Oh sure they're couching the policy in the same old paternalistic language they've always used when talking about Indians. It's good for them. The great White Father in Washington/Ottawa still knows whats best for those childlike savages. Think of how much happier they would be in the real world where they have all the opportunities the rest of us have. So what if they have no education, no capital and no desire to live like that. So what if they think they have some sort of sacred connection to the land. So what if that's not what they want, we know better. Anyway, what are they doing with all that land except letting it go to waste? Give them the opportunity to sell it at fair market value and see how quickly they learn to love our way of life.

Of course when Indians have the nerve to try and buy up land at fair market value, why that's another matter all together. King recounts what happened when a band in Arizona began using some its profits from their casino to buy land around the city of Glendale. Local politicians acted like they feared they would be scalped in their sleep or they were in danger of having flaming arrows shot down their throats because a few hundred acres of land were sold to Indians.

As somebody else said earlier, that King is a good story teller. Here he's not telling stories, he's telling history. A history that's not going to be everyone's liking as it runs contrary to most people's idea of Indians. Unfortunately its far more accurate than any version Hollywood has told them, the one being sold in New Age book stores or that which is offered in text books. While at first you might feel like King is softening the blow somewhat by injecting his dry humour into the proceedings, the more your read the more you realize its the type of laughter that's closer to tears than anything else.

For as King points out the war against Indians isn't over, only the battlefield has changed. Spin doctors have taken the place of generals and uranium tailings and tar sands' waste product the gatling gun and cannon. As far as our governments and business leaders, the ones who see no problem with exploiting and raping the land for everything its worth and not caring what condition they leave it in for those who come after them, Indians are every bit as inconvenient now as they ever were. For in spite of everything we've "done for them" they still insist on trying to retain their own belief systems and defending what few rights they have left to them. They just don't know when they're beaten.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious History Of Native People In North America by Thomas King on Blogcritics.)

November 6, 2012

Book Review: The John Lennon Letters Edited by Hunter Davies


Ever since Paul's Epistles to the Corinthians we've been fascinated with the idea of reading famous people's mail. Perhaps it's our innate voyeurism coming to the fore or the usual obsession with celebrity, but over the years countless books of letters have appeared on the market and found many a willing reader. All kidding aside, some of these have provided fascinating insights into both the character and creative process of many brilliant minds. Reading the collected letters of someone like Virginia Wolfe or the correspondence conducted by Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller is every bit as enthralling as most works of fiction.

A good collection of letters should not only satisfy our idle curiosity about the person who penned them, hopefully it will give us some hitherto unknown insights into their character and what made them tick. However when you're dealing with a figure who was in the public eye as much as John Lennon was and continues to be, you have to wonder what, if anything, new there is to bring to light. Even before he was gunned down in 1980 he had lived most of his adult life in the glare of the spotlight with almost every breath he took recorded and dissected. So, what, I wondered, could The John Lennon Letters, published by Little, Brown and Company, and edited by long time family friend and author of the only authorized biography of The Beatles, Hunter Davies, offer to complement our picture of him?
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Even more pertinent, perhaps, is the question as to whether Lennon even merits this type of treatment? Sure he was a prolific songwriter, sometime poet and never afraid to voice his opinion. However, there's no record of him ever engaging in an exchange of letters a la Miller and Durrell with anyone to think there would be sufficient material out there for a book. In his introduction Davies cedes this point by admitting a great deal of the book's content are not in fact letters from Lennon to anyone. He also admits that many of the letters are in fact a few words scrawled on the back of a postcard or short messages posted in reply to requests for autographs by fans.

Now after having read this introduction I have to admit to being a bit wary of what was to follow. However as the book was okayed by the guardian of all things Lennon, Yoko Ono, I knew it couldn't just be an attempt by the editor to cash in on a famous name. You can say what you like about Ono, but her love for her late husband can't be denied and she would never give her blessing to something without some worth. I was also impressed by the effort Davies had gone to in gathering the material collected here.

For over the years Lennon memorabilia has gone from being collectible to being spectacularly valuable. Many of the seemingly innocuous pieces of paper that ended up on the pages of this book have passed through numerous hands since they were written, and I'm sure there are countless others secreted away in vaults and safety deposit boxes around the world slowly accumulating dust and value. The twists and turns involved with tracking down some of the material reads like an agent following a paper trail in a John Le Carre novel.

Wisely Davies elected to lay out the book in chronological order and divide it up into short digestible segments. From childhood all the way through to his final days in The Dakota apartment complex in New York City the book's 23 parts follow the turbulent path of Lennon's life. Even more important is the fact Davies has to gone to a great deal of effort to place everything in its proper context. So instead of simply reprinting what looks like a child's standard thank you letter to an aunt for Christmas presents, we find out who this aunt was, what she meant to Lennon and what the letter signified about his relationship with Mimi, the aunt who raised him.
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While there has been lots made of the fact that Lennon was raised by his aunt, the various letters to cousins and other relatives he wrote over the years reveal the unhealthy influence this woman had on him. While Lennon almost never says a word against her things he lets slip give a picture of a woman who belittled him and attacked his sense of self worth his whole life. One of her constant refrains was he "got lucky" implying as Lennon says in a letter written in 1975 to his cousin Liela "i.e. I have no talent". We also learn Mimi went out of her way to run down both Julia (Lennon's mother) and his father Freddie. When John did manage to reconnect with his father he hid the fact from Mimi for as long as possible.

Not all of his relationships with his family were so negative, but there seems to have been a great deal of underlying tension. As he says in another letter to Liela "Stranger still that my (our) family should always (nowadays) seee mee in terms of $ and c....tho before I guess they saw me in terms of "problem child"... or an orphan of sorts. TO ME....I'LL ALWAYS BE.....ME" (misspellings and punctuation copied from original letter). From his letters and other references his fondest family memories were of an aunt and uncle in Scotland. He makes numerous references to missing Scotland and will sometimes even attempt to write in a Scotts "accent".

Of course anyone reading this is going to want to know what the book reveals about his relationship with his fellow Beatles (If you don't know their names I doubt you're reading this review, but for posterity's sake they were Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Richard "Ringo Starr" Starkey) While nothing new is really revealed, it's obvious he remained very friendly with both Harrison and Starr while relations with McCartney never really recovered from the termination of The Beatles. Some of this seems to have stemmed from disagreements about who should be handling the business affairs of Apple. Paul wanted to use his first wife's (Linda Eastman) family and the other three became dissatisfied with their handling of matters.
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When McCartney wanted to release his first solo album the other three had the record company push back its release date so it wouldn't conflict with of Let It Be. As a letter they sent him shows, they didn't ask him, they just told him they had done so after the fact and they hoped he would understand. While there's no indication as to who instigated the request to the company, it's not hard to imagine McCartney thinking Lennon was behind it. Business aside the two men hadn't been getting along personally as letter from Lennon to and about McCartney show. Part of it seems to stem from McCarney and his wife's attitude towards Lennon's new wife Ono and how much their apparent rejection of her hurt him.

Anyone the least bit familiar with Lennon's writing will know he was fond of both sarcasm and nonsense writing. This tendency was established early on in his life as can be seen in the reproduction of the parody newspaper he produced in grade school called The Daily Howl. As you read through the book and the years pass by you gradually realize how little he changed as he aged. The grammar and spelling might have improved somewhat (although as Davies points out it's sometimes hard to tell whether mistakes are deliberate or not) but the same sort of childish humour continued to prevail throughout his life. In some ways this is funny, but in other ways it shows a disturbing tendency to not mature.

While The John Lennon Letters might not offer any startling revelations into the life or character of Lennon, what it does do is provide as comprehensive a biography, or autobiography, of the man as we're likely to ever see. Davies is not only able to place each note, no matter how insignificant it might appear, into context, his comments on them are both informed and insightful. Unlike others who have to rely on second or third hand sources for their information, Davies was a friend of Lennon and is able to base his opinions on first hand knowledge of events described. However, this doesn't prevent him from including dissenting opinions from those who disagree with Lennon's accounts of circumstances.

While individually most of these notes and cards are fairly meaningless, collectively they work together to confirm the image we've always had of Lennon as the complicated Beatle. Always outspoken, always witty, sometimes almost cruel, but always interesting, 30 years after his death he continues to fascinate us. This collection of letters can only add to our fascination of this rare and witty man.

(Article first published as Book Review: The John Lennon Letters, Edited by Hunter Davies on Blogcritics.)

September 28, 2012

Book Review: The Art Book: New Edition Various Editors


When I was attending university there used to be these things called survey courses. They provided an introduction to a subject without going into a great deal of depth giving students enough information to let them decide whether they wanted to investigate the subject further. They were commonly used in Art History departments as a means of introducing students to a particular period. So you could take survey courses in everything from Gothic to Modern art.

While I understood the purposes these courses served academically I also found them boring. I mean who wants to spend week after week looking at paintings which all look the same? I like Impressionism as much as the next person, but there are only so many I want to see at once. If I'm going to look at paintings I would prefer to see as wide a variety of work as possible. Juxtaposing art by different painters from different eras may not make great sense academically, but I think it would be a far more interesting way to introduce somebody to the world of art. The contrasts alone would at least keep them intrigued as to what they might see next.
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All of which explains why I'm a big fan of Phaidon Press' The Art Book: New Edition scheduled for release October 1 2012. Containing over 600 full colour reproductions the book offers readers an opportunity to experience art from the Medieval period to the work of contemporary artists. However instead of organizing them by era, genre, style or any of the other ways this type of book is usually laid out the work is listed alphabetically by the artist's last name. Which means you have the opportunity to see paintings side by side with ones that probably wouldn't normally be hung in the same building let alone on the same wall. Some might find that unsettling but I think it ensures each new work is a surprise and keeps you interested and on the edge of your seat. Tell me when's the last time you heard anyone say that about going to an art gallery or opening up an art history text book?

Now of course these aren't just random samples of various artists plunked down into a book. There's been careful consideration given as to which artists are represented and the paintings chosen to represent each artist. No one editor or curator is listed as compiling this book. Instead it seems like the entire editorial staff of Phaidon Press was involved in the process. In the video clip below Amanda Renshaw, editorial director of Phaidon talks about how The Art Book came together.

Of course the paintings aren't just baldly placed in the book with no word of explanation. Each one comes with a brief biography of the artist, a description of the work, what the artist was attempting to accomplish and, as applicable, something about the period or movement the work represents. As some of the terms used in art history aren't ones most of us are used to hearing in our day to day conversations, the editors have also included a complete glossary of terminology at the end of the book.
They've also included a complete index of all the painters in the book and a listing of the galleries where the original works are hung, installed, displayed, or the means by which they now can be viewed. The last in that list is important as some of them were transitory in nature or too large to be contained in a building. Examples of this include; Francis Alys Paradox Of Praxis(pg. 14) which involved the artist pushing a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it gradually melted, Marina Abramovic's
The House with the Ocean View (pg. 4) an installation piece where the artist lived in the gallery for twelve days in three specially designed rooms elevated on platforms and Weiwei Ai's monumental sculpture Template(pg. 8) found outdoors at a German art festival.

However the majority of the works are at least traditionally housed, if not traditionally displayed, in galleries. But that's the beauty and diversity of the visual arts. They can be so many different things to so many different people. Just by looking through this book at the way tastes in style, form, and subject matter have changed down through the years is an indication of the way artistic expression has evolved. From the religious paintings of the Byzantine and Medieval periods which were completely flat and lacking in perspective to the introduction of the horizon line and depth of field in the Renaissance. Of course events don't follow a sequential pattern in this book, but in some ways that makes the way the art of painting evolved even more obvious.

Just seeing Salvador Dali's Lobster Telephone (pg. 136) side by side with Charles-Francois Daubigny's pastoral landscape, The Lock at Optevoz (pg. 137) tells you just how much the world of art can change in less then the hundred years that separate the creation of the two works. The same could be said of any two pages in the book, although not all of them are so extreme in their differences. Although the differences between Frans Hals Young Man With A Skull (pg. 240) painted in c1626/8 and Richard Hamilton's Pop Art collage Just What is it That Makes Today's Homes so Different, So Appealing? (pg. 241) from 1956 come close. On the one hand is a fairly standard 'Old Master' type portrait of a young man holding a skull while on the opposing page the artist has arranged a variety of imagery cut from contemporary popular magazines to form the interior of a living space. Of course with nearly 400 years separating these works perhaps it's not so surprising to find such radical differences. However, I wonder if Hals could have ever imagined a time when someone would have created art without using paint or brushes?

That's what I find so wonderful about The Art Book: New Edition. Aside from containing a wonderful collection of art work from almost every tradition imaginable and covering nearly a thousand years of human history, it encourages the reader/observer to use their own imaginations. You can't help looking at the pieces and comparing them to whatever is on the adjacent page no matter what it might be. While this sort of process might be off putting to some purists, for the rest of the world it will delight and astound you to compare Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat(pg.140) of the neo-Classical school of the late 18th and early 19th centuries with the cubist influenced Stuart Davis' Egg Beater No. 4 (pg. 141) from 1928.

Maybe it's something of a stretch to think people will be able to find common ground between two such wildly divergent examples of the visual arts. However, by simply placing the works in alphabetical order by artists' last names, the editors of The Art Book: New Edition give readers the opportunity to form their own opinions on the merits of each based on the work, the explanatory text accompanying it and free of the constraints of classification. While it's true no work exists in a vacuum, the pieces selected make enough of a statement on their own to ensure they can stand on their own two feet. At the very least, like the best survey course, readers might find themselves discovering something new that they wish to explore in further depth. That in itself makes this book an invaluable resource for any household.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Art Book: New AdditionEdited by Various on Blogcritics.)

September 19, 2012

Book Review: Forge Of Darkness: Book One Of The Kharkanas Trilogy by Steven Erikson


To be honest I've never been much for prequels. Even the name given these titles of books or movies which tell the story of what came before bothers me. It's just a little too cute tying together previous and sequel into one word which actually means nothing at all. Aside from my abhorrence for all things cute, prequels are usually just blatant attempts to cash in on a title's original success. Nine times out of ten they nowhere near as good as the original and usually they turn out to be a waste of money. However, there are exceptions to any rule and Forge Of Darkness, the first book in Steven Erikson's new The Kharkanas Trilogy, published by Random House Canada, detailing events taking place prior to those depicted in his The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is one of those rarities.

Forge Of Darkness tells the story of the Tiste Andii, the mysterious dark skinned immortal race who seemed almost godlike in their powers when compared to the mortals of the previous series. Here, at some time in the distant past, long before the creation of the mortal realms, we are introduced to the Tiste in their realm of Kuruld Galaim. Mother Dark rules over them in her citadel in Kharkanas, but the realm is seriously divided. The noble families of the vie for political and social power with each other and conspire against Mother Dark's chosen Consort, the mysterious Lord Draconus. Considered an upstart of no real noble lineage, the majority of the nobility feel him unsuitable for the position of lover to their. However they dare not move openly against him for not only don't they know the extent of his power, he also has the support of Mother Dark's chosen sons, three brothers; Anomander, Andarist and Silchas Ruin of the Purake family.
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While the nobles make noises a more tangible threat is shaping up in the form of disbanded soldiers who served in the wars defending Kuruld Galaim against threats from beyond its borders. Fuelled by the resentment of a few officers, who feel they were never properly recognized for their contributions, bands of soldiers have started reforming in secret. Claiming to be protecting Mother Dark they start killing those they call the Deniers, ones who they accuse of refusing to worship her and what she represents. The only trouble is she doesn't know what they are doing in her name. Soon their killings become indiscriminate as they attack both noble houses and other legions who fought in the wars. In reality their ambition is to see themselves elevated to nobility and the former leader of their forces, Vartha Ursander, wedded to Mother Dark, whether he, or she, wants to or not.

Those who have read The Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence will start to recognize the history being described from hints and clues dropped during that series. This is the beginning of the schism that would eventually see the Tiste divided into three: Tiste Andii, children of dark; Tiste Liossan, children of light and Tiste E'dur children of shadow. Although that's jumping ahead of the story told in this book as it only sets the stage for the first division between light and dark. Along the way readers will meet characters whom they first met at various points in the original series and learn something about their history and origins.

We also learn more about some of the peoples who are were known as the elder races, the ones who were around before mortals. As well as races with the familiar names of Jaghut and Forkul Assail, we are introduced to an even older race called the Azathanai. Known as renowned masons and able to work incredible magic with earth and stone, they are also builders of another sort as we're soon to find out. For among their number are other character names from the earlier series, the most important of which is K'rull - who created the warrens which are the repository of the magic humans draw on for sorcery and healing. There are also specific Azathanai who are given responsibility for shepherding each of the other races, acting as protectors, gift givers and the instigators of change.

What separated Erikson's work in the past from others was not only the detail he would bring to his world building, but the humanity he brought to his characters. Whether or not the characters in question are technically human doesn't really matter, they are created in an manner so we can identify with them emotionally and intellectually. None of this has changed in his latest creation. However, in some ways this book has depths to it that previous works lacked, and lends it a weightiness some might find disconcerting at first. For it raises issues about faith, belief and religion that one wouldn't normally expect to find in a fantasy book. Or at least the level of discussion rises to a level one doesn't normally find in works of fiction.

While some might question the appropriateness of having such a discussion in a fantasy novel, the story of the Tiste and their schism is all about questions of faith and belief. In order to create the level of verisimilitude required to make their world and its reality believable there needs to be a philosophical underpinning to all that happens. Otherwise it's just a series of actions carried out for no reason. That may be sufficient for an action adventure story, but not if you're looking at telling the story of the growth and evolution of a people and a world. We're not talking about a simplistic fantasy story here after all, this is a world as complex and unsettled as our own.
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What's even more impressive is the manner in which Erikson is able to incorporate this discussion seamlessly into the natural flow of the book and make it a natural extension of the action. Characters, whether attempting to justify their actions or questioning the actions of others, put forward arguments and counter arguments without it ever impeding on the actual narrative. It's not like they stop in the middle of a battle to engage in a philosophical debate or anything like that. To be honest I'm not even sure how he managed it, but as you reach the end of the book you'll realize he's managed to create the variety of philosophies needed for a schism of the size he's portraying to occur.

Trying to capture a moment of crises in amber is almost impossible as there is never only one reason or event that pushes things past a point of no return. It not only takes a wide array of people acting in a various different ways and a variety of events all just happening to occur in the right sequence to precipitate a seemingly singular and momentous occurrence. Our own world's history is rife with examples of how a series of apparently unconnected events led to a calamity. There might have been one amongst them that is most remembered now because it was the one that proved the tipping point, but if it had occurred in isolation, it wouldn't have had the same impact.

What Erikson has done with Forge Of Darkness is very carefully show how events and actions, from the trivial to the major, all play a role in contributing to a society's descent into chaos. Those who had grown accustomed to the humour salted through the previous series may find the harshness and bleakness a bit unexpected, but there's nothing much funny about a world tearing itself apart. In the Malazan Book of the Fallen we were introduced to the three races of Tiste. We knew at one time they had all been one people; this is the story of how the schism began with the birth of the first two; Dark and Light. I'm sure as the trilogy continues so will the story and out of Darkness and Light will be born the third people Shadow. In The Malazan Book of the Fallen we heard various myths on how the three people of the Tiste came to be, this is that history brought to life.

This is fantasy on a level that few have ever attempted and fewer still would have the ability to carry off. Erikson is one of the few who can. It might be not be to the taste of those who only want sword and sorcery in their fantasy, but anyone looking for something a little more intellectually taxing and fulfilling will love it. Erikson should be made a genre onto himself, because nobody else is quite like him or equal to his abilities.

(Article first published as Book Review: Forge Of Darkness: Book One of The Kharkanas Triologyby Steven Erikson on Blogcritics)

August 31, 2012

Book Review: Rolling Stones 50 X 20 Edited by Chris Murray


There have perhaps been other groups who were better, other groups who were more controversial and others more inventive, but year in and year out, for fifty years now, there has been no group who have epitomized the culture of rock and roll like the Rolling Stones. From the beginning they were always considered the rebellious ones. Their blues influenced sound was rougher and rawer than the polished pop sounds of The Beatles. Parents might not have been sure about John Lennon, but they damned well wouldn't want their daughters coming home with Mick Jagger. Not only wasn't he as cute as any of the Beatles, even in the earliest years he was too blatantly sexual to make you feel safe handing your daughter over to him.

The hint of danger that surrounded them was only exasperated by the mysterious death of original guitarist Brian Jones in the late 1960s and members of the band's drug habits. Even when they became firmly entrenched as members of the pop culture establishment selling out football stadiums the world over on their concert tours, they've never lost that edge. While they might have aged physically over the years, like Peter Pan's Lost Boys they've somehow never become adults either. While others their age might be calmly settling into retirement, they continue to thumb their noses at what's respectable and play rock and roll with an exuberance and sexual energy few bands can match. With age might have come a certain elegance and style, but underneath the fancier clothes and jewellery lurks the jeans and switchblades of the tough kids who made parents nervous in 1964.
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A new book from Insight Editions, Rolling Stones 50X20, edited by Christopher Murray, founder of the Govinda Gallery of photography, offers a pictorial history of the band's first fifty years as seen through the lenses of twenty photographers. Even a casual perusal of this book's pages reinforces everything you've been told or thought about the Rolling Stones. From the staged photographs for album covers, concert footage, candid photos to sittings for studio portraits, the pictures in this book offer not only a pictorial history of the band but show how even through death and line up changes their essence has remained unchanged.

Each of the twenty photographers has written a blurb about their experiences working with the Rolling Stones. While some of them were members of the rock fraternity in their own right, they worked for Rolling Stone Magazine, some of them are simply portrait photographers hired for studio shoots. However, no matter who they were, or where they were taking the pictures, the only remotely negative comment anybody has about the experience was to relate how Keith Richards said "Oh I don't really want to do this, do you? I've been photographed with them for thirty fucking years and it's really fucking boring". But as it was said without malice, more self-deprecating than anything else, you don't really see it as a negative.

Mark Seliger, he was shooting publicity stills for Rolling Stone before the band went on tour to promote the album Voodoo Lounge when Keith made that comment. His portraits of Richards and Mick Jagger included in the book from that shoot are absolutely amazing. Simple black and white head shots can be some of the hardest pictures to take for both the subject and the photographer. However Seliger's shots are works of art comparable to those Karsh took of people like Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. You feel like you're being given a unique opportunity to really see these two men in a way you've never seen them before. There's a repose in both of their faces that lets you see something of the inner strength that has allowed them to endure being in the spotlight for so long and yet still manage to love what they do.

Richard's fight with addictions has been well documented and this pictorial history lets you see how harrowing the journey must have been at times. Looking at his shy almost innocent face in shots taken by Bob Bonis, their first American tour manager, back in 1964, slowly have the life ebb out of it in the 1970s could be heartbreaking if it weren't for the fact he comes alive again in the 1990s. The pictures of him and Ron Wood playing together from the 1990s until the present make you understand why they call it "playing". A shot of the two of them together taken by Fernando Aceves in 2002 captures the simple pleasure the two are taking in doing what they obviously love.

Of course Mick Jagger has to be one of the most photogenic people in the world. The irony being is he's not either classically handsome or good looking. However, even in repose he exudes personality and energy on level nobody else approaches. The only person who might have even come close was the late James Brown. A photograph taken of the two by Bonis in 1964 shows them leaning into each other in idle conversation. While your eye is first caught by Brown, actually his pompadour is what really grabs you, even casually dressed in jacket and slacks, Jagger more than holds his own in the picture. Of course it's also fun speculating what the two are talking about.
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While the book includes iconic shots like Baron Wolman's shot of Jagger on the set of the film Performance holding a Polaroid camera, a good deal of the book is made up of shots not as well known. Some of the ones I appreciated most were those from the middle sixties by Gered Mankowitz, Jan Olofsson and Eddie Krammer. An out take of Mankowitz's from the photo shoot for the album Between The Buttons from 1966 has the band huddled in overcoats against the fog that leaves them blurry and ghostlike against the haunted background of Primrose Hill. Olofsson's shots are all taken on the set of the British pop music show Ready Steady Go. There's one he's taken shooting up at the band from below the stage which catches Jagger in mid vocals and the top half of a seated Brian Jones playing sitar. Not only didn't I know the Stones had ever used sitar in their music I had no idea Jones had been such a virtuoso musician. For one of Mankowitz's pictures of the band shows him playing cello.

Krammer of course is better known as Jimi Hendrix's recording engineer than a photographer. However he got into the habit of keeping a camera by the sound board and would take pictures of whomever he was recording when he had a chance. So when he was hired to engineer Beggar's Banquet in 1967 he took a couple of candid shots of the band. One of them is a beautiful shot of Jones leaning back with a light behind his head giving him a near halo. Of course being Hendrix's sound man there's a picture of Jagger and Hendrix together backstage at Madison Square Garden in 1969. Both men are smiling and laughing and looking completely at ease with each other - it's just a nice simple shot of two friends hanging out and taking the time to enjoy each other's company.

While both Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman appear in any number of the photos in this book, they are the quintessential rhythm section. You only notice them when they make a mistake. Always the glue holding together their more mercurial front men, the two are constant stolid presences in every group photo of the band. It's interesting to note how very few of the pictures of the band taken after Wyman left them in the early 1990s include a bass player and one of the few that do, taken in 1995, doesn't identify the band members. It's almost as if after he left the decision was made to reduce the band to four permanent members, although they have employed the same bass player, Darryl Jones, for recording and touring ever since.

When Kris Kristofferson wrote "Blame It On The Stones", he was poking fun at people's reactions to the band's dark reputation. Blaming all of society's ills on the Rolling Stones is of course more than a bit of a stretch. However, compared to the wholesome, clean cut image The Beatles were projecting in the early 1960s the Stones came across as scruffier and a little bit dangerous. The fact of the matter was they played, and continue to play, blues based rock and roll that reflects the rebellious nature inherent to the music. The photos included in Rolling Stones 50 X 20 not only capture what it was about the band that established that reputation, it is a wonderful pictorial history of both the band and popular culture. While the text included by the various photographers, editor Chris Murray, Richard Harrington's forward and Chris Salewicz's afterword don't contribute much new to the story of the band, the collection of photos are superlative and tell you more about the band than any text could hope.

(Article first published as Book Review: Rolling Stones 50 X 20 Edited by Chris Murray on Blogcritics.)

August 8, 2012

Book Review: On Edge By Bob MacKenzie


Reviewing poetry is a tricky matter. Unlike a work of prose fiction you can't usually judge the work based on an author's ability to create believable characters, write a plot or any of the other yardsticks you'd use to measure a novel's worth. While any piece of writing's impact will vary from reader to reader, poetry is by far the most subjective. Not only will different people react in radically different ways to the same poem, an individual's reactions to a poem can change depending on the mood they're in or how they are feeling on a particular day. However that's not to say there aren't ways to evaluate a poet's abilities. For most poetry the key is remembering not to intellectualize the process but to assess the work based on the reactions it triggers. Do you have an emotional or intellectual reaction, or both, to the work? Why was the poet successful, or unsuccessful, in eliciting either reaction from you?

There are poets who use imagery, draw pictures with their words, in an attempt to express something and there are poets who use words as building blocks in order to create an overall feeling or mood. Then there are those rare individuals who manage to integrate both techniques. Images and words together form a type of collage of emotions and ideas on the page. Sometimes the results are a confused mess communicating nothing. In the hands of a skilled poet though, you end up with a poem with the ability to communicate with nearly everyone. In his latest collection of poetry, On Edge, currently available through Dark Matter Press, Kingston, Ontario Canada poet Bob MacKenzie, shows his mastery of both form and content with a series of thought provoking and soul stirring poems.
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Do not be fooled by the volumes apparent slimness, sixteen poems in thirty-three pages, as its physical size in no way reflects what resides within the covers. In fact, given the intensity of the pieces and the subject matter they deal with, its the perfect length, Anymore would have been too much to ask a reader to digest. For MacKenzie has delved into territory that not only isn't often the subject of poetry but which most people don't even like to acknowledge as a fact of life in our society. Abuse, specifically the abuse children suffer at the hands of the adults supposedly responsible for protecting them from the cares of the world. MacKenzie's poems aren't content with focusing on the descent into darkness suffered by those on the receiving end, he also looks into the heart of darkness at the other end of the equation. For in order for there to be a victim there has to be someone who causes the pain.

There's nothing graphic about these poems, except maybe for the rawness of the emotions expressed in them, and perhaps they would have been less disturbing if there were some hint of deviant behaviour. For, and this is awful to say, we have become somewhat inured to stories involving the degradation of our fellow human beings, be they children or adult and have learned how to shield ourselves from feeling their pain. What MacKenzie gives us is something far more difficult to deal with. In poems like "The Sacred Heart" and "Stigmata" we witness the pain of a parent watching their child's slow descent into darkness from the injuries they suffered at the hands of another. Though these poems, and others, are told from the view point of the parent seeing their child, MacKenzie ensures we are well aware this is merely a reflection of the greater damage - what has happened to the child.
"I can only love you/only stand and hold you/until the pain is gone/until it comes again/and fills me with your pain". ("Stigmata" Bob MacKenzie On Edge p.15 Dark Matter Press Kingston Canada 2012)

In "Saint Joan" MacKenzie turns his sights on the self-righteous individuals who down through the ages have sat in judgement on what they don't understand and made decisions based on rumours, gossip, hearsay and their own personal agendas. From late in the nineteenth century until today people like these have been taking children away from their parents without thought or regard to what happens to either party. "You know you are the saviour of little children/absolved in whatever you do by your own faith/you know you are the saviour of little children/you know you must destroy all who stand in your way". ("Saint Joan", Bob MacKenzie, On Edge p.7 Dark Matter Press, Kingston Canada 2012.) Here MacKenzie not only creates an archetypical picture of what kind of person would be capable of ripping families apart, through the words he's employed in describing her he also stirs an emotional reaction in the reader and shows their so called good intentions for what they really are.

One would think from the description of the poems I've offered, and the subject matter, that On Edge would be both uniformly dark and depressing to read. However, MacKenzie is not just digging a pit for us to fall into. Nor is he one of these poets who enjoys wallowing in the dank end of the emotional pool for the effect it will have on his readers. There are clues this is not the case even before one begins to read the poems themselves. First, in his dedicating the book to those who "have dared to fight back against the intractable night" and second in his inclusion of this quote from Leonard Cohen's "Anthem", "Ring the bells that still can ring/forget your perfect offering/there is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in".
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While the rays of light might not be on obvious display in each poem, MacKenzie is too gifted a poet to give into cliche or compromise his writing by offering a happy ending to appease delicate sensibilities, they are there for those willing to look for it. Each poem, with a few exceptions, is infused with love for its subject. Love which is heartbreaking in its hope and unconditional acceptance of the person under attack. Love which is the cornerstone of our unknown narrator's belief in their loved one's ability to come through the darkness they're experiencing and live to see the light again. The two longest poems in the book, "The Girl" and "Edge", each in their own way, are reminders the dark does not have be the only option.

In the first he builds a picture of a girl being smothered by darkness and how it feels all encompassing. Yet even in this instance the night must end eventually and no matter how lost we might feel the day will come again. Although the ray of hope MacKenzie offers is thin, only appearing in the last stanza of the five page poem, it is enough for us to believe there is a way out. "Edge" is a different matter, as it deals with the way we perceive the world. It would be easy to look around, especially as a poet or any type of artist, and obsess on the darkness we see and feel in everything. Standing on the edge as witnesses we feel the hurts of the world and have no illusions of the cruelties the world is capable of delivering upon individuals. "I've lived too long too near the edge/stood too close to where it happens/seen what I should not have seen/and heard it all and hear it still/in living dreams I can not escape".("Edge" Bob MacKenzie On Edge p. 30 Dark Matter Press Kingston Canada 2012)

While it is easier to talk about the ills of the world, and by extension to write about it (why do you think people like Stephen King sell so many books? Darkness is popular) our eyes and senses play tricks on us, preventing us from seeing the light which gives birth to the shadows. MacKenzie, in this poem and others, makes sure to remind us, one way or another, shadows can not exist without light. In amongst the play of words and imagery that have gone into creating the darkness and shadows in each poem there exists one strand of light woven into each one's fabric.

Having personally walked through the type of darkness MacKenzie describes in his poetry I know all too well how unremitting and relentless it can appear. Yet, no matter what we are going through the world continues on as it always has, filled with its miracles and mysteries that are a wonder and a joy. While the poems in this book don't shy away from the dark, they're not in love with it either. Light is all around us, we just need to want to see it. These poems may break your heart on occasion, but you won't be allowed to forget there's more to the world than depression and darkness. There might not be any easy route out from the shadows, and MacKenzie doesn't pretend otherwise, but the path does exist.

(Article first published as Book Review (Poetry): On Edge by Bob MacKenzie on Blogcritics.

Author Photo Credit Eriana Marcus

August 3, 2012

Book Review: Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos by Simon Tofield


If you've ever owned a kitten or a puppy you'll understand how these small bundles of fur can completely dominate a household. Kittens look so helpless, spindly legs and covered in fuzz, yet somehow they manage to be far more destructive than most animals ten times their size. In the latest instalment of his ongoing series of cartoons about the "joys" of living with a cat, Simon Tofield has added one of those little bundles of energetic mayhem into his mix of characters. The results, Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos, published by Canongate Books and distributed by Penguin Canada, are hysterical - in all senses of the word.

Simon's Cat began life as a hand drawn animated cartoon posted to YouTube by Tofield. Something about the first one struck a chord with cat owners because it and the videos that followed attracted millions of hits from all over the world. I think part of their appeal is how low tech they are. Black and white pencil drawings brought to life and sound effects made by Tofield are not what anyone would call sophisticated. However what they lack in special effects is more than compensated for by their ability to capture and bring to life those aspects of a cat's behaviour which most endear/enrage anyone who has ever lived with one. From the vocal mannerisms to the physical reactions you can't help but recognize something of your own cat in Simon's Cat. The popularity of the videos led Tofield to publish two collections of still cartoons, Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence which were as funny as the videos.
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In this latest instalment, as the title implies, he introduces a new member of the family in the form of a kitten rescued from the rain. While there are some funny scenes of the established adult cat working to teach the interloper her/his place (not only do neither of the cats have a name they are both gender neutral - although there is a scene in this book where the kitten is going off to the vet and makes the universal sign for scissors to the older cat who looks suitably repulsed) the best images are of the kitten on its own discovering its new world. Tofield gives us both a series of small sketches ranging from kitten with toilet paper to kitten sleeping on stairs laid out across the page and full page drawings of the little one in its new surroundings. What's really quite wonderful is how we see everything from the kitten's perspective. Everything is drawn proportionate to the small cat's size and as if being seen from a place far closer to the floor than you or I normally view the world.

Anyone knowing the original cat won't be surprised that a lot of the early tensions between the two cats revolve around food. One of the only anthropomorphic traits it possesses is to open its mouth and point out how empty it happens to be whenever it manages to catch its owner's attention. Naturally there are endless battles over food and food bowls. These are handled with ease and good humour by Tofield, but he doesn't ignore the very real problem faced when introducing a kitten into an established cat's territory. How do you ensure the new kitten is receiving its fair share of the food? Do you stand guard, or do you trust the little one to figure out ways of eating enough.

When a couple is expecting the birth of a new child they are told to "baby proof" their home to reduce the risk of it injuring itself. The reality is that there's really no need for that until the infant is able to move around on its own so you can count on having a year after the child's born in which to make your preparations. Not so with a kitten. From the moment it enters into your house you have to start kitten proofing. Otherwise you'll find CDs on the floor, items safely stored on counter tops scattered and shattered, and various valuable items shredded, disced, dissected, digested and then regurgitated around the house. It's amazing the damage a kitten can inflict once it puts its mind to it. Of course if they have an adult cat blundering along in their wake the damage becomes even more extensive as places kittens can squeeze through without disturbing anything don't seem to handle the wider girth of the adult.
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What made the earlier books so appealing to cat owners was Tofield's ability to recreate cat behaviour with just the right amount of exaggeration to make it funny without making it unbelievable. Unlike other cartoon cats who are given human attributes in an attempt to make them appealing, Tofield understands that the animal's behaviour is enough to create a bond between the reader and the characters. Not only does he continue to adhere to that principle in this book, he adds an additional layer by capturing a kitten's behaviour patterns, and an adult's reactions to them, beautifully.

One thing readers will notice is how the art work in this book is much more elaborate then in the earlier volumes. Everything is still rendered in black and white, but the drawings are much more detailed. From the interior shots showing the variety of things that a kitten can become entangled in to the later drawings when we see it discovering the world of the backyard, there is a lot more going on in this world then in previous books. Of course no matter how detailed the drawings are, the cats are still the centre of the universe and we still see everything either in relation to them or from their point of view.

While the emphasis is of course on the humorous escapades the cats get up to at the expense of their human, Tofield finishes the book by reminding us the relationship between cat and person is not a one way street. For when their human is taken to bed with a miserable cold both cats are seen first looking up at the bed from the floor, then curled up on the bed with him. As anybody who has ever been taken ill and felt especially unhappy knows, having one's four legged companion keeping you company makes a world of difference. They might be holy terrors much of the time, but the pay back makes it more than worth while.

Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos is a welcome addition to the Simon's Cat family of books. What makes these books so special is Tofield's ability to capture moments that are instantly recognizable to anybody who has ever owned a cat. He doesn't stoop to making the animals overly cute or giving them human characteristics, making them both more realistic, and funnier, than almost any other cartoon cat. If you own a cat you'll want to own these books. If you're thinking of purchasing a kitten, reading the latest will remind you, or if you've never owned one before, warn you, of what you're letting yourself in for.

(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat In Kitten Chaos by Simon Tolfield on Blogcritics.)

July 18, 2012

Book Review: The Wurms Of BlearmouthBy Steven Erikson


One of the crasser ways devised by television producers to cash in on the popularity of a show was the "spin off". This usually involved taking a second tier character from an original show and trying to make something out of nothing for no other reason than to make more money. Invariably, with only a few notable exceptions, these shows were not only inferior to the originals but would never last more then one or two seasons. The problem was that most supporting characters didn't have the substance to base a show around. They had been created with the purpose of being incidental to the main action and that quickly became obvious when the spotlight shone on them. Just because a character could grab an audience's attention for thirty seconds a week didn't mean he or she was interesting enough to have their own show.

In the literary world spin offs aren't as common as they are in television but they still exist. However, they are rare enough occurrences to make them noteworthy if for no other reason than the author has been able to find the time to write about secondary characters. Therefore when Steven Erikson, best known for the ten book series The Malazan Book Of The Fallen, began writing novellas featuring three characters who made a brief, yet memorable, appearance in one of his books I decided to check them out. Everything I had by Erikson up to that point was worth reading, so the chances were good these would be too. That the characters in question, the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach and their man servant Emancipator Reece (also known as Mancy the Unlucky for his history as a sailor on doomed ships and the fact that all of his prior employers had meant untimely ends) had made an indelible impression in their brief appearance, was evidence there was a good chance they could carry a novella on their own.

The Wurms Of Blearmoth, currently available from Britain's PS Publishing and hopefully soon to be released in North America by Macmillan who have published three previous novellas in omnibus form, is the fourth tale to feature two villains you'll learn to love to hate and their luckless manservant. (A fifth book, The Crackedpot Trial, focused on a group of disparate hunters trying to track down Bauchelain and Korbal Broach for the various crimes they have committed against society) As we have discovered in their previous adventures evil and villainy are relative terms, and as often as not the two necromancers are relatively benign compared to those they have encountered on their travels.
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When the Suncurl, the ship they had boarded to make their hasty exit from the town of Lamentable Moll, finally gives out under them, Bauchelain, Korbal Broach and Emancipator Reece find themselves wading ashore at one of the most desolate outposts in West Elingarth, Spendrugle of Blearmouth. Why anyone would want to hold sway over such a backwards outpost is unknown, but Lord Fangtooth Claw the Render, has only recently usurped his brother to take control of the remote backwater. That he takes his position as local tyrant seriously is made clear by his keeping his brother chained in the dungeons of his moulding keep for a bit of routine torture, his edict that all newcomers be brought to said keep in order to be put to death and his employment of a scribe to make sure his words are remembered for posterity. While Fangtooth is ruler of this little cesspit, the town's inhabitants are more than his equal when it comes to being memorable. From the inn keeper/madam with the strange additions to her anatomy and her beautiful yet simple daughter, the ex tax collector who plots to leave the town with the aforementioned daughter, the town's sole militia member who carries out his master's edict of arresting all newcomers, the hung man who refused to die to the strange old fellow who lives in a cabin by the beach, the town seems filled out of proportion to its size with the weird and the odd.

Yet as strange a collection of folk they might be, they are still woefully unprepared for the onslaught of visitors they are about to receive. For not only do everyone's favourite necromancers make it ashore from the wreck, so do three of the boat's crew. These three bring with them a history which includes a posse of heavily armed, but not very intelligent, soldiers intent on bringing them to justice for a theft they carried out in a far off land. The first mistake the locals make is treating Bauchelain and Korbal Broach as they would any other visitors - which means being taken up to the keep for Lord Fangtooth's pleasure.
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Not content to merely allow events to take their natural course, having Bauchelain make short work of the local despot, Erikson shows why the two sorcerers have become favourite characters in spite of their own predilections. Before disposing of Fangtooth, Erikson has Bauchelain engage him in a philosophical discussion on the nature of tyranny over dinner. Over a meal that was designed to poison its guests, the two debate on the hows and wherefores of what is required to be a successful tyrant and how to best subjugate towns people. Needless to say Fangtooth is much distraught to find his company still alive when the evening's repast is complete and excuses himself in order to kill the cook.

