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January 22, 2014

Book Review: How Music Works by David Byrne


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 6, 2013

Interview: Alex Cox - Author of The President and the Provocateur


Alex Cox is best known as the director of the films Sid and Nancy and Repo-Man. However, anyone who has seen either of those movies will know he's both an astute observer and intelligent commentator on both society and politics. It was the combination of those two elements which piqued my interest in his newest book, his third to date, The President and the Provocateur, an in depth examination into the assassination of the 35th President of the United States John Fitzgerald Kennedy. As the title suggests the book also deals with the man, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was arrested for the assassination and then in turn assassinated before he could stand trial.

With 2013 being the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, November 23 1963, all the questions surrounding the two killings will once again come out into the open. For while the official word has always been Oswald both killed Kennedy and acted alone, there have been countless arguments over the years disputing this theory. Cox's book is not just another conspiracy theorists rantings, it is a carefully put together, thoughtful and articulate history of both men, the times they lived through and the events surrounding the assassination. The picture he pieces together is of a President surrounded on all sides by powerful people who have a lot to gain from his death.

After reading the book, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to ask Mr. Cox a few questions about what he wrote and how he came to write the project. I sent him the following questions by email and reprinted his answers verbatim without any editing. I hope this interview will convince of the integrity of his work and his motivations for writing the book in the first place. He has no axe to grind, nor does he openly support one theory over the other, save to call into doubt the official line of Oswald did it. His concern is to find the truth, and for us to want to find the truth as well.


You're best known as a film director, why the switch in media? Aside from the obvious technical ones, how did your process differ in approaching this project from when you prepare for a film?
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I'm a writer, too. I've written about 40 screenplays and published two books before this one. So it isn't really a switch in media. Books and films complement each other and are equally worthwhile! The process of writing a book is more solitary than making a film, which is a group
activity. But both involve preproduction, production, editing, and a deadline.

It's been 50 years since Kennedy was assassinated, why do you think the subject is still relevant or people will still be interested in it?

It's certainly relevant or Hollywood wouldn't be putting a lot of money into a Tom Hanks film called Parkland in an attempt to convince us that the Warren Commission was right. Nobody believes that story any more - at least, no one who has researched the assassination - but as November 22 approaches we'll see a lot of media energy and corporate money invested in expensive efforts to convince us that Oswald killed the President all on his own. Errol Morris is already making videos for the New York Times with that goal in mind. Oswald - lone assassin! It's the one think Noam Chomsky and Bill O'Reilly can agree on.

The murder of President Kennedy, in broad daylight, by riflemen who got away with the crime, sent a powerful message to the political and media class. Careers were made - think Dan Rather, think Arlen Spector - by those who supported the official version, no matter how ridiculous it was. The theft of the democratic franchise in 1963 still hasn't been addressed. It needs to be, and those who profited from it need to be exposed.

You not only spent a considerable amount of time on Kennedy and Oswald's biographies, you give quite a detailed history of the postwar era leading up to Kennedy's presidency. Why was it important to provide this background and historical context?

Because who knows this stuff? I grew up in this period but if you were born in 1990 you might need a little background info on HUAC, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and the Cuban revolution

It was quite frightening to read about the attitudes of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff towards nuclear war and how they tried to manipulate both President Eisenhower and Kennedy into believing America could win such a war. Was this mindset limited to them, or was this a widespread popular belief at the time?

In the 1950s and 1960s the US military really did believe that a nuclear war was "winnable" and that a surprise nuclear attack on Russia was the very best policy. They even had a date for it - December 1963 - and pushed both Eisenhower and Kennedy to greenlight the surprise atomic attack. To their great credit, both Presidents refused to do it. Today we know that even a "limited" nuclear war (Israel vs. Pakistan, India vs. China, whatever) would cause massive firestorms and a nuclear winter. We would all die. But this wasn't known in the 60s and we have
to be very grateful that Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had strong characters and were able to say no to the fruit salad. Would Clinton or the Bushes or Obama have stood up to the Joint Chiefs so forcefully?

It might be hard for people today to understand the virulence of the opposition to integration or how governors of individual states could be so outspoken in their opposition of the federal government and the law. How were they able to get away with it under both Eisenhower and Kennedy?
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In Civil Rights terms, both Eisenhower and Johnson were more forceful than Kennedy. As a Democrat, Kennedy felt he had to appease the racist element within his own party -- egregious characters but high-ranking Democratic senators. Johnson came from Texas and whatever his faults he wasn't a racist: he'd already lost the Blue Dogs' support by joining the Kennedy ticket. He was also more interested in domestic politics than Jack Kennedy was.

Kennedy was considered a fairly conservative Democrat, in fact you mention how Rockefeller, a Republican, was actually more liberal than Kennedy. He supported the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Joe McCarthy was an old family friend and he brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war by blockading Cuba in order to prevent Soviet ships from landing missiles. So how did he manage to alienate the ultra right so badly?

Any support for Civil Rights was going to alienate the ultras. They hated Lyndon Johnson, too. But Johnson was politically very canny: his career was financed by a big military contractor, Brown and Root. He gave them the Vietnam War in return. Kennedy humiliated the heads of US Steel, fired the top ranks of CIA and the Joint Chiefs, took charge of printing US currency, and threatened the oil industry with the loss of serious tax breaks. He also encouraged violent Cuban terrorist groups and then deserted them. And he was a Catholic! So there were many
reasons the ultra right disliked him.

You mention a variety of groups and individuals on the right who were both very outspoken in their opposition to Kennedy and his policies and their desires to remove him from the White House. With all the evidence against these people, why was it so easy to convince the public a communist/marxist was responsible for killing the president?

Was the public ever convinced? I don't think so. The media were speedily convinced, but that was a matter of saying what their bosses told them to say. When Kennedy was killed, the general assumption was that right-wing gunmen had done it, and that the Dallas police were in on it and connived in the murder of the "only" suspect.

If Oswald wasn't the one who assassinated Kennedy, a lot of people went to a lot of trouble to set him up as the fall guy. Why him in particular?

Oswald was an intelligence agent - an FBI COINTELPRO infiltrator of left-wing groups, or an IRS infilitrator of right-wing groups, or both - and a former CIA or Naval Intelligence spy, wouldn't he be the ideal fall-guy? He had been "sheep-dipped" so often and so obviously that any agency connected to him was bound to run for cover, and destroy evidence, as we know his FBI handler, Hosty, did.

In order for the assassination to be carried out and for Oswald to end up taking the blame it meant the plot would have had to include people in almost every level of government. The intelligence agencies, the military, the Dallas Police force, the Secret Service and others would have had to be in on it. In the book you provide plenty of evidence in support of this widespread corruption and treason, but the question remains, how could it have happened? How could so many people charged with the protection of the President, who swore oaths of loyalty to their country, or have positions of trust, be traitors?
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In an operation like this, how many people know what's going on? Very very few. Some people were tasked to impersonate a guy, on a rifle range or at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City. Some people were set to be arrested and held in custody while the riflemen escaped. The riflemen (if they were US citizens) were definitely traitors. The Secret Service men who failed to ride on the President's car, permitted the deadly parade route, and rearranged the order of the motorcade, were clearly culpable and guilty of treason. The Joint Chiefs, when they proposed the Northwoods Operation - false-flag terrorist ops on US soil, involving the murder of US citizens - were guilty of treason, too. No matter how many loyalty oaths they signed!

You've had access to what seems substantial amounts of research and documentation on individuals and organizations connected to either Oswald or the assassination in some way. Some witness statements have always been available and were ignored by the Warren Commission or given less weight than others, but has all the information in your book always been available for those willing to ask the right people and the right questions or is some of it coming out now due to access to information laws?

A lot of information came out as a result of the ARRB, itself inspired by the JFK film and the "Free The Files" movement. Some information came from KGB archives, care of Boris Yeltsin. And some is genuinely new information - the "Hunter Leake" story, for instance. And much info in the book was developed, over many years, by researchers writing for The Third Decade and The Fourth Decade. There is always more to be learned, and leads to be pursued!

If this information has always been out there why hasn't there been more of an outcry over the obvious errors committed by the Warren Commission?

There has been lots of outcry. It is just ignored by the major media.

What did you hope to accomplish by writing this book? How do you hope readers react to the book?

I hope it makes the story a little clearer, though it is by no means clear! And that the terribly bad photographic evidence used to convict Oswald after his death can be recognised for the fakery it is.

As a conclusion you suggest America needs to consider forming the equivalent of the Truth and Reconciliation committees formed in South Africa at the end of Apartheid in order to deal with questions people have about events in recent history, the Kennedy assassination being only one of them. Why do you think such a committee is necessary? What do you think it can accomplish, and finally do you think there's any chance of one ever being formed?

There has been such a committee in the US already - in Greensboro, North Carolina, where a massacre of trade unionists and communists occurred in the late 1970s. If we want it, why can't we have it? Whose permission do we have to ask?


Whose permission indeed? If we want the truth about the death of Kennedy, or about anything else we might have doubts about, it is our right as citizens of whichever country we live in to demand it. Governments hide information behind the screen of national security with out ever having to justify themselves. In times of open warfare this argument might have merit, but for events which happened fifty years ago there is no longer any excuse for protecting anyone or anybody. No one should be above the law no matter who they know, how much money they have, or the position of power they hold. A country is not a democracy until this is true in fact and deed.

As long as people believe their government is capable of lying to them than how can that government be said to be of the people? Some people say we get the government we deserve, however it can also be said we get the government we ask for. Shouldn't we be asking for so much more? Cox's book ends with a simple request, a request for the truth. Is that too much to ask for?

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Interview: Alex Cox Author of The President and the Provocateur)

April 27, 2013

Interview: Augusten Burroughs Author of This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't


You can't walk into a book store these days without seeing them. Self-help books. Not only is there usually a section reserved for them, they can take up the majority of some store's floor space. It seems like almost everybody with a pulse has the perfect solution for making your life better. There are self-help books on everything from how to lose weight to how to deal with the pain of heartbreak. You can buy a book that will tell you how to find your perfect match and right beside you'll find another book on how to dump him or her when they turn out not to be so perfect.

Normally I wouldn't be caught dead in that section of a book store let alone reading a self-help book. However, when I found out Augusten Burroughs, the man who wrote Running With Scissors, Dry, You Better Not Cry as well as a number of other books had published something people were calling a self-help book I was intrigued. This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't turned out not to be nothing like any self help book I've ever come across for any number of reasons. The main one being its author appears to not only care about what he's talking about, but you also get the impression even if he's not lived through something he has the empathy and compassion to understand another person's experiences.

So,when I was offered the opportunity to talk with Burroughs, I jumped at the opportunity. However, I ran into a slight hitch, I had a difficult time in coming up with questions. Anything I came up with concerning This Is How he'd pretty much answered in the book. It was that good. Don't despair, I did come up with some question eventually and the result is below. Without further ado - Augusten Burroughs
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You've written very publicly about what some might think are very private matters. How do people react to you when they find out you're the guy behind stuff like Running with Scissors?

They don't react like I expected as they often share something really personal or make reference to something personal. One of the first stores I ever did a reading/signing in was in LA. I looked at the audience and it was full of well dressed cool people, people who I thought would never be my friends in real life. I was really nervous. But afterwards people were coming up to me, and telling me stuff that had happened to them. I'm constantly surprised by what people share. They tell me how much they identify with the books or certain parts of them and that leads them to share highly personal events in their lives. I've had perfect strangers, some of them people you might recognize, come up to me and tell me things. It's actually kind of daunting because I feel a responsibility to them. However, the implicit trust they have in me that allows them to talk to me is a real gift.

Writing has enriched my life in ways I never imaged. When I first thought of being writer I had visions of stacks of books in stores with my name on them, that sort of thing. But I never imagined this would be the reaction. I was just at a book signing in Portland Maine and three young women, maybe in their early twenties came up to me. One of them mentioned she had just lost her younger brother. Then one of the others said they were from New Town in Connecticut, you know where the shootings took place and it turns out all three of them had lost a younger sibling during the shootings. They had come to the signing because they wanted to tell me how much This Is How had helped them deal with their loss. I can't begin to describe how this made me feel

(There was a kind of awe in Burroughs voice as he recounted the details of the three young women, as if he couldn't believe he could have had this kind of impact on someone. I could tell he was still incredibly moved and more than a little awed by the fact they had come to see him just to tell him about the book. This had just happened the night before our interview and I think he might have still been feeling a little overwhelmed by the event as I could still here the wonder in his voice)

What are you hoping/ have hoped to accomplish by telling your stories ?

I just want them to be useful. I think if you're going to write this type of book, a self-help book, you have a moral obligation to the people who read it to make it something that will be of use to them. If you write these books you have to have done the work, or at least gone through something similar, or how can you talk about the experience with any authority? Some might call it a case of the blind leading the blind when it's one person telling you something based on what they've lived through. But if I were blind I'd rather have another blind person leading me around because they know what I'm dealing with and they're experiencing the same things.

You cover a huge variety of topics in "This Is How" where most people seem to focus on one subject. Was there any particular reason for this?

(At this point I interjected to tell him how much my wife had appreciated his chapter on Anorexia as it was one of the few books she had read - even with studying the subject when training as a therapist - which had understood the disease. So we talked a little about that before moving on.)

The chapter on Anorexia was the hardest to write in the book. For one thing I've no personal experience with it. But what I discovered in all my readings about the subject is how little actual work has been done on researching the disease. They still make the girls, and it's mainly girls who still suffer from it, keep food diaries (records of what they eat each day) which just makes them fixate on food even more. There really needs to be more work done on treatment.

There's a deeper commonality running through the book aside from the issues relevant to the individual topics. Honesty with yourself is at the root of pretty much everything I talk about. Take for example if a person feels like they are fat and when they look in the mirror all they see is fat. And they say they want to feel sexy, what a lot of people will conclude is they need to be thin to be sexy. However, they might not necessarily want to be thin - the thing they want is to be sexy - so no matter how hard they try they can't get thin because that's not what they really want. What they have to do is figure out how to be sexy without being thin. It's a process of stripping away everything you think you know to get the actual truth. You have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself, almost brutally so, in order to understand what it is you actually want. It can be expensive to be honest as you won't get certain things you want, because it turns out you only thought you wanted them. Only through honesty can you figure out what and how to get the things you want.

Do you have any expectations, or hopes, for what readers will take away from your books in general and "This Is How" specifically?

I wanted to change people's lives, to give them the tools to allow them to experience really profound changes. In the book I describe the things I've done to change my life. When I first had the idea of writing this book the last thing I wanted was to be associated with self-help books, it's such a cheesy category. Most of them just have people chasing after the ever elusive confidence, and most of the time they end up confusing it with competence, which has nothing to do with it. It's funny, people look at me up on stage giving a reading or a talk and they say how confident I am. There's no confidence involved in what I'm doing - I'm just focused on what I'm doing and not worrying about anyone else. You've just got to stop worrying about what other people may be thinking of you and stay focused on what you're doing in the moment.

When I wrote the book I sat down and thought about the things people have shared with me and the issues they talked about. Weight or finding someone to love and be truly connected to. I then tried to take readers through my thought process. There are too many of these books out there which give people recipes that don't work. I'm trying to not only give them the means to work through things but to show them how to do the work.

I noticed you didn't talk about a couple of issues - repressed memory and flashbacks. Was there any particular reason why you didn't address them in This Is How

They're not something I've experienced so I didn't think I should talk about them.

What do you think of the idea of forgiving an abuser as a means of getting on with your life?
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I don't know that forgiveness is necessary. I don't think one needs to spend so much time on the abuser. It's almost like waiting for an apology from your abuser, you're just giving them too much of your energy. Lets define forgiveness - what does it imply? A form of accepting what's happened. Forgiveness is a very loaded word - it means different things to different people. I'd rather focus on getting on with life. I wouldn't want to waste any of my brain cells on forgiving if it's holding me back. The implication is that you're still actively angry with your abuser and you need to forgive them in order to get over the anger so you can move on. However, if you obsess with forgiveness you're still spending time with the abuser and you won't be getting over the abuse.

For example, take what happened in Boston, with the bombs during the marathon. If I had my legs blown off by a bomb, which would I rather be doing. Finding a way to forgive the guy who set the bomb or figuring out a way I could run the Boston Marathon without legs? I'd be doing the second one. That's not the easy choice - it's easier to stay angry and stuck in the past. It's one thing to react to something, but to stay there is not conducive to healing. You've got to move on.

Then there's also the whole issue of there are just some things that are unpardonable. Forgiveness implies a pardon for doing something unpardonable. I'm not going to waste my energy looking into the eyes of someone like the guy who blew my legs off trying to find a way to forgive him for doing something that horrible when there are way more productive ways I could be spending my life. You've got to focus on moving on.

Why should readers follow your advice or even think you know what you're talking about?

(laughs) Who is this guy anyway? I may not have degrees but I've street smarts. I've overcome a lot - sexual abuse, death of a loved one, bad parents and experienced life. My nature is such I not only survived all this but I have thrived. I've always been psychologically ambitious in that I've never been willing to settle emotionally for anything less then what's needed. I've wanted more then that from life. I've learned how to turn the adversities in my life into enriching experiences. You can actually gain a lot from adversities and they make you the person you are today. You can make almost anything a learning or positive experience. I think I offer a good example of how to make the most out of what life gives you and how to keep moving on.

Which is roughly when his other phone started ringing which meant I had run over my allotted time slot. However, let me say a couple of things before ending this. Reading this over I realize it doesn't really capture Mr Burroughs as well as I had hoped. If you've read This Is How you'll know how much of a good example he is for anybody wishing to cope with whatever it is they want to cope with. Yet what impressed me the most, was how talking to him on the phone made me realize how much of himself he let come through in the book. In the book he comes across as compassionate and honest. In my review I had likened him to a loving and honest friend. Well that's just how he comes across in person.

I go back to when he told me about the three young women who talked about losing their siblings and the sense of wonder in his voice at the fact his work was able to help them. There was a humility about him which you can't capture on the page with the written word. He was genuinely grateful, and a little bit amazed, how he was able to help them. Coupled with the sense of responsibility he feels because of the impact his words have on people, this makes him a pretty remarkable human being.

(Article first published as Interview: Augusten Burroughs Author of This Is How on Blogcritics.)

April 22, 2013

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 9, 2013

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



December 23, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 16, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 9, 2012

Book Review: The Ponderables by Tom Jackson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 13, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 6, 2012

Book Review: The John Lennon Letters Edited by Hunter Davies


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 19, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 31, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 8, 2012

Book Review: On Edge By Bob MacKenzie


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Photo Credit Eriana Marcus

August 3, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 18, 2012

Book Review: The Wurms Of BlearmouthBy Steven Erikson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 3, 2012

Book Review: The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 17, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 6, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 11, 2012

Book Review: Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 8, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 20, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 8, 2011

Book Review: Tomorrow Is Another Song by Scott Wannberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 5, 2011

Interview: Author, Michael Muhammad Knight

American author Michael Muhammad Knight's has been referred to as everything from controversial to outrageous. Some have even gone so far as to call him the Hunter S. Thompson of religious writing or something along those lines. Why is it whenever somebody has the bravery to speak from their heart and be as truthful as they possibly can we always refer to them as controversial? Why do we never say, wow this person is really brave,? How about, it sure is refreshing to hear somebody doing their best to be straight with us for a change?

Nope, we always have to look at them as if they were doing something really out there. Of course that says more about us, and that's the big us society, than it does about them. Have we become so unused to people speaking straightforwardly from the heart that those who do are considered something of a freak and maybe even a little bit dangerous? I don't know about anybody else, but I find it a wonderful break from the mindless drivel that passes for entertainment these days to read something where I know the writer has not only put a lot of thought into what he's written but has also been as honest as possible.

Recently he very kindly agreed to answer some questions I had about his most recent book, Why I Am A Five Percenter, his writings in general and religion. His answers are as straightforward and thoughtful as everything else he writes and reading through them I can't see anything outrageous or controversial about them. Integrity and self-awareness are two characteristics noticeably in short supply theses days, which could explain why people have such a hard time recognising them when they see them, but Knight doesn't seem to know any other way of being.

1) As you have written extensively about your early years (Impossible Man) we can skip over most of the biographical stuff I usually start interviews with. However I think its important to talk about your decision to convert to Islam as a teenager. Can you briefly describe the reasons you gave yourself back then for converting?

I converted because I thought that I had found the ultimate truth of the universe.

2) Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight and increased self awareness, do you now discern reasons that you weren't aware of, or didn't want to admit to, at the time?

I don’t think that anyone has ever converted to a religion for purely religious reasons. The average age for religious conversion, across the board, is fifteen. I was fifteen when I found Islam. I was going through the things that some fifteen-year olds go through, and my brain was a fifteen-year old brain. Cognitively and socially, that’s where I was at.

3) This is probably over simplifying but roughly speaking you've described yourself as passing through various stages in your belief: at first you were close to fanatic, second you experienced severe doubts and finally taking it into your heart, but not blindly obedient. Through all these stages, and over the years, what is there about the religion that has enabled you to continue having faith in it. For you, what is it that makes Islam more true than any other religion?

That’s like asking what makes English more true than any other language. The only thing that’s more true about English for me is that I understand it. English is the language in which I think. That’s how I feel about religion. I don’t speak the language of Hinduism, but that doesn’t mean I see it as less legitimate for those who speak it. I have a couple languages that I speak; I speak a few variations of Islam, I speak the Five Percent, and I grew up speaking Catholic so maybe I can remember some of that language too.

4) In Aatish Taseer's book Stranger To History, where he describes his journey through the Islamic world looking for his own sense of identity, he describes a conversation with one Muslim who says something along the lines that Islam is the best religion because its the only one that provides you cut and dried answers to all questions. As long as you follow the word you'll never know doubts again. I find that kind of blind certainty terrifying, be it from the mouth of an American nationalist or an Islamic Cleric - yet isn't that the point of religion - to offer its adherents a way of living and the ideology to walk that path?

Lots of people will say that about their religions, but it’s not what I’m doing with mine. I don’t know what the point of religion might be, but I wouldn’t say that religion has to have the same purpose for every single person who takes part in it. Simply defining the word “religion” is hard enough; there are scholars of religious studies who argue that we shouldn’t even use the word because if you look across cultures and historical contexts, it doesn’t reliably describe anything.

5) As a follow up to that, if not following the strict letter of the law, how can a person say they are part of a specific group, be it Christian, Jew, Muslim or anything for that matter? Why aren't these all or nothing things?

It’s against the law to smoke weed. If I break this law, or disagree with the principles of that law, would it mean that I can no longer claim to be American?

More importantly, religious laws can change, depending on how you read them. Religions aren’t “all or nothing” things because they can’t be. Religions aren’t made of stone; they’re made of water. We like to imagine a religion as this unchanging entity that exists outside of history and remains eternally consistent, always saying the same thing, no matter what is happening around it. Both Muslims and non-Muslims will do this with Islam, saying that Islam came fully formed with the Prophet Muhammad, and has remained intact through fourteen centuries. That’s the crisis that people are imagining when they say, “How can Islam exist in the modern world?” as though Islam has never changed or adapted to anything until after 9/11. This kind of thinking is not rooted in any historical reality.

Or, if people are willing to admit that Islam has changed and taken different shapes, they will argue that these new shapes are somehow less authentic than the original or “real” Islam. They imagine that they have a direct line to the “real” Islam, that it exists somewhere and we can find it if we just look hard enough at scripture or the early history. I don’t take that seriously. You can’t ask me, “What does Islam say about women?” or “What does Islam say about violence?” because these are impossible questions. Muslims say all kinds of things, but Islam says nothing. We can look at Muslims in a particular time and place and examine what they said, but there’s no Islam beyond that.

6) In your most recent book, Why I Am A Five Percenter, you spend a lot of intellectual energy trying to find a bridge between Islam and Five Percenter ideology. What was it about the Five Percenters which attracted you initially and why do their practices continue to exert such a pull on you in spite of the differences between them and even the most progressive elements of Islam?

The Five Percenters gave me a statement on whiteness that spoke to my experience as a white American. I went heavy into the white-devil mythology. I couldn’t buy into it as something rooted in genetics, because “white people” don’t exist as a biological reality. But white people do exist as a political reality, a social reality; so thinking about whiteness as a concept that exists only as a power strategy, a justification for the mistreatment of people, then yes, whiteness is devil. It’s nothing but devil. Spending time with the Yakub myth really gave me something that I could use.

The Five Percenters also provided a critique of religion that spoke truth to me. I was coming from a place of dissatisfaction with organized religion. The basic message that I got from the Five Percent was that it’s all about me; whatever wisdom I pull from the Qur’an, whatever jewels I can retrieve from a particular story, and the meanings that I assign to my tradition, it’s all in me. You can take that idea of Islam as “I Self Lord And Master” and build your own path. Be Muslim, be Christian, whatever, and just know that the religion is in your hands. Make the story what you need it to be, because there’s no one on this earth with any kind of transcendent supernatural power to hang over your head.

7) The Five Percenters, like the Nation Of Islam, were founded by African Americans, specifically for African Americans, in reaction to their treatment at the hands of the white majority in America. While it's one thing to be philosophically aligned with them, doesn't the lack of a shared history make it extremely difficult for someone outside that specific community to be fully appreciative of their goals and objectives?

There’s not a lack of shared history. I got into the Five Percent’s commentary on whiteness because we absolutely have a shared history. It’s our shared history that qualifies a movement of mostly African-Americans to speak about white people. The history of oppression is not only the history of oppressed peoples; it’s also the history of oppressor peoples. Part of my engagement of the Five Percent was coming to grips with that history and thinking seriously about how much that history still writes my reality today.


8) In Why I Am A Five Percenter you stand the whole outsider/insider aspect of race in American society on its head with your description of the level of acceptance you've managed to obtain within them. Your conversion to Islam removed you from the mainstream of American society and now your interest in Five Percenters is making you an outsider in the religion of your choice. Being an outsider seems to be something you fall into, whether consciously or not. What are you searching for that finds you in that position?

It’s just my luck. Being Five Percenter puts me out of the Muslim mainstream; being Muslim puts me out of the Five Percenter mainstream. And I don’t meet anyone’s checklist of required beliefs.

Some people want religion to be that all-or-nothing, clearly defined set of beliefs and behaviors. Get enough of those people in a room together and you have a community. But if it’s all or nothing, then falling out of line isn’t that hard. I don’t see any community, Islamic or otherwise, as answering every one of my needs to perfection. There are things that I love about various Islamic cultures and traditions, but I don’t feel that I have to align with one tradition or group and forsake all others. The Five Percenter lessons taught me to take the best part for myself and leave the worst part behind.

9) You spend a great deal of time in Why I Am A Five Percenter upon the metaphysical aspects of Islam searching for a way to combine the Five Percenter credo of there is no "mystery god" with the Muslim belief in a "Supreme Being". You then relate how when you took this information to Five Percenters they reminded you that their founder told them not to have anything to do with religion. It seems to me like its an either or choice and you can't be both Muslim and a Five Percenter. How do you deal with that issue?

People will tell you that you can’t be both Muslim and Hindu, or Hindu and Roman Catholic, or Muslim and Marxist, but I can show you individuals or even communities that have done all of those things. To me, there’s actually no such thing as “Islam” or “Christianity” or “Hinduism.” I can talk about Muslims a lot easier than I can talk about Islam. Religions are just made-up labels, and the differences between them exist only because enough people believe in the differences, and people build up institutions that reinforce the differences. Religious identity is like racial identity in that way; apart from the power of social constructions, none of it’s real.

That said, not all Five Percenters object to being called Muslims. Most do object, and I understand why. These symbols, stories, and ideas are being used to build an identity, and when you call that identity “Muslim,” then it puts the symbols, stories, and ideas under the domain of Muslims. To think of the Five Percenters as Muslims automatically turns them into an heretical fringe sect that lacks authenticity in relation to the so-called “classical tradition.”

My reality is that I’m coming from a Muslim background, and Muslim-type things are meaningful to me, and I’m married to a Muslim woman with a Muslim family and we share a sense of Muslim community. So my engagement of the Five Percent is going to negotiate with that reality. I don’t personally feel a need to erase that part of myself.

As for reconciling theologies: it’s not really so hard because there are such wide spectrums of thought among both Five Percenters and Muslims. I can find Five Percenters who sound like they believe in a mystery god, and Muslims who sound like atheists, and I have my own thought, in which one tradition actually becomes my portal into the other. The question is whether doing comparative theology just cuts you off from real life and locks you up in your own nerd-world. The lessons warn against wasting trillions of years on those pursuits.

10) I really liked what you had to say about race and the arbitrary nature of who is considered white and who isn't. Would you say it is more of a state of mind than anything else, or is it a combination of things.

It’s not only a state of mind, because that state of mind has produced real effects in the material world. It’s not only a state of mind when there is economic power, political power, and so forth. That’s the trap that white people fall into when they imagine that they’ve ended racism just because they don’t think of themselves as belonging to a race. For me to realize that race isn’t biological doesn’t mean that I stop being white. I wish that it could be so easy.

11) My wife and I come from two very different backgrounds which gave us entirely different outlooks on life based on expectations and privilege. When it comes to your position within the Five Percenters how much has the differences in your background from those of the majority presented difficulties for you?

I realized that to a large extent, whatever I do, I’m doing in my own house. I’m at peace with the Five Percent. I have a lot of friends in the community, I visit the Allah School and it’s all love. Some call me a Five Percenter, and that’s fine, but I don’t try to put myself over as a card-carrying member. I respect that it’s not my territory, and I think that’s what actually makes my friendship to the community possible.

12) Where do you see your search to find a place for yourself in Islam taking you next?

When it comes to my place in Islam, I’m more or less settled. There’s always room for me to grow as a human being, and I approach that process as a Muslim; but I know what I can reasonably expect from a religion, and I don’t ask for more. One alif is all I need, like Bulleh Shah said.

13) What made you decide to first write your works of fiction, (Taqwacore and Osama Van Halen) and then make the switch to the more autobiographical works that have followed.

I’ve bounced around a little. I first wrote a novel (The Taqwacores), then a nonfiction work (Blue-Eyed Devil), and then started my non-fiction memoir, Impossible Man, while also writing my history of the Five Percenters, and then wrote my second work of fiction (Osama Van Halen). The publishing history can make it look as though I deliberately shifted from fiction to non-fiction, but that’s not my writing history. I have a manuscript on my laptop right now, and I don’t even know whether it should be called fiction or non-fiction. If the story ever comes out, I would have a hard time assigning it a category.

14) What have you hoped to accomplish with your writings, and who do you hope reads them?

I started out with wild swings in the dark, writing about Muslim punk rockers and pretty sure that all of my obscure references and unacceptable ideas were just going to alienate everyone. I came from a punk rock ethos, and also a certain kind of Muslim ethos, that made it cool to be ignored and alone on the margins. Now that I have something of a readership, I’ve started to have more questions about what I publish. I mean, I write about Islam from where I stand as an American Muslim, and there’s nothing wrong with that; but my stuff might read differently in Europe, which is a whole other political climate when it comes to Muslims. My books have been translated into European languages, and it sometimes makes me uncomfortable, because I’m travelling into all of these new contexts for which I wasn’t prepared.

15) You have a new book coming out early in 2012, William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an. That's a very intriguing title and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about it in general terms.

In general terms, I’d say that it’s about heroes and hero-worshipers, fathers and sons, ego and spiritual authority. More specifically, it’s about Sufism, Iran, Hassan-i Sabbah, race, gender, America, science fiction, writing as a spiritual quest, an unfinished biography of Hakim Bey, an unfinished novel, wahdat al-wujud, Supreme Mathematics, 1960s hippie religion, Tim Leary, Henri Corbin, and I guess William S. Burroughs is in there, and also the Qur’an. For its sense of balance and what it ends up doing, it might be the strongest book that I’ve ever written. It’s also possibly the weirdest book that I’ve ever written, but weird in the right way. My novel Osama Van Halen with the Muslim zombies and psychobilly jinns and kidnapping Matt Damon was pretty weird. William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an could be just as weird, but a better kind of weird.

I'd just like to thank Michael Muhammad Knight for taking the time our of his busy life to answer my questions. As is often the case, we were only able to do this via email, so I sent him my questions and what you've just finished reading were his answers exactly as he wrote them.
(Article first published as Interview: Author Michael Muhammad Knight, of Why I Am A Five Percenter on Blogcritics.)

November 4, 2011

Book Review: The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Article first published as Book Review: The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2011

Book Review: The Conference Of The Birds by Peter Sis

There's a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Whether intentionally or not the line is crossed by the majority of writers who attempt to write about another's culture as an insider. No matter how long you've lived somewhere or observed people you can't help but be a visitor. Without the weight of generations of tradition laying heavy on your shoulders and the awareness of how you are part of something larger than yourself, you can only interpret what you see, not believe in it.

At best the results are merely insulting, but most of the time they are also misleading and give people horribly inaccurate ideas about the cultures in question. Taking somebody else's mythology or beliefs as the basis for a horror story is probably the worst offence carried out by Western writers. What would you think if you were to read something in which the story of Jesus raising Lazurus from the dead was used as the basis for a Zombie novel? (Although the more I think about it the more fun that idea sounds - literally born again christians go on a rampage to convert everybody to their faith and the sacrament of communion really begins to make sense.)

Thankfully there are writers like Peter Sis who instead of slapping their own interpretation onto something offer recreations of the original stories which not only capture their artistry but keep their original intents intact. Proof of this is offered in his most recent publication, The Conference Of The Birds published by Penguin Canada on November 1 2011. The original poem was written by Farid ud-Din Attar, a twelfth century Sufi poet and mystic who divided his life between what is now modern day Iran and Northern India. As with many Sufi poets and mystics his works were parables whose hidden messages offered everything from spiritual advice to the relationship between man and his god.
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One of the reasons why Sufis wrote in this manner was then, as today, they would often deviate from mainstream interpretations of Islam and running afoul of the clergy could result in accusations of heresy leading to exile or death. As Attar could have attested, having been exiled for heresy, sometimes they weren't careful enough. The Conference Of The Birds, which was also known as A Parliament Of Birds, doesn't appear controversial on the surface, but I'm not an Islamic scholar and have no idea if its underlying message would have been considered heretical by people of his time.

In Sis's retelling he has Attar waking from a dream and realizing he is a hoopoe bird, an Afro-Eurasian member of the same family as Kingfishers, who has been entrusted with a message for the birds of the world. The message is they are to undertake a great journey which would involve flying through seven valleys to the mountain of Kaf where their true king Simorgh lives. The names of the seven valleys they must fly through are; The Valley Of Quest, The Valley Of Love, The Valley Of Understanding, The Valley Of Detachment, The Valley Of Unity, The Valley Of Amazement and, finally, The Valley Of Death. Naturally some of the birds quail (sorry couldn't resist) at the idea of making the journey and surrendering their comfortable existence for the unfamiliar. However, the Hoopoe is able to turn each of their arguments for staying put into their reason for making the trip. When the Peacock says he shouldn't have to go because he's special - "look at all my colours" - the hoopoe responds by telling him he should share his beauty with the whole world.

Needless to say each stage on the journey brings a new lesson for those birds who stick with it. Some of them give up even before the first stage is complete while others don't survive to complete the journey. In fact of all the birds in the world who had set out on the journey in the first place, only thirty make it through to the very end to meet their true king. "And they saw Simorgh the king, and Simorgh the king was them".

Unlike other translations or interpretations of ancient stories Sis has not only resisted attempting to interpret the parable for his readers he manages to to tell it in such a way that the beauty and mystery of the original are retained. For this is not just a translation of the text, it is a visual feast for the eyes as well. You see Sis is a magnificent illustrator and this is as much a pictorial retelling as anything else. I suppose some would want to call it a picture book, and dismiss it as being for children only. However, not only would that be doing it a disservice, it ignores the quality of the illustrations and the depth of meaning in the book's message. Each page not only furthers the story of the journey of the birds, its also a work of art.
Peter Sis.jpg
As with the text the longer you contemplate the illustrations the more you discover their hidden meanings. A change of hue here, a change of perspective there and what at first looked straightforward is revealed as having depths of meaning. If you were to flip through the pages as a casual reader you'd miss things like the explanation for the transformation of the poet to the Hoopoe bird. An illustration of a human eye within which you see the reflection of a small human being either walking towards us, or maybe even walking out of the side of the poet's head. Taken with the opening lines of the story, "When the poet Attar woke up one morning after an uneasy dream, he realized he was a hoopoe bird", we have to wonder what Sis is trying to tell us. Did the Sufi mystic really believe he had changed into a hoopoe or is Sis giving us a glimpse into the ways in which the inspiration for the original came to the poet?

Those who have any familiarity with Islamic art will know they don't have a tradition allowing figurative representation. Instead, the majority was decorative with designs made up of beautifully executed geometric patterns. In The Conference Of The Birds Sis' artwork pays homage to that style without either simply imitating or claiming it as his own. Instead he has incorporated it into his illustrations - clouds made out of the countless bodies of birds float across the page and the shape of a labyrinth shows up on page after page. Not only does the latter echo the motif of repeated geometric shapes common to Islamic art of the twelfth century, as a symbol long used to represent an inner journey or the path of a person's life, it emphasizes the overall theme of self-discovery so important to the story.

Like the Sufi mystics of old Peter Sis' reinterpretation of Farid ud-Din Attar's twelfth century epic poem, The Conference Of The Birds, works on many levels. Children and adults will delight in its glorious illustrations. The story of a poet turning into a bird and then leading all the birds of the world on a great adventure to find their king is sure to be one that will appeal to young people, while adults can ponder the messages of the story and perhaps even find ways of conveying them to younger readers. There are many different paths leading to self awareness, and Sis and Attar prove they don't have to be devoid of beauty and you can enjoy yourself along the way.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Conference Of The Birds by Peter Sis on Blogcritics.)

October 15, 2011

Interview: Robert Crumb - Illustrator and Musician

Robert Crumb is probably best known from his career as a comic book artist, specifically from the world of underground comics in the United States in the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s. Characters such as Mr, Natural have assured Crumb's name will endure amongst comic fans for years to come. However, talent like his does not pass unnoticed and his work has graced more than just the pages of comic books. Aside from illustrating Crumb has another passion, early twentieth century popular music. Over the course of his career drawing comics he has also been steadily amassing a portfolio of music related art work. He's designed everything from record covers to business cards and letter head for small companies to promotional material for concerts and record stores.

However he's not limited his passion for music to just illustrations and is not only an avid collector of old 78 RPM records of his preferred music, he has also become an accomplished musician in his own right. Most recently he lent his talents as a mandolin player to the Eden and John's East River String Band recording Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, but he's been playing music since his days as leader of the Cheap Suit Serenaders back in the late 1970s. While some of that music is readily available the same can't be said for his music related illustrations. However that's all about to change with the forthcoming release of The Complete Record Cover Collection from Norton Books in November of 2011.
Cover The Complete Record Cover Collection by R. Crumb.jpg
I had the good fortune to be offered the opportunity to put some questions to Mr. Crumb regarding this new book and the music that inspired it. I forwarded my questions for him by email, and what you're about to read are his answers exactly as he wrote them. A fascinating man with an amazing talent, hopefully the following interview will provide you some insight into how his passion for music developed and how that translated into his artwork. I'd just like to thank Robert Weil at Norton Books for setting the interview up and Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer them. Enjoy.

1) When did you first discover music? What was it about the music you heard that captivated you?

 When did I first discover music?  I first discovered music on April 23rd, 1947.  No, just kidding.  I don’t think people “discover” music, as there is always some kind of music around from the time we are born.  We just become gradually more aware of it as we grow.  In the modern world with its pervasive mass media, the first music most of us become aware of, aside perhaps from nursery songs, is mass-produced popular music.  I remember as a kid in the late 1940s -- early ‘50s hearing the popular music of the time coming from radios.  I recall that it had a mildly depressing affect on me... Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Vaughn Monroe, Frankie Lane, Patti Page, Thersa Brewer.  There was something unspeakably awful and dreary about this pop music of the time.  In general I have had a loathing for popular music all my life, except for the period of early rock and roll; 1955-1966.  I liked some of that music, and still do.  I really lost interest after about 1970.

