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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)

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.)

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)


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.)

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.
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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.)

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.)

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.)

December 24, 2009

Book Review: Top Ten Reads Of 2009

While taste in any art form is highly subjective there are still bench marks one can use when judging a works quality. In the case of books those would include how well the author has developed the plot, whether the characters are more than two dimensional, and the other fundamentals inherent in putting words on a page so they either tell a story or develop an idea. Yet once you've ascertained that an author has proven capable of writing a coherent sentence what is it about a book that makes it stand out from everything else you've read?

In my case its a matter of an author having the ability to transport me with his or her ideas, manner of presentation, characters, or even just the way in which they use words to convey whatever it is they are trying to tell me. The ideal book would of course have characters who are so believable we feel we could have a conversation with them, a story so fascinating that we become so absorbed in reading the book it leaves us wanting it to continue, express ideas mentally and emotionally stimulating, provide insight into the world around us, and offer a unique - or at least novel - perspective on life. The perfect author would be able to accomplish all this without us even being aware of it and it would only be after the fact as we are digesting what we have imbibed that we'd realize just how much an affect the title had had on us.

The following list of titles are the ten from all that I read that were published in the past year (2009) that came closest to fulfilling the above requirements for me. Not all of them are novels, there is one collection of poetry, one collection that mixes poetry and short stories, and one which is more reliant on images than words to make its point. Still each of them have in some way helped broaden my horizons, enriched my life, and just as importantly provided me with great pleasure. For what's the point in reading something, even if it meets all the criteria listed earlier, if it isn't any fun. After all, just because you're expanding your mind doesn't mean you can't have a good time doing it.

The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker. The first book in the Aspect Emperor trilogy picks up ten years after the conclusion of the final book of Bakker's Warier Prophet trilogy. The characters we met from the first series return as mankind begins its epic war against its greatest enemy led by Kellus, the Aspect Emperor. Not content to merely continue the story, Bakker has broadened his scope and we now travel both deeper into the history of this world he's created, and parts of it where men haven't set foot in generations. Mixing elements of horror, epic fantasy, and psychological thriller he has created a world where his characters and readers are forced to confront things they might rather have not thought about. Brilliantly told, if slightly unrelenting, it sets the stage for what promises to be another trilogy of epic fantasy unlike any you've read before.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour. Imagine writing a love story where it is prohibited for your characters to actually even spend time together alone let alone hold hands. How would they even meet and fall in love if single men and women aren't even allowed to have contact? Even having your characters meet by chance on a busy street risks the book running afoul of the censors in Iran and seeing your book forbidden. Iranian author Mandanipur guides us through the convoluted path authors must follow living under the current theocracy in his homeland if they wish their books to see the light of day. Dotted with moments of surprising humour we are given a peak behind the veil hiding life in Iran from the rest of the world which while confirming a lot of what we suspected about the hardships of life there, also offers plenty of surprises as well. A beautiful story about love, art, creativity, and the strengths and weaknesses of the human spirit.

The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff. Ever since I first read Tanya Huff, I've been a big fan of her fantasy work. She's one of the few authors I know who are equally at home in the world of military science fiction, horror, epic fantasy, and the newer genre of urban fantasy. The Enchantment Emporium falls into the latter category, taking place in the least likely locale I can thing of, Calgary Alberta, home of oil men and cattle ranches. Not exactly where you'd expect to find a confrontation between twelve dragon lords a leaping, a sorcerer, and one of younger members of the Gale family. Not quite human, Gale boys demonstrate their power by turning into stags, and Gale woman mix spells into pastry dough, are even they up to preventing what looks like the apocalypse? As is usual for Huff, she provides a great mix of humour, action, and characters who, no matter how powerful or outlandish they might be, are easy to identify with. A great fun read leavened with the right amount of tension to keep ti compelling.

The Lees Of Laughter's End by Steven Erikson. Best known for his epic series The Malazan Book Of The Fallen, Erikson's offshoot series featuring the dark duo of necromancers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, is a delightfully tongue in cheek look at the depths of depravity men will stoop to in order to fight evil. While the urbane and cultured Bauchelain deals primarily in controlling demons, poor Korbal Broach is endlessly searching for the means to create progeny through alternative means as he is lacking the necessary anatomy to propagate the species in the usual way. That he prefers to use the still living internal organs of others to form his "children" has of course upset the families of his "donors", forcing the duo and their servant Emancipor Reece, to be constantly on the move. In this episode they have taken to the seas in an attempt to escape the forces of righteousness nipping at their heals, only to find that an evil even greater than themselves has found its way on board ship with them. Filled with some of the funniest dark and gruesome humour imaginable, you'll find it difficult not to cheer on our evil duo as they are only trying to make their way in a world which doesn't seem to understand them.

Strange Movie Full Of Death by Scot Wannberg. For anybody who still thinks that poetry is boring and can't be read for pleasure, I defy you to read Scott Wannberg's most recent collection and still feel the same way when your done. Funny, sad, emotionally honest, and more in touch with reality than the most realistic novel, his poetry will not only move you, it will make you think, laugh out loud, and cry - sometimes all within one poem. A reminder, if anyone needs it, that poetry in the hands of a master like Wannberg can do in a few verses what it take most novelists two hundred pages.

US Future States Atlas by Dan Mills. Satire comes in many forms, and this collection of Dan Mills' work proves that a picture is worth far more than a thousand words. In response to George Bush Junior's lame excuses for the invasion of Iraq, Mills has divided the world up into its component parts if it were all part of the United States Empire. Each new "state" comes complete with descriptions of the benefits derived by the original United States from occupying it, and lists the reasons its annexation was a necessity. Brilliant, scary, and intelligent, it would be sidesplittingly funny if there wasn't such the ring of truth to it. Its as accurate a reflection of America's "me first" attitude towards the rest of the world as I've ever seen depicted in any media. This is a mirror not many people are going to like looking in, but if you have the courage to do so you might begin to understand the resentment so many other countries feel towards the United States.

The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet by Arturo Perez-Reverte. This is the fourth instalment of the adventures of the cynical opposite to Dumas' heroic characters, Captain Alatriste, translated into English from Spanish. Once again Perez-Reverte has not only recreated 17th century Spain in all its corrupt decrepitude. After loyally serving his king in battlefields across Europe and through skulduggery in his service, Alatriste is loath to give up his romance with an actress of some repute simply because his majesty's wandering eye has settled upon her. However, things are not always what they seem, and soon he finds himself caught up in a plot which could result in regicide. Full of Perez-Reverte's usual satirical flowery language, not only is the book a great adventure, but a wonderful depiction of the intricate dance of life in a royal court where honour and loyalty are for sale to the highest bidder, and integrity is a dangerous characteristic to possess.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Mixing real historical figures together in a novel with fictional characters is always a risky procedure as its so much harder to give their characters the same depth as your fictional creations as you're constrained by the truth and your knowledge of their actual behaviour. However not only does Kingsolver manage to bring people like Leo Tolstoy, Frida Kalho and Diego Rivera to life with the same ease as her fictional lead, they become key figures in her analysis of the fickle nature of fame and how it can be used against a person. Spanning the depression to post war American and McCarthyism, Kingsolver's latest book looks at how public opinion is manipulated by the government and the press to believe that black is white and there is nothing in between. Scary, heartbreaking, and depressing, its a timely reminder of the dangers of how quickly people forget their own history and their eagerness to condemn those they don't understand.

War Dances by Sherman Alexie. Sherman Alexie is a writer who happens to be a Native American. Sure he writes about what he knows best, what it's like to be a Native American in the twenty-first century, but he also writes about what the twenty-first century is for everybody. In this collection of short fiction and poems he gives us glimpses into the lives of people who are desperate for answers to questions they're not even that sure they understand. Whether its the Native American man who watched his father die of alcoholism, or the son of a Republican senator who gay bashes his old high-school best friend, they are all looking to find their way back to the things they wish they could believe in. Somehow Alexie manages to find humour in some of the situations, and even if it sometimes feels like we're all laughing in the dark together, it's better than crying in a corner alone. Alexie is one of today's pre-eminent social commentators, and this collection is one more proof of that claim.

Gods Of War by Ashok Banker. Best known for his modern retelling of the Indian epic The Ramayana, in this novel Banker shows that he can look into the future as easily as he can the past with this story of the end result of mankind's pride - pride in science, pride in their petty accomplishments, and pride in thinking we are all that matters. Five very different people from four cultures are chosen by the elephant headed god Ganesha as representatives of humankind to bear witness. Witness to the assault upon the city of the gods by unknown forces in what looks to be a war that has been on going for some time. When science and reason take on belief and faith in an all out war there are no winners and perhaps it's time for Shiva to open his third eye and end this "day", so the next world can begin. A combination of fascinating characters and a riveting story keeps the reader glued to each page as Banker pushes the envelope of both form and content. while raising issues that most of us would rather not think about.

November 21, 2009

Book Review: War Dances By Sherman Alexie

What is a short story? Technically it's a story that's not more than a certain amount of words or pages in length, usually a great deal shorter than even the shortest of novels. Yet there's more to it than just the number of words it contains. The good short story writers are able to give readers of their few pages insight into the world around them that many writers of full length novels never manage to do. Of course our expectations when it comes to short stories are different than those we have for a full length novel. Instead of a long drawn out and slow developing plot over the course of which we gradually get to know a group of characters, we are usually plunked down into the middle of somebody's life and watch as they grapple with one particular incident.

For all we know once we leave, after the story is done, they continue on to do other things, but that's not what caught the author's attention about them anyway. Short stories aren't much for extraneous details about a person's life, but at the same time we still somehow manage to get to know the person in the story well enough by its end we are able to come to a conclusion about them and their life. How short story writers are able to do that is a bit of a mystery, one that I've never really taken the time to solve, and actually one that I'm not that interested in solving. Would you ask a stage magician to reveal the secret behind some great illusion that has left you spell bound? Well the same goes for a short story writer as far as I'm concerned - I don't want to know how they did it, I just want to enjoy the results of their labour.

While Sherman Alexie has published three of full length novels, as well as writing a couple of screen plays, the majority of his work has either been short stories or poetry. His latest collection from the Grove/Atlantic press, War Dances is pretty much evenly split between poems and short stories, and there's not a wasted word or thought among them. When you only dole out so many words you can't afford for even one to sound faintly off, let alone discordant. In this collection Alexie is completely in tune with his subject matter, with each word and thought working together to give us twenty-three snap shots of life.

As well as being a writer, Alexie also happens to be a member of the Spokane nation, a Native American, so naturally quite a number of his stories and poetry deal with that reality. That doesn't mean your going to find stories filled with eagle feathers and sweat lodges, but you will find references to things like dying a natural Indian death of alcohol and diabetes. In the title story of the collection, "War Dances", after being diagnosed with a benign brain tumor a man recalls his father dying of the above mentioned natural causes, and in the midst of his own worries about his health he goes over in his mind the things his father went through - endured - before his life finally ended.

Alexie is far too subtle a writer to simply write out a standard list of indignities suffered at the hands of a racist society. Instead with satire and humor he is able to make the same points, but without hitting us over the head too hard. At one point in "War Dances" he interrupts the story with what his character calls an exit interview for my father, a list of questions about his life. My favorite was, "F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the sign of a superior mind "is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time". Do you believe this is true? And is it also true that you once said, "The only time white people tell the truth is when they keep their mouths shut"?

However Alexie doesn't just write about American Indians, he also writes about the general emptiness of some people's lives. "The Ballad Of Paul Nonetheless" is the story of a rather vacuous businessman who specializes in vintage clothing. While there's nothing wrong with his profession, there's something wrong with his soul. "He was a twenty-first-century American who'd been taught to mourn his small and large losses by singing Top 40 hits", we're told as Paul sings the refrain from a stupid Hall and Oates song after glimpsing a beautiful woman in an airport. It's not actually the woman herself that attracts him as much as her red Puma running shoes. He had fallen in love with them when he first saw them advertised, and on a beautiful woman's feet they were even more spectacular.

Paul, who claims to love his wife and three daughters, still has managed to sleep with eight other women aside from his wife during the course of their marriage, which could explain why they are separated. Paul doesn't have any core values, he believes pop music and popular culture to be the great unifying force among Americans. How can we be so different he thinks, if we all know the lyrics to the same one thousand songs? How can anything be a unifying force for a man who is a serial adulator but is also convinced he loves his wife?

Alexie has captured the essence of man living in a fantasy world with Paul, and the scary thing is that we can see the potential for this character everywhere. Popular culture defines us in ways we don't even know - it's what we talk about with colleagues at work, its one of the few things that we have left in common with most people that we come in contact with. What does that say about us when a thirty minute situation comedy is the glue that binds a society together? When the only things we really have in common with the people we share a country with aren't ideals but twenty minutes of mindless comedy and ten minutes of commercials?

Not all of the stories or poems are as satirical as the two I've described, in fact some are really quite splendid in how they capture moments of beauty with the commonplace. His poem "Ode To Small-town Sweethearts" captures the joy/pain/foolishness of adolescent love/lust with the right touch of reality mixed with sentimentality so that everybody reading it - no matter what their background - can immediately relate to and understand the experience being described. "Mortals have always fought the gods/And braved epic storms for love and/or lust/So don't be afraid to speak honestly/About how you obeyed beauty's call./And though your triumph was small/ You can still sing of your teenage odyssey."

In some ways short stories are the insects caught in amber of literature in that they preserve moments in time and space for us to examine from all angles. In his most recent collection, War Dances, Sherman Alexie proves once again that he's a master of shining a light through amber and letting us see the insects from all sides. Sometimes the stories he tells are filled with bitter truths that will hurt going down or that some people aren't going to want to read. Yet at the same time there is a gentleness to his stories, on occasion, which show a willingness to believe that there are things that all of us share, and some experiences are universal no matter how far apart we may appear to be. That's the ultimate magic trick behind a short story and Sherman Alexie is a conjurer without equal.

June 29, 2009

Book Review: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Probably the first book about Africa most Westerners my age read was written by a European. Most likely it was Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness with its depiction of the white man who was deemed to have gone crazy because he went "native". The West has been pillaging the various countries of Africa for centuries now. First for their people to use as slaves now their natural resources for our material goods. No matter what we take, poverty, corruption, and all that accompany the two trail behind us like the wake of some malevolent creature who sucks the goodness out of its prey leaving behind a husk containing only the bile and other noxious wastes.

Yet we know nothing at all about Africans as people as we hardly ever read stories that don't have something to do with atrocities or are "heartwarming tales of survival". Of course very few of us even stop to think about just how many cultures we're talking about when we say Africa, although each country is home to at least one or two distinct people with their own histories. The only time its even brought to our attention is when cynical leadership pits one ethnic group against another in a bid for power and violence results. Thankfully over the past couple of years the number of African writers whose work is either being translated into English or written in that language in first place is increasing, and with a little bit of searching you can find a voice that will tell the stories of his or her people.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, recently published by Random House Canada is a collection of short fiction travelling across time and geography to give us glimpses into the lives of Nigerian women and their experiences both at home and as immigrants to the United States. Adichie currently divides her time between her homeland and the United States where she attended university, which gives her a perspective on both worlds that very few others are able to offer. The twelve stories are roughly split between the two settings, but no matter where, or when, the story takes place, what struck me most was the emotional honesty she brings to her work.
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Perhaps this is what makes her stories both compelling and believable at the same time. Her characters, no matter what their status or situation, react to their circumstances in ways that we might not understand, but which prove to be true to who they are and their needs. Who are we to say if we were in the same situation as the young bride in "The Arrangers Of Marriage" we wouldn't act like she does. What would you do if upon arriving in America you discover the husband your aunt and uncle had picked out for you had omitted to tell your family details like he had married an American woman to obtain his green card and still hadn't divorced her? What else can she do but stay with him until he obtains the divorce so she can get the papers she needs in order to be legal. Deportation would send her back to a family who would find a way of not only making the marriage's failure her fault, but a sign of her ingratitude for all that they'd done for her.

Although some of these stories, like the one above, feature women in circumstances that cry out victim, none of the women are drawn as such. They might have to do things they don't like, or compromise about certain things, but so does everybody else. Not once do you ever get the feeling that any of Adichie's characters have been created as deliberate objects of sympathy. They deal with their situations with as much dignity and pride as they are capable of under the circumstances. At the same time however, we are told in no uncertain terms that gender and race are still issues that cut both ways.

In "Jumping Monkey Hill" a Nigerian novelist attends a writer's workshop with a number of other "promising" African writers given by an eminent, white, British scholar where they each are to write and present a story. The scholar turns out to be the type who knows more about Africa than Africans. He criticizes one person's work because stories about homosexuals coming out to their families aren't representative of "the real" Africa. When the protagonist reads a story based on her experiences as a bank employee and how she had been expected to trade sexual favours in order to secure accounts for her bank, the scholar informs everybody that women are never victims in that crude sort of way, and certainly not in Nigeria. In fact her story, he says, has no basis in reality.
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On the other hand in the title story, "The Thing Around Your Neck", a young woman who immigrates to America has a hard time believing in the sincerity of a young white man's affection for her. Even when she realizes he is genuine, she is constantly suspicious of perfectly innocent things he does or says, as she's looking for any signs of a condescending or patronizing attitude. However just as she starts to relax, to let go of that thing around her neck, her suspicion, that is choking her, she finds out her father died five months earlier and has to return to Nigeria. Her young man asks if she'll return and although she hugs him hard at the airport - she lets him go. The differences in their class, he's from inherited wealth and her father lived in fear of people higher up on the social scale than him, and race, might just be barriers that she can't overcome.

Adichie's stories are all extremely well written and offer us a perspective of the world that we don't often see. What's even more refreshing is that her characters are neither victims or super heroes. They are humans dealing with situations that come up in their lives just like we all have to. We might not be familiar with some of the circumstances, but we can still identify with the emotions they are experiencing, and they serve as our bridge into their world. It's a world we don't often have a chance to explore, and when an opportunity of this quality comes along it would be a shame to ignore it.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

April 20, 2009

Book Review: Troll's Eye View Edited By Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling

"And they all lived happily ever after..." has been for generations of children the unquestioned ending to all fairy stories. The poor, downtrodden, but good, step-daughter wins out in the end while the evil step-sisters and mother get what's coming to them, or the bewitched princess is rescued from some horrible enchantment by her knight in shinning armour, and they all live happily ever after. Except of course the evil step-sisters, the ogre, the giant, the troll, the dragon, or the witch who had the nerve to try and mess with them.

They either come to a rather sticky end or simply vanish from the story never to be heard from again and nobody gives them a second thought. In the black and white reality of fairy tales there is no room for questioning the why's and wherefores of what makes a person do what they do; they are either evil or good with nothing in between. While this world of absolutes might appeal to some people, haven't you ever secretly hoped that the giant might one day catch that interfering Jack as he's stealing all his possessions? Or that Prince Charming would at least fall off his white horse into a mud puddle so he wasn't so damned pure of heart and innocent of evil influence?

If your mind has ever run in those directions, than you're sure to enjoy the collection of stories gathered together by the editing team of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, in their new anthology, Troll's Eye View. Being released on April 21/09 by Penguin Canada, it has some of today's best fantasy writers revisiting those old fairy tales, but this time telling them from the so called villains point of view. Ostensibly written for a younger audience, the book's fly-leaf says for readers ten and up, the stories will delight anyone who has never been quite satisfied with the simplicity of "happily ever after".
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The great thing about a Datlow and Windling anthology is their ability to come up with a theme that is sure to inspire a writer's imagination. While they've a history of putting together collections of revised version of fairy tales and other fantastical stories for both adults and children, Troll's Eye View offered those contributing a chance to turn some old favourites inside out. So we get everything from an updated version of Rapunzel, "An Unwelcome Guest" by Garth Nix; hearing the other side of the story, "Up The Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers" by Peter S. Beagle; to an examination of the whole step-sibling dynamic in "The Cinderella Game" by Kelly Link.

Some of the stories gathered in this book are based on tales you may not be familiar with, while others nearly everyone has heard of. While a few of the offerings come in the form of poems, which younger readers might initially find a little less approachable than the prose selections, they aren't any more difficult to understand than the other tales recounted in the book. In fact Joseph Stanton's "Puss in Boot, the Sequel" is only ten lines long, and manages to capture everything you need to know about Puss's character to change the ending of the original story completely. While technically it's not a case of the bad guy winning out in the end, let's just say that Puss end's up with more than his share of cream this time round then he did in the original.

While Stanton's poem, and the verse contributions of Wendy Froud and Neil Gaiman are fine, it's still the prose stories that are the true delight of this book. While some of them do what we expect of a story like this and tarnish the image of some past hero or heroine, others have eschewed that approach for something slightly more complex. For instead of merely offering a comedic alternative to the original, they stay true to the "Grimm" details, but show them from a new perspective.
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In particular, Catherynne M. Valente's take on "Hansel & Gretel", "A Delicate Architecture", is especially intriguing in the way it creates a highly imaginative explanation for how the gingerbread house in the middle of the forest came into being in the first place. Valente has created a beautifully haunting tale explaining how the "witch" came to be living in the woods that's as fantastic and magical as any of the classic fairy stories. What's truly wonderful is the way in she's able to make her into a genuinely sympathetic character until we realize which story we've ended up in. For it's not until the last few pages that Valente reveals who the story has been about, and what she's planning on doing.

In their introduction to the book Datlow and Windling say they wanted the writers to examine the villains of the old fairy stories. What's the truth behind the stories of all those evil characters and were the heroes and heroines really as noble as they were originally made out to be? What makes the results so intriguing is the variety of ways in which the authors contributing to this anthology have come up with to answer those questions. However, in spite of their different approaches, one thing all of the authors have in common is their love for the original material and the genre. For no matter how they've chosen to retell their story, they never once lose track of what made them such great stories to begin with.

While it's easy to spoof something in order to make fun of it or run it down, it's infinitely harder to rewrite a story in such a way that it brings new appreciation for the original. Troll's Eye View is not only highly entertaining in its own right, but it also reminds the reader what made fairy tales so wonderful to begin with.

Troll's Eye View can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon Canada

January 11, 2009

Interview: Author Indu Sundaresan

When I began editing the on line magazine "Epic India Magazine" a little over two years ago I had read very few books by Indian authors. Since it was meant to be an arts and culture magazine I figured that was a situation that needed to change. Thankfully India is now probably the largest English speaking market for books in the world, and it's becoming increasingly easier to find works written by Indian writers.

With each different author you get a new perspective and a fresh voice telling you another bit of the story that is India. One of the things that comes clear from those writing about contemporary India is that she is a country going through a period of painful transition. While shining office towers and IT companies might be common place in downtown Mumbai, so are three generations of one family living in a shack without running water a mile away in the same city.

In her collection of short stories The Convent Of Little Flowers Indu Sundaresan gave us glimpses of lives that have felt the brush of change, and also showed how powerful the forces resisting change can be. Known for her historical fiction, these stories were her first foray's into her native country's current circumstance and I was intrigued as to what brought about her change of venue - so to speak.
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With that in mind I contacted Ms. Sundaresan and she very generously gave of her time to answer my questions about this collection of stories, her writing, and her life in general. If you haven't all ready read any of her work, I hope this encourages you to at least pick up her collection of short stories if not one of her novels


You were born in India and came to the United States to finish your studies, can you fill in some of the biographical details from before you came to the US, and maybe explain how it is you ended up staying there, or if it was always your intent to emigrate?

My father was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, so I’m the proverbial “army” brat and spent most of my childhood moving around India, from one base to another. When I finished my undergraduate degree in economics, I decided to apply for graduate school, went to the University of Delaware, and ended up with two graduate degrees. I don’t know that it was my intention to stay on here in the US in the beginning. But I started writing fiction very soon after, and have found a community of writers through classes and conferences that I would not have had access to in India—being here in the US is a blessing for my career as a writer.