Of course the arrival of the other visitors has not gone unnoticed in the village, and the result is quite a todo that ends in substantial bloodletting. Of course it doesn't help matters that the witch who Fangtooth deposed, who also happens to be a shape shifter, manages to regain her powers and chooses this moment to exact vengeance on those town folk she believes betrayed her. So all in all it ends up being a night of glorious bedlam resulting in the local population being somewhat diminished by its conclusion.

Anyone who has read anything else by Erikson will know of his ability to write humour, and this book is a great example of just how twisted and dark it can be. Yet in spite of some of the more gruesome and macabre moments to be found there is an underlying layer of intelligent satire that elevates it above most stories of this type. Filled with strange and interesting characters and action suiting their various miens The Wurms Of Blearmouth is a treat for Erikson fans everywhere. If you've been intimidated by the sheer size of the Malazon Book Of The Fallen the novellas featuring Bauchelain and Korbal Broach provide an easier path of entry to the wonderful world Erikson has created. However, be warned, like all entry level drugs you'll find them highly addictive and habit forming.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Wurms Of Blearmouth by Steven Erikson on Blogcritics)

June 3, 2012

Book Review: The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair


It's amazing the lengths colonial powers went to in order to justify oppressing civilizations which predated anything the West by a good thousand years. By referring to India and points further east dismissively as the Orient or the Mysterious East, they turned vast sophisticated kingdoms into something dark and dangerous in desperate need of the enlightenment only they could provide. As is often the case with ignorant people, what they couldn't understand confused and scared them. Faced with something beyond their comprehension they did what any normal person would do. Instead of trying to learn more about it, they did their best to either subjugated it or belittle it.

While it was bad enough they would misinterpret and sensationalize another culture's beliefs Victorian era Englishmen came up with all sorts of pseudo sciences to prove the superiority of, what they called, the Caucasian race over those with darker skins. One of the most popular in the mid 1800s was the science of phrenology - the study of the bumps on people's heads and how they related to the brains within and the person's character as a whole. Of course the Caucasian's head was an example of a superior brain and moral standards and as a person's skin colour darkened, well you get the picture.

In his novel The Thing About Thugs, first published by Harper Collins India in 2010 and now being released in North America by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt July 24 2012, Tabish Khair turns this world on its head by showing it through the eyes of those "inferior" races. British literature of the times, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Wilkie Collin's The Moonstone and on through the works of Rudyard Kipling emphasized and reinforced the Victorian world view. Khair not only points out the how ridiculous the philosophy of the day was, but he does so in a manner which takes the works in question to task for perpetuating the fallacy.
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Amir Ali is from a small village in rural India. Orphaned at a young age he goes to live with his uncle, a small land owner, and his family. At one time his family's holdings had been far greater, but another landowner has contrived to steal through various means the majority of their acres. While the methods used are illegal there is nothing Ali's uncle is able to do as the other man's wealth and willingness to employ violence ensure nobody with the authority to do anything about it will gainsay his activities. When Ali's uncle is murdered he hatches a plot that will not only ensure those in the wrong are brought to justice, but will see him taken to England where he hopes to start a new life. He learns that a British gentlemen is looking to interview members of the cult of Kali known as Thugees to help him prove his theory that in spite of a skull shape indicating a predisposition for violence a lessor being can turn over a new leaf by exposure to the redeeming qualities of civilized Christian society.

Ali spins Captain William T. Mathews a tale painting himself as a young initiate into the cult which also incriminates the man responsible for his uncle's death. For as proof of his remorse he not only supplies the Captain with the names of his fellow cultists in the region, but offers as proof of their villainy the location where their most recent victims are buried. When Williams informs the local detachment of The East Indian Tea Company's guard of the presence of Thugees in their territory and proof of their nefarious behaviour, they move quickly to arrest those responsible. Mathews is so enthused by his Thugees' denouncement of his former life, he takes Ali back to London with him. Ali is then paraded through the drawing rooms of polite society by Mathews as an example of a barbaric assassin reformed by civilization.

Unfortunately for Ali he told his story too well. For when London is shocked by a series of murders where the victim's heads have been stolen it's obvious to society and the newly formed Peelers (London police force named for their founder Robert Peel latter change to Bobbies to reflect his first name instead of the more provocative Peeler) that no white man, no matter what his class, could have carried out such grizzly deeds. It had to be one of those foreign devils who made their way back to the bosom of the empire from the colonies. Naturally it doesn't take long for suspicion to fall upon the supposedly reformed Thugee Ali.

With the assistance of other members of London's immigrant community Ali attempts to clear his name. This is one occasion where being beneath notice pays off as it allows them to keep an eye on those they suspect are responsible for the murders without anyone paying them the least bit of attention. There had long been a decent wage to be made supplying those studying medicine with body parts, Things, for those willing to do a little work with shovel and crowbar and no fear of graveyards at night. However for one group of resurrectionists, or body snatchers, looking to supply a prominent phrenologist with interesting shaped heads, the graveyards of London can't meet their needs. Showing the initiative that forged an empire they find likely candidates among those who will be least missed and relieve them of their heads.
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Khair does an excellent job of both recreating and ridiculing the Victorian era novel. In the case of the former he populates the book with recognizable character types from the period. Mathews is the well meaning and intentioned earnest hero type. Honourable, he actually steps forward and provides Ali with an alibi when he's arrested and ensures he's safe, and firm in his conviction that anybody exposed to the benefits of good Christian/English society can be saved from their life of heathenism. While condescending and bigoted at least he doesn't believe they are inherently evil or that being poor or foreign makes you some sort of criminal. One only has to contrast him with a couple of the other characters, even his cook thinks he's far too lax by keeping a dangerous coloured person in the house, to see why Ali feels a little guilty for having deceived him.

The author also takes writers from this, and other eras, to task in a roundabout way for their lack of imaginations. He has created a kind of narrator from what appears to be our era. It's this man who comes across a series of letters in his grandfather's library written in Farsi. (Muslims in India used to be able to read and write in Farsi, the language of Persia, as the Mughal empire in Northern India was originally Persian.) While it is a chore, because he doesn't know very much Farsi, what he discovers are a series of letters from Ali in which he either describes the events in the book or makes allusions to things he'd obviously described to his addressee in person. Khair's narrator is inspired by these letters and begins to imagine the events and filling in the blanks. He will occasionally pose the question as to how could he, somebody living in India, possibly describe London of the 19th century or the interior of a nobleman's house. His answer is to show how by using his imagination, a knowledge of what these things look like gained from reading and extrapolating from his personal experiences, it's not very hard to recreate a reasonably accurate picture of a time and place one's never experienced.

Aside from being a wonderful piece of satire and a witty send up of 19th century novels The Thing About Thugs also gives readers insights into life in London in that era from a far different perspective than has been previously offered. Even more so then today immigrants were looked on with suspicion and they were relegated to live in the poorer parts of the city. Here at least they would turn into just another one of those people beneath the notice of their betters and could enjoy some simple freedoms. However, it they dared to leave those environs for the streets of their betters, they were regarded with suspicion if not outright hostility. Of course that could never happen in today's world - just ask young African Americans what happens if they wander into all white suburbs.

The Thing About Thugs is at times poignant, at times funny and at other times will leave you shaking your head at the things people used to believe and their attitudes towards their fellow humans. Khair has created a story that's not only a pleasure to read but manages to contain social commentary without it turning into a polemic. That's a delicate balancing act few authors have the ability to carry off and it not only increases the pleasure one takes in the book but gives it a depth you don't often find in popular fiction today.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Kahir on Blogcritics)

May 29, 2012

Book Review: The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) By Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E D deBirmingham, Joseph Brassey, Erik Bear and Cooper Moo


In the aftermath of the fall of the Roman empire in the first millennium CE the door was opened for Europe to be invaded from the East. While early leaders like Charlemagne tried to fill the vacuum with the Empire's demise, their reach didn't extend beyond the boundaries of Western Europe. The situation didn't improve with time either. First of all the cream of European soldiery were being spent in fruitless attempts to re-conquer Jerusalem after the city was retaken by Saladin and his armies. Then in the1100s the Mongol hoards came sweeping out of the Steppes of Asia conquering and pillaging everything in their path in a huge swath stretching from the Ukraine to Poland.

With the Mongol hoards threatening expansion into the West the church and secular leaders finally turnd their attention away from Crusades into the Holy Land and attempted to deal with the threat closer to home. It's against this backdrop the story told in the first instalment of a new series unfolds. The Mongoliad: Book One, published by 47 North, an Amazon Publishing imprint, had its genesis as an online co-operative effort between a collection of known and unknown writers with a shared passion for medieval weaponry and martial arts. Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and Mark Teppo are established science fiction and fantasy writers. E.D. deBirmingham and Erik Bear have written historical fiction and for a bestselling video game respectively while Joseph Brassey teaches medieval fighting techniques to members of the armed forces and Cooper Moo is an ancient weapons enthusiast. While this might seem rather an odd (if not motley crew) collection of authors, once you begin reading the fruits of their efforts you quickly forget its provenance.

While The Mongoliad is itself a trilogy, it is only the first part of the far more ambitious Foreworld Saga that will eventually take readers on a trip through the ages via the 19th century adventurer and literary translator Sir Richard F Burton and into modern times via a group of archaeologists who uncover manuscripts Burton was attempting to translate when he died. While these details aren't available to readers who pick up The Mongoliad: Book One we can only assume their pertinence to the story being told in this volume will be revealed as the saga continues.

This story begins in what appears to be an abandoned monastery deep within Mongol controlled territory in Eastern Europe. A mysterious young women has travelled a dangerous road to bring a message to a group of Christian warrior monks who have taken up residence among the ruins. While most of us are probably familiar with the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers, religious warrior orders infamous and famous from the Crusades, there were other, more obscure, but equally dedicated, military sects. The knights gathered at this monastery were all members of The Shield Brethren, or the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae, an ancient military order with roots stretching back to a pre-Christian Norsemen brotherhood called the Skjaldbraedur. They were gathered here close to the encampment of the Mongol Kahgan, Ogedei, third son of the great Genghis Khan, in response to a challenge issued to all warriors of the West. Defeat the Kahgan's champion in a tournament and he would spare their countries the sight of the Mongol hoards attacking them.

However, we don't just see the world through the eyes of the Christian knights, as the authors take us into the world of the Mongol tribesman as well. Expansion and empire are not resting easy on the former nomadic plainsmen. Kahgan Ogedei is sinking into a pit of despair fuelled by his ever increasing consumption of wine. He has reached such a bad state that one of his brothers sends a young hunter/warrior, to Ogedei's court with explicit instructions to protect his brother from the wine he consumes. At first glance this seems like an impossible task to set for anyone, but especially for the young man chosen for the job. While a hero in battle and a great hunter Gansukh has no experience in dealing with the intrigues of life at court. In fact even being inside a building cut off from sight of the sky and hearing the wind play on the grass leaves him feeling imprisoned and trapped. Trying to figure out how to protect somebody from himself is difficult enough as it is, but when that person's word is law and to contradict him is tantamount to treason it's next to impossible.

As the book continues on readers not only move back and forth between the Mongol and Christian worlds, we also see the action through the eyes of multiple characters. While initially we meet the Christian knights via the observations of Cnan, the young messenger, as their journeys progress we are also given the perspective of one within the order, Raphael, a warrior physician. While Cnan is able to give us an outsider's objective observations and appraisals, Raphael's insights into the divisions and rivalries between the various warrior monk factions add another layer of intrigue to the story taking it beyond a simple hack and slash fantasy novel. A veteran of the Crusades Raphael has few illusions left about righteousness and those who claim to be on missions for God. The war against the Mongols is a matter of survival, and whether God's on their side or not doesn't really make any difference.
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While Gansukh is able to provide us with a view of the world from a tribesman who has lived his entire life on the steppes of Asia following the traditions of his ancestors, we are guided through the intrigues of life at court by the Chinese slave assigned to instruct him how to survive in this new and dangerous environment. The instruction she offers him also serves to help us understand what is plaguing Kahgan Ogedei. So, those times when we are offered the chance to see the world through the eyes of the Kahgan, we understand why he has come to rely on wine for solace. While it's true their are ghosts of events from the past that haunt him, they're only one part of the problem.

While there might be some truth to the saying "too many cooks spoil the broth", it doesn't apply to The Mongoliad: Book One. In fact it's a distinct advantage in a book where we see the world through the eyes of such a diverse group of people. Differences in voice make each character a distinct individual while not detracting from the story's coherency or cohesion. The overall narrative actually flows far more smoothly than usual for a book covering as much ground as this one as events build upon themselves naturally and logically. While there's no indication as to who wrote which parts it ends up being irrelevant. After the first few pages you'll find yourself so wrapped up in the story you'll no longer care who the author is, you'll just want to turn the page to find out what happens next. The authors have also done a wonderful job of bringing the world they are describing to life. There is an air of verisimilitude about everything that leaves you little doubt as to the historical accuracy of their descriptions of not only life during the era described but the behaviour of the characters as well. From the descriptions of the armour worn by the knights, individual fighting styles to the various personality traits of the characters, everything rings true.

It's early days yet, being only the first book of a trilogy which is the first instalment in what promises to be an incredibly complex and involved saga, but judging by The Mongoliad: Book One The Foreworld Saga promises to be not only intelligent and well written, but a lot of fun as well. The characters are intriguing, the plots interesting and complex without being convoluted and the fighting and descriptions of battle scenes realistic and exciting while not shirking from describing the more brutal truths of the horrible things humans are capable of doing to each other. In other words this has all the characteristics of being a must read series in the making. Lets hope it can keep the pace up.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Mongoliad: Book One (The Foreworld Saga) by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E D deBirmingham, Joseph Brassey, Erik Bear and Cooper Moo on Blogcritics.)

May 21, 2012

Book Review: The Sly Company Of People Who Care By Rahul Bhattacharya


The world is pitted with pockmarks left behind by colonial powers. Festering black holes of poverty and anger are the hallmarks of countries built upon the backs of slave labour and indentured servitude. While Africa and South East Asia are the areas most often associated with countries still trying to crawl out from the burden of being an European subject, the Western Hemisphere has its own colonial heritage. Unlike in other parts of the world those looking to exploit North and South America weren't able to do it on the backs of the indigenous peoples. Rather unreasonably they preferred to die rather be forced to slave for those who would be their masters.

Which is why almost anywhere there were European settlements in the Western Hemisphere, from Canada to South America, there were also slaves. If, once the slave trade had been abolished, the land owners still needed cheap labour they used the next best thing, indentured servants. In exchange for the promise of a new life poor people in other parts of the world were given passage to the new world in exchange for agreeing to work as virtual slaves for a period of at least five years and sometimes seven. In Guyana, formally British Guiana, on the North East coast of South America, the scars from these practices are still open wounds.

In his recently published book, The Sly Company Of People Who Care from Picador Press, author Rahul Bhattacharya takes us on a long strange journey into the soul of probably the poorest county in our hemisphere. One of the main reasons for Guyana's poverty were the practices employed by her former colonial masters, the Dutch and the British. It was the Dutch who brought thousands of African slaves to the country. They did the back breaking work of making the costal areas not only habitable but useful for agriculture by shifting thousand of tons of earth and mud to construct dikes and canals by hand. In theory the former slaves were given the opportunity to buy some of the land they had previously worked. But the government, urged on by their former masters, did their best to make sure the former slaves would fail.

The slaves' place on the plantations were taken primarily by indentured servants brought in from the poorest parts of India. However, unlike their African counterparts, once the Indians had served their contracts they were given assistance from the government to ensure they could make a go of farming and establishing themselves. This was a deliberate attempt by those in power to create resentment and animosity between the two sets of downtrodden people. For naturally the descendants of the African slaves resented the favours granted the late comers. Political parties were formed along racial lines, and while there were some who attempted to bridge the gap, even today the divide is the biggest cause of unrest and violence in Guyana.
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Bhattacharya's story centres around the experiences of a young Indian national who decided to chuck his career as a sports journalist covering cricket around the world to spend a year exploring Guyana. What he quickly discovers, although there are very few pure blooded descendants of either racial group left, the divisions still run deep. Therefore he naturally spends the majority of time in the company of those who trace their ancestry back to India. Ironically they know little or almost nothing, of the language or culture they left behind and like their African counterparts speak a localized version of the Caribbean patois.

While the book is called a novel, Bhattacharya, was himself a former cricket journalist and spent time in Guyana exploring the country and getting to know its ins and outs as best he could. The impression he creates is of a country of extreme contrasts. From the below sea level coastal area where the majority of the population is crammed into dirty and crumbling cities where poverty and the ugliness that accompanies it is the norm, to the breathtaking natural beauty of the rain forests and exposed and wild grasslands bordering Brazil. While the transition from city life to the rainforest is made in stages; first by bus, then boat and then on foot to small settlements in the bush, on a visit to Brazil he discovers the demarcation line between the forrest and the grass land is much more abrupt. As he describes it one moment your amongst trees and the next all your eye can see for miles in any direction is swaying grasses.

Well the natural physical beauties of Guyana are spectacular, including the Kaieteur Falls the world's largest single drop waterfall, Bhattacharya's book concentrates on the people his character meets and describing their lives. It seems like alcohol and ganga play a substantial role in the lives of the men he meets, which could also explain why it feels like every gathering carries with it the potential for violence. Like any poor community there are those who are always looking for the quick way out - the one scam that will get them ahead of the game. This lends a certain air of desperation to all their actions and contributes to the ever present whiff of danger one senses. Too many people walking the knife edge of seeing hopes dashed time after time but still willing to bet everything they have on some desperate adventure.

The other impression created is of a whole nation adrift. With an economy in tatters, the only people making any money are the ones shipping cocaine from Columbia through Guyana to points further afield and those living off the bribes they pay out. While this is a work of fiction, one has the feeling the characters the author has created are based on people he met during his time in Guyana. Nobody sees any further ahead then how to get through the next little while. There's no talk of the future or planning ways to get ahead. There might be boasting of things done in the past or far fetched dreams of maybe immigrating to America, but that's as far as it goes. Depending upon which community you find yourself in, African or Indian, there's always the recourse of blaming the misfortunes of the country on the other. If it weren't for them why things would be better.
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Like those he falls in with, the lead character in Bhattacharya's story is seemingly content to drift aimlessly for the year his visa lasts. This includes a rather strange affair he has with a local woman which he falls into apparently from boredom. He knows it can't last, he has to catch a plane back to India on a specific date or face serious trouble, but at times he pretends to himself there's more to it than just something casual. She's not as stupid as him concerning the affair, but in other ways she's pathetically ignorant. She's the cause of his one great moral dilemma just before he's to leave the country, not what you think, and he fails the test quite miserably.

In some ways our narrator is not a likeable person. He's the ultimate dilettante as he plays at being poor and living the drifting life style of those around him. However, unlike them he has his passage out pre booked and paid for. He has a life and a career to go back to and the stability of a home waits for him in his native land. While he drinks their rum and talks their patois, and one of the delights of this book is how well Bhattacharya has managed to recreate the various dialects on the page, it's all a pretence for him. He's still a reporter at heart and no matter how much he thinks he's involved with what's going on he remains sufficiently detached to be able to report objectively on people's behaviour. His only saving grace is at least he's honest enough to apply the same critical eye to his own behaviour.

The Sly Company Of People Who Care is an interesting read for the light it shines on one of the world's forgotten communities. Guyana, like so many countries abandoned by those who exploited its people and natural resources after they milked it for all they could, has been drifting aimlessly in an ever increasing downward spiral ever since its independence. With little or no opportunities for careers the few who are educated leave for greener pastures as soon as possible and those who remain behind sink further into poverty and anger. One is left wondering how much longer it can continue to drift before it runs aground. It sounds like only luck has prevented it from succumbing to the horrible ethnic violence we've seen other former colonies descend into. However, unless something happens to enact healthy change soon that's a tinderbox only the right spark away from being ignited.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Sly Company Of People Who Care By Rahul Bhattacharya on Blogcritics.)

May 17, 2012

Book Review: Tough Shit: Life Lessons From A Fat Slob Who Did Good By Kevin Smith


You know a book by Kevin Smith, a guy famous for making movies about "dick and fart jokes", is bound to be crude, lewd and rude. However what might surprise most people, especially those who believe he makes movies about dick and fart jokes and never look further than that, is beneath the bluster and foul mouth of a twelve year old boy from Jersey are a brain and a heart. As he himself says in his latest book, Tough Shit: Life Advice From A Fat Lazy Slob Who Did Good published by Penguin Canada, as an overweight kid from Jersey he had to find a way to prevent himself from being made everybody's favourite punching bag. If people are pissing themselves laughing it's much harder for them to beat the crap out of you. So in many ways he's never stopped being that twelve year old kid trying to make us laugh.

Now most people who pick up a book by Smith already know what he's about and aren't about to be offended by anything he's got to say. The thing is that a lot of people who pick up this book in the hopes that's it just like the movies he used to make are going to be somewhat disappointed. Oh sure there's more use of the word pussy not in reference to the family cat than in most works of non-fiction and not many people dedicate their books to their wife's sphincter, yet even excesses along those lines aren't gratuitous. The book is exactly what the title claims it is, except just like his movies there's far more to it than you'd expect. As with the majority of Smith's work it's up to you what you take away from it. With his movies it was laugh at the puerile jokes, enjoy the gross out moments and appreciate the overall anarchy as epitomized by Jay and Silent Bob, or you can go a little deeper and dig his love for the misfits up on screen and the statement that makes.

Of course Smith would have you believe he's the biggest misfit of them all; an overweight, lazy dude from the armpit of the nation who managed to make it as an outsider in the ultimate insider industry. The thing is he's right. For all intents and purposes this is not somebody who should have been able to make a career in movies. His first movie was shot on a shoestring budget with a cast made up of friends and local community theatre actors. Clerks should have disappeared without a trace and Smith with it. However through sheer balls and faith in his own work he managed to secure a screening for it at Sundance which led to a distribution deal with the then kings of indie cinema Miramax. Maybe it was a case of being in the right place at the right time, but if he hadn't had the chutzpah to make the movie in the first place, to risk it all on a dream, none of it would ever have happened.
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As you read through Tough Shit and listen to him recount the various stages of his career and what he considers the important turning points in his life, you're struck by the size of the risk he took in each of the incidences he describes. The other thing you realize is no matter how many self-depreciating remarks he might cast his own way, this is a guy who has great faith in his own abilities and the huge amount of courage required to bring his dream of doing what he loves to make a living come true. Of course he also has his own unique context which helps him keep things in perspective.

The opening chapter of the book is about his dad and three lessons that were to influence Smith junior's life. The first being the freaking miracle that out of all the sperm from his dad that ended up inside his mother, it was the one with his name on it that survived. The way Smith figures it winning that race with the odds so strongly stacked against you means you've already won half the battle. The second was his dad hated his job with a passion. Now most people would have accepted that as their lot in life and followed their old man's example of taking a job they hated to put bread on the table. Not Smith, he looked at how unhappy his dad was and thought there has to be something better, why can't you do what you love for a living? The final lesson he learned from his father was from how he died. His father died screaming in pain having a massive heart attack. The lesson Smith took from that was if that was his dad's reward for years of self-sacrifice and hating his job, than he might as well make as much a paradise for himself in this world as he can.

While that might sound like a sure fire recipe for self-indulgence, and maybe some can't see the difference between that and a life dedicated to self-expression, for Smith it provided the motivation for keeping as true to himself as possible. During the course of the book he describes what happened when he let his life drift off that path. The worst of those experiences was directing Bruce Willis in Cop Out. While it earned him the respect of executives of the studio he did the film for, and led to more offers of directing work, he realized that even if he never had to work with a prima donna like Willis again, simply directing somebody else's material wasn't for him. It would eventually turn into a job he would hate, or at least resent, and that's not what he had set out to do when he embarked upon finding a way of making a living doing what he loved.
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Smith is nothing if not honest. Throughout the entire book he's upfront with readers telling them there's nothing easy about the course he's chosen and if they want to emulate what he's doing they're in for a hard slog. This is the tough shit of the title, "Security, normalcy, convenience, protection, and identity are opiates you've gotta wean yourself off before you can be an individual. You can't stand out if you're blending in." Now that might sound easy but it has to be the hardest thing in the world to actually follow through on. He's talking about giving up everything from normal relationships to anything else you can think of that all of your friends will be doing.

Maybe that's why he's dedicated the book to such a specific part of his wife's anatomy. He goes into details for you in the chapter talking about her, but that's just his way of making the real point. Which is that he's been incredibly blessed not just because as he puts it "she's way out of my league" but because she willingly gave up her career as a journalist to join forces with him. That she allows him to be who he is warts and all and accepts that he won't change for anyone is a miracle and he knows it. Being an artist is an incredibly selfish endeavour and to find somebody willing to go along for the ride with you is fucking amazing cause they know they're never going to be first in your heart, they might tie for top spot but will never come out on top. If they asked you to chose between them and your art you'll either chose your art or hate them for the rest of your days.

The great thing about reading a Kevin Smith book is its like having a conversation. True it might be a bit one sided as you're hard pressed to get a work in edgewise when dealing with a book. Anyone who has ever listened to any of the commentary Smith includes with the DVDs of his movies, watched a DVD of his speaking tours, listened to any of his podcasts at Smodcast.com will understand what I'm talking about. He doesn't belabour a point or come across all heavy and intellectual, but still manages to make more sense and talk more intelligently about art, movies and life than ninety percent of the called self-help gurus out there. His recipe for happiness might not be right for everyone, but for those who are willing to give it all for their dream, it's a damn good one to follow.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tough Shit: Life Advice From A Fat Lazy Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith on Blogcritics.)

May 6, 2012

Book Review: Simon's Cat: Feed Me By Simon Tofield


There have been plenty of cartoon cats who have come gone over the years, and to be honest none of them have ever really appealed to me. Maybe it's because I own and like cats, I find most of the caricatures lacking. For instead of trusting in the natural appeal of the animal most of them have been given human attributes which might make them cute for some, but just makes them unappealing to me. So when someone first sent me a link to Simon Tofield's Simon's Cat it took me a while to even bother checking it out. Well, as anyone who has seen these videos knows Tofield took the opposite tact, with his cat barely beening anthropomorphized at all.

The live action cartoons are simple, black and white, sketch like drawings. Nothing high tech about them. In fact there's not even and dialogue, or at least any in human language. Simon's Cat, he doesn't appear to have any other name, communicates in a series of sounds and noises which will be familiar to any cat owner. From the inquisitive chirps he makes when faced with a puzzle all the way through to the contented purr of the well fed animal. Somehow, with just this basic vocabulary, and an understanding of cat body language, Tofield has managed to instil his creation with the just the right combination of elements that its behaviour strikes chords of recognition with his viewers. I'm sure every cat owner watching has at one time or another said a variation on, "That's just like my cat", at some time or another.
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How though would the cat make the transition to the printed page? What works with an audio track and animation won't necessarily in the less kinetic media. But at those who have read Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence will know he's just as, if not more, appealing in print as he is on the screen. Up until now the books like the cartoons have been in black in and white. However that's all going to change with the release of Simon's Cat: Feed Me, a Canongate UK publication distributed by the Independent Publishers Group (IPG).

For Simon's Cat and his environment are in colour for the first time. To be honest I had worried that he might not be able to stand up to the transition. Part of the cartoon's charm has been its simplicity. In some instances the cat appears alone on the page, no settings aside from him and the object of his attention. Whether it be a piece of tape attached to his paw and his struggles to remove it, his turning of an empty box into an adventure or his continual and relentless attempts at filling his food bowl, it had always been the cat at the centre of our attention. But colour could ruin that, as colour might well demand a more fleshed out world forcing Tolfield to draw what had been left to our imaginations and reduce the cat to nothing more than just another object in a world full of clutter.

Thankfully this isn't the case. As in the previous books in those instances where Tolfield fills in the world around the cat, he always does so in close up. Even when he's out in the wilds the focus is tight to the immediate surroundings keeping our attention solely on the centre of this world's universe - the cat. As the title of this book suggests all of the cartoons revolve around its lead's endless pursuit of food. Or rather obsession with being fed. In the original animated cartoons no matter what mayhem the cat might have caused, the action would invariably end with him sitting, pointing to his open mouth making pleading noises even the stupidest of humans couldn't fail to recognize as a demand to be fed.

We are witness to Simon's Cat resorting to an impressive array of attempted deceptions and ploys in his attempts to squeeze some extra food from a harsh world. From disguising himself as a bird house, with his mouth as the entrance, in the hopes a bird will fly in to sitting under a cow and pulling on its tail in the hopes this will activate the udders under which he's urgently waiting with gaping mouth. Then there are his efforts to have other animals feed him, even going so far as begging a heron for its fish or pretending to be a fox kit in order to get a share of the kill a mother brings home for its brood. His disguises are always ridiculously easy to see through and part of the fun are the expressions of incredulity on the other animal's faces upon catching site of the interloper. It's as if they can't believe anyone can be that stupid as to fall for a cat's tricks.
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While the animal kingdom might not fall for his ploys, the same can't be said for humans. While there are plenty of scenes of the cat rummaging in cupboards ripping open boxes, or stealing food from his human's plate, there are enough showing the cat falling victim to his own excesses we don't begin to hate him. For every slapstick image of the human tripping over the purring cat, spilling his coffee when his leg is used as a scratching post, the cat also gets his comeuppance. We've all seen a cat do its happy dance with its front paws, usually when it beds down in a comfortable place - like your stomach or other sensitive body parts. Well in this case the cat goes into his happy dance around his full food bowl only to take it a step too far and catch the edge of his dish and end up wearing his meal.

The success of Simon's Cat lies in the cartoon's ability to capture those characteristics of the animal immediately recognizable to any cat owner. Everyone who has ever owned a cat will at some point in watching, or reading, them say - that's exactly like (insert the name of your cat here). In transferring the series from animated cartoon to book instead of trying to fit it into a conventional comic strip format to tell the story, Tolfield elects to go with a more free form style. We either are treated to a moment in time caught on the page and left to figure out what's going on - cat sitting on floor, man throwing coffee cup at ceiling with expression of pained surprise on face and lower leg of pyjamas showing definite signs of claw marks tells its own story - or given a series of images that our eye follows around the page like stop action animation.

Simon Tofield's Simon's Cat works so well because the cat in question is not cute, has few if any human characteristics or motivations, and is saved from being a complete pain in the ass by occasionally ending up the victim of its own plots. I doubt the series will appeal to dog lovers, but if you've ever owned a cat, whether you liked it or not, you can't help but be impressed at how well it captures the domestic cat in all its glory. If you enjoyed the cartoons on the internet and the previous books of black and white drawings, then you won't be able to resist Simon's Cat in colour.
(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat: Feed Me by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics.)

May 4, 2012

Book Review: Except The Queen by Midori Snyder And Jane Yolen


Once upon a time fairy stories were things told to children and had very little to do with fairies. Oh there were spells and other enchantments would make appearances, but by the twentieth century most of the ones my generation grew up on owned more to a late nineteenth century romantic version of cute little winged creatures than anything else. This, in spite of the fact these depictions ran contrary to every precedent established by centuries of English language literature. Even changing the name and spelling from Faerie, or the Fae, to fairy, thus eliminating the allusions to madness that fae implied, seems to have been part of the attempt to make them cute and precious instead of the wild and untamed creatures they had been previously.

While the cutesy "Tinkerbell" image of the Fae persists, recent years have seen the pendulum beginning to swing in the other direction again. In fact it might even have swung too far with depictions of the Fae as a mixture of succubi and deadly killers out to rule the world. While it's true they have always taken delight in causing mischief and consider mortals as toys for their amusement, the dark image created by some, with the heavy sexual overtones, has more to do with the imaginations of those who depict them than anything else. Thankfully there are writers who are doing their best to write stories that find a balance between both misconceptions.
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One of the best of those is the recently published Midori Snyder and Jane Yolen published by Penguin Canada. Both women have a history of writing exceptional fantasy novels, with Yolen best known for her prolific output of children's books and Snyder for her young adult New Moon trilogy. Together they have penned something special - a Faerie tale for the modern era.

Meteora and Serena were typical Fae. Sisters, they loved nothing better than to beguile mortals with their looks and charms. They lived lives of indolent pleasure among the forests and glades of The Greenwood. However one day they chanced upon a scene which would change their lives forever. While out hunting for mortals to play with they heard the unmistakeable sounds of lovemaking taking place among some trees. Upon further investigation they first found a baby sleeping gently upon a blanket and then her parents under the cover of some bushes. Only then do they discover that its the Queen of the Fae who is the woman of the pair. While all the other Fae never hesitate to take human lovers, the Queen would lose face in the eyes of the nobility if it was ever discovered she had surrendered to such base appetites.

While the sisters escape discovery initially, Meteora indadvertedly lets the secret out. Needles to say the Queen is irate and punishes them in the worst way imaginable. Not only does she banish them to the mortal world, but she changes them so they are stripped of the glamour which gives them the illusion of beauty and endless youth and they are turned into dumpy middle aged women. On top of that they are sent to separate places in the mortal world and have to figure out how to get by on their own. Meteora receives some guidance on how to survive from the witch Baba Yaga and is allowed to stay in her house in the mortal world. Serena, on the other hand, ends up in the hands of social services. While she doesn't receive instructions on how to get by like Meteora, she is given some money and a place to live.
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In their separate cities the two sisters begin to find their way among the mortals. Using what little magic is left to them they are each able to communicate with birds. Eventually a dove manages to pass messages between the two sisters. So even though they don't where each other are, they know they are three days by dove flight apart, they are able to communicate. It's a good thing to, because they soon discover the Queen had banished them not only as punishment. For while our main focus is on the activities of the two sisters, we are also given occasional glimpses of events in the world of the Fae. Dissension among the nobility of her court is causing the Queen serious problems, but that's the least of her troubles. The Unseelie court, home to the truly evil denizens of Faerie, have begun plotting against her, and somehow their plans are tied up with two young people in the mortal world.
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It's no coincidence that Meteora and Serena have ended up placed in a position where they can help the young man, Robin, and the young woman, Sparrow. It becomes obvious to both sisters that each of their young charges have been touched by Faerie in some manner. In her previous form Serena had the gift of foresight and even in the mortal world she retains some small talent for predicting the future. Which is how she knows she must send Robin to stay with her sister and Sparrow. In someway the two young people's fates are entwined. Unfortunately bringing the two of them together also seems to focus the attention of the Unseelie court's hunters. It will take all of Meteora's and Serena's skill and bravery to keep themselves, the two young ones and those they've befriended alive and solve the mystery of why the Unseelie want them so desperately.

What makes this story different from many other modern urban fairy stories is the fact it manages to retain the love of nature and growing things that's at the heart of Faerie instead of dwelling only on the dark elements of the magic realm. Even though their magic has been weakened by the transition to the mortal realm the two sisters carry within them the heart and soul of carefree children of the Greenwood and those they meet can't help but be effected. The occasional glimpses we have of the sisters through the eyes of the mortals they befriend and meet, gives us a good idea of the impact they have on people.

On top of that Yolen and Snyder have written an exciting story filled with surprises and an eclectic mix of characters. Wait 'till you meet the crones! While the bad guys are enough to unsettle even the bravest, we never dwell too long amongst them. Just long enough to make our skin crawl, but never long enough for their darkness to take over the story. There aren't many authors out there who have the ability to depict the world of the Fae in as balanced and non sensationalistic manner as these two have. Like their two lead characters the authors bring a little magic into the lives of all they encounter, and we can all use a little more magic.

( Article first published as Book Review: Except The Queen By Mydori Snyder And Jane Yolen on Blogcritics.)

May 2, 2012

Book Review: William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an By Michael Muhammad Knight


I had a really strange experience while reading William S Burroughs vs. The Qur'an, Michael Muhammad Knight's latest book published by the Counterpoint Press imprint Soft Skull Press. I was almost finished the book and all of a sudden came across my own words staring back at me from the page. It was surreal to find myself being quoted in somebody else's work to begin with, but even weirder to see how the words dovetailed with Knight's theme.

The quote was from my review of his book Journey To The End Of Islam and I had said something along the lines of how if more people were as brave and honest as Knight was in discussing their religion the world would be better off. He freaked out. "The brave and honest porkshit is artistic and spiritual sabotage. When someone puts that psychic poison on you how can you ever write a word?" That might sound like he's being ungrateful, even petulant, but in the context of the book it actually makes perfect sense and I get where he's coming from. For while his books have been all about telling people all about his quest to find himself within his religion, people have started looking to him as if he's the answer to that question for themselves.

In William S Burroughs Vs The Qur'an Knight details how his search for his place in Islam inevitably lead him to an earlier generation of white Western converts to Islam. In particular he tells of his attempt at writing the definitive biography of his Anarcho-Sufi hero and mentor Peter Lamborn Wilson, also known as Hakim Bey. The first part of the book is taken up with his recounting his times spent with Wilson and excerpts from the biography he's destined never to finish. We learn that Wilson's Islam has its sources in both the experiences of Burroughs and other Beats (Paul Bowles, Alan Ginsberg and the rest) in Tangiers during the years of the International Zone and the Moorish Science Temple of America founded by Noble Drew Ali of Chicago.
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While I can understand Knight's attraction to the idea of an Islamic lineage with white American roots, the more he begins to detail Wilson's life and experiences the more I began to wonder whether he was clutching at straws looking to this guy as any sort of spiritual guide. From his experiences with LSD guru Timothy Leary to his wanderings through India he seemed more intent on discovering his capacity for ingesting drugs than any sort of spiritual advancement. It isn't until he ends up in Iran in the 1970s that he even settles to any sort of apparently serious spiritual advancement. Even that is tainted by the fact that the group he joins, The Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, is described by Knight as "a politically ambitious mystico-fascist cult" whose purpose seems to be give the then Shah of Iran the veneer of spirituality.

However, while his association The Academy raises some doubts in Knight's mind, it's not where or who Wilson studied with that's important. It's how he studied and his experiments with various sects and forms of Islam that Knight identifies with. Then there is the whole issue of lineage. In Islam a spiritual teacher's credibility is increased by those he sites from previous generations as being the sources for his wisdom. Wilson traces his lineage back to Medieval times and the leader of the alleged drug crazed sect notorious in the West known as the Assassins, Hassa-i Sabbah, via William S Burroughs. The sect were famous for their doctrine of Qiyamat which cancelled all religious laws which according to Wilson was a call for all Muslims to realize the "Imam of his own being".

For Knight this more or less says each of us our are own god, the basic tenet of the African American Islamic group The Five Percenters who he identifies with. However there's a twisted secret buried at the heart of Wilson's Islam that makes it impossible for Knight to see him in the same light anymore. Although a good part of the book shows us his attempts to find a way that Wilson's writings endorsing pedophilia are merely some sort of shock tactic or an allegory of some kind (after all the great mystic Rumi wrote a poem about two women who had sex with a donkey), he can't escape the fact that his mentor sees nothing wrong with an adult man having sex with a child. Knight even goes to the extent of writing his own homo/erotic Islamic science fiction story (of which excerpts are included) in an attempt to see if he can see a way of justifying his mentor's disturbing writings.

Over the balance of the book, amid segues into excerpts from the above mentioned story, Knight describes among other things, his horror at discovering he's becoming a mentor figure to young Muslims who have been reading his books. They've taken his descriptions of his struggles with identity and his fiction as instruction. They write to him for advice and thank him for being a role model. In a sort of fit of desperation to find direction he heads off to the backwoods of West Virginia to his late father's "Unabomber" shack and creates his own personal mosque amidst the squalor. Living on tinned tuna he experiments with using the cut-up writing method espoused by Burroughs as the way of finding a text's hidden meanings on the Qur'an. This involves literally cutting up a work's text and then putting it back together randomly.

Reading this book within the context of lineage and mentors I have to wonder if its not a deliberate attempt on Knight's part to scare people away from looking to him as a mentor figure. While he's written about other periods of his life when he felt lost, specifically when he returned from studying in Pakistan and rejected the fundamentalist values that his teachers there had attempted to instil in him, he has never seemed so insecure in his faith before. However there's a certain amount of ambiguity as to when the events described in the book took place. The only real clue as to the time frame it represents is at the end he is talking about whether or not he will write the recently released Why I Am A Five Percenter or vanish from the pages of mainstream publications into the world of academia.
Michael Muhammad Knight 2.jpg
Perhaps the most telling point in the book is his description of an impromptu gathering with some friends. Gathering together at a basketball court they sit around and talk about their faith, what it means to them and how they try to "live" it. Knight ruminates on how maybe this group should form their own "sect" but concludes it was the very spontaneity of the gathering that allowed them the freedom to express themselves. Any attempt at formalization, even to arrange times for them to get together and talk again, would begin to encroach on that freedom and lead to the creation of a hierarchy and rules, all the hallmarks of an organized religion. It puts his balancing act of being a Muslim and his rejection of the structure religions by their nature impose on their followers into stark relief.

A person can spend all the time in the world searching for mentors and gurus or reading the collected works of every mystic and Imam whoever put pen to paper in an attempt to justify how you practice your beliefs and it won't matter. It all comes down to trusting yourself and be willing to accept your beliefs can exist independent of any structure. Knight doesn't tell anybody they should follow his lead, this is what works for him. While he takes obvious pleasure in studying the words and teachings of both the Sufi saints of the past and current groups like The Five Percenters, it seems like its more for the sake of the knowledge he acquires through the study than in the hopes he will find a place where he fits in.

Michael Muhammad Knight is a liar and a coward. Michael Muhammad Knight is honest and brave. What difference does it make. His writing will either offend or inspire you, and in places it might even do both. But no matter what, he will always make you think for yourself, force you into having an opinion and reach your own conclusions. Knight might reject the idea that he has anything to offer in the way of guidance, but he does offer his readers one something few other do - he never once tells them what to do or leads anyone to believe he has the solution to whatever ails them.