The first music that really “captivated” me was film and cartoon sound track music from the early days of the “talkies,” the early 1930s, which I was exposed to from watching television in the 1950s.  Early Hal Roach comedy shorts such as “The Little Rascals” and Laurel and Hardy were shown over and over again, and the background music in these reached deep into me, I’m not sure why.  Much later -- decades later -- I learned that these great bits of background music in the Hal Roach comedies were all composed by an unassuming, behind-the-scenes music business man named Leroy Shield; he is still relatively unknown and forgotten.

Then at age 16 I discovered that this kind of music could be found on old 78 rpm records of the 1920s and ‘30s.  That was a great revelation, and from then on I became an obsessive collector of old records.  At first my main interest was the old dance orchestras and jazz bands that sounded like the music in old movies and Hal Roach comedies, but then I started listening to old blues 78s that I found.  They sounded strange and exotic to me at first, but I grew to love this music  -- blues of the 1920s -- early ‘30s.  Then I discoverd old-time country music.  Again, at first it sounded crude, rough, but this music, too, I grew to love.  From there I went on to find that old Ukrainian and Polish polka bands of this same period -- 1920s - early ‘30s -- were also great, and then I found old Irish records -- wonderful stuff -- Greek records, Mexican, Carribean, on and on. Over here, living in Europe, I found great old French music, Arab/North African music, sub-saharan, black African music, Armenian and Turkish music, even Hindou Indian music, on the old pre WW II 78s.  So now, you can imagine, I have a pretty big collection of these old discs -- 6,500 of them, more or less, an embarrassment of musical riches.

2) Illustration became your first primary means of expression, not music, what held you back from pursuing a career as a musician?

From an early age I had a strong desire to play music but there was no one in my immediate environment to show me anything.  My parents had no interest in music beyond listening to pop radio.  I started on my own at age 12 with a plastic ukulele, and a pamphlet showing how to tune the thing and some chord positions.  Ironically, my mother’s father had been a musician, playing string instruments -- banjo, mandolin, guitar -- but he died when I was only a year old.  None of his children showed any interest in learning to play music.

As with comics and cartoons, I learned to play music just by working at it on my own, with no formal lessons. But I did not possess a “real” instrument til I was in my late 20s.  It was not until then that I finally met others my age who liked and played the same kind of music as me.  I have always enjoyed playing music but never particularly enjoyed performing in public.  though I did play many gigs with various bands, I never got over feeling extremely nervous and self-conscious in front of an audience.  A career in music did not interest me.  I already had a “career” as a cartoonisht/artist, anyway.  Plus, there really is no such thing as a career in the kind of music I like to play.   You gotta have a regular job and play old-time music on the side, for the pleasure of it.
Robert Crumb Self Portrait.jpg
3) Aside from those illustrations directly related to music, album covers, promotional materials etc. what if any influences did the music you love have on your art work?

None that I can perceive. 

4) Your first commission for an album cover was, I believe, for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966. How did that come about?

In 1968 I was living in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. ZAP Comix had already come out and I was beginning to be well-known in the hippy subculture.  I was approached by someone in the “Big Brother” band to do the album cover.  I was not crazy about their music but I needed the money.  We (my wife Dana and I and our son Jesse) were living on public assistance, or welfare, at the time.  Columbia Records offered $600 for doing the cover.  That was big money to me at the time.  Actually, I was drafted at the last moment, as the band was not happy with the cover produced by the record company.  I had to “pull an all-nighter” to get it done.  I took some amphetamines and cranked it out.  I remember finishing the work as the sun was coming up over the house tops outside my window.  You can do that kind of thing when you’re 25.


5)  Did you start actively seeking out gigs doing album covers after that, or did you think of it as a one off deal at the time? 

I’d given up on being a commercial artist by 1968, and had found to my complete amazement that I could do my own crazy comics and get them published in the hippy so-called “underground” press.  There was little or no money in it, but who cared?  It was TOTAL FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION in my chosen medium -- print!  It was the hippy era, man, survival was “transcendental.”  We didn’t worry too much about money.  That came later, when my work actually started to MAKE money, then there were lots of money problems, I was buried under money problems by the mid-1970s.  But that’s another story.

The only other album cover work that interested me much was making covers for reissues of the old music from 78s that I loved, and that I usually did in exchange for -- guess what? -- 78s!  I’m still doing this today.

6) The majority of your album covers appear to reflect your taste in music - old time country, traditional jazz and acoustic blues. Were there gigs you turned down because they weren't from one of those genres and if so why? What is it about that type of music that attracts you more than others?

I’ve turned down a few offers to do album covers for rock bands -- not much.  I don’t need the money, I hate the music -- Why do it?

What is it that attracts me to old time music of the 1920s and ‘30s?  I don’t know.  I could go on about how the older music sounds more authentic, less contrived, more home-made, etc.  But I’m not sure that really explains it.  Some kind of neurological fixation  I don’t know.  Who can explain these things?  You tell me, why do you like what you like?
Cover Cheap Thrills Big Brother And The Holding Company By R. Crumb.jpg
7) What's your process for creating the cover art for an album? For Eden and John's East River String Band's most recent recording, Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, you created an image based around the disc's title featuring the musicians playing in the disc, but what other attributes influence you?

Creative processes are a hard thing to talk about, and there are so many different processes or approaches.  For instance, in the case of Eden and John’s East River String Band, the idea for the cover was suggested by them.  I liked their idea and used it.

8) You were one of the musicians on that album, mandolin. When did you start playing and performing music? Why a mandolin? 

I “graduated” from the ukulele in my 20s to the tenor banjo.  For many years, I just banged out chords on the banjo, then I branched out into the guitar and the mandolin, in my ‘30s.  I’ve also fooled around on piano and accordion.  I tried the fiddle for a while, but gave up on it as it sounds pretty awful until you get good at it, after a lot of practice. Now I think I should have stuck with it.  By now I’d probably be at least serviceable on it, if I’d persisted.  I’d be able to get through, you know, “Home Sweet Home” or “Oh Suzanna,” stuff like that.  That’s about my speed anyway.  I never achieved virtuosity on any instrument, plus, I play string instruments backwards, left-handed, which is a serious handicap, although it didn’t stop Jimi Hendrix.

“Why a mandolin,” you ask.  Why not a mandolin?  Okay, yeah, by now it’s like, an antique instrument, right?  One reason I took up the mandolin is that it’s a very easy instrument to learn, much easier than either the fiddle or the guitar.  I gave up on the fiddle and took up the mandolin.  You can play something resembling music pretty quickly, with only a little practice, on the mandolin  That’s why back in the golden age of string instruments, the 1890s - 1920s, there were mandolin clubs all over the place.  These clubs were full of ordinary people, lots of young people, kids, teenagers, as well as older people.  There were also banjo clubs.  They’d play together in huge ensembles, just for the pleasure.  Electronic media killed all this;  radio, movies, jukeboxes, then television.  Television delivered the coup de grace to widespread, grass-roots, self-made recreations.  They just sat and viewed, they were hypnotized... zombies... They watched anything that was on... It held them spellbound.  That was another thing the hippies sort of rebelled against... for awhile at least... But the media is now more powerful than ever.  We’re hooked... There’s no escape... It’s changed, though... Now it’s, you know, “interactive”...

9) What similarities and differences have you found in your creative process as a musician and as an illustrator?

Music and drawing pictures and writing... totally different things... I would not call myself a “creative” musician.  I don’t compose my own music, I don’t do fancy improvisations on my instrument.  When playing, I’m happy if I can play a tune smoothly, rhythmically, bringing out whatever beauty is in the melody itself... That’s enough for me.  I’m not trying to “kick ass” when I play music, or anything like that.  The drawing is something else again.

10) Among the illustrations included in the new book, R. Crumb The Complete Record Cover Collection are a series of portraits of jazz, blues and country musicians of the past. Some of them are taken from packages of cards you created. Where did the idea for these collectibles come from and were you able to choose who you included in each series? If yes to the latter what criteria was used for selecting who was to be included in each set?

I was inspired by the old baseball bubblegum cards to make those musician cards.  Yes, I chose the performers, the categories, everything.  I was looking for some way to pay tribute and to evangelize for this music that I loved, music that was so buried under the avalanche of later popular music.  Some of those musicians or groups that I drew have never even been commercially reissued since the original 78 was made back in the ‘20s.  Mumford Bean and his Itawambians, for instance.  Are they obscure enough for you?  They made one 78 in 1928, two sides.  Never reissued.  That’s how fanatic I am.  The French accordion players are even more absurdly esoteric.  Those didn’t even sell well in France.  Nobody’d ever heard of them!

11) Of all the music related illustrations you've created are there any in particular that stand out and why?

No, not really.

Once again I'd like to thank Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer my questions for this interview. If you're unfamiliar with his artwork check out his web site. You'll soon see why he's fascinated people for ages with his work. If that whets your appetite for more, or if you're already a fan, then your sure to enjoy the work on display in The Complete Record Cover Collection when it hits the shelves some time in November.
(Article first published as Interview: Illustrator and Musician Robert Crumb, Author of The Complete Record Cover Collection on Blogcritics.)

October 14, 2011

Book Review: Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight

The supposed rule of thumb for avoiding controversy in polite society is not to have conversations about politics or religion. Apparently there aren't many people who can be rational or calm with either topic. Which could go a long way towards explaining why so many people, even those who nominally share his religious beliefs, have problems with Michael Muhammad Knight's books. Of course the fact that he converted to Islam as a teenager is probably off putting to quite a number of Americans, but his work is controversial in the Muslim community as well. It seems not many approve of the fact he openly questions those aspects of the religion he doesn't agree with and his willingness to explore teachings alternative to mainstream Islam.

Although his fiction, The Taqwacores and Osama Van Halen are perhaps more well known to readers at large, it's his non-fiction; Journey To The End Of Islam, Impossible Man, The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop and the Gods Of New York and Blue Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America which have probably caused the most consternation among those of his own faith. Oh, sure the fiction books are filled with enough bad behaviour to make most parents think twice about sending their children to university no matter what their faith. However, because they're fiction they can be ignored and not taken seriously. It's another matter all together when Knight starts into both the autobiographical stuff of Impossible Man and his analysis of various different Islamic philosophies around the world and throughout history.
Cover Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight.jpg
Like most converts to anything, Knight went through a period of attempting to be more Islamic than thou followed by a brief period of disillusionment. (Which, judging by what he's written about that period, seems to have stemmed more from his own issues rather than his religion) It was when he truly began to settle into his faith, that he began to delve deeper into its history and philosophies. While this included travels through Africa, the Middle East (including making a pilgrimage to Mecca) and South East Asia it also involved delving into the uniquely American versions of Islam which developed among African Americans. For even though his education in Islam had been in first a mainstream mosque in America and continued in a madrassa in Pakistan, it had been the writings of Malcolm X that had attracted him to the faith in the first place. However, the Nation Of Islam, of which Malcolm had been a member until his split with them shortly before his assassination, he was soon to discover, is considered misguided at best, or a heresy at worst, by the majority of Muslims.

While the Nation of Islam might have been bad enough, it's an even more heretical group who Knight focuses on in his soon to be published Why I Am A Five Percenter, from Tarcher Books a division of Penguin US on October 25 2011 and Penguin Canada on October 13 2011. Knight delivers a concise and intelligent history of the The Five Percenters, also known as The Nation of Gods and Earths, and their philosophies, while dispelling many of the myths surrounding them - they have been accused of everything from wanting to kill all the white people. a front for gang warfare to a terrorist organization. However, as in previous books, his primary concern is to further his very public discourse on Islam and his place in it. To this end he leads readers on a fascinating discussion on the nature of race and religion and a survey course on Sufi mysticism and Islamic studies as he attempts to reconcile his Five Percenter inclinations with his mainstream Islamic beliefs.

The issue of race is a major factor in Knight's personal journey. As a white American convert to Islam he was doted over by his teachers in Pakistan. For while it was fairly common for African Americans to convert, whites were few and far between. However, both the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters were created by and for African Americans and make no bones about the fact they see white society as the biggest obstacle in the way of their community's advancement. It's especially problematic among the latter who teach self-empowerment and self reliance by denying the existence of any "mystery god" and insisting every black man has the potential to be their own god. The answer to where does a young white dude fit into this is another question - what exactly is white? The definition has changed legally over the years in the US from where it used to exclude Irish, Italian and other non-Anglo Saxon Europeans in the 1800s to now where anybody of roughly European stock is considered "white" by all save for white extremists.

In actual fact there is no such thing as a white race genetically or any other way people would like to think.The only Caucasians in the world are a somewhat swarthy group of people, including many Muslims, who live in Eastern Europe in Georgia and other Baltic states. According to Knight, being white is more a state of mind than anything else. Now that may sound like he's justifying his position, but he freely admits that he's as capable of being as white as the next person. It's a question of privilege. As a white male he is far more liable to be accepted by society as a whole than somebody of colour. Anytime he wants to he can walk away from his beliefs and be welcomed with open arms by the world at large - something none of the other Five Percenters, the majority of whom are poor people from Harlem and inner cities around America, have as an option.
Michael Muhammad Knight A La Cart.jpg
How many of them can go to Harvard University to study? How many have the luxury to spend hours studying obscure Sufi mystics when they have to put food on the table for their families? Sure there are a lot of poor people who aren't African American, but history, the history that automatically granted a poor white person higher status than an African American no matter how wealthy or educated, isn't easily forgotten by anyone and colour still designates something. As one of the scholars Knight quotes in the book says, the only people who can afford to be colour blind are those whose colour has never been used against them.

You may or may not agree with Knight's assessment of race, ( I do) but you can't help but admire his ability for being honest with himself. He spends page upon page analysing the writings of Islamic scholars and mystics and a seemingly endless number of interpretations of the Qur'an attempting to find a way for the Five Percenter's rejection of a "mystery god" to be accommodated by Islam. However when he presents his ideas to a couple of Five Percenter gods, the elder one reminds him of one of their basic precepts. It's not just belief in a "mystery god" that allows for oppression and injustice, it's also the time wasted looking for proof of its existence. Five Percenter's teach that despite every attempt by society to degrade you and push you down, the universe is yours and you can accomplish anything. You are your own god.

Why I Am A Five Percenter is by turns fascinating, intelligent and funny. While Knight occasionally meanders into what appear to be exercises in religious and spiritual hair splitting in his examination of what he calls nine thousand pages of Sufi mysticism, which he then refers to as so much naval gazing, even that section of the book has its value. Too often Islam is represented as being a single minded monolith, but here we see the diversity of thought and belief which has developed over the hundreds of years of its history. However, that is only a sideline to his main focus; Five Percenters, the history of Islam among African Americans and his appreciation for the former.

Along the way he manages to touch on topics as diverse as race, the nature of religion and the role each of us plays in shaping a religion. He isn't trying to convince you that his way is the right way, only to tell you about it and why it appeals to him. It's possible the questions he has struggled with are ones readers might recognize as ones they've asked themselves, but he doesn't pretend his answers will be applicable to anyone but himself. He tells you why he is a Five Percenter, in as much as he can be, but never advocates it or any creed as the answer to anybody's problems.

Somehow Knight manages to blend scholarship and personal memoir and in the process of teaching us an important part of American history and telling us about his own quest to find a place in the world. All in all, for a book about subjects we're not supposed to talk about in polite society, a remarkable achievement.

(Article first published as Book Review: Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics)

October 12, 2011

Book Review: Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Wolman The Rolling Stone Years

Once upon a time in the city of the Golden Bridge by the edge of the Pacific Ocean, there lived many happy people who dressed and acted differently from the rest of the land. People would flock from all over to point, look and wonder. In this magic land there lived smaller groups of people who had been blessed with the ability to make wondrous sounds. Taking strange and other worldly names like Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company, they would perform at large ritual gatherings for the inhabitants of the magical kingdom. Among those attending there would be some who would ingest strange substances and then dance with wild abandon. It was a time of innocence and joy.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't really like that in San Francisco, but there are times when you read about the heyday of the Bay Area music scene from around 1964 to 1969 it sure sounds like some sort of fairy tale. There's no denying it was a centre of creative energy whose influence spread far beyond the borders of not only the city but the state. One could easily make the argument that the Woodstock Music & Art Festival on the other side of America in Bethal New York, was as much a part of the San Francisco music scene as the free concerts in Golden Gate Park. So it's not surprising that the first magazine devoted solely to the popular music of the time, Rolling Stone was born in that city in 1967.

In his wonderful new book, Every Picture Tells A Story: Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years published by Omnibus Press, photojournalist Baron Wolman recreates for us those early years at Rolling Stone. In a combination of text and photos he recounts the history of the magazine's first tentative issues. From his original meeting with founder/editor in chief, the then twenty-one year old Jann Wenner, through his three years of photo shoots for the magazine, Wolman's descriptions of events captures both the pure magic and the pathos of the times.
Cover Baron Wolman The Rolling Stone Years.jpg
Wolman describes himself as something of an outsider to the pop music scene. While he and his wife lived in the Haight Ashbury district which was the nexus for the scene, he was thirty years old and not that familiar with either the music or the musicians he was being assigned to shoot. However that didn't stop Wenner from reaching a deal with him that saw his photographs appear in the magazine in exchange for stock in the company and Wolman retaining all rights to the material. While at the time it meant that Wolman would also have to hunt down paying gigs while shooting material for Rolling Stone, he obviously has no regrets about the arrangement and is honest enough to say the deal has worked out very well for him.

One thing you find out very quickly is Wolman is from a different era then the one we live in today. He wasn't like one of the hordes who now stalk celebrities in the hopes of catching some indiscretion on film. It was also long before promotional videos, branding and image creators. Wolman would typically accompany the writer assigned to write a story to the subject's home and take his photos on location. There were no make up artists, no wardrobe changes and no lighting effects. He would shoot Janis Joplin in the basement of her Laural Canyon home shooting pool with members of her band, Frank Zappa lurking in caves or playing on construction equipment behind his house, or Tiny Tim beaming with delight over the bouquet of daisies just presented him by Wolman and the writer.

These aren't candid shots obviously, but something of the person's real character shines through unlike so many of today's carefully sculpted arrangements. Wolman talks about the difference between then and now and puts a lot of it down to being a matter of trust between the subject and photographer. "They trusted me...and the rest of us... not to make them look like fools." For Wolman the biggest change was when studios started to become involved and began dictating what they wanted and pushed the photo shoots further and further away from being a one on one interplay between photographer and musician. With the advent of MTV image became far more important then it once was and according to Wolman bands were no longer happy with simply being photographed - they wanted to look a certain way and wanted photographers to achieve it for them.

As a photojournalist Wolman had learned how to capture moments on film that would tell a story. In his photos for Rolling Stone the subject was usually the story. So whether the shots were in a recording studio, backstage or on stage, each one of them tell us a little bit about the person in question. Even those he took in his studio at home, with lights and posed in front of a seamless background still reveal something of the person's story. Sometimes even Wolman was surprised at what his photos showed. He remembers puzzling over a photo of Jerry Garcia he took in his home studio; wondering how Garcia was able to contort one of his fingers so that it looked like it was missing, until realizing it was actually missing. It's a beautiful shot of Garcia smiling into the camera and holding up the hand with the missing finger as if caught waving. What Wolman didn't know until much later was that it's also one of the only photos Garcia ever allowed to be taken where he wasn't hiding the fact the finger was absent.
Baron Wolman With Jimi Hendrix Picture.jpg
Looking at the pictures, both scattered through out the book and those in a separate section comprising some of Wolman's favourite shoots, you can't help but be struck by how intimate some of the shots are. Even some of the caught in performance shots capture moments on stage when the performer is turned inward and is in the process of vanishing into the music. Of the galleries of Wolman's favourites shoots the ones of Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin which I personally found the most interesting. Wolman makes no secret about his love of shooting Hendrix whether on stage or off and it's obvious from the photos. Hendrix may have been a shy person, but Wolman's camera captures the life in his eyes even when he's sitting and relaxing.

Miles Davis must have existed at the opposite end of the universe from Hendrix. The intensity of his stare, even when he's relaxing at home with his wife, is enough to burn a hole in the page. Looking at shots taken of him in a gym shadow boxing are like looking at a coiled spring releasing and snapping back into place again. Wolman mentions how Davis seemed filled with anger so much of the time, and that certainly comes through in the photos. However, nothing matches the pictures of Janis Joplin for poignancy. Maybe it's because we know about her sad end, but looking at the shots of her smiling face are enough to break your heart. It's far sadder to see the potential for joy that lived inside her and know she very rarely had the chance to experience it than to look at those which show her sadness.

As the book's title so aptly says every picture can tell a story, and while you may purchase the book for its pictures alone, do not ignore the text. Wolman tells the story of his time photographing the great and famous among popular music's pantheon in refreshingly honest prose. Candid about what he sees as his own deficiencies as a recorder of musical history, he readily admits to knowing little or nothing about the people he was shooting or their music prior to his assignments, he doesn't offer any critiques about anyone's place in history, he simply speaks of them as human beings. Much like his pictures reflect the individual as much as the rock star, his text humanizes, and thus makes them more real, each of those he saw through his viewfinder.

From free concerts in Golden Gate Park to the blackness of Altamant and, after leaving Rolling Stone, the Concerts on the Green in Oakland in the 1970s, Baron Wolman and his camera captured most of pop music's royalty. While he might have regrets for the pictures he didn't take, we can only be grateful for those he did. After reading Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Woman The Rolling Stone Years you'll find yourself believing in the fairy tale of San Francisco of the 1960s and perhaps even wishing we could somehow turn the clock back to those more innocent times.

(Article first published as Book Review: Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years by Baron Wolman on Blogcritics)

August 26, 2011

Book Review: Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna

To most of us in North America India remains something of an enigma. We either think of it as the backward country where children are only saved from starvation by the intervention of foreigners or as call centre central where all our tech support questions are answered. Even those who have visited the country are barely going to scratch the surface of this ancient and complex culture with its multitude of languages and peoples. Compounding the problem is that the majority of books, fiction and non-fiction, written about India up until the last decade were written by non-Indians. History books still refer to the first nationalist uprisings that attempted to throw off colonial rule in the 1800s as the "Indian Mutiny". Making out that those fighting for independence from the British were in the wrong.

While some British writers, like Kipling, were born in India and had a better understanding of life in the country than their compatriots, they were still part of the ruling elite and their perspectives were coloured accordingly. Thankfully that is changing and in the last few years we've seen more and more books published by Indian authors writing about both contemporary India and its history. One of the first things an astute reader will realize after reading any of these books is how little they know about the country and the incredible complexity of its history. Two things which become abundantly clear from reading any of the historical fiction are how the idea of India as one nation is a new concept and how British rule radically changed the lives of subcontinent's people.

Both these points come out in Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna recently published by Penguin Canada. The book traces the history of one family from 1878 until the tumultuous days in the 1940s leading up to independence. I doubt if most of us have even heard of Coorg in Southern India where the majority of the story takes place, but what becomes abundantly clear almost immediately is how the people native to the region consider themselves to be from Coorg, not India.
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We learn how they have fought fiercely to maintain their independence from neighbouring Mysore and when the story opens border posts are still manned in case their neighbour should try to invade again. They appear to have a type of feudal government, with those families with the largest land holdings being the most powerful. However they don't to use that power in order to tell others what to do, they just seem to be held in higher esteem by others. Instead the people are governed by their traditional moral codes and their belief system. A mixture of ancestor worship, belief in spirits and the worship of the goddess Kaveri as well as other Hindu gods associated with agriculture. Over the course of the book both the moral code and the hierarchy of families play key roles in the fates of the main characters giving readers a chance to understand and appreciate the delicate way in which they work to hold society together.

Focusing on the lives of two children from infancy to adulthood, the story Mandanna weaves follows the familiar pattern of frustrated love, betrayal, resentment and eventually reconciliation.
Devi is the first daughter born to the Nachimandas family in over sixty years. An obvious beauty from an early age, she is doted on by the entire family. Her male childhood companion, Devanna, is less fortunate as his mother commits suicide after fleeing her wealthy landowner husband to return to her home village. The young boy is taken in by Devi's parents and they are inseparable as children. However while Devanna assumes nothing has changed when they come to maturity, Devi nurtures a secret passion for his cousin Manchu, a renowned hunter who slew a tiger with his dagger.

Even after she is forced to marry Devanna, Devi's obsession with Manchu doesn't end. First expressed in an elicit affair that only ends when Devanna attempts suicide and Manchu overcome with guilt refuses to see Devi again and finds his own wife. However not even Manchu's death fighting for the British in Afghanistan can stop Devi from yearning for the man she loved. Seeking out his widow she convinces her to send Manchu's son Appu to live at her estate where she can provide him with a far better life. She then directs the love she was never able to give Manchu to his son, to the point where she almost convinces herself he was their child. Of course this comes at a cost, for in the process she neglects her own son Nanju. It is Appu who she finds the most beautiful bride for, even though as eldest Nanju should have been married first, and it is Appu who she plans on leaving her estate, Nari Malai - Tiger Hills. After all it was named in honour of his father, so it's only right he should inherit it.
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While the family dynamic plays out, the changing world around them is also having its impact on the characters. While both Devanna and Devi attended a mission school run by German Catholics, and it was Devanna's decision to attend a British medical school as a boarding student which precipitated the events that changed all their lives, they still remained rooted in their Coorg traditions. Devanna might have found himself being two people, one person at school and another at home, but he never forgot where he came from and who he was. While their son Nanju retained some of their love for the land which was so key to being a Coorg, on being exposed to British living through school and social activity, Appu quickly leaves his old life behind. He insists his mother change the family estate's name to Tiger Hills as referring to it by its native name is so "provincial". He also quickly tires of, and is embarrassed by, his beautiful wife when she can't handle herself in "Society".

Of course he's not the only one. Scions of old Coorg families are assuming British sounding names, affecting the manners of polite society and beginning to scheme as how they will fill the power vacuum created by the British leaving. It's all very well and good for nationalists to preach equality for all, but these children of landowners know land is power and aren't about to start surrendering either of those commodities. They are the face of the new elite in India, the power behind the scenes, and will fight tooth and nail to hold on to their positions of wealth and status.

While the story of Tiger Hills is a bit formulaic in its tale of thwarted romance, obsession and so on, where Mandanna excels is in her depiction of the changing world the story takes place in. Told chronologically we watch as the people of Coorg's lives change radically in the space of only one generation. Almost everything about them, even down to the crops they grow and the reasons for growing them, change from the time Devi is a child to the time her adopted son comes of age. Interestingly enough it's the people like Devanna who have managed to keep a foot in each of the worlds who seem to be best able to cope with the new world. He is able to combine his European education with his knowledge of Coorg to solve agricultural problems that no one else has been able to deal with.

Appu is the other end of the stick. Throwing himself whole hearted into being even more British than the British, he ends up losing all sense of himself. We gradually see him becoming all flash and no substance and his character floats in the wind without direction or focus. With his every whim indulged by his mother growing up, he is used to getting his way without effort, and expects privilege as his right not something to be earned. Never having had to work for anything, the few times he's denied the things he wants, usually because of his own misdeeds, he becomes resentful and sulky, blaming others for his failures. Without the roots in his land to fall back on he has nothing, and in the end his ambitions come to nought as well.

Tiger Hills offers a glimpse into the past of one province in India and in the process allows readers a view of one of the many different faces of the country. At the same time Sarita Mandanna shows us one of the long term results of colonial rule, something whose impact is still being felt in many former colonies including India. How a generation attracted by the allure of the bright and shiny gave up the traditions that had defined their place in the world, only to be left with a void that constantly needs to be filled. A void they continue to attempt to fill to this day with power and money by any means possible. Reading this book will give readers a little more of an insight into what's behind the Indian Tiger and perhaps help them taking the first steps towards understanding there's a lot more to the country than they thought.
(Article first published as Book Review: Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna on Blogcritics)

August 1, 2011

Book Review: Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompsom

I was recently asked a question regarding the story of a person's life that gave me serious pause for thought about the reasons for writing biographies in general. The question was, what is there about this person's story that people will be able to identify with? After I had answered the question regarding the person under discussion to the best of my ability, it led me into thinking about why it is people would want to read about another person's life in the first place. If you've walked into a book store recently you can't have helped noticing non-fiction sections are awash with books about the lives of so-called celebrities. Rock stars, reality TV stars, movie stars, wives and husbands of movie stars and so on stare back at you from display tables and book shelves asking you to shell out your hard earned bucks to.... to what?

Some of them are obviously extensions of the type of coverage you'd expect from the celebrity gossip columns and television shows that pass for journalism or entertainment reporting these days. Collections of photos and filled with the titillating tid-bits aimed at perpetuating whatever myth has grown up around the subject matter. There are also the "My life with so and so" type, which are a version of the tell all book that involves ex-wives, husbands, butlers and pool-boys attempting to cash in on their relationship with the subject by telling the world how they were abused, under tipped or what was involved in a post pool party clean up. A little further up, or lower depending on your point of view, the food chain are the more in depth tomes tracing their subject's life from infancy to death based on interviews with such credible sources as friends of a friend of the guy who drove the ice cream truck through their neighbourhood. Unsubstantiated should be blazoned across the cover of these books rather than the ubiquitous "Unauthorized" as the pages are filled with "he (or she) said" followed by "he said" of quotes that can be neither proven or discredited as the author has gone to great pains to protect his or her sources anonymity.
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Candy floss books like those are people looking for to get the same fix of outrage and envy they receive from reading about "celebrity scandals" in their magazine of choice. Anybody who already buys a tabloid devoted to the antics of "Teen Moms" aren't going to be the most discerning or demanding of audiences and will be more than satisfied with anything that gives them more of the same but in a fancier package. However, what about biographies about the non-celebrity; the world leaders, the history makers, the great scientist and the brilliant artist? What are we looking for when we pick up a biography of someone like Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking or Pablo Picasso? These are people who have left an indelible stamp on history and I think its natural there will be curiosity as to what made them who they were and how it came about. How is it this person became so much more than the person sitting next to them in school? Was it they were simply smarter, did they catch some sort of lucky break or were they driven by some burning desire or ambition that propelled them to the pinnacles they obtained? But I also think we want more than just a person's what when we read a biography, we want to gain a deeper understanding of who they are.

We've seen their lives from the outside, but people are more than a collection of actions. It also seems the greater a person's accomplishments, the more interesting and complex they are, and some clue as to who that might be is something we're all naturally curious about. Maybe its just because we hope to find something of ourselves in the pages of their story and in the process some way of personally identifying with them and feeding that small part of ourselves where dreams live with "if they can do it why can't I"? Naturally each individual is going to have different variations on the above motivating their curiosity about the subject of a biography, and depending on who and what the person is known for, there's no saying it will have to be the same reason each time.

When I picked up the new biography of poet/musician Patti Smith, Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story, by Dave Thompson being published by the Chicago Review Press on August 2 2011, I was already fairly familiar with what her life and career have consisted of and was interested in seeing if the author would be able to provide any more insights into who she was. For while its true Smith recently published her own in depth autobiography,Just Kids it was primarily concerned with her early life in New York City and her relationship with her dear friend Robert Maplethorpe. The other major piece of biographical material available is the ten year in the making documentary by Stephen Sebring, Patti Smith - Dream Of Life, which, although it contains extensive footage of Smith and is remarkably moving in places, I found left me wanting to know more about her.
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Thompson was exhaustive in his research for this book and its not lacking in facts and information. Not only did he conduct extensive interviews with those who knew Patti at various points in her life, he seems to have read nearly everything ever written about her in both the press and other people's writings. However, even more promising as far as I was concerned, was his mentioning in the introduction how he tried to turn to her words and writings whenever possible for information. While the majority of the latter turned out to be interviews she had given at various points in her career, it also included her poetry, lyrics and even Just Kids and whatever other autobiographical writings he was able to access. Thompson also had the benefit of having been there himself when her career took off during the heydays of punk rock in the mid 1970s. (In fact portions of this book previously appeared in one of his earlier works, London's Burning:True Adventures on the Front Line of Punk 1976 -1977) which should have enabled him to bring his own emotional memories of the time to bear upon the subject.

The book traces Smith's life and career from pretty much her birth right to 2010. While a great deal of this was covered in Smith's Just Kids, Thompson switches the focus away from her relationship with Maplethorpe, although as that was such a formative part of who she is he can't ignore it, and focuses instead on those aspects of her life more directly related to her career. While there is still quite a bit of overlap between the two books, his emphasis on how her career was being shaped by those events distinguishes his work from hers. We also hear from those who knew Smith and Maplethorpe during this time, and their observations at least offer a different perspective on things Smith described in her book. While at times it feels somewhat strange to read these third person accounts it does help to explain how Smith was able to begin establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with in the artistic community of New York City in the late 60s early 70s.

There are also details, like Smith's fascination with Jim Morrison of the Doors, which she had barely touched on in her own book, that Thompson recounts. With descriptions of things like Smith standing at Morrison's grave in Paris for two hours in the pouring rain hoping to receive some sort of communion from beyond, he makes a case for Morrison's combination of rock and roll and poetry as one of the bigger influences on her career. While he never comes right out and says it in so many words, the fact that Thompson keeps bringing him up time and time again in relationship to Smith's work is an indication of the importance he places on it and his ability to cite her own references to the late rock and roll singer gives the suggestion credence. Personally I never thought that much of Morrison, so my own personal prejudices made it difficult to accept that Smith's work would have been inspired by someone whose work was, what I'd consider, far inferior to hers, but he does present a very convincing case in support of the theory.
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Thompson's meticulous research pays off for the reader in his recounting Smith's near fatal accident during a performance in Tampa Bay Florida when while dancing on stage she tripped over a monitor and fell over the edge to the concrete below damaging vertebrae in her neck. While rumours have circulated as to the cause of the accident the truth was as the opening act on the tour they were forced to work around the headlining group's gear and the monitor was not where she thought it would be. I'd never even heard of this incident, it's not mentioned in either her book or the movie, so was shocked to discover how serious it had been. For a while after the accident there was not only doubt as to whether she would ever perform again, but if she would ever walk again. Smith was part of the reason the fall was downplayed so much, as she was never aware how serious the problem was. Unused to pain medication she would cheerfully answer fine to people's queries as to how she was feeling. So unless you were actually in the hospital room to see her immobilized, you'd not have known the risk she was at.

While these and other facts are interesting and Thompson has done a fine job in organizing and relating them in a neat chronological package, I came to the end of the book not feeling like I had come to know the person behind the facts any better then I had before I started. Perhaps that's because I'd read her own book, own a copy of Sebring's movie and its accompanying book and have watched a number of interviews with her where she has discussed both herself and her career and was already familiar with her. Perhaps my expectations outstripped what is possible to accomplish within the format of a biography, but still I felt there has to be more to someone's life than the mere recitation of what happened to them and when. Thompson's background in journalism shows in his unwillingness to stray too far from laying out facts and very rarely expand upon them in an effort to give us more of a sense of who Patti Smith is. Don't get me wrong, that's not his fault, it's, at least as far as I'm concerned, one of the inherent flaws in the biographical genre. They reduce flesh and blood people down to facts and in the process remove the passion in their lives which made them so fascinating in the first place. You'll learn all about Patti Smith and her career by reading Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story but you won't know her any better after reading it then before you opened it.

(Article first published as WORKING GH Book Review: Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompson on Blogcritics)

June 16, 2011

Audio Book Review: Go The Fuck To Sleep by Adam Mansbach Read by Samuel L. Jackson

It's not often that a book for very young children will cause such a sensation that even before it is released it has best seller written all over it. Of course the secret to any book's success is its ability to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and while there have been a few young adult books that have managed that trick it hardly seems possible that a bed time story for children could have the same luck. However, Adam Mansbach's newest title, Go The Fuck To Sleep published by Akashic Books on June 14 2011 is being snapped up all over the English speaking world.
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As you can tell by its title Go The Fuck To Sleep isn't your typical bedtime story. In fact this isn't a book most parents are going to be reading aloud at night to their children, yet that hasn't stopped them from snatching up copies anyway. Of course sales haven't been hurt by the fact the audio book version is being read by Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who first gained renown for his portrayal of street smart, and usually foul mouthed, characters. Even before the book had been released recordings of Jackson reading the book had gone viral all over the Internet, including recordings like the one below taken from a radio interview.
[Flash 9 is required to listen to audio.]
Anybody who has ever tried to convince a young child of the necessity for them to go to bed and fall asleep is going to be able to identify with the parent in this story's attempts to convince his young child to "go the fuck to sleep". Right from the opening stanza you know this is not your typical bed time nursery rhyme. For even though each of the opening few verses begin with delightful images of the world settling down for the night, each ends with the same plaintive request for the toddler to "go the fuck to sleep". As we progress through the poem the poor parent is presented with everyone of the typical child's stalling efforts; from I need a drink of water to I have to go the bathroom; and with each his "go the fuck to sleep" becomes more and more insistent and desperate. Of course, just when he thinks it's safe for him and his wife to settle down with a movie for the night, for a little time to themselves, their reverie is shattered resulting in one final desperate plea to their darling bundle of joy.

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Now I'm sure there are going to be plenty of you out there shocked at the idea of anybody telling their child to "go the fuck to sleep". It's mean, abusive and sends out all the wrong messages for this day and age. Everybody from the religious right to dishrag liberals are bound to find this offensive and just plain wrong. Well I hate to tell you this, but letting parents know its perfectly understandable they're going to occasionally lose patience with their darling bundles of joy, that once in a while it will all become too much for them, is going to do more to reduce the incidence of child abuse than anything else. Knowing you're not alone in being frustrated by your inability to induce order on a two year old will do wonders for a person's morale and make them feel like less of a failure as a parent.

Picture some poor single mother or working poor couple who come home at the end of the day after working some awful job in order to try and feed, shelter and clothe their child. No matter what anybody says there is bound to be some small kernel of resentment buried deep inside them over what they have to do to make sure this small person survives. How much closer to the surface will that come if at the end of the day when all they want to do is relax and maybe recapture some of what it was that brought them together in the first place, the demands for attention never stop? Anger, and guilt over the anger, will swell inside of them. From there its only a short step to resentment pouring out and manifesting itself in nasty ways.
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Now imagine these same people listening to Samuel L Jackson, street wise, tough enough not to take shit from anybody, reduced to a quivering wreck and pleading with his two year old to "go the fuck to sleep". At first they might laugh as they hear all the familiar ploys being used against him and his response, but gradually, they'll begin to find something else aside from humour in what they're listening to. For while Jackson's reading of the story remains hilarious throughout, it soon becomes obvious he's completely under the thumb of the child at the centre of his tale. No matter who you are, children are going to dominate. They are the kings and queens of their domains and parents are there merely to wait upon their every need. Which of course is how it should be at this age. Barely able to express themselves beyond desires for basic necessities a young child is completely dependent upon the adults in its life to keep it alive.

The wonderful thing about Jackson's reading of Go The Fuck To Sleep is how even though his frustration continues to rise over the course of the poem, not once do you ever have the feeling he's either threatening the child or even becoming angry. Sure he growls on occasion, but you hear the love that underlying every "Go the fuck to sleep" he utters. It's obvious that not only would he never dream of harming a hair on the child's head, he's willing to do everything necessary to make sure she's kept safe and happy. He's not about to spank a two year old for not being able to sleep, nor is he going to turn over her care to some nanny so he doesn't have to do any of the hard work in raising a child.