Did you find that you had a period of adjustment that you had to go through when you first arrived in the States, and was there anything you found particularly difficult to acclimatise your self to?

In the beginning, it was all very new, very interesting, thought provoking at times. And I am a writer (though I didn’t know it then), so I watched and listened, took notes in my head, never really let anything shock me too much.

Perhaps the funniest thing to happen was the day I landed in NYC. As I was wheeling my luggage out of customs and immigration, tired from the long flight and somewhat disoriented, a man leaning on his cart whistled and said, “Com’ere, baby, give us a hug and a kiss.” I remember that I laughed and shook my head and ran out of the terminal, but that was my introduction to America!

How did you first become interested in telling stories - in writing?

Not until I had finished graduate school and had a story in my head. I decided to write a novel, so we bought a computer and I wrote one. And then I wrote another novel, and then I wrote my first published novel, The Twentieth Wife. I don’t recall being intimidated by the process then, though I know now just how difficult it is, which was in some senses advantageous to me—I tell this story of my beginnings of a writer as a very simple tale, and it was thus. I didn’t think I couldn’t do it, so...I wrote my novels.

There's a long tradition of story telling in India, one generation passing along the stories they learned to the next generation. How do you see yourself as a writer fitting into that tradition - if at all?

My father and my paternal grandfather were storytellers, and they loved having an audience. I remember that my father would make up bedtime stories for me, two sagas about a horse named Silver and an elephant named Jumbo. He also told my sisters and me stories of the kings and queens of India when we went to visit all the forts and palaces around the country, but at bedtime, his favourite trick was to tell us only part of the story and then switch off the light, leaving us to think (until the next day or until he was free again in the evenings) of how the stories ended, or how the plot resolved itself. My father taught me how to tell stories in my head long before I came to put them down on paper.

In the afterward to In The Convent Of Little Flowers you make mention of how either a news story or a casual remark was the inspiration for some of the stories. It sounded like this wasn't a way you had worked before, where have you previously found your inspiration for your work?

The stories of In The Convent Of Little Flowers are contemporary, so their sources are those you mention.

My first two novels, The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses, are based on the life of Nur Jahan, a seventeenth century empress of Mughal India. Her story I stumbled upon while I was in graduate school (though I ought to have known this better from my school days; I was an indifferent student of history). One evening, homesick for family and friends in India, I went to the university library, typed in “India” in the subject keyword at the computer, and went to the section that housed books on India. I returned to my apartment with an armload of books, one of which was a book on Mughal harems and Nur Jahan. It wasn’t until I had finished my first two unpublished novels, that I began to think of what I had read about her, checked out that book again, researched her life more thoroughly and wrote The Twentieth Wife and its sequel.
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When Deepa Mehta was filming Water - a movie about the harsh ways in which widows are still treated by some elements of Indian society - she was attacked (literally) by extremists. Do you worry about any, or has there been any, backlash in regards to some of the stories in this collection

Some of the topics I describe in this collection are, by their very nature, somewhat taboo in Indian society. But they exist. And I would like to think that there is a growing awareness and openness in India today that will allow some thought, some dialogue about the stories because we all will have to confront this either within our own families or in our communities at some point in our lives.

Having said this, I did not put Convent together for the controversy; I rarely analyse my fiction thus before I write, or indeed after I have finished a story. Consequently, most of the stories in Convent were written from a strong emotion, whether anger, upset, outrage or pain and sorrow at what I had heard/read. This (the emotion) has always been the most basic premise of all of my work.

Once I have the idea for a story, in whatever form, I’m methodical in studying the best voice for it, whose point of view should be predominant, what tense to use, how the story should be told—in other words, the craft is what interests me. Then I write, continuously and steadily, until the story is done. And then I revise, send it out to friends, read their comments, revise again.

When the book is done, I hope (as I think all writers hope) that the emotion still carries through the stories, that it affects my readers as much as it did me, that it causes them to think—this is all I ask from my work.

Do you find that living outside of India has changed your perspective of the country and if so how has this shown up in your writing?

The distance from India has given me the ability to write about India. It’s a personal thing, other displaced Indian writers tell fluid stories about the immigrant experience in the US (or elsewhere), something I still find difficult to do for I live the life and find myself unable to find an adequate perspective for this.

I love my homeland, love the history and living away as I do, use my writing to find my connection to India.

In recent years there seems to have been an explosion of English language writers from India/Pakistan. Is this something new, or is it just that the rest of the world is finally noticing?

It’s new, in that even if writers have been writing stories, it’s only in the past twenty years or so that we are being published internationally on such a large scale. And people are reading, listening to what we have to say about India.

Some of the stories in In The Convent Of Little Flowers deal with the social situation and status of women, and others with the social hierarchy known as caste. Why do you think it necessary to write about these subjects?

Again, I’ve never analysed the stories from this point of view. The social status of women, the prevalence of the caste system, these are inherent in Indian society, changing slowly with the times. Most of the stories in Convent deal with the ordinary people facing somewhat extraordinary conditions in their lives and learning how to deal with them—I would say this could happen anywhere in the world. I set my stories in India, and having done so, to provide a complete and full picture, these are issues I must address in the story-line. My intention though, first and foremost, is to be a storyteller.
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While there were some genuinely shocking stories in Convent, the ones I found most moving were the ones showing people overcoming the conditioning that has kept them trapped - "The Most Unwanted" for instance. What do you hope that your readers take away with them from those stories as compared to the other ones?

We’ve all heard these stories before, and I’ll address “The Most Unwanted” specifically where a grandfather struggles to come to terms with a grandson his unmarried daughter brings into his home, and all the impact it has had so far on his life. I thought deeply about Nathan, the grandfather, about where his prejudices came from and how he shatters them by the end of the story because the child puts his head on his lap to sleep.

If I were to continue “The Most Unwanted” beyond that point, the end of the story, then Nathan would never again in his life doubt his decision to accept his grandson. He would defend both the child and his daughter ferociously and in doing so, will force the people around him to accept his decision.

We’ve heard these stories, and assume that they always happen to other people, so the question then for me was how someone would react when it happened to them and I think it depends so much on the specific situations and histories of the protagonists.

If there’s anything I’ve hoped for in this collection (apart from wanting to keep its emotion as close to the source after all the revisions and edits), it is that people will think about my characters, their circumstances, what they are battling and how they win or lose.

Your previous books have been historical epics, set anywhere form Mogul times to the last days of colonial rule, and this collection was set in modern India, have you given any thought to where you want to travel to next?

I just completed my fourth novel, Shadow Princess, which takes me back to the Mughal India of my first two and picks up the story-line after the end of The Feast of Roses. I’ve always wanted to write this novel, and so this story was definitely next in line for me—though I’m not done yet, still working on revising and editing this novel which has a tentative publication date for end of 2009.

I have a vague idea for my next book right now, though it’s still too early to take my head out of Shadow and research this more thoroughly—I expect to be doing this over the coming year.

I just wanted to thank Indu Sundaresan again for taking part in this interview and encourage you once again to at least pick up her collection of short stories, if not one of her novels. In The Convent Of Little Flowers was my introduction to her work, and it has certainly whetted my appetite for more of her work.

January 4, 2009

Book Review: Poe Edited By Ellen Datlow - Stories Inspired By Edgar Allan Poe

Anthologies of short stories are usually put together to honour the best of a particular genre for the past year. It's not uncommon therefore in January to see collections titled The Best Fantasy, or The Best Science Fiction being released by various publishers. In those instances the editor's job isn't really that difficult as they simply round up those stories that were either prize winners of runners up from the year in question and republish them with a little blurb on each author.

In recent years a new type of anthology has started to appear, especially in the fantasy genre, where authors are asked by an editor, or editors, to write a story according to a theme. These have included retellings of classic fairy tales, new takes on the hero myth, and other variations on that idea. Since this format has become popular, the name of one editor has become synonymous with the best of these collections. I don't know if Ellen Datlow was the first person to put together one of these anthologies, but her name as editor on one of these collections has become a guarantee that you're going to be reading a great collection of short fiction. It doesn't matter whether you've heard of any of the writers or not, because Datlow knows exactly which authors to approach for the type of story she has in mind for a particular collection and the results are always worth reading.

So when I saw that she was responsible for editing Poe, a collection of stories inspired by Edgar Allan Poe in honour of the two hundredth anniversary of his birth being published by Simon & Schuster Canada on January 6th/09, I knew that it would be a must read for anyone who liked the late, great master. Yet, even I was surprised at what I found within the pages of this book, as the stories exceeded all of my expectations.
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The guidelines for each author were simple, write a story inspired by any of the works of Edgar Allan Poe in whatever setting you'd like. As one might expect the results range all over the place with some stories being funny, others mysterious, and some downright macabre. Yet what each have in common is that one way or another they have managed to capture the spirit of what made Poe's stories so effective. More than just your common garden horror story, filled with creaking floorboards and knife wielding maniacs (although he had his fair share of them too) Poe was famous for his ability to create atmosphere, and in their own way each tale in this collection rises to that challenge in grand style.

Kim Newman's "Illimitable Domain" provides a light touch as the opening story, and is as much an homage to the many cheesy film adaptations of Poe's work as the author himself. Written from the point of view of your almost stereotypical Hollywood agent, he represents a slightly gone to seed chimpanzee whose place in the sun has been taken by Bonzo and Cheetah, who latches onto a new way to grab his ten percent. When a low rent, low budget production company that specializes in three day shoots is looking for a change of pace, he suggests the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Although the works are in the public domain, our erstwhile hero gets his cut by claiming to be the representative of a group that has registered Poe's name as a trademark and offering to negotiate rights to its use.

Once the company gets rolling producing Poe movies they can't stop. Initially it's because they are successful, but then mysteriously, no matter what movie they set out to make, Vincent Price ends up in the lead role and the plot turns into a variation on The Fall Of The House Of Usher. By turns funny and high camp, the story is a brilliant love letter to the tacky horror movies of the sixties where a heroine's quality was measured by how well she filled a sweater, and Technicolor was an excuse for buckets of blood.
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Laird Barron's contribution, "Strappado", is far more traditional in its approach and leads the reader deep into familiar Poe territory. Our hero is part of a group of drunk, jaded, thrill seekers who come together while slumming with the "natives" in India. European and American jet setters looking for something off the beaten path, they first start in a bar catering to locals instead of staying in a designated tourist spot, then are lured to an underground "art" event. The big appeal is that the artist behind the event isn't even allowed into Great Britain because his work is so controversial. What the group don't know is that they won't be witnessing one of his "events", but are slated to be the next work of art.

Barron has cleverly recreated the feelings of impending doom that Poe was so adept at rousing in his readers. So while the characters in "Strappado", though their arrogance and delusions of importance, willingly go to meet their fates, we see what they are too blind to realize. If you've ever asked yourself how did people go to their deaths so willingly in the concentration camps or in similar situations, this story gives an indication of just how easy it is to lead sheep to the slaughter.

The writer's have covered all the bases with their stories; from the gothic romance of Delia Sherman's "The Red Piano", which reads like a typical Poe story although set in contemporary New York City; offering an explanation for the manor of Poe's early death (he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, stone cold sober, in somebody's else's clothes) in E. Catherine Tobler's "Beyond Porch And Portal"; to Melanie Tem's surreal take on "The Raven" - "The Pickers". Part of the fun is trying to guess which story, or aspect of Poe's life, inspired individual author's to write what they did. Unless your a Poe scholar, intimate with all his writings including his essays, there are some that will stump you, however each author has written an afterward that explains their choices, so that mystery will at least be cleared up.

Poe has been credited with writing the first ever mystery story, The Murders In The Rue Morgue, and his stories have been the inspiration for many a horror and dark fantasy writer over the years. The nineteen stories commissioned by Ellen Datlow for the collection Poe are works of mystery and imagination that not only do justice to the author they celebrate, but are fine stories in their own right. Datlow has once again shown an uncanny talent for approaching just the right writers for the task at hand, as not one disappoints.

Poe can be purchased either directly from Simon & Schuster Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

December 28, 2008

Book Review: The Tales Of Beedle The Bard By J.K. Rowling

I'm not the easiest person to buy presents for. You can't just pop out and pick me up a CD or a book because chances are if its one I'm inclined to listen to or read I'll have all ready managed to get a copy to review for these pages. Which made it doubly surprising that my wife walked in the door beaming the other day after returning from a trip to Canada's big bookstore chain - a place she normally hates setting foot in for a vast array of justifiable reasons - sure that she had found me something that not only I didn't own, but would give me a lot of pleasure.

My wife's instincts are usually pretty dead on and this was no exception, The Tales Of Beedle The Bard by J.K.Rowling, distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada, is a delight from start to finish. Its a slim volume reminiscent of the wonderful books of poetry by A.A. Milne that I read as a child in both style and lay out. Elegant hard cover books on whose pages another surprise always awaited in the form of either a new poem or an illustration peeking out form some unexpected corner.

Now like the rest of the non magical world I first heard of Beedle The Bard through Ms. Rowling's other books, specifically the penultimate Harry Potter book, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows in which one story in particular played a crucial role in deciding the outcome of the series. (If you think I'm going to tell you which one you're out of luck - if you've read the Potter book you'll all ready know which it is, and if you haven't - well what on earth are you waiting for) The Tales Of Beedle The Bard is set firmly in the same world that Harry Potter occupies. For as Rowling points out in her introduction two characters from the series played a key role in its production. The text is a new translation by Hermione Granger, from the original runes, and the late Albus Dumbledore wrote the extensive annotations that accompany each story.
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You'll notice some obvious differences and similarities between Beedle's tales and the ones told by the non-magical community. The most obvious of the former is of course the fact that magic is taken for granted in the stories, and not something supernatural that the hero or heroine must overcome. Unlike our stories the female characters don't just wait around for someone to come and rescue them as they are every bit as capable as the male characters at getting in and out of scrapes. However, much like many of our stories each of Beedle's tales contains a life lesson for the young witch or wizard reading the tale that stress the importance of personal attributes like tolerance, forbearance, love, and generosity.

As Professor Dumbledore points out in his annotations this left Beedle open to much criticism by both his contemporaries - he's thought to have lived in the 1500's - and modern witches and wizards alike. He not only advocates cordial relationships with Muggles, but that witches and wizards should use their gifts to help their less talented neighbours when ever possible. Needless to say this went down a treat with those who considered non-magical beings their inferiors. In fact Dumbledore recounts a concentrated effort by a certain Lucius Malfoy to have Beedle's book removed from the Hogwarts' library due to its potential for influencing your witches and wizards to sully their bloodlines by intermarrying with Muggles. (see the story "The Fountain Of Fair Fortune").

In some cases Professor Dumbledor's annotations provide the reader with valuable historical detail, one of which is to remind us that the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy wasn't written until 1689. This of course explains why wizards and witches in Beedle's stories have no compunctions about performing magic for, or in front of, their non-magical brethren, and why, in turn, the Muggles take it for granted. It wasn't until the magical community retired from sight that the ability to recognize magic waned. It's unfortunate to note that it was due to an increased level of persecution that forced witches and wizards into this position. We can only hope that someday the Muggle community at large will mature enough to accept "differences" sufficiently that this unfortunate, yet necessary, statute can be lifted.
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In The Tales Of Beedle The Bard J. K. Rowling once again manages to immerse us completely in a world where magic is part of the fabric of existence. While the stories themselves are well written and intelligent and more reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm than the sanitized versions of tales like Cinderella and Snow White that are told today and her illustrations are a delight, half the fun of reading the book comes in Dumbledore's annotations. For as well as being a source of information, they are full of personal anecdotes that remind us of his rather unique character and emphasis many of the lessons he imparted to his students in the Harry Potter books. Two of the best of these accompany "The Fountain Of Fair Fortune" and "The Warlock's Hairy Heart", of which the former, a recounting of the short history of dramatic presentations at Hogwarts, is my personal favourite. Of course it's the anecdotes that go a long way towards helping us believe we are back in the world of Harry Potter and Hogwarts with their mention of familiar names and the "sound" of Dumbledore's voice echoing through them.

Lest anyone think this is an attempt by Ms. Rowling to make a little extra cash for herself (as if she needs it) around one sixth of the list price (one pound, sixty-one pence of the six pound ninty-nine pence asking price in England) from each book sold is being donated to The Children's High Level Group (CHLG). This is a charitable organization established to give the over a million institutionalized children a chance at a better life. Many of the children kept in large residential institutions are no orphans as is commonly believed but are those whose parents are unable to care for them because of illness, poverty, or because they are ethnic minorities. The long term goal of CHLG is to ensure the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child across Europe and around the world. All ready four million pounds have been raised for CHLG through sales of Beedle and each copy purchased improves the organization's chance of obtaining their goal.

Aside from the fact that The Tales Of Beedle The Bard are sure to delight all fans, young and old, of the Harry Potter series, buying a copy will make a difference to a child somewhere in the world. Until the repeal of the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, that's one of the better bits of magic any of us are going to see in our life times.

December 22, 2008

Book Review: In The Convent Of Little Flowers By Indu Sundaresan

We in the West have always had a fascination with all things Eastern to the extent that we have created various stereotypes and cliches to ensure that countries like India are what we want them to be. At one time she was the Mecca for all things spiritual; everybody from pop stars to bored middle class housewives looked to India for enlightenment and sought out the services of any guru willing to take them on as a student. They revelled in the exotic and the mysterious until they discovered that spiritual advancement wasn't something that happened overnight and was a continual work in progress, at which point they dropped it like a hot potato.

Forty years later our fascination is now centred around the economic miracle that is modern India - The Economic Tiger of The East! Instead of ashrams and gurus the West now comes to India in search of cheap labour for their manufactured products and call centre employees to explain how to use them and trouble shoot their problems. Where it used to be that the sons and daughters of the affluent West would seek India's shores for enlightenment, we now welcome the children of their rich to enlighten them with free market capitalism, business and science degrees, and the great myth of the global economy.

Yet one thing hasn't changed, our unwillingness to look behind the facade of the image that we have created. We continue to ignore the poverty; the way politicians exploit the mistrust between Muslims and Hindu out of one side of their mouths and condemn the violence that occurs afterwards out of the other; the caste system that continues to be rigidly enforced by society no matter what it says on the law books; and the continual degradation of women who are still to often considered no more than chattel to be bought on sold on the marriage market. Indian apologists on both sides of the world will tell you that it's all different now, by which they mean it's better hidden, but talk to those who care to see and they will tell you that nothing has changed.
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Indu Sundaresan is one of the new generation of Indian novelists who are not only seeing, but are willing to write about those things that are going on behind closed doors, in the back streets, and far beyond the glare of bright city lights. In her newest collection of short fiction, In The Convent Of Little Flowers, published by Simon & Schuster Canada, she covers everything from elder abuse, the consequences of the caste system, and the hardships that are still common place for women in India. In case we think that some of the more extreme things she describes are invention, she has included a postscript with the collection where she explains that each story was inspired by actual events occurring in India that she had either read about or been told about.

However, lest you think she is an expatriate Indian, or Non Resident Indian (NRI) as they are sometimes sneeringly called, with an axe to grind as she now lives in Seattle Washington in the United States, the prevailing emotion that comes across in these stories is that of sadness, not anger. What makes the stories in this book much more powerful than others that I've read dealing with similar subject matter is that there is no finger pointing, no laying of blame. In fact the prevailing sentiment in all the stories is that even those characters who are the perpetrators of appalling actions are as much victims as those they abuse.

There are two stories in particular which bring this to mind for me, "Three And A Half Seconds" and "The Faithful Wife". In each of these stories there is the obvious victim, the ones who suffer because of the actions of others. Yet because of the way Sundaresan writes, without trying to manipulate our emotions and without pointing out the obvious, but letting the story speak for itself, we can't help but see beyond the events described into the moral vacuum that has developed in a country that is caught in transition between its past and its potential future.

We're not really sure what "The Faithful Wife" is about for the first little bit of the story. By all appearances it seems to be about a prodigal child returning home to face the family's patriarch to seek redemption for some past misdeed. However it gradually comes out that things aren't as we first perceived, and as events unfold we begin to understand the horror that is about to take place in this peaceful village. Like the young man we want to blame his grandfather for what is going to happen, for he, we think, has the power to stop it. After all, he's the one who asks why his grandson has come in a way that suggests he has no business being there, and it was his grandmother who sent him the message about what was to happen.
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Although the practice of burning a wife with her husband, known as Sati, had been outlawed since 1829, the twelve year old girl who had been married to the sixty-three year old shopkeeper who died of natural causes has "chosen" to be burned along with her late husband on his pyre. After all, what kind of life awaits a person widowed at twelve years old, "a blight to her family" says the grandfather, "she will be considered an ill omen." We want to hate him for those words, want to hate him for not doing anything to stop it, but he is one person against a village, so he has done the next best thing. He has let his wife summon his grandson, a reporter, home so he can write about it, so that people will know it has happened, and so maybe nobody else will ever have to be forced into doing what this girl did.

Poverty and caste are the villains of "Three And A Half Seconds", even though they don't own the arms or hands that beat elderly parents. Elderly parents whose crimes of being from a poor farming village and the wrong caste are the reasons for their son gives for him repeatedly failing his exams at work, as nobody wants him to be promoted because of his family. The same parents who left the village they had been born in after drought had destroyed their family fields and the government had washed its hands of them, who had lived on the streets of Mumbai while working so he could have school and a future. Elderly parents who in the end only have their love for each other and who wonder where they failed their son that he hates them so much,

Not all of the stories are about people being defeated by India, some are about the ways they are finding the means to overcome the past and move themselves, and their families beyond the anachronistic lives that traditions have forced onto them. Things don't have to be this way Sundaresan is saying in her stories, but only if we are willing to see what's in front of our eyes, and speak out against it. Of course there are plenty of people who are content with the status quo because it ensures their positions of power, and there are also those who will be critical of anybody daring to speak out against what they will claim are important elements of their culture.

They will denounce Sundaresan as a trouble maker who has lived away from home for too long, or will accuse her of being sensationalistic for only talking about the negative aspects of life in India and not talking up the great economic miracle. Yet there is nothing sensationalistic or lurid about these stories. In fact there's a kind of beauty to them that can only exist when a writer loves her subject matter a great deal. These stories are filled with nothing but respect and admiration for the author's birth country and love for the people who live there, yet they are not blind to how outdated attitudes and archaic moral codes are the biggest threat facing India.

Many countries the world over hide dirty secrets behind the veils of tradition and custom and India is no different. Yet more and more writers are proving their love for their country by pulling back those veils in the hopes that future generations won't suffer the indignities that people today are still being forced to endure. Indu Sundaresan's collection of short stories, In The Convent Of Little Flowers is one of the best examples of this that I've read in a long while. Elegant and eloquent, her stories speak from the heart and are full of compassion for all those caught up in the confusion of a country trying to find its way out of a dark past and into a better tomorrow.

In The Convent Of Little Flowers can be purchased either directly from Simon & Schuster Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

July 20, 2008

Book Review: Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn - The Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnibone Part Two Michael Moorcock

Heroes have always been of a singular nature. Dating back to the times of the heroes as depicted by Homer in his Odyssey the hero has stood alone in the world, either through choice or circumstances. Yet what has really distinguished the iconic hero from the rest of us mere mortals has been the ability to reduce the world down to a single focus. Nothing or nobody else matters aside from their quest. Be it a one off rescue of a maiden in distress or a life guided by vengeance for something that took place centuries ago they let nothing interfere with their "destiny".

While this ability to focus can be seen as admirable, taken from another perspective it can also be seen as a form of narrow-mindedness that leaves them with a very limited perspective on the world. Their world is black and white with no room for anything that doesn't fit into the parameters that they have devised for themselves. Anyone who does not support them wholeheartedly is against them, and there is never any question in their minds as to the justice of their mission.