(Article first published as Book Review: William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

April 29, 2012

Book Review: Asbury Park By Robb Scott


New Jersey has always seemed to be the butt of people's jokes. Even the state's motto, "The Garden State", seems a deliberate attempt by somebody to set it up for a fall given its reputation as an industrial wasteland and dumping ground. However, the sea side board walks and sandy beaches of its coastal towns once made it a haven in summer time for families of all incomes. While beaches were segregated by class, the wealthiest to the poorest could enjoy cooling off in the heat of the summer in its sheltered coves. Even today the boardwalks remain and people converge on the ocean front in places like Asbury Park to surf and swim.

While the beaches may not have changed all that much moving inland things aren't as nice. With the failures of industry and the loss of jobs the fastest growth business is recreational chemicals. Crystal meth, crack, heroin and ecstasy are where the money is and those looking to make a quick buck have moved in to stake out their territories. In Rob Scot's new release from Orion/Gollancz, Asbury Park, Detective Sam "Sailor" Doyle returns to the family home in New Jersey to recover from injuries received in the line of duty. He knows he'll find things have changed for the worst since he was a teenager, but nothing can prepare him for the nightmare he's about to walk into.

While Sailor was heralded in the news for being the hero who saved the life of the President and prevented a mad man from infecting the east coast of the United State with the plague (for details see Scott's previous release 15 Miles) there's a darker reality hidden beneath the headlines. Plagued by personal demons Sailor hadn't been completely sober in years. By the time of the events described in the previous book he had stooped to the level of stealing prescription drugs from crime scenes to feed his Oxycocete addiction and was cheating on his wife. This summer's trip back home is being made not only in the hopes he can recover physically, but is an effort to salvage his marriage and his life.
Cover Asbury Park Robb Scott.jpg
Sailor's experienced cop eye is disconcerted to see the telltale signs of organized gang activity in his old neighbourhood. Aside from the obvious evidence of poverty and drug trafficking, even more ominous are the telltale signs of gang "tags" marking territory on buildings and at scenes of what appear to be random acts of vandalism. However his more immediate concerns are his wife's threat to take the kids and leave him if she gets so much of as a hint that he's fallen off the wagon and the withdrawal symptoms that are wracking his body. It's the latter which forces him out of bed in the early hours of the morning and out onto the boardwalk. Exhausted and in pain he seeks refuge in a sea side hotel where he's taken under the wing of an early rising former minor league baseball player, Mark "Moses" Stillman.

The invitation to join Stillman for breakfast would have been ideal if they weren't interrupted by a body falling from the sixth floor balcony onto their table. When the apparent suicide turns out to have at one time been Sailor's high school history teacher it's enough to send shivers up his spine. However odd it might be that a former teacher of his just happens to pick his breakfast table to jump into it can still all be explained away as a coincidence. With the jumper comes the local police and the kind of attention Sailor was hoping to avoid. Spend the month of July getting clean and patching things up with the wife is harder to do when you're a material witness to what might be a murder inquiry. Suicide becomes possible murder when there's evidence to suggest his former teacher might have been dead before he did the swan dive off the balcony.

All hopes of staying off anyone's radar disappear when Sailor breaks up what he thinks is a potential shooting spree in the making. He tackles a teenage kid about to enter a middle school with a concealed weapon. Unfortunately the kid is possessed with the strength of desperation and Sailor is suffering from the wounds he earned earlier. Things are looking really desperate for him when help arrives in an unexpected form. A local drug dealer jumps into the fray and kills the kid before jumping into his car and taking off. When it turns out the kid's weapons were not only obsolete but empty, his bomb nothing more than flares taped together and he'd wrapped a device designed to set himself on fire the apparent murderer becomes an attempted suicide.

A suicide that could be a murder and a murderer who was really a suicide and both in very public places with both just happening to involve Sailor. Too make matters worse ever since he's returned to the old neighbourhood he's been having what he can only call auditory hallucinations that seem to be turning into his own personal soundtrack. While it's possible a classic rock station is fixating on Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here", the fact Sailor hears it coming out of almost every radio and stereo he comes within hearing range of is starting to strain his already taunt nerves. As if that's not enough there's another tune that keeps cropping up. Whether he hears it faintly on the air or somebody is whistling a few bars as they walk by it's starting to drive him crazy. When it starts heralding him seeing events out of the past and other twists in reality it only takes hearing the familiar notes to make him panic.
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However when the ghost of the kid he wrestled to the ground in the schoolyard starts stalking him and "tagging" his house Sailor knows something somewhere is not right. As more and more pieces of the puzzle start to assemble the picture becomes even fuzzier. Somehow present day gang activity ties in to mysterious deaths back when he was teenager and he's somehow the focal point. On the surface it seems like a confusing mess with little or no way for Sailor to find his way clear. Yet author Scott takes what seems like a frustrating morass of unconnected incidents and characters and allows them to find a way to fit together that makes sense in the world he's created.

On the surface it appears to be the New Jersey of today, with all the problems drugs and gangs bring to any urban community. However underneath is something far more sinister and dangerous. Combining elements of psychological horror and fantasy with a stark and gritty crime thriller is no mean trick, yet when it's done with the aplomb that Scott manages it makes for a gripping read. Even more tricky is the fact that he has centred the action around a character who is not necessarily sympathetic. Sailor Doyle displays too many of the symptoms of an addict to make him easy to like. However, in spite of his back sliding, lying and self pity he never once makes excuses for him self or his behaviour. In some ways the mystery he finds himself in parallels his personal nightmare of addiction. It's a maze he has to find his way out of before it collapses and buries him and those he loves alive.

Asbury Park is not your typical cop novel or standard horror story and as a result is better than what you'd normally expect from either genre. Not only does it deliver the chills and thrills of both, but it does so with an intelligence and emotional depth usually lacking in those types of books. From Scott's honest depiction of his main character's struggles with his personal demons to the way he gradually cranks up the tension as the book proceeds, it becomes harder and harder to put the book down. If you thought the streets of your home town were unsafe, it's nothing compared to what's happening in Asbury Park New Jersey. The boardwalk will never be the same again.
(Article first published as Book Review: Asbury Park by Rob Scott on Blogcritics)

April 20, 2012

Book Review: Elves Once Walked With God & Rise Of The Taigethen by James Barclay


For the most part the sword and sorcery sub-genre of fantasy fiction really hasn't evolved too much from its early days as a staple of pulp fiction magazines in the 1920s. There's still far too many cases of lone heroes overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in order to defeat some sort of evil dude and win the hand of the young nubile woman. Thankfully the past decade has seen the rise of a couple of writers with both the wit and imagination to find ways to improve upon that rather basic and base premise. The best of them have done this through a combination of inventive world creation, interesting characters and retaining the elements of action and adventure which made the genre so appealing in the first place.

British author James Barclay is one of the new generation of writers who has done successful job of breathing new life into the genre. In his three previous series, The Chronicles Of The Raven, The Legends Of The Raven and The Ascendants Of Estorea both the characters and the worlds he has created have been memorable and believable while the story lines have been imaginative and made for page turning excitement. Now in his latest trilogy, Elves, of which the first two have been published by Orion Book's fantasy imprint Gollancz, he returns us to world he created for the Raven books, but to a far earlier time and a whole new cast of characters.

In Elves: Once Walked With Gods the story opens in the Elves home dimension with their elite warriors making a desperate last stand against an implacable enemy. They are desperately buying time to allow as many of their people to escape to a new dimension as possible. With the portal about to close to prevent their enemy from following them, the leader of the defence, Takaar of the elite fighting force theTaiGethen, breaks from his position on the front lines and flees through the portal leaving his troops without their leader. Although there's no way the elves could have won, seeing him run destroys their morale and causes wide spread panic. With defensive cohesion lost as elvish soldiers of all stripes make for the portal while there's still time, countless lives that might have been saved are lost.
For the most part the sword and sorcery sub-genre of fantasy fiction really hasn't evolved too much from its early days as a staple of pulp fiction magazines in the 1920s. There's still far too many cases of lone heroes overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in order to defeat some sort of evil dude and win the hand of the young nubile woman. Thankfully the past decade has seen the rise of a couple of writers with both the wit and imagination to find ways to improve upon that rather basic and base premise. The best of them have done this through a combination of inventive world creation, interesting characters and retaining the elements of action and adventure which made the genre so appealing in the first place.
Cover Elves - Once Walked With Gods.jpg
British author James Barclay is one of the new generation of writers who has done successful job of breathing new life into the genre. In his three previous series, The Chronicles Of The Raven, The Legends Of The Raven and The Ascendants Of Estorea both the characters and the worlds he has created have been memorable and believable while the story lines have been imaginative and made for page turning excitement. Now in his latest trilogy, Elves, of which the first two have been published by Orion Book's fantasy imprint Gollancz, he returns us to world he created for the Raven books, but to a far earlier time and a whole new cast of characters.

In Elves: Once Walked With Gods the story opens in the Elves home dimension with their elite warriors making a desperate last stand against an implacable enemy. They are desperately buying time to allow as many of their people to escape to a new dimension as possible. With the portal about to close to prevent their enemy from following them, the leader of the defence, Takaar of the elite fighting force theTaiGethen, breaks from his position on the front lines and flees through the portal leaving his troops without their leader. Although there's no way the elves could have won, seeing him run destroys their morale and causes wide spread panic. With defensive cohesion lost as elvish soldiers of all stripes make for the portal while there's still time, countless lives that might have been saved are lost.

The new world should have been a haven for the elves as the continent they've settled on, Calaius, is almost completely covered by dense rainforest, the environment they feel most at home in. While those elves who continue in the old ways and live in the forest protecting the temples and other holy places of their people are content, the same can't be said for those who have chosen to live in cities. Drifting further and further away the beliefs that brought harmony to their lives old resentments and prejudices between the various races of elves have started to take root. Only one race of elves are immortal and while the rest of them live far longer lives than most mortals could hope it appears they are no longer satisfied with the places in society their shorter life spans have relegated them to. For while all have equal say in the governance of the people some among the other races have come to believe the immortals have more influence than is justified for their minority share of the population.

However it turns out the ferment among the various factions is actually being encouraged by leaders of the immortal race so they can use it as an excuse to become the absolute rulers of the elves. To give themselves an advantage they hired mercenary armies of humans from the neighbouring continent of Balaia. For although men can't hope to match the TaiGethen's fighting prowess they possess something elves don't - magic. The human mages are able to cut down any elves that resist them and quickly beat down all resistance. Unfortunately for those who hired them it turns out the humans weren't just there as soldiers of fortune, they were the advance of an invasion force bent on the conquest of Calaius.

While the TaiGethen resist as best as they can, with no power to resist magic they are soon overwhelmed. Even the discovery that their former leader Takaar still lives isn't enough of a boost to lift them to victory. They are forced to abandon their cities to the invaders and flee into the rainforest with as many people as possible. The one note of hope they have as the first book ends is the discovery that the power to perform magic is latent in all elves. If they can only tap into the means of activating it they could sweep their continent clean of its invaders. Unfortunately, in Elves: Rise Of The TaiGethen, the second book of the trilogy, they discover not only is this process incredibly difficult, the magic they need to defeat their enemies may also be what leads to their ultimate defeat.

It's a hundred fifty years after the human invasion of Calaius and not only are vast numbers of elves still enslaved, the humans are using them to destroy their sacred rainforest. Even when the elves manage to strike back at the humans they end up hurting themselves. For every time a human soldier or mage is killed or hurt ten elvish slaves are killed. While Takaar still holds out hope elves will one day be able to wield magic like humans progress is so slow by the time they learn how it may be too late for not only most of their race but their continent itself. What's even worse is the human mages can detect their magic from afar and hunt them down.

First they trace the core group of novices to a sacred temple the elves thought hidden in the depths of the rainforest and attempt to kill all they find there. It's only because the a core group of TaiGethen happen to be at the temple and are able to fight the humans off that any survive. However when Takaar leads the last of the magic users to the last free elvish city deep in the jungle hoping to find some way of strengthening elvish magic, the human ability to track magic means two armies aren't far behind him. While the TaiGethen are able to take a toll on the humans through hit and run attacks and carefully staged ambushes, magic and numbers still tip the balance in favour of the humans.
Cover Elves Rise of the Taigethen.jpg
Those who have read any of Barclay's Raven series will recognize the names of the human and elvish continents and realize the events described in Elves take place in an earlier era. However you don't need to have read any of his other works to appreciate and enjoy these books. What these two books have in common with all of Barclay's work is his ability to balance the action and excitement of traditional sword and sorcery with intricate and thoughtful story lines and characters who can't be easily categorized as heroes or villains. The humans aren't just faceless oppressors and the elves aren't all heroes. There are characters on either side who are selfless and brave and those who are selfish and weak. Just because one side is in the wrong and the other is in the right doesn't make them all necessarily evil or good. Our world doesn't work that way and neither does the world Barclay has created, making it all the more believable.

While Rise Of The TaiGethen ends with something of a resolution, the story is far from over. The elves still have to deal with healing the rifts in their society. The dissension between the various races prior to the human invasion resulted in atrocities being committed by elf against elf and those aren't wounds that can be smoothed over with just a band aid. Of course unless they can learn how to harness their magical abilities the threat of another human invasion will continue to be a reality. In the first two books of his Elves trilogy Barclay showed us how easy it is for even a supposedly advanced society to be brought to the brink of destruction. What will it take to rebuild it? Judging by the first two books there won't be an easy answer but it should be a great read. The new world should have been a haven for the elves as the continent they've settled on, Calaius, is almost completely covered by dense rainforest, the environment they feel most at home in. While those elves who continue in the old ways and live in the forest protecting the temples and other holy places of their people are content, the same can't be said for those who have chosen to live in cities. Drifting further and further away the beliefs that brought harmony to their lives old resentments and prejudices between the various races of elves have started to take root. Only one race of elves are immortal and while the rest of them live far longer lives than most mortals could hope it appears they are no longer satisfied with the places in society their shorter life spans have relegated them to. For while all have equal say in the governance of the people some among the other races have come to believe the immortals have more influence than is justified for their minority share of the population.

However it turns out the ferment among the various factions is actually being encouraged by leaders of the immortal race so they can use it as an excuse to become the absolute rulers of the elves. To give themselves an advantage they hired mercenary armies of humans from the neighbouring continent of Balaia. For although men can't hope to match the TaiGethen's fighting prowess they possess something elves don't - magic. The human mages are able to cut down any elves that resist them and quickly beat down all resistance. Unfortunately for those who hired them it turns out the humans weren't just there as soldiers of fortune, they were the advance of an invasion force bent on the conquest of Calaius.

While the TaiGethen resist as best as they can, with no power to resist magic they are soon overwhelmed. Even the discovery that their former leader Takaar still lives isn't enough of a boost to lift them to victory. They are forced to abandon their cities to the invaders and flee into the rainforest with as many people as possible. The one note of hope they have as the first book ends is the discovery that the power to perform magic is latent in all elves. If they can only tap into the means of activating it they could sweep their continent clean of its invaders. Unfortunately, in Elves: Rise Of The TaiGethen, the second book of the trilogy, they discover not only is this process incredibly difficult, the magic they need to defeat their enemies may also be what leads to their ultimate defeat.

It's a hundred fifty years after the human invasion of Calaius and not only are vast numbers of elves still enslaved, the humans are using them to destroy their sacred rainforest. Even when the elves manage to strike back at the humans they end up hurting themselves. For every time a human soldier or mage is killed or hurt ten elvish slaves are killed. While Takaar still holds out hope elves will one day be able to wield magic like humans progress is so slow by the time they learn how it may be too late for not only most of their race but their continent itself. What's even worse is the human mages can detect their magic from afar and hunt them down.

First they trace the core group of novices to a sacred temple the elves thought hidden in the depths of the rainforest and attempt to kill all they find there. It's only because the a core group of TaiGethen happen to be at the temple and are able to fight the humans off that any survive. However when Takaar leads the last of the magic users to the last free elvish city deep in the jungle hoping to find some way of strengthening elvish magic, the human ability to track magic means two armies aren't far behind him. While the TaiGethen are able to take a toll on the humans through hit and run attacks and carefully staged ambushes, magic and numbers still tip the balance in favour of the humans.

Those who have read any of Barclay's Raven series will recognize the names of the human and elvish continents and realize the events described in Elves take place in an earlier era. However you don't need to have read any of his other works to appreciate and enjoy these books. What these two books have in common with all of Barclay's work is his ability to balance the action and excitement of traditional sword and sorcery with intricate and thoughtful story lines and characters who can't be easily categorized as heroes or villains. The humans aren't just faceless oppressors and the elves aren't all heroes. There are characters on either side who are selfless and brave and those who are selfish and weak. Just because one side is in the wrong and the other is in the right doesn't make them all necessarily evil or good. Our world doesn't work that way and neither does the world Barclay has created, making it all the more believable.

While Rise Of The TaiGethen ends with something of a resolution, the story is far from over. The elves still have to deal with healing the rifts in their society. The dissension between the various races prior to the human invasion resulted in atrocities being committed by elf against elf and those aren't wounds that can be smoothed over with just a band aid. Of course unless they can learn how to harness their magical abilities the threat of another human invasion will continue to be a reality. In the first two books of his Elves trilogy Barclay showed us how easy it is for even a supposedly advanced society to be brought to the brink of destruction. What will it take to rebuild it? Judging by the first two books there won't be an easy answer but it should be a great read.

(Article first published as Book Reviews: Elves: Once Walked with Gods and Elves: Rise of the TaiGethen by James Barclay on Blogcritics.)

April 16, 2012

Book Review: The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity Edited By Joshua Palmatier & Patricia Bray


You can find them in almost every culture around the world; stories about the little people. Creatures from a different realm but who happen to share the world with us. Sometimes they are portrayed as evil, other times as good and sometimes simply indifferent to the wishes and wants of humans. They are described as either being inhumanly beautiful or unspeakably horrific, but either way we've always been in their thrall. Among people of European descent they are known as the Fae, or Fairy, and they've appeared in everything from nursery rhymes to the plays of Shakespeare.

It was in the Victorian era, the 1800s, that we first started to turn them into the cartoon figures they've become today. Instead of the wild folk who lurked in the woods they became darling little creatures with gossamer wings who lived in flower gardens or who sprinkled fairy dust on you to make you fly. This set the stage for the fairies that most of us know today thanks to Tinkerbell and her ilk. Creatures who have as little to do with the Fae, the Unseelie Court and all the other beings who live under the hill, in the deepest parts of the forest or on abandoned moors shrouded in mist. Fortunately the tide is starting to turn again and beginning in the late twentieth century fantasy writers have been mining the older tales for their inspiration. As a result we're beginning to see stories depicting the Fae as they appeared for thousands of years.
CoverThe Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity.jpg
Not content with merely resurrecting old tales, this is especially true of the relatively new genre of urban fantasy, authors are bringing the Fae into modern times. While this has resulted in some interesting and fascinating stories, it has also posed the question of how have these creatures of magic and imagination managed to adopt to life in the twenty-first century. So many of the wild places they used to live have disappeared and you can barely move without running into something made from iron. Well a new anthology of stories, The Modern Fae's Guide To Surviving Humanity published by Penguin Canada and edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray being published on March 6 2012, shows just how inventive the Fae have been in dealing with the modern world.

The premise the editors gave those they approached about contributing to the anthology was a simple one. What if the Fae still existed in the modern world? The answers they received from fourteen authors were as diverse as the mythical creatures the stories were about. However the stories can be broken down into three distinct categories. Those in which the Fae try to "pass" or blend in with the human world, ones where the two worlds share an uneasy co-existence and ones where the Fae are still living as they used to and trying to carry on as they did in simpler, less technological times. However no matter which approach the authors have chosen to take, they have all taken remarkable pains to make the stories as true to the original tales of the beings described in their versions as possible.

As a result all of the stories, from the comic to the dark, not only capture the magic and mystery of the Fae but very realistically describe how they could overcome the challenges facing them in order to survive in the twenty-first century. Whether it's running Undermart, a WallMart type discount store, in an attempt to increase the proliferation of plastic products to and keep the Tuatha de Danann in M&Ms in "We Will Not Be Undersold" by Seanan McGuire (a fairy glamour sure explains why store greeters are able to smile all the time without killing customers), working as motivational speakers convincing people that meaningless platitudes will change their lives in "How To Be Human TM" by Barbara Ashford, or using an off the beaten track MBA program to head hunt for humans looking to change their lives in "Continuing Education" by Kristine Smith, we see those Fae who put their minds to it can assimilate quite nicely. Oh sure they occasionally get caught out, but all in all if you had to work as a greeter in chain discount store wouldn't you prefer the option of having your brain shut off for the duration of your shift?

Those who try to carry on as they did in the old days have a slightly harder time of it. Although they might be able to get away with some stuff, like scooping up changelings in "Changeling" by Susan Jett and "A People Who Always Know" by Shannon Page and Jay Lake because most people don't believe in fairies anymore, it's not always easy for the more traditionally minded. Take poor Green Jenny who used to lure hapless humans into swamps where she would feed on their life force. As we find out in "Water Called" by Kari Sperring, if the draining of marshes and building of canals to confine waters hasn't reduced her source of food badly enough, people carrying out experiments on the drunks and down and outers who normally fall into her embrace, are making it extremely difficult for her to get by. Or as the dryads in "The Roots Of Aston Quercus" by Juliet E. McKenna discover, they have to adapt somewhat in order to save their grove of trees from being cut down for a new bypass.

However if you think they've got it hard, imagine being a transgendered werewolf like Edie in "The Slaughtered Lamb" by Elizabeth Bear. With the human and Fae worlds coexisting peacefully she chose to live among humans because of the Pack's rigid rules on sexual identity. Anyway shapeshifting is hard on a girl - shaving your legs is a nightmare after you've taken on wolf form. It also loses some of its impact on others when you require a the help of a dresser before you can make the shift - you try removing a gaff by yourself. Still, anybody who tries to get rough with this girl is in for a nasty surprise.

Sometimes the quality of stories in these types of anthologies is quite frankly uneven. Far too many of them seem to rely on one or two stories by a name writer and then fill in the rest with what is quite frankly padding. However in this case I had only vaguely heard of one or two of the contributing authors and all of the stories were equally captivating. The editors have also done a good job in selecting stories that represent a cross section of the various types of fantasy story on offer today. Fae of all shapes, sizes and character are represented from those just seeking to get by, those interested in making a little mischief and those whose intentions are not what anybody would call friendly. The Fae have always had an uneasy relationship with mortals. Whether it's our use of iron which is poison to them or how the more callous of them look upon us as playthings to be discarded when we grow too tedious. However, as this collection makes clear, the world would be a lot less interesting a place if they didn't exist, and it's good to see they've found so many ways of getting by even in these complicated times.
Article first published as Book Review: The Modern Fae's Guide to Surviving Humanity Edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray on Blogcritics.)

April 12, 2012

Book Review: Throne Of The Crescent Moonby Saladin Ahmed


Being a fan of a particular genre of work doesn't blind you to its flaws. So being an unabashed admirer of both Science Fiction and Fantasy hasn't prevented me from seeing how, aside from a few notable exceptions, lily white and Euro-centric both genres happen to be. While apologists can probably make a case for writers like Tolkien describing his villains as either "swarthy" or "svart" while his heroes are universally pale skinned by employing the well worn "product of his times" argument, those writing in the latter decades of the twentieth century can't be offered the same out. In fact one would have hoped those in the business of writing about the future would have taken that opportunity to create worlds reflecting the social changes that occurred during the years they were writing. At the very least it would have been nice to see a few darker skinned characters created without the adjective exotic tagged onto their description.

In some ways fantasy has been the worst of the two culprits as title after title roles off the presses with stories whose roots lie somewhere in Europe. When you consider the wealth of material from around the world that could spark an author's imagination, or the fact that you can't walk down a street in any major Western city without seeing an exciting mix of colours, sizes and shapes among the populace, its a little disconcerting to be reading freshly published books perpetuating old stereotypes of dark villains threatening the virtue of some pale skinned lovely. Part of the explanation could lie in the fact that when you look at photos taken at gatherings of fantasy writers, you'll notice quite a difference from what you'd see on the street. It's awfully reminiscent of shots taken at what used to be referred to as exclusive or restricted clubs; i.e white Anglo Saxon Protestant only.

This isn't a deliberate thing, nor is racism implied, but it is a fact, and one that doesn't look like its changing with any speed. For in spite of the subject matter, science fiction and fantasy publishers are just as conservative, if not more so, than their mainstream counterparts. All of which goes a long way in explaining my interest in a title being released by Penguin Canada on February 7 2012 - Throne Of The Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
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The combination of the book's title and the author's name led me to correctly assume the book wouldn't be drawing upon the usual European cultural pool for its inspiration. Even the little I know about the rich tradition of myth and legend in the Islamic world is sufficient to know there's a rich vein of material waiting to be mined by the right fantasy writer. Ahmed has a solid history as a short story writer, even being a finalist for a couple of awards, however this is his first full length novel, and its not always a smooth transition from one format to another. While I was happy to see an author looking to other traditions for inspiration, what really matters is how well he or she is able to handle the basics of story telling.

In this case the answer to that question is as good as, if not better than, anyone else out there writing fantasy today. Ahmed has created a vibrant and exciting world where his characters both live and have the adventures which form the basis of the story. Like many fantasy writers he has chosen to base his world on a version of our past. In this case he has looked to the ancient city states of the Islamic world. The majority of the tale takes place within the walls of the great city Dhamsawaat with the characters making only occasional forays beyond its walls into the countryside surrounding it. While there are five main characters involved in telling us the story, the city becomes another character who lives and breathes alongside everybody else. Ahmed's descriptions of the city are so vivid she takes on the type of distinct personality we ascribe to the places we are most familiar with.

Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is feeling every one of his three score and ten years these days. A good many of those years have been spent keeping the people of his beloved Dhamsawaat safe from the monsters sent to plague mankind by the Traitorous Angel. While it's true the doctor has been doing the work of the Blessed God, he's as profane as any street urchin trying to spot a pocket ripe for the picking. In order to be able to perform the magic necessary to dispatch the ghuls and assorted demons he faces in his work, the Doctor has had to make sacrifices, chief among them not being able to marry and raise a family. As this story commences he's forcibly reminded of this prohibition when he's asked to investigate reports of a ghul attack by the woman who has been the love of his live for decades. Only his calling has prevented him from marrying her. While in the past he'd been able to make peace with this trade off, recently he's began to feel the beginning of resentment towards having been denied the simple pleasures of a normal life.
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Unlike the good Doctor his young assistant, Raseed bas Raseed, a warrior in the holy order of dervishes, is pious to the point of being inflexible in his judgements of others and himself. You either live according to the dictates of the Traditions or you're morally lacking. However he finds himself sorely tested when he and the Doctor meet a young tribeswomen, Zamia Badawi, during their pursuit of the ghuls responsible for the most recent attack. The fact that she is blessed by the angels with the ability to assume the shape of a lioness armed with silver claws and teeth and saves both men's lives is only part of the problem. For the first time in his life Raseed finds himself beset with feelings that have nothing to do with his sacred calling and everything to do with Zamia.

Unfortunately he's picked the worst time possible to be plagued with doubts and distractions, for it turns out this new attack isn't just some minor magic user, but something far more ancient and evil. These days most spell casters are only able to raise one or two ghuls and have to keep them in site in order to control them. However the creatures the Doctor, Raseed and Zamia defeated outside the city were on their own and far stronger than anything Makhslood has faced in decades. Then upon their return to the city they are attacked in the Doctor's home by more ghuls and something even more deadly. A creature made of shadow, part man part jackal, who can't be harmed by normal weapons, only those made of silver. It's only through the timely intervention of his close friends and neighbours, Dawoud Son-of-Wajeed, a magus, and his wife Litaz, the alchemist, they survived the attack. For while Zamia's silver claws were able to wound the thing that called itself Mouw Awa, it also gave her a horrible festering wound which untreated would gradually eaten her soul. Only the combined workings of Dawoud and Litaz were able to save her.

Finding out who is behind the attacks is only the first hurdle the Doctor and his allies face. The shadow creature had mentioned something about its "blessed friend" sitting on the Cobra Throne and thus gaining the power needed to rule and create armies of monsters. If that wasn't bad enough the city is also in the midst of a power struggle on the mortal plane. The current Khalif is a brutal and greedy man who makes life miserable for most of his citizens through crippling taxes and his cruel version of justice. A bandit calling himself the Falcon Prince has been carrying out a covert war against the Khalif for a while now, and judging by his actions he looks to be preparing his final push against the throne. Is it merely a coincidence the Falcon Prince's uprising is coming to a head at the same time as the mysterious ghul attacks are increasing? Or is there some insidious connection between the two seemingly unrelated events?

In Throne of the Crescent Moon Ahmed does a wonderful job of not only spinning a fascinating story that will hold a reader's attention from beginning to end, but of bringing an environment most of his audience won't be familiar with to life. While some authors might have over explained and filled the story with unnecessary details supplying background information about the culture his world is based on, he is able to paint his picture through the deeds and thoughts of his characters. Whether it's something simple like describing the type of tea the Doctor prefers to start his morning with or a little more involved such as Raseed quoting scripture as he lambastes himself for his failings, by the end of the book you'll be as comfortable reading in this environment as you would one based on a culture and society you're more knowledgeable about.

However, don't read this book because its different. Read it because its well written and as good as most other fantasy titles out there. The fact that it adds some much needed diversity to the genre is a bonus. Even better is the promise of more stories set in this world the sub-title, Book One of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, offers. Now that's something to look forward to.

(Article first published as Book Review: Throne Of The Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed on Blogcritics)

April 11, 2012

Book Review: Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore


The hardest thing for an author is to live up the expectations created by writing an original and inventive first novel. Readers can't help comparing each subsequent effort to first one. An author faces the choice of trying to either please their audience by repeating what they did or trusting in their abilities as a writer and going off in whatever direction their muse takes them. Sometimes those who follow the former path are able to repeat their success for a while, but eventually their writing becomes formulaic and stale. The author who risks the latter course may not have the same initial repeat success, but their work ends up standing the test of time far better as its constantly evolving.

Christopher Moore has followed both courses of action. On those occasions where he seems to fall back on the tried and true methods that made him popular, his books, while still better than most of what comes on the market, start to sound the same. Like hearing an old joke with the characters and situation changed, it might be funny but you have the strongest feeling you've heard it before and the punchline is never a surprise. However, he's also capable of creating works of near comic genius which tackle subjects others shy away from. Sacré Bleu, published by HarperCollins Canada April 3 2012 is Christopher Moore at his best and will remind you why he is considered one of the funniest and insightful authors of our time.

Set in Paris France in the mid to late1800s and featuring a cast of characters who read like a who's who of the Impressionist art movement, Sacré Bleu is part mystery, part fantasy, part historical fiction and entirely riveting. Underneath the obvious humour and Moore's familiar breezy narrative style is hidden one of the more interesting examinations of the relationship between an artist and his art - or as some would have it - their muse. What wouldn't an artist give to paint that picture he's always dreamed of painting? The painting that he can see in his mind's eye but somehow has never been able to make its way onto the canvas. What would he be willing to sacrifice for his art?
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The late 1800s were a time of enormous upheaval in the artistic community. Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Pissarro and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec along with many others were pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable art in both form and subject matter. Those who doubt the veracity of their work only need to spend some time in Paris in the summer and compare what they see with the paintings from that period. It's still amazing to see how with just light and colour they were able to capture the effects of August's heat on the city.

Although they are now considered establishment, at the time they were outsiders with most of them barely able to eke out an existence. Living in penury their only satisfaction came from their creations. A key element in the success of any painter's work is of course the quality of his paints. The purer the pigment used in making the colour, the more vivid and real the colour. In those days the purest colours were still being made by grinding up various minerals and mixing the resulting powder with oil. The rarest of these was "Sacré Bleu", the blue of the cloak of the Virgin Mary, made of ground up Lapis Lazuli. Lapis Lazuli only being available in Afghanistan meant the stone and paint were usually too expensive for painters struggling to get by. So if they offered a blue, "ultramarine" pigment guaranteed to be better than Sacré Bleu, to try, they would do so no questions asked.

Pure pigments to a painter are like heroin to a junkie. Once they get a taste they can't get enough. So it is with everyone of the painters who come in contact with the mysterious Colourman and his "ultramarine" blue. The main difference between their supplier and most pushers is the price that he exacts from his clients. Instead of cash he demands paintings made with his fantastic blue in exchange for his product. However he never exacts his price in person as each artist who uses his blue also manages to acquire a new model of extraordinary beauty who inspires their best work as well as becoming their supplier of their drug of choice.

As the model takes on a different form for each painter nobody even thinks to make the connection between the paint, the Colourman and the model until the mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh in rural Arles rouses suspicions among his painter friends back home in Paris. Just prior to his death he wrote Touluse-Lautrec that he dared not use his blue paint except at night and that everyone should beware a small wizened man accompanied by a donkey selling paints.

Led by Toulouse-Lautrec the painters of Paris start to put the pieces of the mystery surrounding The Colourman, his amazing blue paint and the mysterious model together. When the young baker with dreams of painting named Lucien Lessard's mysterious lover Juliette returns after a unexplained two year absence the picture really starts to come into focus. Lessard obsession with his lover and the portrait he is painting of her causes him to neglect his responsibilities at the family bakery and stops eating and sleeping. It's only when his mother knocks out Juliette with a crepe pan that his friends and family are able to drag him away from her. For nine days he lies in what appears to be a coma. When he finally awakes all he can think of are the painting he has created and finding his Juliette again.
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Lautrec had undergone a similar experience with a model a number of years ago and had only survived because his friends, including Lessard, had kidnapped him and sent him away from Paris. It turns out that each of their Impressionist friends has at one point in time had one model in particular whom they have obsessed over and who has featured in their most famous works.In each of these works, no matter what the subject matter, the now infamous ultramarine blue has been used. Even more mysterious is the fact while their friends have distinct memories of them having painted a whole series of canvasses involving the mysterious model, none of the painters can either remember painting them or has any idea of where they can have gone to. However, each of them can remember when the model left them, as her disappearance always coincided with a personal misfortune. One painter's beloved daughter died and another lost his wife. Whatever the case, there was always a price to be paid for producing their great works of art.

Moore's depictions of real historical figures are based on accounts of the people in question written while they were alive. So while some the characteristics he ascribes to them in the story might not be accurate a good deal of their activities described in the book actually happened. (In an afterward to the book Moore supplies the reader with details of his sources) Moore always tends towards affectionate irreverence with his characters, depicting them warts and all, but loving them because of their flaws. So while he may overemphasize things like Lautrec's drinking, his affection for prostitutes and some of his other affectations, it's never with malice and does nothing to diminish or demean the painter. In fact, by removing famous figures from the pedestals history has put them on and humanizing them their accomplishments as artists become even more amazing.

Against this backdrop of artistic genius two mysteries gradually unfold. The more traditional involves the Colourman and the strange hold his ultramarine blue paint has over artists and his relationship with the mysterious model. How can one woman have been so different for each artist who has painted her? How could she have been exactly what each painter needed to inspire his greatest work? These questions lead the reader directly into the second mystery at play - the mystery of inspiration. There is nothing more frustrating than asking an artist where their inspiration for a work came from, because nine times out of ten they aren't able to answer. The best you're likely to receive is, "it just came to me". On top of that, why do artists become so obsessed with their work to the point they will forget about everything else including eating and sleeping?

In classical mythology the answer was the muses, the most famous of whom was the goddess Eros. They supposedly provided artists with the desire and passion to create. Is the mysterious Juliette really the muse of legend as she claims? Has she really been so many different women to so many different painters and inspired them to so much great work? If she has, why does she do it? What's in it for her and why do all the painters she inspires have to suffer? Moore gives us the answer to the mystery of The Colourman and ultramarine, but as to the question of inspiration and muses, well that still remains a mystery. Oh, Juliette supplies something akin to an answer, but it doesn't really answer any of the questions.

Any of us who have ever had any artistic aspirations of any kind have at one time or another probably had romantic dreams of living in Paris. These dreams are based upon a Paris that existed from around 1860 until the start of WW ll. What would it have been like to drink absinth with Lautrec, smoke opium with Cocteau or share a coffee in a cafe with Joyce? In Sacré Bleu Christopher Moore captures both the spirit of artistic creation that captivates us and the price paid by those who actually lived it. Beneath the surface of what is primarily a lighthearted mystery story he gives us very real glimpses of what's exacted from those who dedicate themselves to the capriciousness of art. This is Christopher Moore at his best, underneath the laughter lies the truth the clown usually covers with a greasepaint smile.

(Article first published as Book Review: Sacré Bleu By Christopher Moore on Blogcritics.)

April 8, 2012

Book Review: Song Of Ice And Fire - Books 1 - 4 Four Book Box Set By George R R Martin


It might seem a little odd to be reviewing books that have been available for the best part of the past decade. However, with the renewed interest in George R R Martin's epic fantasy series, "A Song of Ice and Fire", thanks to a Home Box Office (HBO) television adaptation (A Game Of Thrones - season one in Canada and season two in the US) and the publication of the fifth book in the series, A Dance With Dragons, I decided it might be time to see what all the fuss was about. After all the books were written by the man whom Time Magazine had referred to as the "American Tolkien" and I've been a fan of the original's work for decades. Even given Times' reputation for hyperbole it had to mean there was something worth reading in the series.

So, in order to see what all the fuss was about I bought Game of Thrones 4-Book Box Set, put out by Random House Canada in the spring of 2011 containing the first four books in the series: A Game Of Thrones, A Clash Of Kings, A Feast For Crows and A Storm Of Swords. Set in a world roughly equivalent to our history's dark ages where the majority scrabble to eke out an existence from the land or from what little money a skilled tradesperson can demand and a minority rule through inherited wealth and military prowess, "A Song Of Ice And Fire" takes readers from the throne rooms to the whore houses of Martin's invented world of the Seven Kingdoms and the lands surrounding it, to detail the struggle for control of its Iron Throne. While there is a wide world beyond the realm of the Seven Kingdoms, the majority of the action takes place in one of three geographical locales; the far north of the kingdom where a small band of warriors, The Night's Watch, man The Wall that keeps uncivilized tribes people (and if the myths are true other, less human, foes) at bay, the kingdom itself, which is a seething cauldron of plots and counter-plots as various factions strive for control of the throne and the Free Cities where the scion of the former ruling family looks to find the means to regain the throne her family lost.

Book one, Game Of Thrones, introduces us to all the main players, the world they inhabit and shakes out the various plot lines the series will continue to follow through the first four books. Rather then following the standard format of telling a story through the eyes of characters representing one perspective, Martin chose to try and tell his tale from as many angles as possible. In each book he has chosen to follow a specific collection of characters who represent as many sides of the story as possible. He then proceeds to switch back and forth between those characters with each chapter. As a result readers, over the course of each book and cumulatively over the course of the series, get to know the main characters far more intimately then is usual for this type of story. For not only do we see them through the eyes of others, we also step inside their heads and hear their version of events. It's amazing how what one person sees as a strength in them self is seen by others as a means to defeat them.

Even more fascinating is how Martin is able to use this format to change our opinion of a character. Someone who is depicted as vain, venal and indolent by others turns out to be far more complex and multifaceted than anyone else ever gave him credit for when we finally meet him. The eldest son of the wealthiest family in the kingdoms, Jamie Lannister, has been decried as a breaker of oaths and a king slayer since he killed the king he was meant to be guarding. While others, like Ned Stark, head of another powerful family and enemy of the Lannister clan, claim he dishonoured himself, when Jamie tells the reader why he killed the king, even though he knew he would be cursed and damned, we see him in a far better light.

The same applies to the aforementioned Ned Stark and his family who are all central figures in the struggle for power in the Seven Kingdoms. A descendant of one of the oldest families in the kingdom, and ruler of the far north in the king's name, Ned Stark initially comes across as your typical tragic hero. Yet for all his supposed nobility and honour his adherence to the code governing knights is so inflexible it blinds him to both the realities of the world he lives in and how others suffer because of his actions. It's his inability to see the world as anything other than black and white which leads to both his own downfall and the kingdom's descent into civil war.

Initially we are sympathetic to him, seeing how easily others are able to manipulate him because his reactions are so predictable. However, the more we learn about other people and see the history of the land through their eyes, the more we realize how flawed he was and how his simplistic view of the world was unfair and unjust. Of course Ned Stark and Jamie Lannister aren't the only characters whose stories we follow, and with each, whether Ned's wife and children (Catelyn, his youngest son Bran, his two daughters, Sansa and Arya, and illegitimate son Jon Snow) other members of the Lannister family (Tryion Jamie's dwarf brother and their sister Cersei, Queen and then Queen mother/regent of the Seven Kingdoms) or any one of a number other major and minor players in the struggle for power, we learn more about the land and the history behind the current conflict and the other currents of power at work in this world.

While this rather novel approach does serve to give readers a better than average understanding of the characters in the series, in the end it also ends up being the series' biggest limitation. While the details offered up by each character are interesting enough to hold your attention, after a while it began to feel like too much minutiae and not enough focus is being paid to the big picture. In spite of there being any number of battles and fights, countless plot twists involving betrayal and counter betrayals, we are never able to fully appreciate their scope as we always see them through the narrow focus of one person's perspective. It's like trying to see a panoramic view using a magnifying glass which only lets you focus on one small area at a time.

Only on very rare occasions does Martin give readers the distance required to appreciate the full sweep of events. As a result, even the most momentous of battles and happenings felt trivial and I began to feel like I was endlessly waiting for something important to happen. The few times he allowed action to begin to take place he'd leave readers hanging and end a chapter, However, instead of coming back and picking the action up where it left off, the story would have moved on and we'd find the characters somewhere else. Instead of experiencing the events begun earlier directly, we have to make due with the character's memories which makes them far less immediate and reduces any impact they might have had. This has the unfortunate result of making the books more like history texts than fiction.