The example he's setting for any parent listening is a far better lesson in parenting than any that will most likely be offered by the self righteous who will be offended by the language used in this book. Not only is it rooted in a reality easily recognized by anybody who has ever tried to put a young child to bed, it couldn't be more obvious that his heart is overflowing with love for the child being addressed. It's perfectly natural for a parent to experience frustration and anger at times when raising a child, it's what a parent does with those feelings is important. Denying there would ever be a time when somebody would want to tell a child to "go the fuck to sleep" is to deny reality and make people feel needlessly guilty when they experience those feelings. When we do that it's the children who end up suffering the most as they are left in the hands of confused and bewildered parents who feel like failures. I'm sure there will be those who call this book an obscenity and demand it be banned, but the real obscenity is what happens to children when we attempt to deny the effect of our feelings upon them. We can only hope every parent buys a copy of Go The Fuck To Sleep and learns the valuable lesson it has to offer.

May 25, 2011

Book Review: Cold Comfort Farmby Stella Gibbons

When talking about the classics of modern literature people usually number Joyce, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Burroughs, Miller, and Mailer among those authors who have penned works worthy of that status. While they, and others, may have pushed the art of writing in new directions and redefined the boundaries of what constituted a novel, the elevation of their work into some separate firmament has had the unfortunate side effect of causing other worthy writers to be ignored and their work to fall by the wayside. This problem is compounded by our world's tendency to always be looking for the next "best thing" and our general disregard for the past. As a result, outside of the occasional university survey course in fiction, the majority aren't even aware of the vast body of fiction, most of which is of a much higher quality than what's available today, written in the first part of the twentieth century.

Thankfully there are still some publishers who have memories and who also realize there is value to be found in their back catalogues. I know there are those who look at a massive conglomerate like The Penguin Group of publishers with disdain, the fact remains they have been one of the most consistent producers of English language books. While some may still see in them vestiges of the old British Empire as they maintain outposts in former colonies India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland, they do in fact publish work by authors from each of those countries and don't just use local branches as clearing houses for remaindered works and boosting international sales. There's also an enormous plus side to their English language history as to what it means in regards to the books they have at their disposal from the past. Even better is the fact they make good use of this material and periodically reach back in time to dust off titles which otherwise might be lost to obscurity.
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This year they have reissued a group of titles under the heading of Penguin Essentials, with works by authors ranging from Thomas Hardy to Hunter S. Thompson and all sorts of stops in between. While some, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence have already been enshrined as classics and are familiar to a wide range of people, others are perhaps less well known. While it might never obtain the same status as some of the others in this list, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, released earlier in May 2011 by Penguin Canada, is more than deserving of its new release.

First published in 1932 as a wonderful satire of its times, the humour and points made by the author are timeless, so even if some specifics might be lost on a contemporary audience, its overall impact is still strong and the subject matter still relevant. You see, Gibbons' targets are universal as she pokes fun at the artistic pretensions of the idle British rich, rural melodramas along the lines of Wuthering Heights and other tales of steamy passion set amidst the wilds of Sussex farmlands. Along the way she also manages to take some shots at the "talkies", the upper classes in general, and the extremes of evangelic Christianity. However this is not the broad humour, almost farce, that passes for satire today, this is subtle and dangerous stuff in that you may not be able to catch on immediately to what is and isn't being made fun of. In fact she seems to have very deliberately made some of her targets very obvious, while others require careful thought and observation before being spotted. She may have felt the need to be somewhat circumspect with her barbs as some of those targeted were also those who would have made up her potential audience.

Cold Comfort Farm tells the story of twenty-something Flora Post. After living a privileged early life she discovers upon the demise of her parents she's nowhere near as well off as she thought as her father left her nearly as many debts as assets. While she's taken in by her affluent friend, Mrs. Smiling, Flora feels she must make her own way in the world. Having no money and no inclination to work, she wants to write a great novel when she's fifty-three and spend the interim period accumulating experiences, she decides to draw upon her one asset - a wealth of relatives. Encamped in fashionable London she sends out plaintive letters to relatives inviting herself to live with them. While most of them, "just won't do", her cousins the Starkadders, owners of Cold Comfort Farm in darkest Sussex, sound ideal.
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Flora is obsessed with organizing other people's lives and making sense out of the chaos most of them seem to live in. In the Starkadders and Cold Comfort Farm she finds the perfect subjects to put her skills to work. Her great aunt Ada Doom has hidden in her room for the past two decades, horribly scarred by what she saw as a youngster in the woodshed (or was it the potting shed or the bicycle shed?) Ada rules the roost at the farm, not allowing anyone to leave and controlling finances down to the last penny. Under her thumb are her son in law Amos, part time evangelical preacher; daughter Judith who gives new meaning to the word gloomy; their children, stolid farmer Reuben, over-sexed Seth and artsy, will o' the wisp, Elfine and various other assorted cousins and hired hands.

By the time Flora is finished with them their world has been turned upside down as she proceeds to take them all in hand individually and sort out their lives for them. While this process is the nominal plot for the book, the real joy in the reading comes from how Gibbons manages to weave her hooks and barbs into the story. Whether its her description of a church service conducted by Amos, the conversations between Flora and her various cousins, or what's revealed through the thought processes of her characters and their opinions of life, she manages to hit each and everyone of her targets in the bulls eye. Gibbons not only a gives clinic on how to write satire, she shows how it is possible for a skilled author to have multiple targets in a single book without creating a tangled mess.

Cold Comfort Farm is an example of just one of the wonderful treasures from our past awaiting our reading pleasure. Just because a work hasn't been designated a classic or isn't deemed literature doesn't mean it should be relegated to some dust heap. Hopefully new e-book readers will gradually make works like this one more readily available, but in the mean time we should just be grateful that some are at least hitting shelves of a book store near you.

(Article first published as Book Review: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons on Blogcritics.)

April 15, 2011

Interview: Steven Erikson Author Of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Sequence

For the best part of the twenty-first century Steven Erikson's and Ian Cameron Esselement have bewitched and amazed readers with their joint creation of the world inhabited by the Malazan Empire. As the first of the two authors to publish books in the series, and the first to finish his contribution to world building with the publication of his tenth and final book in his "The Malazan Book Of The Fallen sequence, The Crippled God, Erikson's name is the one most still identify the series with.

Over the course of reading the series I've read little bits and pieces of quotes from Mr. Erikson about the series. However, to be honest, I have avoided sitting down and reading any of the interviews he's given or delving too deep into any of the other background material that has surfaced on the web that either he or Mr. Esslement have let slip. At one point I made a half hearted attempt to see about interviewing him through his publisher in Canada, Random House Canada, but part of me didn't want to hear anything about the hows and whys of the series from his point of view while he was still writing it.

Somehow or other it just didn't seem right. As a reader I think I might have thought that asking questions about the series while it was still in progress might have taken a little bit of the magic out of it. Spoiled the illusion that perhaps this world they created could really exist outside of the two fevered brains which had cooked it up. My reviews of both author's books have reflected this as they lacked anything approaching critical objectivity and usually ended up being somewhat incoherent peons of praise as I was usually at a loss as to how to stretch "Holly Fuck what a great book" into something resembling review length.

Like a glutton waiting for a particularly lavish meal to end, but for whom anticipating each course makes up a great deal of the pleasure, any hints as to what was in store for dessert would have been a deadly disappointment. However with Mr. Erikson finished his contributions I found myself wanting just that little bit more, so emailed him to see if he would be willing to answer some of the questions that had occurred to me over the course of reading his books. Here then are both the questions I emailed him and his answers. Hopefully they will not give anything away for those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading his books or finishing the series, but will give all of you a deeper appreciation for what he has accomplished in their writing.

Why writing? What is it about the media that attracts you and when did you first start becoming interested in writing?

From early on and throughout high school I was being directed towards painting and illustration. I was sent by my school to life-drawing courses taught at the city’s art gallery, and I spent most of my free time drawing (especially during Math and other subjects that baffled me). I was reading fantasy and SF at the time, ever since I was about twelve, and had initially been drawn to those genres by the cover illustrations, in particular those painted by Frank Frazetta. This was where my ambitions seemed to reside. Increasingly, however, my efforts pushed me towards a kind of visual narrative. I toyed with the idea of doing comic books, but it seemed like a lot of work (this was in the time before computers handled the formatting tasks, etc – I recall using Letraset for the first few panels), and I wasn’t quite as nimble with India ink as I was with ball-point pens (me dipping a quill while doodling in class would not have gone over well).

When I entered university a friend tracked me down and invited me to a partnership doing a cartoon strip for the campus newspaper. I did a few editorial cartoons as well. We then schemed to produce a spoof edition of that campus newspaper, and this led me into writing mock articles and the usual juvenile attempts at satire. From there we ended up co-editing a magazine for the Faculty of Arts (the mag was called "The Sophisto", stolen from A Clockwork Orange). This led to quasi-journalistic writing of the offensive variety (I remember a phone interview my co-conspirator conducted with Barbara Amiel (future wife of Conrad Black) that really ticked her off).

As that endeavour was wrapping up, with booze-spiked coffees at faculty meetings, and us putting a sign up on our office door (GO AWAY), I saw in the local city paper an invitation to a short-story contest, and decided to try for it. Won second place, a hundred dollars and the adoration of a gaggle of very old ladies.

Finishing my degree in archaeology I wrote up two more stories along with the second-place winner and applied to the Vermont MFA in writing program and got turned down. So I applied to take an undergraduate (BFA) in creative writing at the University of Victoria a year later, and got accepted.

Illustration led me into narrative, and words were much faster for me than drawing.

Have there been any particular writers, styles, or media that have influenced your writing? Who what and why?

Influences can be pernicious. I recall reading George MacDonald Frazer’s The Pyrates and writing everything in pirate vernacular for six months thereafter, including memos at work. The thing is, one takes it all in, and hopefully when it comes back out it’s all a mishmash, which eventually becomes your ‘style.’ I remember fellow students in the writing programs I was in taking up the styles of famous writers and, to be honest, I’m not sure how much is actually learned by doing that. The only thing that teaches a beginning writer is writing, and in as many unique voices as one can manage. We all have our peculiar rhythms, and learning to write is learning to see and hear one’s own rhythms (once you know them you can then mess with them, experiment, etc). This ‘finding’ process is often what frustrates beginning writers, to the point that they end up quitting. It’s not ego that drives one so much as it is faith, and the early twenties for most of us is not a time when faith in oneself is at its strongest. What drives someone to write? Is it all the books seen in bookstores? Is it all the books read followed by the dream and conviction that I can do just as well? The desire for recognition, validation, fame, wealth? To be honest, probably all of those things came to the fore at one time or another, but dreams are not tickets to entitlement, and the end goal may not be what one first dreamed about – no matter. It’s all down to work in the end. You could take ten writers and task them all with the same subject on which to write about; even the same plot; and no two will be alike.

You will see that I pretty much avoided answering your question. I could offer up lists, but those lists would consist of writers and books I like or once liked: but it’s just a list, not a guide book to understanding, or, heaven forbid, following in my footsteps. But, before people jump, it’s not a position of arrogance I’m taking, but the opposite. Influences are down to tastes, but I well know that my ‘list’ is constructed as much from what I haven’t read as from what I have read, and if anything only highlights my deficiencies.

I could note that I am presently reading the collected works of Shakespeare. Why? Because it’s fun and perhaps more significantly, it justifies my buying a Kindle.

I've read that the Malazan Book Of The Fallen evolved out of yours and Ian Esselemonts's love of role playing gaming. Can you give me a quick overview of how that evolution happened. (I spent many an afternoon in smoke filled basements with others playing versions of Dungeon and Dragons back in the early 80s and only ever came out of those games with headaches - so there must have been something different about the way you guys approached these things then we ever did. Ours usually degenerated into drunken/stoned, bleary eyed, silliness)

The first game I ever played was run by Cam (Ian) on a dig on Lake of the Woods in Northern Ontario. We were bored rigid. We got stoned, and when the wolves attacked to mark our first effort at fighting, my character threw away his weapons and climbed a tree; another player’s character hid under his shield. Later on, yet another player tried to backstab a ranger NPC, but being a Halfling only managed to prick the back of his leg. Not an impressive first outing.

When Cam and I ended up sharing a flat in Victoria, we started gaming in earnest and you’re right in guessing that they were unusual games. We were both in the writing program at the time, and narrative was uppermost in our minds: these sessions were as much storytelling as gaming and often involved little more than protracted conversations between characters – finding their voices, acquiring a sense of their histories, their world-views, and all the conflict born of those world-views clashing. When scraps arrived they were brutal and irreversible for the characters, and we liked that. A lot. We burdened those characters with bitter memories, with old pains and open wounds; we made them tired of living but unable to give up. Not your typical game, I guess.

Later on, when I ran an actual group, I carried all that over, and the players often ended each session looking shellshocked.

When a reader picks up Gardens Of The Moon they have the feeling they're entering into a story that's been going on for some time. This goes against almost all the traditions of narrative in Epic Fiction, which usually has a static beginning, middle and end. Why did you elect to work from the middle, backwards and forwards, out, so to speak, and did you run into any significant resistance from editors/publishers along the way because of that decision?

Eight years of resistance. We did it because we’d gamed a history that provided the foundation on which to build new tales. Also, as archaeologists, we were well aware that in history there is no real beginning or end: it just goes on. The old lesson we had drilled into us in our writing workshops was that a story begins with a crisis of character, and we began our novels with that in mind. We could do that because we had a sense of the backgrounds of these characters – we’d been them for years, after all – and it’s that sense that gave the crisis meaning, each and every time (at least for us, and for it to affect others it had to affect us first – what followed then was simply the challenge of communicating what we felt. When it works, we and the reader share something, and if there’s one single desire behind writing, it must be that one).

I have to ask - you did work from an outline right - you didn't just wing it and hope for inspiration along the way? If yes, what form did the outline take and how detailed was it?- I have visions of a huge flow chart covering the wall of a fair sized room filled with circles and arrows and notes.
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I had a big chart for Gardens of the Moon, but all it had was chapter listings made up of sections defined by character names, and then a square box that I filled in once the section was done, physically tracking my progress. I had notes in a notepad, and I still do that in a chaotic, confused way. No physical outline, then; just the one in my head, which consisted of big scenes loosely arrayed in a particular order, and from that the driving need to move from one to the next, and to make sure that the ‘filler’ provided as much as was needed to give those big scenes the impact desired. Mostly, what drove and drives me still is the sheer pleasure of writing: the telling of a tale.

In the midst of writing a scene, I would on occasion hit on an image that I would mentally flag, and file away. And I learned to trust in my instincts on when next to riff on that image (or word choice) to create a kind of resonance. This was how I was taught to write short stories, and I extended that across novels, and then across all ten books. Even now, only a few months after the series is done, I look back and am not quite sure how I managed to hold it all in for so long, across so many thousands of pages. I don’t myself understand the creative process well enough to say: this is how it’s done; this is how I remembered everything I needed to remember (besides which, I obviously didn’t remember everything, as inconsistencies did indeed arise from time to, uh time). All I can say now is: I remembered the stuff that was important to me, in the telling of this tale. I did that much, at least. How I did it, I’ll never know.

You created numerous different civilisations and societies for the series and I wondered if you could explain your process in developing them. Were they based on ones from earth's history, did they just spring out of your imagination, was there any specific intent behind some of their characteristics? The Letherai Empire for example with its extreme version of free market social Darwinism and organisations like The Patriotists.

If you can steal but leave no clues, no tracks ... well ... no, it’s not even that. Anthropology is the study of human culture: empirical observation over generations of study seem to have established certain continuities of behaviour, best described as a society’s relationship with its environment (it all goes back to environment). There are, however, endless variations on that theme, but in context they all possess psychological consistency – even the fucked up ones, as with, say, the Aztecs). At the same time, every anthropologist knows that they can never truly understand a foreign culture, inasmuch as we all struggle to understand even our own; and that, to compound matters, cultures are in evolution (even apparently stagnant ones) and by nature protean. To create a fictional culture in fantasy (quick guide), begin with the environment. Plains, boreal forest, mountains, steppes, flood-plain, dry, wet, warm, cold, coastal, mineral rich, fauna poor – the more details you decide on, the tighter the potential characteristics of the resident culture. Next: choose technology level and principal sources of subsistence. These will further shape that culture: farmers, fisher-folk, whalers, raiders, herders – when it comes to food procurement, we’re all rather limited. If, say, it’s a hunting culture, well, it’s not likely to be a populous one, is it, since no wild environment can sustain a large, sedentary population of predators such as people. If it is a herding culture, and you have steppes, well, best expect a mobile boom and bust cycle for that culture (see Mongols) involving rapid, violent expansion followed by fragmentation and assimilation into the more materially established sedentary cultures they may have conquered – a civilisation that can vanish like dust in the wind (Huns). If you want cities you need to work out what feeds its denizens ... outlying farms, mercantile wealth (if in, say, a trading crossroads like Constantinople), harvest from the sea – and in each case you should refer to the technology level. If farming, do the farmers irrigate and if so, where does the water come from? Related to the seasons and weather patterns – is it in fact situated on a cusp of potential disaster should drought strike, or is it relatively stable as with, say, The Nile. For comparison on how the two shape their cultures, do a compare and contrast between ancient Egypt and the Mayans of Central America. Fairly similar in terms of technology – how much did the need to appease capricious sky gods affect the almost psychotic sacrifice frenzy of the Mayans, compared to the sedate, generally passive culture of Egypt?

What other factors might impede that culture in its pursuit of quality of life? Caste, class systems, indenture – who’s pulling the strings and how firm is their grip? The Mayan priests might have felt on top of the world (on top of the pyramids, too) but when the environment collapsed so too did their power base. What forces are at play resisting progress? Religious dogma, social institutions (slavery), indolence? Is there any social mobility? How fares its arts, its centres of learning and philosophy? Is it warrior-based? If magic exists, how does it work and what does it do to shape the culture using it?

All anthropological, I suppose, and geographical too. It’s why I always started with a map, because that told me so much of what I need to know about the resident civilisations. Obviously, the question of the role of magic was a central one that needed answering early on: we chose an egalitarian structure, based on hard work – not gender-based in any way – and from this we posited civilisations that could not impose gender-based hierarchies in terms of access to and exploitation of power. This, as you might imagine, opened things up considerably, which was most pleasing.

I was fascinated by the system(s) of magic you created for this world. A system which seemed based on a person's ability to channel an aspect or characteristic of a particular god or goddess yet wizards weren't necessarily priests and vice-versa. How did you come up with this system and why did you elect to use it.

See above! We wanted something malleable yet mysterious; so instead of devising a single or handful of paths to magic, we created a multitude of paths, and then embodied that theoretical theme in the Warrens (made the metaphor real), which is why when people ask us about the magic system we mostly just shrug. It defines itself. It is exactly what it looks like: multiple paths to magic. For us, that’s all we needed, and we could adjust all we liked for each character using it – potential applications are endless, unconstrained, forever fluid. It became a dynamic system where even the attempted impositions (Deck of Dragons, cults and priest-hoods) had a tendency to slip from the grasp of the users. We’re not into ‘systems.’ We never were. We like things much messier.

Psychologically, we wanted magic to have the effect of napalm descending from the skies to hammer into the ground peasant soldiers. It’s ugly, terrifying, unpredictable.

In the books there are a strata of people who appear to exist on a plane somewhere between the gods and mortals, ascendants. What was the purpose of having this type of hero class of character?

Inspired by two things: on the one hand, this was all Homeric, incorporating the ancient bronze age/iron age proto-Greek sense of the pantheon and its mix of Olympian and chthonic deities, including demigods, Lapiths and forces of chaos – all of them as venal and petty-minded as our regular mortal affairs. On the other hand, we role-played characters in the old ‘powering up’ fashion consistent with all fantasy games. They had to have the potential to achieve something, if they so chose. The interesting is that, in the games, we ended up with so many characters who ultimately chose not to ‘ascend.’ And that was brilliant, and from these individuals came the real story of the world, as we have and are telling it. Because they were just like us.

Was there any particular pantheon of gods in our world which inspired your depiction of gods and their relationship to the mortals who worshipped them? How would you describe that relationship?

The key was giving those gods personalities, not just ‘aspects’ or ‘themes.’ Make them old, yet some older than others, some almost forgotten, others ambitious and young, some remote, others not so remote. As personalities, they were then open to specific relationships with their followers, sometimes benign, sometimes malicious. Many gods in our own world were worshipped to appease, lest vengeance and terror descend. That was not a benign relationship, was it? Its fuel was fear, and the notion of getting direct attention from a god was, for very good reasons, terrifying. By extension, exploring such relationships in fiction can also address how we, as individuals, relate to the world around us, to the vagaries of happenstance, fate and bad luck. Cause and effect is central to our intellect, and for those causes we cannot find, we invent, and so persist in a lifelong dialogue with indifferent nature.

We spend a great deal of time among soldiers and on the battle field during the course of the series and you don't hesitate from describing the action in graphic detail leaving us no doubt as to its grim reality. Yet most of the lead characters, those we come to admire, are soldiers who take part in those battles and I was wondering if there were any message in particular you were trying to deliver because of that, and if so what it was?

All too often in fantasy fiction we’re stuck with the rulers, the leaders, and we see their machinations in a generalised sense of victory and loss, even good and evil. Until Glen Cook, we rarely saw the brutal consequences of all these toffs vying for dominance. When approaching our own novels, we wanted to emulate Cook’s ground-up approach, covering the entire social strata from the lowly street urchin to the gods and everyone in between. History is, as you mentioned, a thing that flows in all directions, and we liked the idea that even though shit always flows down, on occasion some poor bastard is going to rise up from the muck and throw a handful back upward, hopefully straight into the face of one of those toffs. There is always an implicit commentary in medieval-style fantasy, whether the author intends it or not – that has to do with inequality, with purity of blood and nobility of form, with who the heroes are and just how beloved they are when the last battle’s won. For the majority of people, feudal life was misery; yet here we get again and again all these tales about high-born elites – granted, some authors make a point of highlighting just how well-meaning and benign those rulers are. The fact remains, however, that they take as a birthright their right to decide who lives or dies among their subjects.

For myself, I’ve had my fill of those implicit assertions on inequity, and some central threads of the Malazan Book of the Fallen made a point of addressing that.

I have to ask - where did Kruppe come from. He's an absolutely brilliant character and I'd love to see more of him elsewhere. Any hope of that happening?

Character I rolled up, and on spur of the moment elected to make him ... the way he is. I believe he makes a return in Cam’s novel set in Darujhistan.

There were quite a few loose ends left behind with the conclusion of the tenth book and I was wondering if you were considering filling them in, or will that be Ian Esselemont's job with his books set in the Malazn Empire?

Cam will cover some of them, but not all, nor should anyone expect him to. We’re comfortable with threads left dangling. No history is complete and if people are left with questions, well, how like real life is that?

I can't think of a more appropriate note to end this on save to say thank you to Steven Erikson for taking the time to answer my questions. Now when will Ian Cameron Esslement's next book be released?

(Article first published as Interview: Steven Erikson, Author Of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Sequence on Blogcritics.)

March 23, 2011

INHERITANCE - BOOK FOUR OF The Inheritance Cycle, Release Date Announced

Finally, it's just been announced that the long awaited concluding chapter to Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle, INHERITANCE will be published in November of 2011. According to a release sent out by Barnes and Noble today, the fourth book in Paolini's young adult fantasy series is scheduled to be released at some point in November of this year, just in time for Christmas shopping.
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For those who have been paying any sort of attention for the past two years, you'll know that I have something of a vested interest in this news as I was commissioned to write a book predicting how Paolini would wrap up the series. What Will Happen In Eragon lV? was published by Ulysses Press in October of 2009 and while those who have read it have given it fairly positive reviews (Those who purchased it thinking they were buying the fourth book were understandably disappointed but I still don't think that gives them the right to give the book one star ratings at Amazon.com - when the only person they have to blame for not paying attention is themselves) sales slowed to a trickle when it became obvious the concluding book wasn't being published any time soon.

Now three years after the release of book three, Brisingr, book four will finally hit the shelves, and hopefully in the interim - there are still seven months to go before Paolini's book comes out folks - people might decide the quickest and easiest way to remind themselves of what went on in the first three books would be to pick up a copy of What Will Happen In Eragon lV? Well I can hope can't I? Hey I've got a wife, three cats, and credit cards to support - I need all the help I cant get here.

Anyway, this is good news for fans of Paolini's books, and good news for Paolini himself. I have to confess I was little worried about him having hit a wall, and so I'm very glad for his sake that he was able to finish the book. I hope that he is satisfied with what he did, and I would also like to say, that no matter what, he should be very proud of his accomplishment. After all he started this project when he was fifteen and has shown the perseverance to stick with it and finish it off even under what must have been considerable pressure. Well done

Oh, for those keeping score - Inheritance wasn't even on my short list for possible titles. That's one wrong - but who knows how many right. You'll have to read both my book and Christopher's to find out.

March 16, 2011

Book Review: The Crippled God by Steven Erikson

And in the end we return to where we started. An inconsequential city on the small island which gave its name to an empire spanning continents. The seat of power has long since moved away from Malaz City on the Isle of Malaz, but it was here that an empire was formed, and it was here we first walked into the lives of those who were woven into the fabric of the empire's storied existence. A wine merchant's son standing on the parapet overlooking both the town and the sea, his head filled with dreams of glory and battlefield victories, has a chance encounter with two soldiers. In the town below fires burn and smoke billows as out of control soldiers brutally carry out the orders of their regent to kill all the cities magic users. When a gust of wind carries the smell of burning flesh to their perch the boy innocently opines that a slaughter house has caught fire, mistaking the smell of humans for beasts.

Many years later, another young boy, looking over the empty sea from the end of the same town's pier, lets his dreams of heroic deeds be interrupted by an old man's apparently pointless attempts to catch a fish during the middle of the day. The setting is somewhat more peaceful then before, as there is no riot taking place and the smell of burning blood isn't wafting over the two, but for the old man who had been one of the soldiers on that parapet all those years ago, the conversation must have been eerily familiar. Yet for all that, and all that we know he has been through in the years between the two conversations, he makes no attempt to dissuade the boy when he speaks of leaving the island and becoming a soldier. Instead he merely echoes words spoken years earlier, "Well, the world always needs soldiers".
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In some ways there couldn't be a finer epitaph for Steven Erikson's ten book epic masterpiece, The Malazan Book Of The Fallen. "The world always needs soldiers", for primarily this was the story of soldiers. Brave ones, evil ones, honourable ones, cowards, heroes (intentional and otherwise), but mainly the soldiers who marched in ranks, fought, died, were wounded, survived and went unnoticed by history. For all the intricacies of plots, for all the twists and turns Erikson so successfully navigated in bringing us to his conclusion in, The Crippled God, now available from Random House Canada, like the Malazan Empire itself, the series marched on the backs of its soldier's lives.

For while the gods and other races with powers, including the ability to transform into dragons or change the shape of the world without breaking a sweat, schemed and plotted against each other, it was the mortal soldiers whose footsteps we followed in, and whose boots we stood in on the front lines. Deep into the press of bodies we went, where men and women lost their souls and minds. Swords gouged, shields smashed, blood flowed, piss ran and sweat stank of fear and pain. We learned what it felt like to fight on when there was no way to win and how there was rarely anything worth celebrating when the victories did come. Usually in the latter it meant you had delivered such slaughter as to feel sick. For dead is dead no matter what flag you fought under and in the corpses opposite you can easily see yourself. But for a slip here, or a lunge there your guts could just as easily been spilled on the ground as anybody else's.

After nine books we have learned not to become overly attached to any of the characters we've met on our march around the world. Even those who have lived thousands of years can still succumb to a sword stroke eventually. So as we come down to the penultimate battles for all those who have endured what the world has thrown at them until this point, and already witnessed the deaths of many we've come to know, we can only hope some will survive. Yet given the circumstances, the odds they face and the mauling their armies have already experienced, we, as well as they, know they all could die. Even worse, their lives could have been spent for no reason if even one of the forces set in motion should go awry.

For in this far off corner of the world an ancient race, the Forkrul Assail, have begun their campaign to rid the world of mortals. They call themselves adjudicators, and they have decided humans no longer deserve to live. Since they long ago killed their own god when they found him lacking, they now seek to steal the power of an alien god, The Crippled God of the title, who fell to this planet thousands of years ago. It was to counter this threat former Adjunct to the Empress of the Malazan Empire, Tavore Paran, set out on her seemingly aimless campaign. After the losses suffered by both her and her allies' armies in their last engagement their chances of succeeding, slim to begin with, appear next to impossible. They go to face far superior numbers commanded by beings whose very voices can tear the flesh from human skin. What hope do they have of success?
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Everyone, from the lowliest camp follower to the highest ranking officer in the allied armies know their role is to die so that others might have the chance to live. Most of them know nothing of the other forces at work, within the very fabric of existence itself, who are fighting the same desperate struggle on the other plains of existence. However as they are marching towards what will be their final battles, Erikson takes us from one field of battle to the next. Plots and characters he set in motion in previous books, which at the time seemed to be separate stories of their own, are now revealed to be another front on which this war is being fought. In a brilliant feat of engineering he slides the last little piece into place in each area providing the final links tying them all together. Even more amazingly is how he does it with such ease we are left wondering how we could have missed noticing the connections earlier.

Yet, in spite of the grand sweep of events that he created, the crooked paths the story has sometimes walked down, it has been the characters who have been the glue holding it all together. From the ones we've loved to hate, Kallor the high king, to the ones we've loved; Fiddler, Hedge, Whiskeyjack, Kalam, Quick Ben, Toc the Younger, Onas T'oolan, Kruppe, Crokus, Apsalar, Karsa Orlong, Ganoes and Tavore Paran, the humans, the undead, the gods and even a couple of dogs, they are the ones who gave the series the flavour that made it so special. They were a celebration of all that was good and bad in humanity, proving over and over again how situations can bring the best and worst out in everybody. Now here, at the end of their story, we are given a chance to celebrate all that they were and what they meant to the books.

I realize I've not talked much about what actually happens in The Crippled God, but to do that would give too much away to those who have been eagerly awaiting this concluding volume and mean nothing at all to those unfamiliar with the previous nine books. If you belong to the latter group I envy you still having all ten books to look forward to. For those who are in the former all I can say is you won't be disappointed. It will not only live up to your expectations, it will exceed them. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen is an extraordinary work of epic fiction and this final instalment is not only a fitting conclusion to what's come before, it takes the series to an even higher level than you would have thought possible. Fantasy and science fiction are often thought the poor cousins of so called serious novels, but I defy anyone to think that after reading this series.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Crippled God by Steven Erikson on Blogcritics.)

December 31, 2010

My Favourite Reads Of 2010

I don't know how many books I read over the course of a year; especially when you include the ones I re-read, so for any title to stand out sufficiently for me to remember it from one end of the year to the other means it has to be something pretty special. Some years I've not been able to come up with ten books, and, others I'm hard pressed to chose among them, when putting together a year end list of favourites. This year sort of fell in between as after reading through the list of reviews I'd written over the course of the year and jotting down the titles of those which stood out, it just happened to turn out that I had picked exactly ten.

Any who have read my reviews in the past will be well aware of my liking of epic fantasy, and this year is no exception, but there are also a couple of non-fiction titles and a couple that might even be referred to as straight fiction. I know there are still those who would look down their noses at what some refer to dismissively as 'genre' fiction, but as far as I'm concerned it's there you'll find the closest we have come to continuing the oral tradition of storytelling that began with Homer and Valmiki. We may no longer rely on stories to explain away the workings of the world or the peculiarities of our gods, but they do provide us with the means of stretching our minds in ways we might not otherwise. Hopefully reading this list will encourage you to at least follow the links back to reading my full review of each title, and maybe even to read one or two of them as well. So, in order of when they were read over the course of the year, here are the ten books which were my favourites in 2010.

Dust Of Dreams by Steven Erikson. The ninth book of ten in Erikson's Malazan Book Of The Fallen series finds the world apparently on the brink of blowing apart at the seams as the schemes of gods are starting to fall into place. All that's seemingly protecting the world are what seems to be a pitifully small force of mortals, remnants of the once proud armies of the Malazan Empire. This near the end of a series most authors would have probably been content with simply continuing the story where it left off from the last chapter, but not Erikson. He has a whole world of beings to draw upon who are going to want to have their say in how things turn out, and be they living, undead, god, mortal or something in between they will be heard. Amazingly, one never feels confused when reading Erikson's work as the multiple plot lines and myriad characters always find a way to fit into the overall picture he is creating. It might take some time to see how a particular piece fits into the puzzle, but half the fun of reading is finding that out. Dust Of Dreams is another wonderful instalment in Erikson's epic tale with the only disquieting note being the realization there's only one book left after it.

Voices Of A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. Most histories that you read will tell of the big events from the point of view of the generals, politicians and other larger then life figures who have somehow been designated as the movers and shakers shaping them. The majority of the time we are asked to take somebody else's word that what we are being told is what actually happened. In their history of the United States Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove have decided to let you have the opportunity to hear from people who actually participated in events throughout the years and let you form your own opinions. Instead of reading about generals and their great victories you'll hear from the soldier who fought in the trenches in the form of a letter home. This collection of speeches, letters and other writings from down through the years provides the reader an opportunity to hear from those whose voices don't usually make it into history books and provides a totally different perspective on events that you thought you knew so well. In these days of misinformation and spin, this book is a refreshing change of pace as we are able to read first hand what people actually said, not what somebody else wants you to think they said.

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor. Somewhere in the backwoods of Ontario the old ways and the new world are having a head on collision. Ojibway novelist and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor creates a wonderful vision of what would happen on a modern day reservation if the trickster, Nanabush, from his people's legends, were to show up and try to liven things up a little. Nobody knows what to make of the stranger who roles into town on the back of a classic Indian motorcycle for the funeral of one of the town's oldest inhabitants, but they know there's something not completely right about him when the local racoon population are all so set against him. Funny, yet at the same time realistic in its depiction of life on a reserve, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass might not jibe with people's image of the noble savage or the drunk welfare bum Indian, but it does show how traditions can live on comfortably in the modern world. Pickup trucks may have replaced more traditional modes of transportation and computers and cell phones are as common here as anywhere else, but that doesn't mean you forget who you are and the stories that shaped your people.

The Good Fairies Of New York by Martin Millar. Technically speaking this book probably shouldn't be on a list of books released in 2010 as it originally came out a number of years ago. However as I only read it for the first time this year I decided to include it. Martin Millar has always had a wonderful sense of the absurd and this is a shining example of that at work. How else would you describe a book featuring a massive battle between two fairy armies in Central Park, two Scottish fairies who've decided to go against tradition and play punk versions of old fiddle tunes and the ghost of the late New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders searching for his lost Gibson guitar? I guarantee you haven't read another book quite like this one, and not only will it make you laugh out loud, you'll never look at fairies in quite the same way again.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Guy Gavriel Kay has the incredible ability of being able to pull a reader into the world of his story right from the opening lines of his book. Before you've even read more than a few pages into one of his creations you've become so immersed in the world that no matter what the setting, its as familiar to you as your own. Under Heaven is no exception as he takes you into the subtle and dangerous world of 8th century China where sophisticated political minds, warrior societies and mysterious magical forces co-exist. As the story slowly unravels the combination of intriguing characters, twisting plots and intricately described world make this a fascinating and compelling read. This is historical fantasy as it should be written; most anything else is just a pale imitation.

Just Kids by Patti Smith. Smith's recounting of her formative years as a young artist is as much a love story about her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe as it is an autobiography. A beautiful and honest recollection of both individuals coming of age as people and artists, Just Kids distils the innocence and excitement of two children discovering themselves and leavens it with the realities of living poor and struggles with sexual identity. As honest and unstinting a work as anything Smith has ever produced, this fearless book is not only her story, it also manages to evoke its era with everyone from Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg making guest appearances in its pages. I don't normally like autobiographies or biographies for that matter, but if you read only one book this year - let it be this one. It will break your heart and lift you higher than the moon - a work of art by a brilliant artist.

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight. The book that started it all. This was Muslim convert Knight's first book set in the fictional world of Islamic punks and the inspiration for the real life imitating art tour by Knight and various Muslim punk bands captured in the documentary Taqwacores: The Birth Of Punk Islam. In some ways the book is about the immigrant experience in America as second generation Islamic children try to find their place in a society where they are outsiders. Like other teenagers away from home at collage they explore sex, drugs and alcohol while trying to learn about life. What separates this from other coming of age stories is the underlying tension between the characters' religion, which they continue to practice and respect, and their attempts to reconcile it with their behaviour. Full of the noise and confusion of youth spreading its wings The Taqwacores manages to put a human face on Islam like few other works of popular fiction.

Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar. This is Millar's second appearance on this list, this time though for a book published this year. The sequel to his Lonely Werewolf Girl picks up where he left off with the adventures of Kalix, the banished werewolf princess, still trying to get her act together. Helped and hindered in equal parts by her human and fire elemental friends, hunted by family members and werewolf hunters, she faces her sternest test yet - remedial English and Math classes. This book was eagerly anticipated in my household and unlike many other sequels it not only lived up to expectations, but even surpassed them. Millar refused to take the easy way out by repeating the formulae that worked in the first book, and he has not only sustained the world he developed so well, but taken his characters and expended on the groundwork he had laid earlier. Is it possible for a near suicidally depressed teenage werewolf with an addiction to laudanum to be happy? Maybe, maybe not, but Kalix, bit by bit (and bite by bite if the truth be told) is taking her first steps towards independence and despite her occasional habit of ripping out throats of those who upset her, at least finding something close to peace of mind. A wonderful book in its own right, Curse Of The Wolf Girl is a must read for fans of Kalix and her buddies. If your sick of the whole romance story/vampire thing going on right now - this is the perfect antidote - I can't see any of those little whiners lasting more than a second or two in Kalix's world.

Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Pedro-Reverte. It's long been a tradition among fighting men that when things get a little too hot for comfort at home, one takes to the seas for relief. After saving the king's life one would think that Captain Alatriste and his ward Inigo wouldn't have a care in the world. Unfortunately they managed to piss off a lot of well connected people in 17th century Spain in the process, including members of the Inquisition who could make life very hot for them. Which is how they find themselves cruising the Mediterranean as part of the Spanish fleet preying upon the enemies of Spain. Off the coast of North Africa and Southern Europe that can be anyone from English privateers to Turkish merchant ships loaded with slaves, gold and perfumes. As usual Reverte has not only managed to capture the times the book is set in perfectly, his characters are so full of life they nearly leap from the pages. Combined with his ability to take you into the heart of a battle, with each sword stroke and musket ball described in such detail you almost feel the breeze they create stir your hair and scorch your skin, this makes for not only a great adventure, but a sobering contemplation of the wastes of warfare and the depths humans can sink to when in peril. This is the sixth book in the Alatriste series translated into English so far, and hopefully they'll be plenty more to come, as any other book of a similar type just pales in comparison.

Stonewielder by Ian C Esslemont. The year started with a book set in the world of the Malazan Empire, so it seems only fitting that it should end that way as well. Esslemont has published two previous works set in the world he and Steven Erikson created, and in Stonewielder he picks up with the characters he's introduced us to previously. Esslemont, like Erikson, has the ability to not only recreate the great sweep of events that make epics such a wonder to read, but to create characters who are so real that we experience what it's like for everyone from the foot soldier, the supreme commander of an army and the gods themselves to live through them. With each characters' perspective coloured by their own self-interest we are offered a variety of views of the same events and are left to decide on our own what's right and what's wrong. While Esslemont's books work fine as a stand alone series in their own right, taken in tandem with Erikson's they raise both up to a higher level. Remarkable books by remarkable writers make for great reading, and that's the case with this book and any book in this series.