Heroic fiction and the science fiction/fantasy genre of sword and sorcery have fit each other like a glove since the days of pulp fiction magazines. Stalwart heroes like Robert E. Howard's Conan The Barbarian piled bodies around them as they cut a swath through the pages of cheap magazine serials and ten cent pocket books. However, the last forty years have seen some authors in this genre begin to emulate the rise of the anti-hero in other forms of writing. These heroes are beset with doubts while the purity of their mission and motivations are open to doubt.
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One of the leading proponents of this new style of heroic writing has been Michael Moorcock and his famous character Elric of Melnibone - the albino prince who is the sole survivor of a royal dynasty sworn to serve the lords of Chaos. Yet, while Elric is his best known character, a new collection of Moorcock's stories, Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn, published by Random House Canada shows that Moorcock has always had more than one sword in his arsenal. (It turns out that this is the second in a series of four books - Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnione - being published by the Random House Imprint Del Rey Books gathering together all of Moorcock's short fiction)

In To Rescue Tanelorn the editors have gone back as far as 1962 for the first story, the novella version of "The Eternal Champion", and continued on down through the years until reaching "The Roaming Forrest" published in 2006. Each of the stories, whether featuring Elric or one of Moorcock's other "heroes", is not only a well told adventure story, but goes some distance in redefining the idea of the hero.

As far back as "The Eternal Champion" Moorcock was already showing his willingness to break the mould that so many other heroic stories had been cast from. Erekose is called from our plane of existence into another world where humanity is locked in a desperate struggle with creatures referred to as "The Hounds of Evil". As the story progresses though, Erekose discovers that the so-called "Hounds" have never instigated war between the two species, and in actual fact possess the means to have obliterated humanity generations ago, but have refrained from using them in the hopes that somehow peace can be won.

Unfortunately humanity's leaders are unwilling to see beyond their blind hatred and aren't about to listen to reason. Erekose himself is held by a vow to protect humanity and oppose its enemies and is initially helpless to prevent the slaughter of the world's other inhabitants. Eventually he is forced into making a decision about where his loyalties truly lie, with humanity or with justice. For no matter what the people who summoned him might say the one is not necessarily the same as the other.

Of course any collection of Moorcock's work will feature plenty of stories with the original anti-hero of sword and sorcery - Elric of Melnibone. The albino prince, who depends on a soul stealing rune sword to maintain his life force, is the only survivor of his once proud kingdom and roams the world, and its many parallel planes of existence, looking for answers about the origins of his people. He knows that at some point they entered into a pact with the Lords Of Chaos - who compete with the forces of Law to control the world - and that resulted in their gradual decline into decadence and eventual extinction.

As a result of the pact he is able to call upon various demons of Chaos to come to his protection in times of need, and wreck horrible havoc upon his enemies. Unfortunately he also seems cursed to bring about the death of those closest to him, and anyone unfortunate enough to ally themselves with Elric usually dies a horrible death. Couple that with his need to kill people and steal their souls at regular intervals in order to stay alive and he ends up not being the most pleasant of companions.

Moorcock's characters drift back and forth through what he terms the "multiverse". So if you're reading a story set in our world and happen to stumble across someone who reminds you of Elric or another character you ran into somewhere else, it's because they all exist in one form or another in the various dimensions. Sometimes they are buried deep within layers of another character, but there will be the smallest of clues that will give them away.

Michael Moorcock was one of the first writers in the sword and sorcery genre to dare and tamper with the sacred icon of the hero and make him fallible. Even more extraordinary is the fact that he was able to do this while never forgetting that he was also responsible for writing exciting and interesting adventure stories. Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn, the second instalment of four in the Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnibone, is a wonderful collection featuring some of Moorcock's most memorable characters and provides all the proof anybody would need that this man is one of the great fantasy writers of ours or any time.

Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn and the rest of the Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnibone can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

June 4, 2008

Book Review: A Guide To Folktales In Fragile Dialects Catherynne M. Valente

Folk tales and fairy tales can be almost anything we want them to be it seems. In fact one person's folk tale could just as easily be another person's religion. Go to any book store and pick up a copy of what somebody has euphemistically called a collection of folk tales, and odds are good that you'll liable to find yourself in the middle of somebody else's creation story. Yet I doubt that many people reading this right now would ever consider calling The Bible a collection of folk tales.

Yet what are folk tales if not just what they say they are - tales about a folk. The Old Testament is a history of the Jewish people and The New Testament the story of Christianity. To Jews and Christians both these books have special significance respectively, but to the rest of the world they have no more intrinsic value than any other tales recounting the exploits of various folk heroes. Job and Jonah are no more or less important than Robin Hood or King Arthur to a Hindu or a Buddhist.

Folk heroes are developed as a means of instructing people in the ways of their civilization. They can either take the form of an idealized role model who exemplifies the attributes that make a person a worthy member of society, or they can be a contrary type character whose behaviour provides a lesson in how not to behave. With that in mind it only stands to reason that periodic attempts are made to update our tales so that they reflect how our attitudes have changed over the years.
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Over the past few years we've seen many fantasy writer experiment with this idea, and quite a few anthologies have been published with that express purpose in mind. One of the newest entries into the field of folk tale revising has been provided by the American poet and author Catherynne M. Valente with her recently published A Guide To Folktales In Fragile Dialects published by Norilana through their Norilana Curiosities imprint.

Now much has been made by so called traditionalists about people revising stories to suit their needs and changing them to something other than what they are supposed to be. The only thing is that some of these "traditional" stories have already undergone any number of revisions over the years that have reflected various changes in doctrine and belief. Many stories that predated Christianity for instance, were altered to reflect the usurping of a matriarchal society by the patriarch.

I know that sounds like tired feminist drivel, but there also happens to be some truth to it, as the Church found it convenient to simply rename many holidays and figures from myth in order to make conversion more palatable to the masses. It only follows that folk tales would have undergone similar conversions. So Ms. Valente's retelling of stories from the perspective of the women involved is nothing more than a continuation of the ongoing process of a story's evolution.

A Guide To Folktales In Fragile Dialects is a collection of poems and short fiction that gathers stories from cultures around the world and adapts them so that the story is not just seen through a woman's eyes, but also reflects her needs and desires as a person. What if Cinderella didn't have any intention of marrying Prince Charming, but only wanted a chance to go to a ball? Was Rapunzel really in need of rescue, and what about all the rest of the fair flowers that we've read about waiting a knight in shining armour or its equivalent? Maybe they didn't really want to be rescued?

The poem "Glass, Blood, and Ash" in this collection tells the Cinderella tale from the perspective of a young woman who doesn't particularly want a Prince Charming. "I never wanted it" she says. "I just wanted to look like you for one night. It should be you hoisted up like a sack of wheat...You will like it - they will put emeralds in your hair and a thin gold crown on your head". Argument after argument she mounts in order to convince her sister that she is the one who should be marrying the Prince and not her - all she has to do is fit in the shoe and the Prince won't know the difference.

Of course how much vengeance might she be enacting with this gift, there is the matter of ensuring the foot fits after all. "The doves, their claws still dusty with kitchen-ash./brought me a knife hammered out of a diamond./It is so thin/that a whisper will shatter it,/but so sharp/that the flesh cleaves/believes itself whole./Give me your toe..." Here dear sister, hold out your foot and I'll whittle it down to size so you fit into the glass slipper - then you can be princess. Isn't that a kind, sisterly, thought. Well of course it is, for as Cinderella says -"Give me your toe./ I'm the gentle one, remember?"

Earlier on in the book is the poem "Rampion", another word for Rapunzel, the name of a type of wildflower, where Ms. Valente gives us her take on that particular story. In this version Rapunzel is a compendium of plants parts and grows accordingly. Her mother is a witch who had no milk to feed her with and so she was raised on vegetables of all kind until she became onto a plant herself. "Can you not love me, liebling,/who nestled you in a tower-/a plant will grow only so great as its pot", says the witch to her foundling who she has raised so big, strong and healthy.

Of course when the hero comes to "rescue" her he saw..."a tower wrapped in vines,/in cornstalks like knotted ropes./You slashed into them,searching for a door,/and I cried out three times. You heard only the sweetness of wind singing through basil and mint./and looked up, starving,/your teeth wet and white." Poor Rapunzel, just another flower to be devoured by a man who sees without understanding. Women throughout history have been taken for delicate flowers and treated accordingly, now here is one who really is, and what happens? - She's devoured.

From Rapunzel and Cinderella to Persephone and Sita, women from all over the world, from reality, myth, and folk tale, are given a voice of their own through the words of Catherynne M. Valente. They may not be the voice that some of you are used to, or some of you even like, but that doesn't make them any less valid than the voices that they have spoken with at any other point in time. Folk tales speak with the voice of the folk who are writing them and as an expression of the community the writer represents. Ms. Valente's early education as a Classicist, and her history of publishing critical analysis of myths are sufficient to give her authority to tackle this project credence, but it's her imagination, and beautiful use of language that make it work.

A Guide To Foktales In Fragile Dialects is a magical journey into the world of folk tales and myth led by a guide with a definite passion for the subject. Each of the pieces makes for thought provoking, and sometimes humorous reading. They're all tales that my kind of folk would tell - how about yours?

May 25, 2008

Book Review: Last Evenings On Earth Roberto Bolano

Like most English speaking North Americans, South America, or more truthfully Spanish speaking America, is somewhat of a mystery to me. I'm sure for us up in Canada, where we sometimes forget that Mexico is even part of North America, that it's even more of a closed book than to Americans who have a sizeable Spanish speaking population. Like most of us my introduction to South American literature came through One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, deservedly one of the most celebrated books that came out that continent.

As good as Marquez is, he's not the only, or even the best voice, that's come out of Latin America, and while I've read the work of a few other authors, I can't pretend to be in any sort of position to be making generalities about writing in South America. Yet I think it would be remiss if we didn't keep in mind when reading the work of authors born from the 1950's onward the violent and volatile political situation of that continent.

Nearly every country south of Mexico has had one form of violence or another shape the political landscape of the country. From American backed insurrections and coups in Nicaragua and Chile, the military Juntas of Argentina, to the drug wars of Columbia you would have been hard pressed growing up in South America during that period to live a life that wasn't impacted on by violence in some form or another. When William Faulkner accepted his Nobel Prize for literature in the 1950s he talked about American writers having their prose affected by living under the shadow of the threat of nuclear war. In South America writers of the same generation have lived under the shadow of seeing writers, academics, school teachers, trade unionists, and artists be rounded up and shot by their governments.
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The author of Last Evenings On Earth, a collection of short stories just released by Random House Canada, Roberto Bolano, was imprisoned in the early days of Pinochet's regime in Chile, freed after a year, and lived the rest of his life in exile. Prior to this collection of stories, only two of his novels have been translated into English, so don't feel bad if you've never heard of him, but I think once you have read him, you won't easily forget him.

It's not that he writes about spectacular subjects, or that his characters are what you'd call the shaker's and movers of the worlds they inhabit, yet there is something about their mundaneness that makes them fascinating. Some of them have aspirations to being poets in spite of their obvious lack of talent while others drift through their lives looking for somewhere or something they can call their own. Their struggle to find identity makes them easy for most of us to identify with, but there's an undertone of desperation or melancholy that marks their lives in such a way as to remove them from the ordinary.

The stories are deceptively simple; a young expatriate South American writer living in Spain corresponds with an older expatriate writer about entering into short story contests around the country; a young man on a trip with his father to Acapulco reads a book about French surrealist poets trying to obtain visas out of Vichy France to America in a bid to escape the Nazis; a Chilean poet recounts the strange life of an acquaintance who is a mediocre poet and gives up poetry to write about UFO sightings for a tabloid magazine; and a young woman from the American Mid-west born in the the early 1950's drifts aimlessly around the world from country to country and partner to partner.

What's amazing about Roberto Bolano's writing is what he accomplishes while writing about the seemingly inconsequential activities of people of little or no importance. Why should we care about the fortunes of a failed poet, or the wanderings of the aimless middle class? Somehow though, Bolano is able to draw us into their lives and make them important to us. It wasn't until I took a break from reading, after the third or fourth story, that I realized the impact they were having on me. I kept flashing back onto images from each of the stories; pictures that Bolano had drawn with words that made certain scenes so powerful that I could see them in my mind's eye as if they were stills captured from a movie.
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In the title story, "Last Evenings On Earth", the young man and his father travelling from Mexico City to Acapulco, stop on the road there for a meal in a rundown restaurant where the attraction is they serve iguana that they slaughter on the premises. Bolano describes a scene where they are seated outside in the rain under a canvass tarpaulin, the only seating available, eating their meal, where just his description of them eating and their surroundings speaks volumes about the emotional divide between the two men. The scene is so powerfully written that the heaviness of the humid environment, and the claustrophobia it implies about the relationship between the two men, that even now writing this I have a clear image of them sitting under the canvass with rain dripping from the sides and the dampness rising around them in the form of moist humid air that clings to them like a second skin.

Last Evenings On Earth is as haunting a collection of short stories that you're liable to read today anywhere. Underneath their deceptively ordinary appearance lies a sensibility that has been shaped by years of exile and exposure to violence. Whether deliberate or not Roberto Bolano has drawn upon his own experiences as a political prisoner and exile and imbued each of his stories with the sense of longing and loss that can't help but ensue as a result. Yet in spite of this underlying melancholy, there is an inherent beauty to each of them that makes them a joy to read.

I don't know if Roberto Bolano is indicative of his generation of South American writers, but I do know that if this collection of stories is an indication of his talents, than he is a writer whose work deserves the spotlight as much as his illustrious predecessors. You can order a copy of Last Evenings On Earth directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon Canada

April 30, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord Chapter Six

Whether or not I fell like the proverbial ton of bricks, it sure felt like I had been hit over the head with them. When I came to it was with feelings I'd normally associate with the morning after the night before washing over me. The pain cutting through my head made it feel like I was ready to be outfitted for a Frankenstein stitch job, or at the least some sort of zipper assembly that would keep the top part of my head from separating from the bottom.

But there were some noticeable differences, most obviously being the fact that it seemed my legs were bound to the chair I was plopped into and my hands in lap were first tied to themselves than connected to my feet's bonds via yet another cord. For vegetarians they certainly knew their way around trussing the main course for roasting and basting at 375 degrees for a couple of hours until done.

Whoever was responsible was either brilliant or blind lucky and it didn't matter which as the result was still the same. Any time I tried to fidget with my feet in the hopes of loosing their bounds the ropes around my hands seemed to tighten and vice versa. I figured by the time I had loosened anything significantly either my hands or feet would have fallen off due to lack of circulation..

What with my head still feeling like the axe was still sticking out of the back at a jaunty angle, and my limbs trussed like a pork roast, I was quite content to sit quietly and await what was ever coming. It could explain why the next thing I knew was that I heard the sound of voices whispering in front of me. Dozing off had the unexpected payoff of reducing my head pain substantially, as well as allowing some free eavesdropping time as the voices were obviously under the impression I was still out.

"I thought you said you didn't hit him that hard? He looks like he's got brain damage," said the first voice. It sounded like a woman's, deeper than most but still a woman and I suspected it was the one who I had followed into the dead end.

"Hey you were the one who was all panicky about being followed. Anyway what does it matter, he's just another Fed. We'll give him a shot, find out what he knows then let him go. If he shows up back at headquarters sounding like he's a few bricks short of a load whose going to notice over there? Most of them talk like they've seen recent contact with the flat edge of a 2 X 4 anyway."

They thought I was a fed, while it was slightly insulting; it was also understandable given their circumstances. It also made life both a little easier and a little more precarious at the same time. If I was able to convince them of the fact that I was working the same side of the street as they were and not a fed they might not look on me with such suspicion. Of course if I wasn't able to do that I could end up being injected with some sort of truth drug that also seemed to remove a good chunk of a person's reasoning skills.

"Well the horsemen are going be happy if you keep making their job easier by knocking out everyone whose sneaking around behind their backs trying to figure who offed the professor, and who is trying to stuff the Kyoto accord so far up a chimney at the same time, that it will just be so many more toxic emissions if it can't be found soon." I had decided to try and brazen it out with the truth, cause sometimes you never know people might believe you.

It was kind of hard for me to decipher their reactions as I was seated in the centre of the pool of light cast by a naked bulb hanging over my head like that Greek dude's sword, and they were lurking in the shadows. I could tell that I had startled them, but that could just as easily be put down to them not knowing I was among the conscious more than anything else.

Whatever other effects my little speech might have had on them, at least it got them to come into my circle of light. I was right about the woman's voice, it belonged to the one who I'd followed from the store. She was your typical granola number down to her lack of make up, thick socks and expensive German made sandals. It didn't stop her from being attractive, but in an earnest political sort of way that I knew from experience could fast become tedious.

The guy was cut from the same cloth; only he had a slightly harder edge to him. He was that new breed of political activist who the cops hadn't figured out yet, computer and tech savvy, with no worries about employing violence if attacked. Cops hadn't managed to upgrade their thinking from the days of passive resistance and when they ran into people who picked up their tear gas canisters and calmly lobbed them back at them it still confused them.

The demonstrators had their own version of shock troops now who would stand up to the first wave of a baton flailing riot cop charge to give their more passive brethren and sisters a chance to escape. The guy in front of me was a prime example of the type, tall, leanly muscled and tough as whip cord. I had no trouble believing that he'd been the one to administer the love tap that left me counting teeth with the tip of my tongue.

After, I don't know maybe thirty seconds – maybe an hour – of them staring at me and me trying to stare back at them without staring because it seemed to hurt just a little too much to use my eyes that much, and without anybody saying anything. I was just about to try again when she spoke up.

"What do you know about Professor Magnesen?" she asked

"Now that's an interesting first question to ask, not why were your following me, or what do you want, but about a person who I haven't said I even know. What I do know is that you know him, which I didn't know before; thanks" I said brightly.

She certainly turned a very pretty shade of red when she flushed, whether it was with anger or embarrassment didn't make much of a difference in my book. He on the other hand didn't have the same redeeming qualities when he flushed. If he was pissed at her for giving something away, or pissed at me for being a wiseass was irrelevant as he was bound to take his displeasure out on me not her.

"Okay smart ass we you've proved that you aren't just another pretty face, but why should we believe that you're not a cop and you still didn't answer her question about what you know about the professor. So why don't you be a good guy and answer the lady's questions and maybe I'll forget what a rude bastard you were to her." He reached behind him and pulled one of the largest hunting knives I've ever seen out of belt sheath and began cleaning his nails with it. He saw me staring at it, and nodded his head once as encouragement that I shouldn't be shy about speaking my piece for much longer.

"Well first of all I know he was working on a project for the government that would have reduced green house gasses substantially while actually improving the economy instead of harming it, until the government changed and his program funding was yanked. I know that he started meeting with some environmentalists about something or other and that some government department was starting to get very interested in his files at home."

I paused for breath here and tried to gauge their reactions, but neither of them was giving anything away. They both were just staring at me waiting to hear what I had to say next. So far anything I had told them didn't tell them what they really wanted to know; who I was. The feds would have known all that I had said up till now so they still didn't have any reason to believe me when I said I wasn't working for the government. I was going to have to lay as many cards as possible on the table.

"A short while I was contacted by a client to investigate the disappearance of the Kyoto accord. I got a call at the office one night and I was supposed to meet someone over at a strip club in Hull. He showed up alright, but he arrived to see me with one of the biggest hunting knives I've ever seen sticking out of his back." I said this last bit being very careful not to look at the blade whose point the guy was now digging into the wooden tabletop in front of me.

"Since then I've been trying to trace backward through his life in an attempt to figure out who killed him and what he'd been working on that has people so scared that even after he's dead they're still trying to shut him up." I followed you", pointing with my chin at the woman" because I hoped you'd be able to help me find some answers. Given my reception I can only hope that we might be of some assistance to each other."

The guy and the woman exchanged glances, she raised an eyebrow and he nodded his head in return. He kept the knife in his hand and came at me with point pointed directly at my chest. He flipped it over in his hand so that the cutting edge was pointing up and swung the knife up and through the ropes binding my wrists. He then bent down and sliced through the cords around my feet.

He stepped back and took up his position beside the table again as I shook my hands and feet in an attempt to restore some of the circulation that I'd lost while I'd been strapped in. More and more I'm convinced that I would never be cut out for bondage. I just don't like mixing work with pleasure that much.

I was still busy rubbing at my wrists and ankles when the woman spoke up. "Look", she said, "we're really sorry about all this", waving her hand as if taking in the basement, my skull and being tied to a chair, "but ever since the professor was killed we've been really scared about what's going on. Why would they want to kill him just because he had good ideas about how we could reach our commitment to the Kyoto accord and be able to help other countries do the same."

"Yeah", said the guy," I hope I didn't do too much damage, but our nerves are stretched pretty raw right about now. Not only can't we figure out why anyone would have wanted the professor dead, we don't have much idea as to who could have done it. When you showed up nosing around…well we though we might be able to crack you open about who you were working for and get some answers."

He sighed, and shook his head. "But we're still no further ahead and there aren't even any clues to go on. It doesn't sound like you know that much more than we do." He sucked in a big breath of air." Damn this is frustrating. He was so close to answers, in fact we believe he might have even had them already, but was playing it close to the vest as he could see the departments he had built for research and development slowly being dismantled due to budget cut backs and funding not being renewed. He had contacted us late in the summer before the Election, knowing that even a potential Stephen Harper victory would destroy his life's work"

"When they couldn't do that, they destroyed him instead" her voice was choked as if close to tears, and I looked at her closely. "The reason he approached us was that I had been a student to his at the University. One day, accidentally he said, by coincidence he said he came in here and we got to chatting. He wanted to know what I was up to, If I had kept up being active in environmental groups after leaving school. He also wanted to know if I had been following the discussions about global warming in the papers and was as worried as he was by what he called the irresponsible science issuing from some world capitals"

She paused as if to gather her thoughts, or to just take the deep breath that would see her through the rest of her story. "After a while he asked me if I knew a couple of other people who were active in environmental groups who might like to learn some information that they could put to good use. So we began to go over to his house at odd hours to try and shake off any potential tails. Judging by the outcome to date we haven't succeeded in doing much except getting our patron killed"

The silence that followed her little speech was exceptionally empty as we all sat with our own thoughts for a minute or two. Finally she broke it and in a rather choked voice looked at me, then over at her erstwhile companion, and asked the question whose answer I had come looking for. "What do we do now?"

April 5, 2008

Book Review: The Return Of The Sword Edited By Jason M Waltz

The first real Sword and Sorcery stories I ever read were ones featuring Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian. To be honest about it I can't remember whether or not I read them in their book form first, or in the Marvel comic adaptations, but to be honest there wasn't much difference between the two when it came to literary merit. In fact Conan was probably the ideal comic book character.

Robert E. Howard had created him as so much larger than life, and involved him in such spectacular adventures, the stories were ideally suited to the comic book media. In fact the character was so much a figure of fantasy that it really didn't stand up to the scrutiny of live action and the movies were a great disappointment. They weren't even bad enough to be good. Even with Conan being played by the walking, talking cartoon character, Arnold, there was something about live action that robbed the character of his ability to be larger than life.

That's what makes the whole genre so much fun in the first place as far I'm concerned. Nobody reads Sword and Sorcery for it's intellectual qualities after all, they read it for the escapism offered by the adventures. You read them for the very qualities that make it impossible for them to be filmed; the ability to fight twenty-five opponents at once; take on a multi-headed, multi-armed, poisonous creature without breaking a sweat; and getting the scantily clad wench in the end.

The scantily clad wench was of course one of the primary drawing cards for Sword and Sorcery's original demographic; adolescent males. Thankfully it turned out that women liked a good sword fight as much as men, and the genre started to gain a level of enlightenment when it came to the objectification of women; especially when women started creating their own characters and writing the stories. With women stepping out of the harem and onto the battle field the whole complexion of the genre changed.