While the first four books in the series "A Song Of Ice And Fire" are well written and are populated by a fascinating collection of characters the sum of its parts doesn't add up to a cohesive whole. While the idea of constantly switching focus from character to character is interesting enough, not enough has been done to tie the different perspectives together for it to have the flow required for a story of this length to have any sense of continuity. Having purchased the box set I waded through all four books, but by the third volume, Storm Of Swords, I found myself caring less and less about certain story lines and skimming the sections I found more tedious and have no real desire to read the most recently published fifth book. These are not bad books, or poorly written by any means, but the comparison with Tolkien is without basis and does Martin no favours. All it does is heighten a reader's expectations and makes the books that much more disappointing.

(Article first published as Book Review: A Game of Thrones, 4-Book Boxed Set (A Song of Ice and Fire Series) by George R.R. Martin on Blogcritics.)

November 20, 2011

Book Review: Inheritance - Book Four of the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini

I've begun to notice a worrying trend in fantasy novels these days. It seems like more and more people are writing epic length books and epic length series when they could just as easily have told their story in half the number of pages. Not only are many of these books a prodigious waste of paper, they do the authors a horrible disservice. Most of the time there's a descent enough story lurking somewhere within the dross, if only the publishers had taken the time to properly edit the books. However, because they've been allowed to wander off in all directions authors learn all sorts of bad habits and their books either become progressively worse or appear to as we lose patience with them. There are times I want to reach into a book and shake the author by the shoulders and yell, "Get to the point already".

When Christopher Paolini was fifteen he self-published the young adult fantasy book Eragon. When he started to have some moderate success with sales on his own, Knoff, a division of Random House, republished the book and bought the rights to the series. Eragon and its sequel Eldest had shown a great deal of promise. An exciting adventure story filled with magic and magical beings. Sure it wasn't the most original of ideas, but there were enough new wrinkles thrown in to make the first two instalments at least compelling and interesting to read. Some of the sub plots were probably unnecessary but they at least helped further the story and didn't interfere with its forward motion. However even before the third book, Brisingr, in what was supposed to have been a trilogy, was published there were indications Paolini was running into trouble. For along with the announcement of its forthcoming publication came the news the series was being extended to a fourth book as the author hadn't been able to find a way to finish it in three books.
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Brisingr wasn't a bad book, no better or worse than any number of fantasy books on the market, but it did very little to advance the overall plot of the series. There were a few pieces of information given out that would prove significant, but for the most part it was taken up with adventures which did little or nothing to advance the plot. So when it was announced that book four, Inheritance, published by Random House Canada on November 8 2011, was going to be over 800 pages long, I seriously wondered what Paolini was going to fill that number of pages with. Sure there were a number of questions that still remained to be answered, not least of which were how was the hero going to defeat a seemingly unbeatable foe, but even half those pages should have been sufficient to bring the series to a conclusion.

The most pressing of those questions was how the hero of the series, Eragon, and his dragon Saphira, were going to overcome the evil king Galbatorix who ruled Alagaesia with an iron fist. Eragon had been the first new dragon rider since Galbatorix had killed the rest of them, along with their dragons, when he rose to power. Everything we've seen in the series to date has made it look like a long shot at best that the younger rider succeed. Even with the four races of people banded together, elves, humans, dwarves and Urgal (a race of warriors with large ram's horns growing out of their heads) to form an army of resistance known as the Varden, the forces of the king seem overwhelming. Not only are his armies equal to, if not larger, than those of the Varden, his powers of magic are so strong even if Eragon and every other magic user in the kingdom linked their powers they wouldn't be able to overcome him through force. Galbatorix is so strong he was able to force Eragon's half-brother Murtagh, and his dragon Thorn, to swear oaths of allegiance to him against their wills; oaths that if broken would destroy them.

The only clue Eragon has to a possible solution to the problem of how to overcome Galbatorix is the second part of a cryptic piece of advice given him soon after he became a dragon rider. "When all seems lost and your power insufficient, go to the Rock of Kuthian and speak your name to open the Vault of Souls". Unfortunately nobody he's talked to, not even the werecat who gave him the advice, have any idea where either of them are located. When the leader of the Varden, Nasuada, is captured in a daring midnight raid by Murtagh and Thorn, the chances of their success have never seen slimmer. Their armies may have captured some of the cities controlled by Galbatorix, but they are running out of supplies and have to figure out how to defeat him quickly.
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From that summation of events the final book had the potential for at least some nail biting adventure. However instead of focusing on the matter at hand, having Eragon search out the Rock of Kuthian and the Vault of Souls and then confronting Galbatorix, Paolini clutters up the book with page upon page of battles that could just as easily taken place off stage. While some people might find the battle scenes and side adventures exciting, overall they merely slow the story down and needlessly detract from the through line of the series. In fact by wasting so much time on insignificant details along the way, the final confrontation with Galbatorix when it comes feels rushed. Even worse, discovering the location of the Rock of Kuthian and the Vault of Souls feels incredibly contrived. It's almost like the author used the peripheral details hoping to distract us from the weaknesses of his resolution for the main plot.

Even more difficult to understand is how the last hundred or so pages of the book are spent in a very awkward attempt to tie up all the lose ends he had created throughout the series. While questions like who should rule Alagaesia after Galbatorix could only be answered once he was defeated, there should have been a way of resolving other threads more organically. Instead it feels like Paolini has remembered at the last moment he's left questions unanswered and tacked on the answers in order to satisfy fan forums.The most truthful part of his conclusion was the ambiguous way in which he dealt with some of the issues facing his characters. This at least fit in with the idea they and the world they lived in were facing a new beginning and an uncertain future.

The first two books of the Inheritance cycle showed great promise. Paolini had created a world complete with an intricate history and a variety of different races. However, somewhere along the way he lost his focus, and the details took on a life of their own until they overshadowed the main plot of the story. As a result the final book in the series, Inheritance, felt contrived and rather forced as the author tried to cram in answers to all the questions he had raised in the earlier books. While I'm sure die hard fans will find much to enjoy, it could have been much better.

(Article first published as Book Review: Inheritance, Book Four of the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini on Blogcritics.)

November 8, 2011

Book Review: Tomorrow Is Another Song by Scott Wannberg

If there was any justice in this world Scott Wannberg would never have been able to leave his house without being hounded by the press. He would have been under a constant spotlight, his every move scrutinized, his every word pored over for controversy and his picture would have shown up on tabloid covers every week. Unfortunately poets in our society don't have the status of celebrities. In another time or another culture his abilities with words might have made him famous, or at the very least infamous. In the courts of the Chinese Emperors civil servants, or mandarins, were judged as much on their ability to compose poetry as their ability to draft policy. Unless obfuscation is considered an art form, times sure have changed.
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All of which means that outside of a relatively small number of people who were blessed with an awareness of his work, Wannberg lived out his live in obscurity. He was fifty-eight when he died on Friday August 19 2011 at his home in Florence Oregon. Suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease he had moved there from Los Angeles upon the closing of Dutton's bookstore, where he had been a fixture for twenty-five years, in 2008 for health and economic reasons. According to friends quoted in his obituary in the Los Angeles Times Wannberg was constantly writing poetry, whether off the cuff introductions for associates as they entered the store or more traditionally with pen and paper; it was as natural to him as breathing is to most of us. Poetry, according to one friend, allowed Wannberg the chance to formalize his natural inclination to speak in a kind of ongoing stream of consciousness narrative about the world around him.

On September 30 2011 Los Angles based independent publisher Perceval Press released Tomorrow Is Another Song, the second collection of Wannberg's poetry they have published. One of the first impressions I formed upon reading through it was there was a sense of urgency pervading his poetry that was absent form earlier work. I don't think it was any sort of prescience on Wannberg's part concerning his death, it was more like he felt America had been given a very small window of opportunity with the election of Obama, and he could feel it closing almost even before it had been opened.

In earlier poetry he had taken great pleasure in railing against the Bush/Cheney administration and everything they had represented. In biting satires which directly referenced them or in his advocation of things they opposed, he took great pride in describing a vision of America far different from the one they espoused. For Wannberg, like Carl Sandburg and e.e. cummings before him, was quintessentially an American poet. He loved the potential the country represented and hated how it was failing to live up to it. In poems encouraging people to find their own song and and not being afraid to hide their light under a bushel basket, or in others where he questioned what kind of world had they created where teenagers attempted to commit suicide, he critiqued the loss of love and hope he saw around him.

I don't know what I expected from this collection of his poems, but I don't think it was, "Everybody says they want to be loved/The say it over and over and over/As soon as they finish hitting me over the head/I will get up and love them." ("Earful Of Sun") However, that was the genius of Wannberg. He was always so far ahead of us in describing what he saw that our expectations couldn't keep up with him. Anyway, why should he live up to anyone's expectations? Why should he all of a sudden start writing about sweetness and light just because the names at the top changed? Maybe, unlike the rest of us who have grown disillusioned with Obama for failing to live up to our expectations by changing the world simply by being elected, Wannberg understood the only way change can happen is if we are willing to change. With all of us yelling "What about me?" at the top of our lungs, we're never going to hear anybody else or understand it's not just the other guy who has to change, we have to as well.

Wannberg spoke/wrote in a voice most Americans (and North Americans from above the 49th parallel) will recognize. His poems are filled with cultural references we are all familiar with and he espouses the core values we all claim to hold so dear. That doesn't mean he mouths platitudes about freedom and independence. What it does mean is his poetry celebrates those who are truly independent and the freedoms nobody wants to protect. It's amazing how so many people yell about their rights to own weapons and the freedom to say how much they hate somebody because of the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation and nobody thinks twice about it. Yet those same people don't believe in a woman's freedom of choice or an individual's right to hold the job of their choice no matter who they are.
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It's that hypocrisy that comes under attack in Wannberg's poetry. Unlike others he very rarely attacked individuals or their beliefs (the only exceptions are politicians and the political personalities for whom hypocrisy is a way of life) as he is genuine in his belief that we really could do a better job of being nice to each other. "The stupid angry people smash, gouge, cut, kick, and bite./They do it for love and God and country."("The Angry Stupid People") There are so many voices telling us we shouldn't enjoy ourselves, or that we should be worrying about the state of the world all the time, Wannberg had a better idea. Whether directly or indirectly his poetry encouraged us to celebrate being alive. Embrace the messy, emotional condition of being human. What other choice do you have anyway, might as well enjoy it while we're here. This was from a guy who for the last few years of his life had to travel around with an oxygen tank, yet his poetry was still filled with calls to all of us to find our songs and dance like crazy.

There is music in the American idiom he says,/and wipes his face for the last time,/and begins to think about going up to bed./Tomorrow is another song./Tomorrow will be other patients and/words to discover and stories behind such words/ that illuminate./The game, after all/is one of discovery./The day you stop finding out things/is the day/you might as well/turn yourself in for good." "The Dancer Steps Forward" Scot Wannberg

It's easy to become cynical in the face of so much bullshit. It's easy to throw rocks at those you don't agree with and it's really easy to pretend you don't care. Scot Wannberg cared and wore his heart on his sleeve for all to read. He dug deeply into the soil of America, because like all poets he knew where the bodies were buried. But he was looking to do more than just exhume its dirty secrets, he wasn't merely looking to spatter others with the dirt that flew from his shovel, he dug and dug in order to remind us of the beauty of the heart that's been submerged by two hundred odd years of rhetoric spouted in the name of politics and expediency. One person can't scrape off that much accumulated rust and corrosion, but he can give us a good idea of how to go about getting the job done. For those who have eyes to see and ears to listen Wannberg's poetry provided all the tools necessary - we just have to remember how to use them.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tomorrow Is Another Song by Scott Wannberg on Blogcritics.)

November 4, 2011

Book Review: The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff

Like most other genres fantasy has evolved over the years until it now includes its own sub-genres. One of the more recent twists on it is something called urban fantasy. While that might imply stories specifically set in the city, it pretty much encompasses any tale set in modern times which contains enough magical elements for it to qualify for the fantasy genre. Unfortunately these days the most predominant form these stories take seem to be paranormal romances dealing with illicit love between humans and either vampires or werewolves. Basically your typical romance drivel with the dark brooding guy being a little more mysterious then in earlier works of the same ilk.

Thankfully there are a few authors out there who have shunned that path and understand fantasy and imagination don't have to be strangers. One of my personal favourites for years has been Canadian author Tanya Huff. She seems to be able to write everything from military science fiction to pure old fashioned fantasy. Perhaps it's this versatility which allows her to be so comfortable with urban fantasy's demands for combining contemporary settings with magic and other fantastic elements. In 2009's The Enchantment Emporium she introduced us to the Gale family whose women wield extraordinary powers and whose men sprout antlers.

The Gales are all about family and setting down roots. Each generation has their role to play in establishing the family's connection with their territory, and once established the family is pretty much tied to that land. They not only draw their power from the area, but are also responsible for using that power to take care of it. However once every few generations or so a Gale is born who is different. Known as wild powers they don't settle down and have the gift to travel through time and space. In Huff's second novel about the Gales, The Wild Ways, published by Penguin Canada, we are reintroduced to many of the characters we met in the first book, but this time the focus is on Charlie, this generation's wild power.
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Charlie is a musician and until recently has lived on the road playing with any and every band that can use her. However since her cousin Alley established the family in Calgary Alberta Canada she's become something of a homebody, sharing space with her cousin, her cousin's husband and a fourteen year old Dragon Lord named Jack from the under realm who also happens to be a cousin. (Read The Enchantment Emporium for details) While part of her is enjoying the domesticity, another part of her is chaffing at settling. The Aunts - a designation given to any Gale woman once they obtain a certain age - a group of matronly women who strike fear into the hearts of any sane being, human or otherwise, are starting to drop hints if she doesn't make up her mind soon about what she's going to do with her life they'll make the decision for her. Since that would probably involve far more domestic bliss than she's really interested in coping with, a call from musician friends in need of her skills from the East Coast of Canada, comes as a relief. She can hit the road and put off making a decision for the summer.

However, fate, destiny and or the Aunts have something else in mind. Upon her arrival in Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia Canada Charlie discovers her aunt Catherine, a previous generation's wild power, has stirred up trouble for some of the locals. While not human or from this realm, Selkies, seals who can take off their pelts and turn into alluring women, have been living in Cape Breton for as long as there have been humans. In order to preserve their natural habitat, the ocean, they have formed the core of a very powerful environmental lobby group. Already instrumental in curtailing the annual seal hunt and working to preserve depleted fish stocks, their latest is Carson Oil who is determined to begin drilling for off shore oil near what is not only protected land, but one of the largest seal colonies on the island.

If one wants to control a Selkie you wait until they have assumed their human form and then you steal their skin. According to ancient lore if a man takes a Selkie's skin she is obliged to become his wife and love him. However if she ever finds her skin again, she will return to her home beneath the waves. Carlson Oil isn't looking for the love of a good seal, they're looking to get permits for drilling rights. So when Catherine Gale says she has a solution to their problem the oil company's CEO will pay any price she asks. While she may not understand the supernatural, Amelia Carlson understands blackmail. So hiding the seal skins from the Selkies until they come out in support of her company's drilling operation makes perfect sense to her.
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With the assistance of her Dragon Lord cousin Jack, Charlie decides to not only help the Selkies recover their skins - one of her band mates is married to one of the Selkies - and attempt to figure out why a member of her family would align herself with one of the greedheads of the world. While it might be just be perversity on aunt Catherine's part - I'm doing because I can and I never really liked that holier than thou attitude of the Selkies to begin with - with the Aunts one can never tell. Wild power or not, all of the Aunts are manipulative out of habit, and who knows how many ulterior motives might lay behind Aunt Catherine's decision to scoop the seal skins.

I don't know how Tanya Huff is able to do it, but she has this great ability to write whimsical and funny fantasy novels which on the surface don't appear to have much to them. However, you're sailing along enjoying the bad jokes, occasional sexual innuendo, the characters and the adventure when all of a sudden you run into a serious thought. It's so subtly done you could almost miss it. Yet, as in the case of The Wild Ways, you all of a sudden realize it is the heart of the story and everything has been winding its way towards this point from the beginning. While the plot is important as it creates the opportunity for the character(s) in the book to make the journey required of them, it's this underlying theme which gives Huff's books their real strength.

Most books of this type would be content with just being an adventure/comedy/fantasy, which while tasty enough, usually have all the substance of cotton candy. With a core of intelligence beneath its surface, what would have been the equivalent of a literary snack with the potential for tooth decay, becomes a meal to satisfy most appetites. Combined with Huff's ability to blend ancient traditions seamlessly into the modern world and making them seem perfectly normal and characters who are appealing and fun to hang out with, you're in for an amazing read. A perfect example of how there's more to urban fantasy than teenage girls swooning over the undead and how so many others are failing to exploit the genre's full potential.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2011

Book Review: The Conference Of The Birds by Peter Sis

There's a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Whether intentionally or not the line is crossed by the majority of writers who attempt to write about another's culture as an insider. No matter how long you've lived somewhere or observed people you can't help but be a visitor. Without the weight of generations of tradition laying heavy on your shoulders and the awareness of how you are part of something larger than yourself, you can only interpret what you see, not believe in it.

At best the results are merely insulting, but most of the time they are also misleading and give people horribly inaccurate ideas about the cultures in question. Taking somebody else's mythology or beliefs as the basis for a horror story is probably the worst offence carried out by Western writers. What would you think if you were to read something in which the story of Jesus raising Lazurus from the dead was used as the basis for a Zombie novel? (Although the more I think about it the more fun that idea sounds - literally born again christians go on a rampage to convert everybody to their faith and the sacrament of communion really begins to make sense.)

Thankfully there are writers like Peter Sis who instead of slapping their own interpretation onto something offer recreations of the original stories which not only capture their artistry but keep their original intents intact. Proof of this is offered in his most recent publication, The Conference Of The Birds published by Penguin Canada on November 1 2011. The original poem was written by Farid ud-Din Attar, a twelfth century Sufi poet and mystic who divided his life between what is now modern day Iran and Northern India. As with many Sufi poets and mystics his works were parables whose hidden messages offered everything from spiritual advice to the relationship between man and his god.
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One of the reasons why Sufis wrote in this manner was then, as today, they would often deviate from mainstream interpretations of Islam and running afoul of the clergy could result in accusations of heresy leading to exile or death. As Attar could have attested, having been exiled for heresy, sometimes they weren't careful enough. The Conference Of The Birds, which was also known as A Parliament Of Birds, doesn't appear controversial on the surface, but I'm not an Islamic scholar and have no idea if its underlying message would have been considered heretical by people of his time.

In Sis's retelling he has Attar waking from a dream and realizing he is a hoopoe bird, an Afro-Eurasian member of the same family as Kingfishers, who has been entrusted with a message for the birds of the world. The message is they are to undertake a great journey which would involve flying through seven valleys to the mountain of Kaf where their true king Simorgh lives. The names of the seven valleys they must fly through are; The Valley Of Quest, The Valley Of Love, The Valley Of Understanding, The Valley Of Detachment, The Valley Of Unity, The Valley Of Amazement and, finally, The Valley Of Death. Naturally some of the birds quail (sorry couldn't resist) at the idea of making the journey and surrendering their comfortable existence for the unfamiliar. However, the Hoopoe is able to turn each of their arguments for staying put into their reason for making the trip. When the Peacock says he shouldn't have to go because he's special - "look at all my colours" - the hoopoe responds by telling him he should share his beauty with the whole world.

Needless to say each stage on the journey brings a new lesson for those birds who stick with it. Some of them give up even before the first stage is complete while others don't survive to complete the journey. In fact of all the birds in the world who had set out on the journey in the first place, only thirty make it through to the very end to meet their true king. "And they saw Simorgh the king, and Simorgh the king was them".

Unlike other translations or interpretations of ancient stories Sis has not only resisted attempting to interpret the parable for his readers he manages to to tell it in such a way that the beauty and mystery of the original are retained. For this is not just a translation of the text, it is a visual feast for the eyes as well. You see Sis is a magnificent illustrator and this is as much a pictorial retelling as anything else. I suppose some would want to call it a picture book, and dismiss it as being for children only. However, not only would that be doing it a disservice, it ignores the quality of the illustrations and the depth of meaning in the book's message. Each page not only furthers the story of the journey of the birds, its also a work of art.
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As with the text the longer you contemplate the illustrations the more you discover their hidden meanings. A change of hue here, a change of perspective there and what at first looked straightforward is revealed as having depths of meaning. If you were to flip through the pages as a casual reader you'd miss things like the explanation for the transformation of the poet to the Hoopoe bird. An illustration of a human eye within which you see the reflection of a small human being either walking towards us, or maybe even walking out of the side of the poet's head. Taken with the opening lines of the story, "When the poet Attar woke up one morning after an uneasy dream, he realized he was a hoopoe bird", we have to wonder what Sis is trying to tell us. Did the Sufi mystic really believe he had changed into a hoopoe or is Sis giving us a glimpse into the ways in which the inspiration for the original came to the poet?

Those who have any familiarity with Islamic art will know they don't have a tradition allowing figurative representation. Instead, the majority was decorative with designs made up of beautifully executed geometric patterns. In The Conference Of The Birds Sis' artwork pays homage to that style without either simply imitating or claiming it as his own. Instead he has incorporated it into his illustrations - clouds made out of the countless bodies of birds float across the page and the shape of a labyrinth shows up on page after page. Not only does the latter echo the motif of repeated geometric shapes common to Islamic art of the twelfth century, as a symbol long used to represent an inner journey or the path of a person's life, it emphasizes the overall theme of self-discovery so important to the story.

Like the Sufi mystics of old Peter Sis' reinterpretation of Farid ud-Din Attar's twelfth century epic poem, The Conference Of The Birds, works on many levels. Children and adults will delight in its glorious illustrations. The story of a poet turning into a bird and then leading all the birds of the world on a great adventure to find their king is sure to be one that will appeal to young people, while adults can ponder the messages of the story and perhaps even find ways of conveying them to younger readers. There are many different paths leading to self awareness, and Sis and Attar prove they don't have to be devoid of beauty and you can enjoy yourself along the way.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Conference Of The Birds by Peter Sis on Blogcritics.)

October 31, 2011

Book Review: The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb

Those of you whose primary experience with recorded music has either been with CDs or downloads will understandably probably not share previous generations' appreciation of album art. Even the name, album art, hearkens back to an era when music was released on long playing (LP) records made of vinyl. Instead of the 5 inch by 5 inch covers that now adorn CDs, designers would have a canvass of approximately eighteen by eighteen inches when creating the art for an LP. There was nothing quite like the experience of walking into a large record store whose walls were adorned with years and years worth of record covers. Sometimes you'd go into a record store merely to flip through the bins of LPs and revel in the diversity of artwork and design.

While a sizeable percentage of covers were made up of pictures of the bands striking some kind of pose or another, even some of them could be interesting, or at the very least informative. I used to be able to get a pretty fair indication of whether I'd be interested in the music on offer from the way in which a band displayed itself. However, it was albums with artwork on their covers that would have a better chance of capturing my attention. First of all they were a refreshing change from pouting rock stars trying to look dangerous and secondly some of it was genuinely fascinating. There were quite a few occasions where I would buy an album without knowing anything about the band simply because I liked the art work so much. What was amazing was how many of those recordings I ended up liking. While there were a few which didn't live up to the promise of their art work, most of the time if the cover art appealed to me so did the music.

Cover art has also been a pretty accurate reflection of the overall state of the music industry, especially when it comes to popular music. From the early to the late 1960s as the music became freer and more expressive the cover art became wilder and more experimental. From Andy Warhol pop art on Velvet Underground covers to Peter Max's art work for the Beatles' Yellow Submarine it was a period where almost anything went. Of course this explosion of freedom of expression wasn't just limited to popular music, it was in all the art forms.
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Famed American underground cartoonist and illustrator Robert Crumb said in a recent interview how he had given up being a commercial artist in 1968 and was amazed he could get his crazy comics published in the so called underground press at the time. There might have been little or no money in it at the time, but it was total freedom of expression in his chosen medium. While Crumb is best known for his comic work from that time, it was also when he made his first contribution to the world of record cover art when he was offered the then princely sum of $600.00 to do the cover for Big Brother & The Holding Company's album Cheap Thrills. While he probably could have parlayed that cover into more jobs for record companies, Crumb has never been a particular fan of popular music, except for rock and roll from the mid 1950s to around 1968, and lost interest in it altogether by 1970.

However a new collection of his artwork, The Complete Record Cover Collection, being published by Norton Books in the US on November 7 2011 and Penguin Canada October 25 2011 reveals a side of Crumb that many will not have been familiar with - his passion for recordings made in the early part of the twentieth century. Contrary to the book's title, cover art for records is only one component of Crumb's music related art works as the book is replete with everything from illustrations of musicians from various parts of the world to logos and business cards he's designed for a variety of independent record companies and stores. As you look through the book the first thing you'll notice is not only the wide range of projects he's taken on over the years, but how much more incredibly diversified he is as an artist than is commonly realized.
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Crumb is probably best known for the rather flamboyant and exaggerated style of his comics; a style that is highly reminiscent of cartoons of the early part of the twentieth century. Looking at his illustrations, or even many of his comics, you can almost hear that old time cartoon music playing underneath them. You just know the characters would have a bounce in their step as they walk jauntily down the street to the sound of a ragtime band if they are happy and if sad trumpets would roll out long mournful notes echoing their disconsolation as they sob their hearts out. While the cover for the Cheap Thrills album and some of the other art work in the book utilize that style, you'll see how he's able to gradate his style between the over the top cartoon work and realism as requirements and inspiration dictate.

While I've heard any number of people dismiss cartoons or illustrations as something of a lessor cousin to painting when it comes to the visual arts I've never agreed with that assessment. You only have to look at what Crumb is able to communicate with some of the work in this collection to come to appreciate that while what he does may not be framed and on gallery walls, his work has a validity of its own that makes it the equal to much of what is categorized as "serious" art. Even at its most exaggerated and cartoonish his cover art not only captures something of the nature of the artist who is being represented, it also gives you some insights into the time period the music is from.
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However for pure artistry nothing beats the portraits of various musicians scattered throughout the book. Some of them, Frank Zappa, Woody Guthrie, Lighting Hopkins, Merle Haggard and George Jones are of famous folk, others are of obscure country and blues players and a third group are of anonymous musicians from various parts of Europe. Yet no matter who they are each of the pictures captures some intangible quality of the person that stimulates your imagination in such a way you find yourself either remembering what details you know of the person's life or trying to imagine something about them - what their life was like and what playing music meant to them. While for some of them he's used old photographs as his source material, Crumb's illustrations imbue what were obviously posed pictures with far more life then the original portrait could possibly have contained.

While the book appears to be laid out without any discernible order, record covers and logos for vintage record stores share pages and musicians from the 1920s stand shoulder to shoulder with others from the early part of the twenty-first century, that actually adds to the fun of scanning through the book. Not only does it mean that each page contains examples of Crumb's diversity as an artist, but it makes looking through the book that much more interesting because you're never quite sure what to expect as you flip from one page to the next.

This is the time of year when publishers are flooding the shelves with coffee table books of various sorts in anticipation of the upcoming present buying season. The shelves of your local bookstore are going to be filled with collections of photographs of everything from the glamorous to the infamous, buildings and cute animals and of course the obligatory photo album of the Royal Family and the new Royal Couple. In a crowd like this The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb stands out like a speck of gold in a sea of nickel. If you're going to buy one coffee table book this season make it the one with a spark of life and subversive enough to bring some much needed spice to the season. In an age of conformity and homogenization people like Crumb are needed more than ever. His artistry is as unique today as it was when he first started out and its high time for him to receive the recognition he deserves.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb on Blogcritics)

October 14, 2011

Book Review: Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight

The supposed rule of thumb for avoiding controversy in polite society is not to have conversations about politics or religion. Apparently there aren't many people who can be rational or calm with either topic. Which could go a long way towards explaining why so many people, even those who nominally share his religious beliefs, have problems with Michael Muhammad Knight's books. Of course the fact that he converted to Islam as a teenager is probably off putting to quite a number of Americans, but his work is controversial in the Muslim community as well. It seems not many approve of the fact he openly questions those aspects of the religion he doesn't agree with and his willingness to explore teachings alternative to mainstream Islam.

Although his fiction, The Taqwacores and Osama Van Halen are perhaps more well known to readers at large, it's his non-fiction; Journey To The End Of Islam, Impossible Man, The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop and the Gods Of New York and Blue Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America which have probably caused the most consternation among those of his own faith. Oh, sure the fiction books are filled with enough bad behaviour to make most parents think twice about sending their children to university no matter what their faith. However, because they're fiction they can be ignored and not taken seriously. It's another matter all together when Knight starts into both the autobiographical stuff of Impossible Man and his analysis of various different Islamic philosophies around the world and throughout history.
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Like most converts to anything, Knight went through a period of attempting to be more Islamic than thou followed by a brief period of disillusionment. (Which, judging by what he's written about that period, seems to have stemmed more from his own issues rather than his religion) It was when he truly began to settle into his faith, that he began to delve deeper into its history and philosophies. While this included travels through Africa, the Middle East (including making a pilgrimage to Mecca) and South East Asia it also involved delving into the uniquely American versions of Islam which developed among African Americans. For even though his education in Islam had been in first a mainstream mosque in America and continued in a madrassa in Pakistan, it had been the writings of Malcolm X that had attracted him to the faith in the first place. However, the Nation Of Islam, of which Malcolm had been a member until his split with them shortly before his assassination, he was soon to discover, is considered misguided at best, or a heresy at worst, by the majority of Muslims.

While the Nation of Islam might have been bad enough, it's an even more heretical group who Knight focuses on in his soon to be published Why I Am A Five Percenter, from Tarcher Books a division of Penguin US on October 25 2011 and Penguin Canada on October 13 2011. Knight delivers a concise and intelligent history of the The Five Percenters, also known as The Nation of Gods and Earths, and their philosophies, while dispelling many of the myths surrounding them - they have been accused of everything from wanting to kill all the white people. a front for gang warfare to a terrorist organization. However, as in previous books, his primary concern is to further his very public discourse on Islam and his place in it. To this end he leads readers on a fascinating discussion on the nature of race and religion and a survey course on Sufi mysticism and Islamic studies as he attempts to reconcile his Five Percenter inclinations with his mainstream Islamic beliefs.

The issue of race is a major factor in Knight's personal journey. As a white American convert to Islam he was doted over by his teachers in Pakistan. For while it was fairly common for African Americans to convert, whites were few and far between. However, both the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters were created by and for African Americans and make no bones about the fact they see white society as the biggest obstacle in the way of their community's advancement. It's especially problematic among the latter who teach self-empowerment and self reliance by denying the existence of any "mystery god" and insisting every black man has the potential to be their own god. The answer to where does a young white dude fit into this is another question - what exactly is white? The definition has changed legally over the years in the US from where it used to exclude Irish, Italian and other non-Anglo Saxon Europeans in the 1800s to now where anybody of roughly European stock is considered "white" by all save for white extremists.

In actual fact there is no such thing as a white race genetically or any other way people would like to think.The only Caucasians in the world are a somewhat swarthy group of people, including many Muslims, who live in Eastern Europe in Georgia and other Baltic states. According to Knight, being white is more a state of mind than anything else. Now that may sound like he's justifying his position, but he freely admits that he's as capable of being as white as the next person. It's a question of privilege. As a white male he is far more liable to be accepted by society as a whole than somebody of colour. Anytime he wants to he can walk away from his beliefs and be welcomed with open arms by the world at large - something none of the other Five Percenters, the majority of whom are poor people from Harlem and inner cities around America, have as an option.
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How many of them can go to Harvard University to study? How many have the luxury to spend hours studying obscure Sufi mystics when they have to put food on the table for their families? Sure there are a lot of poor people who aren't African American, but history, the history that automatically granted a poor white person higher status than an African American no matter how wealthy or educated, isn't easily forgotten by anyone and colour still designates something. As one of the scholars Knight quotes in the book says, the only people who can afford to be colour blind are those whose colour has never been used against them.

You may or may not agree with Knight's assessment of race, ( I do) but you can't help but admire his ability for being honest with himself. He spends page upon page analysing the writings of Islamic scholars and mystics and a seemingly endless number of interpretations of the Qur'an attempting to find a way for the Five Percenter's rejection of a "mystery god" to be accommodated by Islam. However when he presents his ideas to a couple of Five Percenter gods, the elder one reminds him of one of their basic precepts. It's not just belief in a "mystery god" that allows for oppression and injustice, it's also the time wasted looking for proof of its existence. Five Percenter's teach that despite every attempt by society to degrade you and push you down, the universe is yours and you can accomplish anything. You are your own god.

Why I Am A Five Percenter is by turns fascinating, intelligent and funny. While Knight occasionally meanders into what appear to be exercises in religious and spiritual hair splitting in his examination of what he calls nine thousand pages of Sufi mysticism, which he then refers to as so much naval gazing, even that section of the book has its value. Too often Islam is represented as being a single minded monolith, but here we see the diversity of thought and belief which has developed over the hundreds of years of its history. However, that is only a sideline to his main focus; Five Percenters, the history of Islam among African Americans and his appreciation for the former.

Along the way he manages to touch on topics as diverse as race, the nature of religion and the role each of us plays in shaping a religion. He isn't trying to convince you that his way is the right way, only to tell you about it and why it appeals to him. It's possible the questions he has struggled with are ones readers might recognize as ones they've asked themselves, but he doesn't pretend his answers will be applicable to anyone but himself. He tells you why he is a Five Percenter, in as much as he can be, but never advocates it or any creed as the answer to anybody's problems.

Somehow Knight manages to blend scholarship and personal memoir and in the process of teaching us an important part of American history and telling us about his own quest to find a place in the world. All in all, for a book about subjects we're not supposed to talk about in polite society, a remarkable achievement.

(Article first published as Book Review: Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics)

October 12, 2011

Book Review: Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Wolman The Rolling Stone Years

Once upon a time in the city of the Golden Bridge by the edge of the Pacific Ocean, there lived many happy people who dressed and acted differently from the rest of the land. People would flock from all over to point, look and wonder. In this magic land there lived smaller groups of people who had been blessed with the ability to make wondrous sounds. Taking strange and other worldly names like Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company, they would perform at large ritual gatherings for the inhabitants of the magical kingdom. Among those attending there would be some who would ingest strange substances and then dance with wild abandon. It was a time of innocence and joy.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't really like that in San Francisco, but there are times when you read about the heyday of the Bay Area music scene from around 1964 to 1969 it sure sounds like some sort of fairy tale. There's no denying it was a centre of creative energy whose influence spread far beyond the borders of not only the city but the state. One could easily make the argument that the Woodstock Music & Art Festival on the other side of America in Bethal New York, was as much a part of the San Francisco music scene as the free concerts in Golden Gate Park. So it's not surprising that the first magazine devoted solely to the popular music of the time, Rolling Stone was born in that city in 1967.

In his wonderful new book, Every Picture Tells A Story: Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years published by Omnibus Press, photojournalist Baron Wolman recreates for us those early years at Rolling Stone. In a combination of text and photos he recounts the history of the magazine's first tentative issues. From his original meeting with founder/editor in chief, the then twenty-one year old Jann Wenner, through his three years of photo shoots for the magazine, Wolman's descriptions of events captures both the pure magic and the pathos of the times.
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Wolman describes himself as something of an outsider to the pop music scene. While he and his wife lived in the Haight Ashbury district which was the nexus for the scene, he was thirty years old and not that familiar with either the music or the musicians he was being assigned to shoot. However that didn't stop Wenner from reaching a deal with him that saw his photographs appear in the magazine in exchange for stock in the company and Wolman retaining all rights to the material. While at the time it meant that Wolman would also have to hunt down paying gigs while shooting material for Rolling Stone, he obviously has no regrets about the arrangement and is honest enough to say the deal has worked out very well for him.

One thing you find out very quickly is Wolman is from a different era then the one we live in today. He wasn't like one of the hordes who now stalk celebrities in the hopes of catching some indiscretion on film. It was also long before promotional videos, branding and image creators. Wolman would typically accompany the writer assigned to write a story to the subject's home and take his photos on location. There were no make up artists, no wardrobe changes and no lighting effects. He would shoot Janis Joplin in the basement of her Laural Canyon home shooting pool with members of her band, Frank Zappa lurking in caves or playing on construction equipment behind his house, or Tiny Tim beaming with delight over the bouquet of daisies just presented him by Wolman and the writer.

These aren't candid shots obviously, but something of the person's real character shines through unlike so many of today's carefully sculpted arrangements. Wolman talks about the difference between then and now and puts a lot of it down to being a matter of trust between the subject and photographer. "They trusted me...and the rest of us... not to make them look like fools." For Wolman the biggest change was when studios started to become involved and began dictating what they wanted and pushed the photo shoots further and further away from being a one on one interplay between photographer and musician. With the advent of MTV image became far more important then it once was and according to Wolman bands were no longer happy with simply being photographed - they wanted to look a certain way and wanted photographers to achieve it for them.

As a photojournalist Wolman had learned how to capture moments on film that would tell a story. In his photos for Rolling Stone the subject was usually the story. So whether the shots were in a recording studio, backstage or on stage, each one of them tell us a little bit about the person in question. Even those he took in his studio at home, with lights and posed in front of a seamless background still reveal something of the person's story. Sometimes even Wolman was surprised at what his photos showed. He remembers puzzling over a photo of Jerry Garcia he took in his home studio; wondering how Garcia was able to contort one of his fingers so that it looked like it was missing, until realizing it was actually missing. It's a beautiful shot of Garcia smiling into the camera and holding up the hand with the missing finger as if caught waving. What Wolman didn't know until much later was that it's also one of the only photos Garcia ever allowed to be taken where he wasn't hiding the fact the finger was absent.
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Looking at the pictures, both scattered through out the book and those in a separate section comprising some of Wolman's favourite shoots, you can't help but be struck by how intimate some of the shots are. Even some of the caught in performance shots capture moments on stage when the performer is turned inward and is in the process of vanishing into the music. Of the galleries of Wolman's favourites shoots the ones of Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin which I personally found the most interesting. Wolman makes no secret about his love of shooting Hendrix whether on stage or off and it's obvious from the photos. Hendrix may have been a shy person, but Wolman's camera captures the life in his eyes even when he's sitting and relaxing.

Miles Davis must have existed at the opposite end of the universe from Hendrix. The intensity of his stare, even when he's relaxing at home with his wife, is enough to burn a hole in the page. Looking at shots taken of him in a gym shadow boxing are like looking at a coiled spring releasing and snapping back into place again. Wolman mentions how Davis seemed filled with anger so much of the time, and that certainly comes through in the photos. However, nothing matches the pictures of Janis Joplin for poignancy. Maybe it's because we know about her sad end, but looking at the shots of her smiling face are enough to break your heart. It's far sadder to see the potential for joy that lived inside her and know she very rarely had the chance to experience it than to look at those which show her sadness.

As the book's title so aptly says every picture can tell a story, and while you may purchase the book for its pictures alone, do not ignore the text. Wolman tells the story of his time photographing the great and famous among popular music's pantheon in refreshingly honest prose. Candid about what he sees as his own deficiencies as a recorder of musical history, he readily admits to knowing little or nothing about the people he was shooting or their music prior to his assignments, he doesn't offer any critiques about anyone's place in history, he simply speaks of them as human beings. Much like his pictures reflect the individual as much as the rock star, his text humanizes, and thus makes them more real, each of those he saw through his viewfinder.

From free concerts in Golden Gate Park to the blackness of Altamant and, after leaving Rolling Stone, the Concerts on the Green in Oakland in the 1970s, Baron Wolman and his camera captured most of pop music's royalty. While he might have regrets for the pictures he didn't take, we can only be grateful for those he did. After reading Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Woman The Rolling Stone Years you'll find yourself believing in the fairy tale of San Francisco of the 1960s and perhaps even wishing we could somehow turn the clock back to those more innocent times.

(Article first published as Book Review: Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years by Baron Wolman on Blogcritics)

September 25, 2011

Book Review: River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Of all the evils done under the guise of "Free Trade" some of the most insidious were those carried out by the unofficial mercantile arm of the British Empire, The East India Tea Company. Beneath that seemingly innocuous banner more acts of piracy, looting and pillaging were carried out than by anybody sailing under the Skull & Crossbones.Yet perhaps the worst crime that can be laid at their feet was the development and propagation of the opium trade. In spite of stereotypes depicting Chinese as nefarious purveyors of the drug, it was not native to their land, instead it was deliberately introduced to the country by English merchants. Yet it wasn't just the Chinese effected by this practice, but those in the British colonies of India and its neighbours, what is now Afghanistan for example, where the poppies from which opium is made were grown who suffered, and still suffer today, from the repercussions of this trade.

For not only were farmers convinced to turn over acres of valuable agricultural land to the cultivation of poppies, at who knows what long term cost to the lands potential for other crops, countless others were convinced to tie their lives to the process of manufacturing and selling opium. From those who worked the harvest all the way up to merchant families who invested in opium in the hopes of reaping profits by selling it in China, every level of society in British South East Asia became ensnared in the opium trade. For in spite of the fact possession and selling of opium were both illegal in China there were enormous profits to be made by those willing to make the outlay required to bribe officials, pay smugglers and purchase the product.