(Article first published as My Favourite Reads of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

December 21, 2010

Book Review: Simon's Cat His Own Book & Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence by Simon Tofield:

Nine times out of ten when somebody starts to recount some particularly memorable, at least in their minds, thing a pet has done there's a good chance that most will smile politely and nod. Like doting grandparents who can't understand not everybody is interested in every last move their little dears make, pet owners will regale the world with pictures and stories of their furred darlings without surcease. What most people with pets fail to understand is that, unlike what my cats get up to, there is nothing remotely interesting about their animals' behaviour. Being incredibly special, super intelligent and extraordinarily cute, my cats are of course the exception to that rule, and everybody will want to hear everything about them; from where they spew hair balls to how loud they can meow.

In fact pet owners are so renowned for this when I first started writing on the Internet the term "cat blog" was used derisively to refer to any blog which was no more than a personal diary. The attitude I expressed above is common to most of us who dote upon four legged critters, but really who is going to want to hear endless recounts of their doings? Let's be real, nobody is going to find stories about other people's pets funny enough to search them out on the Internet and read them, right? Well, try telling that to Simon Tofield, creator of Simon's Cat.
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Tofield is a British animator and illustrator who has taken idle sketches of his cats and turned them into incredibly popular short animated cartoons on You Tube. With over 50 million fans watching his videos, he must be doing something right, and if you check out the films page on his web site you'll see just what that is. A combination of simply rendered line drawings, cat sounds and over the top cat behaviour make them some of the most hilarious cartoons I've seen in ages. Ranging in length from around thirty seconds to a few minutes, they take such identifiable cat behaviours as playing with an empty box, stopping at nothing in the hunting of an insect and asking to be let inside and turn them into moments of hysteria. Tofield's humour resides in his ability to exaggerate normal behaviour to the point where it's ridiculous but still believable.

Well now the star of Internet video is available in book form; Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence are both available through Penguin Canada, and he is every bit as funny on the page as he is in your browser window. (Beyond The Fence is only currently available in the US as an eBook and won't be released in hard copy until June of 2011) Tofield's ability to communicate a lot with little translates onto the page wonderfully, making both these collections as much, if not more, fun than the videos. For the static frame has allowed him to add detail to his images not seen in his animations that, especially in Beyond The Fence, make them more complete.
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In His Own Book, first published a year ago and now re-printed as a softcover, introduced us to life around the house with Simon and his cat. Anybody who has ever shared space with a cat will be able to quickly identify with all of the scenarios depicted. Sure there are some instances when our cat friend's behaviour crosses out of the realm of realistic into fantasy. However, you have the feeling, if it were possible for a cat to do things like attempt to open a can of food on its own, it would do so in the manner Tofield depicts. If the little buggers can break into cupboards it's not much of a stretch to imagine them utilizing blunt instruments to try and smash cans open. Lacking opposable thumbs can openers are out of the question so it becomes necessary to find an alternative means of gaining access to a can's contents.

Beyond The Fence sees Cat carrying out every young child's threat of running away from home. After being forced to face the indignity of being bathed, hysterically depicted in a series of large panels - anybody who has ever tried to give a cat a bath will wince in sympathy as memories of being soaked and bleeding from numerous cuts surface - Cat stalks out of his "cat-flap". One can almost hear him yelling back over his shoulder that he's running away from home and won't you regret treating me like this now! For the rest of the book we follow Cat through a series of adventures out in the wilds. Who'd have thought that birds, mice and rabbits could be so cruel. The indignities he suffers at their paws and wings; although there is the mitigating factor that he is attempting to hunt them that speaks in their defence. Still, these are humbling experiences for our erstwhile hero in his quest for freedom and independence.
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While Tofield continues to employ only black and white, in this book he has taken more time with backgrounds and filling in Cat's surroundings. Yet, he does not ignore the details which have been the key to the cartoon's success. Specifically, his amazing ability to bring expressions alive on his character's faces with only a few simple lines. Giving animals human facial expressions is a tricky business as it can often end up being insufferably cute. Tofield somehow manages not to fall into that trap by avoiding making them overtly human. No matter if it's a haughty blue heron, a friendly otter, a snarky mouse or our long suffering Cat, each critter retains their animal identity while making no secret of their feelings.

Usually only fellow cat owners would be at all interested in stories regarding the antics of our four footed companions. With his wonderful sense of the absurd and deceptively simple drawing style, Simon Tofield has managed to break down that barrier and find a way to make cat stories universally appealing. While cat lovers will be identify with the cartoons on a personal level, having experienced something similar to what's being depicted at one time or another, the humour is such it will be next to impossible for anybody to resist the charm of these two books.

(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book & Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics.)

December 8, 2010

Book Review: To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie

When it comes to the arts I've always been a firm believer in the treatise that one should learn to walk before they start to run let alone fly. To my mind that means a painter learns figurative drawing and realism before they challenge reality with abstractions; a composer learns the basics of arrangement and orchestration before trying their hands at atonal sound collages; and a writer learns proper sentence structure, grammar and how to create a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end before they take a stab at something like stream of consciousness. If you don't know the rules, how can you possibly know how to break them?

That might sound like a stupid question, but think about it in terms of flaunting conventions or rebelling against something you object to in society. If you don't know what is conventional, or acceptable behaviour, how can you know what to do that will upset people? If a writer doesn't know how to write a proper sentence or a coherent story, how are they going to know what to do in order to stand those conventions on their heads? In order to draw a circle backwards you still have to know how to draw a circle, and no matter how you approach writing a story you still have to put the words down on a page in some sort of order and the person reading it should still be able to understand what it is you're trying to say.
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My own experiments with style and form have not been as successful as I would have liked. So whenever I come across a piece of work, no matter its size, where the author has not only written a good story, but the manner in which he tells it is part of what makes it a compelling read, I'm thrilled. Such was the case with a story just published by To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie. Poet, songwriter, novelist and visual artist, MacKenzie has created in this instance the written equivalent of a cubist painting. For not only is the story told from the points of view of each character we meet, the characters represent different time periods.

The story opens with a description of your standard working poor apartment. Basic furniture and appliances with nothing to distinguish it from others of its kind save for the author drawing our attention to a couple of details - scorch marks on the kitchen table and a few sheets of paper scattered on the floor next to the table. Like an establishing shot in a film, MacKenzie carefully pans across the scene ensuring the reader understands the story is firmly set in a familiar world. What follows after though is anything but familiar as he begins to introduce us to his various characters.

At first there doesn't appear to be any sort of connection between the first people we meet, a mysterious girl with a pet crow and an ability to play with fire who frightens a young boy by running her hand through a candle and a man who appears over an infant's crib, and subsequent characters as they are introduced. In fact we don't even know what it is we're dealing with in terms of a story until we all of a sudden realize the apartment described in the opening of the book is the setting for a police investigation of a missing person. However as the pieces of the story are gradually slotted into their appropriate places in the overall picture we understand that the child in the crib, the boy the girl with the crow frightens, and the man who has disappeared from the apartment described at the onset, are all one and the same person.

While the police are doing their best to try and puzzle out what might have happened to the occupant based on the contents of the letter they find on the floor and what bits and pieces of his life they are able to assemble by questioning neighbours and his landlord, we are learning the truth of the matter. A few pages from his mother's diary expresses her concerns about a story he tells as a child meeting a young girl with a crow who can play with fire. We also learn that quite a few people in his family have died by being struck by lighting - although that's not really unusual for a family that's lived for generations on the open prairie, and that his mother died young under mysterious circumstances.
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To Whom It May Concern doesn't follow a normal narrative pattern as it doesn't travel a straight line from point A to B. While readers might find that disconcerting at first, what ends up happening is MacKenzie has created something that is far more satisfying to read than your standard mystery/fantasy story. Not only do we learn what lies at the heart of the mystery surrounding what happened to the occupant of the apartment, we do so in a manner that makes the mystery all the more intriguing. We not only eventually discover what has happened, we also are able to experience what it would be like to be the police officers investigating the disappearance without the benefit of our inside information. MacKenzie has managed to create two separate realities, each offering their own distinct perception of the events in the story, and both are equally believable.

There aren't many writers who can handle the rigours of not only playing around with the conventional structure of story telling successfully, but telling a good story at the same time. In To Whom It May Concern Bob MacKenzie has not only created an intriguing mystery story, he has found a way to alter the conventions of storytelling in such a manner that the audience is pulled deeper into the material than normal. It may not be what you're used to when it comes to a mystery story, but this is one of those occasions when different is definitely better.

(Article first published as Book Review: To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2010

DVD Review: Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother

Say poetry and most people will immediately think of something intellectual, slightly effeminate and not usually worth the effort it takes to understand. They'll think back to their days in high school trying to make sense of seemingly incomprehensible words strung together apparently without rhyme or reason while their teacher droned on about metaphors, similes and deeper meanings. The idea that poetry might actually have something to do with the real world or be written in language that anybody can understand would come as quite a surprise to most people. That the same poetry might be about the mean streets of big cities featuring casts of characters who hang out in old dingy bars or the cracked stone steps of tenement buildings drinking two dollar bottles of wine and rot gut whisky would never even cross their minds.

Until his death in 1994 American writer Charles Bukowski produced scores of poems and prose depicting life among those who eke out an existence in low paying menial employment and who seek solace in the bottom of a bottle, cheap whores and whose hopes for the future rely more on the long shot at San Marino or race tracks like it around the country. Not only did his poetry talk about subject matter most others wouldn't or couldn't tackle, it did so in the language of the people who populated them. Sex, bodily functions, drinking, gambling and generally life on the skids are fixtures of Bukowski's poetry.

Yet, that's not the be all and end all when it comes to his work. For behind the words is an intelligent and compassionate mind which, although he makes no effort to hide his readers from the nastier realities of life on the skids, never makes those populating his work figures of ridicule or objects of sympathy. He finds humour and pathos among them in equal measures, and is just as likely to be laughing at himself as anybody else. For Bukowski not only wrote about the down and outs, for the longest time he was one himself, and a good deal of autobiographical detail makes its way into his work..
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Although Bukowski lived until 1994 he gave his last live poetry reading in 1980. A newly released two DVD set, One Tough Mother, produced by mondayMEDIA and the Infinity Entertainment Group, combining the films made of his last two readings (There's Going To Be A God Damned Riot In Here!, Vancouver 1979 and The Last Straw, Redondo Beach California 1980) give one a fairly good indication as to why he stopped giving doing them. As its title suggests, the Vancouver reading degenerated at times into a shouting match between Bukowski and the audience and even though it was a less antagonistic gathering in California, the atmosphere still left a lot to be desired.

Far too many people made the mistake with Bukowski of confusing fiction with reality. For while it was true that at one point in his life he had lived much like those who inhabited his poetry and prose, by this point in his life he was no longer living rough. There was no reason for him to have to fight for his survival, but if these two readings were any indication as to how audiences reacted to him, they expected him to be one of the foul mouthed protagonists depicted in his work. In both instances he tries his best to remind them of who he has become by reading a work which deals with the issue directly. In the poem he talks about how he receives letters from men living in single rooms written on torn lined paper which compliment him on how he's captured their lives on paper. He then continues on to wonder what they would think if they knew their missives were ending up at a two garage house where he leads a perfectly comfortable life and keeps a young man in a cage, beaten two or three times a week and fed on cheap whisky, who writes all his poetry these days.

However in spite of everything, the heckling from the audience and Bukowski's increasingly angry rejoinders - in Vancouver he becomes so angry he lashes out at audiences in general because there are always two people who sit right down front who insist on talking through his readings - both movies are still valuable records of one of the most original poetic voices of the twentieth century. While his reading style is fairly low key, the power of the words is such that we very quickly find ourselves falling under their spell. There's no beating around the bush with Bukowski's poetry; little in the way of allegorical language, metaphor or any of the other poetic devices our teachers were so fond of forcing us to try and interpret so we could find the meaning hidden in the words. Indeed there is very little subtlety to his work at all, just like the world he uses them to describe. Whether he's describing the state of his money after he drops his wallet into the toilet after he has had a particularly foul smelling dump or inviting us back to his room where he's spending the night with a women.
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Needless to say a poetry reading isn't the most visually exciting thing you'll see on a DVD as the camera is forced to stay with its rather static subject the whole time. However, its fascinating to watch Bukowski right from the moment he walks onto the stage. Whether he's smoking his ever present Bidi (an Indian clove cigarette), taking large gulps from a seemingly bottomless glass of red wine, talking with the audience and even reading the occasional poem, his weathered features and rough hewn voice hold our attention where others wouldn't. He has some sort of charisma which is hard to define as its not the standard issue stuff handed out to the good looking or otherwise conventional types we're normally attracted to.

There's a clue to be found in his readings as to what it is that keeps us focused on him. For while he has no problems joking with the audience about himself or trading insults, you could see genuine anger come through when his poetry was derided or treated with indifference. It's that passion for his work, the total commitment to his art that we feel emanating from him, that keeps our attention focused on him throughout the reading. Even when he seems to be uncaring and blasé about the whole affair, there's the sense of something lurking beneath the surface that's not quite safe - like a hibernating bear who is slow to rouse we're aware he could wake up at any moment and rip someone's head off.

Each disc comes with bonus features that weren't available when they were released individually. While some of them are just your standard talking head things with academics pontificating about Bukowsik's work (God he must be laughing about that) its well worth checking out the readings of his poetry by people like Bono, Tom Waits and others that are part of the interview with Johm Dullaghan who directed the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This and the excerpts from a performance of the play Love Bukowski. However no matter how interesting any of these features might be, none of them compare to the genuine article itself. While you only receive the smallest taste of just who or what Charles Bukowski was and what his poetry was like, for those who have never experienced him before this will make an unforgettable introduction and give everybody else a few more moments to savour his genius. Charles Bukowski ain't like the poetry you learned about in school, but its some of the best damn stuff you'll ever have the opportunity of reading or hearing.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother on Blogcritics.)

September 30, 2010

Book Review: The Truth Of Valour by Tanya Huff

Science fiction, for a genre that prides itself on imagination and imagining exciting possibilities in the future, used to be home to some of the most reactionary and conservative writers around. While there were some wonderful exceptions (Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asmiov and a few others) a great many of what was written could just as easily be classified as "Boys With Toys" as anything else. By toys I mean everything from rockets and big weapons to women in either tight fitting or very little clothing. The story lines were, more often then not, racist, misogynistic and xenophobic - characteristics of human behaviour I would have thought most would have hoped were eliminated from future, more enlightened cultures.

Thankfully the genre started to mature around the end of the 1960s and the first anti-war science fiction novel was published in 1972 (Joe Haldeman's Forever War). However, aside his work there really hasn't been much written in the sub-genre known as military science fiction that has appealed to me. That changed a while back when one of my favourite fantasy writers, Tanya Huff, wrote her first book in what has now become known as the Confederation series. While she's probably best known for her books about a vampire private detective (they formed the basis for the series Blood Ties) I had known her as the writer of some really great fantasy books, as well a former employee of the best Science Fiction/Fantasy bookstore in Toronto Ontario - Bakka Books, that were the antithesis of those early "Boys With Toys" books as you could get. While they still contained violence, the lead character was as likely to be female as male, sexual orientation among her characters was very flexible, and characters usually came in a wide variety of shapes, colours and sizes.
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So I've followed Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr through four books as she's travelled through space fighting alongside two other sentient species against a mysterious enemy known only as "The Others". However, in the last book, she had discovered that both sides had been manipulated by another race of beings who had been using them and the war as a huge "social experiment", and had prolonged the war in order to gather as much information about their peoples as possible. That revelation had a two-fold result, not only bringing the war to a somewhat screeching halt, but forcing Torin to reconsider her career choices. Having fallen in love with the civilian salvage operator Craig Ryder, leaving the Marines wouldn't have to mean leaving space, it just meant operating in it without weapons or having as many resources or technology to call upon in case of trouble.

And trouble is just what she and Craig find in the fifth book of the series, The Truth Of Valor published by Penguin Canada. For while the authorities have been busily involved with a war, salvage operators have been dealing with their own troubles, pirates stealing their hard earned cargo. Up until now there haven't been any fatalities, mainly because most salvage ships are unarmed (weapons are illegal for anything but military vessels), but also because most operators value their lives more than cargo. However that all changes when two friends of Craig's are found dead, having tried to fight off a pirate in order to protect their find. It turns out that what they had was not only valuable, but deadly - deadly enough to shift the balance of power in space. They had picked up a fully loaded Marine armoury that had survived a space battle intact; an armoury containing enough weapons to arm a small army and allow pirates to go beyond hijacking cargo and begin taking over space stations.

However the pirates need a salvage operator to help them crack the codes securing the armoury, and although its been said that space is big, its not that big. Especially when you accidently get into a poker game with members of the pirate crew who proceed to set you up by "selling" you information about some prime salvage so they can ambush you. While the pirates carry out their ambush of Craig and Torin perfectly, capturing Craig alive and mainly intact, they make the mistake of thinking they've left Torin to die. Probably the one person most pissed off at the universe for fucking with her enough to figure out a way of surviving when she's been left to float in a debris field and eventually suffocate when her oxygen supply runs out.

When she fails to get help from Craig's fellow salvage operators to mount a rescue mission, she calls upon a few of her former squad mates who have not only also survived, but retired from the Marines for the same reasons she has. Unable to go after the enemy they really want to, the alien race which kept them all fighting for no reason, they are more than happy to join her in kicking another being's deserving butt, especially to help out their old Gunnery Sergeant who had helped see them through some pretty horrendous times.
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Huff has done her usual skilful job of writing an exciting adventure story which never descends into cliche or the expected. As those of you familiar with the previous books in the serious know, Torin Kerr operates by a pretty simple code - don't fuck with me and mine and I won't fuck with you. When she was in the Marines her job was to try and make sure she brought all of her people home alive with her and she took every loss personally. So with the man she loves at risk, she's pretty much prepared to do or risk anything and everything to bring him back alive. However she's not a robot, and having only recently discovered that so many of those lives she wasn't able to protect had died for nothing, the threat of losing Ryder pushes her close to cracking.

Military training has given her not only the ability to survive situations most people couldn't even imagine being in, but also the skills to kill people in ways you wouldn't think possible. Unfortunately there's only so much human circuitry can take before it starts shorting out, and the rescue mission fast becomes a race against time; how long will the pirates keep Craig Ryder alive and how long can Torin hold it together.

That doesn't mean she's going to all of a sudden sit in a corner and start crying, it means she'll cross the line between caring about the consequences of her actions and not giving a damn who suffers as a result. She may have killed before as a Marine, but it had only been a case of kill or be killed against an enemy who was following the same modus operandi. However she's not in the military any longer and there are what's known as innocent bystanders involved in her current mission, a mission without any official sanctioning and maybe just as illegal as the pirates' actions.

Through both Torin and one of the pirates who captures Ryder, Huff has painted a very stark picture of what can happen to the human mind when it witnesses too much suffering. The thin veneer of civilization that provides us our moral compass and makes sure we follow the rules of our respective societies can only take so many poundings before serious cracks form. The Truth Of Valor does a remarkable job of depicting both the results of these cracks and how they form. Torin Kerr was an exemplary Marine and a compassionate human being, but even she has her limits, and watching her fight her internal battle not to give into the urge to cross the line between not caring and caring is one of the most exacting battles ever written about in Science Fiction.

On the surface the battle in this book may appear to be a pretty straight forward one between some good guys and some bad guys. However Huff not only starts blurring the lines by sending us on board the pirate ship with Ryder and allowing us to get to know the beings crewing it, but she also takes us into the battlefield that is the human mind. Probably the scariest battlefield in the universe. While The Truth Of Valor might share some elements in common with the old school military science fiction books, you'll soon realize that Huff has taken the genre light years beyond what anybody in the past could have imagined it being. This is not just a good book for its genre, its a good book period.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Truth of Valor by Tanya Huff on Blogcritics.)

September 7, 2010

Book Review: Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Fate is as capricious a whore as any whose plied her trade in the bordellos and inns of the seaports and fortress towns frequented by the soldiers and sailors fighting for God, King and country during the reign of his good Catholic Majesty Philip IV of Spain in the mid 1600s. How else could you explain how a loyal soldier of the crown and his young protégé, (having served with distinction in the fields of Flanders against the heretic Dutch, carried out a daring raid to secure much needed gold for the royal treasury and finally saved the most royal hide itself from suffering the indignity of being impaled upon two feet of finely tempered steel) find, in the interests of their own health and safety, seek exile at sea? Well, if one insists on competing with his most sainted majesty for the affections of a certain actress, one must realize that no matter what heroic deeds or services one may have performed for the crown in the past, it might be perhaps in one's best interest to make oneself scarce for a period of time.

Which is how we find "Captain" Diego Alatriste and his now seventeen year old page, Inigo Balboa, once again serving their country as stolid infantry men. This time thought it's with the planks of heaving galleys beneath their feet instead of solid earth and the blazing sun of North Africa on their backs instead of the fog and rain of the Dutch lowlands. Pirates Of The Levant, the latest chapter of Arturo Perez-Reverte's story of life in the declining years of the Spanish Empire, published by Penguin Canada, takes the reader to yet another of Spain's outposts in her holy war of greed and expansion in the name of God and lining the pockets of an equally corrupt nobility and clergy. From their home port of Naples in Italy to the narrow gap of sea separating Spain from Muslim Northern Africa the crew of the war galley Mulata have harry French, Dutch, Turkish and English ships for booty and protect Spain's interests from her enemies.
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This is no world for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs, as life aboard the galleys would be unpleasant even if one were merely peacefully rowing between one port and another. Exposed to the elements and at the mercy of the winds and the sea, sailors, soldiers and galley slaves endure hardships that would test the fortitude of the bravest. While the latter have no choice in the matter, either having been sentenced as punishment by the Spanish courts or prisoners captured in battle and set to row instead of dangling by their necks from the yardarm, to power the craft when the winds fail, one has to wonder what would make any sane man volunteer for duty as one of the former. From the diet of lice ridden biscuits, and even less savoury meat accompanied by wine watered with brackish water, and with death being the least of evils that could befell one in combat, ("Don't let them take you alive" is the advice given to every soldier before his first encounter with a Turkish vessel) there seems little to recommend it as a viable career option.

However this is Spain and if an "honest" swordsman or soldier desires to be paid for his services to his country he must take creative measures. For, as Inigo explains, the money supposedly meant for their wages somehow never quite finds its way into their pockets no matter where they serve. Most soldiers return from battle with no money in their pockets and no prospects for finding a way to earn what's needed for even the barest of necessities save to become a sword for hire in the alleys and back streets or to re-enlist and hope to survive long enough to enjoy the spoils of a few victories. Alongside Alatriste Inigo has managed to stay alive for a season on the sea so far. After wintering in their home port of Naples they and their fellows are once again broke and hunting the waves in search of booty when we catch up with them.

As in the previous books in this series Perez-Reverte not only brings the field of battle his characters find themselves upon to life with such vivid detail that you almost feel the salt water spray in your face, he ensures the reader is aware of how this particular battlefield came into being. Unlike Flanders, and the other battlefields of Europe where Spain fights to preserve empire or the Ottoman Empire of Turkey looks to expand its borders, here in the no man's waters off the coast of Europe, and in port towns scattered through Northern Africa, a different sort of battle is being fought. On the seas Dutch, Turk, French and Spanish boats prey upon each other and their cargos with no thought for gains in territory but merely as a means of swelling their respective coffers. Each vessel's captain is issued with a charter from its respective crown to seek out and find such prizes as they may. Unlike pirates, who keep all they win for their own pockets, they must pay tithes to their various benefactors before lining their own pockets.
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The animosity between Turk and Spaniard is particularly fierce as it has only been within the last hundred years that Spain was able to finally push them back beyond the borders of Portugal and into Africa. In the years since then Alatriste has witnessed some of the horrible indignities his fellow men are capable of committing against each other. When he was part of the campaign that saw the expelling from Spain of Muslims who had converted to Christianity he saw innocent men, women and children not only cut down by soldiers, but were stoned and set upon by civilians as they attempted to flee with what little possessions they could carry. For him there is nothing glorious or noble in what he does - he will do it with as much honour as he can bring to it - but it is simply a matter of kill or be killed as far as he's concerned. If he had any other means of making a living he'd do so. but that option is not available to him.

Unfortunately Inigo still holds onto notions of glory and is full of both righteous indignation and himself. Even after he, albeit inadvertently, starts a full scale riot between Spanish and Venetian sailors while on the island of Malta, he retains an over inflated opinion of himself and his abilities that almost results in his death. So naive is he that he's not even aware that Alatriste has had to take matters into his own hands in order to prevent Inigo from being found in an alley with his throat slit. In fact Alatriste shows remarkable restraint in not being the one to slit his throat himself for some of the things Inigo says to him in his pride and stupidity. He even debates leaving the boy to his fate, but in the end his own sense of dignity pushes him to intervene and take the steps necessary to keep him alive.

Any who have been following the adventures of Captain Alatiste and Inigo for any length of time are aware of Arturo Perez-Reverte's skills as a writer. In Pirates Of The Levant he has brought all of his considerable talent to bear in creating a work riveting in its historical and realistic details while still managing to be an action packed adventure. Alartiste remains a fascinating character. The anti-hero of the swashbuckling world, on one hand a cold callous killer who has no qualms about killing someone for a perceived slight to his honour, but who is yet reluctant to kill those others wouldn't think twice of dispatching. Fiercely independent, he doesn't like anybody telling him by inference or otherwise, who or what he should kill. If that means killing a couple of Spaniards he catches trying to rape a young Muslim woman when most of his contemporaries would have turned a blind eye, so be it.

Inigo thinks he may understand the Captain, and even for a time believes he no longer needs anybody, especially the Captain, telling him how to live his life. However, he's fortunate enough to learn that until he's lived a great many more years, killed, and seen killed, a great many more men, and stood on a quite a few more battle fields, he's as much chance of learning to fly as he does of understanding Diego Alatriste. It's not every man who will one moment be prepared to challenge his king for the right to sleep with a woman, and the next risk his neck to save the same king. That's Captain Alatriste, and this is the latest recounting of his checkered history. We can only hope Perez-Reverte continues recounting it to us for years to come, or at least as long as the glory of Spain persists.

(Article first published as Book Review: Pirates of the Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte on Blogcritics.)

August 31, 2010

Book Review: Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar

Now a days you can't open the the TV listings, entertainment pages or go into a book store without coming across a reference to either werewolves or vampires. However, unlike the good old days when they were considered straight ahead creatures of evil who would as soon rip out your throat or drink your blood as look at you, they've been turned into tragic romantic heroes (or heroines) becoming the favoured subject matter of something called paranormal romance - enough to make Bram Stoker rise from the dead and drive a stake in anybody's heart. I can only guess this latest twist on the bad boy theme - kind of makes you miss the love and leave him cad or even the brooding dark haired guy with the mysterious past of the old days - will continue to rake in millions for publishers across North America as the way the number of titles falling into this category continue to proliferate suggests the public's appetite for this schlock isn't going to wane anytime soon.

Unfortunately with the market being swamped with dreck interesting titles run the risk of being lost in the shuffle. One of the best of the lot was Martin Millar's The Lonely Werewolf Girl. In it we were introduced to Kalix, a teenage werewolf who not only suffered from anxiety but was also saddled with an eating disorder and a nasty addiction to the opium derivative laudanum. The youngest daughter of the ruling clan of Scottish werewolves, Kalix was forced into exile in London for savaging her brutal father, the Thane. His death set off a brutal war of succession which split the clan in half and literally set brother against brother. Although Kalix really couldn't have cared less who became the new thane, she, the humans she befriended (Moonglow and Daniel) and their friend Vex, a fire elemental from another dimension, were all caught up in the resulting battle and barely survived.
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Along with her fashion designing sister Thrix, punk rock cousins Beauty and Delicious, Vex's adopted aunt Queen Malvaria and other assorted members of the werewolf clan, Kalix now returns in Millar's latest book Curse Of The Wolf Girl published in North America by Underland Press. With her brother Marcus enthroned as new Thane of the clan there are hopes that things can return to normal for everybody. While for most of them that means returning to the business of living peacefully in their private estates in Scotland, Kalix and a few others are firmly settled in London and have no desire to return home. As a result of her misspent early years Kalix didn't have the educational opportunities others in the clan were given and has reached the age of seventeen a functional illiterate. So, when the book opens we find her and Vex preparing to begin their first days at remedial collage where they will join with others hoping to learn basic literacy and math skills.

Unfortunately there are those unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie (or werewolves either for that matter). Underneath the calm exterior there is simmering resentment among some of those who backed Marcus's brother Sarapen as Thane and who wish to seek revenge of Kalix for having killed him in the final battle. Even while they plot to try and hunt her down, the guild of werewolf hunters have been quietly rebuilding their depleted ranks (they suffered horrible losses during the war of succession when they got in the crossfire so to speak) with dedicated hunters from Eastern Europe wishing to capitalize on the free market. They are hopeful that the combination of new members and modern surveillance technology will give them enough of an advantage they'll be able to exact revenge for their previous losses. Finally, a Princess of a rival fire elemental dimension who has long been jealous of Queen Malvaria's fashion triumphs because of her friendship with the werewolf designer Thrix, forms a secret alliance with a traitor in her rival's court that could not only see Malvaria overthrown, but the death of a great many werewolves.

What separated Millar's first book from so many other "werewolf" books, was how easy it was for the reader to take for granted his characters were werewolves. Sure Kalix was a ferocious warrior who had no qualms about ripping the throat out of any werewolf hunter or enemy werewolf she encountered, (she was born during a full moon as a werewolf and is able to change whether the moon is shining or not and has a battle madness that gives her a strength and speed far surpassing beings twice her size) but she's also a scared and confused teenager who was badly scarred by an abusive father. In Curse Of The Wolf Girl the characters continue to be interesting not only because of what they are, but who they are, and Martin has taken great care to continue their development in a very real way. In fact once you're able to suspend your disbelief about werewolves, fairies and elementals existing, everything about them and the world surrounding them is so believable you'll have no problem accepting their reality.
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It doesn't hurt that Millar has a wonderful sense of the absurd that injects necessary doses of humour into the proceedings. The fashion industry bears the brunt of most of his comedy - for all the right reasons - through Queen Malvaria's obsessions with clothes and accessories, especially handbags and shoes. However, he also turns his sharp eye on popular music, comics, and a variety of other popular culture affectations. Yet, unlike others, there's nothing mean or nasty about Millar's humour. Its the type of affectionate teasing you'd expect from someone who admires something but whose also well aware of the ridiculous lengths people will go to when something becomes an obsession - from collecting comics to yearning for the perfect shade of lipstick.

If you're not used to Millar's style of writing, short chapters that switch back and forth between his various characters and plot lines, you might find it a little difficult to settle into the rhythm of the story at first. However, once you are accustomed to how he works you'll soon begin to appreciate it for the ease with which it allows you to assimilate the information necessary for following the various plot lines and keeping all the characters, and how they relate to each other, straight in your head. Bouncing between the mortal realm, two separate fire elemental kingdoms, the world of the fairies and the home of the Scottish werewolves while keeping track of a multitude of characters is no easy task, but Millar has done it with an ease that borders on magical. (Perhaps he had some assistance from some of his friends from the other dimensions who appear on these pages - his familiarity with what goes on in some of them seems a little too complete for him not to have made the occasional visit there) While you'll have an easier time of it if you've already read The Lonely Werewolf Girl, Curse Of The Wolf Girl is self-contained enough to be enjoyed on its own.

In Curse Of The Wolf Girl Martin Millar once again proves that he's one of the more innovative and interesting fantasy writers around. He tackles subject matter that has been worked to death recently and makes it seem brand new. While his writing isn't going to appeal to the paranormal romance crowd, and for that we should all be eternally grateful, for the rest of us its a breath of fresh air in a genre that's become increasingly stale. If we're really lucky Kalix and her friends might supplant a certain whinny teenager and her un-dead heart throbs on movie screens. However, even if that doesn't occur at least you know you can run to the books for safety, and Millar has left open the potential for a third. If you like your humour with a bite and your paranormal grounded in reality, than look no further, Martin Millar's books are just what you've been looking for.

(Article first published as Book Review: Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar on Blogcritics.)

June 11, 2010

Book Review: Impossible Man by Michael Muhammad Knight

I've been gradually working my way through a number of books written by the American author Michael Muhammad Knight's. He's most widely known to readers at large for inspiring Islamic punk rock groups through his book The Taqwacores. However, aside from his works of fiction depicting the activities of fictional punk rockers, he has written extensively about his personal experiences with Islam and how its practiced both in America and in what we would refer to as Islamic countries; Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Pakistan. While his journeys have taken him around the world, his internal pilgrimage to find a way to reconcile his adopted faith with his Western ideas of equality and individualism have been the real basis for his non-fiction writings.

In Journey To The End Of Islam he explained how he thought that writing The Taqwacores would signify the end of his relationship with Islam. Instead it showed him it wasn't because he was a convert to the faith that he had doubts about certain aspects and practices. Hearing from young Muslims across North America who appreciated his work inspired him try and reconnect with the religion. While part of him still doubted his integrity as a Muslim because he wasn't willing to abide by the rules as dictated by the Qur'an, he also realized he couldn't go back to those days again. However, for those reading the book, the question of how he came to be an unquestioning follower of a religion that most people in America either fear or hate remained unclear. For while he had dropped hints of a troubled past and an abusive and mentally disturbed father, he'd not gone into details of the events leading up to his conversion.
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Impossible Man, published by Soft Skull Press, turns back the clock as Knight takes us back in time to recount the details of his life from early childhood, his conversion to Islam, his subsequent loss of faith, to his wandering aimlessly in search of direction. The picture that emerges is of a person with little or no self-respect desperately looking for acceptance and needing to believe in something bigger than himself. This is not an easy book to read for Knight doesn't shrink from recording even the most embarrassing and personal details of his story. However, it's saved from the self pitying, or ever worse, the look at me aren't I amazing for overcoming this stuff, tone of other autobiographies of this nature, by his refusing to depict himself as a victim.

As he has shown in his other writings Knight is almost brutal in his honesty when it comes to recording the details of his story. This allows him to tell the story without embellishment or editorializing. He doesn't censor his younger self's arrogance, idiocy, and self-delusion. He even refuses to use the benefit of hindsight and try to explain away his behaviour at the time. Instead everything is told as if it is happening in the present so we travel along with him instead of hearing about it being recounted as a memory. This is the story of a kid whose mother had to live through two years of a husband who threatened to murder her or her child during the night, and then locked them up during the day in order to protect them from Satan. Somehow she escaped to flee with him to her parents home and the protection of her brother who was a police officer.

Young Michael escaped into fantasy worlds. first the world of George Lucas' Star Wars in which he was able to find parallels to his own life with a father who had surrendered to the dark side. From there he graduated to the world of Hulk Hogan and professional wrestling, with its overblown cartoon figures and epic battles of good versus evil. It was a friend in high school who, worried over his lack of self respect, told him he should read the autobiography of Malcolm X, and it was literally the book which changed his life. While Malcolm's words struck a chord within him, it was Spike Lee's bio-pic, Malcolm which fired his imagination and spurred his desire for conversion.
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Thinking back over story, the picture he drew of himself was of a person ripe for being taken by unscrupulous people and turned into an empty vessel. It says a lot for the people he went to initially for help with his conversion to Islam that he didn't become one of those sad figures you read about who disappeared into cults out who end up becoming mindless terrorists. They treated his desire to convert with seriousness and respect but never abused their positions of authority or did anything more than try to instil in him the values of his new faith. When he expressed a desire to go and fight in Chechnya during the times of the Russian invasion, with visions of glory dancing in his head, he was calmly dissuaded from throwing his life away uselessly.

It was his intelligence his new teachers valued so highly that resulted in his disillusionment with Islam. He made the mistake of asking why. Why should Allah care so much if his mother didn't convert to Islam that He would send her to hell? He knew his mother had suffered and struggled, had been supportive of him in everything he did including buying him the books he needed to study Islam, driving him to nearest mosque and never questioning his desire to convert. Once the first why is asked and doesn't receive a satisfactory answer, others follow fast and furious. While he never lost his faith entirely he drifted back into the self-destructive behaviour that had marked his early years, including "Backyard Wrestling" which included stunts like being beaten with barbed wire clubs and wrestling on beds of thumbtacks.

There's something pathetic, in the real meaning of the word, reading the boastful thoughts of a young man who takes pride in the amount of punishment he's able to absorb and inflict upon himself. The fact that Knight is almost clinical in his description of these and other activities, never once trying to make himself an object of pity, makes it all the more powerful. His ability to act as a detached observer of events distinguishes this from similar types of work and makes it as compelling as any work of fiction. For those who have ever questioned the why's behind Michael Muhammad Knight's story, what answers he has to offer can be found in this book. For there is no simple answer as to why we do what we do and by not attempting to analyse his younger self's motivations, or second guess any of his decisions, Knight acknowledges that fact. Some might think that's a cop out, but the answers are there in the narrative for anyone who is willing to read them. He is brave enough to let the facts stand on their own and let the reader draw their own conclusions, so the least you can do is make that effort.

(Article first published as Book Review: Impossible Man by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 5, 2010

Book Review: Journey To The End Of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight

Have you ever noticed how the person who converts to a new religion, or philosophy of any kind, tends to be a whole lot more fanatical about their new faith than those who were born into it? Perhaps they feel a need to prove themselves in order to win acceptance as quickly as possible. Some people adopt a faith in the hope of finding answers to questions they have about life, others because they are desperate to find a place they fit in, while others are looking for something to make order out of any chaos they have lived through. In the latter case it's no wonder a convert becomes doctrinarian, it's such a relief to have order in their lives they'll follow the rules without questioning or doubting their necessity.

When author Michael Muhammad Knight was a teenager he converted to Islam in order to break as much as possible with his white supremacist father. However, when you consider the brief descriptions of his childhood that he offers readers in his book Journey To The End Of Islam, published by Soft Skull Press, you have to wonder how much Islam represented a place of order which would relieve him of having to make his own decisions about good and evil and wrong and right. Like Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians who take the word of the bible as law, Fundamentalist Muslims take the Qur'an as their rule book to live by. There aren't any grey areas for any of these people; if God says something it's the law and there can be no disputing it.

While that may work for some people Knight found he couldn't live like that and thinking to leave Islam behind wrote his now infamous book The Taqwacores about a group of Islamic punk rockers. Ironically the book became a beacon for young American Muslims who were questioning many of the same things he was. Whether they were gay, straight, female or male didn't matter, they weren't happy with the status quo of Islam, or even what passed for mainstream progressive Islam, but weren't prepared to surrender their faith either. So instead of leaving Islam behind, Knight found himself at the heart of a movement looking to define a new identity for the religion. In Journey he finds himself at a crossroads, trying to decide and define what Islam is to him.
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So, in 2008, while the rest of America is trying to figure out whether or not it should elect its first black president, and being Muslim is something Obama is having to deny as if its something evil and un-American, Knight sets off on a trip that will see him visit shrines, temples, and other holy sites in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia and finally to Saudi Arabia and the holiest of holy places, Mecca, to make hajj, in an attempt to discover what it means to be Muslim. We not only learn about the history of the religion and the schisms that have divided the faith almost since its beginnings along the way, Knight also provides us with an overview of the uniquely American versions of Islam that were fostered by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, The Nubian Islamic Hebrews, and the Five Percenters. However, the major focus of the book is on his internal debate; the fight between his intellect and his heart over matters of faith and politics and how to separate the two.

In Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia Knight takes us on visits to various shrines, tombs, and other sites of holy and historical significance to Islam. With each site we not only learn about the various figures in the history of the faith, we find out what role they have played in the split behind the formation of its two major sects, Sunni and Shi'a. In Pakistan there's the added confusion of the mystical branch of Islam thrown into the mix as he visits the tombs of a variety of Sufi saints. While strict Islamic practice forbids the worship of graves or humans, even worship of the Prophet Muhammad is prohibited, that doesn't stop people from praying to their local saints or performing other acts of worship that would be frowned on in other places.