With the stories no longer being geared strictly for the guys who lived in their basements playing Dungeons & Dragons, the plots became more imaginative, and the characters more complex, while still retaining the all the exciting bits that made them so attractive in the first place. You don't need to look any further than Rogue Blades Entertainment newly published anthology, The Return Of The Sword, edited by Jason M. Waltz, for proof of just how far the genre's come since its comic book days.

Of course that's not to say there aren't stories in the collection that show a fond attachment for those roots, and feature lots of good old fashioned sword play and witchcraft. Let's face it, there's always going to be a market and a need for that type of story, but here they're balanced with stories that delve a little deeper into the psyche of the warrior, and look beneath the armour, behind the shield, and under the helm.

The very first story in the collection, "Alter Of The Moon" by Stacey Berg, is an example of the newer style. Now don't be put off by the title, it's not some New Age, pagan priestess propaganda posing as a fantasy story, rather it's about the price a warrior pays for being a hero, and the price paid for the gift of a magic sword.

Karen had saved her kingdom with the mysterious sword that sang to her and her alone. On the night of a new moon, with her homeland on the verge of destruction the sword called her to it, and gifted her with it's song that made her invincible in battle. Step by step, battle by battle Karen had fought until she had repelled the invading forces and her land was safe and at peace. Yet when the final battle was fought, and the last enemy fled, she was not at peace, as the sword still sang it's deadly song in her ear.

A dream takes her on a desperate journey; a dream of a path that may not exist. Yet if it does, it might just see her being rid of the sword and breaking free of the killing song in her head. While "Alter Of The Moon" is not your typical adventure story, Ms. Berg has included most of the elements that we have come to expect from Sword and Sorcery; magic, swordplay, and mystery. It was even irrelevant that the characters were women, they could just as easily have been men. What mattered was telling the story and Ms Berg did a great job of that which is what matters most of all.

Now if you wanted a story that was slightly more typical of the old style of Sword and Sorcery, Jeff Draper's "The Battle Of Raven Kill" fits the bill nicely. Oth chooses to stand and fight so his clan's people can escape those who would kill them all. While they flee in an attempt to find some safe haven he blocks the one narrow bridge the invaders have to cross to get at them. He knows they can only come at him two at a time and he is willing to buy his people time as long a there is life left in his body.

Draper does a great job of describing the action, and keeping it real. Movies will sometimes show a single man holding dozens at bay when they can only get at him one or two at a time, but somehow they don't seem to be able to capture the reality of the desperation that must grip the person making that stand. Oth knows that his chances of survival are slim, but he knows the longer he can survive the better. As the battle continues he takes wounds. At first they're minor, but as they continue to bleed and his reflexes slow from blood loss and fatigue, the wounds inflicted gain in severity.

"Why don't you just die" the opposing war chief keeps taunting Oth. Finding a reason for being put on the earth is something that plagues many people. For Oth, this moment on the bridge where he has chosen to make his stand to preserve his people, is that reason. "Let this be why I was created" he prays just before the enemy's war party shows up. Duty and self are one for him, and as long he holds onto that he will win. Doubt, not the swords and spears of his foe, is his biggest enemy.

Draper has done a masterful job of giving a very realistic description of close and horrible infighting. No matter what some Sword and Sorcery writers will have you believe, it is impossible for a mere human to fight under such circumstances without having damage inflicted upon them. But sometimes the human spirit is stronger than flesh, and Draper makes that come alive as well.

I could probably go on like this for all the stories in the book, because they all have something of value, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention one other piece in particular. It's not actually a story, rather its what the editor Jason wisely refers to as a distillation of knowledge. In the middle of the book is a wonderful article by Eric Knight called "Storytelling" where he takes you through the ins and outs of how to get the most out of the story that you want to tell. For anybody with any aspirations to storytelling, no matter what the genre, its an invaluable piece of writing.

The Return Of The Sword is a wonderful collection of Sword and Sorcery short fiction. Editor Jason M. Waltz has gathered together some of the finest examples of the genre that I've read in a long time. Sword and Sorcery has come a long way since the days of the "noble savage" wrecking havoc, but that hasn't stopped it from being a lot of fun and overflowing with action. If you're looking for a wonderful break from your daily grind, there is nothing better than this collection of mayhem to take your mind off things.

March 28, 2008

Book Review: Tank Girl: Armadillo! Alan C. Martin

I remember an interview with John Cleese of Monty Python fame where he described how they came up with the skits they performed on their old television series. They would, he said, simply take the most illogical premise to its logical conclusion. That was all very well and good, but half the time I don't think I could even get my head around what the premise was on half the old skits on Monty Python's Flying Circus let alone working them out to their logical conclusion.

In fact the thing I used to like best about that show and a few others of similar ilk was that they didn't have anything for the logical brain to hold onto. All you could do was sit back, enjoy the ride, and don't be too bothered about not understanding the whys and what-for of the action. It was a blissful descent into pure and utter chaotic anarchy that seems to be something uniquely English. Maybe it has something to do with living in a society which has been so rigidly class bound for so long that invites such out and out anarchy as a response.

Whatever the reason, the Brits have a long history of being right over the edge when it comes to comedy. Predating Monty Python with The Goon Show and Beyond The Fringe, and continuing on with stuff like The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Red Dwarf. It's not only television and radio that's been host to their comic insanity (Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy first saw life as a Radio show) but comics as well. Of these, the reigning queen of over the top is without a doubt Tank Girl
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The Tank Girl comic, and the indomitable character herself, first saw the light of day in 1988 thanks to the talents of writer Alan C. Martin and illustrator Jamie Hewlett. Together the two men created three graphic novels featuring the outrageous adventures of the girl and her tank. She and her friends fight a never ending war against injustice, anybody that pisses them off, and perform feats of daring that usually involve high powered ammunition and lots of things that go boom. Cutting a tank wide swath through the Australian Outback, they eat well, drink lots, and knock over the occasional bank when in need of cash.

While it might appear on the surface that Tank Girl and her friends are random acts of violence simply waiting to happen, there's far to them than meets the eye. To gain a deeper understanding of the maelstrom that is Tank Girl, you really need to read Tank Girl: Armadillo!, her first completely prose adventure written by Alan C. Martin and published by Titan Books.

Tank Girl: Armadillo! features a novella of the same name, plus some bonus features including a couple of comic scripts awaiting illustrations, poems, and other short writings where our heroine is in full action mode. It's the novella though where most of the action takes place and also where we get a whole bunch more information about Tank Girl herself, and a little bit of insight into the philosophy behind Alan C. Martin's creation.

In his introduction to Tank Girl: Armadillo! he talks about how we are continually bombarded with sensual stimulation until we are literally drowning in information overload. To combat this we raise shells to defend ourselves and learn how to shut off our sensory receptors. Unfortunately by doing this we also block our flow of creative energy. In this way, Martin says, the modern world refuses us our right to be who we are.

Like armadillos we're naked under our armour, and if we didn't create this armour we would be swamped and overwhelmed. According to Martin we need to take control of our armour and not let it form as a reaction to the greed and manipulation of advertisers, politicians, and the rest of the information merchants in order to survive. That's where Tank Girl comes in; her armour is in plain view and she makes damn sure that nobody is going to sell her snake oil of any shape or form.
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So that's the context for reading Tank Girl: Armadillo and it's all very well and good, but I defy anybody to remember that while reading the story. Well maybe it's percolating somewhere in the back of your skull, but the truth of the matter is that it's far too easy to get caught up in the sheer crazy, insanity of the story. I think the secret to enjoying this story is that you make sure your seat belt is securely fastened, your dis-belief checked at the door, and you hang on tight because your in for the ride of my life.

You see the self righteous folk of the town of Chankers, (rhymes with wankers), have been abusing the love of Tank Girls' life, Booga the kangaroo, since he was just young. Now they have finally crossed the line by kidnapping him, tying him up in the basement of the town church and punishing him for being a sinner. There's only one thing to do in a case like this; bring down death and destruction with all the armament the tank can bring to bear.

Of course it's not just death and destruction, there's also some random acts of stupidity and other completely nonsensical incidents which don't bear repeating, but are all good clean fun. Well not really - more like heavy duty anarchic chaos that's good for the soul and bad for the establishment. That's the thing about Tank Girl, she's got a fine sense of justice and a good notion of right and wrong. Sure she might over react just a teensy bit now and then, but sometimes the only way people are going to listen to you is if you drop a small nuclear device on their town.

I think what I appreciated most about Tank Girl: Armadillo! is Alan C. Martin's writing. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book when it came to how the story was going to be told, but not only can he write some mean chaotic prose, he also give us pauses in the action which are not only poetic, but actual poetry. It might sound corny, but these poetic interludes show us the Tank Girl who would exist if she didn't have to be concerned about wearing armour to protect herself from the havoc of everyday existence.

Tank Girl: Armadillo! is the natural heir to the British comedy shows of the 1960's and 1970's like Monty Python's Flying Circus in that it also takes an illogical situation to its most logical conclusion. The only difference is that Tank Girl: Armadillo! has far more basis in reality than those other shows did. On the surface this is a hoot and a holler, but underneath it all is a call to arms.

We could all use a little more Tank Girl in our lives and Tank Girl: Armadillo! is just the answer. It goes on sale in mid April at book dealers of class and style everywhere.

March 10, 2008

The Case Of Missing Kyoto Accord: Chapter Four

Well it looked like I had run into a dead end. I should have known better than to think any of the bar's phones or their accoutrements, which is a fancy way of saying the shit that goes with something, would have survived the types of drunks, junkies, and liars that habituate a strip bar. Probably the first drunk husband whose wife had told him not to come home from wherever he was had performed the Charles Atlas trick on the "Let My Fingers Do the Walking" tome at the first booth.

The second looked like it had been used to mop up something that I didn't want to have a better acquaintance with and the third, like someone had used it as practice before they perforated the late, lamented Doctor Magneson. Sighing a curse or two at the perfidy of my fellow men I headed for the office where I was certain I could find a phone book in somewhat better shape than any of these relics.

After two hours of questioning my sanity and a half bottle of whiskey later I came across the phone book for the National Capital Region (Ottawa, Hull, and anywhere else in the vicinity that uncivil servants might hang their coats and hats) propping up a window. It had sustained a little damage from water and the neighbouring pigeons, and the mice had absconded with the zeds (poor as synagogue mice as they were making they're way through the book backwards) for comfort, but at least the section where gorgeous Scandinavian blondes kept their phone numbers looked to be intact.

That is if they kept their phone number in phone books at all. Two hours of scouring the phone book only confirmed the fact that there was no Magnesons to be found with a listed phone number anywhere within the confines of this sorry excuse for a city. There are 600 Martins, and four different ways that people seem to spell MacDonald, Mcdonald, MaCdonald, and Macdonald, but no damn Magnesons.

Some items when they cause you frustration don't have the decency to give you any means of release. A phone book on the other hand has a nice bit of heft to it so when you decide to chuck it across the room it will make a resounding thud. Indeed if you throw it hard enough not only will it make a satisfying noise, it will rip through cheap drywall like an elephant's fart through tissue paper.

It took my a few seconds to realize that the ringing sound I was hearing in my ears was unrelated to the minor bit of renovation I had begun seconds ago, and had more to do with the phone sitting on my desk than anything else. I was using less then the usual requisite number of brain cells required to carry on a phone conversation when I picked up the receiver; half of them being awash in the best part of a fifth of Canadian Club, another chunk trying to visualize how the filing cabinet would look on the other side of the door, and the remainder trying to figure out how long it would take the mice to work there way backwards through the whole alphabet now that they had ready access to the source.

So it took me a second or two to remember what I was supposed to do with the piece of cheap plastic in my hand out of which a sultry voice was calling hello with increasing amounts of urgency. I tried to shake off thoughts of mice in knit yarmulkes and me wearing a truss, the way a dog shakes off water, and was rewarded with the office attempting to spin me into orbit. It was only by catching the desk with my chin that I was able to prevent myself from hitting the floor.

Pain has the remarkable ability to clear your brain and let you focus on the events at hand. After the sparks that had appeared out of nowhere in front of my eyes had vanished I noticed that I was holding on to the phone. I was just about to hang it up when I heard a vaguely familiar sounding voice saying, "Oh my God what's going on, is there anybody there? Hello, hello?"

"Lady could you keep your voice down I've got quite the headache all of a sudden and you're not helping any by yelling away like this" There was now a much appreciated silence at the other end of the line which allowed me to regain a little bit of my composure so that I could go about this the right way. After all she had just lost the man who I assumed to be her father in a rather grisly fashion and that called for a certain amount of delicacy. (Who else did you think it was going to be on the phone at this time of night in this kind of story – sheesh)

"Why did you do it? Why did you kill your father tonight Ms. Magnesen? I saw you running away from the bar just as he keeled over at my feet so don't deny you were there and that you fled. Any normal girl would have stayed, you see your father drop to the floor like a ton of bricks and you're heading for the proverbial hills – something ain't right with that picture Ms. Magnesen and your gonna have to help me bring it into focus."

There was a pause from the other end of the phone line, followed by the unmistakeable sounds of someone taking a large drag off a cigarette followed by a long slow exhale. Visualizing in my head just how those actions would affect her lips and the thoughts that sprang to mind with those images left me a little light headed again. I barely recovered in time to hear what she had to say next.

"I guess I'm not what you'd call a normal girl Mr?" her voicing trailing away in a suggestive question mark led me to quickly interject in a still somewhat shaky voice "just call me Steve, Ms. Magnesen" to which she replied "there's no need for you to be formal either, Steve; call me Gertrude" Immediately destroying any of the earlier mental images that I had envisioned. Gertrude is just one of those names where even knowing the person in question would look good in a potato sack makes me think of particularly hairy great aunts.

Another cigarette inhalation pause followed this exchange of names, this time bereft of any accompanying imagery, until she continued with, " But then again my dad and I hadn't been having what you would call a normal existence for the past while"

I made appreciative, and what I hoped were encouraging noises, and made myself comfortable on the floor, noticing with contentment that the remainder of the fifth was within easy reach having rolled onto the floor in the confusion. I hooked the bottle over to me with my foot and was carefully unscrewing the cap as she began her story.

"My dad and I had moved up to Ottawa a few years ago, my mother had died from cancer and neither of us could bear to be around places that reminded us of her. He felt especially guilty because his work had kept him from home during a great deal of her last months with us and he knew that he wished that he could have spent more time with her.

I had ended up being her primary care giver, having to bathe her, change her diapers when she could no longer get up to go to the bathroom on her own, and eventually feed her. While he was off at conferences on climate change and global warming I'd be at home making broth and rolling her over in bed to prevent bed sores. He told me later that he was sorry that he had left so much of the burden on my shoulders but he couldn't stand to see her like what she was becoming.

That broken collection of bones and skin with no intellect or brain wasn't the person he had married. No matter how hard he tried he couldn't feel anything but revulsion for her when he was around her, and that ate at him like termites in a clapboard house. He had worshiped the ground she had walked on until the moment she had gotten sick, treating her like she was royalty, and then all of a sudden he found he couldn't go near her."

I was fighting back tears by this time, although that could have been residual pain and medicinal whiskey, so I wasn't all that surprised that she made a slight choking sound as if overcome with emotion and had to pause for a second. As there was nothing really that could be said, I said nothing and let her take all the time she needed to compose herself before she continued.

"Anyway when the previous government was working out ways to try and ensure that Canada was going to meet its Kyoto accord commitments a position became available requiring someone of dad's expertise and skills. I decided to go back to school and finish the thesis work I had begun when Mom had gotten sick and we began the process of putting our live back together.

Those couple of years were great; everyone dad was working with were excited about coming up with solutions that would not only see Canada meet its obligations, but actually exceed them. It was so great to see dad taking an interest in life again. There had been a time just after mom died that I was worried for him, and that I thought he might be going off the deep end into depression, but this new project had revitalized him.

Of course it was too good to be true, and all those other damn clichés about good stuff coming to an end, and last fall when it began to look like the Conservative Party Of Canada had a good chance of forming the next government, dad started asking questions about the accord's future if the change were to happen and it didn't look good.

The word he got was that even if they were able to cut emissions by fifty per cent and improve the economy at the same time by an equal amount, the Conservatives were going to pull the plug on the deal no matter what. When words like 'setting a dangerous precedent for government regulatory powers and interference in the market place' start being bandied about, you could have discovered the cure for cancer and AIDS and you knew your funding would be killed and your program shut down.

Dad became like a figure obsessed; he began working all hours of the day and night in an effort to come up with a devise that could be used to convert carbon dioxide and other dangerous emissions into harmless substances when released into the atmosphere. He knew that even if the government had no intention of ever making use of this technology that there were others who would and could.

It was just before Christmas and after the election had been called that he let me in on a little of what he was planning, albeit it indirectly. He told me that I shouldn't be surprised if he started to receive visitors at home at all hours of the day and night, and that I shouldn't make a big deal out of it. He also said it would be a good idea if I didn't tell anybody about them either."

She stopped to light another cigarette and gather her thoughts for what I assumed was the crux of the matter. I had a good idea where this was going and beginning to see how it ended as badly as it did. I had long since abandoned the bottle of whiskey and was sitting propped up against the desk with my legs splayed out in front of me. Looking out the office window I could see the sky was beginning to change colour; the clouds of the previous night had dispersed and there was a faint blush appearing along the eastern horizon line. It looked like it was going to be a nice day for somebody, somebody who probably wasn't named Gertrude Magneson.

"Maybe I should have said something to him, asked him more about what he was doing, but he looked like he had hope for the first time since the beginning of the fall when we started to hear the rumours of our demise. After all we'd been through there was no way I was going to be the one to pull the rug out from under him.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, up to Christmas and then twice more before New Years, the visits took place. They would usually happen between midnight and four in the morning and the person would arrive on bicycle or foot. Most of the time they'd only come one at a time, but on the last couple of occasions all three of them came together and these visits were also in daytime. It was as if they either believed they were completely safe or they no longer cared whether they were being observed.

The two men and a woman all dressed and looked pretty much the same. Long hair, bulky sweaters, fancy sandals with thick socks on no matter what the weather, and the same zealous fire in their eyes at all times. They were all sort of pale, like they didn't eat enough and never had anything to drink except water and herbal tea. The woman looked at me like I was some sort of evil monster and the two men would sneak looks at me when they didn't think I could see and they knew she wasn't looking.

Obviously they weren’t supposed to approve of me, the way I dressed or looked or something, but that didn't stop them from drooling just like any other straight male does the first time he sees me. I thought they were judgemental little hypocrites for judging me by my appearance, they were probably the types who protested against just that sort of thing, but I didn't say anything because my dad assured me their visits were temporary and they were helping him out in some way or another. Sure enough after those last couple of meetings before New Year's Eve we never saw them again.

After Christmas vacation my dad went back to work and waited for the inevitable to happen. After the elections rumours were flying fast and furious, but dad remained calm and when I asked him about it he just smiled and shrugged. But everything changed again a week after the oily bastards announced they were reneging on the Kyoto accord in order to 'seek a Canadian solution'.

I was at home working on my thesis and two men came to the door. They should have been wearing badges that said undercover R.C.M.P. officer or at least kept their stupid hats on they were so obvious. They said they were colleagues of dad's from work and that he had sent them by the house for some files he needed that he kept at home, and would I mind letting them come in to get them. I told them I would have to check with him first, and pretended to walk back into the house to use the phone, but in reality just slipped around the corner and observed them in the reflection from the hall mirror.

Not much of a surprise that they didn't wait for me to come back from making my 'phone call'. They left the door open when they left, so I did a full production for them of coming out on the step and looking puzzled as to what had just happened. I also used the time to spot where they had parked their Crown Victoria and watched as they pretended to be gay lovers necking in the front seat.

When I told dad about it he asked if I were okay and when I assured him I was, he laughed a little. But it wasn't as if it were at anything funny. He said they had searched the lab as well but they weren't going to find anything because, and he pointed to his head, it's all up here.

It was a week ago that he started to get worried about things again, but he didn't want to say anything to me about it. I had been seeing the same two cops who had come to the door around town, just happening to be where I was every so often. They made no effort to hide themselves, like they wanted to let me know they were keeping an eye on me for whatever reason.

I think it was the fact that they were bothering me that finally convinced him that we needed to find somebody to help us. Somebody we could trust in a situation that looked like it was getting further out of hand then he had expected. I think he had hoped that when they didn't find any files they could use they would leave him alone, but that didn't look like it was happening.

I was to follow him to the bar where the two of you were meeting last night to try and see if anybody had followed him, but it was so crowded that I couldn't even see either of you for a while. The next thing I knew was that he was dead. I was so scared that his killer was standing somewhere near me that all I could think of was getting out of there as quickly as possible. My father's dead Steve, and all I know is that it has something to do with the Kyoto accord and the Canadian government. Can you help me?"

February 25, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord Chapter Three

It took what seemed forever and a day for the boys in blue to get finished with me that night. I guess I was lucky it was only the local boys and the R.C.M.P. didn't think it worth getting down off their high horses for a simple bar knifing. Probably if they had known what was behind it all they would have pried their saddles loose from their butts, but I'd been playing it close to the vest so far. As far as anybody could tell I was only another witness to a senseless act of random violence.

Well that's what I thought it looked like, but Ottawa's finest must have had other thoughts. The obligatory uniform had shown up twenty minutes after the first screams and in the meantime the bar had emptied quicker then a tourist's bowel in Mexico. By the time the boys from Homicide made it to the scene it was only me, the peelers, the girls who served the drinks and the bartender.

The bartender hadn't looked at all happy when I suggested we call the cops, but even he couldn't think of a way of disposing of this problem. While I had been phoning 911, he had been on the other line to his boss. The type of guy who owns these bars likes to know when the police are going to be visiting his premises just as a matter of principle. Usually it's to check whether the paperwork for the Eastern European girls' will be needed or not.

Sometimes the owners will give these girls an incentive for working by "holding" on to their documents for them – to keep both the girls and the documents from getting lost. Those girls usually have had someone do them the great favour of buying them a ticket out of their shit hole village in the Balkans and offering them a job in the "Entertainment and Hospitality" business. If they were lucky it only meant stripping.

But they didn't have to worry, the homicide dicks took one look at the seven inches of steel (it only looked like three to me, but the guys who write up the reports think the bigger the better, although I've always thought it's not the size that matters; dead after all is dead) sticking out of the guy's back and are immediately on to bigger fish to fry. Me.

McIntosh and Gates might have been nice people off the job, hell they probably were kind to widows and orphans and all that other good stuff too, but being homicide cops for twenty years can make you pretty jaded when it comes to the job. Thankfully they didn't dislike me personally, only on principle. Detective work should be left to the cops and private dicks should stick to ruining people's marriages was how Gates had summed it up the first time he met me. (I don't think he ever found out about the manila envelope full of prints of him and the little Russian stripper that his ex – wife had paid me two thousand dollars for)

"Look who it is Mac, the big time private detective holding up a bar with a corpse leaning on his size elevens. That's a sight to warm the cockles of a person's heart, providing of course they have one." He was a skinny little guy who looked like he should have a cigarette dangling out his mouth as he was always talking out of the other side.

"One what? A heart or a cockles?" was McIntosh's humorous reply. He was a regular laugh riot that guy. He was an average build sort of type; the kind whose clothes hang around them to see if anything interesting was going to happen to the body and gradually lose what ever shape they might have had as they give into the inevitability of gravity.

They were both eyeing me in that appreciative manner that lions have for fresh meat, and Mac mimed flipping a coin. Nodding in an unspoken agreement Gates moved off to talk to the girls and the bartender while Mac figured he'd keep me company in case the body started to scare me.

It was one of those awkward moments between two men in a bar ever since they had banned smoking in public places. When you don't have the action of lighting a cigarette to use as cover for starting a conversation you can feel mighty exposed. To cover he fished in his jacket pocket and brought out his little flip-top note book and cheap chewed pen and began scanning the notes he had taken down from the preliminary results given him by the scene of the crime boys and the uniforms who had got here first.