However, the Chinese governments weren't about to let a small group of foreign merchants reap enormous profits by enslaving their people to drugs without a fight. In the late 1830's the emperor finally decided enough was enough and decided to act against the opium trade in his country and in doing so precipitated what has become known as the "Opium Wars". Crying their rights to "Free Trade" were being curtailed by a foreign government, British merchants whose cargos were forcibly impounded backed up their demands for restitution with the guns of the Royal Navy. It is into this tumultuous period of history that we are tossed in Amitav Ghosh's latest release, River Of Smoke, the second book of his Ibis Trilogy, (Sea Of Poppies was the first book) which will be published by Penguin Canada on Tuesday September 27 2011. While only one of the four story lines we follow through the course of the book deals directly with the opium trade, as all four centre around China, and specifically the section of the city of Canton where foreigners are allowed to dwell and the major trading houses have set up shop, each of the characters we meet are impacted by the events of the day.
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Like a wonderful multicoloured tapestry Ghosh has woven a story made up of a series of vibrant threads made from a multitude of materials. The tale which unfolds before us is another chapter in the history of a vast multicultural and multiethnic family whose progenitors seem to be a mix of the mix-blood illegitimate children of Europeans, former indentured servants and escaped convicts from European colonies in South East Asia and points further East. Now settled in Mauritius, La Fami Colver, (they speak a strange mix of Creole, Hindu and pidgin (which means trader) English from China) have kept a pictorial record of how the lives of its founders were bound together by fate, and in particular a hurricane in September of 1838 that struck three boats: the Ibis carrying convicts and indentured servants from Calcutta to Mauritius, the Anahita carrying a cargo of opium from India to Canton and the Redruth sailing from Cornwall to China in search of rare botanical specimens.

While both the Ibis and the Redruth carry those who would end up being part of the La Fami, it's the Anahita, it's cargo and the merchant whose fortunes are riding upon the opium in its hold who end up at the centre of the story. Bahramji Naurozji Modi had been born to a poor rural family, but through a strange twist of fortune ended up marring into one of Bombay's wealthiest shipbuilding families. It was he who convinced his father in law to begin using the ships they built for trading ventures. As none of the other family members had the slightest inclination to travel, or interest in trade for that matter, it was Bahram who took care of everything. He found the investors to pay for the opium his boat carried, escorted it to China, found the buyers and was the face of the family business in the foreigners enclave in Canton.

It's mainly through Bahram's eyes we watch the beginnings of what will become known as the opium wars. However Ghosh doesn't limit us to the one perspective as the events overtake all foreigners even if they have nothing directly to do with the opium trade. Neel, a young wealthy man convicted of embezzlement had escaped from the Ibis along with Bahram's illegitimate half Chinese son Ah Fat, and when both men turn up in Singapore at the same time the Anahita shows up, Ah Fat arranges for his friend to be hired as his father's personal secretary. For those on board the Redruth they are forced to rely upon the letters of a friend for information on both goings on in Canton and the location of a rare plant they hope to take back to England. For one of the ways the Chinese were attempting to curtail the opium trade by allowing fewer and fewer foreigners to travel in their territory. Only people with special permits were allowed to travel up the river from Hong Kong to Canton, and they weren't being handed out to those looking for rare flowers.
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Ghosh has done a masterful job in not only making each of his characters fascinating studies and interesting people to spend time with, he has also managed to bring the strange exotic world of the foreign enclave in Canton vividly alive. Crammed within a few square blocks a cross are traders from almost every corner of the world. Outside the enclave they might never have had anything to do with each other, but here all of the constraints society would normally place upon them have been suspended. Race and colour are of no matter as money and influence are the great equalizers. Each of the many traders have created second lives for themselves in China, up to and including taking wives and fathering children who they treat with equal devotion as their "real" families. While Bahram might only live there for six months or so every ten years, his is no different from the British traders who live there permanently.

While Ghosh's descriptive abilities allow us to create intricate portraits of people and locations, it's his agility with languages which gives River Of Smoke an extra level of verisimilitude. From the strange mix of words spoken by the family in the opening pages of the book, the scattering of pidgin appearing like exotic fruit in amongst the bland English of the trader's everyday speech, the conversations between the merchants and their Chinese partners, to the bombastic rhetoric of the ardent British free traders, each person we meet is given a voice as unique as their character and a language or dialect to match. While this might present a bit of a challenge to readers initially, you can usually work everything out within the context of a sentence, it makes for a far more interesting read than if he had opted have everyone speaking in one voice.

Lurking at the centre of all this splendour though is the dark heart of the opium trade. The majority of the traders in Canton are there to exercise their right to sell what ever products they want for the most profit they can earn. That the product in question is opium and its sale is illegal in China (and most of their home countries as well) is irrelevant. Like "Free Enterprise" exponents down through the ages they decry Chinese edict against the drug trade as government interference in their "God given right to trade" but have no hesitation about turning to their own government for assistance when their profits are threatened. By incorporating real historical figures from the period and drawing upon their speeches Ghosh manages to make his points about these people and their practices without breaking stride in his storytelling. The only disquieting note being how little these speeches have changed in the past century and a half or so.

River Of Smoke is a wonderful mixture of people, places and story that captures a moment in history like an insect snared in amber. All the details are there for the reader to see and appreciate. While the trade in opium, the policies of the British government which encouraged it, and those who made obscene profits from attempting to addict an entire nation to the drug, were reprehensible, one can't but help echo one character's regret at the passing of the foreign enclave in Canton which served as home to those involved. Instead of the usual ghettoizing of people by race, language or skin colour which usually occurs when various representatives of humanity are forced into close confines, here, for whatever the reason and for however brief period of time it lasted, something different was born. An international community alive with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of each of its representatives with a universal language allowing them to communicate across cultural and social boundaries. While Ghosh goes to great pains to make sure its not depicted as a perfect world, those few square blocks in Canton were an example we'd do well to emulate more often.

(Author Photo by Ulf Anderson)

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh)

August 30, 2011

Book Review: Storm of the i: An Artobiography by Tina Collen

Over the past ten years the market has been flooded with an outpouring of memoirs from people who think the rest of us want to hear their tales of woe. While some have been written from a genuine desire to assist others struggling to come to grips with their own recovery, far too many have been self-serving attention seeking grabs for a flicker of celebrity. Unfortunately the numbers in the latter category have come to so outweigh the former many of us cringe upon hearing yet another "brave story of one (insert gender here) struggle to overcome past" has been unleashed upon the public. All of which means those few voices which might have something of value to say, aren't receiving a fair hearing.

Personally, I'm one of those whose instinctive reaction upon receiving a press release containing anything close to the "brave story" phrase is to hit delete and move on. As a survivor and a writer I find most of them either tedious or downright offensive. Having gone through years of therapy and dealt with my own shit, frankly I've little interest in wading through other people's manure, especially when they have nothing new to say about the subject at hand. That's especially true about those who are looking for their Oprah moment by telling the world about how miserable they were as a child. What are you trying to accomplish by spilling your guts to the world without putting it into any sort of context beyond self-pity and the confessional? No matter what anybody might say to the contrary there is nothing "inspirational" in reading somebody's tale of woe. What would be inspirational would be for you to have the courage to go to a therapist once a week and deal with your problems, but that makes for pretty boring reading and won't garner you any headlines.

So to say I was surprised to find myself intrigued enough to not only read the entire press release, but to request a review copy of Storm Of The i: An Artobiography by Tina Collen, published by her own Art Review Press, is a bit of an understatement. However, there was something about the attitude expressed in the release, and the outline of the concept for the book, that intrigued me. That the kiss of death "brave" catch phrase was nowhere to be seen and the author, a visual artist and graphic designer, was unabashedly proud of her other work, implying she was anything but the victim type, helped convince me this might be a story worth reading. However the real clincher was the fact you could tell that Ms. Collen, in spite of whatever her story was, had never lost her sense of the absurd and was still able to laugh at the world in spite of what it may have done to her.
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As a graphic and visual artist Ms. Collen has elected to tell her story utilizing the skills she is most comfortable with as well as the written word. (Hence the sub-title "An Artobiography") Having grown tired of the standard format of both biographies and autobiographies, with their written equivalent of the talking heads in a documentary movie telling a person's story and passionless listings of events in neat chronological order, even somebody daring to consider an alternative was exciting. It was the obvious question of how she would do this which first sprang to mind. However the answer wasn't anything as neat and tidy as I thought. Instead of the book being filled with images either reflecting her emotional state during the process of recovery or recently created works that looked back on her life telling the story in hindsight, she has done something far more revealing.

Any creative person, but especially one working in the visual arts, tells their own story through their work whether they are aware of it or not. No matter what the subject matter part of who they are and how they are feeling at the time they worked on a project can't help but being communicated in the finished result. While Ms. Collen had always known her relationship with her father was a source of grief in her life, it felt like everything she did, from dating to having children, angered him and that he was constantly belittling her, it was in her work that the true impact of their relationship was manifested. Looking at various pieces she had created throughout her life she began to notice recurring themes of emptiness. The void inside of her created by her father's apparent lack of love that she had repressed and carefully hidden from herself and the world had been on display for all to see if they, and she, had only known what to look for.

Even more frightening, in some ways, was coming to the understanding her ability to lose herself in her work, to become immersed in whatever she was working on, was in fact a means of running away from dealing with the issue. While all artists lose themselves in their work to the extent they can block out the world around them if their focus is sufficient, some of the examples of Ms. Collen's pieces included in the book border on obsessive in their need for attention to detail. She created a truly brilliant and witty series of works where she painstakingly created very realistic pictures of flowers by using body parts cut from pornographic magazines as the material. (For more on these works check out the Fleurotica section of her web site)

To the world she exuded confidence and bravado, always able to make those around her laugh and delight in her creativity and intellect. But she was crippled by back and neck pain and swamped by tidal waves of guilt, remorse and grief that began to manifest in debilitating as periods of depression so deep she wouldn't want to leave her bed. But this is not solely a tale of woe, its also a celebration of a life filled with creativity and a zest for experiences. Unlike other tell all confessions filled with self-abasement, recrimination and negativity, Collen doesn't leave you feeling like you're on a guided trip of the nine circles of her personal hell. In creating this map of her journey she details the whole process not just the negatives. She even owns up to having taken pleasure out of her life, not something you'd expect to find in this type of book.

One thing, and I was ever so grateful for this. she doesn't claim to have are the answers. She's very careful never to cross the line between telling her story and telling people what to do with their situations. While she does talk about the various therapies she has attempted in her search for relief, she refrains from becoming an advocate for any particular one. Even her description of attending an intensive seminar/lecture series whose methods very obviously don't work for her, makes sure to point out how it works for a number of the participants. What she does make clear is that no matter what therapy you use, recovery from any type of early life trauma is ultimately dependant on whether or not an individual is willing to be completely honest with themselves and do their own work. A therapist is only a guide, they can't change your life for you, only you can do that. Not only does Collen make that clear, she also makes it obvious that each of us are different and that her story isn't to be taken as any sort of guideline for recovery.
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So what was her purpose in writing this book if it wasn't for that reason? She's honest enough to even tackle that question. At one point she wonders out loud if the process of writing this book. with all its little intricacies and design features, isn't just another means of escape. However, she doesn't try to justify its writing by saying things like, I hope my story will inspire others or some such crap. She's doing it because she needs to, it's part of her process. She's a creative and intelligent person who thrives when making pieces of art. This book is simply one more of her creations, this time it just happens to be a very realistic, multi media, self-portrait. While other artists might have painted out the wart on their chin, she's more inclined to follow in the footsteps of people like Van Gogh who had no fear of showing the world their true state when putting their own image onto canvas.

Some of the reviews for this book I've read warn this style of memoir might become a trend, with people publishing scrap books of their lives in an attempt to tell their stories. All I can say is I sincerely hope not. In the hands of an artist gifted with the honesty, humour and integrity of Tina Collen, this book works. While some might find its lack of traditional book structure - one page might be pictures of events in the past with little written explanations of the events depicted while the next deals with something completely unrelated - confusing because its not divided up into neat chapters nor told in what appears to be a chronological order. Yet, if you think of it as a really large canvass made up of the multitude of experiences that exist inside her brain right now - after all we are inherently cubist as everything we have ever done lives on somewhere inside of us making us all multifaceted whether we're aware of it or not - you'll realize you've actually been given more of a complete picture os a person's life than either an autobiography or biography would normally supply. Like a collage it's all laid out in front of us to look at and absorb as individual images and ideas catch our attention.

Tina Collen has taken the staid and boring world of biography/autobiography and blown it wide open. While you may never have heard of her and her work before, with Storm of the i she has created something both remarkable, for its bold and fresh approach, and worth taking note of as a piece of art. In a digital age with the Internet at her disposal, she has chosen to utilize two of humanities oldest means of expression and combine them in ways that both challenge and engage the reader. Asking what purpose does it serve is no more relevant than asking what purpose any painting, novel, song, dance, opera or sculptor serves. Remember all art has its roots in the autobiographical, this work is just a little bit more obvious about it than others.

(Article first published as Book Review: Storm of the i: An Artobiogrpahy by Tina Collen on Blogcritics)

August 26, 2011

Book Review: Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna

To most of us in North America India remains something of an enigma. We either think of it as the backward country where children are only saved from starvation by the intervention of foreigners or as call centre central where all our tech support questions are answered. Even those who have visited the country are barely going to scratch the surface of this ancient and complex culture with its multitude of languages and peoples. Compounding the problem is that the majority of books, fiction and non-fiction, written about India up until the last decade were written by non-Indians. History books still refer to the first nationalist uprisings that attempted to throw off colonial rule in the 1800s as the "Indian Mutiny". Making out that those fighting for independence from the British were in the wrong.

While some British writers, like Kipling, were born in India and had a better understanding of life in the country than their compatriots, they were still part of the ruling elite and their perspectives were coloured accordingly. Thankfully that is changing and in the last few years we've seen more and more books published by Indian authors writing about both contemporary India and its history. One of the first things an astute reader will realize after reading any of these books is how little they know about the country and the incredible complexity of its history. Two things which become abundantly clear from reading any of the historical fiction are how the idea of India as one nation is a new concept and how British rule radically changed the lives of subcontinent's people.

Both these points come out in Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna recently published by Penguin Canada. The book traces the history of one family from 1878 until the tumultuous days in the 1940s leading up to independence. I doubt if most of us have even heard of Coorg in Southern India where the majority of the story takes place, but what becomes abundantly clear almost immediately is how the people native to the region consider themselves to be from Coorg, not India.
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We learn how they have fought fiercely to maintain their independence from neighbouring Mysore and when the story opens border posts are still manned in case their neighbour should try to invade again. They appear to have a type of feudal government, with those families with the largest land holdings being the most powerful. However they don't to use that power in order to tell others what to do, they just seem to be held in higher esteem by others. Instead the people are governed by their traditional moral codes and their belief system. A mixture of ancestor worship, belief in spirits and the worship of the goddess Kaveri as well as other Hindu gods associated with agriculture. Over the course of the book both the moral code and the hierarchy of families play key roles in the fates of the main characters giving readers a chance to understand and appreciate the delicate way in which they work to hold society together.

Focusing on the lives of two children from infancy to adulthood, the story Mandanna weaves follows the familiar pattern of frustrated love, betrayal, resentment and eventually reconciliation.
Devi is the first daughter born to the Nachimandas family in over sixty years. An obvious beauty from an early age, she is doted on by the entire family. Her male childhood companion, Devanna, is less fortunate as his mother commits suicide after fleeing her wealthy landowner husband to return to her home village. The young boy is taken in by Devi's parents and they are inseparable as children. However while Devanna assumes nothing has changed when they come to maturity, Devi nurtures a secret passion for his cousin Manchu, a renowned hunter who slew a tiger with his dagger.

Even after she is forced to marry Devanna, Devi's obsession with Manchu doesn't end. First expressed in an elicit affair that only ends when Devanna attempts suicide and Manchu overcome with guilt refuses to see Devi again and finds his own wife. However not even Manchu's death fighting for the British in Afghanistan can stop Devi from yearning for the man she loved. Seeking out his widow she convinces her to send Manchu's son Appu to live at her estate where she can provide him with a far better life. She then directs the love she was never able to give Manchu to his son, to the point where she almost convinces herself he was their child. Of course this comes at a cost, for in the process she neglects her own son Nanju. It is Appu who she finds the most beautiful bride for, even though as eldest Nanju should have been married first, and it is Appu who she plans on leaving her estate, Nari Malai - Tiger Hills. After all it was named in honour of his father, so it's only right he should inherit it.
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While the family dynamic plays out, the changing world around them is also having its impact on the characters. While both Devanna and Devi attended a mission school run by German Catholics, and it was Devanna's decision to attend a British medical school as a boarding student which precipitated the events that changed all their lives, they still remained rooted in their Coorg traditions. Devanna might have found himself being two people, one person at school and another at home, but he never forgot where he came from and who he was. While their son Nanju retained some of their love for the land which was so key to being a Coorg, on being exposed to British living through school and social activity, Appu quickly leaves his old life behind. He insists his mother change the family estate's name to Tiger Hills as referring to it by its native name is so "provincial". He also quickly tires of, and is embarrassed by, his beautiful wife when she can't handle herself in "Society".

Of course he's not the only one. Scions of old Coorg families are assuming British sounding names, affecting the manners of polite society and beginning to scheme as how they will fill the power vacuum created by the British leaving. It's all very well and good for nationalists to preach equality for all, but these children of landowners know land is power and aren't about to start surrendering either of those commodities. They are the face of the new elite in India, the power behind the scenes, and will fight tooth and nail to hold on to their positions of wealth and status.

While the story of Tiger Hills is a bit formulaic in its tale of thwarted romance, obsession and so on, where Mandanna excels is in her depiction of the changing world the story takes place in. Told chronologically we watch as the people of Coorg's lives change radically in the space of only one generation. Almost everything about them, even down to the crops they grow and the reasons for growing them, change from the time Devi is a child to the time her adopted son comes of age. Interestingly enough it's the people like Devanna who have managed to keep a foot in each of the worlds who seem to be best able to cope with the new world. He is able to combine his European education with his knowledge of Coorg to solve agricultural problems that no one else has been able to deal with.

Appu is the other end of the stick. Throwing himself whole hearted into being even more British than the British, he ends up losing all sense of himself. We gradually see him becoming all flash and no substance and his character floats in the wind without direction or focus. With his every whim indulged by his mother growing up, he is used to getting his way without effort, and expects privilege as his right not something to be earned. Never having had to work for anything, the few times he's denied the things he wants, usually because of his own misdeeds, he becomes resentful and sulky, blaming others for his failures. Without the roots in his land to fall back on he has nothing, and in the end his ambitions come to nought as well.

Tiger Hills offers a glimpse into the past of one province in India and in the process allows readers a view of one of the many different faces of the country. At the same time Sarita Mandanna shows us one of the long term results of colonial rule, something whose impact is still being felt in many former colonies including India. How a generation attracted by the allure of the bright and shiny gave up the traditions that had defined their place in the world, only to be left with a void that constantly needs to be filled. A void they continue to attempt to fill to this day with power and money by any means possible. Reading this book will give readers a little more of an insight into what's behind the Indian Tiger and perhaps help them taking the first steps towards understanding there's a lot more to the country than they thought.
(Article first published as Book Review: Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna on Blogcritics)

August 1, 2011

Book Review: Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompsom

I was recently asked a question regarding the story of a person's life that gave me serious pause for thought about the reasons for writing biographies in general. The question was, what is there about this person's story that people will be able to identify with? After I had answered the question regarding the person under discussion to the best of my ability, it led me into thinking about why it is people would want to read about another person's life in the first place. If you've walked into a book store recently you can't have helped noticing non-fiction sections are awash with books about the lives of so-called celebrities. Rock stars, reality TV stars, movie stars, wives and husbands of movie stars and so on stare back at you from display tables and book shelves asking you to shell out your hard earned bucks to.... to what?

Some of them are obviously extensions of the type of coverage you'd expect from the celebrity gossip columns and television shows that pass for journalism or entertainment reporting these days. Collections of photos and filled with the titillating tid-bits aimed at perpetuating whatever myth has grown up around the subject matter. There are also the "My life with so and so" type, which are a version of the tell all book that involves ex-wives, husbands, butlers and pool-boys attempting to cash in on their relationship with the subject by telling the world how they were abused, under tipped or what was involved in a post pool party clean up. A little further up, or lower depending on your point of view, the food chain are the more in depth tomes tracing their subject's life from infancy to death based on interviews with such credible sources as friends of a friend of the guy who drove the ice cream truck through their neighbourhood. Unsubstantiated should be blazoned across the cover of these books rather than the ubiquitous "Unauthorized" as the pages are filled with "he (or she) said" followed by "he said" of quotes that can be neither proven or discredited as the author has gone to great pains to protect his or her sources anonymity.
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Candy floss books like those are people looking for to get the same fix of outrage and envy they receive from reading about "celebrity scandals" in their magazine of choice. Anybody who already buys a tabloid devoted to the antics of "Teen Moms" aren't going to be the most discerning or demanding of audiences and will be more than satisfied with anything that gives them more of the same but in a fancier package. However, what about biographies about the non-celebrity; the world leaders, the history makers, the great scientist and the brilliant artist? What are we looking for when we pick up a biography of someone like Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking or Pablo Picasso? These are people who have left an indelible stamp on history and I think its natural there will be curiosity as to what made them who they were and how it came about. How is it this person became so much more than the person sitting next to them in school? Was it they were simply smarter, did they catch some sort of lucky break or were they driven by some burning desire or ambition that propelled them to the pinnacles they obtained? But I also think we want more than just a person's what when we read a biography, we want to gain a deeper understanding of who they are.

We've seen their lives from the outside, but people are more than a collection of actions. It also seems the greater a person's accomplishments, the more interesting and complex they are, and some clue as to who that might be is something we're all naturally curious about. Maybe its just because we hope to find something of ourselves in the pages of their story and in the process some way of personally identifying with them and feeding that small part of ourselves where dreams live with "if they can do it why can't I"? Naturally each individual is going to have different variations on the above motivating their curiosity about the subject of a biography, and depending on who and what the person is known for, there's no saying it will have to be the same reason each time.

When I picked up the new biography of poet/musician Patti Smith, Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story, by Dave Thompson being published by the Chicago Review Press on August 2 2011, I was already fairly familiar with what her life and career have consisted of and was interested in seeing if the author would be able to provide any more insights into who she was. For while its true Smith recently published her own in depth autobiography,Just Kids it was primarily concerned with her early life in New York City and her relationship with her dear friend Robert Maplethorpe. The other major piece of biographical material available is the ten year in the making documentary by Stephen Sebring, Patti Smith - Dream Of Life, which, although it contains extensive footage of Smith and is remarkably moving in places, I found left me wanting to know more about her.
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Thompson was exhaustive in his research for this book and its not lacking in facts and information. Not only did he conduct extensive interviews with those who knew Patti at various points in her life, he seems to have read nearly everything ever written about her in both the press and other people's writings. However, even more promising as far as I was concerned, was his mentioning in the introduction how he tried to turn to her words and writings whenever possible for information. While the majority of the latter turned out to be interviews she had given at various points in her career, it also included her poetry, lyrics and even Just Kids and whatever other autobiographical writings he was able to access. Thompson also had the benefit of having been there himself when her career took off during the heydays of punk rock in the mid 1970s. (In fact portions of this book previously appeared in one of his earlier works, London's Burning:True Adventures on the Front Line of Punk 1976 -1977) which should have enabled him to bring his own emotional memories of the time to bear upon the subject.

The book traces Smith's life and career from pretty much her birth right to 2010. While a great deal of this was covered in Smith's Just Kids, Thompson switches the focus away from her relationship with Maplethorpe, although as that was such a formative part of who she is he can't ignore it, and focuses instead on those aspects of her life more directly related to her career. While there is still quite a bit of overlap between the two books, his emphasis on how her career was being shaped by those events distinguishes his work from hers. We also hear from those who knew Smith and Maplethorpe during this time, and their observations at least offer a different perspective on things Smith described in her book. While at times it feels somewhat strange to read these third person accounts it does help to explain how Smith was able to begin establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with in the artistic community of New York City in the late 60s early 70s.

There are also details, like Smith's fascination with Jim Morrison of the Doors, which she had barely touched on in her own book, that Thompson recounts. With descriptions of things like Smith standing at Morrison's grave in Paris for two hours in the pouring rain hoping to receive some sort of communion from beyond, he makes a case for Morrison's combination of rock and roll and poetry as one of the bigger influences on her career. While he never comes right out and says it in so many words, the fact that Thompson keeps bringing him up time and time again in relationship to Smith's work is an indication of the importance he places on it and his ability to cite her own references to the late rock and roll singer gives the suggestion credence. Personally I never thought that much of Morrison, so my own personal prejudices made it difficult to accept that Smith's work would have been inspired by someone whose work was, what I'd consider, far inferior to hers, but he does present a very convincing case in support of the theory.
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Thompson's meticulous research pays off for the reader in his recounting Smith's near fatal accident during a performance in Tampa Bay Florida when while dancing on stage she tripped over a monitor and fell over the edge to the concrete below damaging vertebrae in her neck. While rumours have circulated as to the cause of the accident the truth was as the opening act on the tour they were forced to work around the headlining group's gear and the monitor was not where she thought it would be. I'd never even heard of this incident, it's not mentioned in either her book or the movie, so was shocked to discover how serious it had been. For a while after the accident there was not only doubt as to whether she would ever perform again, but if she would ever walk again. Smith was part of the reason the fall was downplayed so much, as she was never aware how serious the problem was. Unused to pain medication she would cheerfully answer fine to people's queries as to how she was feeling. So unless you were actually in the hospital room to see her immobilized, you'd not have known the risk she was at.

While these and other facts are interesting and Thompson has done a fine job in organizing and relating them in a neat chronological package, I came to the end of the book not feeling like I had come to know the person behind the facts any better then I had before I started. Perhaps that's because I'd read her own book, own a copy of Sebring's movie and its accompanying book and have watched a number of interviews with her where she has discussed both herself and her career and was already familiar with her. Perhaps my expectations outstripped what is possible to accomplish within the format of a biography, but still I felt there has to be more to someone's life than the mere recitation of what happened to them and when. Thompson's background in journalism shows in his unwillingness to stray too far from laying out facts and very rarely expand upon them in an effort to give us more of a sense of who Patti Smith is. Don't get me wrong, that's not his fault, it's, at least as far as I'm concerned, one of the inherent flaws in the biographical genre. They reduce flesh and blood people down to facts and in the process remove the passion in their lives which made them so fascinating in the first place. You'll learn all about Patti Smith and her career by reading Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story but you won't know her any better after reading it then before you opened it.

(Article first published as WORKING GH Book Review: Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompson on Blogcritics)

July 17, 2011

Graphic Novel: The Griff by Christopher Moore & Ian Corson - Illustrated by Jennyson Rosero

I guess I'm something of a snob, because for the most part I've looked on so called graphic novels as being nothing more than glorified and overblown comic books. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with comic books, I've loved them ever since I picked up my first Avengers and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos books when I was kid. They were, and are, a great way of escaping reality for however long you wanted to spend poring over their pages. I have to confess, however, I have a hard time with those titles that have started to take themselves seriously while still depicting the female body as something out a male adolescent fantasy. I don't understand how you can claim to be making some great moral or social statement when your female characters defy the basic laws of physics.

Now before I'm inundated with hate mail from graphic novel apologists eager to point out how wrongheaded and stupid I am and wondering how far I've my head stuck inside my intestinal track, I'm perfectly aware there are exceptions to the above. Anything Neil Gaiman is associated with won't look like it was created by someone who has been sitting in his parent's basement glorying in the elasticity of spandex. Those titles, along with a thankfully increasing number of others, have instead focused on how to best take advantage of utilizing two mediums simultaneously in order to tell their story.
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From our earliest drawings depicting hunts on cave walls man has been telling stories through images. With the development of language there was a time when imagery took a back seat as a means of telling a story. Now, while theatre and film both use visuals and words, the former doesn't leave a permanent record behind and the latter has come to rely on visual technology to the point where language has become secondary and in many cases movies are now equivalent to paintings on a rock face as far as telling a story is concerned. The graphic novel has the potential for putting language and imagery on an equal footing. However, finding the balance between the two, where the images and the words compliment each to the point where they have equal weight in telling the story, requires both artists and writers to make changes in the way they would normally approach their work.

So I was curious to see the results of the recent collaboration between one of my favourite authors, Christopher Moore, a film director and writer friend of his, Ian Corson and Magna illustrator Jennyson Rosero in the graphic novel The Griff published by Harper Collins Canada. According to Moore's forward The Griff originally started out as an idea for a movie, but he and Corson scraped the idea when it became obvious it would cost way too much to make and went with the far less expensive graphic novel format instead.
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The plot line is your basic War Of The Worlds scenario and the world has been invaded by man eating lizard type creatures from outer space. Nicknamed "Griffs" for their resemblance to the mythical griffins, the flying lizards easily overwhelmed earth's military defences. With all early warning defence systems geared towards picking up metal objects, earth, as the tag line for the novel says, "Was totally unprepared for an enemy made of meat". With heat seeking missiles unable to lock onto the cold blooded lizards air forces were quickly demolished and mankind was quickly devoured leaving only isolated pockets of survivors hanging on by a thread. After quickly taking us through scenes of devastation and destruction the book changes pace and we join up with two of the small gangs of plucky survivors. In New York City we meet the skate border Steve, sexy video game designer Mo (short for Maureen) and Curt Armstrong, former paratrooper whose most recent employment was behind the make-up counter at Macy's. Down in Orlando Florida we meet Liz, who trained killer whales at Sea World before humans became snack food for giant lizards, and Oscar, a professional squirrel - mascot for the theme park.

The Griff had been transported to earth's outer atmosphere by a space ship and when the ship is taken out by forces unknown down in Orlando, our plucky heroes in NYC decide to risk the journey south in order to join what they think is a burgeoning resistance movement. With the aid of a research sub (The Griff don't like going underwater), a guy and his tank and a few lucky breaks they make it down to the Gulf. Meanwhile back at Sea World Liz and Oscar make the discovery that with the downing of mothership the Griff no longer seem as intent on working together to hunt down humans. While that means they're no longer acting as a collective, it doesn't make them any less dangerous as they still consider humans tasty treats. However it does mean when Liz stumbles on a clutch of Griff eggs the little hatchlings latch on to her as mommy dearest when she's the first creature they lay eyes on when they stumble into the world.
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While the story line pretty much follows along the predictable plucky survivors theme taking down the aliens out to rule the world, The Griff is saved from being typical by the minds behind it. How often do you find the ex-military guy in one of these stories giving make-up and highlighting advice? Although two female characters are built and dressed (Mo's wardrobe gives new definition to the word skimpy and Liz is permanently in a skin tight wet-suit) like stereotypical comic book "babes", their characterization makes it feel like the authors are making fun of the convention. When Mo and the boys are raiding an armoury in New York City she unearths a massive gun which reduces her to a puddle. Even funnier is the first time she fires it, for although she takes out her target, the recoil sends her flying backwards through the wall of a shed into New York's harbour. Her response to the question don't you think that weapon is too big for you, is a smirk and "I'll grow into it".

As for the telling of the story itself, Moore, Corson and Rosero have done a skilful job of blending their two media in order to tell the story. I'm sure Corson's film experience, having to work with story boards, came in handy for the parts of the book where they let the pictures do the talking, but I was very impressed by how well Rosero was able to sum up what would have been paragraphs of descriptive prose with a few illustrations. This is especially noticeable in the opening pages of the book during the depiction of the invasion and its immediate aftermath. In fact throughout the book his visuals were excellent in serving as replacements for prose in setting the mood of a scene and developing atmosphere. I especially appreciated how instead of showing the readers pictures of carnage we would be given images of our characters responding to what they saw. The horror and revulsion depicted on their faces was more powerful than any images of blood and gore could hope to be. We're so inundated with visuals of the aftermath of war and disaster, reactions to them have a far better chance at reaching us on emotional level than more of what we see on the evening news.

The Griff is not great art or literature by any means, but neither does it pretend to be anything other than what it is; an action adventure comic book. With their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks the authors have jumped feet first into the medium, embracing its conventions wholeheartedly while gently poking fun at them at the same time. Like one of the better Bruce Willis action movies there's lots of action, but there's a sly wink to the audience at the same time. It's as if the writers are saying, yeah okay we know this is a little over the top, but it's a lot of fun isn't it? Which of course it is.

(Photo of Christopher Moore Eric Luse)
(Article first published as Graphic Novel Review: The Griff by Christopher Moore & Ian Corson, Illustrated by Jennyson Rosero on Blogcritics.)

Book Review: The Map Of Time by Felix J. Palma

Its always there, yet we hardly ever see it. Its always moving, but we hardly ever notice it. Its tasteless, soundless, weightless and without body or form yet time rules almost all of our days. It dictates when we wake up in the morning, when we eat our meals and when we go to bed. We compartmentalize our lives into segments because of time telling us where we have to be, how long we have to be there and when we're supposed to show up. Look at the effect it has on our language. How many words do we use which suggest something to do with time? How much of our daily conversations or thought processes are dedicated to our relationship with time and the way we've chosen to sublimate almost everything else to the arbitrary system we've devised for measuring its passage.

Maybe it's because our time is so tightly controlled the idea of travelling through it holds so much appeal, Who hasn't wanted to travel into the future in the hopes of finding out what is in store for them? Who wouldn't love to go back in time armed with our knowledge and change aspects of our earlier life? It can't be a coincidence that it was during the late nineteenth century the idea began to take hold. For not only was this the period in our history when time began controlling individual lives as more and more people began to work in factories and be paid based on how much of their time they surrendered, it was also an era when science and invention worked together to overcome barriers previously thought insurmountable.

It was this heady atmosphere which inspired writers like Jules Verne to imagine machines capable of travelling great distances underwater and, even more outlandishly, to the moon. However, it was the British writer Herbert George Wells, known as Bertie to his intimates and H. G. Wells to most of us, who first postulated the idea of time travel in his now famous novel The Time Machine. So who better, and what era could be better suited then the one he lived in, for taking a lead role in a contemporary novel about time travel? Judging by the latest book from Spanish author Felix J Palma, The Map Of Time published by Simon & Schuster Canada and translated into English by Nick Caistor, they are the perfect combination as they provide both the motivation and the atmosphere necessary for creating one of the most imaginative and pleasurable reads you'll come across.
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Part mystery, part fantasy and part historical fiction, Palma has woven together a story whose twists and turns will leave you guessing at what is real and what is illusion. Although the novel is populated by historical figures like Wells, and in cameo appearances Henry James and Bram Stoker, the reader who is paying attention will notice quite early on an anomaly in the events described which mark it as different from the history we believe to be true. This small clue dropped early on in the book offers us the first hint there is more happening than what we first assume to be the case. However it is so subtle and presented in such a matter of fact manner, that we are able to convince ourselves it doesn't really matter, yet in the end it becomes the fulcrum the whole story balances on. Like a teeter-totter, when the weight on either end shifts radically, the question of whether time travel is actually possible is first made credible as we join characters on their journeys into the past and the present, then dismissed as we are made privy to the elaborate charades that created the illusion.

One of the fascinating contradictions of the nineteenth century was how concurrent with the rise in science there was also a burgeoning belief in the occult and all things supernatural. People as notable as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were firm in their belief in fairies a la Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, attended seances firmly convinced they would be able to communicate with their beloved who had crossed over and a host of other nonsense which we wouldn't think twice as dismissing as a load of hokum. Therefore when a company in the novel called Murray's Time Travel claims to have discovered a fourth dimension that allows them to travel to a hundred years in the future, it is easy for us to believe people are only too willing to fork out the hundred pound asking price to make the trip.

It's also equally understandable how a young man, Andrew Harrington, can readily believe that Wells possesses a time machine like the one in his book that will allow him to travel back in time to prevent the woman he loves, a Whitechapel prostitute named Marie Kelly, being murdered by Jack The Ripper. Or that a police inspector can be convinced the person responsible for a series of murders could only be somebody from the future as envisioned by Murray's Time Travel - as no nineteenth century weapon could inflict the wounds which killed the victims. Even the young lady who runs into somebody she met in the future in her own time believing he has travelled back in time especially to see her doesn't come off as being especially naive, merely a product of her times.
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Ironically one of the biggest sceptics about time travel is the man who introduced the concept to the world, Wells himself. However even he is mystified by the wounds in the corpses which have caused the London police inspector to have a warrant issued for the arrest of a person living in the year 2000. Where did the weapon which made these wounds come from and who could have scrawled the opening lines from the book he's just finished writing, The Invisible Man on the wall over the first corpse? Nobody else in the world should know those words for nobody else even knows of the manuscript's existence.

With The Map Of Time Palma has created a story which works on multiple levels, like one of those dolls which hides numerous smaller and smaller replicas of itself. He starts with what appears to be a number of unrelated story lines, but as each new version of the story is revealed they converge until the solid core in the centre comes to light. Along the way he presents us with all the usual arguments we've heard for and against time travel, the various dangers involved with tampering with the past, the idea that alternate realities are created each time such tampering occurs and finally how it's possible for the choices we make during the course of our lives to also create multiple versions of the world, even if only in our imaginations. What if I had turned left instead of right that day and never run into so and so who offered me that job through which I met the woman who became my wife? Would everything have ended up differently? Perhaps right now some other version of me is living out that choice in another universe?

However, all the philosophy and speculation aside, Palma has written a book that is not only a delight to read for its intelligent plot and wonderful characterization, but for the sheer joy of observing an author delighting in his art. At times he steps out of his neutral position of narrator and takes an active role in the story by freely admitting he is the one who is actually controlling the actions of his characters. His sly asides about how he already knows what's going to happen to them and his arguments for introducing individuals in the order he does and for writing the book in a style similar to that of something written in the nineteenth century are more than just a writer's conceit. For, while initially they interrupt the narrative and remind us of the separation between us and his characters, we gradually become so accustomed to them they become part of the overall story until we can no longer differentiate between what we thought of as being the present and the past during which the book takes place.

Time travel has been the subject of movies and books for years now, but Palma's approach is by far the most original that I've ever experienced. Brilliantly executed and wonderfully conceived it will at times leave you both puzzled and smiling in equal measure. While some might be disappointed with the book's lack of the normal paraphernalia they've come to expect from modern science fiction, this is as true and wonderful an exercise in imagination as you'll read in a long time.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Map Of Time by Felix J. Palma on Blogcritics.)

June 16, 2011

Audio Book Review: Go The Fuck To Sleep by Adam Mansbach Read by Samuel L. Jackson

It's not often that a book for very young children will cause such a sensation that even before it is released it has best seller written all over it. Of course the secret to any book's success is its ability to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and while there have been a few young adult books that have managed that trick it hardly seems possible that a bed time story for children could have the same luck. However, Adam Mansbach's newest title, Go The Fuck To Sleep published by Akashic Books on June 14 2011 is being snapped up all over the English speaking world.
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As you can tell by its title Go The Fuck To Sleep isn't your typical bedtime story. In fact this isn't a book most parents are going to be reading aloud at night to their children, yet that hasn't stopped them from snatching up copies anyway. Of course sales haven't been hurt by the fact the audio book version is being read by Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who first gained renown for his portrayal of street smart, and usually foul mouthed, characters. Even before the book had been released recordings of Jackson reading the book had gone viral all over the Internet, including recordings like the one below taken from a radio interview.
[Flash 9 is required to listen to audio.]
Anybody who has ever tried to convince a young child of the necessity for them to go to bed and fall asleep is going to be able to identify with the parent in this story's attempts to convince his young child to "go the fuck to sleep". Right from the opening stanza you know this is not your typical bed time nursery rhyme. For even though each of the opening few verses begin with delightful images of the world settling down for the night, each ends with the same plaintive request for the toddler to "go the fuck to sleep". As we progress through the poem the poor parent is presented with everyone of the typical child's stalling efforts; from I need a drink of water to I have to go the bathroom; and with each his "go the fuck to sleep" becomes more and more insistent and desperate. Of course, just when he thinks it's safe for him and his wife to settle down with a movie for the night, for a little time to themselves, their reverie is shattered resulting in one final desperate plea to their darling bundle of joy.

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Now I'm sure there are going to be plenty of you out there shocked at the idea of anybody telling their child to "go the fuck to sleep". It's mean, abusive and sends out all the wrong messages for this day and age. Everybody from the religious right to dishrag liberals are bound to find this offensive and just plain wrong. Well I hate to tell you this, but letting parents know its perfectly understandable they're going to occasionally lose patience with their darling bundles of joy, that once in a while it will all become too much for them, is going to do more to reduce the incidence of child abuse than anything else. Knowing you're not alone in being frustrated by your inability to induce order on a two year old will do wonders for a person's morale and make them feel like less of a failure as a parent.

Picture some poor single mother or working poor couple who come home at the end of the day after working some awful job in order to try and feed, shelter and clothe their child. No matter what anybody says there is bound to be some small kernel of resentment buried deep inside them over what they have to do to make sure this small person survives. How much closer to the surface will that come if at the end of the day when all they want to do is relax and maybe recapture some of what it was that brought them together in the first place, the demands for attention never stop? Anger, and guilt over the anger, will swell inside of them. From there its only a short step to resentment pouring out and manifesting itself in nasty ways.
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Now imagine these same people listening to Samuel L Jackson, street wise, tough enough not to take shit from anybody, reduced to a quivering wreck and pleading with his two year old to "go the fuck to sleep". At first they might laugh as they hear all the familiar ploys being used against him and his response, but gradually, they'll begin to find something else aside from humour in what they're listening to. For while Jackson's reading of the story remains hilarious throughout, it soon becomes obvious he's completely under the thumb of the child at the centre of his tale. No matter who you are, children are going to dominate. They are the kings and queens of their domains and parents are there merely to wait upon their every need. Which of course is how it should be at this age. Barely able to express themselves beyond desires for basic necessities a young child is completely dependent upon the adults in its life to keep it alive.

The wonderful thing about Jackson's reading of Go The Fuck To Sleep is how even though his frustration continues to rise over the course of the poem, not once do you ever have the feeling he's either threatening the child or even becoming angry. Sure he growls on occasion, but you hear the love that underlying every "Go the fuck to sleep" he utters. It's obvious that not only would he never dream of harming a hair on the child's head, he's willing to do everything necessary to make sure she's kept safe and happy. He's not about to spank a two year old for not being able to sleep, nor is he going to turn over her care to some nanny so he doesn't have to do any of the hard work in raising a child.