Harar in Ethiopia is considered the fourth holiest Muslim city, and its here that Knight discovers some of the strangest forms his religion can take with its mixture of ancestor worship and animalism. Shrines were built around or joined to fig trees and hyenas were treated with special honour because the prophet would not kill them. Every night hyenas would come through small doors in the wall surrounding Harar to be fed by an individual designated specifically for that job and given the title "Hyena Man". For the author they came to represent a human's lower self, our ugly spirit which only thinks of fulfilling physical needs like food and sex.
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So many divergent views of Islam of course don't make it any easier to find your way to the heart of your religion or to being any clearer about your own place in it. By taking the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca along with millions of other Muslims Knight hoped that he would be able to find what he was looking for. Unfortunately, most of what he found was evidence of how Saudi Arabia, where the city of Mecca is located, has tried to put its stamp on the religion to ensure its control over it. He finds Muslims from all over the world attempting to memorize the Qur'an in Arabic even though they don't understand a word of it. While initially he feels superior to them because he's not allowing himself to be led blindly, that gradually changes to guilt because he can't shake the feeling that maybe that's what faith is really all about.

Who is he to feel superior when they can accept the word of God so easily, but he has to question everything? Are they right and he's wrong? Yet, blind obedience means accepting verses in the Qur'an that allow a man to beat his wife and other things that he can't accept. Can you be a Muslim and not accept those passages in The Book? Or are you something else when you do that? According to Knight there are those in the progressive Muslim movement who try and "reinterpret" those offensive lines, but they still refuse to denounce them as wrong. What can a person of conscience do about Islamic law that makes a woman a man's possession upon marriage?

Knight has proven himself to be almost brutal in his self-honesty in the past and Journey To The End Of Islam is no exception. Not only does he recount his journey through the Islamic world physically and supply the reader with a highly readable and intelligent recounting of the faith's history, he takes us on a journey into his soul with an equal amount of integrity and interest. These types of books are desperately hard to write without them coming across as self serving and of no interest to anyone save the author's navel, yet Knight has managed to turn his highly individual story into something universal.Anybody who has ever questioned their faith, or sought to find out more about themselves, can find something to identify with. I'm sure that conservative religious types of all faiths will be offended by a great deal of what he has the honesty to talk about and admit to. However, those of you who have faith and are experiencing difficulty reconciling your religion, no matter what your religion is, with your own feelings and beliefs on how the world should be, will find that Knight has a lot to say to you.

Knight has an uncanny ability to write about what others would consider insanely complicated issues with a clarity and straightforwardness that make you wonder what all the fuss is about. He doesn't pretend to have the answers to any questions readers might have, he's not even sure if he's been able to answer his own questions. However, to my mind, there has never been a more honest book written about the nature of religion and an individual's relationship to their belief system. If more people were as brave and honest as Michael Muhammad Knight when it came to their religion the world would be in far better shape.

(Article first published as Book Review: Journey To The End Of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

Book Review: The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight

While it's true that all immigrant children in North America have to deal with a certain amount of conflict between the culture of their parents and the new society they've landed in, some have a harder time of it than others. Obviously those arriving from English speaking European countries have the easiest time making the transition to the new world. Not only do they have an easier time passing because of skin colour, they usually share a common cultural heritage, or at least one not to far removed, from that of their new contemporaries. While they might have some minor adjustments to make, they're nothing to what faces the kids who not only speak different languages, but have a completely different cultural background.

While ethnic heritage can play a major role in determining how easy it is for a child to fit in with his or her new surroundings, those from different religious backgrounds deal with issues that most of us can't even begin to understand. This is especially true for those whose religion teaches a moral and cultural code that is in conflict with what is considered acceptable behaviour in our society. Not only do they find themselves being pulled in two directions at once, being attracted to some aspects of the new but wanting to remain loyal to their traditions, there is also the guilt they feel for any transgressions they see themselves as having committed when they do surrender some of their old moral code.

One of the ways some groups deal with this is by creating insular communities within the overall community at large so as to preserve the integrity of their culture. One of the earliest examples of this were the Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who established their own districts in cities in Canada and the US which included places of worship and schools for their children. Gradually over the years the community itself demanded a relaxing of the rules governing their lifestyle and out of that was born the three tiers of Judaism we have today; Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. This compromise has allowed people to continue to be faithful to their religion while accepting the ways of the world around them to whatever extent they are comfortable with.
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Michael Muhammad Knight's first novel, The Taqwacores published by Soft Skull Press, has been labelled everything from a manifesto for the Muslim punk movement to a Catcher In The Rye for young Muslims. While those make for catchy tag lines on a book cover, they actually have little or nothing to do with the actual contents of the book. While it's true most of the characters in the book are both punks and Muslims, so you could make a case for the manifesto comment, the comparison to Salinger's work is a bit more of as stretch. Sure both are about young people, but aside from that they have little or nothing in common.

Knight's book is set in a house in Buffalo New York occupied by a collection of young Muslims. The protagonist, Yusef Ali, is an engineering student at the university and from a middle class family in Syracuse. His family encouraged him to live outside the university in a Muslim house as "there were things in the dorm that were bad for him". However if they knew what went on in his house they might not have been so sanguine about his living arrangements. For while its true the occupants are all Muslim, they also spend most of their time smoking drugs and drinking, two things high on the list of no no's as far as most Muslims are concerned.

On the other hand the house's occupants do their best to observe the prayer times, and the four male inhabitants pray together on a regular basis. However they open their Friday night prayers to the whole community which means allowing men and women to pray together and having a woman take the role of Imam to lead them in prayer and give the sermon, neither of which would are considered acceptable by conservative Muslims. Even more disconcerting perhaps would have been the fact that immediately after the Friday prayers, the house would fill up with a mixed bag of local punks and play host to wild parties.

While we witness all of this behaviour through Yusef's eyes, he doesn't participate. He describes himself as the token nerd who is allowed to hang out with the cool kids, and he keeps up a continual internal dialogue about those around him questioning their behaviour. He is torn between what he's been taught is right, what the laws of his religion and tradition tell him defines a Muslim, and the reality he sees in front of him. Sure his friend Jehangir drinks like a fish, smokes dope, has sex and has a bright orange Mohawk haircut, but he also calls himself a Muslim and is as devoted in his prayers as anyone. Yet even this apparently free spirited Jehangir is plagued doubts, and after a while you begin to think a great deal of his excess is a result of not being completely certain he's doing the right thing in breaking the rules.
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While the book spares no detail in its description of people's behaviour, and no doubt it won't be just Muslims it will offend, it's beneath the surface that the real story resides. Knight's talent lies in his ability to create this incredibly diverse group of characters who not only spring off the page because they are so vividly described, but also represent a variety of viewpoints when it comes to what constitutes being Muslim. What's even more realistic is how he shows that doubts can cut both ways; for while the liberal punks might doubt themselves on occasion, the hardline character has cracks through which his doubts about strict adherence to the scripture comes through.

Western Judaism began its shift into the modern world through politics in the early part of the 20th century with the beginnings of the social justice movement. At the extreme end of the spectrum were the communists who rejected religion entirely. While they might not have represented the mainstream anymore than Knight's punks represent the mainstream of Islam, the ripple effect of their activities resulted in the gradual liberalization of their religion. The more extreme characters in The Taqwacores will not be acceptable to most Muslims, but like the communist Jews a century ago they don't expect or want to be. Their dream of a Utopian Islam where all are welcomed by all may never be a reality, but its the fact they dream at all that might end up making a difference.

What Knight has depicted in his book is the natural questioning of traditional values that occurs when an insular people are exposed to different views of the world. The questions his characters ask themselves are ones that have been asked many times before, and like those before them they discover there's no such thing as only one correct answer. While a lot has been made out of the book because its characters are predominately Muslim, its as much a book about the clash between tradition and new that occurs in all immigrant communities as it is about being Islamic. Knight has done a fantastic job of bringing that struggle to life as his characters navigate through the challenges that face any young adult, while doing their best to remain as true to themselves as possible.

If there is any hope for a world where religions and cultures can peacefully co-exist with respect and tolerance, we are going to need far more books like this one. It doesn't shy away from asking difficult questions or depicting things some might find unpleasant, but it does so without negativity or cynicism. This is not a blank generation without hope for the future. They might not be quite sure what the future will be or how to make it happen, but they'll do their best to make it better than what we have at present.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 4, 2010

Book Review: Dreams Of Sex and Stage Diving By Martin Millar

Years ago I participated in a five day theatre workshop called "Leap In The Dark". While the title suggests those participating would be going into uncharted territory, thinking back on the process, it now seems like the exercise was more training to take a leap than a leap itself. The exercises we were led through were designed to open us up to risk taking so in the future we wouldn't be afraid of taking the leaps in the dark necessary to the creative process. When you decide to make a career in the arts there are no guarantees of success; everything you do is a risk. The more willing you are to throw yourself whole heartily into something without worrying about the consequences the better.

These aren't blind leaps of faith based on some faint hope there will be someone there to catch you when you land. Instead you do it based on the faith you have in your own abilities to do what's necessary in order to complete whatever it is you've set out to do. Personally I always go through a period of agonizing before throwing myself off that precipice, but once I commit there's a great feeling of liberation and freedom, almost like flying, or at least tightrope walking without a net. If you fall you're going to splat resoundingly true enough, but think how wonderful you'll feel when you succeed. The only way you have a chance at making any dreams you might have come true is by taking some sort of risk. You can drift through life feeling mildly frustrated all the time and safe, or take the occasional chance and reach for your dreams.

It was reading the re-release of Martin Millar's Dreams Of Sex And Stage Diving by Soft Skull Press which triggered those thoughts. Originally published in 1995, the book is set in familiar territory for fans of Millar's work, the streets of London England's Brixton. With poverty, homelessness, and unemployment rampant, the fact that the young punks who populate this book have dreams at all is remarkable, no matter how trivial or silly their dreams might appear to us or anyone else. The dream around which this book revolves belongs to one of the most unlikely, and frankly unlovable, heroines your liable to meet. Elfish brings new meaning to the word misanthropic as she stomps her unwashed way through people's lives in her oversized motorcycle boots and bad attitude.
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There's no lie she won't tell and nothing she won't steal in her quest to wrest the use of Queen Mab as a band name away from her ex boyfriend Mo. The two of them had not only been partners but also band mates, and upon the dissolution of their relationship she demanded rights to the name, in spite of the fact that she had no band and what looked like little hope of ever forming one. Prospects are looking particularly bleak when she discovers that Mo's band has a gig scheduled in ten days time. If they perform just once in public using the name she knows her hopes will be dashed. However, she's able to convince Mo to accept a bet which will see her win the band name if she's able to recite a speech from William Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet about Queen Mab on stage prior to the gig and then have her band open the show. If she loses the bet Mo gets to do anything he wants with her.

So on top of learning the forty-three lines of the monologue, Elfish also must somehow put together a band within the next ten days as well. For most of us this would be a daunting task, one few of us would even consider taking on. The risk of making an absolute fool of oneself in public over something as apparently trivial as the name of a band just doesn't seem worth it. However Elfish is not like most of us and she's used to plunging headlong into the unknown. For while she may be well known as a self-centred and selfish individual, she's also equally renowned for her capabilities as a stage diver.

Small and wiry she's wonderfully adept at working her way through the throngs of people in front of a stage, eluding whatever security is on hand, climbing on stage and then flinging herself head first into the audience where her fall would be cushioned by those below. Crammed in as they are, most crowds have no way of getting out of a stage diver's way and can only defend themselves by raising their hands in order to fend off flailing boots, elbows, and other assorted body parts that have the potential to cause injury as they plummet earthwards.
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Much like she would dive off a stack of speakers, Elfish dives headlong into her quest to memorize her speech and coerce, bribe, beg, and lie to get people to join her band. Like the audience at a gig those she choses to descend on are defenceless against her onslaught as she preys upon their weaknesses and fears. Whether its the bulimic actress she bullies into helping her learn her lines with false promises of hooking her up with a fundraiser for her theatre company, the homeless guitar player she falsely assures of a place to live, or one of the many other lies she spouts in order to see her dream come true, they all strike a soft spot in her target as surely as a well place boot to the kidney.

Mab is the queen of dreams, and as she might visit us in our sleep to inspire us with thoughts and ideas, so Millar has Elfish visiting upon his cast of characters the inspiration to overcome their apathy and anguish to make their own tentative steps towards fulfilling their dreams. While they all might despise her for the methods she's used against them, without her they would have never done anything to change their circumstances, to take a chance on living again. Fairies aren't the pretty little things that Walt Disney or others would have us believe them to be. They are selfish beings who think of little else but their own pleasure, and often times that pleasure takes the form of poking and prodding humans in uncomfortable ways. Without intending anything of the sort Elfish assumes the role of Queen Mab for all those she comes into contact with, inspiring them to work towards the fulfillment of dreams they had almost lost hope in.

In Dreams Of Sex And Stage Diving Martin Millar has brought a fairy to life on the streets of Brixton to remind us that sometimes the path to making our dreams a reality isn't an easy road. The spark required to overcome our fears, to make that leap into the unknown, isn't always the nicest of experiences, but without it where would we be? Millar's abilities as a story teller allow him to weave a modern fairy tale which, in spite of its desolate setting and the depression of its inhabitants, manages to make you believe that dreams can come true, even when the only rainbow in site is caused by an oil slick in a parking lot. Heck, if this bunch of losers can make things work out for themselves, it shouldn't be too hard for us now should it?

(Article first published as Book Review: Dreams Of Sex And Stage Diving by Martin Millar on Blogcritics.)

April 22, 2010

Book Review: Instructions By Neil Gaiman Illustrated by Charles Vess

As adults we tend to forget how to children everything about them is strange and wondrous; that every step away from the familiar is fraught with peril and filled with potential dangers. Who knows for sure what lurks beneath the roses or what caused the bush in the deepest darkest corner of the garden to tremble? If the garden itself is filled with so many mysteries, what great adventures await should you choose to leave its safety? In the garden shelter is only a short sprint away, but out there in the world there will be no kitchen to replenish supplies when they run low or door to lock behind you when the sun expires and the shadows come alive.

It will take nerves of steel and a brave heart to venture beyond into the unknown for the first time. In fact, it's almost to much to expect anyone to take that dangerous plunge on their own. Even the bravest of adventurers has always at least consulted some wise person or oracle prior to seeking his or her fortune in the wild world, so it's not asking too much to seek some guidance. The only trouble is who can today's explorer turn to for advice in these matters? Parents may know about not touching burners or pulling on electrical cords, but what do they know about the little people who live under toadstools, the proper way to deal with giants, or how to hitch a ride on a giant eagle? No, one needs to turn to those who haven't forgotten how to look at the world and see behind the prosaic.

Thankfully not only do two such people exist, but they have just put out a guide book for all those wishing to travel through that door in the garden they've never seen before; a door leading to the world of imagination and mystery. In fact as their new book Instructions, released by Harper Collins Canada April 19th/10, (April 27th in the U.S.) shows, there can't be two gentlemen more suited for this task than author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Charles Vess. Not only have they created numerous fantastical worlds together in the past, (worlds where almost everything imaginable, and even some things unimaginable exist) both men have always seemed to have an intimate knowledge of the secret places where magic exists. I've always been inclined to believe their work in the past has been based on first hand experience, as if they had travelled to the places they've written and drawn about and not just visualized them in their mind's eye.
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Instructions is one of the handiest guides an explorer will ever come across as its filled with all sorts of useful information about the world in which fairy tales, myths, and legends exist. Unlike those boring guide books you see some people reading, filled with pages upon pages of text telling you where to find the best hotels and various tourist attractions, here words are kept to a minimum. Seeing is believing after all. Therefore, anyone you come across, or anything, in these pages, one way or another there's a good chance you might meet up with them someday.

Now instead of merely describing what awaits you beyond the wall, Mr. Gaiman and Mr. Vess have enlisted the help of a friend to take a trip into the unknown so you can experience everything first hand. He's come into quite a few tales on his own and is known as quite an adventurer. Since they don't mention his name, I think he wanted to remain anonymous; but he has whiskers and a tail, and wears a fine set of boots, so you'll probably guess who he is easily enough. The first thing you'll notice when we step out through the door in the back of his garden is how important it is to keep your eyes wide open. There is plenty to see everywhere right from the start, including many friendly faces you've known from earlier days.

However, that's no reason to let your guard down, for you never know what might be lurking under the roots of a tree or when something as innocuous as a door knocker could give you a nasty bite. That's where what little text there is in the book become so important, for they are the specific instructions for you on how to act in certain situations. Whether they remind you to be kind and compassionate to any beings in need you meet along your journey, to be very careful about falling into wells as they lead to dark and dangerous worlds, how to best avoid giants or what you need to know about witches, their advice is the type of common sense you'll need when out in the world.

As might be expected from a work by the team of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Instructions is a lush and beautiful book filled with their love of the fantastic and the imaginary. You'll find they've paid homage to fairy tales and nursery rhymes from all around the world through both indirect and direct references. Part of the fun for people of all ages will be the moment of recognition they'll feel when they come across something or somebody familiar. Even though they are fantastic you will feel like you have met an old friend, somebody you loved dearly but haven't seen in a long time.
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Vess's illustrations do a wonderful job of bringing all the creatures, both good and bad, to life. What I especially appreciated was hoe he did so without resorting to imagery that was so nasty younger adventurers would fear the world beyond their door and how good wasn't always depicted as pretty and cute. You'll still know who is to be avoided and who is safe to talk to, but it will because of who they are, not just what they look like. An important lesson no matter what world you're travelling through.

As already mentioned Gaiman's text is sparse, but it applies equally to the fantastic journey depicted in the illustrations and the journey through life we all take. For while it's not very likely you'll be literally flying on a giant eagle's back anytime soon, it is important for you to aspire to fly as high as you can without being afraid of falling. Perhaps younger readers may not understand all the allusions in the text, but they can't help but get the overall message of not to be afraid of new experiences, and while the world might seem big and mysterious its nothing to be afraid of.

Like all the best fairy tales and nursery rhymes Instructions is as much set in our world as it is in the fantastic. Gathering together elements and characters from throughout familiar imaginary worlds in one place, Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess have created a world that is both recognizable and mysterious in much the same way the real world might look to someone when they prepare to set out into it for the first time. However, the instructions in this book are ones we'd all be wise to follow and remember, no matter what our age or experience.

April 19, 2010

Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

It was a late fall night in 1981 and six of us were jammed into car cruising through Toronto's streets with Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger" blasting from the car's stereo. We all joined in as she tore into the chorus: "Outside of society. We were young and artists and the lyrics fuelled, along with whatever we had taken earlier in the evening, our excitement at being alive and ready to conquer the world. Patti understood what that meant - we could tell by the way she sang about being an outsider - and there was no one more special, or outside, than someone still in love with the idea of being an artist who hasn't really begun to experience the complete reality of what that entails. Hard lessons and rude awakenings still lay on our horizons, and we could abandon ourselves to the wild joy of knowing we were different and celebrate it.

We were at the stage where being an outsider was part of the romanticism of being an artist, so it was only natural that we'd latched onto the song's chorus as almost our battle cry that night. Look out world here we come - young middle class kids with dreams of doing something more than sitting in an office, of having something more to give to the world than just being another cipher or cog in the wheel. Maybe we weren't all that sure what that was, but we knew, oh yes we did. It sounds more than a little arrogant when said that baldly, but there's actually more innocence and naivety to it than anything else.

At the time I knew almost nothing about Patti Smith save for her music, and its only been in the past year or so that I've begun learn her story. It turns out that of all those who seemed to come out of New York City's 1970's punk scene centred around CBGB's, it makes the most sense that Patti Smith would be the one whose music celebrated being an artist. In the past couple months I've watched two movies, Dream Of Life and Black, White + Grey which have touched somewhat on her early years. However, as the former was more about the last eleven years and the latter only about her in terms of how her life had intersected with the famous American curator Sam Wagstaff, they didn't offer very complete pictures. Well, all that changed with the publication of her book Just Kids by Harper Collins Canada January 2010.
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Just Kids is not your typical autobiography. Sure it contains all the usual stuff like where she was born, Chicago; how her family moved to Philadelphia and then New Jersey when she was a child; and how in 1967, realizing there was little or no chance of even attempting to realize her dreams of becoming an artist while working in a factory, she left New Jersey for New York City. For its also the story of how her life intertwined with Robert Mapplethorpe's, the other kid of the plural in the title and one of America's best known contemporary photographers, until his AIDS related death in 1989. Almost the first person she meets upon her arrival in New York City, they began living together, as soon as they were able to afford a place and stayed together until the early 1970's.

Smith writes with a clarity and straightforwardness that is deceptive at first in its simplicity. When reading prose its easy to forget that the person writing is a poet, and has a poet's gift for words, so what on the surface might appear to be a simple recounting of an occurrence ends up being far more. You don't just read what she has written, you somehow end up living and experiencing it with her. We share the small comforts that make their days more bearable - the baker who slips them a couple of extra cookies because she feels sorry for the two waifs - and feel the pain of their hunger when they go days without food. Mainly though we share their excitement as they discover their talents and start to push and pull them into shape.

They are a team - us against the world - and together they are unbeatable as nothing, lack of money, lack of food, or even a lack of a place to live can conquer them. For a while they drift from dive to dive, until Robert almost dies when Patti takes an extended vacation with her sister and returns home to find him rotting in a junkie hotel. He's not sick from drugs, but he has trench mouth, lice, and gonorrhoea. She gathers up his belongings and together they move to what will be their final shared home - The Chelsea Hotel. In 1969 The Chelsea attracted artists like a magnet, and they meet everybody from Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, and Bob Dylan to Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs. Smith recounts a wonderful story of going to an automat to buy a sandwich and having Alan Ginsberg pay for her lunch when he mistakes her for a pretty boy. Years later he asks her how she would describe their first meeting and she says simply "You fed me".
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Having been raised a very strict Catholic Mapplethorpe was carrying a lot of baggage when it came to his sexuality. In fact, he and Smith had to pretend they had been secretly married before he would even take her to meet his parents, or else face accusations of living in sin. Both of them are in fact so innocent, that neither really understand Mapplethorpe's homosexuality. While there are some obvious rough spots, including him being jealous of her relationships with other men, they are able to transcend them through the bond forged between them by their respective arts. Put baldly like that, it may sound cliched, but as you read the book, you see and feel how their connection is forged. We see how they struggled and supported each other through everything, encouraging and pushing the other along in they developed as both artists and human beings.

Obviously being in New York City in the late 1960's didn't hurt, as they not only had the benefit of being exposed to the great ones of an earlier generation for guidance but the example of those around them who were already succeeding for inspiration. They moved in what can only be called rarified circles as they were invited to hang out with The Band in Woodstock, the opening of Electric Ladyland Studios (where an equally shy Jimi Hendrix joined Patti in lurking on the fire escape and encouraged her to join the party), and the back room of Max's Kansas City with Andy Warhol's inner circle from The Factory. Although already minus Warhol by that time and almost reduced to a caricature of what it once was, this circle of intimates still provided the two young artists with introductions to people who would help their careers.

What's most amazing about Just Kids is how little it feels like an autobiography. Smith writes with such direct honesty and love that it's impossible not to be caught up in their story and find yourself wanting them to succeed. She captures the incredible mixture of fear and exhilaration that occurs when you give yourself over to something as completely as they did to their goals of becoming artists. What some might have tried to romanticize as bohemian, she brings to life with a sense of innocence and wonder that makes it sound like she still can't believe she could have been so blessed as to not only have the opportunity to do and be what she wanted, but actually have succeeded at it on her own terms.

Just Kids is a love story; of two people and their love for each other and their mutual love of art. Beautifully written, its both joyful and heartbreaking in equal measure. Smith doesn't shrink from describing both the harsh realities of the life she and Mapplethrope led together as well as the moments of celebration. However, even more importantly, she manages to convey what motivates a person to make the choice to be an "Outsider of society", and how its worth the price no matter how steep it might seem to an observer. Anyone who has ever wondered what it really is to be an artist and why anybody would go to all that trouble, reading this book will give you some idea as to the answer. Most of all though, no matter who you are or what you do, it will remind you that life is worth celebrating and to make the most of what you have while you're here.

April 6, 2010

Book Review: Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

There's probably nothing harder to do than write about a subject which has not only been written to death, but which is also is some manner considered highly sacrosanct. Even more perplexing is when the subject is about the unspeakable horrors that humans have proven themselves capable of inflicting upon each other and the world. In today's world we are so inundated with images and information that the mere recounting of events has little or no effect on us. Hearing the same story over and over again instead of increasing our disgust, deadens our emotional reaction and we are no longer able to take in the real implications of what's being described.

Yann Martel brings that issue home with his new release, Beatrice & Virgil, published by Random House Canada on April/06/10 (April 13th/10 in the US). A successful author, Henry, latest story idea is rejected by his publishers and he moves with his wife to start a new life where he has little or nothing to do with writing. The book Henry's publishers had rejected was his attempt to find a way to tell the story of the Holocaust in a new way. He worked for five years creating in reality two books; an essay and a work of fiction. In order to accommodate both under the same roof his idea was to make a flip book; a work with two covers which the reader could start from either end and when finished with the first part, flip the book over and then start reading the second part in the other direction.

It was running head first into the brutal realities of publishing - he was taken to task by editors, publishers, and book sellers over lunch as to all the reasons it wouldn't work - that precipitated his exodus from both the city he lived in and writing. However, when he receives in the mail an obscure short story by the 19th century French writer Gustave Flaubert and an excerpt from a play that his correspondent has written along with a simple note saying he had read and enjoyed Henry's novel and needed his help, Henry was intrigued enough to contact the man.
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The Flaubert story was a particularly gruesome piece featuring what appears to be a highly amoral individual, who as a child takes great delight in the slaughter of animals. For some reason Henry's correspondent has highlighted the most gruesome of these scenes throughout the story as if to draw particular attention to them. The story continues with the young man perpetrating all sorts of violence through out his life, including the killing of his parents. Although he is eventually redeemed for the murder of his parents, nothing in the story gives answer to his senseless slaughter of animals. What Henry can't figure out is what the excerpt from the play - featuring two characters named Beatrice and Virgil with the latter attempting to describe a pear to the former, has to do with the themes expressed in the short story.

When he discovers the playwright, also named Henry, is also a taxidermist, and the characters of Beatrice and Virgil were inspired by two of his subjects, a donkey and a howler monkey respectively, the connection is apparently obvious. While the play itself starts off sounding like a re-make of Beckett's Waiting For Godot as the two characters are seem intent on finding ways of filling time, but it suddenly veers into a horrible account of the persecutions suffered by the two creatures at the hands of humans. It turns out the help he requires is he wants Henry to actually write for him; a description of Virgil in Beatrice's words.

Amazingly, instead of feeling resentful at being used by this total stranger, Henry finds that's he's excited and inspired. Perhaps its because of the obvious connections that can be drawn between the script and Henry's idea about finding new ways for writing about the Holocaust, but whatever it is he finds himself not only completely immersed in the play, but fascinated with both the taxidermist and his products to the point where he takes home various pieces. The man himself must be close to eighty Henry figures, yet is filled with a kind of remorseless energy. While some of his habits might be deemed eccentric, he is reluctant to let Henry take any of the script home with him to work with, Henry doesn't understand why everybody else, including his dog, his wife, and a waiter in a cafe where they meet, react so negatively to his new acquaintance.
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What Martel has done with Beatrice and Virgil is give readers a multilayered and highly textured read that at first seems somewhat obtuse and disjointed. For audiences used to being spoon fed information in comfortable digestible servings it might appear there are large gaps in the narrative. However what he has done is both gradually build a picture of the obsessive nature of the artist in his character of Henry and find a new way of telling the story of the Holocaust. While the play within the novel is the obvious parallel, with its depiction of innocents being persecuted for no reason save their differences, as we follow the trajectory of Henry's obsession with both the play and the taxidermist it feels like we are watching the ease in which we can become complicit in horrific events. For although all the clues are right in front of him Henry fails to see the obvious with almost fatal consequences.

As Martel has Henry make clear at the beginning writing about subjects as abhorrent and sensitive as the Holocaust is a precarious proposition. Henry makes the argument that war has seen the death of millions of people, but that hasn't prevented the subject from being represented by many genres; war comedies, war romances, war thrillers and so on, and because of this we've gained a truer perspective of its nature. However, very few books of fiction dealing with the Holocaust have ever done anything but present it strictly as straight historical fiction that deal directly with actual events. With Beatrice & Virgil Martel has managed to prove that point to a certain degree - I don't think the world will ever be ready for a comedy about mass murder or even a romantic Holocaust story - you can write about it effectively without once ever setting foot in the camps or having the action take place in the 1940s.

In fact, in some ways he's made the situation even more horrific by bringing it back to the personal level instead of allowing us to hide from realities behind the safety of historical facts. If we know in advance we are going to be reading a story of the Holocaust, we inure ourselves against what we suppose will be the horrors to come and so pass through relatively unscathed. Here Martel almost ambushes us with it, as although his main character raises the subject in the opening of the book, its apparently dropped with the rejection of his book and his decision to take a sabbatical from writing. Even the introduction of the Flaubert story, with its scenes of carnage, and our early glimpses of the play are made to seem more about the plight of endangered species through the introduction of Henry the taxidermist.

According to Henry, the novelist, only two percent of every Holocaust victim has ever written about their experiences. As that's the case in order for these horrendous types of events to be remembered, and the experience properly understood by others, it's necessary for those who've not been through it to find a way to bring it to life so the world can understand the horror in an attempt to prevent them from occurring again. As we don't seem to be able to learn from history - ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, Rawanda, and all the other ethnic based violence that has occurred since the end of WW ll makes that apparent- it becomes imperative some other way of getting the message across is found. Martel's book might not be the whole answer, but its a positive step in the right direction.

April 3, 2010

Book Review: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

The art of storytelling is difficult enough as it is, but when an author attempts to recreate a culture, any culture, be it based on reality or imagined, he or she has set for themselves a task equivalent to scaling the highest of peaks. It's not enough to simply offer descriptions, the characters have to live and breath every nuance of the world created for them in order for it to come to life. Otherwise you end up with vessels moving in front of a pretty background like shadow puppets in a panorama. Everything from the way a character thinks to the way they hold themselves must be as carefully considered as any plot twist if an author is to have any hope of being convincing.

Guy Gavriel Kay has carved his own niche in the world of fiction through his ability to not only accomplish the above, but successfully meld it with historical fiction and fantasy. From the Byzantine Empire, Medieval France, Ottoman Spain, to Renaissance Italy, the pages of his books have exuded the colours and textures of historical eras with elegance and verisimilitude. The kings, peasants, warriors, and courtesans who wander through the market places, courts and battlefields where his stories unfold not only dress and act appropriately to their environment and status within it, the poetry they recite, the duels they fight, and the attitudes they strike are equally at harmony with the world they live in.

While his attention to detail would put a documentarian to shame, remarkably the reader never notices. Everything is so subtly integrated into the overall telling of the story, it's only upon reflection that you realize the amount of work that has gone into to the making of what you've just read. It's like the sudden realization when looking at a painting that has so accurately captured a person in time that thousands of brush strokes have gone into its making; you don't want to see them, but knowing they exist make you appreciate the work all the more. One need look no further than his new release, Under Heaven, being published by Penguin Canada April 3rd/10, (April 27th/10 in America) to see this in action.
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Inspired by the Tang Dynasty of eighth-century China, Under Heaven is set in the fictional kingdom of Kitai and follows the fortunes of the second son of a general in the imperial army. Twenty years prior Shen Tai's father had led imperial troops into their last great battle with the neighbouring Tagur kingdom. Beside a remote lake bordering both kingdoms forty thousand men of both kingdoms lost their lives. When his father dies Shen Tai takes it upon himself to spend the official two year mourning period in a hut beside the lake burying the bones of as many of those who died there as possible. Without regard to rank or nationality he has spent nearly two years at his self appointed task with his only contact to the outside world being visits from soldiers of both empires' nearest forts who bring him supplies.

While Tai had been only the second son a general, one of many young men studying to pass the exams that would allow them admittance to the lowest level of the court's civil service, prior to his father's death, his actions by the lake have not gone unnoticed. It's on one of the re-supply visits from the Tagur soldiers that he first becomes aware of the enormity of what he's done when the Captain accompanying the soldiers gives him a letter stating he has been gifted with two hundred and fifty of the most magnificent horses in the world.

While he's till reeling from the news that he now owns horses whose worth will either make his fortune or, if he doesn't handle matters just right, result in his death, he just as unexpectedly receives a visitor. Here, beyond the final outpost of the empire he never expected to receive visits, yet a fellow student, accompanied only by one guard, deemed it so important he receive the news he carries that he's travelled across the land's breadth to tell him. It's a message he never delivers, as the guard turns out to be an assassin hired to ensure Shen Tai doesn't return to the capital. Although his friend dies, Tai miraculously survives the attempt on his life, and with the aid of the Tagur Captain concocts a plan that will not only see him survive the journey back through the empire, but ensure the safe delivery of the magnificent horses.

As we make the long journey back to civilization with Tai, we learn that he's not quite the unimpressive figure we might have thought at first. Not only has he served as an officer in the Imperial army, he had also studied for a time with warrior monks who are known not only for their martial prowess but their trustworthiness. While he may not have completed his training with the order, he still possesses some of their skills with weapons, which comes in handy as the assassination attempts weren't finished with that first one. However, by the time he reaches the capital city, and word has travelled ahead of him of the present he has been given by their former enemies, he might find himself remembering the assassination attempts with fondness. At least he could see where the danger lay in them and defend himself. The Emperor's court on the other hand is a seething mass of plots and intrigues. Most of which seem to be primarily centred around the newly appointed prime minister, his senior advisor, the prime minister's cousin, who also happens to be the Emperor's favoured concubine, and the most powerful military governor in the country.
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Trying to weave one's way through these webs of intrigue takes an amount of skill that would try most men at the best of times. Having to do this while attempting to find out who among the powerful wanted you killed, figure out what to do with two hundred and fifty horses whom everybody covets, and deal with the fact your eldest brother - the aforementioned advisor to the prime minister - has pretty much sold your sister into slavery by having her sent off to be the bride of tribal chief's son, is a seemingly impossible task. On top of this it seems that the machinations of the prime minister are about to send the country into a bloody civil war that could very well see the end of the current dynasty and result in millions of deaths. With war brewing, two hundred and fifty of the finest horses, faster and stronger than any to be found in the kingdom, are all of a sudden even more key to the empire's future.

Kay has never shied away from showing the steel that lies beneath the beauty on his pages and the ugly truth behind the romantic images of finely dressed nobility. In Under Heaven he not only manages to convey the nearly sublime beauty of the empire, but the brutal reality of what it takes for a small ruling class to keep millions to heel. The same man who can wax eloquent about the beauty of a flower, will think nothing of giving an order that will see thousands die or have a servant beaten nearly to death because his wine was not the right temperature. For all its sumptuous beauty, we are never allowed to forget the harsh truths of this empire and the iron fist required for its running.

The characters who populate the book's pages are as multilayered, if not more so, than the society they live in. While we gradually learn about Tai, he is learning about those around him. What's interesting is how in some cases the more we learn about a character the less impressive he is. For all his vaunted intelligence the prime minister turns out to be more cruel than anything else. Everything about the characters though, is consistent with the society they live in and the culture they belong to. From the way the women manage to manipulate events even though they are supposedly powerless in this society, to how servants take advantage of being beneath notice, all tell us a little bit more about the world they live in while making the picture Kay has created that much more believable.

Guy Gavriel Kay has the ability to bring worlds and people alive on the page in a way that few authors today seem capable of. Although he uses the same repertoire as other authors, characterization, plot, atmosphere etc., somehow they are employed in such a manner that we're not aware of them as individual components. Like dancers and music they move together in such harmony we can enjoy the image they create without noticing the steps taken bringing it about. In Under Heaven he not only reaffirms his reputation as a story teller par excellence, but as a master of bringing people and cultures alive. This is a magnificent creation that you will want to read over and over again for the joy reading it brings you.

March 24, 2010

Book Reviw: Werewolf Smackdown by Mario Acevedo

In Charleston South Carolina the upper classes try to retain something of the gentility of their plantation ancestors and celebrate the history of their colourful town. Like other major Southern cities, it suffered greatly during the Civil War and no effort was spared over the years to restore some of the pristine beauty that was lost during those troublesome times. So, the proud city fathers would be horrified to learn their city might soon be at the centre of another type of civil war, one that not only has the potential to raze the city to the ground and destroy its inhabitants, but also plunge the entire world into chaos and change life as we know it.

Sound a little over the top? Well consider the situation that Felix Gomez, veteran of the Gulf War, private investigator, and vampire, finds when he responds to a request for his services and travels down from his home in Denver to Charleston. The alpha leader of the area's Werewolf clans has died under mysterious circumstances, her small plane crashed killing all on board, and the two highest ranking males from the local packs are both vying to replace her. Gomez's hopes of the job having nothing to do with the world of the paranormal are quickly dashed when he discovers the person who requested his services, Eric Bourbon attorney-at-law, is not only one of those two leaders, but he wants Gomez to assassinate his opponent, Randolph Calhoun.

Normally vampires and werewolves have nothing to do with each other and either hiring one of the others to take care of internal business is not done. In fact, according to Gomez, official policy as set forth by the Araneum - Latin for spiderweb - the worldwide secret network of vampires, is strictly hands off when it comes to vampires getting involved with werewolves. Therefore it's only natural that Gomez tells Bourbon to handle his own killings. However as he is on his way back to his digs, a local mortuary who rents out coffins to vampires, to prepare to leave town he's ambushed by two vampires carrying not only Bourbon's business card, but one with the name of a renegade vampire scrawled across its back. A vampire who not only came real close to killing Gomez sometime back, but who was intent on revealing the existence of the supernatural to the human world in the hopes of provoking a war between the living and the un-dead.
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So the scene is set for the most recent of Mario Acevedo's hard boiled detective novels, Werewolf Smackdown published by HarperCollins Canada, featuring the latest inheritor of Philip Marlow's mantle of the tough talking gum shoe. While he shares his predecessors predilection for beautiful dames and hard liquor, he differs from Chandler's famous creation in some key ways. Aside from preferring a chaser of A-, and pleasuring his human companions by releasing enzymes into their blood stream through the holes he leaves in their neck (don't worry he's also neat as he heals them up after he's done), you'd have a hard time picturing either Marlow or Sam Spade knowing as much about foundation make-up as Gomez does.

As a vampire Gomez has some supernatural advantages over the rest of us; speed, agility, strength, and some amazing healing abilities. However he also shares many of the traditional aversions that have afflicted his kind throughout history with garlic and sunlight being the ones most likely to ruin his day. While Raybans, a good knowledge of foundation makeup and the liberal application of the highest ratted sun-block have made it possible for vampires to handle all but the brightest sun - a sun rise will cut through anything he can slather on his skin - he still has no defence against garlic or silver. Unloading a full clip from an Uzi into his chest might crack a few ribs, but when you don't have a heart regular bullets don't do any permanent damage. Jab him with a silver fork from your family's fancy flatware on the other hand and you're liable to cause some serious damage.
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It's a good thing that vampires are so durable because in spite of his best intentions, he quickly finds himself up to his neck in werewolves. No sooner has he dealt with the two vampires sent to kill him then he's forcibly taken to meet the man he was brought to town to kill. Needless to say while Bourbon has painted Calhoun the villain of the piece, Calhoun has a different story to tell and does his best to enlist Gomez to his cause. He also fills Gomez in on a few details Bourbon neglected to mention. In four days time Charleston will be swarming with werewolves as hundreds of them will be convening for a gathering of the clans in order to select a new area alpha and there is a very real threat of civil war breaking out between them. If a war of that scale starts it will be next to impossible to keep the existence of the supernatural a secret from the humans, and the possibility of out and out war between the two worlds ensuing as a result is a given.