After that little show he looked over at me, nodding his head imperceptibly to give me permission to talk. He knew that it as a matter of course I would be telling him as little as possible about any case I was working on and the only information he was going to get from me was stuff he already had. This was just their way of letting me know what was what.

So I told him I'd come to the bar to meet a contact who had called me over the phone, and that while waiting for him to show up this guy had fallen down dead at my feet after trying to swallow a sword with his sternum. McIntosh obviously had something up his sleeve that he was waiting to drop on me like an Acme anvil taking out the Coyote. He was just letting me play out some line so that he could see if I'd let slip with anything he was going to be able to use to string me up with.

When he played his trump card it wasn't anything that I wasn't prepared for, it was all just part of the game we played. The corpse was my contact it turns out, or the fact that he had my business card, with the time of our meeting and the bar's address scribbled on the back of it would have to rank up there with one of the largest coincidences on record.

Mac stood there waving the familiar card with the unfamiliar writing on the back in it's little evidence bag, as if dangling it in front of my face would make me all of a sudden break down to confessing the killing of all my clients. But I was made of harder stuff than that and came right back with my own question.

"Since you seem to think this guy must have been a client, why not give me his name. I hate it when they die on you before they've introduced themselves. It really puts a damper on future relationship possibilities and collecting from their next of kin"

I could see him mulling it over, wondering how much it damage it would cause his reputation if he were just to give me the name. At the same time I could let something slip that might just tie me a little bit tighter to the corpse. Finally he cleared his throat and recited what little information they did have. "His name was Dr. Samuel Magnesun, but he's not the sort of doctor you go to when you have a sore throat. He works, well worked for I guess you'd say now, the National Research Council here in Ottawa. We haven't been able to find out what he'd been working on yet; we're still waiting to hear back from his section head at the Council. I hadn't said more then dead in a bar, when the words National Security came whistling down the line, which than went deader than a dodo."

He eyed me even more expectedly now, to see if I could add to anything to the sketch of information that he had gathered. Even if I could give him something more, I think we both had the feeling of inevitability that strikes you when something is going to be swept under the carpet. National Security could explain away everything from not accepting tenders for military equipment so you could award the contracts to your buddies or those whose support you, to explaining the paperclip shortage at the Revenue Canada offices.

Truth be told I was thinking of a particular Nordic looking blonde and wondering what her relationship was with this middle aged chap laid out on the floor with a rib separator jammed into the area of his heart from the back and whether or not she'd require some consoling, when a loud throat clearing brought me back to reality.

Reality in the shape of Gates glowering at me from McIntosh's shoulder and saying, "Dick head are you listening to me? Unless you got something important to say, you've got to clear out. I've just got the word that the men in the grey suits are on their way to check out the body before we can take it down to the morgue. I only hope they hurry it up as this guy is starting to stiffen in that shape. Families hate it when they have to bury the corpse in pieces cause we had to break it to fit it into the bags."

I don't need to be told twice to vamoose when the feds are going to be making an appearance, but their appearance started to change the whole completion of this little exercise. What did my friend the corpse, the late Mr. Magnesun have to do with the Kyoto accord? Had he made some sort of breakthrough that certain bodies wanted silenced? Or was it just he had knowledge that ran contrary to what the government and its supporters wanted the public to believe about the accord's necessity?

Stopping on my way out of the bar, I checked the least vandalised pay phone for a directory and as I suspected there was only one listing for a Magnesun in the phone book. It wasn't that late yet, so I figured I'd swing by the address listed on my way home and see if a certain ash blond head was around to talk to.

I could offer my condolences, maybe some comfort, and hopefully pick up a few answers about the good Doctor's work and how or if it related to the Kyoto accord and what it was she was doing in the bar earlier that evening. With the feds swooping down on Magnesun's corpse like so many vultures, it would only be a matter of time before they had everything about him and the Kyoto accord under lock and key where they would never see the light again.

I still had far more questions then answers, but at least I was beginning to know which questions to ask. Like why were the feds so keen to keep the information about the Kyoto accord quiet? One way or another I was going to find me some answers, and I didn't care who I had to walk over or sleep with to get them. Although as far as the latter is concerned my preference would be for a certain ash blond.

February 15, 2008

Book Review: Special Assignments Boris Akunin

Sometimes when an author writes a series of books featuring the same hero he or she gets lazy. In fact in quite a few cases the author merely tells the same story over and over again, but changes the scenery in the hopes that we'll be fooled by a different location or an occasional new character. It may take you a couple of stories to catch on, but sooner or later you'll find yourself being able to predict exactly how the story will unfold.

Mystery stories can be the worst culprits for this, as it seems once an author has found his formula for success she is unwilling to tamper with it. The lead character is worse than the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for their ability to always get their man (or woman as the case may be) with the only mystery being the reader's wonder as to why they bothered to read the book in first place when it was identical to the one before and the one before that.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule and there are some authors who are able to make each story featuring their character completely different from the previous one. What I've found in those cases is that the writer has the versatility to make each scenario that they place their character into unique enough that it allows us to view different facets of his or her personality with each outing.
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Such is the case with the stories by Russian author Boris Akunin that feature Erast Fandorin. In each of the four novels that Fandorin has been in to this point, Akunin has yet to allow his adventures to become formulaic. More importantly, in spite of Fandorin's obvious skills and special talents, he is never anything but human, as he is continually proving himself as fallible as the rest of us.

When last we left Fandorin, he had barely escaped with his life while solving the mystery surrounding the death of an old army comrade. After years of travel abroad, serving as an attaché in the Russian Embassy in Japan, he has once again settled in Moscow where he holds the title of Deputy to the Governor of Moscow for Special Assignments. It is his job to investigate those cases considered either too sensitive for the regular police force to handle or that the Governor decides to take a personal interest in. It's two cases of this type that Akunin's latest Fandorin novel is named for.

Special Assignments, published by Random House Canada, contains two full length novella's, each detailing a case of such a delicate nature that only Fandorin can be entrusted with their handling. In the Jack Of Spades he must track down a con-artist who has had the unimaginable gall to not only separate the elite of Moscow from their money, he does it in such a manner as to make them look like fools. Still it's only when Fandorin's boss becomes one of his victims that our erstwhile hero is called in to deal with the problem.

In previous books Akunin has used a third party as our eyes onto the investigation, and he employs that technique again here. Anisii Tulipov, is a young and timid courier in the police department, who can't believe his luck when Fandorin asks him to assist him in tracking down the elusive miscreant. Although he is in desperate awe of his new boss, it doesn't stop Tulipov from wondering at his peculiarities, including the fact that he appears to be living with another man's wife who makes Fandorin's life a living hell with her petty demands,

Of course there's also the fact that he and his Japanese man servant spend a good part of each morning before getting down to work beating each other up, either with their hands and feet or long wooden staffs. Young Tulipov starts his work day sitting in his master's study poring over the prior day's papers and police reports looking for any hint that the Jack of Spades is back in business. (So called because the knave will always leave a Jack of Spades at the scene of his hoax in order to let the world know he was responsible) Nobody knows what the elusive thief looks like as he is a master of disguise; once he was a war veteran confined to a wheelchair, another time an elderly notary, and yet a third time a dashing young nobleman.

Twice they almost have in their grasp, once when they find him running a fake lottery for charity where the prizes are deeds to properties in other countries, and the second when they set an elaborate trap for him and his accomplice. But he is too clever for them, and even strikes back by managing to steal all of Fandorin's temperamental mistress's possessions, guaranteeing a rather frosty work environment for Tulipov and a living hell for Fandorin.
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The Jack of Spades may embarrass people, and separate them from their money, but even Fandorin has a sneaking admiration for him and his abilities. The same can't be said for the creature they find themselves up against in The Decorator. A serial killer is loose on the streets of Moscow seemingly intent on doing the same work there as Jack The Ripper did in London, killing the prostitutes.

Akunin chillingly takes us into the mind of the person responsible and it's not a pleasant experience. According to this creature's way of thinking, removing its victims flesh and exposing their internal organs is improving their appearance. Internally we are all pristine, just like our creator made us, it's only on the outside that we are ever disfigured.

Fandorin knows that only someone wiith a knowledge of anatomy and experience using a scalpel, in other words someone with a least some medical training, could be responsible for this butchery, yet there are thousands of medical professionals of some sort or another in Moscow alone - they have to figure out a way of eliminating suspects.

Slowly but surely Fandorin and Tulipov start closing the net, but with each step they take towards the fiend, another person dies, and the bodies are no longer those of strangers, but of people they know. While they desperately try to predict where the fiend will strike next, we walk with the killer and are filled with the helplessness that goes with not being able to do anything about preventing a horrible hurt from happening.

The Decorator is not a nice story and there's none of the lightness of spirit that accompanied the Jack Of Spades. Although both stories feature Erast Fandorin as the central character they are as different from each other as night and day. Like the full length novels that have come before these two shorter stories Akunin has created situations that prevent his character from becoming stale or predictable.

In Special Assignments Akunin once again shows that he is a writer willing to take risks, and not afraid to make his hero look foolish. Well written and peopled with fully realized characters Akunin's stories are the benchmark against which other writers of detective or crime fiction should be set against.

Canadian readers wishing to obtain a copy of Special Assignments can purchase it either directly from the Random House Canada web site or from an on line retailer like Indigo Books

February 14, 2008

Book Review: Smoke And Mirrors: Short Fictions And Illusions Neil Gaiman

Misdirection, sleight of hand, and smoke and mirrors are all means said to be employed by stage magicians in order to "cast their spell" of illusion. Most of the time those terms are employed in such a way as to be both dismissive of the performer's talent and to explain how it is possible for someone to saw a person in half or make them disappear altogether. The real intention is of course to deny that anything magical took place during the performance.

Of course that depends on what someone's definition of magic is doesn't it? If they go through life expecting to see someone waving a magic wand and miraculously making things happen, they are doomed to be disappointed. Yet, what is it that they are seeing on stage when the "illusionist" makes someone disappear if it isn't magic? What does it matter that it's only a "trick"? Isn't it still magical to see a body that's been cut in two behaving as it would under normal circumstances no matter how it came to happen?

Magic is where we find it and comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, it's simply a matter of being able to recognize it when we see it. In his introduction to his collection of short stories Smoke And Mirrors: Short Fictions And Illusions Neil Gaiman talks about the history of stage magicians using smoke and mirrors to change our perceptions. While a mirror can be used to reflect an image accurately, he says, set it the right way and it can show you anything you can imagine, and some things you can't. An illusionist can use one to convince us that a box full to bursting with paraphernalia is empty or that something empty is full.

While some people talk about art holding a mirror up to society as a means for the creator to express his or her opinion on the state of things. There are many forms, that a reflection can take, and sometimes the form is as much a commentary upon the world as is the content. When it comes to writing an author can alter the nature of the reflection in quite a number of ways. There are the genres at his or her disposal, from realism to fantasy, and the option of writing in prose or in verse. But no matter what they do their mirror will hopefully offer a perspective that's unique to them, for isn't that why we read an author, for the perceptions and insights they can offer.
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Smoke And Mirrors: Short Fictions And Illusions was first published in 1998, re-issued by Harper Collins as a Perennial Edition in 2001, and again in 2007 with the addition of a P.S. section containing an interview with Mr. Gaiman talking about some of the stories in this collection. While a couple of the stories have appeared elsewhere since, quite a number of them I had never read before. What's also nice about this collection is that there is more than just standard short stories. He's also included poems, short prose pieces under 100 words, and some things that are words put together to tell a story of some sort or another, but what they are aside from that are hard to say; except maybe magic.

For there is something inherently magic about the quality of Gaiman's work. Whether he's writing prose, poetry, short, or long fiction it doesn't matter, there's something about the way he uses words that feels like he's casting an enchantment over you, and that reading him transports you out of yourself. Yet at the same time his writing is about us, even when he's writing about were-wolves and other denizens of our darker nature, the characters are all too human with characteristics and traits that we can see in ourselves if we only know where to look.

The smoke and mirrors of fantasy, horror, and science fiction hide the reality that lurks in his top hat and while we are watching him pull the rabbit out, he's also opening a window into our world. It may not be obvious, you may not even notice it while you're reading the piece, but sometime later something will click into place and you'll realize that odd story about the troll under the bridge was about much more then you first thought.

"Cold Colours" is a long free verse/prose poem that depicts a world where we've sold our souls to the devil for technology - literally. Where the London Underground used to be are the pits of hell. If you look down into them you can always find a demons willing to sell you various peripherals for your system, but you can also see those who have been consigned to the pits of hell suffering their eternal damnation.

There's a chill of true horror that runs through the story, because how different from reality is it? What have we bartered away in our quest for technological perfection as a species? Which of us hasn't made jokes about performing a sacrifice to try and ensure better performance from our technology - but our study's floor is not stained with the blood of pigeons that we've offered up on a daily basis to ensure the quality of our performance. Incrementally, with each step that we take down the road of faster, stronger, smaller, and more of everything, we move further away from our connection to the planet we live on. Selling your soul can come in all shapes and sizes.

Of course not everything has to be about something, and in those cases the magic is the way in which Gaiman's mirror changes the image of a story we are all familiar with. What would you take in trade for the Holy Grail if Sir Galaad came calling? For Mrs.Whitaker, who picked it up for a bargain price at the thrift shop in the story "Chivalry", it would have to be something that would be appropriate for an old lady, and fit on the mantle nicely.

Or how about if, as the new queen in "Snow, Glass, and Apples" discovers, your step-daughter is a vampire - wouldn't you send her off into the woods to have her heart cut out in the hopes that you would rid the world of a horror such as she? When you skried in your mirror and found that somehow she still lived, even though her heart was cut out, and was terrorizing the people of the forest, wouldn't you gather your courage together to hunt her down and feed her an apple that would steal her life in order to protect your people from her?

In Smoke And Mirrors: Short Fictions And Illusions Neil Gaiman shows us just what can be done by a master illusionist who knows how to use the tools of his trade to perfection. Some people may tell you that illusions are only smoke and mirrors and not magic, but perhaps they've never come under the spell of a real wizard.

Smoke And Mirrors: Short Fictions And Illusions can be purchased directly from Harper Collins Canada or another online retailer like Indigo Books

January 27, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord: Chapter One

It only took me until noon to decide that I wasn't going to like Monday that week, which usually meant that the rest of the week lay stretched out in front of me as invitingly as a three day old corpse in July on the slab. August in Ottawa was so putrid with humidity that even the politicians have fled the luxury of their expense account lives and mistresses to return to the loving arms of family and constituents.

Obviously that meant a drastic improvement in the air quality for those of us still here. Talk about global warming and the release of dangerous emissions all you want, there's nothing that can compete with the Canadian House of Commons for being a source of C02 and, dependent on what was on the menu at the Commons Cafeteria, other noxious fumes.

I was sitting by the one window in the office that could open with a fan blowing, hoping to capture something cooling from the oozing fetidness that passes for a breeze at this time of year. Damn it, I thought, this is ridiculous. We're in the capital city with coldest mean temperature of any country's seat of power. Moscow may have slightly longer winters, and may even get days colder than Ottawa's coldest, but on average we take the cake.

I had entered into that pre heat stroke daze of semi consciences when the sounds of the phone ringing and someone rapping at the door nearly stopped my heart for good. Un-peeling myself from the back of the chair was a matter moments and allowed me to reach the phone within ten rings and yell to the door "Hold your horses". If I had hoped that standing at the phone would give me time to get what felt like a yard of cotton out of my butt cleavage, I was sorely disappointed.

The voice on the other end of the phone was succinct and to the point. "Where has all the water gone?" was followed by a renewal of the dial tone. Swearing under my breath at phone pranksters abusing old song lyrics I really wasn't prepared for what was waiting behind the door. Considering the circumstances I think my reaction was within reason.

She had to be about 5'9" and her three-inch heels only added to the illusion that her legs went up to her chin. Which should have been physically impossible given what lay between the waist and the long swan-like neck, but go figure. Human anatomy has never been my strong suit, but I could see that she would be a wonderful textbook if I ever decided to broaden my horizons and open my mind to new areas of learning.

I could tell any hopes that I may have had of leafing her pages were minimized by the "Holy Fuck' that had slipped out of my mouth on opening the door. The part of my brain that still functioned realized the longer I stayed there gaping like some slack jawed inbred was reducing the chances of me even getting a peek inside the cover. Even so it took a loud throat clearing on her part to get me to come around

Still not trusting myself to speak I stood aside and bowed her ever so slightly into the room indicating the chair directly across my desk from my own. Following her back across the room I was reminded of why I had put the desk at the point in the room furthest from the door. Of course it didn't do my equilibrium any good, so by the time we sat facing each other across a span of pine veneer, I was quite ready to jump out the window if she demanded.

She looked at me and shook her head slightly, which had the effect of making her ash brown hair float halo like around her face. "All you guys are the same aren't you," she said piercing me with the ice chips that were her steel grey eyes. I all of sudden felt pinned to the back of my chair like a butterfly under glass.

After three false tries I managed to get my voice to squeak out " What brings you here today, Miss, what can I do for you?" Instead of the hoped for steady and reassuring voice that was normally at my disposal, I sounded like I had small cricket in my throat.

She looked at me with a grim little smile that implied she didn't think there was much of anything that I'd be able to help her with, but her options were limited. "First of all it's Mrs. not Miss, Ms. or anything implying availability of any kind what so ever." She paused to see what kind of effect that might have on me. Since I was still too numb to do anything but sit and nod blanked faced, there was nothing to indicate how much or little impact her being married might have affected me.

With a purse of her lips, which could have expressed some mild disappointment in reaction to my seemingly nonchalant attitude about her place on the open market she began to talk again. It turns out this drop dead gorgeous woman is in fact a professor of Marine Biology specializing in ecosystems and other words that just were too many syllables for a day like this.

She talked about a lot of things that didn't make any sense but a picture started to evolve of something terrible happening. The average mean temperature was rising around the world by a degree or so a year, and had been for the last ten year or so. Sure it meant warmer winters, but that meant less snow, which meant less spring melt.

When the spring melt is reduced, the water table is reduced and the level in the rivers and lakes drops. The less ground water there is the lower the likelihood of rain which in turn depletes the water table and the lakes and rivers and so on. She stopped than and I looked at her in horror.

"If it's allowed to continue the climate will continue to change and we'll be living in a desert but worse. A dessert has its own natural ecosystem, but here if there is an enforced desert the first things to go will be the trees, followed by the shrubbery and then finally the smaller plants

Farm crops will be devastated and we will no longer be able to produce basics like corn and wheat in amounts sufficient for feeding ourselves. The animal life won't be able to adapt quickly enough as there won't be time for successful mutations to increase the gene pool and allow evolution to occur."

For the second time that day she had stunned me and left me sitting with my jaw agape. This couldn't be possible was my first thought, but it was of course, even during the ice break-up during the spring the Ottawa River failed to rise to the level it had achieved last year let alone any of the previous ones.

She watched me come to these realizations on my own before she continued, " What I need you to do is find out what happened to the Kyoto accord. Parliament had ratified it in the last administration, but now Steven Harper and his Conservative Party Of Canada have said they are going to renege on our country's commitments to meeting certain reductions in toxic emissions.

We think somebody got to him and is putting pressure on him to do this. There can be no other reason whatsoever to go back on a promise to the world. No one could be that inconsiderate or stupid without having a good reason."

She stopped again and looked straight into my eyes, those grey chips of ice had melted into something sad and scared. "Please find the Kyoto accord and bring it back. It wasn't the best solution in the world but it was the only one we had"

How could I say no to that?

October 20, 2007

Book Review: Firebird Rising Edited by Sharyn November

When I fit into the Young Adult demographic, which I assume to be from late pre-teen to mid to late teens, I doubt if I ever read anything that was considered written for that age group. The closest I came would have been the obligatory books that were foisted on me in High School; Salinger's Catcher In The Rye and William Golding's Lord Of The Flies. Of course I don't really think those books are what you would call your normal Young Adult reading – they were just what was on offer in Grade Nine thirty very odd years ago.

The main problem I had with fiction that was geared for my age range was that none of it, no matter what the genre, had characters in it that I could either identify with or recognize as being human. Part of the problem were the times, and back in the mid 1970's the majority of youth oriented fiction had not stayed abreast of things as far as I could see. None of the books I came across that proclaimed authenticity ever had a character that smoked drugs who wasn't "bad news".

Now how was that supposed to make me feel, when everybody I knew (including myself) and was friends with had more then a passing acquaintance with smoking dope? It wasn't just the lack of dope smoking characters that made these books and stories such a waste of time, there was also the fact that the pretty much everything about them was clichéd or formula. Anyway, I was too busy reading real books to want to waste my time with stuff like that; how could they compare with Hemmingway, Joyce, Tolstoy, and the legions of books that were waiting to be devoured on the regular fiction shelves?
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Well times certainly have changed and it's now possible to have characters in stories for young adults who know about drugs without being evil. In fact one of the wonderful thing about the stories contained in a the new anthology Firebirds Rising from Firebird Press and distributed by Penguin Canada is the fact there are no clear-cut lines that separate the good from the bad.

The Firebird imprint of Penguin books was established to resurrect titles in the fantasy and science fiction genres that might have otherwise been lost forever. Although it's primary focus is on titles that were originally written for a younger audience the works that I have come across to this point have been of equal value to adults as adolescents. A quick examination of the list of contributors to Firebirds Rising, who represent a cross section of the authors published by the Firebird Press, is enough to explain why the quality of their books is so high.

Charles de Lint, Tanith Lee, Patricia McKillip, and Allen Dean Foster are all well-established fantasy and science fiction writers with successful careers and if they are the types of people writing for young audiences today it's no wonder the quality has improved. Of course fantasy and science fiction have always been a cut above its competitors when writing for a younger audience, dating back to the days of Jules Verne and his novels The Mysterious Island, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and Journey To The Centre Of The World.

In her forward to the collection, editor Sharyn November talks about the difficulties in putting together this type of anthology. Aside from the usual stuff about having to choose between two equally good stories, and editing the stories as they have all been expressly written for the collection, there was the problem that normally faces musicians, the sequence in which the stories should appear.

She said that it reminded her of doing a set list when she was in a band and how delicate a balancing act that was. She also said that she didn't expect anyone to read the anthology through from beginning to end, but that she wanted to make it possible for the person who just might want to. Being that person, I sat down and read each story in the sequence they were published in, I can honestly say they flow together like chapters in a book. Even though each "chapter" is a different "book", there is an underpinning tying them together.

There are so many things being foisted on young people today that are de rigour if they want to belong and be part of the group. Self-identification has always been a problem for all but the most assured teenager, and each story in this book reflects that in someway or another. The desire to be accepted and be part of the group is taken to the extreme in a couple of the stories; "Hives" by Kara Dalkey and "Huntress" by Tamora Pierce, while the search for personal identity is given whimsical treatment in "In The House Of The Seven Librarians" by Ellen Klages.

Charles de Lint provides an interesting perspective on teenage resentment and isolation with "Little (Girl) Lost" and "Quill" by Carol Emshwiller brings new meaning to how being different can be dangerous. But no matter how the story ties in with a teenager's ability to appreciate him or her self, or their lack of self assurance, what is obvious is how well written and intelligent each of these stories are.

There is none of the cuteness or sentimentality that so often plagued the stories written for young people in my generation. Not once did I feel like I was intruding in somebody else's territory by reading these stories, like I have in other specifically targeted material. Perhaps it's because the writers of these stories are sophisticated enough that they avoid cliché and are able to find a way of making the characters' problems universal so all readers can relate on some level or another to their plights.

Firebirds Rising is a great collections of science fiction and fantasy stories that just happen to have been written with young adults as the focus. Don't that let you put off picking up a copy, as they are every bit as sophisticated as today's young people like to think they are.

Canadian readers can pick up a copy of Firebirds Rising directly from the Penguin Canada web site or from an on line retailer like Amazon Canada.