The example he's setting for any parent listening is a far better lesson in parenting than any that will most likely be offered by the self righteous who will be offended by the language used in this book. Not only is it rooted in a reality easily recognized by anybody who has ever tried to put a young child to bed, it couldn't be more obvious that his heart is overflowing with love for the child being addressed. It's perfectly natural for a parent to experience frustration and anger at times when raising a child, it's what a parent does with those feelings is important. Denying there would ever be a time when somebody would want to tell a child to "go the fuck to sleep" is to deny reality and make people feel needlessly guilty when they experience those feelings. When we do that it's the children who end up suffering the most as they are left in the hands of confused and bewildered parents who feel like failures. I'm sure there will be those who call this book an obscenity and demand it be banned, but the real obscenity is what happens to children when we attempt to deny the effect of our feelings upon them. We can only hope every parent buys a copy of Go The Fuck To Sleep and learns the valuable lesson it has to offer.

May 28, 2011

Book Review: Pyre Of Queens by David Hair

I've gone on record a number of times expressing my displeasure with those who appropriate stories from other cultures. For far too many years there has existed a type of cultural colonialism which has seen people's stories all over the world retold by others and passed off as being accurate representations of a tradition. Whether it's been British colonialist writing about India or new age European Americans retelling Native American stories it amounts to the same thing. A people's stories are their life blood. They are their history and the means of passing that history from one generation to the next. When someone from outside enters into that stream of knowledge they are as much a pollutant as mercury dumped into a freshwater stream.

Thankfully, as more and more writers are coming forward to reclaim their people's heritage with either modern retellings of their traditional stories or the creation of new stories which accurately reflect both their traditions and their current place in the world, those old types of stories are falling into disfavour. An even more positive sign, in some ways, is there are now a third group of writers striving to find a way to reflect their admiration for another culture's traditions and stories in their work while being sensitive to their status as outsiders. Walking the fine line between appropriation and respect is a delicate tightrope for any writer to negotiate. While historical and cultural accuracy are important elements in these attempts, it's what the writer does with the material that's crucial to maintaining their balance.
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If they merely attempt to retell stories or sensationalize elements of the culture for effect they are no different from any other exploiter. On the other hand if they allow the material to inspire them to create a story which is accurate in its depiction of the culture in question and are only concerned with the story's telling and not setting themselves up as some sort of authority or other they can create something wonderful. This is just what New Zealand author David Hair has made a stab at doing with Pyre Of Queens, published by Penguin Canada, the first book in his four part series The Return Of Ravana.

Inspired by The Ramayana, arguably the most well known and influential Epic Poem in India, if not South East Asia, Hair has combined elements of Indian culture, fantasy and contemporary young adult fiction in the telling of his story. Divided equally between the past and the present he tells how a despotic ruler from ancient India seeks immortality through a ritual that will allow him to host the spirit of the ancient demon king Ravana. By feigning his death and then arranging to have his queens burnt with him on his funeral pyre under very specific conditions he has been assured by Ravana's spirit he will live for ever. Unfortunately all does not go according to plan and one of the wife's is rescued from the flames by the court poet.

Aided by the Captain of the ruler's guard they would have made good their escape save for the fact the partially resurrected spirit of the king and the queens who did "die" in the flames join the pursuit and track down and corner them. Using a flimsy rope bridge across a chasm to escape while the captain attempts to slow down the king, the poet and queen try to find a way out of the underground caverns they have ended up in. The poet, being both jealous of the captain, as the queen obviously loves him and not the poet, and certain the king will be soon pursuing them, weakens the main ropes supporting the bridge. Unfortunately it's the captain of the guard who next stumbles across the bridge and when it gives out underneath him the queen perishes attempting to save him. Wrecked by guilt, the poet eventually makes good his escape but lives out the rest of his days in despair for what he has done.

In the twenty-first century three youngsters at the same school, but from widely divergent backgrounds, begin to have odd dreams. Vikram, a shy intelligent kid with an interest in poetry is the son of a middle class salesman, Amanjit, a boisterous popular athlete lives with his widowed mother knowing his only future is driving taxi for his uncle and Deepika, smart, brash and thoroughly modern, would under normal circumstances probably have had nothing to do with each other. However when chance brings them together and strange things start happening, like spirits appearing or they start seeing things nobody else can see, they begin to realize there is some mysterious tie which unites them. After careful research, and eliminating all other possibilities, the only conclusion they can come to is they're the reincarnations of the poet, the Captain of the guard, and the young queen respectively.
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It's only then they realize the visions and dreams each of them have been experiencing individually and collectively are the spirits of the dead king and his queens coming back to life in an attempt to complete the ritual required to revive both the king and Ravana. In order to do so they need Deepika and the spirit of the escaped queen she carries within her. The adventures the three undertake will test them and the new bonds of friendship that have been forged between them as they are faced with the same choices their previous incarnations dealt with. How they react may well decide their fate and whether or not one of the great evils of the past is able to rise again.

While David Hair is obviously a keen observer of life around him, as can be told by his detailed and accurate descriptions of life in modern India, a solid writer with the ability to bring both scenes and characters to life and the possessor of a deep respect for the culture and traditions of India, there were certain aspects of Pyre Of Queens that left me uncomfortable. While I understand the importance of magic and the forces of good and evil in a fantasy story, and how heroes need a villain to overcome in order to prove their worth, intentionally or not the author has created a somewhat sensationalized view of aspects of Indian culture. Evil spirits, arcane rituals involving burning people alive and reincarnation are going to be what most readers around the world are going to remember most from reading this book, not Hair's descriptions of modern life in India or any of the other less garish parts of the story.

Yes those things make for a good story and are necessary for his plot, but the impression it creates is more of the same old "mysteries of the East" type of story that used to be prevalent in years gone by. The problem is how this type of story reduces complex and sophisticated cultures to sounding like a collection of superstitions and trivializes the people who live within them. Obviously this was not David Hair's intention, and he has done his best to depict the Indians in this story, both those in the past and the present, as sophisticated and intelligent people. However, as he continues the series he needs to step back and think about what stands out the most in each book - the most powerful imagery - and the kind of impression it will make on those who know little or nothing about India.

When somebody from outside a culture attempts to depict it in any shape of form, be it a book, a painting or even a piece of music, they must carefully consider the impression their work will leave on those unfamiliar with the world they are describing. Somebody born and raised inside a culture lives and breathes all of its complexities and any depiction they recreate will usually (not always of course) be far more balanced than anything an outsider can offer. While David Hair in his new book Pyre Of Queens does a far better job of depicting India and her people as multidimensional and real than most of those who have come before, he falls short in his failure to consider how his more flamboyant material will shape people's impression of India. It's a well written book with interesting characters, but as one intended for a young adult audience I could only wish he had taken more care with how he presented his choice of material.

(Article first published as Book Review: Pyre of Queens by David Hair on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2011

Book Review: Cold Comfort Farmby Stella Gibbons

When talking about the classics of modern literature people usually number Joyce, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Burroughs, Miller, and Mailer among those authors who have penned works worthy of that status. While they, and others, may have pushed the art of writing in new directions and redefined the boundaries of what constituted a novel, the elevation of their work into some separate firmament has had the unfortunate side effect of causing other worthy writers to be ignored and their work to fall by the wayside. This problem is compounded by our world's tendency to always be looking for the next "best thing" and our general disregard for the past. As a result, outside of the occasional university survey course in fiction, the majority aren't even aware of the vast body of fiction, most of which is of a much higher quality than what's available today, written in the first part of the twentieth century.

Thankfully there are still some publishers who have memories and who also realize there is value to be found in their back catalogues. I know there are those who look at a massive conglomerate like The Penguin Group of publishers with disdain, the fact remains they have been one of the most consistent producers of English language books. While some may still see in them vestiges of the old British Empire as they maintain outposts in former colonies India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland, they do in fact publish work by authors from each of those countries and don't just use local branches as clearing houses for remaindered works and boosting international sales. There's also an enormous plus side to their English language history as to what it means in regards to the books they have at their disposal from the past. Even better is the fact they make good use of this material and periodically reach back in time to dust off titles which otherwise might be lost to obscurity.
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This year they have reissued a group of titles under the heading of Penguin Essentials, with works by authors ranging from Thomas Hardy to Hunter S. Thompson and all sorts of stops in between. While some, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence have already been enshrined as classics and are familiar to a wide range of people, others are perhaps less well known. While it might never obtain the same status as some of the others in this list, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, released earlier in May 2011 by Penguin Canada, is more than deserving of its new release.

First published in 1932 as a wonderful satire of its times, the humour and points made by the author are timeless, so even if some specifics might be lost on a contemporary audience, its overall impact is still strong and the subject matter still relevant. You see, Gibbons' targets are universal as she pokes fun at the artistic pretensions of the idle British rich, rural melodramas along the lines of Wuthering Heights and other tales of steamy passion set amidst the wilds of Sussex farmlands. Along the way she also manages to take some shots at the "talkies", the upper classes in general, and the extremes of evangelic Christianity. However this is not the broad humour, almost farce, that passes for satire today, this is subtle and dangerous stuff in that you may not be able to catch on immediately to what is and isn't being made fun of. In fact she seems to have very deliberately made some of her targets very obvious, while others require careful thought and observation before being spotted. She may have felt the need to be somewhat circumspect with her barbs as some of those targeted were also those who would have made up her potential audience.

Cold Comfort Farm tells the story of twenty-something Flora Post. After living a privileged early life she discovers upon the demise of her parents she's nowhere near as well off as she thought as her father left her nearly as many debts as assets. While she's taken in by her affluent friend, Mrs. Smiling, Flora feels she must make her own way in the world. Having no money and no inclination to work, she wants to write a great novel when she's fifty-three and spend the interim period accumulating experiences, she decides to draw upon her one asset - a wealth of relatives. Encamped in fashionable London she sends out plaintive letters to relatives inviting herself to live with them. While most of them, "just won't do", her cousins the Starkadders, owners of Cold Comfort Farm in darkest Sussex, sound ideal.
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Flora is obsessed with organizing other people's lives and making sense out of the chaos most of them seem to live in. In the Starkadders and Cold Comfort Farm she finds the perfect subjects to put her skills to work. Her great aunt Ada Doom has hidden in her room for the past two decades, horribly scarred by what she saw as a youngster in the woodshed (or was it the potting shed or the bicycle shed?) Ada rules the roost at the farm, not allowing anyone to leave and controlling finances down to the last penny. Under her thumb are her son in law Amos, part time evangelical preacher; daughter Judith who gives new meaning to the word gloomy; their children, stolid farmer Reuben, over-sexed Seth and artsy, will o' the wisp, Elfine and various other assorted cousins and hired hands.

By the time Flora is finished with them their world has been turned upside down as she proceeds to take them all in hand individually and sort out their lives for them. While this process is the nominal plot for the book, the real joy in the reading comes from how Gibbons manages to weave her hooks and barbs into the story. Whether its her description of a church service conducted by Amos, the conversations between Flora and her various cousins, or what's revealed through the thought processes of her characters and their opinions of life, she manages to hit each and everyone of her targets in the bulls eye. Gibbons not only a gives clinic on how to write satire, she shows how it is possible for a skilled author to have multiple targets in a single book without creating a tangled mess.

Cold Comfort Farm is an example of just one of the wonderful treasures from our past awaiting our reading pleasure. Just because a work hasn't been designated a classic or isn't deemed literature doesn't mean it should be relegated to some dust heap. Hopefully new e-book readers will gradually make works like this one more readily available, but in the mean time we should just be grateful that some are at least hitting shelves of a book store near you.

(Article first published as Book Review: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons on Blogcritics.)

May 17, 2011

Book Review: The Wise Man's Fear: Day Two Of The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss

Anyone who has read any of my book reviews in the past is probably well aware of my love for Epic Fantasy. I love the way the authors painstakingly develop the worlds and cultures their characters inhabit and appreciate deeply the time, energy and imagination that has gone into their labour. However, what I've grown to especially appreciate is how, in spite of the book's length, there never seems to be an extraneous word. Perhaps because I have my own struggles with pithiness and tendencies to ramble, I can't help but be impressed by an author's ability to tell a story of such length without resorting to padding the story with extraneous words. As far as I'm concerned the mark of a great Epic Fantasy is coming to the end of an eight hundred plus page novel and be left wanting more. Anything else is merely a long book.

It's been three years since I published my review of The Name Of The Wind, the first book in Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles. Based on the fact my review was of the mass market paper back edition of the book, it's probably been four years since it was first published. Since then there have been many false alarms regarding its sequel's publication, including the title being listed in its publisher's on line catalogue, only to hear it was yet again being mysteriously delayed from hitting the shelves. Finally, in March of this year the false alarms were over and The Wise Man's Fear, The Kingkiller Chronicles Day Two, published by Penguin Canada, was here for all to read.
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To be honest it had been such a long time since I had read the first book many of the specifics regarding the story's plot had escaped me and I wondered how easy it would be pick up the story again without having at least skimmed its predecessor before starting. Fortunately Rothfuss seems to have anticipated this, because over the course of the opening few chapters he not only manages to reintroduce us to the world and the characters he'd previously established, he also subtly reminds us of sufficient portions of the plot to ensure we know what's going on.

Once again we start in some unknown present where a man of some infamy, Kvothe, whether he's a hero or a villain seems to depend on which stories people are telling about him, is continuing the process of telling his life's story to a scribe who goes by the name Chronicler. Having set himself up as an innkeeper in a small backwater of a hamlet, he's obviously put that life behind him, but when the opportunity presents itself for him to separate the myth from the facts concerning his life by dictating the details of his life, he decides to take up the challenge. The second book picks up where the first left off with disturbing events happening in the present and young Kvothe continuing his education at the University in the past. This university teaches students what most would refer to as magic, although quite a lot of it appears to our eyes to be a mixture of alchemy, science and wizardry.

While the young Kvothe is a natural in most areas of study, he was one of the youngest students ever admitted, he faces some very real obstacles. Primary among them is the fact he has made a powerful enemy of a fellow student who is not only wealthy but influential. It's because of this animosity that he ends up broadening the scope of his education. He is advised it would be wise to take some time away from the University as the Masters are sick of the bother and embarrassment the squabbles between the two young men have brought upon the institution and would be happier if neither of them were around for a while. With the aid of a friendly member of the nobility he finds himself a position at the court of one of the most powerful men in the country. If he is able to win this man's favour his future will be a lot less uncertain.

Through his knowledge of the arcane, his ability as a musician and his own inherent wit and intelligence he is not only able to save his new master's life, but helps him secure the bride of his choice. Unfortunately his initial reward appears at first blush to be punishment as he's sent off to lead a small band of mercenaries with orders to track down and kill a party of bandits who have been preying on his new master's tax collectors. While his band are successful in the end, his real adventures, and the beginnings of his legend, commence after the mission is over. First, he is ensnared and escapes a legendary lovely from the land of fairy, with whom no man has managed to survive an encounter and retain their sanity and second, he is accepted into an isolated community of feared warriors and introduced to their secrets.
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While there's no doubt that Patrick Rothfuss is a good storyteller and the story itself is interesting there were times during the The Wise Man's Fear I found my attention wandering. I was puzzled as to the reason at first as the book is well written, the characters are interesting and realistically drawn and its filled with fascinating details about the world he has created, the arts Kvothe is studying and other minutiae. What I gradually came to realize was that it was a case of losing site of the forest because of the tress. Like a nineteenth century naturalist writer who would spend pages detailing some item or other with no mind to its relevance to plot or narrative, Rothfuss spends so much time on details the book seems to lose track of its purpose, becoming aimless and rambling in places.

Supposedly Kvothe is on a quest to track down the mysterious people who slaughtered his parents and the rest of his extended family of travelling players when he was young. The whole idea of attending the University, and everything else he does for that matter, is so he can both prepare himself for this confrontation and find the villains. Yet, while the character occasionally remembers his obsession, it seems like Rothfuss has to remind himself of the story's central point periodically and force the story back on track. Understandably his lead character is only seventeen years old and easily distracted. But is there a need for all the side trips in order to stumble across small bits of information or for the amount of elaborate detail each step of the way as the legend of Kvothe is built? While I love Epic Fantasy, less is still more and Rothfuss needs to learn that lesson.

I'm sure those who have been waiting patiently for The Wise Man's Fear to be released will be more than contented with the result. After all it's still a well told story with some intriguing concepts and ideas covered. However, unless you're a devil for details, or a closet naturalist, there's a good chance you'll find yourself skimming pages. If you have any doubts, wait for it to come out in mass market paperback and save yourself the expense and weight of the hardcover edition. It will make a much better companion for a long distance trip in that form.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss on Blogcritics.)

April 5, 2011

Book Review: The White Luck Warrior: The Aspect Emperor Book 2 by R. Scott Bakker

For a group as supposedly radical and freethinking as artists are supposed to be, the history of Western art, especially literature, prior to the twentieth century is marked by its adherence to convention. Perhaps it was economic need, if one wanted audiences to attend your plays or read your books, you had to give them what they had come to expect. There were few troubling grey areas when it came to morality as questions of good and evil were defined by however Christianity was being filtered by the society of the day. Nineteenth century Britain, with its need to justify moral superiority over what it deemed inferior races, produced works that might question certain practices, but not even Dickens ever questioned the system which gave rise to the conditions described in his books or the morality that allowed them to exist.

A whiff of Aristotle's Poetics, with its definitions of what constituted tragedy and the other genres, kept pages and stages home to heroes from the noble class and the baser elements of society to supporting roles or villains., While there was nothing wrong with a funny servant who would want to read an entire book about him?And of course, while there were occasionally female characters taking a central role, headstrong individuals who attempted to control their own destiny would end up rescued by a man or falling into ruin. A woman's usual place was in orbit around her man's gravitational pull and it was a rare thing to see one make her own way in the world.

However change did come, eventually, with the twentieth century and fiction and stages began to more accurately reflect the faces of all society. Instead of heroes we now had anti-heroes, men and women who embodied few if any of the noble qualities that were once considered essential for a lead character in a play or novel. Not only aren't they royalty or even nobility, most of them have lived on the fringes of what society would even consider normal. Yet somehow they have struck chords within readers and developed followings.
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Still, it's only been recently that one of the oldest forms of literary story telling, the epic tale, has received the same treatment. Both the fantasy and science fiction genres have kept the epic tradition alive, even to the point of maintaining the tradition of the heroic quest. From Lord Of The Rings to Star Wars heroes set out across their universes, in spite of long odds to right wrongs and win the battle of good over evil. Now fantasy writers have begun the process of deconstructing the epic and putting it back together again to reflect the world's lack of black and white definitions of anything, let alone good and evil. The White Luck Warrior, released by Penguin Canada, is the second book in R. Scott Bakker's Aspect Emperor trilogy, the sequel to the Prince Of Nothing trilogy, and part of a series that promises to be eight books in length upon completion, and a fine example of the new anti-epic fiction at its best.
Anasurimbor Kellhus, the Aspect Emperor, is leading the armies of mankind, on what he calls the Great Ordeal, into the northern wastes against an ancient foe and the threat of the Apocalypse. Although only a few years ago the few wizards who preached warnings of this very threat from the north were ridiculed and laughed at for believing in unseen enemies, the entire civilization has set aside their petty enmities to seek out their hidden vastness, the near mythical city of Golgotterath. At first they proceed with no enemies lined up against them save for lack of supplies as there is only a finite amount that could be carried. Such is the distance they have to travel before they even fight, it had long been planned the Ordeal would have to forage. What wasn't planned was an enemy who would scour the land ahead of them, poisoning the water and laying waste to game and fodder.

Herding their enemies ahead of them. the sub-human Sranc, the Ordeal is forced to split into three armies in order to feed itself. While their enemy's numbers grow as they run in front of them, the men of the various armies start to feel the effects that a lack of food and water can have on a body. Slaves and servants are put to death in order to conserve supplies, the sick are abandoned, and spare horses are eaten. Compounding their troubles are worrysome rumours from back home in the Empire. There's a chance that even if they win through in this battle out in the wastes they could return home to find themselves no longer ruling in their own lands.

The Empress, Esmenet, is under siege from the priests of minor gods who resent the rise of her husband as prophet, rebellions on the outer edges of the Empire from those who don't accept the divinity of her husband, the madness of her own children and what she thinks is a plot by her brother in law to replace her. As he is the head of the church and half-brother of the Emperor, she knows he not only has the power base to carry out a coup, he has many of the same powers of persuasion her husband possesses and could easily sway the masses to support him once she's gone. Beset and bewildered she can only hold on and hope for some sort of reprieve, but it feels like the empire is crumbling beneath her and she can do nothing to prevent it.

As one of those who had dealt with the ridicule of the world for his belief in the ancient enemy of the north you'd think Drusas Achamian would be one of Anasurimbor Kellhus' biggest supporters. Yet while his "school" of sorcery, The Mandate, has allied themselves along with all the others and joined the Ordeal. Achamian rejected the Emperor as a phoney twenty years ago and went into self-imposed exile. He too is making the long journey north, though in the company of bounty hunters instead of knights, and to look for proof of Kellhus' deception in the ruins of a once famous library. Accompanying him is the Empress Esmenet's daughter, Mimara, from before she married Kellhus, who sought him out in an attempt to force him to teach her his magic.
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They too have barely survived their trip to this point, and in fact if not for the unearthly powers of the bounty hunter's wizard, an immortal survivor from the days of the first apocalypse, who goes by the name of Cleric, their entire party would have perished. As it is their numbers have been reduced greatly and they still have great swathes of wilderness to traverse and countless numbers of Sranc to either avoid or kill before they obtain their destination. Yet somehow, in spite of facing overwhelming odds against them. all three of these groups, The Great Ordeal, The Empress, and Drusas Achamian and his party, find a way to continue. But at what cost, and is the reward worth the cost paid? Or do such equations even matter anymore when you have travelled as far beyond the boundaries of normal human behaviour and reasoning as each of these groups have done in their own way?

Kellhus has preached to his army about the cost they will pay in order to succeed in their goal of preventing a second apocalypse. A cost that has already included having to kill servants, the near extermination of one of the armies of the ordeal and the slaughter of countless Sranc. Drusas Achamian and Mimara have seen their party killed one by one around them as they inch closer to their goal and the Empress must decide what she is willing to do in order to preserve her place on the throne without her husband's presence to support her. Does there come a point where you can no longer justify the means you use to obtain your goals, no matter how right you goal might be?

To save the world from the apocalypse the men of the Great Ordeal are living through their own minor version of one. Death, famine, disease and war ride with them on their journey into the north. The lines between good and evil are blurred beyond recognition but it also seems easier and easier to justify each new act that allows the armies, Drusas and the Empress to survive. Bakker has pushed his characters so far over the edge of what we would consider normal behaviour that we in turn have to stop us ourselves from accepting what they do as only matter of course and not thinking there is anything abhorrent in their behaviour.

This is the secret to what makes this work so great, the way in which we as readers are pulled into each story line to the point where we begin to identify with whatever point of view is being expressed. Each of the characters and their circumstances are documented with such perfect clarity that we can't help but believe in them and their goals no matter what the repercussions of their actions portend. Bakker has done such a great job in creating what feels like a typical epic adventure, we are almost lulled into accepting the character's actions as normal and almost miss noticing the moral vacuum they are acting in. The contrast between their high sounding ideals and their actions is the only reminder of just how far they've fallen.

Our world has seen countless so called moral crusades against what's been called evil used to justify any number of sins. Acts that under normal circumstances would be considered abhorrent are instead accepted as being perfectly reasonable because they are committed in the service of some glorious purpose. In his White Luck Warrior R. Scott Bakker leads us down that slippery slope towards accepting amoral behaviour and forces us to see how easy it would be for any of us to be swept up by events into becoming willing participants in terrible actions. This mirror onto our world is extremely difficult to look into, but is so well written we are held spellbound for its entirety. He has ripped aside the veil, and we will never be able to read about acts of so called nobility done in the name of the greater good in the same way again. This is one of the more brilliant pieces of writing that you're liable to read for a long time, just be prepared to start questioning a lot of things you might have previously accepted at face value.

(Article first published as Book Review: The White Luck Warrior: The Aspect Emperor, Book 2 by R. Scott Bakker on Blogcritics)

March 16, 2011

Book Review: The Crippled God by Steven Erikson

And in the end we return to where we started. An inconsequential city on the small island which gave its name to an empire spanning continents. The seat of power has long since moved away from Malaz City on the Isle of Malaz, but it was here that an empire was formed, and it was here we first walked into the lives of those who were woven into the fabric of the empire's storied existence. A wine merchant's son standing on the parapet overlooking both the town and the sea, his head filled with dreams of glory and battlefield victories, has a chance encounter with two soldiers. In the town below fires burn and smoke billows as out of control soldiers brutally carry out the orders of their regent to kill all the cities magic users. When a gust of wind carries the smell of burning flesh to their perch the boy innocently opines that a slaughter house has caught fire, mistaking the smell of humans for beasts.

Many years later, another young boy, looking over the empty sea from the end of the same town's pier, lets his dreams of heroic deeds be interrupted by an old man's apparently pointless attempts to catch a fish during the middle of the day. The setting is somewhat more peaceful then before, as there is no riot taking place and the smell of burning blood isn't wafting over the two, but for the old man who had been one of the soldiers on that parapet all those years ago, the conversation must have been eerily familiar. Yet for all that, and all that we know he has been through in the years between the two conversations, he makes no attempt to dissuade the boy when he speaks of leaving the island and becoming a soldier. Instead he merely echoes words spoken years earlier, "Well, the world always needs soldiers".
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In some ways there couldn't be a finer epitaph for Steven Erikson's ten book epic masterpiece, The Malazan Book Of The Fallen. "The world always needs soldiers", for primarily this was the story of soldiers. Brave ones, evil ones, honourable ones, cowards, heroes (intentional and otherwise), but mainly the soldiers who marched in ranks, fought, died, were wounded, survived and went unnoticed by history. For all the intricacies of plots, for all the twists and turns Erikson so successfully navigated in bringing us to his conclusion in, The Crippled God, now available from Random House Canada, like the Malazan Empire itself, the series marched on the backs of its soldier's lives.

For while the gods and other races with powers, including the ability to transform into dragons or change the shape of the world without breaking a sweat, schemed and plotted against each other, it was the mortal soldiers whose footsteps we followed in, and whose boots we stood in on the front lines. Deep into the press of bodies we went, where men and women lost their souls and minds. Swords gouged, shields smashed, blood flowed, piss ran and sweat stank of fear and pain. We learned what it felt like to fight on when there was no way to win and how there was rarely anything worth celebrating when the victories did come. Usually in the latter it meant you had delivered such slaughter as to feel sick. For dead is dead no matter what flag you fought under and in the corpses opposite you can easily see yourself. But for a slip here, or a lunge there your guts could just as easily been spilled on the ground as anybody else's.

After nine books we have learned not to become overly attached to any of the characters we've met on our march around the world. Even those who have lived thousands of years can still succumb to a sword stroke eventually. So as we come down to the penultimate battles for all those who have endured what the world has thrown at them until this point, and already witnessed the deaths of many we've come to know, we can only hope some will survive. Yet given the circumstances, the odds they face and the mauling their armies have already experienced, we, as well as they, know they all could die. Even worse, their lives could have been spent for no reason if even one of the forces set in motion should go awry.

For in this far off corner of the world an ancient race, the Forkrul Assail, have begun their campaign to rid the world of mortals. They call themselves adjudicators, and they have decided humans no longer deserve to live. Since they long ago killed their own god when they found him lacking, they now seek to steal the power of an alien god, The Crippled God of the title, who fell to this planet thousands of years ago. It was to counter this threat former Adjunct to the Empress of the Malazan Empire, Tavore Paran, set out on her seemingly aimless campaign. After the losses suffered by both her and her allies' armies in their last engagement their chances of succeeding, slim to begin with, appear next to impossible. They go to face far superior numbers commanded by beings whose very voices can tear the flesh from human skin. What hope do they have of success?
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Everyone, from the lowliest camp follower to the highest ranking officer in the allied armies know their role is to die so that others might have the chance to live. Most of them know nothing of the other forces at work, within the very fabric of existence itself, who are fighting the same desperate struggle on the other plains of existence. However as they are marching towards what will be their final battles, Erikson takes us from one field of battle to the next. Plots and characters he set in motion in previous books, which at the time seemed to be separate stories of their own, are now revealed to be another front on which this war is being fought. In a brilliant feat of engineering he slides the last little piece into place in each area providing the final links tying them all together. Even more amazingly is how he does it with such ease we are left wondering how we could have missed noticing the connections earlier.

Yet, in spite of the grand sweep of events that he created, the crooked paths the story has sometimes walked down, it has been the characters who have been the glue holding it all together. From the ones we've loved to hate, Kallor the high king, to the ones we've loved; Fiddler, Hedge, Whiskeyjack, Kalam, Quick Ben, Toc the Younger, Onas T'oolan, Kruppe, Crokus, Apsalar, Karsa Orlong, Ganoes and Tavore Paran, the humans, the undead, the gods and even a couple of dogs, they are the ones who gave the series the flavour that made it so special. They were a celebration of all that was good and bad in humanity, proving over and over again how situations can bring the best and worst out in everybody. Now here, at the end of their story, we are given a chance to celebrate all that they were and what they meant to the books.

I realize I've not talked much about what actually happens in The Crippled God, but to do that would give too much away to those who have been eagerly awaiting this concluding volume and mean nothing at all to those unfamiliar with the previous nine books. If you belong to the latter group I envy you still having all ten books to look forward to. For those who are in the former all I can say is you won't be disappointed. It will not only live up to your expectations, it will exceed them. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen is an extraordinary work of epic fiction and this final instalment is not only a fitting conclusion to what's come before, it takes the series to an even higher level than you would have thought possible. Fantasy and science fiction are often thought the poor cousins of so called serious novels, but I defy anyone to think that after reading this series.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Crippled God by Steven Erikson on Blogcritics.)

January 12, 2011

Book Review: Canciones De Invierno/Winter Songs by Viggo Mortensen

When the snows come the world becomes a different place. Even in our big cities we notice how the first fall of the year mutes the sounds of everything from traffic noise to people's voices. It's almost as if there is a collective holding of breath, an age old instinctive response to winter and its potential for danger that overtakes us as we wait to see what are we going to have to cope with. For winter never used to be something we are occasionally mildly inconvenienced by but a time when survival could not be taken for granted. A blizzard didn't just meant travel plans were jeopardized, it meant the possibility of freezing to death if you were caught out in the open or starving to death if you hadn't enough food put by.

Like the other creatures around us humans would spend the rest of the year preparing to survive winter. Spring, summer and fall would be for: planting, nurturing and finally harvesting of crops; either fattening up animals for slaughter and smoking in the fall or hunting and salting meat to be used over the winter; and chopping the wood needed for heating and cooking. Once the winter came you just hoped you had stored enough aside to see you through and were lucky enough to augment your stash with occasional fresh meat from hunting. As the days shortened and the cold deepened, activities would be limited, and hours on end would be spent indoors huddled around fires to keep warm.

It's no wonder many of North America's indigenous people came to associate winter with introspection and the process of travelling inward on the voyage of self-discovery. It was also the time many nations reserved for the telling of stories and reflecting on the life lessons they contained. Winter was a time for finding safe paths through both the external landscape and the internal as well. In his latest volume of poetry and photography, Canciones De Invierno/Winter Songs published by Perceval Press, Viggo Mortensen has brought together works which capture both the raw beauty of the season and the ancient imperative to travel within it has been known to inspire.
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Those at all familiar with Mortensen's poetry and photography will know of his ability to capture moments in time with both. Whether an instant of emotion shaped in words or a piece of the world caught and immobilized with the click of a shutter he has the uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time to see, hear and record what others often miss. We can all look at the same vista or think the same thoughts, but it's what we are able to do with that information that separates the artists from the rest of us. Some might choose to shape our opinions of what is in front of their eyes by the use of certain words or shooting a scene in a specific way. Others, like Mortensen, will allow us to shape our own thoughts on what they have recorded, and of the person doing the recording.

While we've come to expect a certain baring of the soul from poets in their declarations on love, beauty, nature and whatever else captures their fancy, Mortensen's work has always been somewhat different. While he does not shy away from emotion, he's not inclined towards sentimentality, the standard avowing of eternal love or raptures on the beauty of nature. Instead these are honest attempts to describe what is in front of him, with either representations of actual physical reality or abstractions brought to life through symbolism and imagery, woven together with a thread of introspection. At first glance, or on a casual read, his poems might appear to be no more than descriptions, but listen to the words as you read them in your head and you will hear what he feels. It's how he chooses to describe something that provides the editorial. He has no need to do anything so obvious as proclaim at the top his lungs, when every word he speaks resounds with his feelings.

In the poem "Libertad/Freedom" (each poem is in both Spanish and English) from this collection, he attempts to reassure an unnamed partner. "It's not/so you'll accept/and agree/it's not/to lose you/or let you go/that I give you/what I love" he concludes after detailing the various means he has of ensuring that she enjoy what he loves, "Freedom", and reassuring her that it doesn't mean he wants to be rid of her. "It's not/that I don't hear you/or believe in us/it's not/because I tire/or surrender/that I show you/a door". While some might not understand how his listing of the various ways he would give her her freedom is a love poem, I've yet to read anything proclaim trust for another as much as this piece does, and trust is the most heartfelt avowal of love I know.
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Ever since somebody wrote down that God gave humans dominion over nature we've been either screwing the world over or, just as damaging, sentimentalizing nature as something beautiful that was created for our pleasure. Those of us who live with winter are given yearly reminders of just how little control we actually are able to exert over nature and how there's nothing remotely cute or cuddly about her. While not all the photographs in Winter Songs are of nature, the majority of the work is taken from two series of images Mortensen has been working on for a couple of years: The Road, shots I imagine that were taken while on location for the movie of the same name, and Forward. Previously I had been struck by his ability to capture the primordial essence of the forest in his work. Here he takes us beyond the woods to give us work that is unstinting in its depiction of nature as a force not only beyond our control but way beyond our understanding.

Of course there is beauty to be found, how can we not be awed by a full moon caught swelling in all her splendour behind the stark silhouettes of tree limbs or a radiant sky of oranges, whites and deep sapphires? However it's difficult to suppress the shiver that runs up your spine when you look at these and other images as their beauty hints at a wildness which cares nothing for our wants or needs. This is driven home with even greater firmness in those images where the human element intrudes as they only serve to emphasize the elements' indifference to our presence. Winding roads travelling through the middle of nowhere in snow dusted landscapes with distinguishing landmarks hidden or blurred by snow, fog and mists are a reminder of how little we matter. No matter how beautiful the image may look sitting static on the page of a book, try and imagine yourself being in that landscape and see how you feel.

Look long enough and hard enough and you might begin to have some idea of what winter must have meant to people who came before us. While they were able to appreciate the wonder of a snow covered glade shining blue in the night, the atmosphere responsible for creating those conditions could also spell their death. Respect and admiration go hand in hand in Mortensen's photographs ensuring his vision isn't coloured or impaired like so many other shots of nature by the need to tame them for human consumption.

Winter is a time when the world around us slows down and takes the rest it needs to come forth rejuvenated for another year. The dormant period where the old dies away in order to prepare the way for new is essential for ensuring life. At one time humans understood this by equating it as a time for introspection and learning in order to prepare themselves for walking in the world around them when it came back to life. In Winter Songs, through his poems and photography, Viggo Mortensen exemplifies the spirit of that belief. Spend some time leafing through the book, pausing to gaze at an image or absorbing a poem, over the remaining months of winter and see what happens. We may no longer be allowed to hibernate and reflect for the winter, but within the pages of this book some of that experience will come to life for you.

(Article first published as Book Review: Canciones De Invierno/ Winter Songs by Viggo Mortensen on Blogcritics.)

January 5, 2011

Book Review: The Crown Colonies Book 1: At The Queens Command by Michael A Stackpole

I first started reading historical fiction when I was really young. There were some great British authors who wrote books for young people which were not only historically accurate but brought the eras they were set in wonderfully to life. So I spent a great deal of time travelling through time and and around the world from the Crusades in the 1100s to the French Indian wars in 18 century North America. However as I grew older I discovered that historical fiction for adults didn't quite live up to the same standards as those established by the authors I read as a kid. Far too many of them were really romance novels in fancy dress and I found them lacking in both the quality of information and story telling I had come to expect from the genre.

As a result I pretty much ignored historical fiction for quite some time. Even today I'm still not all that enamoured of the genre, but there is a sub-group of authors who have revitalized the field by using human history as their inspiration instead of a backdrop for their latest costume drama. Historical fantasies are usually set in recognizable times and places given new names and where the circumstances are influenced by the inclusion of fantastical elements. The trick to creating a successful work of this type is to be able to recreate an era so its recognizable to readers without ever spelling it out, while at the same time writing a story that captures our imaginations.

While this may sound fairly straight forward, it takes an author of some skill to be able to pull it off successfully. For as well as having the skills we usually expect of an author in creating characters we are interested in enough to care about and plots that hold our attention, they must be sufficiently well versed in the era they are attempting to emulate to recreate its social structure, styles of speech and all the other elements necessary for it to be believable. With the publication of the first book in his new historical fantasy series, Crown Colonies Book 1: At The Queen's Command from Night Shade Books, Michael A Stackpole shows that he's more than up for the challenge.
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The wars that have embroiled two empires, Norisl and Tharyngia, in the Old World are expanding to the New World and threaten all who live in Norillian crown colony of Mystria. Captain Owen Strake, a veteran of the wars on one continent, is sent to the new one to survey the territory and evaluate the strength of the Tharyngian colonial forces. The Norillians hope that a strike against their foe's colony will not only force them to divert resources away from their battles elsewhere, but also deny them access to the trade goods which has been fuelling their economy. For Captain Strake the mission represents a chance for him to secure his financial situation and make a place for himself and his young wife back home. In the rigid class system of Norisl the adopted son of a Duke's youngest brother, his birth father was a Mystrian ship's captain by pirates, lacks the resources and position to either purchase or obtain promotion.

While Strake is well aware of the Norrillian scorn for their colonial subjects, having felt the brunt of it himself because of his father, he is shocked by the level of resentment he finds among Mystrians towards the crown. These feelings are reflected in the treasonous desires for independence expressed by some of those he meets. Accepted by neither the local representatives of Norisl because of his mixed heritage, nor the locals for being a Norrillian, it looks as if Strake might fail in his task before he even starts. Thankfully for his sake, the Colonial Governor-General, the Queen's nephew Prince Vladimir, is far more concerned with the well being of his colony and its occupants than most of his fellow aristocrats and has earned the respect of the Mystrians. So, while he might not have much political influence in the home country, he is able to smooth things over for Strake with the locals.

Aside from their desire for Owen to succeed in his mission, the Prince and he have something else in common. Strake is a Captain in the Queen's Own Wurms, and is used to being around the long flightless dragons whom form a vital part of the Royal Forces, and the Prince is the owner of a magnificent wurm by the name of Mugwump. Mugwump is different from the wurms Strake is used to, he was born from a clutch of eggs discovered in the new world. However, the fact he's as at home with the creature as the Prince establishes a bond between the two which goes a long way to ensuring Strake won't just be taken out into the forests and walked in circles, eaten by the strange beasts who inhabit them or killed by Tharyngian native allies.
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Even before we meet Mugwump, Stackpole lets us know there are sizeable differences between our world and the one inhabited by Owen Strake. For while the soldiers use recognizable weapons, muzzle and breech loading muskets and rifles, they are fired through a mixture of magic and science. Instead of a flint generating a spark and firing gunpowder to propel a ball from a musket, soldiers use a spell to ignite a blasting cap of brimstone. Each time they "cast" the spell they pay a cost in blood, and a person's magical ability is rated according to the number of times he is able to fire his weapon before being forced to stop because of being incapacitated by the bruising the blood loss causes to whichever digit, usually the thumb, they use for that purpose.

As both we and Strake find out, there's more, some of it deadlier, magic awaiting him as he travels into the interior of this untamed new world. Those indigenous to the land (referred to as The Twilight People for their ability to disappear into the woods by settlers, and feared by many because they are different) use magic in ways that Strake has never seen before. However there's is a benign power. What awaits him at the hands of the Tharyngian in charge of their colonial forces is a horror beyond his wildest imaginings. Like his Norrillian counterparts he has mixed science and magic in order to develop a power that could see the Tharyngians not only wrest control of Mystria from Norisl, but change the face of the world.

With At The Queen's Command Stackpole has laid the groundwork for the rest of the series by taking the time to establish the world in which it takes place; introducing us to a variety of multidimensional characters and setting in motion the plots which will dictate the future of both his characters and their world. While that in itself is a difficult task, even more impressive is how he has accomplished it. Sometimes when reading a historical novel there's the feeling of looking backwards in time with everything filtered through a modern sensibility. In this instance though, with everything viewed through the eyes of his characters, not only do we observe their behaviour and dialogue, we are party to their feelings, thought processes and reactions and are thus completely immersed in their world. If Stackpole can sustain this over the balance of the series, The Crown Colonies promises to be a great addition to the historical fantasy genre. As it is, this first book is a great opening salvo full of adventure, magic, intrigue and even a little romance that makes for a highly enjoyable read.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Crown Colonies Book One: At The Queen's Command by Michael A. Stackpole on Blogcritics.)