While others have introduced the idea of the co-existing worlds before, and there's even a couple of vampire/werewolf detectives scattered among the pages of fiction already, the film noir world that Acevedo has created does a great job of bringing the genre to life in a way that is both matter of fact and realistic. Perhaps it's because all of the action takes place in the world of the supernatural where mortals very rarely make an appearance that he is able to make it all seem so matter of fact. Aside from those who hold positions of wealth in the "real" world, there's nothing glamourous about their lifestyle, nor are they particularly romantic figures with tragic pasts or any of that bullshit. Gomez is just a private investigator trying to make ends meet in his world. That he has an ex-girlfriend who happens to be a dryad or can talk to ghosts when they chose to make themselves visible, only seems natural considering who he is and the world he moves in.

Werewolf Shakedown is that wonderful creation that manages to successfully marry genres without sacrificing anything of what makes either of them intriguing. With humour, a good sense of the absurd, and wry intelligence he has in fact improved upon both to create a highly entertaining read. Don't come to this looking for cheap thrills, romance, or high intellect, but be prepared to hold on to your hat as Acevedo takes you on a great ride.

March 23, 2010

Book Review: Bite Me Christopher Moore

Long before the New Moon saga had created a cult of adolescent girls going all weak kneed over the possibility of receiving a hickey from an un-dead heart throb, Christopher Moore had begun recounting the misadventures of vampires on the West Coast in Blood Sucking Fiends. Set in the far more exotic environs of San Francisco (Washington's overcast and rainy weather may sound like atmosphere to some, but to me it just sounds cold and damp) it, along with its sequel You Suck, recounted the story of how the put upon Jody became a vampire, and how she in turn converted her boy friend, want to be writer Thomas C. Flood.

Having a sensitivity to the UV rays of sunlight that not even the toughest sun-block will cope with, Jody had initially taken advantage of Thomas working the nightshift stocking shelves at a local grocery store and having his days free. This allowed him to run errands for her and take care of all that stuff that can only happen during the sunlight hours. So with Thomas becoming a vampire they find themselves in need of somebody to pick up the slack for them. By the end of You Suck they had settled on a young Goth girl, Abby Normal (Day Slave name Allison) to handle such tedious tasks as finding them accommodation and keeping them under wraps during the day. What they hadn't probably counted on was Abby and her bio-tech boy friend Steve dipping them in bronze while dead to the world in order to make sure they didn't split up and ruin Abby's romantic vision of the two vampires living an eternity of loving bliss with her as their worshipful minion.

Which is where we pick up the story in the third book of Moore's Vampire triptych, Bite Me, hitting the streets March 23rd/10 curtsey of HarperCollins Canada through its William Morrow imprint. In case anybody's missed the first two books, our erstwhile narrator fills us in on the details in her own inimitable style. An extended text message on speed coloured with sexual innuendo and rampant sarcasm through which we get periodic glimpses of the person hiding behind the pounds of make-up, fishnet stockings, and dyed hair. One of the key points of her summation is how a very large, hairless, cat named Chet has become a vampire and has now set out on a rampage through the city.
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Now Steve has been using his science geekdom, to quote Abby, to come up with a way of reversing what happens to a person's blood when they are "turned", or become a vampire. This becomes awfully key when it's discovered that third generation vampires - those turned by a vampire who were turned by the dude who bite Jody - don't have the longest shelf life without some rather intensive blood transfusions from the original dude. Jody will be okay, but anybody she has turned, or anybody turned by ingesting the blood of somebody she's turned, won't be around longer then a month. It means Thomas could go at any time, as could Abby. Oh yes Abby granted herself her fondest wish by ingesting the blood of some rats Steve had turned in order to test his serum.

Of course there's still the rather large matter of Chet as well, and the fact that he's not only drinking his way through the homeless population of San Francisco, but is also turning every stray cat he comes across. Chet seems to have also absorbed quite a few of the attributes of the elder vampire, the same one who turned Jody, and has not only grown in size to about eighty pounds, but has developed the ability to reason and think. He also has learned the very valuable trick of turning to mist - not something most novice vampires are able to do - and somehow or other also passed on this talent to felines he turns. Which means that come sundown that patch of mist drifting towards you down a San Francisco street could very well materialize in front of you as a hundred vampire cats looking to suck you dry.

Thankfully help is sort of on the way in the shape of three vampires who've been travelling the world cleaning up the messes left behind by the elder vampire who turned Jody. Unfortunately their idea of cleaning up also means eliminating any witnesses, which means not only Chet and his brood are in danger, but so are Jody, Thomas, Abby, Steve, and everybody who has had any contact with vampiric activity in San Francisco recently. That includes Thomas' fellow shelve stockers at the grocery store - a group of stoners referred to collectively as the Animals - and the two cops, Rivera and Cavuto who helped take down the original vampire.
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To be honest I worried that Moore was going to this particular vein one time to often writing another sequel to Blood Sucking Fiends as You Suck had already begun showing signs of thinning blood. However he's managed to inject some new life into the series through some ingenious plot twists and the introduction of a couple of new characters. He also, thankfully, splits the narration duties up amongst his characters, for at times I wanted to reach into the pages and grab Abby Normal by her throat to shut her up. If I heard one more conversation recounted as "Like he was then all" and "Like then I was" and "Like 'kay?" there's a good chance I wouldn't have finished the book. Some people might find it endearing or funny, but I thought it was just annoying to a point where it went beyond interesting characterization.

However Moore is a good enough writer that he pushes it to the limit but not further and doesn't allow his book to descend to the depths of being a one note joke. In fact by the end the joking has been relegated to the back burner as there's not only the showdown with the vampire clean-up crew to deal with, decisions have to be reached on everybody's part. Here again Moore shows his skill as an author through his ability to quickly switch tones. One moment we're in the middle of what can best be described as a horror farce and the next a gentle and genuinely touching story about the choices we make and the reasons we make them. Even more impressive is the way he is able to do this so that the transition from one to the other feels like the most natural thing in the world.

Vampires are all the rage right now among the teenage girl set with them swooning over handsome pale skinned heart throbs and dreaming of eternal love. Bite Me provides a nice antidote to the sickeningly sweet world of paranormal romance that's being peddled by the trash merchants these days. Even if slightly over the top at times, Moore is a refreshing dose of the absurd in a world which has started to take itself and fantasy far too seriously.

March 9, 2010

Book Review: Motorcycles & Sweetgrass By Drew Hayden Taylor

All across North America, and in fact around the world, the tradition of the trickster has a long and storied history among the older cultures of the world. Whether the Raven of the West Coast, Coyote of the plains, the bumbling Nanabush or Nanabozo of the woodlands, or whatever shape or form he has been given by his people, his purpose is the same. By epitomizing our worst traits, and putting them into action, he teaches us object lessons on how to live. By his own estimation he's the most intelligent. the bravest, the toughest, and generally all around best at everything, yet he invariably ends up falling flat on his face. Somehow or other he's always just tricky enough to outsmart himself and no one else.

The other thing all tricksters, no matter what their nationality, have in common is their complete lack of humility. No matter what happens, no matter how embarrassing the situation they end up finding themselves in, they never seem to able to learn the lesson that they were the ones responsible for their own downfall. While many of their predicaments are quite funny, there are occasions when our laughter at what happens to them is slightly tinged with sadness or even unease. For, while the stories are told to ensure we never get to full of ourselves, there are only so many times you can watch someone slip on a banana peel and find it funny until you start to either feel sorry for them or begin to wonder what it might be like to slip on it yourself.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any room in the modern world for tricksters anymore. Which is a pity, because we're currently a world that thinks way to highly of itself and has a far overblown sense of our own importance. We've all become so wrapped up in going about our business that we've forgotten how to live. Well, Canadian author Drew Hayden Talyor, a member of the Ojibway nation - or as they refer to themselves, Anishnawbe (The People) - has decided its about time to see what would happen if the ancient trickster of his nation were to show up on a modern day Reservation. What would he look like, what would people's reaction to him be, and what kind of mayhem would be the result? The answers to those questions and others can all be found in his first full length novel, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass, being published by Random House Canada on March 9/10.
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The action takes place on the fictional Anishnawbe Reserve of Otter Lake, located somewhere in central Ontario, Canada. Maggie Secord has the usual problems single moms do with raising a teenage boy, but they're compounded by her decision to take over he late husband's role of elected Chief of the band. She's sure there was a good reason for her doing so at the time, but now she's damned if she can remember what that was. It's been especially difficult in the last couple of years as the government has finally decided to return to the band land that had been "borrowed" from them. Aside from all the paper work, and meetings with all levels of government - county, provincial, and federal - this involves, it sometimes seems, every person living on the reserve having their own opinions as to how the land should be put to use and each of them spelling their plans out in detail for her.

As if things couldn't get any more difficult, there's the whole matter of the mysterious white stranger who showed up at her mother's house just before she died. He pulled up on a bright red 1953 Indian motorcycle, and marched into the house and into her bedroom like he was expected. Well it turns out he was, for looking in his grandma's window, Maggie's son Virgil sees the young, blond white guy, kissing his grandma in a very friendly manner. Now grandma Lillian Benojee was one of those who were taken off to the residential schools in an attempt to take the Indian out of native children. Somehow or other though she managed to hold onto her language and beliefs, while also accepting some of the white man's. It always amazed her children how she could go to church on Sunday, yet also know all the old tales about Nanabush the trickster and recite them and her prayers with an equal amount of sincerity. In fact she could talk about both Jesus and Nanabush as if she knew them personally.

While we never find out about the former, Lillian does turn out to have been buddies with Nanabush and it was she who invited him to show up at Otter Lake reserve to say good bye to her before she left and to ask him a favour. Virgil, who was already suspicious of John after seeing him kissing his grandma, becomes even more so when he turns his attention to his mother. There's something decidedly odd about this white man whose eyes are always changing colour, can speak the Anishnawbe language better than most elders, and knows how to braid sweetgrass so perfectly. Aside from everything else, why do the local racoons seem to be following him everywhere he goes?
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In Motorcycles & Sweetgrass Drew Hayden Taylor has brought the character of Nanabush the trickster out of the old tales of his people and has him up to his usual tricks. He's not just some fun loving guy who plays practical jokes on people, he's also vindictive, selfish, and a liar. While he does make life more interesting for Maggie while he's on the reserve and helps her to have fun for the first time since her husband died, he also creates no end of problems for her with his solution for dealing with the land being returned to the tribe. Along the way Taylor manages to poke fun at his own people and politicians, while raising the issues of non-natives attitudes to land clams and Residential schools in a way which is humorous but at the same time doesn't diminish the reality of the situation.

People who aren't used to twenty-first century Natives, are going to be surprised to hear how much life on a reserve sounds like life in any small town. Everybody knows everybody, and its hard to have business that others aren't going to be sticking there noses in all the time. Of course they did use to be quite a bit different from those who are now living in neighbouring towns, and life on a reserve isn't quite the same as anywhere else. Yet, while Taylor manages to bring that reality to life its not the one we read in the newspapers all the time of despair and hopelessness. These are real people trying to balance the realities of living in the twenty-first century and holding onto their culture.

While Taylor doesn't shy away from the ugly truths that populate the history of the relationship between Native Canadians and their government, he uses humour to bring these issues into focus. Like the Nanabush stories of the past with their lessons on how to live a good life, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass slyly sneaks its message in when we're not looking. Its a gentle and timely reminder that while we may think we know what we're doing, there's a damn good chance that we're missing out on what's really important in our lives. We can get hung up in politics and issues all we want, but at the end of the day we all still have to look at ourselves in the mirror.

February 12, 2010

Book Review: Ruby And The Stone Age Diet by Martin Millar

It's difficult enough as it is for those of us who are reasonably well adjusted to handle the day to day grind of existence, let alone any of the nastier surprises that members of your own species might decide to chuck at you. It makes you wonder how anybody not firing on all their cylinders is able to cope. Oh sure there are those who have chosen to opt out of the game in one way or another, usually through either drugs or alcohol, or a combination of both. However I'm talking about the ones who wander through life minus some of the mental and emotional armour most of us employ to protect ourselves.

In his most recent book, Ruby And The Stone Age Diet published by Soft Skull Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada, Scottish born author Martin Millar takes us into the lives of those who live on the fringes of society. The unnamed narrator of the book shares living space with his friend Ruby, who no matter what the weather wears the same lilac cotton dress and a pair of sunglasses day in and day out and goes barefoot. While Ruby sits at home, or occasionally goes over to visit her inappropriate and abusive boy friend, our protagonist works a succession of temporary, mindless, unskilled labour positions in order to augment their unemployment insurance.

However, there are weeks when he's unable to obtain employment, and both of them forget to file their claims for the "dole" so they are often without any money. Even when he is able to earn money, Ruby insists that it be spent on things far more important than food and shelter - like an amazing new style of can opener and a crate of tinned beans. While they do spend what our narrator describes as "probably the most fun he has had in a year" opening the cans of beans, spreading them all over the apartment and frisbeeing the lids down the hall, at the end they still haven't eaten and they've spent all their money. Aside from not eating very much, they aren't able to pay rent very often, let alone utility bills, which means they are forced to move repeatedly from one illegal squat to another.
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Aside from his financial straits our narrator is also suffering from a broken heart as he and his girlfriend Cis break up near the beginning of the book. He spends a great deal of time envisioning scenarios in which he accidently on purpose runs into her. Of course he also has an incredibly active imagination which leads him to believe he occasionally travels in space ships with aliens, and to create gods and goddesses for the everyday demands of his life. For instance there is Helena, the goddess of electric guitar players and Ascanazl, an ancient and powerful Inca spirit who looks after lonely people. Unfortunately his fantasy life also prevents him from being able to hold down a full time job, or even keep his temporary ones for any length of time. For he is always being distracted away from the world or being forced to miss work because of the danger of being eaten by snow wolves.

While he refers to Ruby as his best friend, someone wonderfully supportive, Ruby is not what anybody would call healthy. She obviously suffers from some sort of eating disorder as she keeps coming up with new reasons for throwing all the food in their house out. At one point she insists they only follow the "Stone Age Diet" of the book's title, which means they can "only eat the sort of healthy things our ancestor would have eaten". As she hardly ever leaves the house, it's up to her to think up ways for them to make more money. One of her ideas is to write pornographic fiction. So she sends the narrator our on a series of "dates" by answering ads in sex trade magazines from people looking for S&M partners and has him recount the details of his encounters so she can write them out. Unfortunately it all comes to nought as she loses the stories on the bus.

Our narrator only wants to please, and is so grateful to Ruby for being his friend that he goes along with whatever she suggests. After all she's much smarter than he is and has his best interests at heart. Wasn't she the one who told him that the cactus Cis bought for him just before dumping him was actually an Aphrodite Cactus? Which upon flowering will seal the love of the one who gave it with the one who received it? So he instead of moving on from the broken relationship, he waits for the cactus to bloom, and dreams of Cis coming back to him. He's always there when Ruby needs him. He's somebody for her to control and to feel superior to. At one point he comments about how and Ruby are both expert self-pityists, and how they regard it as a good positive emotion, not exactly the healthiest basis for a friendship.
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Ruby And The Stone Age Diet meanders around inside the head of the narrator as he bounces from thought to thought without any direction. He is an innocent in a world that is far too confusing and he hides from it as much as he can. Unfortunately innocents also become victims as there are always those willing to take advantage of them. Occasionally you want to reach into the pages of the book and shake him by the shoulders and tell him to wake up, but most of the time he only makes you a little sad. When Ruby disappears at the end of the book he finds a full-time job working as a librarian. Without Ruby to support him he has to stop squatting and starts renting an apartment. He says the last without any irony, as if stability and security are signs of failure, as if it's a surrender.

While there are genuinely funny moments through out the book, the werewolf tale that Ruby is writing and that she reads from is hysterical, it's permeated by an aura of sadness that you can't escape. For all its main character's attempts at escapism, there's something undeniably real in Millar's descriptions of contemporary life. His characters gradually come alive over the course of the book, until by the end we know them all too well. We see in them elements of those we've known and various bits and pieces of ourselves. The mirror Millar holds up for us to look into may be a bit like those in a fun house distorting reality, but in the end we can't help realize the image we see in it is true whether we like it or not.

February 6, 2010

Interview: Aatish Taseer - Author Of Stranger To History

Twenty years might seem like a long time to go without knowing your father, but for Aatish Taseer that gap was easier to bridge than the gulf that formed between them when his father accused him of having no understanding of what it meant to be either Muslim or Pakistani. After being raised in India by his Sikh mother and her family, Taseer accepted that his father had a point. In his book Stranger To History Taseer recounts the journey he undertook in an attempt to gain that understanding by travelling through the Muslim world and the people he met along the way.

The book is fascinating for both its description of the world he travelled through, and the voyage Taseer took mentally and emotionally as a result of his quest. While he himself came to some personal resolutions because of what he experienced, he doesn't pretend they're anything more than that. What I most appreciated about the book, was not once did he try and push the reader in any direction. This was a recounting of what he saw and heard reported with an integrity and genuine objectivity that was as refreshing as it is rare.

That's not to say I didn't have any questions after having read the book, because I did, and thanks to the good people at Random House Canada I was able to pass them along to Aatish Taseer via e-mail. I'm sure some of my questions arose from my own lack of knowledge or even from misunderstanding of what he said in the first place. Thankfully he very patiently has taken the time to respond to each of the questions with the same care he showed in the writing of his book. So if you appreciate this interview, you'll definitely find the book a fascinating experience, one that I highly recommend.

Before you began your journey what if any expectations or hopes did you carry into it with regards to both your Muslim heritage and how it might help to bridge the gap between you and your father?

I was never in search of any personal religious fulfilment or identity of any kind. I wanted only to understand the distances that had arisen between my father and me. The reason I wanted to do this was because I felt instinctually that there was something deeper behind those distances, something that would help illuminate a situation wider than my own personal context. And if there was anything that aroused my curiosity at that early stage, it was only the question of what made my father—a disbeliever by his own admission—in some very important way still a Muslim.

Why did you consider it so important to make the journey - you had been estranged from your father for nearly two decades what type of connection were you hoping to forge between you?

Yes, but I had overcome that initial estrangement with my father. The silence between us was new. And I found it difficult to turn my back on the goodwill and hopefulness that that reconciliation between my father and me had produced. It was not just our personal relationship, but Pakistan too. Which formed such an important cultural and historical component of my family history, both maternal and paternal, as well as the history of the land I grew up in. It would have been very hard to pretend that the new estrangement with my father was not wrapped up in a deeper feeling of loss. But I was not travelling in search of reconciliation; I would have found it strange to travel with those kinds of personal objectives in mind. I was travelling to understand.
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You mention the term "cultural" or "secular" Muslim in reference to your father, can you define what you mean by that?

It is a term that my father gave me and it is term that grew in meaning as I travelled. I took it in the beginning to mean benign things such as an adherence to customs and festivals, a feeling for food and dress. But as I travelled I found that it contained other things besides. And these were usually political and historical attitudes, attitudes that were themselves like articles of faith, now related to Jews and American, now to Hindus and India. They almost always included a certain prejudiced view of the pre-Islamic past of a Muslim country. They often translated into a historical narrative, at the centre of which was the 7th century Arab conquest and the triumph of Islam, and on either end of which, were enemies of the faith. Now these things are not in the Book; they are not, as such, a part of the religion; neither are the prejudices that go along with them; but to many they are more important than the religion itself. They were what could make my father, despite his faithlessness, a Muslim.

What inspired you to tell a very personal story - your relationship with your father - and why is it integral to the book? Could you have undertaken a similar examination of the Muslim faith without raising the subject of your father?

No. The personal, though it had wider ramifications, as the personal often does, was what lay behind my interest. I am not a professional writer of books on Islam; my next book, The Templegoers, has nothing to do with either Islam or Muslims. I wrote about the subject because I felt I had to. And it would have been very strange for me to ignore, especially in a book like this, a first book, the reasons that I was drawn to the subject. Which, by the way, are not simply my relationship with my father; that was one aspect; but much bigger than this, in fact towering over the narrative, is the Partition. And it is in relation to this event—in my opinion, the forerunner of what began to happen throughout the Muslim world during the latter part of the last century—that my parents’ relationship became important, as did my maternal grandfather’s grief at being separated from his country.

Although you visited more than just the countries mentioned in the book during your journey you chose only to talk about four, aside from Pakistan. What was it about Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran that decided you to talk about them instead of some of the others?

They all represented, in different ways, the trouble Islam had had in adapting to modern political life. In Turkey, secularism had been turned into a soft tyranny, where the state was writing sermons and choosing clerics. In Syria, it was for years not part of the program, but was slowly creeping back. In Iran, the fury of the revolution had come and gone, and we could have a window into what might come next. Finally there was Pakistan, which, in my opinion, had paid the heaviest price for the faith. It had broken with itself and its history to form a nation on the thinnest of thin grounds. And the nation had been, from start to finish, a disaster. It had left millions of people sixty years later dispossessed and full of hateful lies. All of that remained to be dealt with; the ugly idea of a religiously cleansed society had yet to be fully discredited in the minds of people, though on practical terms, it had completely perished. And to have to do all of this in a climate of war and insecurity, with interference from foreign powers! It was a very bleak picture; hard to see how the land—not the country—would return to itself. (I won’t speak of Saudi, because it formed a small part of the narrative in the book.)

At one point in the book you mention the Wahhabis and their influence upon modern Islam especially in Arabic countries like Saudi Arabia. Who are they, what is their influence and how is it expressed?

They have had forerunners, and interestingly, always at times when Islam felt itself in danger. Some consider Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th century scholar, living in the times when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, to be the first Wahhabi. But truly, the movement began in the 18th century with an alliance between a Najd scholar and a chieftain. The movement, mainly decrying the excesses that had come into the faith and preaching a purer, more Arab Islam, had some political and religious success before it was crushed, and crushed completely, by the Ottomans. Its resurgence in the 20th century can be linked to the rise of Saudi Arabia and its tremendous oil wealth, which it has used to spread Wahhabism to places, which practised milder, more tolerant forms of the religion. But I think it would be too easy to say that, and it doesn’t explain the first Wahhabi success. My own feeling is that Wahhabism represents a tendency within Islam—and perhaps also in other forms of organised thought—to close its doors, and retreat within itself, when it is faced with a political or intellectual threat too great to confront.

Do the Wahabis have anything to do with the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and are you able to explain the difference between the two groups?

No, nothing whatsoever. That was a split that happened some 1000 years before. And there was, I suspect, a kind of anti-Arab feeling, originating in recently conquered Persia, behind it. But yes, the Wahhabis have exacerbated the tensions between the two groups because they are deeply intolerant not only of Shiism, but of any local form of Islam.

In the book you talk about how history is being distorted by certain religious leaders in order to justify the notion that Muslims are persecuted. What purpose is served by creating this attitude among the faithful?
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It is comforting to them. It makes them feel that they are not responsible for their wretchedness, that it is all the work of a grand conspiracy which seeks to keep them down. They then, can carry on feeling envious and resentful about the big, modern world, without ever having to do the hard work of engaging it. But it is a very pernicious cycle. Because the less you engage it, the faster you fall behind, the harder it becomes to pick yourself up. And in the end when you’re nothing it becomes very easy for some greasy-faced fanatic to feed you comforting lies.

You've ended up presenting a rather negative view of the current state of Islam, from your depiction of Iran and Syria, the sentiments expressed by young religious Muslims in Turkey and Britain, to your description of your father's "moderate Muslim" as being "too little moderation and in the wrong areas". Was there anything you came across in your travels that countered that impression - that perhaps gave you something you could identify with or the hope there was more to Islam than anger and resentment?

This is the kind of question that makes assumptions I do not share. I don’t consider it ‘positive’ to travel in a country and shut your eyes to its realities. Neither do I think it is at all helpful for schoolboy English travellers to go to these places and come back with reports of their teeming bazaars and lavish hospitality. Fortunately, I come from the sub-continent, which has its fair share of crowded bazaars and generous people, so I feel no need, when I am travelling in the Islamic world to overlook the gloom of Syria or the tyranny of Iran, in the interest of feeling upbeat when I come home. I think it is cynical and patronising to go to these places and tell tales of how the people are capable of a good joke and a cheerful chat as if people and societies should not amount to more. And for people who are coming from societies that have achieved more, this kind of attitude expresses the worst kind of foreigner’s disregard.

Do you have any concerns about what non-Muslims will think after reading this book? What do you hope they will take away from it?

No. The book is published in eleven countries, some of which I have never even visited. It would be impossible for me to conceive what ‘non-Muslims,’ as a whole, might think.

Stranger To History was released a year ago, and I was wondering what the reaction to it has been from Muslims in general and your family in particular?

Again, this is not the kind of judgement I’m in a position to make. What I will say is that despite the fact that the book is only distributed and not published in Pakistan, I have received the maximum number of letters from that country. I was particularly moved by one Pakistani student who wrote: ‘a lot of us agree with you but wouldn’t write this sort of thing for reasons that need not be explained to you.”

However, I know that Muslim reviewers, whether they be in Australia, India, England or Pakistan, have all given the book a rough time. Which is an interesting thing in itself.

At one point you refer to both yourself and your father as the "Stranger To History" of the book's title. Could you explain what you mean by that?

The title, I feel, works on different levels. In the case of my father, I was thinking of Pakistan and how it turned it’s back on its shared history with the sub-continent in the interest of realising the aims of the faith. That was one historical break. But I was also thinking of a more general rejection of pre-Islamic India among the sub-continent’s Muslims, a rejection, which has translated into deeper illusions about their place of origin, many believing they came from Islamically purer countries, such as Afghanistan and Persia. There was also, of course, the personal estrangement, when it came to my father’s relationship with me. That was my estrangement, too, along with an estrangement from the land that is Pakistan, and to which both my parents are linked.

You mention near the end of the book, the one benefit you derived from your journey was it reconnected you to Pakistan. What makes that connection so important to you in light of the divide between your father and yourself?

It is the connection to the land and people of Pakistan that is important. That land, and its culture, is still, for all the distances that have been created, a part of the shared culture of the sub-continent. The things shared are language, dress, ideas of caste, poetry and song. And it is of these things that nations are made, not religion; that has shown itself to be too thin a glue. When one considers that enduring shared culture, despite everything that has been done to break it, one is forced to reject the intellectual argument for the Partition as false. There is no two-nation theory; there are no separate Indian nations; there is just the giant plural society of India, held together by an idea no less subtle, and yet no less powerful, than that of Greece or Europe. It is this society that must on some level regain its wholeness, not along angst-ridden national or religious lines, but as part of a peace worthy of a continent.
 
You set out to find common ground with your father by seeking to gain an understanding of how someone who doesn't practice the religion can still call themselves a Muslim. After what you observed in your travels, do you still refer to yourself as a Muslim in spite of the fact that you appear to have nothing in common with people like your father?

No. During the journey itself, I realised that neither on a religious level nor on a ‘cultural’ one could I ever be part of the ‘civilisation of faith’, which is, in the end, a vision of purity. I have too much hybridity in my life, welcome hybridity, to accept a world-view such as that.

I'd just like to conclude by thanking Aatish Taseer for the honesty and directness with which he answered the questions I posed, and his patience with any questions I may have asked out of ignorance and lack of awareness. Part of the problem in this world today is our inability to communicate with each other because of our refusal to be sensitive to how our perceptions of the world have been shaped by environment and conditioning. People like Aatish Taseer, who are willing to take the time to answer those questions while pointing out why they are inappropriate, are our best hope to bridge what right now seems like an insurmountable gap that exists regardless of religion or creed. How we respond will dictate the future of our world

February 3, 2010

Book Review: Stranger To History by Aatish Taseer

Most of us have little or no difficulty in understanding our heritage and what it means to us in terms of our belief systems as we usually have the example of either our parents or the community around us to go by. However, what if one of your parents comes from a culture that's not part of the majority and that person has never been part of your life? It may take a while, but sooner or later you're going to start to notice your different from everyone around you, and eventually you might start to become a mite curious as to what you've inherited from your absent parent.

Aatish Taseer was born in Delhi India as a result of an affair between his Sikh mother and his Pakistani Muslim father. While his mother never kept from him the truth about his heritage he grew up surrounded by cousins his own age wearing the turbans emblematic of their faith, making his uncovered head feel very conspicuous and out of place. It's not until he's twenty-one that he finally makes the journey across the border to visit his father for the first time. While he is welcomed by his father's wife and children with open arms, the man himself is far more reticent. Salmaan Taseer is an important political figure in Muslim Pakistan, and the knowledge he has an Indian son who may or may not be Muslim could create difficulties.

However, as Taseer describes it in his new book from McClelland and Stewart, which is partially owned by Random House Canada, Stranger To History, even if his father is reluctant to recognize him in public, at least by the end of his first visit he begins to feel they have developed the basis for a relationship. Like many other Pakistani's Salmaan is a secular Muslim, so the fact that his son is a Muslim in name only shouldn't make any difference to him. (In Islam the father's religion dictates that of the children)
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However when Taseer, now a journalist in England, writes an article about second generation Pakistani immigrants becoming fundamentalists and extremists because of estrangement and failure of identity, his father takes him to task in a letter for not understanding what it is to be a Muslim and for spreading anti-Muslim propaganda. Taseer is confused, how can the man who once said "The Koran has nothing in it for me" be offended as a Muslim by what I had written? It's obvious his father is right when he says that Taseer has no understanding of the Muslim or Pakistani ethos as he can't understand his father's apparently contradictory attitude. What does his father mean when he calls himself a "cultural Muslim"?

Attempting to find an answer to this question, Taseer sets off on a personal pilgrimage through the Islamic world. Starting in the fiercely secular Turkey, where many Islamic religious practices are forbidden by law, he makes his way slowly to Pakistan via Syria, Saudi Arabia - where he travels to Mecca, and finally the nominally Islamic state of Iran. Through conversations with various people, and his observations of life in each country, it becomes clear that there is no set answer. In Turkey he meets young men who dream about a world where everyone is ruled by Islam because it is the only faith which can tell you how to live properly. In Syria he see how that dream is being actualized by a regime with its own political agenda and not above cynically manipulating people.

By offering people a version of the world free of all contradictions and questions, a world in which there is only one "truth", they can control them with the help of a compliant clergy. In Abu Nour, a centre for international students in Damascus, people come from all over the world to learn Arabic and take classes in Islamic studies. However sermons in the mosque include distorted views of history designed to depict Muslims as being persecuted throughout the ages and work up antagonism against an enemy simply referred to as the West. The result is the creation of a world that exists in isolation designed to equate being Islamic as a supporter of the Syrian government and any who oppose Syria are enemies of Islam.

When the book shifts to Iran the depiction Taseer offers is no different than any other description you've read of people living under any totalitarian regime. Here he finds that Islam is being used to harass people over trivialities, like the length of their shirt sleeves, in order for an insecure government to exert control over them. In fact in what is supposedly an Islamic republic where you'd expect to be able to find answers as to what is a Muslim, there is even less chance of discovering that here than anywhere else. For, as one person he meets puts it, a professor at a university, "People were very connected to religion even though the government was not religious. But now the government is religious most people want to get away from religion... It is very hard for me to say I am a Muslim."
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Taseer is by profession a journalist, and while that comes through in his ability to ask the right questions of people, his writing style is far more personal than you'd expect from a reporter. He makes no pretence about this being an objective study of Islam, rather its a personal voyage undertaken in the hopes of bridging the gap between himself and the father he was estranged from for over twenty years, and that comes across in his writing. His yearning to understand both his father and the religion he professes to practice, and the frustration and confusion they generate in him, predominate throughout the book as he intersperses accounts of his travels with recollections of his attempts to find common ground with his father.

In many ways this is one of the bravest books you'll ever read, as Taseer doesn't hesitate from voicing opinions that are going to be unpopular with people at all ends of the political spectrum. His compassion for the people he meets allows him to see beyond their words to the need that gives them birth, giving the reader a deeper understanding of where their opinions were born. The title of the book. Stranger To History refers obviously to Taseer's ignorance of his father and his Muslim and Pakistani inheritance. However, it can also relate to what he has witnessed in his journeys in Syria and Iran where history is being rewritten to generate hatred against the West in order to solidify the current regimes power bases. While he doesn't offer any solutions or comfort that there is some easy way to change or prevent what is happening, hope can be taken from his time spent, in all of all places, Iran in the people's determination to deny the regime in any small way they can.

Although his attempt to reconcile his own history with his father is somewhat of a failure, Taseer consoles himself with the fact that he has been able to connect with his personal history of being a product of both parts of the Indian sub continent. By having both countries he has had the chance of "embracing the three tier history of India whole, perhaps an intellectual troika of Sanskrit, Urdu, and English. These mismatches were the lot of people with garbled histories, but I preferred them to violent purities. The world is richer for its hybrids." While he may not have come any closer to discovering his father, or his father's religion, he has discovered himself.

Unlike those who think what the world needs is surety and purity, Taseer reminds us that sometimes there are questions which don't have answers and history isn't always divided up into winners and losers. If for no other reason, that makes this an important book to read, as it not only shows you the dangers of a world where black and white dominates, but it makes you realize just how wonderful a little confusion and uncertainty can be. Well you may not come away from reading this book any more enlightened about Islam then you were before you started, you'll have a better understanding of the variety of people who fall under the umbrella of that word. After reading this book you might not be so quick to make generalizations based on a person's religion and have a better understanding of what lays behind many of today's headlines.

January 27, 2010

Book Review: Dust Of Dreams By Steven Erikson

How often do you read an eight hundred plus page book and get to the end not wanting it to end? I don't care how good a book it is, or how great the author, it takes something pretty special to not only hold your attention for that many pages, but to make you want it to keep going. Well, that's the case with the latest book from Steven Erikson, Dust Of Dreams, published by Random House Canada. In this, the ninth and second last book of his Malazan Book Of The Fallen series, not only has Erikson managed to maintain the level of intensity of the previous books, he ramps it up another notch, to the point where the reader is pretty much kept on the edge of their seats for the entire book.

Throughout the series Erikson has introduced us to literally hundreds of characters of various sizes, shapes, colours, and powers. Regular soldiers, kings, queens, wizards, gods, goddesses, demons, un-dead warriors of a variety of species, and shape-shifters, who represent an amazing array of species, worlds, and eras. In what has to be one of the most virtuoso pieces of universe creation yet, the action in Erikson's books is not limited to one world or one time period. In almost every book we are whisked backwards and forwards through time as the action not only spans continents and different planes of existence, but the past, present, and sometimes future of each location.

While locales and characters may change from book to book, the one constant in every book has been war. From the opening pages of the very first book, Gardens Of The Moon, where we find ourselves in the aftermath of a particularly bloody battle, we haven't been able to escape the battle field. While some of the books deal with the battles waged by the Malazan Empire as it strives to both expand its territories and hold onto what it has captured at the same time, others deal with wars between races on distant continents with the latter seemingly unconnected to the former. However, no matter if the battle takes place between humans using mundane weapons or is being fought in the spirit world by gods and other outlandish folk, it's gradually become apparent that all of them have been skirmishes in one great conflict.
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One troop of humans the series has followed through various battles has been the beleaguered 14th army of the Malazan Empire. From their first battles quelling an uprising in the outlying reaches of the Empire, to their betrayal by the Empress herself on their return to their homeland, we've watched them turn from wide eyed, green recruits under the tutelage of a few veterans, to world weary, cynical, battlers. Having survived almost everything war can throw at them, from fire storms to sorcery, one would think they are now prepared to take on anything the world has in store for them. Yet when we meet up with them in Dust Of Dreams they seem more intent upon tearing themselves apart than readying for what might be their most deadly battle to date.

Part of that can be put down to the fact that they are still cut adrift, flying no country or empire's flag. They represent no one but themselves and the will of their leader, former Adjunct to the Empress, Tavore Paron. They neither know who they are about to fight, nor why they are heading off into some of the most inhospitable lands the world knows for this battle, but there are whispers of battles between gods and ancient forces making the rounds of their camps that make even the stoutest hearts quail and loyalties to waver. If Tavore knows what they are heading into, she's not saying, as not even her closest advisors and highest ranking officers are able to enlighten the troops. Those few among the troops, wizards, healers, and diviners of the future, who might reassure the troops with foreknowledge are no better off than the rest. In fact what little they are able to glean by reading signs or consulting their gods only makes them so uneasy it only increases the tension among their fellows.

It's not just the Malazans, or humans for that matter, who are preparing for battle. In fact it begins to appear that all who have survived the series to this point are about to converge at the same place and at the same time as the 14th army. Gods from the ancient days of the planet's life are plotting to regain power by attempting to depose those who have replaced them in mankind's pantheon. While their children and grandchildren may have come to ascendancy in other lands, here on this continent, belief in them is still strong enough for them to have the power necessary to strike what could be a blow that not only topples their descendants, but destroy the world. What better vengeance against a population that has begun to reject you is there for a god than destroying the world in which the mortals live?
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Does all this sound a little much? Are you confused? Well if you've not read the previous eight books in the series, or at least some of them, you'll be hard pressed to understand the context of what your reading and the majority of the plot lines won't make any sense. However, anybody who has been following Erikson from the beginning won't have any trouble keeping pace with events. While some new threads are introduced into the pattern, Dust Of Dreams is primarily populated by familiar faces and names continuing on the paths that Erikson set out for them whenever they first made their presence felt in the series. Whether it's Quick Ben or Fiddler, who we've followed all the way from the first book, or one of the myriad other characters who we've met along the way, their histories are sufficiently well known even if they've not been mentioned for a couple of books we're able to pick up their tale again with ease.

For it's the characters that have made this series so compelling from the onset. Erikson's careful attention to detail when creating the people who play significant roles in this world has ensured the reader will have no problems with continuity. It also means that even at this late stage in the game he is able to introduce new and seemingly unrelated story lines without creating any confusion. In fact those who have received only passing mention before, or who are introduced for the first time, not only play significant roles in helping build the series to its climax, they provide answers to questions that have been left dangling from previous books.

The Malazon Book Of The Fallen has distinguished itself from other epic ventures in the way it has always successfully melded action with thought. Not only is Erikson a master weaver of plots, a creator of fascinating characters, and the possessor of a vivid imagination, his work is far more intellectually stimulating than what you'd expect from the fantasy/sword and sorcery genre. His books raise questions about religion, faith, societal structure, war, human nature, and culture that both treat the subjects with the seriousness they deserve and integrate them seamlessly into the story lines. As a result there's never even the faintest whiff of pontification to be smelt while reading. Dust Of Dreams is no exception to this, as he continues to have his characters pose questions about their circumstances that encourage readers to think more carefully about their own situations without preaching or pretending there is only ever one solution to a problem.

Dust Of Dreams is the second last book in Steven Erikson's epic series The Malazon Book Of The Fallen, and like its predecessors its a masterful piece of storytelling. Not only does the author continue to hold our attention throughout the eight hundred and eighty some pages of the book, he does so through his usual admirable mix of action, thought, and humour. For those who've read all of the previous books in the series, this one will not only not disappoint, it will exceed your expectations. For those who've not read any of his other books - you don't know what you've been missing out on. In the future this will be the benchmark against which other epics will be measured.

December 2, 2009

Book Review: Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia By Christopher Paolini

When I first saw a copy of Christopher Paolini's Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia, published by Random House Canada, I have to admit to being of two minds. My first, albeit selfish reaction was, damn this is going to cut into sales of the book, What Will Happen In Eragon IV, I had been commissioned to write by Ulysses Press last year. However, as a fan of the series I was also interested in seeing how the various artists involved would bring Paolini's world to life visually. I've not seen the video game, but having found the movie adaptation of the first book in the series, Eragon, to be disappointing not only as a retelling but visually as well - heck they couldn't even recreate some of the beings accurately in spite of Paolini giving very accurate descriptions - I hoped for something a little better in this attempt.