October 12, 2007

A Late Night Walk

It was late, but that was okay, he'd walked home by himself plenty of times and never had any problems. He was always amazed when people asked him if he felt safe. What was there to feel unsafe about? He had confidence in his abilities to look after himself even if no one else did?

Anyway, he liked it when the streets were empty, there was something almost romantic about a small city late at night when there's no traffic or people. Looking down the long expanse of two lane cracked asphalt that disappeared into a horizon line he felt like he could be in any small city in North America. There was something about the scrawny trees that littered the edge of the sidewalk in front of ubiquitous concrete block low rises that said small town like nothing else could.

From the abandoned bank across the street from the 7-11 to the row of pizza joints taking up the next block, he was certain this stretch of road existed in cities across the continent. Even the glimpses of tree lined side streets offered when stopping at intersections was probably an echo of the same scene on another street in another town.

So, no, he wasn't worried about being out late at night. Even when he caught a glimpse of her out of his peripheral vision standing on the sidewalk across the street he wasn't concerned. Just another person out for a walk after all...it was a nice night for it and he couldn't be the only person in town who didn't like the noise and bustle of the street during the day.

So, he was startled when her voice sounded only steps away from him on the sidewalk. Somehow, she had crossed the street and come up behind him without him even noticing.

"Hey, what you doing?"

The smell of booze on her breath was so strong that he could feel his eyes starting to smart. If he wasn't careful they could start to water, and she might think they were tears and take it as a sign of weakness. He was used to being accosted by drunks, but normally it was when he was with a crowd of other guys and the girl was being egged on by her buddies to go and pick one of them up.

"I'm walking" he said and kept suiting the action to the words.

"Hey, whaz' you hurry" she said. The slight slurring of the words might have made them sound more belligerent then was intended, but there was no mistaking the aggressive attitude behind them. "Maybe ya wan' some company?"

"No, I like to walk by myself thanks" he said keeping walking but also being careful not to pick up speed no matter how much he wanted to. She sounded the type who would take that as an invitation – an invitation to what he didn't know, but not one that he was prepared to offer.

"Well, okay... "Her voice trailed away, and for a moment she stopped and he thought she had taken the hint to bugger off and leave him alone. But then she was right beside him, and her smell; booze, sweat, and cigarettes was almost overpowering. He was sure he was going to retch if he wasn't careful.

"Lissen, ya wanna come back ta my place for a drink. I don't live too far, ya know, stay for a drink and then finish walkin' alone". She was trying to angle her body to make him stop walking but he was able to keep moving without running into her by moving over on the sidewalk slightly and walking on a bit of a diagonal.

"I don't drink," he said in what he hoped was as neutral a tone as possible. He was starting to feel more then a little nervous now. She seemed drunk enough that if he out and out rejected her for no what looked like no reason she just might get violent.

"What d'ya mean, a good lookin' guy like ya not drinkin'? She reached out and grabbed his arm to try and turn him around so that he was facing her. The touch of her fingers on his arm triggered the anger he needed for the strength to deal with her.

"Don't you dare touch me" he yelled turning on her with his eyes flashing. He stared at her for a second longer and then spun away and began walking briskly up the street. Still restraining himself from obviously hurrying, he still set a good pace. He kept his ears open for any sound of pursuit and at first he heard nothing, but then he heard her start walking.

She followed him all the way up town to the all night coffee shop he was headed for; he was getting a biscuit to snack on when he got home. When he got to the shop, she stayed out in the parking lot wandering around while he went in. The woman behind the counter knew him well enough to know something was wrong, and he told her about being followed and the drunk outside. The last thing she wanted was to have her follow him home and know where he lived.

He was still chatting with them when she burst in through the front door and walked up to the counter. She looked at him and then at the woman behind the counter and said, " Is there a problem here?"

He looked at her for a second, and then with steel in his voice said "If you try to follow me from this store I'm going to kill you. I will beat you senseless and leave you lying in a puddle of your own blood and guts for the street cleaners to pick up with all the other fucking garbage in the morning. So if you know what's good for you, you'll fuck off right now".

The woman looked at her for a second, and then swearing under her breath she headed for the doors, as she got to them she looked back and snapped, "frigid bastard".

He stood at the counter shaking; he was so angry and upset. The woman who had been behind the counter grabbed a broom and pretended to be sweeping the store by the plate glass windows facing out into the parking lot. She was making sure that the drunk had vanished. She turned back and said, "She's gone, I see her crossing the street and heading back downtown again...yeah, she's out of sight".

He quickly paid for his biscuit and thanked the woman for her help, and she smiled.

"Honey, I wouldn't have messed with you if you had yelled at me like that. You didn't need anyone to protect you from scum like that."

"Thanks"

"Have a good night"

"You too"

Of course that would never happen to a man, but incidents like that and far worse happen to women all the time. Shouldn't the quite times of the night belong to everyone?

September 20, 2007

Book Review: Other Colours Orhan Palmuk

One of the wonderful things about reading books is that occasionally you get to read about something from a whole different perspective then the one you are exposed to normally. Our media report on the world from the perspective of our society, which only makes sense, as they have to represent the philosophies that buy their publications.

But, that still leaves us with only one perception on events, only half a conversation, or one side of the story. When we work up the nerve to leave our insulated shores and read something a point of view other than the one that appears nightly on our television or continually in our mass media it can be both a shock to our systems and an eye opening experience.

For those who follow international events, i.e. the world outside the sphere of American interest, one of the bigger stories has been the application of Turkey to join the European Union(EU). There's a lot of history between the two, dating back to the days of the Crusades. That's when the Europeans first tried to reclaim what they called the Holy Land and the Turks called home. Open warfare between the two only ended with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One and the capture of Jerusalem by the British.

Although, among the nominally Muslim known states Turkey has always taken pride in being secular with complete separation of church and state, the mistrust of the West towards the East still exists. In part, this is caused by what seems to be a state of continual political unrest in Turkey (the most recent coup having taken place in the 1980's) and the recent strong showing of non-secular parties in various elections.
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Therefore, the stories we do get in the news about the proposed entry of Turkey into the EU all express European concerns. Now there is no denying that the concerns about human rights and religious tolerance are ones that can't be ignored, but what about opinions from the other side? Do we even know the people of Turkey, or anything about their country, their society, and how they go about their days? What image do we have of them, if any at all?

This is where literature can help fill the gaps in our awareness, especially if the writer in question is a recent Nobel Prize laureate whose political independence is unquestioned. Orhan Pamuk newest release Other Colours published by Random House Canada through it's imprint Knoff Canada may not be the definitive book on the opinions and views of the Turkish people, but it still represents a perspective that we rarely see.

I have the impression that this might have been Mr. Pamuk's intention with this publication, due to the sections he's divided the book into. He starts the book off with short essays under the title "Living and Worrying", which detail his day-to-day existence with family and friends. Predominate in this section are descriptions of adventures he has with his daughter, and the earthquake of 1999 that shattered Turkey.

We also get his ideas about writing, descriptions of living in his home city of Istanbul, and the usual, overwhelming, impression that permeates all his work of a melancholy of the soul pervasive to the city's inhabitants. It's a city steeped in history and haunted by its past, troubled by its future, and worried about the present. Like Los Angeles they sit and wait for the "big one" which will obliterate them while playing the speculative game of "if it falls, will it land on us?"

While there are also a couple of other chapters that deal with his relationship to other people's writing and his own, the chapter that will interest those wanting a different perspective on the potential union of Turkey and Europe is "Politics, Europe, And Other Problems Of Being Oneself".

The picture that appears of Turkey from these pages is of a character full of contradictions and in some ways cynical enough to believe that in the end none of what they do or say will really have any bearing on their acceptance into the European Union. Why else would they prosecute a writer of Orhan Pamuk's reputation for speaking a truth that is universally accepted, but not allowed to be spoken in Turkey? In an interview with a European newspaper, Pamuk talked about the genocide of Armenians and Kurds by the Turks, and estimated that Turkey had killed around one million Armenians and fifty thousand Kurds.

For speaking that simple truth, a fact written down in history books all over the world, he was charged under Article 301, "publicly denigrating Turkish identity". Pamuk writes about the period in a very matter of fact manner; talking about how the ultra nationalists newspapers called for his "silencing", and that his books were burnt. Compared to some of his contemporaries the charges against him were slim, and he fully expected to win his case. The last thing he wanted or thought would happen was that he would become a cause celebre and a poster child for the rights of authors.
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He recounts how a fellow author and friend had congratulated him on hearing the news of his being charged, of finally becoming a real Turkish author. In fact, he says he wasn't at all surprised to find himself eventually on trial, because it seems the only way an author will be honoured in Turkey is if he has spent time in jail. But, he also places his arrest in the context of world affairs in a way that shows the extent of how differently the East's view of the world is from that of the West.

He says there is a dichotomy being faced by the people in countries like India, Russia, China, and Japan who have suddenly become members of the global economy. In order to compensate for their espousal of Western economic goals that contrast so much with traditional learning, and to prevent being overly criticized for their new found wealth, they resort to rabid nationalism. He doesn't spare the West though, because he says how could he sell their brand of freedom and democracy to his people when the war in Iraq and revelations of secret CIA prisons have so damaged its credibility?

It seems like the problem for people of conscience, like Orhan Pamuk and others, in countries that lie on the cusp of what is known as a democratic system of government, is what example do they have to hold up to their people of how life should be? That is what we never see on our news, or in our newspapers. No political leader, no matter what their stripe would ever dare get up in public and say what needs to be said.

In spite of what you've been told to the contrary, nobody beyond the borders of this country believes the United States or Britain (and I would add Canada to that list too considering our current government) to be a shining example of freedom or democracy. The light cast by our governments' endeavours no longer serves as a beacon guiding anybody to anything except hostility and resistance.

If Pamuk thought his words made him unpopular in his homeland for speaking the truth, these ideas he postulates aren't going to go down a treat anywhere in the world. Either in the United States, Britain, or Canada where the beacons have sputtered out, or in India, China, Japan, Russia and Turkey where they are embracing Western economic ideals and becoming less tolerant of diversity and truth.

Other Colours is about more than the world's politics, its about life in one of the world's oldest cities as seen through the eyes of a keen and passionate observer. But the world has intruded upon Istanbul – or Istanbul wants to step out into the world again with results that look similar to what is happening elsewhere. How else do you explain a secular country's sudden swing to religious political parties if not through fear of change and a compensation for embracing Western values that are alien to the society?

For whatever reason, Turkey is experiencing some profound changes, and reactions there are as good as indication as any, for gauging the moderate East's opinion of the West. I can't think of any man more capable or sensitive to document these events than Orhan Parmuk, and if you care about the world beyond your borders, it would be remiss not to read every word of this book carefully.

Somewhere within it lies the secret by which we might all survive the next decade or so while the balance of power in the world shifts. He might not come right out and say the answer, but he asks the right questions to put us on the road to discovering it.

Readers in Canada can purchase Other Colours directly from Random House Canada or through Amazon.ca

September 11, 2007

The Night Visitor

The bellows effect of a wind gust caught the small fire, flaring it briefly, sending a shower of sparks up in the air. The illumination it caused offered a brief silhouette view of a sharply featured face. Shadows that lived beneath his brow, in the lee of his nose, and in the hollows scooped out beneath his cheekbones were thrown into even sharper relief, until his face was a patchwork of light and dark.

There had been drought again this year and it was second nature to check and see if a spark had ignited any of the brown grass. Fires seeded as easily as weeds, taking root at the slightest provocation they quickly spread to the horizon. Fields of fire didn't sink deep roots, but reaped a deadly harvest all the same.

One moment you could be riding through what remained of the prairie grass, seeing what scant signs of life there were to see, and the next you were ankle deep in ash. Like before and after pictures of a smoker's lungs burnt and un burnt lay side by side. It had to be pure chance why one piece was spared while the adjacent burnt to a cinder. He had given up looking for clues in the surrounding geography, as there were never any clues on offer.

In spite of all attempts to kill her, the land would always hold on to her secrets,. Strip mining caused soil erosion; sulphuric acid used to clean pumice for people's stoned washed, acid jeans had taken care of the water table; at least what had been left of it after they had damned the river for their artificial lakes, fountains and hydro electric.

All that power and beauty diverted because humans were afraid of the dark and its accompanying quiet. What other reason could they have for spending so much money on destroying the beauty of night to make huge pockets of light and noise in the middle of the desert?

On nights like this one, when the moon hung full and ripe in the sky, why anyone would need any more light was beyond him. Even on the nights when she stayed under wraps, or hid herself in the earth's shadow, you didn't need extra light to sleep by. Those who needed to be out and about at night had the ability to either see in the dark or were guided by arcane means known only to themselves.

Even now the darkness began to grow deeper as the night lengthened and the moon eased through her apex. There were nights when he wouldn't leave the fire to climb into his bedroll; when he would feel compelled to bear witness to the darkness and give it the recognition he felt it deserved. Other nights just saw him sitting up keeping his thoughts company so they wouldn't complain the next day that he was ignoring them.

Neglected, they could easily turn vindictive and resentful and make stupid demands on his time during the course of the day. It was better to lose a little sleep now then to have to put up with the abuse that was the certain result of denying their existence. Tonight, though, he was pretty sure he wasn't going to be alone tonight if he sat up.

Sure enough, only a short while later, the flames picked out a pair of amber eyes glowing at him out of the dark. They had first shown up a few years back when the drought had started, and had been showing up on a regular basis ever since. The first time they appeared at his fire he wasn't sure what to make of it. He did know that being scared wasn't going to help, so he stayed as calm as possible and left it to his guest to decide about the proper etiquette for the visit. It wasn't everyday that a God showed up at his campfire after all and he figured that it was only polite to let him set the tone.

It hadn't been too difficult to figure out that his guest wasn't your ordinary coyote. There were a couple of reasons, not the least being that he talked. While bold creatures, the normal wild coyote wasn't just going to up and plunk itself down at a human's campfire. The closest they would usually come is to skirt around the edges of a camp site, seeing if there was any food let out for an easy steall.

Aside from that, the last coyote in the district had been killed off long ago. In fact, it wouldn't surprise him if he found out the last coyote had been killed off in the wild period. Man had never had much use for them for some reason, even though like the wolf their primary prey were the pests like mice and rats that when left unchecked could and did destroy crops. All farmers saw was the potential coyotes represented to their precious sheep and chickens.

Even though payment of an occasional chicken or sheep should have been a fair exchange for preserving grain supplies, farmers refused to see it that way and began a systematic campaign that ended with the eradication of both wolf and coyote and a huge upsurge in the varmint population. With mice and rats out of control, ranchers and farmers both had to resort to poison to take on the rodent populations. A funny thing happened though, the poison they used to try and get rid of the rats, and mice poisoned the feed for the livestock, any livestock that ate it, and the seed for next years crop. Sort of makes the occasional sheep and chicken look inexpensive after all.

Of course they didn't find our about the crop until the following year when they planted and nothing came up. Even going out and buying all brand new seed didn't help much. It turned out that planting the poisoned seed, burying the carcasses of the poisoned rodents, chickens, sheep, and cattle, on top of burying the spoiled grain, was the last straw for the land in this part of the world. Dropping a nuclear bomb wouldn't have done a better job of rendering it fallow for generations to come.

So on that first night when Coyote turned up, there was no one else it could have been. He didn't say anything, those first few times, just sat and stared into the fire. For a trickster god he was pretty morose, but all things considered you couldn't really be expecting him to be jumping for joy. If you believed, like some people do, that he had created the world, it's not surprising he'd be feeling a little down considering the shape things are in.

It was about the fourth time he'd dropped by that he said something. He'd been sitting with his head resting on his front paws staring into the fire like always, when all of a sudden he let out a deep sigh. It sounded like it started at the base of his tail and worked its way on up to the tip of his ears before finally slipping out of his mouth.

"I just don't get it", he said "Things were just fine for the longest time. Everybody understood what they needed to do for things to work smothly. If you were going to try and grow stuff, or raise critters, you made damn sure that you set some aside or sacrificed one in order to keep who ever needed to be, kept happy. All over the world, you human beings used to be quite content with that arrangement. Showing yourselves to be grateful for what you've been given, by giving some of it back. Is that so difficult a concept to get your head around?

When did you folk become so greedy? It's not just the farmers or the ranchers refusing to give away – it's everywhere. You take all the water and you don't even drink it. What do you do with it instead? You use it to power places of self-indulgence that stop you from being aware of how badly you've treated the world

What other species do you know that is so rude that they build an artificial boat safari through a delicate ecosystem like the Florida Everglades? Who else would damn one of the most beautiful rivers in the world in order to make an artificial city in the middle of a desert that uses more hydroelectric power then some countries do? How about creating a plant seed that is specially designed so that it can be safely poisoned without considering what the effects of the poison are going to be long term for themselves or other life forms?"

He stopped then and began scratching behind his ear with his hind leg and then continued his toilet by washing himself in a manner that left no doubt about his opinion of the human race. He raised his head again and looked across the fire, he went to say something more, then shook his head and left. He'd been back to the fire a number of times since, but hadn't had much more to say. When you think about what else is there to say?

So now, most of the time Coyote comes and sits by the fire and looks into it to see if he can find his memories of a better time. Once in a while he'll ask for a cup of tea, just for old times sake, but it sure don't look like his heart is really into it. Sometimes they'll sit there and let the fire burn out until the two of them are left in the dark with their thoughts and the stars shining down on them. They can almost pretend when the dark is at it's purest and most deep that maybe its the beginning and they're waiting for everything to be born.

But that thought doesn't stand up to the harsh light of day any more than any other illusion. Usually just before dawn has fully broken Coyote will pick up his tail and leave, although not before saying goodbye to his one true love as she sinks behind the horizon; another impossible dream that he won't give up on.

July 24, 2007

Book Review: The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales Edited Ellen Datlow &Terri Windling

You know about that one, that Old Coyote? He's sure one tricky fellow. He come over for tea you have to watch him all the time. He keeps sticking his nose where it don't belong – like in the jam jar or down the muzzle of a gun barrel and then gets feeling sorry for himself when he gets bit by wasps because he's covered in sweet stuff or gets his nose blown off by the shot gun because he forgot to make sure the safety was on before pulling the trigger with his nose down the barrel.

That's when you really have to watch out; when Coyote feels sorry for himself and thinks the world owes him something. Hoo Boy, then it's time to board up the windows and bury yourself in the root cellar cause you don't know just what could happen when that one starts to feel sorry for himself.

He gets all resentful and looks for someone to blame and you just have to hope he don't pick you. Sometimes he don't find anyone and then he gets depressed and starts moping about the house. Then he starts sighing –oh boy you don't want to have those Coyote sighs floating around in your house- you never know what they can turn into. He was doing a lot of sighing just around the first time that George Bush Jr. got elected president and you know what that's been like
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Well this other day that one, Old Coyote, he was around my house and he was looking as sorry for himself as I've ever seen him do. And I thought the world has enough trouble right now without more Coyote sighs loose in it, but I was ready for him this time. There's nothing Coyote likes better than to hear stories of himself and I thought I had the perfect thing for him.

Those people over at Penguin Canada have just put out a book full of tricky stories about Coyote and his extended family called The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling are the ones who went around and asked people to write down some tricky stories from all over the world and I knew there would have to be some in here that Old Coyote have not heard before.

"Old Coyote" I says "Come over here. Get your head up from off your paws lying there out in the yard like dumb dog and stop your sighing. Have a nice cup of tea; I want to tell you some stories that people have written down about you and your family and friends around the world. Very tricky stuff."

I could see he was interested because of the way he pricked up his ears when I said they were stories about him and tricky ones too, but he had to pretend he wasn't because he's Coyote and he likes to feel sorry for himself. But he picked himself up and came and sat on the veranda with me and let me pour him some of that tea which he likes with four cubes of sugar and no milk.

So when he was comfortable with his mug of tea I picked up the book and decided I'd read him the story about his Uncle Tompa from Tibet. Well it's not really a story but a poem by that nice woman writer Midori Snyder who has written lots of stories.

This poem is just called "Uncle Tompa" and because not many people over in this world know about Coyote's Uncle Tompa from Tibet (he's not really his uncle you know, but one of those old friends of the family you just call Uncle because you sure aren't going to call him mister) and it describes all the tricky things that Uncle to make people look silly. And Coyote, he smiles, cause it reminds him of an especially dirty story involving an uppity virgin bride to be and her wealthy father and what Tompa did to them both to take them down a peg or two.
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I don't think anyone wants to hear that story so I decide to read him another from the book so he won't tell it. This one's a little longer; it's one by that Charles de Lint fellow. "Crow Roads" is what it's called and it's not a ha, ha, tricky story, it's more an hmm, make you think about things tricky story. The type that make you wonder about what goes on in the shadow of a tree when you look at it from the corner of your eye- that sort of story.

Now Coyote liked that story and asked if there were any more stories, and of course there were, and all of them good. That Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling know their stuff when it comes to putting together collections of stories after all. This is the third of what they call their Mythic Anthology Series, and if those first two The Green Man: Tales From The Mythic Forest and The Faery Reel: Tales From The Twilight Realm are as good as this one owning all three would be a good thing, especially if you get Coyote visiting often like I do.

Now this book is just filled with tricky tales of all sorts, and of course Coyote comes inot them too which is right and proper as he himself puts it. In fact the very first story has his sister trying to fix the world. Always a dangerous business when Old Woman Coyote tries to fix a young man's world, for the young man that is, because if he don't heed the teaching he'll be mighty uncomfortable for a long time.

Of course some of Coyote's friends and family aren't just out to trick you to teach you a lesson, they may want to do bad things to you and than you have to be the tricky one if you want to get away. The young girls in the Irish school learn that about Queen Mab of the faery all right in the story "Friday Night At St. Cecilia's" by that Ellen Klages. Now that story made Coyote a little nervous, but he liked the trick at the end the young girl did to save herself and her friend.

Well Coyote and me, we had a good time that afternoon sipping out tea, (well he slurps his if you want to know the truth) him listening to me reading stories about tricky people from Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. I had forgotten how big Coyote's family was and how many friends the tricky guy has. By the time he decided it was time to go home, he wasn't feeling sorry for himself no more and was laughing under his breath as he trotted along down the road.

Any thing that can make Coyote stop feeling sorry for himself is a good thing, I thought as I sat and watched the sun go under the ground at the end of the road, and the stories in The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales that Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have picked out are good stories for that.

I picked up Coyote's mug, and our pot of tea and carefully put the book under my arm to remember to take it inside. Tricky stories like those ones can't be left just lying around; you just never know what they might get up to.

July 2, 2007

The Mystery Of The Mystery Story

I had picked up a mystery story the other day and it made me think about how they are one of the few genres that seem to be universally enjoyed by all people. I know that today mystery stories are no longer confined to the pages of pulp fiction magazines and come in many guises and fashions. But in the end, they all still revolve around finding out "who done it".

The mystery story as modern fiction has had as long and colourful a history as some the characters that have occupied its pages. You'd think, because of this, finding a definition for what one is would be easy.. But in checking out the pages of Wikipedia looking for information on mystery stories I discovered that nobody can even agree on what to call them let alone come up with a definition.

In fact the term "Mystery" isn't even used. Instead, the much more specific "Detective Fiction" is used as the general term. From there they've come up with all sorts of sub-classifications that sound like the work of people with too much time on their hands or trying to come up with names of television shows. What the hell is "Unexplained Supernatural Speculative Fiction" when it's at home?

People seem just as reticent when it comes to talking about the history of the genre. The most they'll commit to saying is Edgar Allen Poe is the father of the modern mystery. But even that gets qualified by mentions of the Dickens novel Bleak House which features the mysterious death of a much hated character as a major part of the novel. But even those two books only date back to the 1830s for the Dickens book, and I seem to remember a few books being written before that time.