January 1, 2011

Book Review: The Year Of The Hare By Arto Paasilinna

How many of you out there have wanted to just say," Oh fuck it" at some point in your life? Slough off all your responsibilities and head for the hills; a partner who makes you so miserable you can't remember why you married them or a once inspiring job has become a cynical task you only keep doing because you need the money. Everywhere you look you see the walls closing in and you're starting to be able to identify with the animals you see pacing from side to side in a zoo's cages. Of course, if you were to take that giant step off the edge you would become a social pariah. The creep who left the loving partner or rejected the well paying job to wander aimlessly picking up piece work like some sort of hobo or bum. Someone who is, in fact, a danger to himself and others because he, or she, are obviously mentally unhinged.

Society can be a harsh judge when you don't play by the rules, but sometimes a body is pushed too far and something happens to trigger snapping the bonds holding them in check. Such is the case in Finnish author Arto Paasilinna's book The Year Of The Hare, published by Penguin Canada. In an almost clinical fashion Paasilinna records one man's odyssey into exile from society and follows him as he gradually travels further and further away from civilization until he crosses over into neighbouring Russia somewhere near the Arctic Circle. However, this is no glib peon to the rights of the individual and the author leaves it to the reader to make his own decisions about his 'hero's' behaviour by assigning us the role of observer.

Vatanen is a journalist made cynical from too many years of reporting scandals and writing about people and issues that don't matter. He can't remember why he married his wife, nor is he quite sure why she married him as she apparently despises him. Returning from assignment with his photographer, their car side swipes a young hare who hadn't been able to get out of the way. Seized by a sudden impulse Vatanen leaves the car to search for the wounded animal in the woods where it hobbled after they hit it. When he doesn't return, and after repeatedly calling him, the photographer takes off and leaves Vatanen. When later guilt over abandoning him, he might have fallen and injured himself, forces the photographer to return to search for his associate, he can't find any sign of either him or the hare.
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Vatanen had found the hare and after carefully tending to it for the night and establishing a bond had taken it to the nearest village to arrange medical care. The more he thought about his life - wife and job - the gloomier he would become, while the more he allowed himself to enjoy his surroundings - the peaceful woods, the friendly villagers and the quiet companionship of the hare - the happier he became. Seemingly without thinking about it he makes arrangements to separate himself from civilization. He sells his boat to a friend to obtain some much needed cash and then proceeds to vanish into the wilderness. However, unlike Thoreau, who retreated to Walden Pond to contemplate society and nature, our friend is not so much interested in philosophy as he is in escape.

In fact, Paasilinna paints an almost negative picture of Vatanen at times. Hired on to help fight the biggest forest fire in Finnish history he comes across a man who has been forced to flee from the flames with his still. He then proceed to enjoy the results of his new acquaintance's labours. When the fire threatens to consume the two men they swim out into a lake and wait for it to burn out around them. While I suppose one could make the case for this being an analogy for selfishness - self-gratification while the world literally burns around you - in the context of the story its merely just another adventure among the many he experiences in his wandering. Anyway, his willingness to go to almost any lengths to protect the hare belie charges that he's only interested in himself. It's more when an opportunity presents itself he's seizing it with both hands no matter how strange it might seem to observers.

He's at his most content though when it's just him and the hare. He takes jobs which allow him to retreat further and further from society. Yet no matter how remote a location he manages to find, intrusions are inevitable. Hired to renovate a shelter for the herdsmen who look after reindeer in the north he and the hare find some moments of respite until a government official decides it is an ideal location to bring foreign dignitaries to observe the Finnish army perform winter manoeuvres. When the intruders insist upon trying to hunt a bear hibernating in the vicinity it sets off a series of absurd events which results in the cabin being burnt to the ground and the entire party being evacuated, nearly naked, by helicopter. When Vatanen is finally able to return to finish the job he started, he and the hare are forced to contend with the irate bear and are lucky to escape unscathed. Unable to lash out at those responsible, he and the hare decide to hunt down the bear who leads them on a merry chase across the Finnish Russian border where he is held on suspicion of spying.
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It's here that Paasilinna is at his most satirical. For the Finns send a extradition request to the Russians detailing the list of crimes Vatanen is wanted for in his native country which is almost as farcical as it is lengthy. Reading between the lines of the list of meaningless crimes what he's really being accused of is shirking his responsibilities as a member of a well ordered society and generally not behaving in a acceptable manner. It's one thing if life's circumstances force you to live on the margins, it's another all together if you decide to do so voluntarily. Anybody who rejects the holy trinity of family, work and societal obligations is obviously a threat and needs to be separated from the general public - you wouldn't want anybody getting ideas now would you.

What makes The Year Of The Hare so compelling is how Paasilinna makes no effort to glorify any of Vatanen's actions or offer any justifications for what he does. Yet even his seemingly irrational decisions couldn't be construed by anyone but the most anal as dangerous or even mean spirited. At times he's forced into situations by the idiocy of those around him, but because he's considered "abnormal", even those who threaten him with violence are considered to be acting within the bounds of normalcy. While our society claims to cherish the rights of the individual, this book makes it obvious how narrow our definition of that word really is. If you stray too far outside the boundaries of acceptable behaviour you will be either shunned as a pariah, treated as a criminal or be considered mentally unstable, if not all three at once.

With his almost casual writing style Paasilinna is able to make his point without ever preaching or being obvious about what he is doing. As the book progresses he gradually builds his case and we slowly become aware of the weight of societal disapproval lurking in the background like some malevolent presence waiting to pounce. By not setting Vatanen up as some heroic figure in search of inner meaning or on a quest for the truth, Paasilinna has created a character readers can identify with at least some of the time. Sure he's flawed, but who isn't? All he wants is to be left alone to live a peaceful co-existence with his new friend, is that such a bad thing? Read the book and see what you think, you might just find yourself wishing for a hare to enter your life in the near future.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Year Of The Hare by Arto Paasilinna on Blogcritics.)

December 31, 2010

My Favourite Reads Of 2010

I don't know how many books I read over the course of a year; especially when you include the ones I re-read, so for any title to stand out sufficiently for me to remember it from one end of the year to the other means it has to be something pretty special. Some years I've not been able to come up with ten books, and, others I'm hard pressed to chose among them, when putting together a year end list of favourites. This year sort of fell in between as after reading through the list of reviews I'd written over the course of the year and jotting down the titles of those which stood out, it just happened to turn out that I had picked exactly ten.

Any who have read my reviews in the past will be well aware of my liking of epic fantasy, and this year is no exception, but there are also a couple of non-fiction titles and a couple that might even be referred to as straight fiction. I know there are still those who would look down their noses at what some refer to dismissively as 'genre' fiction, but as far as I'm concerned it's there you'll find the closest we have come to continuing the oral tradition of storytelling that began with Homer and Valmiki. We may no longer rely on stories to explain away the workings of the world or the peculiarities of our gods, but they do provide us with the means of stretching our minds in ways we might not otherwise. Hopefully reading this list will encourage you to at least follow the links back to reading my full review of each title, and maybe even to read one or two of them as well. So, in order of when they were read over the course of the year, here are the ten books which were my favourites in 2010.

Dust Of Dreams by Steven Erikson. The ninth book of ten in Erikson's Malazan Book Of The Fallen series finds the world apparently on the brink of blowing apart at the seams as the schemes of gods are starting to fall into place. All that's seemingly protecting the world are what seems to be a pitifully small force of mortals, remnants of the once proud armies of the Malazan Empire. This near the end of a series most authors would have probably been content with simply continuing the story where it left off from the last chapter, but not Erikson. He has a whole world of beings to draw upon who are going to want to have their say in how things turn out, and be they living, undead, god, mortal or something in between they will be heard. Amazingly, one never feels confused when reading Erikson's work as the multiple plot lines and myriad characters always find a way to fit into the overall picture he is creating. It might take some time to see how a particular piece fits into the puzzle, but half the fun of reading is finding that out. Dust Of Dreams is another wonderful instalment in Erikson's epic tale with the only disquieting note being the realization there's only one book left after it.

Voices Of A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. Most histories that you read will tell of the big events from the point of view of the generals, politicians and other larger then life figures who have somehow been designated as the movers and shakers shaping them. The majority of the time we are asked to take somebody else's word that what we are being told is what actually happened. In their history of the United States Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove have decided to let you have the opportunity to hear from people who actually participated in events throughout the years and let you form your own opinions. Instead of reading about generals and their great victories you'll hear from the soldier who fought in the trenches in the form of a letter home. This collection of speeches, letters and other writings from down through the years provides the reader an opportunity to hear from those whose voices don't usually make it into history books and provides a totally different perspective on events that you thought you knew so well. In these days of misinformation and spin, this book is a refreshing change of pace as we are able to read first hand what people actually said, not what somebody else wants you to think they said.

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor. Somewhere in the backwoods of Ontario the old ways and the new world are having a head on collision. Ojibway novelist and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor creates a wonderful vision of what would happen on a modern day reservation if the trickster, Nanabush, from his people's legends, were to show up and try to liven things up a little. Nobody knows what to make of the stranger who roles into town on the back of a classic Indian motorcycle for the funeral of one of the town's oldest inhabitants, but they know there's something not completely right about him when the local racoon population are all so set against him. Funny, yet at the same time realistic in its depiction of life on a reserve, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass might not jibe with people's image of the noble savage or the drunk welfare bum Indian, but it does show how traditions can live on comfortably in the modern world. Pickup trucks may have replaced more traditional modes of transportation and computers and cell phones are as common here as anywhere else, but that doesn't mean you forget who you are and the stories that shaped your people.

The Good Fairies Of New York by Martin Millar. Technically speaking this book probably shouldn't be on a list of books released in 2010 as it originally came out a number of years ago. However as I only read it for the first time this year I decided to include it. Martin Millar has always had a wonderful sense of the absurd and this is a shining example of that at work. How else would you describe a book featuring a massive battle between two fairy armies in Central Park, two Scottish fairies who've decided to go against tradition and play punk versions of old fiddle tunes and the ghost of the late New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders searching for his lost Gibson guitar? I guarantee you haven't read another book quite like this one, and not only will it make you laugh out loud, you'll never look at fairies in quite the same way again.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Guy Gavriel Kay has the incredible ability of being able to pull a reader into the world of his story right from the opening lines of his book. Before you've even read more than a few pages into one of his creations you've become so immersed in the world that no matter what the setting, its as familiar to you as your own. Under Heaven is no exception as he takes you into the subtle and dangerous world of 8th century China where sophisticated political minds, warrior societies and mysterious magical forces co-exist. As the story slowly unravels the combination of intriguing characters, twisting plots and intricately described world make this a fascinating and compelling read. This is historical fantasy as it should be written; most anything else is just a pale imitation.

Just Kids by Patti Smith. Smith's recounting of her formative years as a young artist is as much a love story about her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe as it is an autobiography. A beautiful and honest recollection of both individuals coming of age as people and artists, Just Kids distils the innocence and excitement of two children discovering themselves and leavens it with the realities of living poor and struggles with sexual identity. As honest and unstinting a work as anything Smith has ever produced, this fearless book is not only her story, it also manages to evoke its era with everyone from Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg making guest appearances in its pages. I don't normally like autobiographies or biographies for that matter, but if you read only one book this year - let it be this one. It will break your heart and lift you higher than the moon - a work of art by a brilliant artist.

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight. The book that started it all. This was Muslim convert Knight's first book set in the fictional world of Islamic punks and the inspiration for the real life imitating art tour by Knight and various Muslim punk bands captured in the documentary Taqwacores: The Birth Of Punk Islam. In some ways the book is about the immigrant experience in America as second generation Islamic children try to find their place in a society where they are outsiders. Like other teenagers away from home at collage they explore sex, drugs and alcohol while trying to learn about life. What separates this from other coming of age stories is the underlying tension between the characters' religion, which they continue to practice and respect, and their attempts to reconcile it with their behaviour. Full of the noise and confusion of youth spreading its wings The Taqwacores manages to put a human face on Islam like few other works of popular fiction.

Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar. This is Millar's second appearance on this list, this time though for a book published this year. The sequel to his Lonely Werewolf Girl picks up where he left off with the adventures of Kalix, the banished werewolf princess, still trying to get her act together. Helped and hindered in equal parts by her human and fire elemental friends, hunted by family members and werewolf hunters, she faces her sternest test yet - remedial English and Math classes. This book was eagerly anticipated in my household and unlike many other sequels it not only lived up to expectations, but even surpassed them. Millar refused to take the easy way out by repeating the formulae that worked in the first book, and he has not only sustained the world he developed so well, but taken his characters and expended on the groundwork he had laid earlier. Is it possible for a near suicidally depressed teenage werewolf with an addiction to laudanum to be happy? Maybe, maybe not, but Kalix, bit by bit (and bite by bite if the truth be told) is taking her first steps towards independence and despite her occasional habit of ripping out throats of those who upset her, at least finding something close to peace of mind. A wonderful book in its own right, Curse Of The Wolf Girl is a must read for fans of Kalix and her buddies. If your sick of the whole romance story/vampire thing going on right now - this is the perfect antidote - I can't see any of those little whiners lasting more than a second or two in Kalix's world.

Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Pedro-Reverte. It's long been a tradition among fighting men that when things get a little too hot for comfort at home, one takes to the seas for relief. After saving the king's life one would think that Captain Alatriste and his ward Inigo wouldn't have a care in the world. Unfortunately they managed to piss off a lot of well connected people in 17th century Spain in the process, including members of the Inquisition who could make life very hot for them. Which is how they find themselves cruising the Mediterranean as part of the Spanish fleet preying upon the enemies of Spain. Off the coast of North Africa and Southern Europe that can be anyone from English privateers to Turkish merchant ships loaded with slaves, gold and perfumes. As usual Reverte has not only managed to capture the times the book is set in perfectly, his characters are so full of life they nearly leap from the pages. Combined with his ability to take you into the heart of a battle, with each sword stroke and musket ball described in such detail you almost feel the breeze they create stir your hair and scorch your skin, this makes for not only a great adventure, but a sobering contemplation of the wastes of warfare and the depths humans can sink to when in peril. This is the sixth book in the Alatriste series translated into English so far, and hopefully they'll be plenty more to come, as any other book of a similar type just pales in comparison.

Stonewielder by Ian C Esslemont. The year started with a book set in the world of the Malazan Empire, so it seems only fitting that it should end that way as well. Esslemont has published two previous works set in the world he and Steven Erikson created, and in Stonewielder he picks up with the characters he's introduced us to previously. Esslemont, like Erikson, has the ability to not only recreate the great sweep of events that make epics such a wonder to read, but to create characters who are so real that we experience what it's like for everyone from the foot soldier, the supreme commander of an army and the gods themselves to live through them. With each characters' perspective coloured by their own self-interest we are offered a variety of views of the same events and are left to decide on our own what's right and what's wrong. While Esslemont's books work fine as a stand alone series in their own right, taken in tandem with Erikson's they raise both up to a higher level. Remarkable books by remarkable writers make for great reading, and that's the case with this book and any book in this series.

(Article first published as My Favourite Reads of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

December 21, 2010

Book Review: Simon's Cat His Own Book & Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence by Simon Tofield:

Nine times out of ten when somebody starts to recount some particularly memorable, at least in their minds, thing a pet has done there's a good chance that most will smile politely and nod. Like doting grandparents who can't understand not everybody is interested in every last move their little dears make, pet owners will regale the world with pictures and stories of their furred darlings without surcease. What most people with pets fail to understand is that, unlike what my cats get up to, there is nothing remotely interesting about their animals' behaviour. Being incredibly special, super intelligent and extraordinarily cute, my cats are of course the exception to that rule, and everybody will want to hear everything about them; from where they spew hair balls to how loud they can meow.

In fact pet owners are so renowned for this when I first started writing on the Internet the term "cat blog" was used derisively to refer to any blog which was no more than a personal diary. The attitude I expressed above is common to most of us who dote upon four legged critters, but really who is going to want to hear endless recounts of their doings? Let's be real, nobody is going to find stories about other people's pets funny enough to search them out on the Internet and read them, right? Well, try telling that to Simon Tofield, creator of Simon's Cat.
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Tofield is a British animator and illustrator who has taken idle sketches of his cats and turned them into incredibly popular short animated cartoons on You Tube. With over 50 million fans watching his videos, he must be doing something right, and if you check out the films page on his web site you'll see just what that is. A combination of simply rendered line drawings, cat sounds and over the top cat behaviour make them some of the most hilarious cartoons I've seen in ages. Ranging in length from around thirty seconds to a few minutes, they take such identifiable cat behaviours as playing with an empty box, stopping at nothing in the hunting of an insect and asking to be let inside and turn them into moments of hysteria. Tofield's humour resides in his ability to exaggerate normal behaviour to the point where it's ridiculous but still believable.

Well now the star of Internet video is available in book form; Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence are both available through Penguin Canada, and he is every bit as funny on the page as he is in your browser window. (Beyond The Fence is only currently available in the US as an eBook and won't be released in hard copy until June of 2011) Tofield's ability to communicate a lot with little translates onto the page wonderfully, making both these collections as much, if not more, fun than the videos. For the static frame has allowed him to add detail to his images not seen in his animations that, especially in Beyond The Fence, make them more complete.
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In His Own Book, first published a year ago and now re-printed as a softcover, introduced us to life around the house with Simon and his cat. Anybody who has ever shared space with a cat will be able to quickly identify with all of the scenarios depicted. Sure there are some instances when our cat friend's behaviour crosses out of the realm of realistic into fantasy. However, you have the feeling, if it were possible for a cat to do things like attempt to open a can of food on its own, it would do so in the manner Tofield depicts. If the little buggers can break into cupboards it's not much of a stretch to imagine them utilizing blunt instruments to try and smash cans open. Lacking opposable thumbs can openers are out of the question so it becomes necessary to find an alternative means of gaining access to a can's contents.

Beyond The Fence sees Cat carrying out every young child's threat of running away from home. After being forced to face the indignity of being bathed, hysterically depicted in a series of large panels - anybody who has ever tried to give a cat a bath will wince in sympathy as memories of being soaked and bleeding from numerous cuts surface - Cat stalks out of his "cat-flap". One can almost hear him yelling back over his shoulder that he's running away from home and won't you regret treating me like this now! For the rest of the book we follow Cat through a series of adventures out in the wilds. Who'd have thought that birds, mice and rabbits could be so cruel. The indignities he suffers at their paws and wings; although there is the mitigating factor that he is attempting to hunt them that speaks in their defence. Still, these are humbling experiences for our erstwhile hero in his quest for freedom and independence.
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While Tofield continues to employ only black and white, in this book he has taken more time with backgrounds and filling in Cat's surroundings. Yet, he does not ignore the details which have been the key to the cartoon's success. Specifically, his amazing ability to bring expressions alive on his character's faces with only a few simple lines. Giving animals human facial expressions is a tricky business as it can often end up being insufferably cute. Tofield somehow manages not to fall into that trap by avoiding making them overtly human. No matter if it's a haughty blue heron, a friendly otter, a snarky mouse or our long suffering Cat, each critter retains their animal identity while making no secret of their feelings.

Usually only fellow cat owners would be at all interested in stories regarding the antics of our four footed companions. With his wonderful sense of the absurd and deceptively simple drawing style, Simon Tofield has managed to break down that barrier and find a way to make cat stories universally appealing. While cat lovers will be identify with the cartoons on a personal level, having experienced something similar to what's being depicted at one time or another, the humour is such it will be next to impossible for anybody to resist the charm of these two books.

(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book & Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics.)

December 20, 2010

Book Review: Stonewielder Ian C. Esslemont

Humans have been making up stories about heroes and gods since before we even had a written language. They not only served as the means to explain the world around us, the adventures described were used by each society as benchmarks against which people could judge their own behaviour. Heroes gave us characteristics we could aspire to emulate while the foibles of the gods served as object lessons with regards to having to deal with the consequences of our actions. In a kind of inverted social structure the mortal heroes of most epic tales were usually paragons of moral virtue while the gods and goddesses were subject to the same weaknesses as the rest of us.

The most drastic change that has occurred in story telling down through the years has been the devolution of their protagonists from figures of noble birth, who either suffered from some moral weakness causing their downfall and were defined as tragic or were examples to be emulated, to being men and women much the same as those reading about them. There is nothing cut and dried about the anti-hero of modern fiction. Neither completely good nor evil, he and she muddle their way through life doing the best they can. While in some ways this makes for more interesting reading, as audiences identify with these figures more readily than any paragons of virtue or nobly flawed individuals, how do these "regular folk" hold up when placed in epic situations? Is it indeed possible to have proper epic fiction without the epic heroes to go with them?

While there have been any number of science fiction and fantasy works written which have attempted to fill the void of the great heroic tales of the past, there have been precious few which have been able to give answer to that question while retaining the qualities that made the originals so riveting. By no means have I read every epic fantasy series published in the last century, but to my mind there has only been one fictional world created which matches up favourably without an epic hero to carry the load. Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont have combined forces over the last decade or so to bring to life the world populated by the Malazan Empire and a multitude of other civilizations, gods, ancient beings, demons, and assorted other types. While the gods and goddesses continue the tradition of their Greek and Roman predecessors with their all too human behaviour, those mortals populating the tales aren't liable to be confused with either Ulysses or Rama anytime soon.
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While Erikson's tenth and final instalment in the series will be published in February, the recently published Stonewielder, from Random House Canada, represents only Esslemont's third entry. (Won't be released in the US until May 2011) Like all massive empires, the Malazans have been fighting wars on many fronts; at home and abroad and on the human plane of existence and alternate realities as well. So while Erikson has been concentrating on reporting from one half of the battle, Esslemont has been going back over the history of the Empire to help show how it arrived at the point its at now and reporting back on action that have only been vague rumours before.

Such is the case with this title as he picks up the story of the characters he was following in his previous title, The Return Of The Crimson Guard. At times throughout the telling of the story of the Malazan Empire we've heard of the continent of Korel; the mysterious Storm Riders who assail it and the Stormwall that guards against them and the failed efforts of the Malazan Empire to subdue them completely. Stonewielder is the name given the disgraced ex-Malazan military commander, Greymane, who led the first invasion and was introduced in Return of the Crimson Guard, by the indigenous people of Korel because of a gift he received from the Storm Riders. The gift, a great stone sword, as well as the fact he met and talked with the Storm Riders, are the reasons Greymane is considered a traitor by both the Korelians and the Malazan Empire. The former because he treated with their ancient enemies, and the latter, because after the meeting Greymane inexplicably resigned his commission and deserted. Now Greymane is given the chance to redeem himself and is named to head the new invasion force being put together by the Empire.

However, this is no mere recounting of an invasion, nor is it the story of one person's quest. For while Greymane and his young companion Kyle, who also is the owner of a sword blessed with the powers of an unusual being, have their roles to play in the events that unfold, Esslemont is working with a much broader canvas. Not only does he offer us multiple perspectives of the Malazan invasion by letting us see it through the eyes of characters as diverse as a new recruit in the army, the High Mage for the invasion and one of Greymane's senior officers, but does the same for the forces arrayed against them. Korel is an archipelago comprised of various island nations who are united by two things; their need for the protection provided by the Stormwall and their worship of a single deity know as The Lady.

The two we learn are directly intertwined as it was The Lady who gifted settlers with the power to build the wall. All she asked in exchange was they worship no one but her and eradicate any and all other existing beliefs they found in the region. While this seemed like a good deal at the time to those few attempting to fend off the Storm Riders, and who cared about the beliefs of the savages who lived there already, in the present not everybody is as convinced of its benefits. For The Chosen, those who lead the defence of the Stonewall, there are no doubts. Every winter they force thousands of prisoners to stand chained to the wall and face both the elements and the Riders. The Lady has given them the power to protect their people, and they see nothing wrong with doing whatever is necessary to carry their mission out in her name.

However, the further inland one travels things aren't so cut and dried. While the ruling class have no trouble maintaining the status quo, dissatisfaction has grown among the peasant farmers and the poor in the cities to the point where an army of rebellion has been raised. In the past attempts at rebellion have been quashed with ease, but this time looks to be different as they are not only better organized militarily, they have allied themselves with the powers of the indigenous people who predate The Lady. For while The Lady has been able to quash most conventional wielders of magic, they seem to be able to operate under her radar and provide some magical assistance to the rebellion.

Things aren't any better away from the battle fronts for the establishment, as a magistrate's investigation into decades of mysterious deaths among the young people of his city offers proof of something vile at the heart of the belief in The Lady. With fissures starting to appear in their power base, the church begins to crack down even harder on any dissent. Playing on people's fears of the Malazan invasion they incite mob violence against anyone who might bring The Lady's "disfavour" down on Korel. Without The Lady we are doomed, so in these times of trouble we must crack down even harder on those who would preach anything but absolute devotion to Her.

Esslemont deftly guides us through multiple settings, plot lines and characters as he carefully fills in the details of his immense canvas. Whether we're standing the Wall with The Chosen, riding the waves with the Malazans, marching with the rebel army or skulking in the back streets of the cities, we learn both a little bit more about our location and have the plot advanced a little further. What's more, the characters he has chosen to be our guides at each stop along the way become more and more real to us and in the process help give a deeper understanding of the world they move in.

What's most amazing about Stonewielder is the way in which Esslemont takes the epic sweep of history and is able to reduce it down to a human level. The manipulations of gods and goddesses are like ripples whose effects touch both the humblest of foot soldiers and the leaders of countries equally. We not only read about the great events that are the result of a deity's actions, but live through them with each of the characters in this book. Where epic tales in the past would recount the heroic deeds of those involved, here people slog through mud, scavenge for food and water, fight to survive and express their doubts about their so-called destinies.

Yet in spite of this, or maybe because of it, this makes them all the more heroic and all the less savoury depending on how they react to their circumstances. It's just as easy for a man or woman to choose to do the right thing as it is to do the wrong thing. In creating his characters Esslemont has been very careful to make sure its those choices that define them. Few of the people we spend any real time with are so one dimensional that you'll be able to say he is evil or she is good, instead its only through what they do that we truly know them.

Stonewielder is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an immensely satisfying one. For not only is it as exciting an adventure story filled with great battle scenes and descriptions of combat unlike any you'll read elsewhere, the sea battles alone make it worth reading, there's also an intimacy you'll not often find in a story of this type. It is epic fiction at its finest, yet proof positive that you don't need the heroes of yore for a story of this scope to hold a reader's attention. In fact I'd say it is just the opposite. For once you start reading you aren't going to want to stop - and you might just find yourself staying up half the night finishing what you've started.

(Article first published as Book Review: Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont on Blogcritics.)

December 8, 2010

Book Review: To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie

When it comes to the arts I've always been a firm believer in the treatise that one should learn to walk before they start to run let alone fly. To my mind that means a painter learns figurative drawing and realism before they challenge reality with abstractions; a composer learns the basics of arrangement and orchestration before trying their hands at atonal sound collages; and a writer learns proper sentence structure, grammar and how to create a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end before they take a stab at something like stream of consciousness. If you don't know the rules, how can you possibly know how to break them?

That might sound like a stupid question, but think about it in terms of flaunting conventions or rebelling against something you object to in society. If you don't know what is conventional, or acceptable behaviour, how can you know what to do that will upset people? If a writer doesn't know how to write a proper sentence or a coherent story, how are they going to know what to do in order to stand those conventions on their heads? In order to draw a circle backwards you still have to know how to draw a circle, and no matter how you approach writing a story you still have to put the words down on a page in some sort of order and the person reading it should still be able to understand what it is you're trying to say.
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My own experiments with style and form have not been as successful as I would have liked. So whenever I come across a piece of work, no matter its size, where the author has not only written a good story, but the manner in which he tells it is part of what makes it a compelling read, I'm thrilled. Such was the case with a story just published by To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie. Poet, songwriter, novelist and visual artist, MacKenzie has created in this instance the written equivalent of a cubist painting. For not only is the story told from the points of view of each character we meet, the characters represent different time periods.

The story opens with a description of your standard working poor apartment. Basic furniture and appliances with nothing to distinguish it from others of its kind save for the author drawing our attention to a couple of details - scorch marks on the kitchen table and a few sheets of paper scattered on the floor next to the table. Like an establishing shot in a film, MacKenzie carefully pans across the scene ensuring the reader understands the story is firmly set in a familiar world. What follows after though is anything but familiar as he begins to introduce us to his various characters.

At first there doesn't appear to be any sort of connection between the first people we meet, a mysterious girl with a pet crow and an ability to play with fire who frightens a young boy by running her hand through a candle and a man who appears over an infant's crib, and subsequent characters as they are introduced. In fact we don't even know what it is we're dealing with in terms of a story until we all of a sudden realize the apartment described in the opening of the book is the setting for a police investigation of a missing person. However as the pieces of the story are gradually slotted into their appropriate places in the overall picture we understand that the child in the crib, the boy the girl with the crow frightens, and the man who has disappeared from the apartment described at the onset, are all one and the same person.

While the police are doing their best to try and puzzle out what might have happened to the occupant based on the contents of the letter they find on the floor and what bits and pieces of his life they are able to assemble by questioning neighbours and his landlord, we are learning the truth of the matter. A few pages from his mother's diary expresses her concerns about a story he tells as a child meeting a young girl with a crow who can play with fire. We also learn that quite a few people in his family have died by being struck by lighting - although that's not really unusual for a family that's lived for generations on the open prairie, and that his mother died young under mysterious circumstances.
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To Whom It May Concern doesn't follow a normal narrative pattern as it doesn't travel a straight line from point A to B. While readers might find that disconcerting at first, what ends up happening is MacKenzie has created something that is far more satisfying to read than your standard mystery/fantasy story. Not only do we learn what lies at the heart of the mystery surrounding what happened to the occupant of the apartment, we do so in a manner that makes the mystery all the more intriguing. We not only eventually discover what has happened, we also are able to experience what it would be like to be the police officers investigating the disappearance without the benefit of our inside information. MacKenzie has managed to create two separate realities, each offering their own distinct perception of the events in the story, and both are equally believable.

There aren't many writers who can handle the rigours of not only playing around with the conventional structure of story telling successfully, but telling a good story at the same time. In To Whom It May Concern Bob MacKenzie has not only created an intriguing mystery story, he has found a way to alter the conventions of storytelling in such a manner that the audience is pulled deeper into the material than normal. It may not be what you're used to when it comes to a mystery story, but this is one of those occasions when different is definitely better.

(Article first published as Book Review: To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie on Blogcritics.)

November 15, 2010

Book Review: Luka And The Fire Of Life by Salman Rushdie

Stories exist on levels most of us aren't even aware of. We pick up a book, read the words written by an author, and usually we've forgotten what we've read by the time we pick up the next book, A whole world that somebody has striven to create obliterated by our need to move on to what comes next, to our search for distraction and our need to be entertained. However, stories are what define people, give meaning to their lives and explain the world around them. In our culture we have The Bible, and while some might not like to hear it defined in this manner, the stories contained in its pages shape the way most of us think, and have been the motivation behind the majority of decisions that have shaped our world.

What happens to one of those worlds created by an author after we've moved on to something else? In the case of stories like those recounted in The Bible, or other holy books still being followed, there's no question the people and events talked about are still real to those who believe in them. But what about those Gods and Goddesses who are no longer actively worshipped? What about other worlds created and populated by authors throughout the ages? Do they cease to exist when we no longer read about them, or is there some alternate reality in which those people brought to life continue leading the lives we dropped in on for the brief moments allowed us by the author's imagination? Does the storyteller's power extend beyond the boundaries of our attention span?

In his newest novel, Luka And The Fire Of Life published by Random House Canada, Salman Rushdie manages to not only create a fantastical world and a great adventure for his young hero to explore and experience, he gives us an intriguing look at the relationships between stories, their listeners and the way the two come together to shape the world around them. While it contains most of the elements we've come to expect from a tale involving a hero's quest, its the twist and turns he throws in for him to navigate that makes this one special
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Luka is the youngest son of the renowned storyteller Rashid Khalifa, known to some as the Shah of Blah for his love of talking. From the very first he was an amazing child - he amazed his parents with his birth as he came so late in their lives; eighteen years after his older brother Haroun. Young Luka soon showed that he was going to be different from other children. Maybe it was the fact that he was left handed that gave him a different perspective on the world - having to struggle with doorknobs that were apparently backwards can have an odd impact on you. Perhaps it was because he grew up the son of a storyteller hearing about the wonderful alternative reality known as Magic World, but he spent a great deal of time imaging different worlds - including his personal favourite where everything worked counter-clockwise to suit his left handed abilities.

Luka's two closest companions were his two pets, Bear the singing dog and Dog the dancing Bear. One day a particularly nasty circus, known as the Great Rings of Fire for its "Famous Incredible Fire Illusion", had come to town. It was one of those which relied on abusing animals to make them perform for an audience's pleasure. Luka and his father had been in town when the circus had paraded through and the young lad had been so distraught by the sight of the poor animals he shouted at the circus owner "May your animals stop obeying your commands and your rings of fire burn up your stupid tent". Much to the audience's amazement at the first performance in town all the animals stood up to the ringmaster and refused to obey his commands. When later that same night, after everybody was asleep, the circus's big tent burnt to the ground people began to wonder at the power of Luka's words. While all the other animals escaped into the wilderness, Bear the singing dog and Dog the dancing bear showed up at Luka's door and made their gratitude known by becoming his boon companions.

While Luka was thus reasonably content, he still yearned for the chance to have a great adventure and dreamed of alternate realities where they might take place. It should therefore not surprise anyone that he spent quite a bit of time playing computer role playing games where he could send himself on adventures into an incredible variety of words. It turned out it was good thing he had taken the time to prepare himself, because he was soon faced with having a very real adventure of his own. A day came when Rashid said his legs felt heavy, then his arms and finally his body. Eventually he fell asleep and couldn't be woken. It soon became apparent that this was no natural sleep, and Luka discovered that it was caused by the evil circus ringmaster seeking revenge for making him look foolish. Thankfully he also discovers the means of reviving his father. All he'll have to do is travel to the World of Magic and steal the Fire of Life and somehow return home with it for his father.
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The world Luka and his faithful companions enter in their attempt to save his father turns out to be strangely familiar. He soon recognizes landmarks and countries that have all appeared in his father's stories, yet at the same time there are elements that reflect his own experiences. For, every time he manages to accomplish a task he is rewarded with the gift of extra "lives" to spend, much like one would gain by accumulating points in a video game (A running tally of his lives magically appears as a number in the upper left hand corner of his vision). He is also given the opportunity to save his progress through the world so he won't have to go all the way back to beginning if he should lose one of his lives. At the same time, while some of the characters he meets on the way are those he's heard his father describe, a number of them are based on people from his own life and share many of their characteristics.

What Rushdie has done with his story of Luka's adventures is not only create a rather whimsical adventure quest that audiences of all ages can enjoy, he's also offered a somewhat wry commentary on the whole idea of stories and how they influence us. At first Luka is content to merely follow the path laid out by his father's stories in his attempt to transverse the various strange lands and creatures he encounters. However he soon realizes he'll not succeed unless he starts exerting his own will on events and search for his own path to success.

We all have our own lives to lead, and what Rushdie has very gently pointed out in his book is while we might look upon other's accomplishments with envy and admiration, it's only by striking out on our path that we will realize our full potential. For while the stories that have come before us will definitely influence us, and have shaped the world around us, we are all given unique characteristics which allow us to write our own story. With humour and intelligence Rushdie's book shows just how important our choices are and the importance of exerting our influence on the world around us. You don't have to blindly follow in anyone's footsteps, in fact you'll be far better off if you don't, and while those trapped in stories might be fated to repeat the same meaningless actions over and over again, there's no reason for an individual to do so.

Our world, or more specifically our cultures and our societies, have been shaped by the stories we have told ourselves for thousands of years. Everything from how we behave to who and what we worship and believe are based on we've been told and re-told hundreds if not thousands of time before. While they all serve the valuable purpose of providing frameworks within which people can carry out there lives, there is also plenty of room within all of them for individuals to create their own stories based on their hopes, dreams and experiences. Luka And The Fire Of Life not only is a wonderful read for the diversity of its characters and the fantastical worlds it takes us to, but for the way in which it reminds us not to ignore what each of us has to bring to the world and the power we have to shape events. Just because a story has been told a thousand times before doesn't mean it can't have a different ending every so often.

(Article first published as Book Review: Luka And The Fire Of Life by Salman Rushdie on Blogcritics.)

October 15, 2010

Book Review: My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me Edited By Kate Bernheimer

Once upon a time we were all very young. We used to be able to escape into magical worlds occupied by daring princes who would overcome huge odds to rescue beautiful princesses and ugly trolls and witches who would grind our bones to flour for their bread as soon as look at us. Forests were primordial places filled with dangerous wolves set on eating our grandparents, brave dwarves who protected beautiful virgins from evil step-mothers. and mysterious animals who could grant wishes both perilous and glorious. A person could obtain riches instantly and have all their dreams come true or find that no matter how wealthy they became happiness continued to escape them. It was a simple world of good against evil where the righteous always triumphed and villainy was always be vanquished in the end.

Unfortunately as we grew older the real world of half-truths, shades of grey that clouded moral issues, and winners who weren't always the good guy asserted itself. We lost our belief in fairy god-mothers who could wave a magic wand and make things better and discovered there wasn't a pot of gold waiting for us at the end of every rainbow. The witches that lurked in the heart of the forest sending delightful chills up our spine turned into the anxiety of the job interview that has to go well and worries about the price of food. In the face of such pragmatic considerations what place is there in our lives for magic? We no longer dream of fairies or dragons, instead we dream of new cars and houses in a safe neighbourhood. While we still might divide the world into good and evil we do so to justify our actions instead of as a impartial judgement of behaviour.
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However, somewhere inside of each us still lurks the heart that was stirred by tales of magic and a part of each of us, no matter how small it might be, still yearns to be dazzled by fairy lights. When we turn on the television, go to the movies, theatre, ballet and opera, or pick up a book, some small piece of us is remembering the thrill we felt as we followed a hero down a dark path in a forest and are hoping for that spirit to be recaptured. Too often we come away disappointed for one reason or another as there are too few stories out there that can capture our imaginations in quite the way the tales of our youth did. When one does come along we latch onto it like a life preserver and it sells in the millions. How else can you explain the phenomenal success of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and the ongoing fascination with J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord Of The Rings?

Understanding our need for magic, and trying to fulfill it, has been the focus of Kate Bernheimer's literary career. As well as founding the Fairy Tale Review, a literary magazine devoted to modern fairy tales, she has edited anthologies devoted to the retelling of fairy tales, lectured on their validity as literature and done everything in her power to keep them alive. Her latest attempt to help us remember that imaginations are a treasure, My Mother She Killed Me ; My Father He Ate Me, published by Penguin Canada, gathers together stories and authors from around the globe. Each author, whether from Vietnam, Russia, England, Japan, United States and elsewhere was asked to write a story based on a fairy tale or myth that inspired them.

While each of the stories are fascinating in some ways the paragraphs the authors wrote explaining why they had chosen a particular story, or perhaps, why that story had chosen them, are equally insightful. I was amazed at how many of them admitted the story they had chosen in some way impacted all their work, not just this piece specifically commissioned for the book. Think about that for a second - these people of all ages and backgrounds, have carried around one story in their hearts and it has fed their creativity since they were children. If that isn't enough right there to convince you magic still exists in the world nothing will.

The more then thirty stories gathered together between the covers of this book aren't filled with the characters you remember from the fairy tales of your childhood. Some of them may have the occasional king or princess in them, but the majority are about mother's and daughters, husbands and wives, parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends, brothers and sisters and other characters we're all familiar with from our everyday life. Occasionally a mysterious figure like a mermaid will poke her tail fin into the narrative or we'll venture into a realm that bears little resemblance to the street we walk down on our way to work, but most of the time we're surrounded by the everyday. So what makes them fairy tales if there is no princess in the tower waiting to be rescued or pile of gold waiting to be found?
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Fairy tales brought magic into our lives in all its obvious guises. A good number of the stories in My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me find the elements of fairy tales being played out around us. The child who imagines a mysterious stranger who has a wonderful surprise for her to escape from her fear of disappointing her mother's obsession with cost and status; the middle aged mother and wife who feels unappreciated by her husband and daughter only to find out, magically, how much they love her; the husband and wife who drift apart but then discover their true love for each other before its too late and the insecure lovers who allow their anxieties to ruin their relationship but ultimately discover themselves as individuals and renew their chance at love. There's a type of magic that permeates each of these stories; the magic of being alive that so many of us have forgotten about or have never learned to recognize or acknowledge.

As children fairy tales stirred our imaginations and let us travel beyond the boundaries of the known world. However as our world began to grow around us we began to lose sight of them until we no longer believed. Collections like My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me allow us to realize they haven't disappeared, we just no longer recognize magic when we see it. We don't have to mount white chargers or slay dragons to combat evil or break spells to woo our prince or princess anymore, but there's no denying the magic in discovering love or righting a wrong no matter how trivial. Pots of gold may not glitter the way they did when we were younger, but there are still rewards beyond our imagining awaiting us out in the world - we only have to open our eyes to see them.

(Article first published as Book Review: My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me Edited By Kate Bernheimer on Blogcritics.)

October 8, 2010

Book Review: The Tree by John Fowles

Humankind doesn't have a very good record when it comes to the way we deal with things we either fear or don't understand. More hate based wars have been fought because of them than probably anything else. In fact, throughout our long and rather bloodthirsty history the majority of our worst crimes against ourselves and the world around us have been brought on by our inability to overcome just how much we fear what we don't understand. What we don't destroy we seek to control or beat into submission in order to make sure it is unable to challenge us.

While not generating quire as strong feelings of antipathy, those things which seemingly have no intrinsic value, or use, manage to risk our ire to nearly the same extent. So woe betide anything or body which manages to not only have no apparent use, but that also confuses and scares us. In his treatise The Tree, first published thirty years ago and now re-printed by Ecco Books, an imprint of Harper Collins, the late British author John Fowles (1926 - 2005) postulates that for the majority of us the natural world, and, by dint of what the two have in common, the spirit of creativity, fall into that category.