I don't know how much say Paolini had in the decision making process as to the art used or the artists employed for the book, for the usual practice in book publishing is the author has little or no say in things like what a book's cover will look like or the design of the book. However in the case of Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia there would have had to be some co-ordination between the artists and the author as the art and text have been very carefully integrated. Still, Paolini could have come up with the text independently, and the artists and designers worked to create the illustrations and lay out of the book based on what he had written without consulting him. Therefore, much like the movie, there's a good chance he didn't have much say in the matter, meaning there was the possibility this could have been equally disappointing.
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Thankfully his publishers aren't about to mess around with one of their hottest properties, and as this book is obviously meant to tide people over until the release of book four, they have gone to great pains to be as true to Paolini's vision as possible in their selection of illustrators and illustrations. Again I'm not sure whose idea it was, but it was a brilliant stroke to have the text read like a personal letter from Eragon, welcoming the reader into the fold as a dragon rider and offering them the benefit of his knowledge of Alagaesia and its inhabitants. This allows the text to have a much more conversational tone then most books of this type. Far too often they end up coming across as a mixture of encyclopedia, dictionary, and history text, with the words and the illustrations end up existing as completely separate entities within the same covers.

The illustrations, by Fred Gambino, Larry McDougal, Ian Miller and David Wyatt, range from wonderfully detailed black and white pen and ink drawings, coloured illustrations, detailed maps, to the equivalent of full colour paintings that capture both the magical attributes and the harsher realities of the world created by Paolini. Jonathan Lambert's design has ensured the artwork is not only shown to its best effect, it also integrates the text superbly. There's always the risk in a book like this of trying to cram too much information onto one page resulting in a confusing hodgepodge of information. Lambert has avoided this through his careful use of fold out flaps to expand some pages, small, beautifully decorated, booklets that when opened reveal information specific to the subject at hand, and occasional samples of the objects under discussion, while never over saturating a page.

For example, on the page devoted to discussing the elvish people of Alagaesia the reader not only is treated to illustrations and text describing them and their home city of Ellesmera, you will find a collection of key phrases in Elvish, a description of their queen Islanzadi, and a description of their clothing in the small booklets affixed to the page. Carefully attached to these pages are also a small sample of the fabric elves use for making their clothes, while another envelope contains a small piece of elvish craftsmanship the reader can carefully remove to treasure as a souvenir of their trip to that country. There are treasures like this scattered throughout the book, ranging from an example of what a dragon wing feels like, to a very special treasure at the end of the book which I'll leave for the reader to discover on their own.
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As for the text itself, well you won't find out anything new about Alagaesia, the story, or anything about the characters in the story. What you will find in each section is that all the information Eragon has compiled during his journeys about a particular subject has been summarized in easy to digest chunks. From the overall history in the shape of a timeline, the map of the continent (with accompanying illustrations of some of the story's key locations), the history of each of the four main races of beings (elves, humans, dwarfs, and urgals), and on down the list including the wildlife found on the continent, each section will gives the reader an overview at a glance and the opportunity to explore the subject in more detail through the added pockets of information.

From Eragon's letter of welcome, tucked into an envelope stuck on the inside of the front cover, to his final message on the inside of the back cover, Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia offers a beautifully illustrated history and overview of the world Paolini created for his adventure. The individual illustrators have done a remarkable job of realizing Paolini's vision by bringing the environments and beings of the world to the page in a manner that is faithful to his text. While some people or places may not be exactly as you might have visualized them in your head while reading the books, there is never any doubt in your mind as to who or what are being depicted.

While you won't find any clues or discussion as to what the future holds for Alagaesia or Eragon, you can find that in another recently published book, for the fan of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle this book will be a visual treat and a pleasure from beginning to end. It may not be Book Four, but in the interim it will do just fine.

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.

November 14, 2009

Willy DeVille And How To Write A Biography

There are two ways of looking at a blank page if you're a writer; either as an opportunity or as an indication of how bereft you are of ideas. Sometimes you can stare at the blankness, and even though you know what you want to write the challenge its empty visage presents renders you speechless. That first word you put down on the page will commit you to the attempt of beginning something new, and sometimes finding the courage to begin, to overcome your uncertainties, is too much and you simply walk away. Either putting the pen down without writing a word or shut off the word processor with there being nothing to save.

It was in early 2009 that I first suggested the idea of writing a biography of Willy DeVille to his wife Nina. Willy had just been diagnosed with Hepatitis C and would be spending the next while undergoing a series of treatments to help his body recover. As he had been forced to cancel all his recording and touring obligations I had thought that he and I could work on it together over the winter. He could record thoughts on tape and I could start writing them out. However before I could even suggest the idea I received an offer to work on another project, which was to begin almost immediately and ended up taking up all my time until nearly June/09.

I've written ,a href="http://blogcritics.org/music/article/a-thank-you-to-willy-deville/">elsewhere elsewhere about the events of this past spring, of Nina writing me in May of 2009 to let me know Willy had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, which is as close to a death sentence that you can be given without a court order from a judge in Texas. So when I was finally able to bring up the subject of perhaps Willy trying to record a few notes about his life for me to use it was June and he wasn't even well enough to do that. The drugs he was taking for the pain, and the cancer itself, were not only sapping his strength, but they were also stealing his brain.

However, Nina gave me the go ahead to work on a biography, saying that Willy had liked my writing and really, really liked me and it would be an honour if I could put it together. That was a bit overwhelming, believe me; I go asking permission to write Willy's biography and not only does Nina say yes but makes it sound like I'm doing them a favour. I knew Willy had been pleased with how our interviews had turned out, had like the reviews I had written of a couple of his CDs and DVDs, and the liner notes I had written for another DVD, but this was a little more than that. However, after I got over the initial burst of "Wow", the sense of responsibility set in. Nina was entrusting me to preserve her husband's legacy.

The thing is, I don't even like most biographies. I find the format of repeating what other people have had to say about somebody in order to create a portrait of a person to be annoying. I know I'm exaggerating, but they end up feeling like you're reading one long series of he said this and did that after another which doesn't allow you to get to know the subject. So the first thing I decided was that there was no way I was going to write a book like that. However, what are the alternatives?

Of course no matter what the format, the research still has to be done to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. Luckily for me people began to contact me with their stories about Willy over the summer. I had taken upon myself to begin a petition to have Willy considered for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in June which required that one of my e-mail addresses be made public. As a result various people began to contact me to talk about Willy. Nobody knew about the plans for the biography at the time, it was more they were looking for a sympathetic ear to talk about what he meant to them. Amongst those who contacted me were people who had known Willy when he was still Billy Borsey from Stamford Connecticut and they've proven to not only be valuable for the information they have been able to provide, but as moral support for the process.

There have been other people from all over North America and Europe who have been equally generous with their memories and even photographs, a great many of which have never appeared in print before. Some have perhaps appeared on web sites, but none of them have been published in the pages of a book. Most important of all, I've started to hear from musicians Willy played with over the years. From people who were in bands with him before Mink DeVille, members of Mink DeVille from the CBGBs days, to people who played with him on his last tour of Europe in the summer of 2008. It doesn't seem to matter if they played with him for twenty years or toured with him once - he still made enough of an impression for them to want to talk about him.

The raw material is being assembled - pages and pages of people's thoughts and memories and transcripts of old interviews; audio and video tapes of interviews that he gave on various radio stations and for television shows; and of course his music. Some sixteen CDs worth of original recordings plus greatest hits packages, his contributions to collections commemorating people as diverse as Edith Piaf and Johnny Thunders, and the vast assortment of recordings that have been uploaded onto You-Tube since his death. Somewhere within all of this is the story of Willy DeVille and it will now be a matter of finding the connecting threads and tying them all together in a coherent fashion so I can relate it to readers.

Which brings me back to that blank page I mentioned in the first paragraph. The sensible thing would be to create an outline - a chapter by chapter breakdown of the book detailing what each will be about and its significance in terms of Willy the person and Willy the artist. My idea is to take all the information and turn it into a third person narrative so that it reads like a novel. At first I thought it would be best to follow some sort of chronological order - travel with him from Stamford Connecticut to CBGBs, then continue down south with him to New Orleans and his time spent wandering in the desert in the South West, and then back to New York City.

Yet as I sit staring at the blinking cursor on the page I wonder if that will be enough. I've been entrusted with a man's legacy and the thought threatens to overwhelm me at times. I don't really give a fig about people's expectations for the book - I'm bound to disappoint somebody no matter what I write. What I care about is doing justice to my subject. How do you tell the story of a person's life with only words on a page and still images? It's like suggesting a butterfly pinned onto a piece of paper under glass gives you any indication of what it was like alive. While including audio and video samples of his work with the book will help, as the video embedded in this story proves out, it will only capture one small facet of him, not bring him completely to life.

I'll just have to reconcile myself to failing, but make the best damn attempt I can. That may sound defeatist, but unless I realize that before I start I'm never going to start because I'll never get over my fear of failing. Accepting the impossibility of a task and spitting in its eye by going ahead and doing it anyway is what Willy did most of his career. So I can't think of a more appropriate approach to be taking. He played his music for the love of it and hoped for the best; I'll write this book for my love of what he gave the world and hope for the best.

November 10, 2009

Book Review: "Self-Surrender", Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Goose": Poems And Prayers From South India by Appayya & Nila-kantha Dikshita and Vedanta Deshika

I can't think of a more difficult job for a translator than translating poetry. Unlike prose it's not just a simple matter of turning one language into another, you also have to worry about conveying whatever ideas are suggested but not spelt out in the poem. How many times have you read a poem where the poet has made use of a word's dual meanings, or the combining of words in a specific way, to suggest something other than the literal meaning of the words in question? There's almost no way you can do a literal translation in those circumstances. On top of that you also have to worry about staying true to the form of the original poem.

While that's definitely not an easy job, a sure fire way of compounding it is if the poetry in question happens to have been written in a language that's no longer in current usage and by writers whose culture has little or nothing in common with your own. For the last couple of weeks I've been working my way through a deceptively slim volume published by the New York University Press of four works written in Sanskrit from Southern India dating from between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, "Self Surrender", "Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Grey Goose": Poems and Prayers From South India. Translators, and Sanskrit scholars, David Shulman and Yigal Bronner have not only taken on the task of translating four pieces from the classical Indian cannon, the items in question represent the work of three pre-eminent philosopher/poets, one from the Vaishnavas tradition of Hinduism, who worshipped Vishnu as the original and supreme being, and two whose worship was directed more towards the god Shiva.

Vedanta Deshika reportedly lived to be 101 (1268 - 1369) and has contributed two pieces to this collection, the story poem "The Mission of The Goose" and "Compassion" with its ironic sub-title "The Iron Shackles Of Mercy". Appayya Dikshita and his nephew (or grandson - there seems to be some dispute about this as a couple of sites refer to him as the latter) Nila-katha Dikshita lived close to two hundred years after Deshika, 1520 -1592 for the elder and 1580 - 1644 for the younger, and their contributions to the book are "Self Surrender" and "Peace" respectively. While the former reflects the author's devotion to Shiva, the younger poet's work is more along the lines of what we would consider satire as it details the lack of peace in his life due to his association with a ruler and his court.

Those familiar with the epic poem The Ramayana will recognize the circumstances and characters depicted in "The Mission Of The Goose". Rama, one of the avatars of Vishnu worshipped by those who follow the Vaishnavas tradition, is attempting to send a message to his wife Sita who has been kidnapped by the ten headed demon Ravana, and taken to his island kingdom of Lanka. While Rama is awaiting the construction of a bridge to carry him to Lanka and rescue his beloved he sends a message to her by goose. The poem details instruction he gives the goose to make the journey in safety and what he will find when arrives there.

Without the historical context the translators provide in the introduction to the book, the reader wouldn't understand some of its deeper complexities. For instance part of the directions Rama gives to the goose include visiting a temple that won't be built until the time of the poet - a temple that was built in honour of Rama. Throughout the poem the poet has depicted Rama as a man desperate to be reunited with his wife and embodied him with all the attributes of a lover and husband that we'd expect. With this reference he reminds us how he considers Rama the god on earth in human form and the importance of worshipping him. In fact the majority of the directions contain that sort of double reference to help guide people in their worship. Rama's warning to the goose to not let the beauty of what he sees in flight distract him from his purpose, is a reminder to not let material things distract from the worship of the divine.

Obviously not being either Hindu or an expert in Sanskrit, I'm not in the best of positions to judge as to the quality of the translations. However I couldn't help but be jarred by something I noticed in their translation of the second of Deshika's pieces, "Compassion". Time after time they refer to Vishnu using the pronoun God. To my mind, and I would think to most Western readers, the word god with a capital G has very specific connotations, that of a supreme deity in a monotheistic tradition. While its true that Deshika does practice a form of Hinduism that elevates Vishnu above the other gods, this usage still seems out of place in the context of the poem and the culture its referring too.

However the same usage also appears in both "Peace" and "Self-Surrender", neither of which are about Vishnu. The question for me became what are they trying to imply with the word God? In the minds of most people reading these translations it will conjure up images of a supreme deity who not only dictates how we are to behave, but sits in judgement on that behaviour. Even if there is a god above others in a pantheon that's not the role they play. Couldn't there have been a better way of referring to whomever it was they meant by that pronoun to ensure that those connotations were avoided?

Having read an adaptation of The Ramayana I enjoyed "The Mission Of The Goose" and was looking forward to reading the balance of the poems included in the book. Maybe it's being unreasonable on my part, or overly sensitive, but I found the use of the capital G god pronoun so questionable, I was too distracted to give myself over to simply enjoying the poetry and appreciating them for the works they were. Perhaps it's also a sign that I'm unable to overcome years of conditioning which tell me that God is the bearded guy in the clouds who smites us down if we misbehave. However, if I, who am not an adherent to any of the monotheistic religions can't overcome that - how could those who are?

It's the responsibility of translators when working in another culture to ensure they don't impose, whether on purpose or by accident, their own beliefs or ideas. Whether or not Bronner and Shulman intended to imply there was a similarity between the monotheistic traditions of the West and Hinduism, they did so by the use of one word. As a result, what had started off as an enjoyable adventure in trying to learn more about the poetry of an early and fascinating period of world history, turned into me questioning the veracity of what I was reading to the point of giving up in frustration. Perhaps we should leave the translation of works in other cultures to them and stick to our own in the future. That would sure save a lot of confusion.

November 5, 2009

A Book Signing For What Will Happen In Eragon IV?

Well in about ten days I'm going to be doing my first appearance as a professional author! Who'd have thunk it? Not me - at least not in this fashion. By now most people who read this page will know that last January Ulysses Press in the US commissioned me to write a book predicting what would happen in the fourth instalment of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle. The main reason such a fuss is being made over the fourth book is that he had originally only planned on it being a trilogy, but was half-way through writing the third book, Brisingr, when he came to understand that if he wanted to do the story justice he needed an extra book.

Naturally his fans were disappointed that they weren't going to be seeing the conclusion to the series immediately, but once they had devoured the third book they quickly recovered and speculation has run amuck since as to how things were going to turn out. Which is why Ulysses Press thought there was an opportunity for a book like What Will Happen In Eragon IV? to be of interest to some people. Of course there are going to be those who see this as a shameless attempt to cash in on somebody else's fame and creativity, and I did wrestle with that for twenty-four hours. However also saw it as an chance to have some fun and exercise my brain in a direction I've never tried before.

I had no idea whether I could write about something like this and make it interesting to the people who like Paolini's books, and I still don't. What I do know is that it was much harder work than I anticipated it being, and if I were going to try and exploit somebody else's work and ideas I'd have found a much easier way of doing it - Believe you me!
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Now the purpose of this post isn't to justify my writing of this book, it's to invite any of you who are going to be in Kingston Ontario on November 14th to come down to Indigo Books at 259 Princess Street between 2:00 pm. and 4:00 pm to for the opportunity of having your book signed - or purchasing a copy and having it signed if you haven't already done so, and maybe even taking some time to talk about the book and what you think is going to happen and why.

You can also leave your comments about my predictions at the books own web site if you can't make it down to the store to give me a piece of your mind. Hopefully though I'll see you there. Indigo shipped in forty copies of the book and I'd really like to make sure they're not stuck with any of them after Saturday the 14th - in fact it would be really cool if they have to order more. You can also pick up a copy just down the street from Indigo at Novel Idea - corner of Princess and Bagot - as they have a few copies on the shelf ( in the young adult section at the back of the store right next to their copies of the Inheritance cycle)

Please, do not, like those poor misguided souls at amazon.com who have left negative reviews, confuse my efforts with the actual fourth book of the series, I'm not sure how you could as it clearly states on the cover of the book my name as author and that the book is not associated with, authorized or approved by Christopher Paolini or his publishers ( Well they did approve it - at least so much as promise not to sue me for stealing Paolini's intellectual property as it's obvious any of his work I've quoted has been purely for analytical purposes)

So hopefully you'll read the book and at the very least it will make you think if not even change your mind about what you think will happen. Remember there is a big difference between what you think and what you hope will happen.

November 2, 2009

Book Review: The Canterbury Tales By Geoffrey Chaucer - A Retelling By Peter Ackroyd

I've always believed that if you want to truly understand a people and their culture you need to read the stories they've written, or told, about themselves. Its from these works that we can get an accurate depiction of what a people believe in, what guides their behaviour, and the philosophical and moral precepts they base their code of conduct on. While reading religious texts or morality tales may well outline the hierarchy among the Gods and the requirements placed upon a people for living a holy life, it's only in the stories that we see them in their day to day living. Of course, the stories are also a much more reliable indicator of the tenor of the times they were written in; for while a dictate in a religious text may not change over the centuries, the way people react to its strictures will vary from age to age.

Interestingly enough a number of peoples have turned to their own stories in an attempt to remind themselves of who they are in order to either stave off cultural extinction, like Native Americans and First Nations people in America and Canada respectively, or to reclaim their history and culture from former colonial masters. In India, for example, the British managed to rewrite history so successfully, the nineteenth century bid for independence by Indians is still referred to in most history books as the Indian Mutiny. So instead of it being depicted as the attempt of an oppressed people to throw off the invader it seems an illegal act against a legitimate governing body.

While you can understand the logic behind those efforts to re-visit older stories, what reason would an Englishman have for a similar project? There doesn't seem much danger of that culture becoming extinct nor has there been any recent attempt by a foreign power to re-write their history. Yet British author Peter Ackroyd has written a modern language version of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, being published by Penguin Canada on November 3rd/09.
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The original Canterbury Tales is credited with being the first major work of literature written in English. There's no denying it's historical significance either, as at the time French was the common language of the educated, the nobles, and Kings and Queens, the majority of whom were descendants of the Norman invaders of 1066. However, after the publication of Chaucer's book, that all began to change, and by the time the next king crowned English had become the official language of the court and learning. Of course the English it was originally written in is as foreign to most of us as if it were another language - anybody who remembers trying to struggle through reading "The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe" (Wife of Bath) in high school can attest to that - so aside from scholars, most people have probably never read Canterbury Tales in its entirety.

For those who might have forgotten, or never known, the basic story of The Canterbury Tales is a group of pilgrims setting out from London to Canterbury in order to visit the tomb of St.Thomas Becket, agree to each tell the others a story while they travel in order to pass the time more pleasantly. Aside from Chaucer himself who acts as narrator of the overall events, the party consists of a cross section of the time's society with about a fifty/fifty split between those in the employ of the Church and lay folk. Instead of referring to individuals by name, each of the party is identified by their position be it priest, nun, squire, knight, merchant, pardoner, summoner, friar, or Wife of Bath.

Some of the titles, like pardoner (sold pardons for sins on behalf of the church), and summoner (summoned folk to ecclesiastical courts), were positions in the church that have long since been abolished due to the abuses of those who filled their offices. Others like franklin, the name given to a landowner not of noble birth, and manciple, who we would refer to either as a quartermaster or supply clerk, have long since fallen out of common usage. However, no matter what their title or status, none of them are safe from the caustic commentary of Chaucer's pen. Whether it's the "Knight's Tale" full of extreme examples of chivalry, elaborate and overblown acts of piety, and idyllic depiction of romantic love or the Friar's and Summoner's bawdy and caustic tales about the other's vocation, he manages to satirize both the teller of the tale and tsome aspect of his times.
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According to Ackroyd's introduction when Chaucer went to Italy the major lesson he gleaned from the works he studied there was the importance of producing works in the vernacular of the people you're writing for. For a culture to thrive, it can't just be the province of the ruling classes, everybody needs at least be given the chance to enjoy it. By rendering The Canterbury Tales in language that most of the English speaking world can understand, Ackroyd is following in Chaucer's footsteps and making the work not only accessible to a new generation, but to a far wider audience then ever before.

Unlike earlier interpretations, which have adhered to the poetic structure of the original work and tried to be as faithful as possible to the text, Ackroyd's version is not only in prose but he has replaced words that are no longer in common usage with ones that convey similar meanings while retaining true to the spirit of the text. He's done a remarkable job, because while he has recreated the style of the original text, in that the cadences and manner it is presented are similar to middle English texts I've read, the language is sufficiently of the 20th century that no one should have any trouble understanding it.

Earlier I asked whether there was anything that could be learned from a retelling of The Canterbury Tales, comparing it to efforts made by other cultures to reclaim their history or relearn their traditions. While there may not be the same urgency or need as with those other efforts, its value as a first hand account of life from our history can't be overstated. Chaucer's frankness when it comes to sexual matters, and his refusal to revere a person because of their office, whether secular or religious, shows that no matter what the age the role of the artist has always been to question and hold a mirror up for society to see itself warts and all. In this day and age when people look to the past to justify prudery in the name or religion, and far too many in power seem to expect shelter from prosecution based on the privileges granted them by their office, its nice to be able to point out precedent for the opposite.

Aside from any deep sociological and philosophical reasons for this work being re-written, there's also the fact that its a lot of fun to read. Where else will you find the answer to how to divide a fart into twelve equal parts? Part Monty-Python, part Carry On gang, and part biting satire, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is one of the funniest works of English literature. With his retelling Peter Ackroyd has given everybody a wonderful opportunity to enjoy it to its fullest, and as close to the spirit that Chaucer wrote it in as even the most devout literary purist could want. Sometimes a story is its own best reason for its revival, and that's definitely the case here.

October 25, 2009

Book Review: The Lacuna By Barbara Kingsolver

Everybody has probably heard the expression, "history is written by the winners" in reference to the tendency of history to be told from only one side and to represent a particular point of view. While reading history text books which misrepresent events that happened a hundred years ago is upsetting if you know the truth of what happened, can you imagine what it would be like to live through hearing your own history re-written? Even more disturbing would be to find the re-writes based on innuendo, hearsay, and outright lies.

In the late 1940's, and through the 1950's, many citizens of the United States of America discovered their lives had been ruined by others inventing malicious gossip or making false accussations, about them and their histories. If you were named by a friendly witness to the House Committee on Un American Activities as being either a member of, or a former member of, the Communist party, you could easily find yourself facing social ostracism if not jail time. You weren't tried in a court of law, given a chance to defend yourself in front of an impartial judge, or presumed innocent. In fact if you showed up in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities it was generally presumed you were guilty and it was only a matter of figuring out how guilty you were.

Barbara Kingsolver, has never been an author to shy away from controversial subject matter in either her fiction or non-fiction. Her latest novel, The Lacuna published by Harper Collins Canada, is no exception, as she not only takes us behind the scenes of history, she shows us how quickly and easily the truth of events can disappear and lies become reality. Cleverly mixing fictional characters with historical figures and events Kingsolver takes us on a journey that encompasses both Mexico and the United States from the 1930's through the 1950's.
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Lacuna is literally the Spanish word meaning hole, or the space between two objects. However it can also be used to refer to a cave or any other sort of gap; like the gap between truth and what the public perceives to be the truth. In The Lacuna Kingsolver traces the history of Harrison Shepherd, the child of a Mexican mother and American father, from his early days living with his mother in Mexico as she's supported by a series of boyfriends, and then back and forth between the United States and Mexico as the winds of history blow him hither and yonder. For once he is set up on his own - after a brief sojourn in an American military as a teenager which ended under a cloud of suspicion - he enters into service as the cook to the mercurial Mexican painter Frida Khalo and her sometime husband, painter Diego Rivera.

The Riveras aren't just artists, they are political artists, and very Communist. We learn about Shepherd's history via the journals he started keeping when he was young living with his mother. At first the Riveras wonder about their young cook, has he been sent to spy on them? What are all these notes he's making to himself? However when Frida finds out he's merely keeping a diary of events for his own amusement and because he loves to write she encourages him to keep at it. That is until they are to play host to a very special and important guest - the exiled Lev Trotsky. One of the original leaders of the Russian revolution along with Stalin and Lenin, Trotsky had been anointed by Lenin to be his successor. However, Stalin, through lies and quick action, was able to not only supplant Trotsky but also to cast him in the role of traitor to Russia.

Through Shepherd's journals we learn how Trosky comes to live in Mexico with the Riveras and how Shepherd eventually ends up working for Trotsky as cook and translator; a position that will come back to haunt him in later years, and one that puts his life in real danger. For Stalin has ordered that Trotsky be killed, and Communists around the world are eager to carry out his request. Ironically the newspapers in Mexico and the United States refuse to believe that Trotsky is under threat. When his house is machine gunned he is accused of setting it up himself in order to garner sympathy, even when it's proved that the leader in the Communist party of Mexico had been behind the attack. When Trotsky is finally assassinated, it's Frida who arranges the means for Shepherd to leave the country by having him shepherd some of her artwork from Mexico to New York for an exhibit. As he holds dual citizenship she tells him to stay in America until it is safe. Unfortunately America doesn't turn out to be the safe haven they hoped it to be.
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For although he initially enjoys some moderate success as a writer, the America depicted is one scared of its own shadow. First is the round-up of "enemy aliens" - Japanese Americans - during WWII, and then it's the turn of anyone ever suspected of being a Communist, or other sort of un-American activity. Through Shepherd's journals Kingsolver shows how innuendo, hearsay, and lies are used to bring about his downfall, as he details how public opinion is turned against him by the way the hole between the truth and lies is filled in. It's alarming how quickly we see Shepherd go from being a novelist admired by critics and fans alike, to being public enemy number one in the press. People who one moment were fawning over him, can't push him away quick enough.

It's always a dangerous thing for a novelist to bring real people into a story because you can't create them from scratch. They have their own histories and personalities already, and trying to fit them into a work of fiction can rapidly become quite convoluted. However, Kingsolver has handled the inclusion of real people into Shepherd's story beautifully by casting him in the role of historian. Instead of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Lev Trotsky trying to fit into his fictional life, he finds a place in their history which is not only plausible, but also allows us to see them as real people not just as figures in history. Not only does this bring them to life, but it brings history to life, and fills in the holes - the lacuna - that most history books don't answer. We see how Trotsky was allowed to be made a villain because the West needed Stalin, and in turn how Stalin became the villain when he was no longer needed. The only way that can be accomplished is to ignore history, and according to Kingsolver in this book the United States is a past master at doing just that.

The Lacuna is the story of one man caught up in the tides of history, and the story of how history is created. While beautifully written, with characters who jump off the page they are so alive, it is filled with unpleasant truths about our society. Kingsolver is an intelligent and compassionate writer which allows her to create a story that works both as social commentary and an excellent work of fiction without the former interfering with the latter. You may not like what she has to say, but you can never deny that she says it well and with authority. After reading The Lacuna you may never look at a history book or a newspaper story in quite the same way again, and that's a good thing.

The Lacuna can be purchased either directly from Harper Collins Canada or from Amazon.ca or other on line retailers.

September 7, 2009

Book Review: The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet By Arturo Perez-Reverte

S'Blood, tis perilous times for a man to keep tryst with a lady. If proper care isn't maintained, why you could find four feet of the finest Toledo steel has given you a button hole in both the fore and aft of your doublet. While tis true that Madrid under the most blessed Catholic rule of King Philip IV is known to be home to some of the most hot tempered, proud, and boastful rouges in all of Christendom, a man might reasonably expect to make his way to the warm succour offered by his current paramour's arms without worrying that behind each shadow lurks his untimely demise.

Yet when Diego Alatriste, known far and wide by his honorific, Captain Alatriste, sets forth to meet with Maria de Castro, the most beautiful woman to trod the boards of theatres in any country, his sword and dagger are brought into play in order to chase off two ruffians. Now it's widely known that Senora de Castro not only routinely cuckolds her husband, although whispers say he accepts bags of coin in exchange for her favours, she is wont to have more than one gallant "paying" homage to her beauty at any one time. So the good Captain assumes the ruffians attempting to separate. him, his body, and his soul from this mortal coil were merely those hired by one of La Castro's many other suitors blinded by rage, envy, and spite who believed his own path to her delights would be smoother without another already in position.

Alas, if the matter were only so simple for the Captain that having dispatched those two in the shadows of Madrid's night shrouded streets, he could have continued on enjoying the affections of this truly beautiful woman until she bored of his attentions. However as we continue to peruse the pages of The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet, from the noble pen of Arturo Perez-Reverte being published on this forthcoming eighth day of September in the year 2009 by Penguin Canada, we will see the matter is not as cut and dried as thrusts and parries exchanged in the night either by a man and a woman or two men with forged and tapered lengths of steel.
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For while it is one thing to compete with one's fellow man for the affections of a lady, no matter how base or noble her birth, it is another matter all together to vie with God's anointed majesty Philip IV. Where his noble father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were known for their empire building, a sign of Spain's faded glory is that the current Philip is best known for his love of hunting both in the fields by day and bedrooms by night. Alas for Spain, for although to all outward appearances nothing may seem amiss, this king's willingness to put much of the running of the country into the hands of others while his hands are busy elsewhere has weakened her terribly.

Even sixteen year old Inigo Balboa Aguirre, Alatriste's ward and our sometime narrator, whose loyalty to his king and country is unquestioned, can not help but commenting on how the king's failure to attend to matters of state himself has left many another man's pockets filled with gold, the county's coffers barren, and the course Spain pilots through international waters threatening to cast her upon the shoals along side the wrecks of many a lesser country. In fact it is the job of one of the king's closest companions and advisors to ensure his most Catholic Majesty's path to pleasure and sport is cleared of any obstructions that might interfere with his success.

It is this same gentleman, the Count of Gaudalmedina, who discreetly tries to warn Alatriste of the danger he runs by daring to compete with the king for the same woman. However, this being Spain as recreated by Perez-Reverte, plots hatch quicker then chicks from a hen's eggs. Spain in the seventeenth century is a dangerous place even for those God has set higher than the commonality, and there's always a faction looking to find a way to increase their power at the point of a sword even if it means regicide. What better way to throw the scent off the real criminals then to make Philip's death appear to be the work of a lover whose affections were overthrown by a beautiful woman so that she could dally with the King instead?
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However, not even the Count is able to see through the mists of deception that hang over Madrid this season. For although word has reached his ear of a plot against the King, he is of course not privy to the form or shape it would take. For how could anyone, unless gifted with an ability to peek through the curtain of time, been able to foretell what was in store for all concerned. Plots using beautiful women as bait succeed where others might fail, for the principles, blinded to their surroundings. are lucky to even see the sword that impales them .

The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet is the fifth recounting of the adventures of Captain Alatriste to be translated from the tongue of Kings into heretical English, but even this can do nothing to diminish the shining light that is the talent of Aturo Perez-Reverte. While in the hands of some lesser writers the protagonist of a series of books may start to take on mythic qualities, the Captain's metamorphosis takes a far different direction. Honour and pride, virtues in some instances, can also prove ones undoing, especially when combined with a streak of stubbornness which prevents a man from retreating from an untenable position. Unfortunately sometimes a man is placed in circumstance where his choices are take away from him, and in those instances his darker side is revealed. When wine and anger form an unholy alliance in Alatriste's woe be any who happen to catch his eye in the wrong way, or even by chance, as he proves when he casually picks a fight with a lout in a bar and with equal casualness runs steel through his heart.

True the fates had made it seem like his friends had all turned against him, and he was being denied what little joy he could get from life by the very person, the King, for whom he had risked his life time and time again in battle fields across Europe and the allies of Madrid. To be so discarded, and thought so little of must have galled a man of such pride, but to go out and commit murder because of it - well that paints a picture of a man inside whom dark forces are at work. Who knows what awaits our Captain in the future, only God and Arturo Perez-Reverte know for sure, but one thing is definite, neither redemption nor peace will ever come easily for one such as he.

Deftly written, with pinches of humour and snatches or ribald poetry scattered throughout to lighten some of the darkness, Perez-Reverte, continues the adventures of Captain Alatriste and Inigo with his usual aplomb and skill. As is usual half the fun are his descriptions of life in Madrid in the waning days of Spain's imperial might. However, like Alatriste himself, when it's time to get down to the business at hand he once again proves there is no one cooler under fire. His plots, while complicated are never convoluted, and we walk down the same paths as his characters only hoping to find our way out in time to save our necks.

For those who have grown tired of the romantic view of history so common in fiction, these books are the perfect antidote as Perez-Reverte does not shirk from showing the foul with the sweet. Very little separates the heroes and the villains in these books in terms of character and motivation save for the side on which they are fighting. While we may be on the side of Alatriste and Inigo, that's only because they are telling us the story - who knows what we'd feel if we heard the same tale from the other side of the table? There's nothing cut and dried about these books, and that's what makes them invaluable. Once you've read one, you'll want to read them all, and then impatiently wait for more.

One can purchase The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet from either Penguin Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

September 6, 2009

What Will Happen To What Will Happen In Eragon IV?

January 2009 will always be notable for me as the moment when my aspirations of being a published author were finally realized. True it wasn't going to be quite how I imagined it, but my name would be appearing on the cover of a book on bookstores across North America. I had been approached by Ulysses Press and asked if I would be interested in writing What Will Happen In Eragon IV?, a book predicting what would happen in the fourth and final instalment of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle (Eragon, Eldest, and Brisingr)

They had had remarkable success with a similar book about J.K Rowling's Harry Potter series, and although Paolini has yet to duplicate her popularity, he's been pretty close. Brisingr, book three in the series, sold a half million copies the day it was released in North America, a new record for it's publisher, Random House, for a young adult title. Another reason why Ulysses figured there would be interest in our book, was the fact Paolini had originally intended to only write a trilogy, but half way through the writing of book three a press release was issued announcing that he wasn't going to be able to finish the story properly without creating a fourth book.

The cynical among you might think that this was merely a ploy to try and milk a golden goose by either the publisher or the author, but if you've read the books as closely as I have (and believe me I've read them closely in the past few months) you'll know he really didn't have much choice in the matter. The story had become so large that for him to wrap up all the lose ends he had developed over its course the third book would have needed to be close to 1500 pages in length to cover everything. Even before the third book was published speculation about how the series would conclude was been rife in forums, blogs, and social networking sites, so there's definitely a market for a book on the subject.

My initial contact with Ulysses Press may have been in January, but I wasn't given the go ahead to start writing until the end of February. Initially I had been told that my deadline for submitting a first draft - they asked for a minimum of 50,000 words - was May 1st/09, but by the time I signed the contracts that had been shifted back to April 1st. I ended up handing in 55,000 or so words by the end of March. That very rough draft was sent off to some readers whose comments were passed back to me and I was given an opportunity to make any changes I wanted to the text before it was sent off to the editors. So roughly two weeks later I handed in a second draft - this time closer to 57,000 words and sat back to wait.

Now I've heard plenty from various authors who I've talked to about the challenges a writer faces in getting his or her book published. However I don't think anyone can really appreciate any of them until you've worked through them yourself. Obviously I didn't have to deal with the first hurdle of having to find someone to publish this book, but there were specifics associated with this work that I don't think many other authors have to face. Of course the first thing I discovered is probably something all first time authors experience; handing in the manuscript is only half the battle.

Now in most cases there is the whole editing process where your pearls of wisdom are picked apart and put back together by the editors assigned to your book by the publisher. Now I know editors get bad press, but I have to tell you in this instance these people were saints. You have to remember what I submitted was at best a clean first draft which I had had very little time to check for typos and continuity. So when they sent me back their edited version of the text with changes marked via the word processing software's "show changes", I simply checked the box marked accept changes - and then proceeded to deal with the questions they had on content. However that process was remarkably easy compared to what came next, the lawyers draft.

Obviously I had referred back to the original books on many occasions, and for each reference I had to make sure that the page and book they came from were cited. So in order to ensure that Random House, Paolini's publishers, had no reason to accuse us of any sort of intellectual theft I had to scour the pages ensuring that all references from the books, no matter how oblique, were properly cited. One of the more tedious things that I was forced to do was count the number of words directly quoted from the books. It seems that only a certain percentage of your total word count being quotes is allowable under the fair uses laws of copyright. I had quite the headache after that was all said and done.

Finally it was time for the proofs, normally the last stage before a book goes to press, The author is sent a copy of the book laid out in its final form and told to scour it for any mistakes that might have been missed and take this last chance to request any changes he or she might want. In my case though there was still one more stage for us to got through - due diligence. We had to send off samples of the book to Random House for approval so if they decide to sue us at some point in the future we can stand up in court and say "Hey they had their chance to object before we went to press and they didn't".

I had finished with the proofs back in July/09 and the days gradually ticked by closer to September 1st/09, our publication date. Near mid August I heard from Ulysses' publicist as she was preparing for the book's launch so I assumed everything was still on schedule. I decided that it couldn't hurt to do some local publicity and contacted the branch of Indigo books where I live, Canada's biggest chain of bookstores, to make inquiries about a publicity appearance. I also got in touch with the book's distributor in Canada to see what they would be willing to do to help out with that event. Happily, I've written quite a few reviews for them in the past and they were great, promising not only to ensure the store had enough books on hand for my appearance but to also create posters for the event.

Then, on September 2nd, the day after the book was supposed to have gone on sale in the United States, after I'd already set up a web site for the book and announced its publication, I heard from the publishers that the book was not due back from the printers until September 8th and wouldn't be in book stores until the first week of October. Talk about your false climaxes. Now I have to post an announcement on the web site telling everybody not to bother looking for the book just yet, contact Indigo and let them know we might have to reschedule the event, and be grateful that I hadn't mailed out the press releases that I had planned on to the local media.

It's been a long strange trip this whole experience, one which I'm extremely grateful to have experienced, but I was still looking forward to its conclusion. However at least now there's a definite end in sight, and soon enough I'll be finding out what will happen with What Will Happen In Eragon IV? Yet, until I actually see it siting on a bookshelf in a bookstore with my name along the bottom of the cover I won't truly believe any of it.

August 31, 2009

Book Review: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Everybody's waxing nostalgic for Woodstock this year, being how it's the fortieth anniversary and all. At least the record companies sure are, as you can't turn around without seeing yet another commemorative ash tray or roach clip bearing the three days of peace and music logo appearing on the shelves. Yeah there's still lots of money to be made off of all that peace, love and music shit, even forty years later. They might not of cashed in as much as they'd have like to back in the day, but the music industry is making up for lost time now.

Naturally their downplaying the whole drug thing - except for the occasional mention of how tragic it was that so many of those who performed had their lives and careers cut short supposedly because of drugs. Nobody wants to say that drugs were fun, because that's not the message we want to send in this post Just Say No War On Drugs era. Even though we've moved on to bigger and better things like the War On Terror, nobody's forgotten Nancy's message have they. However the reality was that - horror of horrors - people did a shit load of drugs back in the day and no amount of corporate white wash will disguise that fact.