Although the printing press had been developed in the 1500s, it wasn't until the 1800s that the technology existed for mass publication. But that didn't prevent stories from being told, in one form or another, prior to that and mysteries being part of that lexicon. In fact you could say that the mystery story was one of the first stories that was ever told.

One of the ways the Church was able to spread the word and teach the gospel to people in the early part of the first millennium was through the use of performances called Mystery Plays. These plays would usually feature scenes from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and always gave the devil a starring role. The subject matter usually centred around the Church's definition of good and evil and what the rewards of each would be.

The mystery referred to in the title was of course nothing to do with solving a crime, but the greater mystery of life, the universe and everything under God's green earth. The explanation, or the answer to this "Mystery", was explained as being God's will and people weren't encouraged to delve into that too deeply and accept everything on faith..

As theatre began to develop over the years the repertoire began to expand into more earthy matters and by the time of the Renaissance in Europe and Shakespeare in England plays were dealing with human events over biblical stories. Any mystery that was involved in these plays was for the most part up to the characters in the plays to solve, or resolve.

The audience usually already knew "who done it" and the mystery involved finding out how they got theirs in the end. But there were plays that set the stage for today's mystery story. In Hamlet, our buddy in black has to find evidence that the king did indeed kill his, Hamlet's, Dad before he will justify meting out justice and killing the king in revenge. Hamlet was one of the first characters to take up the role of amateur private investigator.

Considering the results of his investigation – the play ending with four bodies littering the stage and two killed earlier on, one would think playwrights would have backed away from the practice in the future. They may have backed off from the private investigator role, but that didn't stop them from littering the stage with bodies for a while.

You want to see gratuitous sex and violence; you need look no further than a good Jacobean tragedy. There's no mystery as to who did it, but the bodies start piling up in the first act – heck sometimes even the first scene – until the by the end of the play the stage is usually knee deep in them. The only thing that put a stop to this developing any further was Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans taking over in England for thirty years and closing the theatres.

Even when they re-opened the only mystery that was offered up by the period known as Restoration theatre in the late 1600s, was who was going to get into whose pants. By the 1700's the best written literature was already being created more for reading then performing, with English (and Irish) verse and prose catching up to their contemporaries on the Continent..

While perhaps Alexander Pope's poem "Rape Of The Lock" could be considered a mystery in the sense of having to try and figure out just what the heck he was talking about, the majority of writers were concerned more with satirizing social mores than anything else. As the century progressed and the world heated up with revolutions in France and America and nationalism swept through Europe political tracts and pamphlets were published, whose only mystery involved the odds around the author surviving their publication.

That brings us back to the time of Mr. Poe again and the birth of the modern mystery story. The first really great detective was "born" by the end of the 1800's in the person of Sherlock Holmes, creating either the prototype, or archetype, for all future crime-solving individuals. Ms. Marple to Philip Marlow might seem a stretch, but they both have Sherlock and Mr. Conan Doyle to thank for their existence.

But am I any nearer to answering my question as to why mystery stories appeal to so many different people? Go back a moment to the "Mystery Plays" with their absolute certainties of right and wrong, and judgement. That's not overly different from our modern detective story with its villain and hero, and the bringing of the villain to justice.
No matter how many shades of grey a writer may imbue his world with, the majority of time we are given the same guarantees offered by the "Mystery Plays". In today's world the certainty of the final resolution offered by most mystery stories is a break from our own uncertain world. On some level they offer us the same reassurance offered our ancestors by the "Mystery Play"

In these days of cynicism and mistrust for those who used to be the bulwarks of our society, church and state, it is the mystery story, by whatever name we want to call it, which gives us the assurance of good (in all its shades of grey) eventually winning over the nominally bad. The heroes and villains may not be as cut and dried as they were in Dame Agatha's day, and the distinctions between good and evil may not be as clear as they used to be, but its still a darn site tidier than what reality has to offer.

In an age of uncertainty anything that can offer a semblance of steadfastness will be clung to like a life preserver. Is it any wonder that the biggest hits on television these days among continuing serials are variations on the mystery story? For however long we are absorbed by either the book or the television we are in a world where we know for a fact that eventually justice in one form or another will be done. And that can't help but be a relief.

June 30, 2007

Epic India At Three Months Welcomes Author Vinod Joseph

It was pretty much six full months ago that my buddy Ashok asked me if I would consider turning his personal web site, Epic India into an online magazine, and just about three months since we opened the doors. I think, in spite of my great admiration and respect for my old friend, if I had know what it was going to be like I might have mentioned some fairly unmentionable ideas to him and hoped the next time I talked to him his head wouldn't be filled with such foolishness.

Well okay that's not true, I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into just from observing what the editors at Blogcritics and Desicritics have to go through on a regular basis. On top of that I'd also be doing a lot of the page and site design (although Banwari La did all the real work and still continues to this day to be the man we all run crying to when we can't get the toys to do what we want them to do).

There was also all the administrative work involved setting things in motion as well, and you'd be amazed how many little things you don't think of crop up – where do the contributors sign in for the first time for instance. That might sound silly, but we had never had to sign into the live site, because we were always working on the test site. When it came time to send out permissions to people I could only pray that the system would automatically send them a link to somewhere they could sign in

All things considered though it went pretty smoothly with only minimal bugs and nothing too serious. We've even been able to solve our spam problem and turn our comments back on after having to close them for a couple of weeks because of a deluge we started to receive. (Yea Banwari) But we ran into a problem that I guess has sort of taken me by surprise and left me feeling blindsided.

The contributors didn't want to contribute. On opening day we had about twenty people registered as contributors. I thought, that wasn't so bad because if everyone chipped in an article a week, plus me on a daily basis, it worked out to three new posts a day. A bit thin, but we were a new site with zero budget to advertise and no one with the time to do much about publicity.

But you know the old saying of you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink – while it seems to apply to a lot of writers out there too.Not only couldn't I get a number of my original writers to contribute at all, I'd get people writing all excited and asking me please could they be a writer at Epic India, and nothing, not a word, nada.

After a month of this I sent out a letter en masse with words of encouragement. After two months I sent out a letter saying those who had not published at all and didn't within two days would have their permissions yanked.

At least that time people made the effort to respond to my email and postings increased sporadically, and the number of writers decreased by the number who had never contributed. Even Ashok sponsoring a contest for the best stories about Indian Culture did nothing to increase contributions.

Then last week one of those things you dream of happening when you run an arts and culture site happened. Vinod Joseph, author of the novel Hitchhiker wrote me out of the blue and asked if I would consider publishing his new series of ten short stories for him at the site.

Let me see, would I consider publishing the work of an author whose name I could at least trumpet up and down the breadth of India, if not to the Indian population abroad as well, as being a contributor at the site? Oh heck, why not, I was sure we could squeeze him in somewhere once a week for ten weeks.

With Vinod's help I've been able to, hopefully, generate more interest in the site over the past week then in our previous three months. Not only did he offer his work, he gave me a huge list of email addresses for online and print press to properly publicize his participation.

Of course it also means we will be coming under a bit of a microscope for the next little while so I'm going to have be extra careful with my proof reading and editing skills. (Stop laughing out there, I'm getting better) I also hope that this will encourage some of my more reticent contributors to start writing more frequently, mainly because I know they can all do good work and they have a great opportunity now for a larger audience to take notice of them.

Of course I'm hopeful of a spin off effect from this and that we will attract more writers to the site who want to either contribute short stories or non-fiction articles of their own on a regular basis. But I'm also realistic enough to know that it will still take more then just one very special event to stabilize us. But it's a start and I can't ask for more then that.

Starting Saturday July 7th /07 Vinod Joseph, author of the novel Hitchhiker will be serializing his new collection of short fiction, A Taste Of Kerala – Stories From Simhapara at Epic India.com on a weekly basis for ten weeks.

Set in the fictional village of Simhapara the stories are slices of life far removed from the hustle and bustle of the big centres of Delhi and Mumbai. A Taste Of Kerala will offer readers a view of life that is a few steps removed from sacred "Economic Miracle" so beloved of the press and political leaders.

In his novel Hitchhiker Vinod Joseph proved he had the ability to depict the lives of people in rural communities without sentimentalizing or belittling them. Once more he will offer readers an opportunity to see a different view of India than often offered. Ordinary people getting on with the business of living their lives as best they can in a world that is changing faster then they might be able to handle.

Join Epic India as we welcome Vinod Joseph and his latest work A Taste Of Kerala – Stories From Simhapara to our pages. You won't be disappointed.

June 21, 2007

Book Review: M Is For Magic Neil Gaiman

Do you remember when you were young and there were certain short story writers whose tales always made you feel good. They could be scary, they could be funny, or they could just be about things that made you think. But whenever you read a book of their stories you felt as comfortable as is you were tucked into bed in a warm comforter on the coldest night of the year.

It might be a howling blizzard of whatever outside but inside the comfort of those pages you were long gone and safe. You could be staring down the biggest, ugliest, and hairiest monster known to all human and non-human kind and feel right at home. These worlds of the imagination kept away the reality of the test you hadn't studied for tomorrow, or that you had made a fool of yourself at school (again) today and were going to suffer for it for at least the next week.

You wished that you too could really climb aboard that rocket ship to go off and encounter strange places and even stranger beings. In my opinion Ray Bradbury was the past master of these stories, and it appears I'm not alone in that thought. Neil Gaiman's latest collection of short stories isn't titled M Is For Magic by accident. He says in his forward that he phoned Ray Bradbury and asked his permission to tip his hat to Ray's wonderful collection of short stories R Is For Rocket.
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Neil Gaiman is of course the author of an incredible body of work ranging from graphic novels, The Sandman series, movie scripts (MirrorMask), to a multitude of books and short stories for adults and children. His books can scare you half to death and leave you delighted and smiling. But mainly, just like the man he admires so much, opening a book of his short stories is the surest way to forget yourself and the troubles of your day for as long as you're able to keep the book open.

Nominally for young people M Is For Magic is like Bradbury's collection before, a compilation of stories culled from previous works that Mr. Gaiman felt younger readers would like. The book appeals to the place inside of us that yearns for stories of less then earth-shattering importance. Somewhere inside us are still those kids who loved to listen to ghost stories around the camp fire, to look up at the night sky and wonder who might be living up there, and who knew there were stranger things living in the woods than foxes and rabbits no matter what our parents said.

True to the spirit of their predecessors the stories of M Is For Magic stand ready to whisk you away into the arms of the mysterious and wonderful worlds they contain. Although each story is a gem in it's own right, there are a couple whose sparkle really caught my eye.

To adolescent boys girls seem to be from another planet. So when Enn and his friend Vic crash a party full of girls it seems only natural to him that they are incomprehensible. But gradually it dawns on him that even for girls they are remarkably different in their manners and ways of being. "How To Talk To Girls At Parties" takes the fear all young men experience when dealing with the opposite sex and turns it on its head. It's all right that you don't understand them – they really are from another planet.
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"Troll Bridge" does a different type of headstand, as it plays a strange twist on the evil troll under the bridge story. Oh it's still big, ugly, hairy, scary, and waiting to eat the life out of you, but he's also willing to make bargains. But sometimes it's hard to tell with bargaining who is getting the better side of the deal. Besides once you get away from the troll, who would really keep their side of the deal and come back later? Would you?

Gaiman's wonderful humour, cracked and bent like an old willow tree, comes to the fore in "Chivalry", a very strange and modern take on the Holy Grail quest. Galaad, of King Arthur's court in Camelot, at least that's what his I.D. says, and his horse drop by unexpectedly for tea at Mrs.Whitaker's to try and trade her for the Grail. She had picked it up for forty pence at the Thrift store just down the block from the butcher's.

She's awfully loath to part with it though, because it looks so good up there on the mantle piece between the photo of her late husband and the little porcelain dog. But Galaad is such a nice young man and keeps offering such nice gifts in exchange. The famed Philosopher's Stone that will turn lead into gold, a Phoenix Egg, and an apple of Hesperides with the power to make one young again.

While the last isn't proper for an old lady now is it, causing her to think such thoughts and at her age, so she sternly admonishes him to put it away. But the other two, well two for one, you can't say fairer than that, now can you. And Galaad rides off on his horse happy with his grail, and Mrs Whitaker is quite content with her stone and her egg. Even though the egg does have to lean on the porcelain dog to stand up they still fill the space on the mantelpiece nicely.

There's an old fashioned quality to the way Gaiman writes his stories, but not such that it makes them dated. Perhaps it's an air of nostalgia to them, a reminder of something that seems to have gone missing from our lives in recent years. We can't quite put our finger on what it is exactly, but reading his stories seems to fill an emptiness that you didn't even know you had.

Part of it is the sense of whimsy that drifts though each story; the wistful air of knowing that the innocence that allows these stories to exist is quite alien to our world. Galaad is no more likely to ride up and park his horse in one of our kitchen gardens then Superman is of dropping by for coffee. The balance I'd say lies in the title of the collection, M Is For Magic.

Just as in Bradbury's day, when he compiled R Is For Rocket, space seemed remote and inaccessible, today magic has all but vanished and doesn't exist outside of books and movies. In movies we know that it's all special effects so magic has been reduced to technology, taking away the mystery and the whiff of danger.

The only place we really find any magic at all is in the minds of a few writers who remember what it was like to pretend and imagine what if… What if you could buy the Holy Grail in a thrift shop? Wouldn't it follow that Sir Galaad of the Knights of the Round Table would show up at your door looking for it?

M Is For Magic is published by Harper Collins and is available at various on line and regular retailers around the world. A little magic in a life never hurt anyone, and M Is For Magic is one of the best sources your likely to find for a while. Buy it for a child you love; better yet buy two copies, one of them just for you.

February 13, 2007

Book Review: Aleppo Tales Haim Sabato

Stories in real life don't tend to follow a straight and true path like those that are written down in a book by an author for the entertainment of his contemporaries. Sometimes they wander off on digressions which have caught the attention of those involved in the story, other times it becomes necessary to backtrack a hundred years in search for a story's beginning.

Did it begin here when this happened or perhaps here when that happened, or did it like all stories begin with the beginning of all things and is just one more branch thrown out by the universe. It can be a delicate business extracting a story from all that surrounds it, like following on thin thread of one colour through a many hued woven shawl.

Here it snakes in front of the weft, here behind; see there how it quickly snakes around those five or six almost similar strands, maybe following on with them for a while but by looking closely you can see the point of divergence. No matter how unique or individual we believe it to be our own story or that of our family isn't usually that much different from other members of our community.

Of course with every rule there has to be an exception and in Aleppo Tales Haim Sabato relates, although one family's life is forever intertwined with the rest of the community, in this book detail three incidences of a family's thread glowing far brighter than their neighbours. Perhaps if he had the energy he could have detailed ways in which more than the just the people named in these stories had distinguished themselves.
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First you need to know about the "Aleppo" of the title; this is the name given to the territory in Syria where Jews had lived for close to two thousand years, ever since the destruction of the second temple during Roman times. Among their number were also Jews who had come when the Spanish expelled them in 1492, Sephardic Jews coming to join a community who practiced in the same manner that they did.

Sometimes an action, or a word that is spoken, doesn't see its final fruition until years later, and when they do it is with results that no one could have predicted. So it was when the sage Raphael Sapporta sold an old Hanukkah lamp that he had inherited from his great-great grandfather who had come to Syria as one of those Spanish exiles in 1492.

As you know the tradition of Hanukkah, where Jewish people celebrate the miracle of the oil lamps staying light for eight days when there was only enough oil for one, that on the first night it is normal to light two candles, one of which is used to light the other, or the others for the nights of the festival. But this menorah that Raphael Sapporta sold to the trader, who had been approached by a middleman who had been approached by a dealer in antiquities in France to buy old Hanukkah lamps, was one of the ways in which some Jews of Aleppo were different from their other kin in exile.

Instead of the normal nine lights there was room for a tenth. It is said that when the boat carrying the exiles fleeing Spain was approaching Aleppo it was caught up in a terrible storm and it was only by a miracle that it made it to port with all its crew and passengers alive. The day the ship made port was in fact the first night of Hanukkah, and to commemorate this second miracle of the season, those families who had arrived on that ship had special menorah made with the means to light an extra light.

The two scrap dealers who had arranged the deal for selling the Hanukkah lamp soon found that their business dealings began to prosper and with that prosperity they decided that they in turn should do their bit and supported the sages of Aleppo by creating a perpetual fund that would permit them to study and not work more than they wanted at material matters.

Thus it was that the one lamp sold to Senor Franco and Senor Piciotto began to have an effect immediately for the family Sapporta as Raphael was one of the sages who received direct benefit from this endowment, as did his son Hacham Hiyyah a sage of renown in his own right. It was because of this endowment that Hacham's son Jacob was able to study from an early age, but education began to lead him away from the words and deeds of his fathers.

As it is for the father so it is even more so for the son, and Jacob who is the son of Hacham who first is led away from the study of the Torah had a son who they named Raphael in honour of his great-grandfather. But he took for himself the name of Max and left behind the Torah altogether. He went to Paris to continue his studies and for a time was happy. But on occasion he was reminded of the teachings of his forefathers and experienced disquiet.

As was his habit when he was in need to settle his mind he went to the Louvre Museum. It just so happened that there was a display of Jewish antiquities on exhibit and Max let himself be pulled into it. In one glass case he saw to his wonder an old, cracked Menorah with places for ten lights. Even more surprising was the fact that engraved faintly in the side of brass was the name Sapporta. The last name he no longer used.

In writing this review I have tried to emulate the style that Haim Sabato created in his telling of the stories in Aleppo Tales. Part of the joy of reading any of his books is the way in which the stories take their time in unfolding. Sabato thinks nothing of following an interesting thread off the main strand of the story to its natural conclusion, waiting for it to finish talking as it were, before he picks up the tale again.

In this manner he manages to not only tell an interesting tale about how many and varied are the distractions of the world that keep you from remembering who you are, but to also bring to life the atmosphere of an era that has long passed. The community of Aleppo Jews no longer exists except in pockets where their descendants might still practice in New York or Israel, but it is not the same as a whole district dedicated to a way of life.

What I found especially interesting was that the main language that they used for communication outside the synagogue was Arabic. In those days remember Hebrew was primarily a religious tongue. It's only been since the formation of Israel that Hebrew has been given a secular form, and that was for convenience when the country was formed because nobody could speak the same language. It makes sense for Jewish people living in Syria to speak Arabic fluently, just as those living in England would speak English. But in this day and age it seems strange to see and is also a reminder of a time when the children of Abraham weren't as divided.

It should make no difference to you whether you are a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, or a Hindu when you read these stories because while they focus on a particular religion they are universal in their celebration of faith; the power it has to bring you joy, comfort, and peace. Faith does not have to be a burden, as so many people seem to belief it to be these days, it should be a blessing and something to bring you great joy.

Surrounding yourself with the sages and wise men and women of Aleppo reminds you of that, and if for no other reason makes it worth reading Aleppo Tales. That it is also beautifully written, with love and faith adorning every word like pearls is just an added bonus.

January 27, 2007

Atmospheric Creations: A World In A Book

Have you ever noticed that some books that you read are able to create such a feeling of time and place that you only have to think about the book to for an image of a person or locale to form? The author has managed to create such a vivid world that you continually want to be part of it, and you re-read the book endlessly for that reason.

Sometimes the feelings generated that way are so strong that the story itself is an irrelevancy, in fact the only reason you're reading it is so that you can be part of that world again. However the author has managed it, she or he has created a world that seems to exist as an entity on to itself separate from the story, even though it only exists because of the story being written.

That to me is what separates the truly wonderful from the okay books. If when I read a book the first that happens is I want to re read it right away, or I find myself wishing it would continue on and on, that is a good indication the author has been successful in generating that atmosphere. It's funny to read a story for those reasons, because I find myself disappointed that the people are still doing the same things they were the last time I was in their world. (I'd hazard a guess and say this is probably what motivates so much of fan fiction – people trying to recreate a world they've come to appreciate, not very often with much success)

Now the conundrum becomes for me the author, instead of me the reader, is how the hell do you write a book like that. I've be re reading my manuscript with an eye towards wondering if I've been able to generate that feeling of time and place. If I'm honest with myself, I have to say while I think I've been able to capture the physical representations fairly well, it seems rather flat.

I've been reading quite a few pieces lately that rely far more on, for lack of a better phrase and bear with me if it sound pretentious, historical texture, for generating atmosphere then other works that I've read in the past. You can almost feel the weight of history in the characters and the settings.

I should clarify what I'm talking about when I say history. I don't mean a series of dates and things that happened in the past, although they can be important to the plot, but the fact that the culture has existed for thousands of years.

The people have their own legends, their stories that explain who they are and where they come from. They've developed a body of thought as per their analysis of their religion and a variety of philosophies to help cope with the exigencies of life. But the authors of these books haven't had to spell any of out; one way or another we know it's there.

It underlies all the action, it's in the way the characters talk, and it appears to shape the way they think. It's more then a simple history, it's a cultural identity that is never talked about directly but is always present. Everything from the way the characters walk to the food they cook has to be consistent with this identity for the atmosphere to be successfully rendered.

Now unless you plan on copying an already existing culture, which would still involve incredible amounts of research so you don't make any slips or show inconsistencies with what others may recognise, this means having to create a history for the people, or peoples, who populate your work.

It doesn't even have to be information that is used in the book, although I've been thinking of adding a preface to my manuscript as a means to introduce some of the most important themes. It has to be there for you the author to draw upon, as much as your characters need to be able draw upon it in their daily living.

I've started to think that when writing I need to create two outlines – one for the plot and all its intricacies and one for the cultural history of who ever it is you are going to write about. Obviously if you are writing about contemporary life you don't need to do too much except make sure you don't deviate from what the people of the class you're writing about would normally do in the circumstances you are describing.

But if you are creating whole cultures you need to know everything from the names they give the constellations of the stars to their preference in pickling processes on the off chance that the topic might come up in conversation amongst your characters. Does that sound like a ridiculous amount of work? Perhaps so, but I don't believe that you can create a believable atmosphere without it.

January 26, 2007

Where Have The Lions Of Literature Gone?

When Hunter S. Thompson died a couple of years back it felt like the end of era just because of what he represented as an icon of the anti-establishment movement of the America in the 1960's. But in the years since his death I've also come to the realization of what else his passing has meant to the world of literature.

He represented one of the last of the larger than life literary figures who seemed so abundant in the twentieth century, but who now have gone the way of the dinosaur. When you add the death of Irving Layton last year to the Grim Reaper's harvest of writers it becomes even harder to think of any great characters left in the field of letters.

These were men and women, but primarily men the world being what it was in those days, who through dint of personality as well as talent were able to capture people's imaginations in ways today's best sellers couldn't hope to accomplish. John Grisham may sell millions of books but do you truly think he could inspire anybody to become a writer?

I'm not saying they're aren't great writers out there right now, because there are some truly amazing authors whose writings are not just illuminating but luminescent as well. But where are the personalities to capture our imaginations; where are the characters who added mystique to the writer's art?

Perhaps Paris in post World War one and Morocco in post World War two, and all the writes associated with those movements (whether they were ever there or not) are unique in the history of the written word. There have been very few other occasions when such diverse groups of talent were gathered together in a single place.

Of course there were other pockets, The Bloomsbury group of artists headed up Virginia Wolfe and her husband Leonard made their abode London and it's surrounding environs. Greenwich Village in New York City and parts of San Francesco came later, and were more part of the Beat movement out of Morocco then anything else.

Paris in between the wars was a favoured destination for writers, painters, dancers, and all the hangers on that go with an artistic scene, from all over the world. Ernest Hemmingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Morley Callahan, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hart Crane, Henry Miller, and Anis Nin were all to be found among the tables and chairs of Paris' cafes in the day, and her salons and bars at night.

Perhaps it was the whole circumstance that lent itself to creating the Romantic image of the writer that came out of that period. But the absence of any one of the above mentioned figures would have surely diminished the impact. Paris in the twenties without Hemmingway or Joyce doesn't even seem conceivable as they represent the two poles of personality and expression, boisterous emotion and cool intellect respectively.