According to Fowles one need look no further than our relationship with forests in general, and trees in particular to find proof of this sentiment. Even before the Christian church began its campaign against earth based religions by spreading the belief that evil dwelt in the dark places of the forests, we were turning against the untamed world around us when we made the switch from hunter gathers to a more agrarian trade based society. Early civilizations were just as inclined to see nature as a force to overcome and be controlled as later day ones. Supplications were made to gods and goddesses in order to ensure bountiful crops and men enacted rituals binding them to the land so their divinity over it was ensured.
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It was the industrial revolution of the 19th century which combined our fear of the dark and unknown with the utilitarian attitudes we hold today that completed our separation from the natural world. Up to then the majority of people still looked to the land for their living as we were primarily an agrarian society. With the coming of industry and its need for raw materials, any thought of nature existing merely for the sake of existing went out the window. If something wasn't of use, if it couldn't feed the maw of industry in some manner, it had no purpose at all and was deemed extraneous to our needs.

Interestingly enough, Fowles points out, until the 19th century nature hadn't made much of an appearance in the arts. Although he confines himself to writing and the visual arts, he makes a very strong case for his argument that until then the majority of the arts had depicted nature either as a backdrop against which human activity took place or which expressed our need to exert control over it through pictures containing formal gardens and tales describing the evils existing in a forest's dark places. It was only with the Romantics and the Impressionists of the 18th and 19th century, as the world became more urbanized, that painters began to break with that tradition and attempt to represent the natural world honestly. Looking at the work of Impressionists today it's hard for us to find anything controversial about them, but to their contemporaries they were strange and confusing works that very few saw anything of value in, much like their attitudes towards the subject matter depicted.

Science, which most of us today see as being diametrically opposed to religion, according to Fowles, is as much, if not more, responsible for our attitudes towards nature through its obsession with cataloguing, categorizing and explaining the world. We are unable to allow anything to merely exist in its own right, we must ensure it be given a proper name and purpose in the order of things as we see it. If we can't name it or define it, we don't understand it and fear it. Fowles postulates that as long as we continue to attempt to find a "use" for nature through these means we will never break down the barriers we've erected that keep us from appreciating it for what it is and will eventually bring about its ruination.
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Fowles lays out his argument as a mix of personal anecdote, observation, history lesson and analysis. In nintey-one pages he manages to cover: the history of science, civilization, religion and how each relates to the way we perceive nature; recollections of his childhood both in pre-world war two suburban London and as a evacuee from the bombing of the city during the war in Devon and how the contrast between the two worlds shaped his view of nature; the difficulties inherent in trying to bring nature to life with the written word and the interconnection between artistic creation and nature. This is not a book to be picked up casually and read while trying to do anything else as the thoughts expressed need to be given careful consideration and can't be simply skimmed over if one is to gain anything from reading it. In fact a reader is best served by putting the book down periodically and walking away from it for a while to give themselves time to consider each section before moving on.

That being said, the rewards gleaned from reading The Tree are worth the effort. Never before have I read such a passionate, yet intellectually sound argument made in defence of the natural world. Instead of launching the usual sentimental appeal for our attention though descriptions of beauty and cuteness, he has crafted something that forces us to confront the myths we have created about nature through so called reason and religion. He shows us how each have purposely, and inadvertently, caused our alienation from the natural world while through his own experiences attempts to communicate what we have missed because of it.While he freely admits that the printed word is woefully inadequate for describing the effect of nature on us, through his efforts he manages to impart enough of the wonder he feels at visiting certain places in England for us to begin to understand what we risk losing with the destruction of truly wild places.

Nature is awkward, ugly, uncomfortable and doesn't do what we want it to do. For most of our civilized existence humankind has attempted, through various means, to control it. However one only has to look at events of the past decade in both North America and the South Pacific - the tsunami that wrecked havoc in Indonesia and the devastating results of Hurricane Katrina upon New Orleans - to see how fruitless those attempts have been. Even worse, according to Fowles, is how we are depriving ourselves of an essential part of the experience of being alive on this planet through our desire there be a place for everything and everything to be in its place.

There are authors who can write hundreds of pages and say nothing at all. In the ninety-one pages of The Tree the late John Fowles says more about our relationship with nature than any other author I've ever read. Republished in honour of its thirtieth anniversary, this book will open your eyes to the world around you and hopefully have you looking at the next tree or forest you pass in an entirely new light. Or, even better, to not pass it, but sit down and spend some time with it.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Tree by John Fowles on Blogcritics.)

September 30, 2010

Book Review: The Truth Of Valour by Tanya Huff

Science fiction, for a genre that prides itself on imagination and imagining exciting possibilities in the future, used to be home to some of the most reactionary and conservative writers around. While there were some wonderful exceptions (Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asmiov and a few others) a great many of what was written could just as easily be classified as "Boys With Toys" as anything else. By toys I mean everything from rockets and big weapons to women in either tight fitting or very little clothing. The story lines were, more often then not, racist, misogynistic and xenophobic - characteristics of human behaviour I would have thought most would have hoped were eliminated from future, more enlightened cultures.

Thankfully the genre started to mature around the end of the 1960s and the first anti-war science fiction novel was published in 1972 (Joe Haldeman's Forever War). However, aside his work there really hasn't been much written in the sub-genre known as military science fiction that has appealed to me. That changed a while back when one of my favourite fantasy writers, Tanya Huff, wrote her first book in what has now become known as the Confederation series. While she's probably best known for her books about a vampire private detective (they formed the basis for the series Blood Ties) I had known her as the writer of some really great fantasy books, as well a former employee of the best Science Fiction/Fantasy bookstore in Toronto Ontario - Bakka Books, that were the antithesis of those early "Boys With Toys" books as you could get. While they still contained violence, the lead character was as likely to be female as male, sexual orientation among her characters was very flexible, and characters usually came in a wide variety of shapes, colours and sizes.
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So I've followed Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr through four books as she's travelled through space fighting alongside two other sentient species against a mysterious enemy known only as "The Others". However, in the last book, she had discovered that both sides had been manipulated by another race of beings who had been using them and the war as a huge "social experiment", and had prolonged the war in order to gather as much information about their peoples as possible. That revelation had a two-fold result, not only bringing the war to a somewhat screeching halt, but forcing Torin to reconsider her career choices. Having fallen in love with the civilian salvage operator Craig Ryder, leaving the Marines wouldn't have to mean leaving space, it just meant operating in it without weapons or having as many resources or technology to call upon in case of trouble.

And trouble is just what she and Craig find in the fifth book of the series, The Truth Of Valor published by Penguin Canada. For while the authorities have been busily involved with a war, salvage operators have been dealing with their own troubles, pirates stealing their hard earned cargo. Up until now there haven't been any fatalities, mainly because most salvage ships are unarmed (weapons are illegal for anything but military vessels), but also because most operators value their lives more than cargo. However that all changes when two friends of Craig's are found dead, having tried to fight off a pirate in order to protect their find. It turns out that what they had was not only valuable, but deadly - deadly enough to shift the balance of power in space. They had picked up a fully loaded Marine armoury that had survived a space battle intact; an armoury containing enough weapons to arm a small army and allow pirates to go beyond hijacking cargo and begin taking over space stations.

However the pirates need a salvage operator to help them crack the codes securing the armoury, and although its been said that space is big, its not that big. Especially when you accidently get into a poker game with members of the pirate crew who proceed to set you up by "selling" you information about some prime salvage so they can ambush you. While the pirates carry out their ambush of Craig and Torin perfectly, capturing Craig alive and mainly intact, they make the mistake of thinking they've left Torin to die. Probably the one person most pissed off at the universe for fucking with her enough to figure out a way of surviving when she's been left to float in a debris field and eventually suffocate when her oxygen supply runs out.

When she fails to get help from Craig's fellow salvage operators to mount a rescue mission, she calls upon a few of her former squad mates who have not only also survived, but retired from the Marines for the same reasons she has. Unable to go after the enemy they really want to, the alien race which kept them all fighting for no reason, they are more than happy to join her in kicking another being's deserving butt, especially to help out their old Gunnery Sergeant who had helped see them through some pretty horrendous times.
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Huff has done her usual skilful job of writing an exciting adventure story which never descends into cliche or the expected. As those of you familiar with the previous books in the serious know, Torin Kerr operates by a pretty simple code - don't fuck with me and mine and I won't fuck with you. When she was in the Marines her job was to try and make sure she brought all of her people home alive with her and she took every loss personally. So with the man she loves at risk, she's pretty much prepared to do or risk anything and everything to bring him back alive. However she's not a robot, and having only recently discovered that so many of those lives she wasn't able to protect had died for nothing, the threat of losing Ryder pushes her close to cracking.

Military training has given her not only the ability to survive situations most people couldn't even imagine being in, but also the skills to kill people in ways you wouldn't think possible. Unfortunately there's only so much human circuitry can take before it starts shorting out, and the rescue mission fast becomes a race against time; how long will the pirates keep Craig Ryder alive and how long can Torin hold it together.

That doesn't mean she's going to all of a sudden sit in a corner and start crying, it means she'll cross the line between caring about the consequences of her actions and not giving a damn who suffers as a result. She may have killed before as a Marine, but it had only been a case of kill or be killed against an enemy who was following the same modus operandi. However she's not in the military any longer and there are what's known as innocent bystanders involved in her current mission, a mission without any official sanctioning and maybe just as illegal as the pirates' actions.

Through both Torin and one of the pirates who captures Ryder, Huff has painted a very stark picture of what can happen to the human mind when it witnesses too much suffering. The thin veneer of civilization that provides us our moral compass and makes sure we follow the rules of our respective societies can only take so many poundings before serious cracks form. The Truth Of Valor does a remarkable job of depicting both the results of these cracks and how they form. Torin Kerr was an exemplary Marine and a compassionate human being, but even she has her limits, and watching her fight her internal battle not to give into the urge to cross the line between not caring and caring is one of the most exacting battles ever written about in Science Fiction.

On the surface the battle in this book may appear to be a pretty straight forward one between some good guys and some bad guys. However Huff not only starts blurring the lines by sending us on board the pirate ship with Ryder and allowing us to get to know the beings crewing it, but she also takes us into the battlefield that is the human mind. Probably the scariest battlefield in the universe. While The Truth Of Valor might share some elements in common with the old school military science fiction books, you'll soon realize that Huff has taken the genre light years beyond what anybody in the past could have imagined it being. This is not just a good book for its genre, its a good book period.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Truth of Valor by Tanya Huff on Blogcritics.)

September 7, 2010

Book Review: Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Fate is as capricious a whore as any whose plied her trade in the bordellos and inns of the seaports and fortress towns frequented by the soldiers and sailors fighting for God, King and country during the reign of his good Catholic Majesty Philip IV of Spain in the mid 1600s. How else could you explain how a loyal soldier of the crown and his young protégé, (having served with distinction in the fields of Flanders against the heretic Dutch, carried out a daring raid to secure much needed gold for the royal treasury and finally saved the most royal hide itself from suffering the indignity of being impaled upon two feet of finely tempered steel) find, in the interests of their own health and safety, seek exile at sea? Well, if one insists on competing with his most sainted majesty for the affections of a certain actress, one must realize that no matter what heroic deeds or services one may have performed for the crown in the past, it might be perhaps in one's best interest to make oneself scarce for a period of time.

Which is how we find "Captain" Diego Alatriste and his now seventeen year old page, Inigo Balboa, once again serving their country as stolid infantry men. This time thought it's with the planks of heaving galleys beneath their feet instead of solid earth and the blazing sun of North Africa on their backs instead of the fog and rain of the Dutch lowlands. Pirates Of The Levant, the latest chapter of Arturo Perez-Reverte's story of life in the declining years of the Spanish Empire, published by Penguin Canada, takes the reader to yet another of Spain's outposts in her holy war of greed and expansion in the name of God and lining the pockets of an equally corrupt nobility and clergy. From their home port of Naples in Italy to the narrow gap of sea separating Spain from Muslim Northern Africa the crew of the war galley Mulata have harry French, Dutch, Turkish and English ships for booty and protect Spain's interests from her enemies.
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This is no world for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs, as life aboard the galleys would be unpleasant even if one were merely peacefully rowing between one port and another. Exposed to the elements and at the mercy of the winds and the sea, sailors, soldiers and galley slaves endure hardships that would test the fortitude of the bravest. While the latter have no choice in the matter, either having been sentenced as punishment by the Spanish courts or prisoners captured in battle and set to row instead of dangling by their necks from the yardarm, to power the craft when the winds fail, one has to wonder what would make any sane man volunteer for duty as one of the former. From the diet of lice ridden biscuits, and even less savoury meat accompanied by wine watered with brackish water, and with death being the least of evils that could befell one in combat, ("Don't let them take you alive" is the advice given to every soldier before his first encounter with a Turkish vessel) there seems little to recommend it as a viable career option.

However this is Spain and if an "honest" swordsman or soldier desires to be paid for his services to his country he must take creative measures. For, as Inigo explains, the money supposedly meant for their wages somehow never quite finds its way into their pockets no matter where they serve. Most soldiers return from battle with no money in their pockets and no prospects for finding a way to earn what's needed for even the barest of necessities save to become a sword for hire in the alleys and back streets or to re-enlist and hope to survive long enough to enjoy the spoils of a few victories. Alongside Alatriste Inigo has managed to stay alive for a season on the sea so far. After wintering in their home port of Naples they and their fellows are once again broke and hunting the waves in search of booty when we catch up with them.

As in the previous books in this series Perez-Reverte not only brings the field of battle his characters find themselves upon to life with such vivid detail that you almost feel the salt water spray in your face, he ensures the reader is aware of how this particular battlefield came into being. Unlike Flanders, and the other battlefields of Europe where Spain fights to preserve empire or the Ottoman Empire of Turkey looks to expand its borders, here in the no man's waters off the coast of Europe, and in port towns scattered through Northern Africa, a different sort of battle is being fought. On the seas Dutch, Turk, French and Spanish boats prey upon each other and their cargos with no thought for gains in territory but merely as a means of swelling their respective coffers. Each vessel's captain is issued with a charter from its respective crown to seek out and find such prizes as they may. Unlike pirates, who keep all they win for their own pockets, they must pay tithes to their various benefactors before lining their own pockets.
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The animosity between Turk and Spaniard is particularly fierce as it has only been within the last hundred years that Spain was able to finally push them back beyond the borders of Portugal and into Africa. In the years since then Alatriste has witnessed some of the horrible indignities his fellow men are capable of committing against each other. When he was part of the campaign that saw the expelling from Spain of Muslims who had converted to Christianity he saw innocent men, women and children not only cut down by soldiers, but were stoned and set upon by civilians as they attempted to flee with what little possessions they could carry. For him there is nothing glorious or noble in what he does - he will do it with as much honour as he can bring to it - but it is simply a matter of kill or be killed as far as he's concerned. If he had any other means of making a living he'd do so. but that option is not available to him.

Unfortunately Inigo still holds onto notions of glory and is full of both righteous indignation and himself. Even after he, albeit inadvertently, starts a full scale riot between Spanish and Venetian sailors while on the island of Malta, he retains an over inflated opinion of himself and his abilities that almost results in his death. So naive is he that he's not even aware that Alatriste has had to take matters into his own hands in order to prevent Inigo from being found in an alley with his throat slit. In fact Alatriste shows remarkable restraint in not being the one to slit his throat himself for some of the things Inigo says to him in his pride and stupidity. He even debates leaving the boy to his fate, but in the end his own sense of dignity pushes him to intervene and take the steps necessary to keep him alive.

Any who have been following the adventures of Captain Alatiste and Inigo for any length of time are aware of Arturo Perez-Reverte's skills as a writer. In Pirates Of The Levant he has brought all of his considerable talent to bear in creating a work riveting in its historical and realistic details while still managing to be an action packed adventure. Alartiste remains a fascinating character. The anti-hero of the swashbuckling world, on one hand a cold callous killer who has no qualms about killing someone for a perceived slight to his honour, but who is yet reluctant to kill those others wouldn't think twice of dispatching. Fiercely independent, he doesn't like anybody telling him by inference or otherwise, who or what he should kill. If that means killing a couple of Spaniards he catches trying to rape a young Muslim woman when most of his contemporaries would have turned a blind eye, so be it.

Inigo thinks he may understand the Captain, and even for a time believes he no longer needs anybody, especially the Captain, telling him how to live his life. However, he's fortunate enough to learn that until he's lived a great many more years, killed, and seen killed, a great many more men, and stood on a quite a few more battle fields, he's as much chance of learning to fly as he does of understanding Diego Alatriste. It's not every man who will one moment be prepared to challenge his king for the right to sleep with a woman, and the next risk his neck to save the same king. That's Captain Alatriste, and this is the latest recounting of his checkered history. We can only hope Perez-Reverte continues recounting it to us for years to come, or at least as long as the glory of Spain persists.

(Article first published as Book Review: Pirates of the Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte on Blogcritics.)

August 31, 2010

Book Review: Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar

Now a days you can't open the the TV listings, entertainment pages or go into a book store without coming across a reference to either werewolves or vampires. However, unlike the good old days when they were considered straight ahead creatures of evil who would as soon rip out your throat or drink your blood as look at you, they've been turned into tragic romantic heroes (or heroines) becoming the favoured subject matter of something called paranormal romance - enough to make Bram Stoker rise from the dead and drive a stake in anybody's heart. I can only guess this latest twist on the bad boy theme - kind of makes you miss the love and leave him cad or even the brooding dark haired guy with the mysterious past of the old days - will continue to rake in millions for publishers across North America as the way the number of titles falling into this category continue to proliferate suggests the public's appetite for this schlock isn't going to wane anytime soon.

Unfortunately with the market being swamped with dreck interesting titles run the risk of being lost in the shuffle. One of the best of the lot was Martin Millar's The Lonely Werewolf Girl. In it we were introduced to Kalix, a teenage werewolf who not only suffered from anxiety but was also saddled with an eating disorder and a nasty addiction to the opium derivative laudanum. The youngest daughter of the ruling clan of Scottish werewolves, Kalix was forced into exile in London for savaging her brutal father, the Thane. His death set off a brutal war of succession which split the clan in half and literally set brother against brother. Although Kalix really couldn't have cared less who became the new thane, she, the humans she befriended (Moonglow and Daniel) and their friend Vex, a fire elemental from another dimension, were all caught up in the resulting battle and barely survived.
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Along with her fashion designing sister Thrix, punk rock cousins Beauty and Delicious, Vex's adopted aunt Queen Malvaria and other assorted members of the werewolf clan, Kalix now returns in Millar's latest book Curse Of The Wolf Girl published in North America by Underland Press. With her brother Marcus enthroned as new Thane of the clan there are hopes that things can return to normal for everybody. While for most of them that means returning to the business of living peacefully in their private estates in Scotland, Kalix and a few others are firmly settled in London and have no desire to return home. As a result of her misspent early years Kalix didn't have the educational opportunities others in the clan were given and has reached the age of seventeen a functional illiterate. So, when the book opens we find her and Vex preparing to begin their first days at remedial collage where they will join with others hoping to learn basic literacy and math skills.

Unfortunately there are those unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie (or werewolves either for that matter). Underneath the calm exterior there is simmering resentment among some of those who backed Marcus's brother Sarapen as Thane and who wish to seek revenge of Kalix for having killed him in the final battle. Even while they plot to try and hunt her down, the guild of werewolf hunters have been quietly rebuilding their depleted ranks (they suffered horrible losses during the war of succession when they got in the crossfire so to speak) with dedicated hunters from Eastern Europe wishing to capitalize on the free market. They are hopeful that the combination of new members and modern surveillance technology will give them enough of an advantage they'll be able to exact revenge for their previous losses. Finally, a Princess of a rival fire elemental dimension who has long been jealous of Queen Malvaria's fashion triumphs because of her friendship with the werewolf designer Thrix, forms a secret alliance with a traitor in her rival's court that could not only see Malvaria overthrown, but the death of a great many werewolves.

What separated Millar's first book from so many other "werewolf" books, was how easy it was for the reader to take for granted his characters were werewolves. Sure Kalix was a ferocious warrior who had no qualms about ripping the throat out of any werewolf hunter or enemy werewolf she encountered, (she was born during a full moon as a werewolf and is able to change whether the moon is shining or not and has a battle madness that gives her a strength and speed far surpassing beings twice her size) but she's also a scared and confused teenager who was badly scarred by an abusive father. In Curse Of The Wolf Girl the characters continue to be interesting not only because of what they are, but who they are, and Martin has taken great care to continue their development in a very real way. In fact once you're able to suspend your disbelief about werewolves, fairies and elementals existing, everything about them and the world surrounding them is so believable you'll have no problem accepting their reality.
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It doesn't hurt that Millar has a wonderful sense of the absurd that injects necessary doses of humour into the proceedings. The fashion industry bears the brunt of most of his comedy - for all the right reasons - through Queen Malvaria's obsessions with clothes and accessories, especially handbags and shoes. However, he also turns his sharp eye on popular music, comics, and a variety of other popular culture affectations. Yet, unlike others, there's nothing mean or nasty about Millar's humour. Its the type of affectionate teasing you'd expect from someone who admires something but whose also well aware of the ridiculous lengths people will go to when something becomes an obsession - from collecting comics to yearning for the perfect shade of lipstick.

If you're not used to Millar's style of writing, short chapters that switch back and forth between his various characters and plot lines, you might find it a little difficult to settle into the rhythm of the story at first. However, once you are accustomed to how he works you'll soon begin to appreciate it for the ease with which it allows you to assimilate the information necessary for following the various plot lines and keeping all the characters, and how they relate to each other, straight in your head. Bouncing between the mortal realm, two separate fire elemental kingdoms, the world of the fairies and the home of the Scottish werewolves while keeping track of a multitude of characters is no easy task, but Millar has done it with an ease that borders on magical. (Perhaps he had some assistance from some of his friends from the other dimensions who appear on these pages - his familiarity with what goes on in some of them seems a little too complete for him not to have made the occasional visit there) While you'll have an easier time of it if you've already read The Lonely Werewolf Girl, Curse Of The Wolf Girl is self-contained enough to be enjoyed on its own.

In Curse Of The Wolf Girl Martin Millar once again proves that he's one of the more innovative and interesting fantasy writers around. He tackles subject matter that has been worked to death recently and makes it seem brand new. While his writing isn't going to appeal to the paranormal romance crowd, and for that we should all be eternally grateful, for the rest of us its a breath of fresh air in a genre that's become increasingly stale. If we're really lucky Kalix and her friends might supplant a certain whinny teenager and her un-dead heart throbs on movie screens. However, even if that doesn't occur at least you know you can run to the books for safety, and Millar has left open the potential for a third. If you like your humour with a bite and your paranormal grounded in reality, than look no further, Martin Millar's books are just what you've been looking for.

(Article first published as Book Review: Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar on Blogcritics.)

July 21, 2010

Book Review: 15 Miles by Rob Scott

I'm not a fan of horror books, or movies for that manner, along the lines of those written by Steven King. I've never understood how anyone can enjoy having the shit scared out of them or can find blood and gore being splattered all over the screen anything but repulsive. In fact, of the books along those lines that I've attempted to read I've found them to be dangerously perverse, close to pornographic, in the way the authors seem to revel in delving into the potential for sick and twisted behaviour among human beings. There's far more exploitation, instead of exploration, of human psychological deformities in those I've read to give them any redeeming qualities in my eyes.

There's enough genuine horror in the world we live in that I don't need to read the inventions of anyone who takes pleasure in recreating them. According to the best seller lists I realize this reaction puts me in the minority as there seems to be a huge market for these exploitation thrillers. Thankfully that doesn't there's nothing in the genre that's not worth reading and there aren't some gems waiting to be uncovered amidst the dross if you dig around carefully enough. One of those is Rob Scott's 15 Miles being published by Orion Books on August 19th/10.

With its title taken from the old nursery rhyme of the same name; (From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles/From Wobbleton to Wibbleton is fifteen miles/From Wibleton to Wobbleton/From Wobbleton to Wibbleton/From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles) a plot mixing together elements of police procedurals and thrillers with a dash of the supernatural and macabre thrown in for good measure, on the surface it appears no different from any other book in the genre. However, Scott takes the story to another level in the way he's able to take a set of circumstances that is almost a cliché; an isolated farm house in Virginia complete with two corpses in various stages of decomposition, feral domestic cats, mysteriously dead live stock, and a missing person; and turn them into a means of exploring the effects of deep seated guilt on an individual.
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Officer Samuel "Sailor" Doyle of the Virginia State Police had been desperate for a transfer from the Vice squad to Homicide. Like so many other officers before him exposure to the types of crime you deal with in Vice, child pornography for instance, has had its effect on him. Unfortunately in his case that includes a serious addiction to OxyContin and a heavy dependance on alcohol to help him cope with the pressures of the job. With a loving wife and two young kids at home he knows something has to change or he risks ruining the one good thing in his life. However, taking a mistress at the annual CID Christmas party isn't what the doctor ordered, even if she is interning with the MD who serves as the department's crime scene specialist. So when the switch to Homicide comes through he convinces himself it's the first step on his road to recovery.

However just how much further he has to travel down that particular road comes home to him with a resounding thud when the July 4th weekend and a visit from a Presidential hopeful leave the Virginia State Police stretched thin and Doyle has to head up the investigation surrounding two bodies found on an derelict farm. It's his first time flying solo and he's terrified of making the wrong decision, mis-reading the evidence or just fucking up in general. So he's reaching for the OcyContin before he's even on site in the hopes it will give him the confidence he lacks. I'll leave it to your imagination to picture the scene he finds based on what I described in an earlier paragraph, only adding that once he manages to look beyond the rubble he uncovers a secret that might well explain how it came about.

Further complicating matters for Doyle is he begins to suffer from a series of audio hallucinations which take the form of messages from his sister who died years ago. What makes them doubly disconcerting is not only the fact that he's hearing them, but they can happen in the middle of a conversation and they sound like they're coming from the person talking to him. As we move deeper into the novel the story line involving Doyle's sister becomes increasingly important to our understanding of his character and how he's ended up in his current situation. Even more importantly is how Scott utilizes this plot line as the link between the supernatural and the rational. The memory and unconscious mind can play amazing tricks upon individuals, especially when stress, drugs, alcohol and guilt are mixed together in as lethal a cocktail as they are in Doyle. However, as it's only as Doyle starts to remember what happened that this becomes clear, there's plenty of time for his horror and fear over the voices to build to near his breaking point.
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In the midst of all that's happening in his mind, Doyle is also doing his best to solve the mystery surrounding the two dead bodies in the farm house and the absence of their developmentally challenged adult daughter. Scott does an amazing job of not only balancing the plot lines of Doyle's personal life and the case he's investigating, but in establishing how the two become irrevocably linked in his main character's mind. Doyle and his team must look beyond the horror of what they find at the crime scene in order to piece together what's happened in much the same way he has to look beyond the mess he's made of his personal life to see the root cause of his own problems.

While Doyle isn't the most sympathetic of characters to begin with, over the course of the story we find ourselves not only hoping for him to succeed, but winning our grudging respect and actually caring what happens to him. As a result, whether or not he is able to solve the case becomes even more vitally important because of what he has invested in it personally. Somehow, if he's able to find and save the missing daughter he will, in his own mind, be able to redeem himself for the death of his sister. With one blow Scott has not only provided motivation for his main character, he also manages to ramp up the tension over solving the case an extra notch or two. For not only is there a plot twist that makes finding the daughter take on an extra dimension of urgency, the attachment we've formed with Doyle makes us want desperately for him to find a way out of his personal hell.

In his previous works, The Eldarn Sequence, Scott showed his talent for creating believable characters in fantastic circumstances and a flair for multiple plot lines. In 15 Miles he has not only put those talents to excellent use with the creation of Samuel "Sailor" Doyle and his supporting cast and the way events in the book have been interwoven, his sense of pace and his feel for atmosphere make this a thriller of the highest quality. While the tension gradually rises throughout the book, Scott's timing is such that just when you thing it will be too much to bear he eases back ever so slightly, only to take your breath away when he ramps it up to a newer and higher level.

Unlike a roller coaster which has ups and downs, 15 Miles is a constant ascent, with occasional breaks on a plateau to regain your breath before moving on, spotted with occasional doubts about your ability to reach the top. With the macabre elements rooted in reality giving credence to everything that happens no matter how strange or outlandish they maybe, this is as well crafted and intelligent a thriller as you're liable to read this year. If you're like me and have no taste for horror stories, or so-called psychological thrillers, which seem to exploit their circumstances in order for the author to produce some cheap thrills, 15 Miles will go a long way to restoring your faith that there are writers who actually care about what they produce.

(Article first published as Book Review: 15 Miles by Rob Scott on Blogcritics.)

June 11, 2010

Book Review: Impossible Man by Michael Muhammad Knight

I've been gradually working my way through a number of books written by the American author Michael Muhammad Knight's. He's most widely known to readers at large for inspiring Islamic punk rock groups through his book The Taqwacores. However, aside from his works of fiction depicting the activities of fictional punk rockers, he has written extensively about his personal experiences with Islam and how its practiced both in America and in what we would refer to as Islamic countries; Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Pakistan. While his journeys have taken him around the world, his internal pilgrimage to find a way to reconcile his adopted faith with his Western ideas of equality and individualism have been the real basis for his non-fiction writings.

In Journey To The End Of Islam he explained how he thought that writing The Taqwacores would signify the end of his relationship with Islam. Instead it showed him it wasn't because he was a convert to the faith that he had doubts about certain aspects and practices. Hearing from young Muslims across North America who appreciated his work inspired him try and reconnect with the religion. While part of him still doubted his integrity as a Muslim because he wasn't willing to abide by the rules as dictated by the Qur'an, he also realized he couldn't go back to those days again. However, for those reading the book, the question of how he came to be an unquestioning follower of a religion that most people in America either fear or hate remained unclear. For while he had dropped hints of a troubled past and an abusive and mentally disturbed father, he'd not gone into details of the events leading up to his conversion.
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Impossible Man, published by Soft Skull Press, turns back the clock as Knight takes us back in time to recount the details of his life from early childhood, his conversion to Islam, his subsequent loss of faith, to his wandering aimlessly in search of direction. The picture that emerges is of a person with little or no self-respect desperately looking for acceptance and needing to believe in something bigger than himself. This is not an easy book to read for Knight doesn't shrink from recording even the most embarrassing and personal details of his story. However, it's saved from the self pitying, or ever worse, the look at me aren't I amazing for overcoming this stuff, tone of other autobiographies of this nature, by his refusing to depict himself as a victim.

As he has shown in his other writings Knight is almost brutal in his honesty when it comes to recording the details of his story. This allows him to tell the story without embellishment or editorializing. He doesn't censor his younger self's arrogance, idiocy, and self-delusion. He even refuses to use the benefit of hindsight and try to explain away his behaviour at the time. Instead everything is told as if it is happening in the present so we travel along with him instead of hearing about it being recounted as a memory. This is the story of a kid whose mother had to live through two years of a husband who threatened to murder her or her child during the night, and then locked them up during the day in order to protect them from Satan. Somehow she escaped to flee with him to her parents home and the protection of her brother who was a police officer.

Young Michael escaped into fantasy worlds. first the world of George Lucas' Star Wars in which he was able to find parallels to his own life with a father who had surrendered to the dark side. From there he graduated to the world of Hulk Hogan and professional wrestling, with its overblown cartoon figures and epic battles of good versus evil. It was a friend in high school who, worried over his lack of self respect, told him he should read the autobiography of Malcolm X, and it was literally the book which changed his life. While Malcolm's words struck a chord within him, it was Spike Lee's bio-pic, Malcolm which fired his imagination and spurred his desire for conversion.
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Thinking back over story, the picture he drew of himself was of a person ripe for being taken by unscrupulous people and turned into an empty vessel. It says a lot for the people he went to initially for help with his conversion to Islam that he didn't become one of those sad figures you read about who disappeared into cults out who end up becoming mindless terrorists. They treated his desire to convert with seriousness and respect but never abused their positions of authority or did anything more than try to instil in him the values of his new faith. When he expressed a desire to go and fight in Chechnya during the times of the Russian invasion, with visions of glory dancing in his head, he was calmly dissuaded from throwing his life away uselessly.

It was his intelligence his new teachers valued so highly that resulted in his disillusionment with Islam. He made the mistake of asking why. Why should Allah care so much if his mother didn't convert to Islam that He would send her to hell? He knew his mother had suffered and struggled, had been supportive of him in everything he did including buying him the books he needed to study Islam, driving him to nearest mosque and never questioning his desire to convert. Once the first why is asked and doesn't receive a satisfactory answer, others follow fast and furious. While he never lost his faith entirely he drifted back into the self-destructive behaviour that had marked his early years, including "Backyard Wrestling" which included stunts like being beaten with barbed wire clubs and wrestling on beds of thumbtacks.

There's something pathetic, in the real meaning of the word, reading the boastful thoughts of a young man who takes pride in the amount of punishment he's able to absorb and inflict upon himself. The fact that Knight is almost clinical in his description of these and other activities, never once trying to make himself an object of pity, makes it all the more powerful. His ability to act as a detached observer of events distinguishes this from similar types of work and makes it as compelling as any work of fiction. For those who have ever questioned the why's behind Michael Muhammad Knight's story, what answers he has to offer can be found in this book. For there is no simple answer as to why we do what we do and by not attempting to analyse his younger self's motivations, or second guess any of his decisions, Knight acknowledges that fact. Some might think that's a cop out, but the answers are there in the narrative for anyone who is willing to read them. He is brave enough to let the facts stand on their own and let the reader draw their own conclusions, so the least you can do is make that effort.

(Article first published as Book Review: Impossible Man by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 10, 2010

Book review: Osama Van Halen by Michael Muhammad Knight

When your first novel turns out to be a controversial and somewhat well received effort that centres around your own confusions about a choice you made in the past, what's an author to do for an encore? Although he hadn't been a character in The Taqwacores, the story had expressed Michael Muhammad Knight's confusion over, and dissatisfaction with Islam, the religion he had adopted as a teenager. While on one level the characters represented the confusion typical of many second generation immigrants who are being pulled between the traditions of their parent's culture and the freedoms enjoyed by their contemporaries, they also reflected the many sides of an argument Knight was having with himself.

Was he or wasn't he a Muslim? Were his motivations for converting legitimate and how could he call himself Muslim now considering the lifestyle he had been and was currently leading? Could you be a Muslim even if you didn't follow all the rules and blindly obey everything that was written in the Qur'an? All of these questions had come up in one form or another, plus many more, over the course of that first novel. Therefore, since he was intellectually such an integral part of the first book, it only makes sense that he write himself into Osama Van Halen. Although written in 2005 controversy over its predecessor prevented it from being published until 2009 when Soft Skull Press released it along with a new edition of The Taqwacores so they could be read in sequence as intended by the author.
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Knight isn't the only "real" person who makes an appearance in the book as he's dotted it with fictional representations of friends of his from the Taqwacores movement that developed from the first book. The lines between fact and fiction start to blur in places as Knight the author and Knight the character in the book turn out to be two different people and both make their presence felt during the story. At times you do wonder which one it is you're reading about, but usually there's not that much confusion as he's quite clear in his own mind who's real and who's fictional. Although things do get a bit weird when he meets up with a couple of friends in "real life" and tells them about their fates as characters in the book.

Thankfully he's not made himself the only main character as his fictional self plays the role of side kick to the main character, Amazing Ayyub. When he steps out from behind the character of "the author Michael Knight" to become Michael Knight he acts as sort of a spelt out sub-text explaining the whys and what the fucks of the story. For, while Knight is out looking for some inner truth about himself through conversations with young Muslim women he's had contact with in the past, Ayyub is busy with his own tasks. Amazing might have been a minor character in The Taqwacores, representing the extreme end of the Islamic punk movement with his rampant alcohol consumption and blatant crazed and anti-social behaviour, he now finds himself cast in a starring role which requires him to rise up and become a defender of the faith - Taqwacore.

For as punk rock before it was co-opted by an industry bent on making money out of rebellion, Islamic punk has been discovered and is about to have its rebellious soul ripped out of it in the name of marketing. The Amazing Ayyub has seen the enemy and its name is Shah 79 and it must be eradicated before the heresy can take root. Much to his horror he discovers that they have set up shop in his home town of Buffalo while he is on the other side of the continent. He had been in Los Angeles with Rabeya, the burqa-wearing radical punk woman from the first book, kidnapping Matt Damon in an attempt to force Hollywood to depict Muslims in a more positive light. At a pit stop in a gas station he not only discovers the new heresy threatening his core belief system, he loses Rabeya and Damon when he discovers the van they were in has left without him.
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What follows are a series of adventures designed to both test him and hone him for his final confrontation. Part biblical, part science fiction and all punk his quest begins behind the wheel of a van transporting a thrash metal punk band across America. Fuelled by speed and his own manic energy he drives his motley collection of passengers into the desert where they are set upon by zombies who have taken over a mosque. Saved by Basim, the lead singer of the Kominas (The real life lead singer of an actual Taqwacore band), from the undead, Ayyub is then outfitted with a really big gun and a prayer of invisibility that will allow him to carry out his mission.

Blending fact and fiction is a difficult stunt to pull off, especially when you include yourself as one of the characters in the book. However in Osama Van Halen Knight carries it off with skill and dexterity. It would have been easy for this to turn into an exercise in self-indulgence, however the author's sense of the absurd and ability for self-satire never allow it to descend to that level. Instead what you have is a quite brilliant piece of writing which not only deconstructs the relationship between an author and his characters and their role as his mouthpiece, but also ensures the reader understands the depth of the author's sincerity. We not only see the confusion he feels as represented by his fictional self and his fellow characters in the book, we see him struggling with the questions that lie at its root.

While sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, the blending of the two will sometimes reveal truths neither on their own are capable of dealing with. Osama Van Halen is an example of how it is possible to construct a book that straddles both worlds without sacrificing the integrity of either. Thought provoking and thoughtful, it raises more questions than it answers about the nature of religion and our relationship to it, but they are questions that need to be asked if we have any hope of ever finding our way out of the mess we've made of the world. Bravo to Michael Knight for being brave enough to ask them, and being equally brave for not claiming to have the answers. It's just too bad people are too busy condemning him to follow his lead.

(Article first published as Book Review: Osama Van Halen by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 5, 2010

Book Review: Journey To The End Of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight

Have you ever noticed how the person who converts to a new religion, or philosophy of any kind, tends to be a whole lot more fanatical about their new faith than those who were born into it? Perhaps they feel a need to prove themselves in order to win acceptance as quickly as possible. Some people adopt a faith in the hope of finding answers to questions they have about life, others because they are desperate to find a place they fit in, while others are looking for something to make order out of any chaos they have lived through. In the latter case it's no wonder a convert becomes doctrinarian, it's such a relief to have order in their lives they'll follow the rules without questioning or doubting their necessity.

When author Michael Muhammad Knight was a teenager he converted to Islam in order to break as much as possible with his white supremacist father. However, when you consider the brief descriptions of his childhood that he offers readers in his book Journey To The End Of Islam, published by Soft Skull Press, you have to wonder how much Islam represented a place of order which would relieve him of having to make his own decisions about good and evil and wrong and right. Like Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians who take the word of the bible as law, Fundamentalist Muslims take the Qur'an as their rule book to live by. There aren't any grey areas for any of these people; if God says something it's the law and there can be no disputing it.

While that may work for some people Knight found he couldn't live like that and thinking to leave Islam behind wrote his now infamous book The Taqwacores about a group of Islamic punk rockers. Ironically the book became a beacon for young American Muslims who were questioning many of the same things he was. Whether they were gay, straight, female or male didn't matter, they weren't happy with the status quo of Islam, or even what passed for mainstream progressive Islam, but weren't prepared to surrender their faith either. So instead of leaving Islam behind, Knight found himself at the heart of a movement looking to define a new identity for the religion. In Journey he finds himself at a crossroads, trying to decide and define what Islam is to him.
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So, in 2008, while the rest of America is trying to figure out whether or not it should elect its first black president, and being Muslim is something Obama is having to deny as if its something evil and un-American, Knight sets off on a trip that will see him visit shrines, temples, and other holy sites in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia and finally to Saudi Arabia and the holiest of holy places, Mecca, to make hajj, in an attempt to discover what it means to be Muslim. We not only learn about the history of the religion and the schisms that have divided the faith almost since its beginnings along the way, Knight also provides us with an overview of the uniquely American versions of Islam that were fostered by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, The Nubian Islamic Hebrews, and the Five Percenters. However, the major focus of the book is on his internal debate; the fight between his intellect and his heart over matters of faith and politics and how to separate the two.

In Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia Knight takes us on visits to various shrines, tombs, and other sites of holy and historical significance to Islam. With each site we not only learn about the various figures in the history of the faith, we find out what role they have played in the split behind the formation of its two major sects, Sunni and Shi'a. In Pakistan there's the added confusion of the mystical branch of Islam thrown into the mix as he visits the tombs of a variety of Sufi saints. While strict Islamic practice forbids the worship of graves or humans, even worship of the Prophet Muhammad is prohibited, that doesn't stop people from praying to their local saints or performing other acts of worship that would be frowned on in other places.

Harar in Ethiopia is considered the fourth holiest Muslim city, and its here that Knight discovers some of the strangest forms his religion can take with its mixture of ancestor worship and animalism. Shrines were built around or joined to fig trees and hyenas were treated with special honour because the prophet would not kill them. Every night hyenas would come through small doors in the wall surrounding Harar to be fed by an individual designated specifically for that job and given the title "Hyena Man". For the author they came to represent a human's lower self, our ugly spirit which only thinks of fulfilling physical needs like food and sex.
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So many divergent views of Islam of course don't make it any easier to find your way to the heart of your religion or to being any clearer about your own place in it. By taking the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca along with milli