For it was not only content that these wonderful writers wrangled with, but form as well. Joyce, and Wolfe in England, experimenting with writing as the mind worked. Leaping from thought to thought and letting a "story" develop from those thoughts. Similarly poets like Crane and e. e. cummings were taking apart the formal structures and producing new sounding poetry

At the other end of the spectrum was Hemingway with his big and bold emotional stories about war and life, and his big and bold emotional approach to his own life. The boxing match with Callahan, which he lost, was the only blemish on an otherwise spotless record for coming out a winner for most of this life. It was only when he started to lose his creative powers the depression that killed him set in, but even that only adds to his mystique.

Even in death they were figures of romance to emulate for the young writers who were to follow them, in the post World War two Beat movement. The Beats were probably the first almost uniquely American literary movement, in that not only were it's members predominately American, they also represented the best and worst aspects of the triumph of the individual.

From the selfishness of addictions to the brilliance of independent thought and free spirited action they epitomized individuality. The Beats and their contemporaries shattered conventions about morality, sexuality, and the other symbols of the staid and stable middle class to ignite a flame of passionate creativity.

William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allan Ginsberg were at the centre of the movement that opened the way for people like Ken Keasy , Charles Bukowski, Richard Farina, and Thomas Pynchom. They also became the touchstone for whatever rebellion against convention that occurred in North America in the 1960s.

But who has there been since able to inspire or excite people in that way about literature? Yes there are individuals who people want to read and whose books provide pleasure to millions which is a great thing in of it's own. But there is no one, or group of people, out there who seem to have caught the public's imagination like any of those other authors did during their heyday.

Maybe they still have the ability to inspire new generations of authors years after their passing; I know they provided me with the desire to create, but how long can the force of their personalities endure? Where will the next great group of literary lions come from to inspire creativity and genius? Is it even possible for these types of people to achieve the acclaim they did in years gone by?

Will our formulaic and conservative publishing industry even allow for such original and creative individuals to flourish? Or has the environment changed so radically we will never see those days again? Perhaps I'm overly romanticizing days gone by because of my own personal biases, so take the thoughts expressed here with as many grains of salt as you wish.

But without an infusion of some sort of energy soon the contemporary North American novel seems destined to continue to obtain the heights of mediocrity at best.

January 14, 2007

Book Review: Don Marquis The Annotated Archy And Mehitabel

With Apologies To Don Marquis
I've been having this bad habit of falling asleep with my laptop turned on recently. I don't know if it's my medication or what, but one moment I'll be typing away and the next moment I'll be waking up from a half hour power nap lucky not to have spilled my coffee all the way through my bed.

Well, at some point in the middle of the night this must have happened again. I woke up to find the article I had been working on erased and the piece of work below written in its place. I must admit to some confusion as to why the "insect" in question refers to my laptop as an old typewriter and wonders why I don't own a computer. True the laptop in question is ten years old and the keys are a bit stiff, but still.

Of course a cockroach, if my mysterious writer is to be believed in his claims about his heritage, would have difficulty operating the shift key. Holding it down and depressing the letters simultaneously would involve having legs a lot longer then I'd personally want to see on a cockroach. The solitary "I" is set as an auto correct by the software, which explains it's existence, but I still think he's avoided using the punctuation only for effect. Not one of those keys involves the shift key to operate.

Anyway I thought the novelty of his submission merited keeping it intact. I'm sure our readers will be able to discern his meaning without too much trouble and that his insights into one of the greater comic writers of the early twentieth century would be intriguing. So I'll just let him tell it in his own words

boss I must tell you about this guy don marquis
but before we get started I want you to know how hard it is for me to type not able to use punctuation or the shift key as I'm forced to jump on each key with my head
why you are still using an old manual typewriter when everyone else has computers is beyond me
anyhow back to don marquis he was a newspaper guy back in the days when newspaper guys were writers as well as being journalists yes I know that sounds hard to believe but it was true back in the early days of the twentieth century
don was born in the real dark ages before electricity in 1878 and ended up in new york city writing for the newspaper trade in the teen years of the twentieth century
thats when archy the cockroach the reincarnated vers libre poet was first introduced to a disbelieving world
you see boss they were a lot more sceptical back then than people are today so they had a hard time believing it was a cockroach typing those columns every other day or so in the same plucky manner you see me doing here for you now
you dont believe me boss well hell all you have to do is check out your local bookseller for one of them penguin classic books theyve just put out a whole new version of archys work under the pen name of don marquis of course cause like you some people have a hard time believing that a cockroach can write anything
even in these supposed enlightened times a cockroach is treated like something that needs to be crunched under the heel do you know how many poetic souls are being scraped off soles every day
I digress and Im sorry boss but it makes my blood boil to think of all those souls who will have to transmigrate again to another body maybe not even as evolved as a cockroach
the book the book alright alright the book its called the - help me out somebody boss do the keys for html or will never hear the end of it the annotated archy and mehitabel you lazy so and so you couldnt stretch yourself to consider putting a higher case letter on either dear old archy or poor old mehitabel
you know there was never a finer feline thats lived according to what archy wrote for his boss then mahitabel she used to say that she was the reincarnation of cleopatra which was quite a funny but archy was a gentleman and let her have her vanities because she was his friend in an aside id also say that archy was probably just a little more then a little in love with mehitabel
well if you think people have a problem with same sex spousal things today cross species would have just been too much for the likes of the world back then
even me liberal free spirited cockroach that I am would be hard pressed not to be a little upset by that idea.
but I think archy knew it were a hopeless cause and he wasnt one for an overt amount of brooding
well he must have done some sort of brooding on occasion because he did commit suicide to become the cockroach
oh well thats for bigger minds or ones that arent being bashed against the keys of an old remington every night to figure out
you know that their relationship didnt exactly get off on the right foot with mehitabel mistaking archy for a late night snack and forcing him to hide in the keys of the typewriter
but once she found he was a writer who could properly immortalize her why she was a lot less keen on eating him and keener to talk about herself
toujours gai she'd say always happy arhcy toujous gai and shed give him that big toothy smile that would probably have made him nervous as much as anything else and go off into the night to try her luck
she was your regular society girl was our mehitabel boss
only being inconvenienced in a minor way by her natural inclinations like motherhood
but if she had one weakness aside from her pride and desire to always be a lady it was for the men folk of her species
ah boss the stories shed tell old archy about her men whod leave her high and dry but she kept her tail up proud and plump and it was always toujours gai archy toujours gai

now of course archy working at a newspaper as he did had to give his readers more diverse reading matter than only that pertaining to the live of a cat no matter how interesting mehitabel thought herself there was news happening in the world at the time as important as her story
periodically archy would go into the field to report
from washington d c he found that the insects there were so plentiful that nobody even noticed another cockroach
he reported that in the capital building no attention was paid to him because there were so many other insects around
it gives you a great idea of the american people he said when you see some of the things they elect
he discovered what we all know too well today that everything is going great and that anybody who says things arent are spreading propaganda of the enemy the department of publicity is doing its best to suppress all rumours that it didnt start itself
washington sure doesnt sound much different today then it did back in archys day does it boss
you know it seems like this don marquis fellow got quite famous off the back of my distant ancestor archy all cockroaches are related boss havent you noticed the similarity yet
sure he may have written a couple of plays and other books and a screenplay or two but who would have heard of him today if it werent for archy and mehitabel the book isnt called the annotated don marquis now is it
they even made an animated movie about the life of archy and mehitabel-
boss I really need your help this time be a pal- Shinebone Alley and you can't say they did that about old don marquis can you.
Well I guess theres no use complaining as thats usually a cockroaches lot even if they are remembered somebody else is taking the credit for their work but as mehitabel would have said to archy if he had complained to her about it
toujours gai archy always smiling toujours gai

Well that's where it ended, this epistle from my mysterious visitor in the night who felt the need to write about the Penguin Classic's release of The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis. I did some checking up and found that such a book does exist and it includes a really good biography of Don in the forward by Michael Sims.

This collection is the first time all the poems are gathered together in the order that they were first published in the New York Evening Sun as part of Don's column "The Sun Dial". It would appear that in spite of his cockroach bias my anonymous contributor knows his stuff. So from now on I'm going to be keeping a eye out for a slightly stooped cockroach around the house; one with the high forehead the result of an unusually large intellect, or from having your head beaten against a solid object repeatedly. I can only hope none of our cats come upon him while he's typing, there's not much room in a computer laptops keyboard for a cockroach, no matter how small, to hide.

December 24, 2006

The Books I Liked In 2006

Now's the time of year when reviewers and critics everywhere are compiling their best of lists for what ever it was they spent the year cataloguing. Some, more daring then others perhaps, are even selecting the one item in their field they consider to be a cut above all the rest, heaven forbid, the year's best.

Last year I participated and selected a favoured book and five favourite music discs for my editors at Blogcritics.org and was honoured to be asked my opinion. Since I've spent so much of 2006 reviewing books and music I wasn't surprised to receive the first email asking me for my best of 2006.

First out of the gate this year was the book's editor asking us to choose our favourite read of the past year. I marked it as unread and left it in the in box of my email program as a reminder; that wasn't a letter I was going to be able to hit reply to and answer immediately. I figured my best bet was to plant the idea in my brain and see if anything took root.

The next day I found myself idly contemplating the books that I had read since last January, trying to pay specific attention to those published in 2006, and waiting for one to jump out and say "I'm the best, pick me". Unfortunately all I ended up accomplishing was realizing I had no idea what to do this year when it came to selecting the year's best in either books or anything else.

I was sitting looking up at my book case where books have become piled up on top of each other for want of shelf space and the thought of even making a list of the books I had read over the last year seemed overwhelming. Trying to pick one of them from amidst the ruins of two shelving units bordered on insanity, but I started to make the attempt. I had nothing to lose by trying

Once I had weeded out everything that wasn't published in 2006 I was still left with what I considered far too many books for my own good. I was left thinking how am I ever going to accomplish this? And what am I going to do if they ask me to do anything for the music section?

Leave that alone for now; I'll blow up that bridge when I come to it. Anyway I'm still trying to deal with the book thing and not coping very well. The editor asked for our picks by Friday that just passed (Dec. 22nd) and it's now Sunday at 3:00am and I'm no closer to choosing one book then I was last Tuesday when I received her email.

What I do have are ten books or so (I keep adding to it every time I make the list as I remember another book that I can't ignore because of how much it moved me, made me think, or made a lasting impression on me) that made my world that much more exciting while I was reading it and the year a lot less interesting if they hadn't existed.

So, in no particular order, here's a listing of books (link to full review at Blogcritics included) that made a difference in my life in the year 2006. I still haven't been able to pick one out of this bunch yet, but I've still got a week before 2007 hits and I might get it together.


The Thousandfold Thought R. Scott Baker
The third book in Baker's sequence that traces the rise to power of a Prophet King on the backs of others fears and superstitions. Beautiful, horrifying, and intelligently written fantasy that makes me hope that I wasn't dreaming when I saw mention of a fourth book.
The Purity Of Blood Arturo Perez-Reverte
The second book of the adventures of Captain Alistride, swashbuckling anti-hero of Phillip IV's Spain: the sun may be setting of the Spanish empire and corruption spreading like a stain through the church and the aristocracy, but the Captain in the eyes of his young ward is proof of her former greatness. Translated into English with great flair, these books are to be read for the sheer pleasure of reading them.
The Bridge Of Rama and King Of Ayodhya Books Five and Six of The Ramayana Ashok K. Banker.
Two books by one author in the same series in the same year are almost too much to ask, but that’s what we got in 2006. With the publication of the fifth and sixth books of his modern adaptation of the 3000-year-old epic poem Ashok Banker brought to a conclusion his version of the story of one of India's most beloved hero's ascension to his throne. Masterful and inventive throughout, these two books brought the series to it's conclusion with the style and grace readers of the series had grown accustomed to.
The Ascendants of Estorea Book One: Cry Of The Newborn James Barclay
From the acclaimed author of The Raven Sequence came the first in his latest sequence. As usual Barclay seems to be able to deal with big stories; an empire at war or the world about to end, and never lose focus of the individuals who make up those events. From emperors down to the farmer in the field all are equally important. Here not only is an empire under siege, but a group of children who have been bred for their abilities come of age. A wonderful combination of adventure, philosophy and genetics, with a good dollop of religious intolerance thrown in for good measure; a great read.
A Dirty Job Christopher Moore
Christopher Moore's latest supernatural comedy has a mild mannered second hand storeowner become one of death's assistants. He's okay with that after the first little bit, until he realizes he's got to do battle with some mythological baddies who want the souls of the dead that he's collected for redistribution. It's actually a lot stranger then it sounds...which is typical of Moore's wonderfully twisted mind.
The Bonehunters Book Six of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen by Steven Erikson.
Erikson's epic ten volume series just keeps on getting better as it creeps towards it's conclusion. The Bonehunters begins the process of bringing the various threads together that have been introduced in the first five books, and creates new plot twists in the same breath. His trademark wonderful characterization and intricate plot designs are as good as ever.
Lessek's Key by Robert Scott and Jay Gordon.
The second book of their trilogy sees Robert's and Jay's characters continue their struggle to save Eldarn from the clutches of the spirit that's been controlling the world for thousands of years. Continuing where they had left off in the first book, a fine intelligent adventure story with great characters, and wonderful plot twists. One of the best stranger in a strange land series I've ever read.
A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil Christopher Brookmyre
Another masterpiece of social criticism wrapped in a mystery story by Scottish writer Christopher Brookmyre. This time he tackles grade school and its horrors as he flashes between a murder case in the present and the school days of all those involved in the case. Is there a clue to be found from whom they were back then to what has happened today? Or is it just a case of bad blood between old friends? A fascinating look into the psychology and politics of the playground and how it shapes who we become or what we have to do to overcome that environment.
A Short History Of Indians In Canada by Thomas King
This is a great collection of short stories by one of Canada's finest short story writers. That he also happens to be a Native Canadian means he has a whole other tradition of story telling to draw upon that we don't normally get to read. This is a great mixture of humour, pathos, and satire that offers commentary on contemporary Native and non-Native life in Canada.
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
Another collection of short stories, these ones run the gamut of Gaiman's stylistic repertoire. From the side splitting funny, the whimsical, the heart breaking, and the just plain fun, the stories in this collection are a pleasure. Gaiman at his finest.

Well there you go, my list of books that made this year a lot more entertaining then it would have been otherwise. I know I've probably already forgotten some, or you might not agree with some of the one's I've included. That's the beauty about lists like these, they're only one person's thoughts and don’t have to be agreed with at all.

But if you're looking for something to read, I'm sure you'll find something on this list that will make you happy. If not, then I'm even more out to lunch then I thought.

December 20, 2006

Book Review: Dream Angus Alexander McCall Smith

Myths are the tales that existed long before the stories of once upon a time took place. They are the stories that explained the unexplainable and gave us the means to comprehend the world around us in terms that we're relevant to our awareness. As Christianity, Islam, Judea, Hinduism, Shinto, and Buddhism all explain the world to us today, Zeus, Odin, Thor, Isis, Ra, The Dagda, Anansi, Sky Woman, Coyote, and Bran explained, and still do for some people, the world in eons gone by.

Now they only exist as pleasant stories; quaint reminders of ancient civilizations and a means of separating our modern monotheistic culture from the primitive times of the past. But there is something about them, their means of explaining things that our religions don't dwell on, or perhaps their magical quality, that can still inspire flights of fancy.

The Myths series of books was created to celebrate that fact with authors from all over the world writing about a mythological being of their choice. The stories created are either tales associated with the god/goddess or the influence of their attributes in contemporary life. In Dream Angus author Alexander McCall Smith has taken the Celtic god of dreams and love and interwoven his story with modern tales of dreams, love, and dreams touched by love.
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Dreams are the places where our hidden secrets come to life. They can be dark and fearful experiences that shake up our world leaving us agitated and afraid. The dreams that Angus leaves us with may not be the most frightening, but dealing with love as they do can make them as unsettling as any nightmare. But instead of turning this into an exercise in the macabre or some sort of psychological study, he creates a tone that carries the same bittersweet wonder and joy of the myth.

Angus is the illegitimate son of the head of the Celtic gods, The Dagda. (Referred to in this story as just plain Dagda) Like Zeus Dagda has a wandering eye for women and the river spirit Boann catches his eye one day and he proceeds to set up a successful seduction. From the moment Angus is born it is obvious that he is a gentle spirit and will be universally loved. Songbirds circle his head to serenade him to sleep as he rocks in his cradle, and the wildest hunting dog calms when in his presence.
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Dagda steals Angus away from his mother when he is still an infant. Shortly after Angus comes to live with him he dreams of a day when his son will supplant him on the throne and cast him away. The following day Angus is sent to live with one of his stepbrothers as Dagda hopes that this will prevent his dream from coming to pass (We all know what happens in those instances don't we, how the thing we do to prevent something actually causes our worst fears to be realized).

Such is the gentle nature of Angus that all who meet him find they are filled with dreams of love. A good deal of the time they are dreams of love for Angus because of his nature, but he never returns their affections. But one day when he is older Angus is ensnared by a dream he has of a beautiful woman. For the longest time he wastes away, uninterested in food or drink for love of this woman.

Finally she is found, but as fate would have it she must spend alternate years as a swan. So strong is Angus' love for Caer that he himself transforms into a swan so that they can be together.

While McCall Smith is telling us these details, he is interspersing them with short stories of humans set in modern times. One of the stories details a boy whose life has a parallel path to Angus' in childhood. When his father sent Angus away, he went to live with his stepbrother who had a son a few years older then him.

The two boys became inseparable and in less you knew different, you weren't able to tell they weren’t really brothers. One night Angus had a dream, and he dreamt that his brother wasn't there any more, and it was so real that when he woke up he was nigh on inconsolable.

The story "My Brother" in set in rural Scotland in the depression of the 1930's when people were barely able to survive. Jamie idealized his older brother Davie and went everywhere with him if possible. He believed in all his heart that they would be together for the rest of their lives; he even imagined a time after their parents had died and they would share the house they grew up in.

So he is devastated when his brother receives an invitation to go to Canada to live with a cousin in Nova Scotia. The night after he finds out that his brother will be leaving he tries to convince Davie to let him come too. Instead of agreeing Davie tells Jamie to ask "Dream Angus" to bring him dreams of him in Canada. That night Jamie dreams of dark trees and white snow and knows it's Canada.

Dream Angus can help Jamie because he knows about the love between brothers and how much it hurts to lose that bond. In that first night he sends him a promise in the shape of a dream that he will keep them connected, even if only through their dreams. In the dream world we can have just as powerful feelings as we have in the waking world and Jamie can love his brother with as much intensity as he wants asleep and never have to worry about losing him.

The stories that run in our world's time have both literal and fantastical connections to the life of Angus. McCall Smith has woven elements of the nature of the god into the stories in a way that they reflect the spirit of gentleness and love that are the embodiment of Angus. When the young lady in "Is There A Place For Pigs There?" dreams about loving the simple young man who tends the pigs in the science lab where she works she is at first surprised at herself. But she also knows for certain that he is the one for her.

The way in which the scene is depicted is simple enough to be honest and unsentimental, but it's that very simplicity that makes it so magical. She doesn't tear her hair in fits of passion or analysis her dream of love to pieces. It is just a fact, like the colour of her eyes is a fact, making it all the more wondrous.

Each of the stories in this book tells the myth of Angus whether it's set in ancient Ireland and Scotland or in contemporary times. By imbuing the stories of our time with the gentleness of tone that he uses for the telling of the myth, and by being as factual in the world of the myth as he is in our time Alexander McCall Smith bridges the two worlds beautifully.

A story like this could have easily crossed the line over into sentimentality, but instead Smith has managed to create a world where the bittersweet of dreams is what guides our reality. Dreams of love are both a comfort and a pain, but if they are listened to carefully and believed, the voice of Angus can be heard whispering in our ear.

Alexander McCall Smith's Dream Angus is published by Knoff Canada a division of Random House Canada and you can pick up a copy at their web site, other online retailers or your local bookstore. It's a lovely way to spend a dreamy evening or afternoon when reality is just a little too much to bear.

October 28, 2006

Book Review: Fragile Things Neil Gaiman

In his introduction to his most recent collection of writings, Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman explains how the title refers both to the topics of the included material and the nature of stories themselves. Stories like the human heart, dreams, butterflies, and egg shells may at first glance appear to be made from insubstantial materials, but on second look we see they all have unexpected strength.

While the heart may break metaphorically it is also the strongest muscle in the human body, beating a tattoo of 60-70 beats a second for years on end, and butterfly wings may look translucent but a Monarch can fly from Toronto Ontario to the rainforests of Brazil. Similarly a story is made up of twenty-six letters and punctuation, or air and vocalizations, but some have been around for thousands of years, long outliving their creators.

While Gaiman makes no claim that any of his stories or poems will fall into that latter category it's hard not to think about those words while reading through this collection. Not necessarily for their durability or their literary merit, but their understanding of how fragility does not detract from durability. Survival is not only for the strong, but the meek and the lost manage to find their way through the twist and turns of fate with equal dexterity.

From the morbidity of "Feeders And Eaters", the absurdity of his inverted Sherlock Holmes story "A Study In Emerald", the humour of "Forbidden Brides Of The Faceless Slaves In The Secret House Of The Night Of Dread Desire", the pathos of "Harlequin Valentine", and various other stops along the road of human and inhuman behaviour, Gaiman explores the enduring qualities of fragility.

This is unusual territory for a fantasy writer to be exploring, and somewhat unexpected from a writer like Gaiman who is best known for his whimsical humour and the almost nineteenth century sensibility which imbues so many of his creations. But the short fiction format is known for providing writers with the means to explore areas far removed from their normal haunts.

Such is the case with Fragile Things and although Gaiman has always shown an implicit understanding of human emotions and desires, these stories dig deeper and resonate louder then some of his longer work. It's as if the constraints of the media have assisted him in getting to the heart of the matter with more efficiency.

Something that I've always admired about Gaiman is his ability to maintain neutrality when it comes to his main characters. He leaves it up to us to judge their actions and character instead of nudging us in any direction with the nods and winks of biased description. Somehow, because of this maybe, we are able to form opinions of them almost from the moment they make their first appearances on the page.

In a novel an author has the luxury of letting atmosphere contribute to the way his reader reacts to characters, an advantage the short story author is obviously lacking. But there is something about the way in which Gaiman writes, perhaps this comes from familiarity with his work, but from nearly the opening paragraph we are wrapped into a cocoon of atmosphere that establishes precedent for the events that follow.

By being able to prepare the way for his characters, and then giving them their heads, his stories are able to move forward quickly without any of the jars that you experience in a less accomplished author's short work. There is a seamless flow to these pieces with none of the reliance on device or trickery that annoys me about most work in this genre.

I've noticed in the past that writing a short story has a lot in common with buying clothes or shoes. You have the option of going with something that has a lot of flash and pizzazz but is short on longevity or you can pick something a little plainer in style but a heck of a lot more durable. This is not to say that the latter is unoriginal in content, in fact quite the contrary, but the packaging it comes in is made to last with no reliance on gimmickry or sleight of hand.

Neil Gaiman is an imaginative and inventive novelist whose flights of fancy, whimsical nature, and ability to be equally at home in both the light and dark parts of the human psyche without resorting to the voyeurism employed by so many of his contemporaries, has made his name synonymous with high quality fantasy. Fragile Things not only reaffirms his abilities as a writer, it shows his capacity for storytelling is on par with those he dedicates the collection to.

Like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison before him he can hold the robin's egg that is a short story in his hands without crushing the shell and ensure that at its centre lays a sturdily beating heart. These are Fragile Things that the passage of time will have difficulty folding, bending, or mutilating. They are as durable as stories themselves and as long as there is air to breath and ears to listen they will be told.