The other bit that they don't seem to want to talk about is how forty years ago, 1969, was when the whole peace and love trip started to wither on the vine.Not only did it mark the ascension to the throne of Richard Nixon in Washington, but the Prince of Darkness himself, Ronald Ray-guns, had been governor of California since 1967. Happy Ronnie, who was only glad to help finger Commies in the fifties for Joe McCarthy and his Un Americans, did his best to fight free love, free speech, and all those other ungodly behaviours those long haired layabouts were engaging in. By the time 1969 washed up on the beach in California, Heads were already looking over their shoulders to see where the long arm of the law was every time they lit up a joint. Of course, with paranoia being such a bosom buddy of most drugs to begin with it didn't take much to fuel the massive rip tides of mistrust that starting pulling folks under in the late sixties.
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While the hucksters and snake oil sales people might not be talking, there are those who are. Timed perfectly to serve as an antidote to the sales pitches, Thomas Pynchon's newest book, Inherent Vice, published by Penguin Canada, offers us ring side seats to the curtain coming down on the dream in California.

Ostensibly a detective story, we follow Pynchon's Private Investigator, Doc Sportello, as he takes on an investigation at the behest of his ex girlfriend, Shasta. She's been seeing a married man, real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann, and is worried that his wife and her boyfriend are trying to figure out a way to have him declared mentally incompetent so they can grab his loot. Her suspicions are based on the fact they've offered to cut her in if she'll help them out with their scam, but it turns out Shasta really has a thing for Mickey and wants to keep him around. Aside from her natural reluctance to approach the police on principle alone, it seems like there's some sort of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) involvement anyway that's going to prevent anyone from running to the cops for backup on this one.

So we trundle around in Doc's wake as he tries to make head and tail out of this case. Wafting a trail of pot smoke behind him that rivals LA's smog during rush hour, Doc encounters militant black nationalists, neo-nazi bikers with a thing for Ethel Mermon and show tunes, bent cops, Federal agents, surfer musicians gone bad, junkies, and worst of all dentists. Somewhere at the bottom of this pile of people there lurks a mysterious group known as the Golden Fang pulling all the strings. They supply the heroin that's sold on the street and are behind a psychiatric institute where people go to get clean. Of course there's a price to be paid for either the junk or coming clean, and while the former is usually your health and cash, the latter can be even more sinister as Doc discovers.

That creeping paranoia Doc feels isn't just because he smokes too much dope, it's because there's something creeping around behind the scenes exerting control over the peace loving, dope smoking, and fun loving community of beach folk. While the King and the Prince Of Darkness clamping down harder and harder to "Make America Safe" means more people getting busted for doing drugs, the drugs are being controlled more and more by the people who put them on the throne. The Golden Fang people see nothing wrong with making a quick buck from people before they end up jail for ten to twenty for using their product.
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On the surface Inherent Vice is an enjoyable ride filled with memorable characters. Doc might be perpetually stoned and rely on extrasensory perceptions brought on by certain psychedelic substances for insights, but he's also as persistent as they come when following a trail Pretty much unflappable he's able to weather whatever surprises pop up and goes with the flow no matter what. However even he's a little disconcerted to discover the nasty truth lurking underneath the haze of pot smoke, that the end of innocence is at hand. It's a bitter pill to swallow, and there's no amount of drugs that will allow hum to hide from that reality anymore. The days of trust are over, and he's going to have to get used to looking over his shoulder on a more regular basis.

There's a note of sadness that runs through Inherent Vice that will hopefully have people questioning the neat and tidy image of the sixties that's being packaged these days. Pynchon makes no apologies for where his sympathies lie, with those on the other side of today's right wing moral code. Yet at the same time he doesn't let sentiment or nostalgia prevent him from showing the darker side of that lifestyle. Still, you can't help but feel a pang for what was lost and what might have been when you come to the end of this book. Very few people seem to want to tell the truth about the 1960's but Thomas Pynchon isn't one of them. You couldn't ask for a better guide to its demise.

Inherent Vice can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca

August 1, 2009

Book Review: Strange Movie Full Of Death - Poetry By Scott Wannberg

Like most people who've ever set pen to paper I've taken my stabs at writing poetry. In the misguided belief that others might be interested enough in reading those attempts to pay out money for that privilege, I even had the gall to self-publish two short collections. Two of the best things about print on demand self-publishing is the only thing it costs to produce something is your time and you learn quickly enough whether or not there is any demand for a particular title. While I still don't think zero sales are an actual indication of the work's quality, its sufficient indication of underwhelming demand for me to understand that whatever talent I might have for writing resides in prose.

Of course that doesn't stop the occasional impulse, akin to a muscle spasm or a cramp, to call upon a muse in the hopes of being answered as the romantic burnish surrounding being "A Poet" has yet to completely fade. Thankfully those twitches are fewer and much farther apart from each other these days as I've no desire to leave behind a legacy of mediocre poems - it would be far better if they were at least awful as that would make them somewhat interesting in a macabre sort of way - and am more than willing to leave their creation to those who actually know what their doing.

One of those who, without a doubt, knows what he is doing is Scott Wannberg. His latest collection of work, Strange Movie Full Of Death published by Perceval Press reaches out off the page, grabs you around the throat, shakes you by the ears until your brain rattles and demands that you pay attention to it. Reading his work is to understand poetry is so much more than what most people expect it to be, and that we're satisfied far too easily if we're willing to call half the stuff published these days poetry. For compared to Wannberg's work most others that I've read have been bloodless words lying limply on the page. Black lines connected together as letters,words, and phrases that do nothing to stir your passions.
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I first came across Scott Wannberg and his poetry on a CD/DVD collection called 3 Fools 4 April in which he joined Viggo and Hank Mortensen in a poetry reading to raise money for the Beyond Baroque Foundation in Venice California. I was already familiar with Viggo Mortensen's poetry, both written and read aloud, and so had a pretty good idea of what to expect from him and neither he nor his son Hank (who now goes by Henry and did an excellent job of editing Strange Movie Full Of Death) disappointed with either their material or presentation. However they were both blown out of the water by Wannberg.

Listening and watching him read was like being in the presence of an elemental force - a thing of nature that swept in and took your breath away it was so powerful and potent. There were emotional roller coasters to be ridden and strange paths snaking into the psyche of America to be followed, inside his poetry. I was amazed at what was coming out of this man's soul via his brain and his mouth - where did these words come from? Well I still can't answer that question, because if I could I would probably be able to write poetry as well as Wannberg.

Having experienced him live, or at least in performance, I had been waiting for an opportunity to read his poetry and see how it stood up to being static on the page. What I discovered was that a good many of his works couldn't be read silently, lips pursed, not allowing the words to form fully. There was too much power in them and they had to be read aloud. It was exhilarating to feel the poems resonate inside my chest and their words exploring the inside of my mouth as I formed them. Wannberg's words say things in ways I hadn't imagined possible, and find ways to express ideas so they are sharp and clear as the ice on a hard winter's day. You want to pick up his ideas and hold them in your hands and carry them around with you to spring out on people during the day and watch how they react. You figure you can learn a lot about a person based on how they react to being told "durability does not mean ramming your head repeatedly into a solid wall" from his poem "lost souls go down good with red wine".
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Some are going to find his style of seemingly unconnected thoughts and sentences piled on top of each other disconcerting at first, especially if they try and find the logical connection between the ones that come before and after. Instead, try and track the path he wanders, with them as signposts to mark his way, and gradually the lights will come on and you'll will see what he is saying. On other occasions though he can be very direct, maybe in ways that you don't wish. In the poem "suicide river" he recounts the attempted suicide of a teenage boy. After wondering about the boy's reasons for attempting to kill himself, he warns others that "the world will ram its body into you/a metaphysical slamdance/you gotta to role with it/or go under".

Far too much poetry has a habit of setting itself aloof from the things around it and talks about them in abstractions that distance them from anything actual. Wannberg's poetry on the other hand is set firmly in our world. He strives to involve us in the emotional and spiritual realities, the toll it takes on all of us, of living in the early part of the twenty-first century in America. This is some of the most powerful and invigorating poetry you're liable to read in a long time. However, be forewarned, this is not a book you should read in public as it's more than likely you'll end up reading it aloud.

You can purchase a copy of Scott Wannberg's Strange Movie Full Of Death directly from Perceval Press.

July 29, 2009

Book Review: Twelve The King By Michael Blake

Sometime in 2008 I wrote an article about the threat posed to wild horses by the very people who are supposed to be preserving them - the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Some of the details include a program where horses are supposedly protected by being live captured and then put up for adoption. I still haven't figured out how capturing, domesticating, and then selling the horses constitutes preserving the wild populations, but I'm sure that somebody, somewhere has come up with a justification. Of course it's a little bit better than just rounding them up for slaughter and turning them into dog food, and just as effective a means of ensuring they don't interfere with ranching, forestry, and strip mines.

Of course as animals who were born into the wild, the older the horse that's captured the less chance it has of ever being domesticated. This is especially true for the older stallions who served as the herd's protectors in the wild. Even though all stallions are gelded upon capture (castrated) some never lose that edge which allowed them to ascend to a position of leadership with a herd. That's not a horse you're about to buy when your kids want a pony.

Fortunately there are some people out there who have sufficient appreciation for the artistry of Creation to see the beauty and splendour inherent in those magnificent creatures. While they may not be able to do anything about the circumstances that cause their plight, people like Michael Blake, best known as the author of Dances With Wolves, are the only hope these horses have of ending up as your dog's breakfast, or wasting their lives away in a corral. In 1991, he paid a visit to what he described as one of the BLM's concentration camps for wild horses, and first saw the horse he called Twelve. In his new book, Twelve The King published by Perceval Press, Blake tells us the story of his nearly two decade long relationship with this wild stallion.
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While all the horses in the BLM facility outside of Reno Nevada that day in 1991 had been taken from the wild herds in the mountains it was immediately obvious that the black gelding with the numbers 1210 on his flank was different from the rest. While other horses in the camp could be ridden after only twenty minutes in a paddock with the director of the facility, nobody that day Blake visited could even lay a hand on the black. Although he was protected from the slaughter house, the numbers on his flank gave him immunity, he had been declared unadoptable because of his age at capture, twenty years old, and was looking at spending the rest of his life confined to a small pen.

For twenty years Twelve had roamed the desserts and ranges of Nevada, and for most of that time had been the protector and leader of his herd. The director of the facility in Nevada told Blake that when Twelve was released in the paddock with the other sixty or so geldings that had been in his herd, the others would never approach him. When the gates were opened for them to be returned to their stalls, he would always lead them out, after first checking it was all clear. On one occasion he recounted how all sixty horses ran in a circle around Twelve, as if paying homage to their king.

While the book appears to be simply a recounting of Blake's life with Twelve, the details that come out from this description help you understand the uniqueness of this horse, and wild horses in general. For while Twelve would allow himself to be touched, he never stopped being a wild horse. He would have nothing to do with the domesticated riding horses that Blake owned, so in order to give him companionship Blake adopted a female from the same Reno facility. The descriptions of their play time - biting, rearing, and kicks just missing the other's head - give one a sense of their power and control. For never did he see either horse actually make contact or hurt the other no matter how violent their play might have looked to human eyes.
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While Blake admits that at the beginning of their relationship he harboured hopes of a bond forming between himself and Twelve, that he would somehow be able to overcome the animal's years of living wild and "tame" him, it never happened. Yet that's what makes this book special the chance it offers to be close to a horse who, although willing to accept human companionship, never surrendered anything of himself. Blake recounts walking Twelve past a ring where young riders were being put through their paces on their new mounts. Commands to walk, trot, and canter would issue out of a loud speaker and the riders would change their horse's gait accordingly. When the horses began to canter he felt Twelve stiffen, and then turn to take up a position facing the opposite direction in which the horses in the pen were travelling. He was looking to see what was chasing them and putting himself between the herd and any potential threat. As soon as the horses were walking again he relaxed his vigil and allowed himself to be guided away. (He was never led - only ever guided)

Twelve The King is a deceptively simple book, only thirty some pages of photographs and text. Its power resides in the feelings of awe and wonder that Blake so obviously feels for Twelve and the fact that he is able to convey those feelings to us with minimal words and no hyperbole. There are no long rapturous peons of praise to the glories of nature and wild creatures, just straight forward sentences describing this one horse. Yet reading about Twelve is to be given a glimpse at what is lost each time a rancher encroaches on preserve land and the BLM removes more horses from the wild, and the herds move one step closer to eradication.

"In city traffic/I remember his eyes/So dark and wet/So full of God" ends a poem Blake wrote after his first sight of Twelve at the Reno BLM facility. It's a pity there aren't more people who share Blake's vision, who can see the hand of their Creator in the untamed and the beauty it represents. He doesn't waste space decrying the practices of the BLM, a couple of paragraphs summarizing the hypocrisy of their so-called preservation efforts - ones that appear destined to guarantee the eradication of wild horses in America - is sufficient to tell us all that we need to know. Yet Twelve The King is one of the strongest arguments you'll ever read for ensuring the preservation of the wild herds. A world in which Twelve and those like him have ceased to exist is not one I care to imagine, but is one that could soon become a reality. That would be a shame.

Twelve The King can be purchased directly from Perceval Press

July 5, 2009

Book Review: The Lees Of Laughter's End By Steven Erikson

There's nothing like the sea air for rejuvenating you, so you'd figure an ocean voyage would be just what the doctor ordered for Emancipor Reece. The luckless servant of necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach is in need of the tranquillity and peace that is supposedly offered to those who travel those wide open expanses. Sure he has gainful employment that takes him far away from his wife and the children she claims are his, but as we've seen in previous titles featuring him and his masters, Blood Follows and The Healthy Dead, working for necromancers hasn't been without its disadvantages.

Having to leave town in a hurry when their habits have disturbed the locals too much is the least of the tribulations that has driven Reece to find various means to render himself insensate. It was one such occasion which forced him to book passage for his masters and himself on a vessel not asking many questions about its passenger's reason for travel or recent history. Unfortunately for Reece the captain and crew of the good ship Suncurl haven't been completely forthcoming when it comes to their own provenance, meaning they're all in for some unpleasant surprises during the course of the voyage.

While not much can ruffle Bauchelain's equanimity, after all his travelling companion in an effort to compensate for the loss of his manhood (Broach is a eunuch) has constructed a child out of living organs that he's removed from other humans, even he is a little put out to find that not only has a lich manifested on board, but a god is after the little ship as well. While the lich, a being composed of a multitude of souls that manifests as the bodies of said souls mashed together, is trouble enough when it starts grabbing crew members in an effort to bulk up, the god and the reason it's chasing the ship could be more than even the combined talents of Bauchelain and Broach together can handle.
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Welcome to author Steven Erikson's third book devoted to the adventures of three characters who played a small roll in his epic series The Malzan Book Of The Fallen. Published by Nightshade Books The Lees Of Laughter's End reunites readers with the two most likeable evil characters you're liable to ever meet. As long as you skirt over their nastier habits, and the fact that their very presence sends shivers up and down most people's spines, as evil necromancers go these two aren't such bad sorts, even when you get to know them. Why Bauchelain is probably one of the most urbane and witty types you'll ever meet. All right so he has any number of demons that he has summoned at his disposal, and could probably peel the flesh from your bone with a spell if he was so inclined, but everybody has their little foibles.

It's unfortunate that Korbal Broach doesn't share any of his partners more redeeming features when it comes to social interactions, but he's shy by nature and prefers to skulk in the shadows and avoids most company. On the other hand it's doubtful you'd want to meet him under those circumstances either, because he's usually out hunting for "components" to add to his child. So unless you're prepared to become an unwilling live organ donor, you'd best avoid dark allies when Korbal is in town.

Needless to say both gentlemen are also exceptionally handy to have on your side in a fight, so the crew of the Suncurl are quite prepared to overlook any and all of the duo's nastier habits when the screaming starts and crew members start vanishing in the hold of the ship. However even they can't prevent the lich from wrecking havoc and when the god shows up, from securing his prize. Yet in the end our erstwhile heroes and their faithful manservant come through this scrape relatively unscathed, and with enough of the ship and crew intact to continue their voyage.
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Those who are familiar with Erikson's from the Malazan series have come to know and love his ability to create memorable characters and fascinating story lines. However, what they might not be as aware of is his very macabre sense of humour. It's not often an author can make the actions and behaviour of a blood thirsty monster funny, but listening in on the lich as its various souls complain, voice opinions, and generally argue amongst itself is as funny a bit of writing that will turn your stomach as you've probably ever read.

It's not just the demons who are fun to read about either, the motley assortment of crew are as strange and original as any of the odd characters Erikson has created to populate the fringes of his world in the past. The Captain and her three companions turn out to be something other than just your standard sea faring folk, being ex-members of a city guard who stole from the city they were supposed to be guarding and took to the sea in an effort to put their former employers behind them. Unfortunately aside from just stealing coin of the realm, the also lifted some statues from the treasury, which is what has attracted the attention of the god who is in hot pursuit of the ship.

While the sea voyage might not have agreed with Emancipor Reece so far, and the crew's numbers have been drastically reduced, those of us merely observing the action on board the good ship Suncurl are having a great time. I don't think I've read an author who can make gruesome as funny or bring it to life with such skill and wit as Erikson does in The Lees Of Laughter's End. Others might be as funny, but nobody can match him for intelligence and character creation. His ability to take the absurd to its logical conclusion - if a creature like a lich is made up of multiple souls it only makes sense that it would occasionally argue amongst itself - is what separates him from most others and keeps a reader in stitches.

If you've read other books set in the world of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen series, you'll appreciate this stand alone story featuring Bauchelain and Korbal Broach for the different view of the world it offers. However, even if you've not read anything else by Erikson, you'll find a lot to enjoy in this odd little tale. Originally published in England by PS Publishing, Nightshade Books has now made The Lees Of Laughter's End available to North American readers and it can be purchased either directly from their web-site or any discerning on line retailer.

July 4, 2009

Book Review: The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Perhaps it's not the style these days, but when I read a book I want to feel the cracks in the sidewalk underneath a character's feet as he walks down the street, smell the odours that waft out from the bakery she or he passes by on their morning walk, and feel the same cold wind they do bite my cheeks. Sure, it's all very well and good to let us know what things and people look like, but I want to experience the world and be immersed in it when I read. If I wanted to just look at something as a passive observer I'd watch television instead of reading a book.

Well, if you share any of that sentiment than you'll probably take as much pleasure in reading the latest offering from Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel's Game, that was just published by Random House Canada. Set in Barcelona, the majority of the action takes place in the period leading up to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930's. The book opens in 1917 with our narrator, David Martin, recalling how it was that year, when he was seventeen, he was first paid for his writing. However, instead of this being a pleasant memory, he says from the moment a writer first sells a piece he is doomed and his soul has a price. When soul and price are mentioned in the first paragraph of a book, it's a good bet the story is going to have something to do with the forces of darkness and a descent into one type of Hell or another is in the cards.

However before we take that plunge Zafon makes sure we know why it could happen to David. Not only was he abysmally poor as a child, but he was raised by his alcoholic, ex-soldier, father. However, it's the fact that Zafon manages to capture the real horror of what poverty does to a child - takes away his or her expectations of anything good happening to them, that makes this important for the story. In fact it's a copy of Charles Dicken's Great Expectations that makes David realize that the idea of a poor person having expectations of any sort is ridiculous. For he's lucky that his father even allows him to attend school and learn to read and write. However, after beating David for wasting money by using electricity in order to read the Dickens novel, his father begins to have a change of heart and starts to allow David to buy books. But as David begins to have expectations of a relationship with him, his father is gunned down in front of him.
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However, as a result of his father's death he meets the man who is to become his patron and mentor, Don Pedro Vidal. Vidal not only gets him a job at the newspaper he writes for, he's also responsible for that first paid writing assignment. When that job comes to an end it's Pedro who finds a publisher who employs David to write an ongoing series of crime fiction adventures. With an income assured, he's able to consider finding a place to live that's not a slum. Ever since he was a child David had been attracted to an old abandoned mansion whose prominent feature was a tower. As soon as he has the money to be able to afford it, he takes out a lease on the building and moves in.

Although he considers he long ago sold his artistic soul by agreeing to write pulp fiction, the selling of his own soul comes about in a slightly different manner. Almost immediately after his first story is published in the newspaper, David had started to receive mysterious letters congratulating him on his success. These turn out to be from a man who claims to be a book publisher who has a most unusual request; he wants to commission David to write him a religion. At first he dismisses the idea as crazy, but the publisher is persistent, and finally David agrees to the contract. Anyway, 100,000 francs is an awfully large amount of money for a years work.

Needless to say agreeing to the job is the beginning of his descent into his personal hell. It turns out that the previous occupant of where he lives died under very mysterious circumstances. When David begins to investigate he discovers that before he died the man had been working on a book for a mysterious publisher who had promised him 100,000 francs. David is drawn into a conspiracy that reaches into the highest ranks of society. The deeper he digs, the deeper he gets into trouble for as corpses start to pile up around him the police begin to blame him. However, he can't shake the feeling that his mysterious publisher is somehow at the root of all this and he's determined to get to the bottom of it all no matter what happens.
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With The Angel's Game Zafon has created a multilayered treat for readers that incorporates all the best elements of gothic horror and murder mysteries while at the same time creating characters who are incredibly realistic. We watch how disappointment after disappointment pushes David into the arms of his tempter. For it's only when the last of his personal dreams and expectations are squashed that he surrenders. As David descends into darkness so does the book. For while the beginning of the book does contain some sadness, the death of his father, there are moments of genuine humour and an overall lightness of spirit that reflects David's initial optimism. As the story progresses the city itself begins to descend into darkness and gloom until the final climax is played out under a black sky streaked "with veins of red light".

Zafon has gone to great pains with this book to bring every scene to life in such a manner that as a reader you feel the cobblestones beneath your feet as David walks through the older parts of Barcelona. The city, and all the other environments in this book are as much characters, and are as well drawn, as the people who populate them. Aside from there not being a dull moment to be found throughout the length of The Angel's Game, its a marvellous depiction of one man's descent into darkness. It's all too easy to look at the character of David Martin and see parts of yourself reflected back, as you have to wonder how you would react if all of the expectations you had for your life were to slowly erode in front of your eyes. It's not often you'll find a book that's not only a page turner but also as thought provoking as this one. A rare combination that deserves to be savoured and read over and over again.

You can purchase a copy of The Angel's Game either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

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

June 10, 2009

Book Review: Shalom India Housing Society by Esther David

I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised to learn that there were Jewish communities in India. After all its close enough to the Middle East that it would have been easy for people to end up there accidentally or on purpose during one of the many times of forced exile. According to legend over 2,000 years ago a shipwreck landed a group of Jews fleeing Greek persecution off the coast of India. Although they lost many of their books during the ship wreck they preserved an oral tradition of major prayers like the declaration of faith, Shema Yisroel, and the prayer to Eliyahu Hannibi or the prophet Elijah.

As strict adherents to the laws dictated by God to Moses, Jews are prohibited from worshipping idols or graven images of anything or anyone. However in her introduction to her most recent novel, Shalom India Housing Society published by The Feminist Press, Esther David informs us that the Bene Israel Jews (Children of Israel) of India had taken the prophet Elijah to their hearts. Perhaps, she speculates, that on finding themselves living in a country surrounded by images of a multitude of gods, elders created the cult of Elijah in order to help preserve Judaism.

Elijah not only will herald the coming of the Messiah, but each year he visits every Jewish household during the Passover feast to drink from the glass of wine left as his offering. At one point during the Seder, as the ritual Passover meal is known, the door to the house will be opened to let Elijah know that it's all right for him to enter and have his drink. In Bene Israel houses, unlike those of other Jews, there's usually a picture of the prophet on a wall of the house. It's common practice for these families to offer prayers to Elijah, asking him to intervene in their lives to help them with everything from their love lives to making sure their children do well in school. Sometimes he answers and other times he doesn't, and sometimes his answers don't come in quite the way hoped for.
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In the twenty-first century the descendants of those shipwrecked have seen their numbers depleted by immigrations to Israel, but they continue to attend synagogue, fall in love, and live their lives watched over by the spirit of Elijah. Following the religious riots of 2002 the Bene Israel in Ahmedabad created a distinct community for themselves by constructing the Shalom India Housing Society apartment complex. While not specifically targeted by either Muslim or Hindu, the Jews felt at risk from mob violence when it was observed how a group of radical Hindu's stripped a Muslim boy and then killed him when they found he was circumcised. It was hoped that by living in an area designated as Jewish they would be safe from being mistaken for Muslims.

David guides us through the Jewish community in Ahmedabad by introducing us to the various inhabitants of the Shalom India Housing Society. It's only fitting, because of the importance that the Bene Israel people place on him, that we first see their households through the eyes of the prophet Elijah. It's the first night of Passover and Elijah is making the rounds of all the Jewish households in the world in order to drink the glass of wine left for him. As his spirit enters each of the various apartments in the building he comments on the quality of the offering left for him (he's not above jogging the occasional elbow here and there if it looks like somebody is being less than generous). While his pleasure at such offerings of Chivas Regal, neat gin, and a good red wine are quite genuine, he's also disturbed by the disquiet he senses in more than a few apartments.

The first few chapters focus on the preparations being made for the costume competition being held at the synagogue for the younger people. As is the case in so many families conflicts differences between the more traditional older generation and the modern younger generation are causing no end of problems. Leon wants to dress as his favourite Bollywood starlet, complete with skirt, a blouse of his mother's, and a padded bra. However his father takes one look at him, adjusting his breasts and shaking a hip, and he's reaching for his cane to beat his child. Leon's mother had hoped that her son's fascination with women's clothes and make-up as a boy was just a child's playing, but when he continued to experiment with her clothes and cosmetics as a teenager, even the most doting of mothers can't help but realize it's more than just a phase.
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Rivka and Yehuda aren't the only ones to be troubled by their child, as parents through-out the complex look on aghast as their children push against convention. While it's one thing for Yael to disobey her mom and aunt by wearing a backless shirt that also shows off her waist and a dancing girl's skirt, it's another thing altogether when Juliet wanted to marry Rahul. As there weren't enough Jews for all the apartments in the Shalom India Housing Society, it had been decided that Block B would be made available to sympathetic non-Jews like Rahul's family the Abhirams. The Abraham and Abhiram families were close, and their children had played together since they were toddlers, but it was still a shock to everyone when Juliet was caught in bed with Rahul.

Of course it's not only young people who have troubles in the Shalom India Housing Society. Mother-in-laws quarrel with their son's wives, husbands worry about what their wives are getting up to when their away, and a lonely widow debates about whether she could possibly date a non-Jew. While there's something genuinely exotic reading about Jews wearing Saris and talking about Bollywoood movies, the people in this book aren't made out to be anything extraordinary. This is their life and they have been leading it for two thousand some years. David has done such a wonderful job in bringing these people to life that while we may not be able to identity with the idea of an arranged marriage, or the need to marry within one's own community, we can still relate to the feelings of the characters we meet.

Shalom India Housing Society brings a community alive through the lives of its people. David has opened the doors of the apartments in this Bene Israel complex, and like the prophet Elijah we are able to slip in unseen and sit at their tables and observe their lives. While we may not get the opportunity to imbibe quite as much as the prophet does, (and boy is he hung over the day after the first Seder) we are treated to a healthy feast for the senses as we become everybody's confidant and party to all of their secrets. By the end of the book you'll know all about this group of Indian Jews and their unique circumstances which sees them having both maintained their traditions and embraced the culture of the country they've settled in. A delight to read, and an education as well, Esther David's new book is like being dropped down into the midst of an extended family's reunion. You might not know everybody when you first get there, but it's only a matter of time before you feel right at home.

Book Review: US Future States Atlas By Dan Mills

I've always had something of a problem political art. Far too often people expect you to lose your objectivity and only look at the message, not at how the message is delivered. It's like all of a sudden we're supposed to forget about the quality of the art because the message is so important. Maybe I'm just an elitist snob, but it pisses me off when people expect you to say how wonderful something they did was because it was about this or that, not because it was a beautifully written story or exquisitely drawn illustration.

I'm in agreement with saying art should hold a mirror up to society and there's nothing wrong with deliberately setting out to create a piece of art that makes a political statement. However, it's equally important for whomever is doing the creation that he or she are able to set aside the issue that originally inspired them and be able to focus on how best to communicate it for an audience. No matter what you do, though, creating political art is such a difficult balancing act, as you try to meet the needs of both the art and the issue you're dealing with, that not many can pull off.

However, if you're interested in seeing an example of one artist who does an exemplary job of accomplishing it check out the recent release from Perceval Press, US Future States Atlas by visual artist Dan Mills. Subtitled "An Atlas Of Global Imperialism" the book gathers together a series of satirical maps Mills created delineating countries the United States could invade in the future and annex as additional states in the union.
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For each country, or "state", Mills has taken an actual image of it from an atlas and then begun its transformation into being part of United States Global (USG).(Note: USA + USG = United States Empire (USE)) First, if these new states are more than one country, made up of bits and pieces of a few adjacent countries, or as in the case of "New Venice" (formally Venezuela) divided up into separate states, their new boundaries have to be defined on the atlas. The new regions are painted in either one or a few exceptionally garish colours that make them stand out from those in their immediate vacinity.While in some instances it makes them appear to be a mockery of the way in which relief maps designating altitude and geographical formations are drawn, the distinctiveness of the colours also puts me in mind of the way in which maps used to designate countries that were once part of the British Empire with bright pink. Even in post colonial days you could look at a world map and spot Commonwealth countries, former colonies who still wanted to be part of the same club, dotted all over the world.

In fact if you turn to the back of the book you'll see that Mills has created two new maps of the world, one of which depicts the countries of USE picked out in a sickly purple, washed out blue, and shades of green. The other is crammed full of initials as it designates all the territories through abbreviations. Looking at the new map of the world where the fourty-seven new states appear like random blotches against a pale background it's hard to find any rhyme or reason for why these particular spots were chosen to become parts of the new empire.

Not to worry, for on each of the individual maps of the new states Mills has outlined the reasons why this particular country was chosen to become part of USE, and the benefits to be derived by USA, or US50, from their inclusion. These include everything from the geo-political, a country is situated such that an American presence can easily exert influence on a region of the world, to the natural resources made available through their inclusion. Of course one country can't just annex another without so much as a by your leave, I mean wasn't the first Gulf War fought because Iraq annexed Kuwait?
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That's all right Mills has covered those bases as well. For on each map he's itemized the reasons for US50 to take over the country. Take the new state of Panama Canal as an example. First of all the country of Panama wouldn't have existed without US aid in the first place as they were part of Columbia until 1903 and only seceded with American aid. Immediately upon declaring sovereignty they gave the US control over a swathe of land through the middle of the country until 1999 in order to build the canal and run it. Therefore a good chunk of the country was ruled by America for the majority of its existence anyway. Aside from that it will fulfil the need for military bases in the region to assist in future plans for the region and provide a beach head in Central America.

With his US Future States Atlas Mills has created a wickedly biting satire of America foreign policy dating back to the days of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. In the later parts of the twentieth century and early twenty-first we've seen the US invade countries all over the world with impunity for what has turned out to be the most spurious of rationale. Somalia, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all been treated to visits by American armies since the 1980s, while other countries have had to deal with forces armed and funded by various US governments. His creations are not only visually arresting with their garish colours, but they also provide insightful and intelligent commentary on American foreign policy and how truly ridiculous some of the rationale given for those previous actions has been.

Perceval Press has done its usual masterful job of presenting artwork in a book form. The works are laid out in such a way that we are able to see both their scope and the detail of each piece. Blow ups of the actual states themselves allow us to appreciate the lurid details of the colours Mills has chosen to illuminate them with, while the scale reproductions of each map are clear enough that we can make out details like the accompanying text. US Future States Atlas accomplishes the delicate act of balancing of art and politics with grace and style. While that's in large part due to Dan Mills' sensibilities, Perceval Press has to be given some credit as well as they have created an effective and accessible means for people to view the artist's work.

US Future States Atlas can be purchased directly from Perceval Press.

June 8, 2009

Book Review: Between The Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

There's a literary tradition of creating a series of stories that are tied together by their location. By creating a series of vignettes featuring the lives of a variety of individuals who live in a community the author attempts to leave readers with an overall impression of what life is like in the locale. Probably the most famous of these types of collections were Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio and James Joyce's Dubliners. Although from different worlds, and stylistically miles apart, both men brought their chosen cities to life in ways that left indelible impressions upon the reader.

In Between The Assassinations, published by Simon And Schuster Canada, Aravind Adiga tries his hand at the same thing with the city of Kittur on the south west coast of India. The assassinations of the title refer to the 1984 death of Indira Gandhi and the killing of her son Rajiv seven years later in 1991. While neither event has any direct bearing on the course of action in this book, they were of course important events in the history of India. Sandwiched between the two, the "life as normal" scenes depicted by Adiga, are a history of a sort that you don't normally read in text books.

Adiga has laid the book out as if it were a tourist guide to the region. He starts off by telling you that in order to properly "do" Kittur you need seven days, and the book is divided up into those seven days. While some areas of the city might take a full day to explore, others only take part of a day, so you'll find some chapters will take a whole day and others only a morning or an afternoon. Needless to say the guidebook descriptions for each chapter are rather tongue in cheek as the landmarks include a pornographic movie theatre, a cathedral that's never been completed, a historic monument that's fallen into disrepair, and violent slum. Kittur seems best known for being half way between a couple of other places and having a very high population of lower caste Hoyka people. In fact of the total population of Kittur only 89 people self identify as being without religion or caste.
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Therefore it shouldn't be of much surprise that caste, class, and religion play a role in the majority of the stories. Everything that occurs in the city does under their shadow and they're a constant presence lurking in the backs of people's minds. For in Kittur your place is very closely defined and even thinking about crossing the line could result in disaster. It's all right for a servant to make himself indispensable, but to try and be treated as an equal and see what happens.

Like any good tour guide Between The Assassinations divides your seven day sojourn in Kittur up by location. However your guides change by day and location, and the perspective they offer on the sites they are responsible for showing off isn't one that you'd normally find offered by the standard tour companies. How many companies would use an unskilled labourer like George D'Souza to show you around the famous unfinished cathedral? Nor would many be likely to hire the student who exploded a bomb in his science class to show you around the well known Jesuit school St. Alfonso's Boys' High School and Junior College. No they'd be more likely to hire the assistant headmaster Mr. D'Mello instead, a firm disciplinarian who after more than thirty years of teaching can anticipate what mischief young men can get up to before they even know themselves. Although they may not have had him lead a group of adolescent boys on a tour of the infamous "Angels' Talkies" pornographic cinema.

I'm also certain most tour companies wouldn't have on their agendas the sights our guides show us in and around the locales they represent. How many tourists are going to want visit the back allies where the poor sleep? I don't think they'd appreciate it either if their guides ran a sideline selling fake cures for venereal diseases or included visits to clinics euphemistically named "Happy Life" as part of the tour of the historic fort The Sultan's Battery. However it's these guides and their lives that give our tour of Kittur the authenticity that most lack.
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While the majority of the characters we meet in Between The Assassinations are those who feel the weight of caste and class the heaviest on their shoulders Adiga doesn't become just give us one group's perspective as so many others seem to have developed a habit of doing. For it's a factory owner who gives us a tour of The Bunder, the area of town where criminal activity is concentrated. It's not that he's involved in anything illegal, but among the drug runners and smugglers he finds a sympathetic audience to unburden himself to about the number of bribes he has to pay in order to stay open.

However, no matter whose eyes we see the city through the picture is not a pretty one. Corruption is rampant and poverty is a child's normal inheritance. Even the poorest having to pay off someone for the privilege of sleeping in a back alley. Adiga's characters aren't always the nicest of people, but they're what their world made them and the connection between who they are and the conditions that shaped them is drawn accurately without being sensationalized. Although it's is beginning to feel like every book released in North America set in India is mainly concerned with recounting social ills that tarnish the economic miracle image that is trumpeted in the press, Adiga's study of life in Kittur only does so indirectly. For instead of themes like religious violence or corruption being the focus, they are simply part and parcel of the lives his characters live.

Like Joyce and Anderson before him Adiga has concentrated his energies on the people of Kittur. By giving us glimpses into their lives; opening their hearts and minds to us so that we the city through their eyes, we are given a multi-dimensional view of life there. In the same way turning the tube of a kaleidoscope changes the image that one sees through its viewfinder, each chapter offers a different perspective. As a result, this is a remarkably well developed picture of life in a specific city and a number of the people who live in it. Although we may mark history with designated dates like the assassinations of major figures in society, individual's stories are continually being played out, and taken together they form the story of the place where they live.

Between The Assassinations is being released in North America on June 9th/2009 by Simon and Schuster and can either be purchased directly from them or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

May 28, 2009

Book Review: The Enchantment Emporium By Tanya Huff

Most authors end up being identified with a specific type of writing. He's a horror writer, she writes romance novels, and he writes historical fiction. There aren't too many writers out there who are able to switch between genres easily and create stories as credible in one as they do in another. One of the exceptions to this is Canadian fantasy/science fiction/horror novelist Tanya Huff. She's not only capable of delivering well crafted stories and plots in every genre she attempts, but she also consistently creates memorable characters whom her readers can identify with whether they're the bastard vampire son of Henry VIII of England or a Marine Staff Sergeant fighting in deep space.

Therefore, whenever a new novel by Huff is released I always look forward to discovering what she's planned for us this time. For while she does have some continuing series, she also can be counted on to bring out something apart from them at regular intervals. That's the case with her latest release from Penguin Canada, The Enchantment Emporium. Like so many others of her books this one is set primarily in a landscape that will be alien to most of us, the city of Calgary in the province of Alberta Canada.

The second largest city in the province best known for being the home to Canada's largest population of cowboys, and the largest producer of Natural Gas and Oil, seems at first glance to be an unlikely place to set a fantasy novel. Yet that's just what Huff has managed to do with her usual flair. It seems that beneath its rather roughneck surface Calgary is home to a rather large population of fantastical beings and they all seem connected to the Enchantment Emporium of the title. However, there's also something not quite right in Calgary, and it looks like some sort of deadly convergence of powers is about to take place that could end up levelling the city.
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Alysha Catherine Gale isn't to know this when she receives a mysterious letter from her grandmother saying that if she's reading it that means her grandmother is probably dead, and could she come out to Calgary and take care of her store, The Enchantment Emporium. Now while the news of a grandmother's death might come as a shock to most families, the Gales, by anyone's stretch of imagination, aren't most families. They are a family of magic users who can change the course of events with the charms they cast. However there's more to them than just being spell casters. The men of the family having a tendency to manifest antlers when they exert power and butting heads with each other on occasion being only one example.

If the thought of the Gale men growing a rack the dream of every weekend hunter gives you pause, than what the women who are the real power in the family can do with pie and cakes is better left alone. Sufficient to say that evil sorcerers will go into hiding for years on end in order to avoid being sniffed out by just one of the Gale woman, let alone the older women known as the aunties who try to control the family. To the younger generation like Alysha, the aunties as a group are a combination matchmaker and interfering busybody who ninety percent of the time you wish would stay the hell out of your business. However, the other ten percent, when the you know what is about to hit the fan, you couldn't find a better group for guarding your back.

It's mainly because of their annoying tendencies that Alysha jumps at the opportunity to go and check out what's going on in Calgary. While no one really believes that there's anything out there that could have put grandma down, something did make her disappear which makes it worth looking into. So with the help of Joe, a rather oversized leprechaun, she takes up the job of both running the Enchantment Emporium, and trying to figure out what happened to her grandmother. Her job would be a lot easier of course if she didn't have to deal with any number of her cousins "helping", and trying to figure out a way of preventing the aunties from killing the new love of her life just because he happens to work for an evil sorcerer.

While said evil sorcerer doesn't appear to have had anything directly to do with her grandmother's disappearance, after all been he's hiding from her for the last ten years, (The Gales kills sorcerers just on principal alone because they are the epitome of the saying, all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely) something he's done just might be be behind it. Of course the fact that there's a gateway open between the other realms - places where demons and other assorted nastiness lives - in the middle of downtown Calgary might also have something to do with it. It also might explain the presence of the twelve dragon lords who keep buzzing the Enchantment Emporium every morning and giving the local pigeons heart attacks.
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If it sounds like there's a lot going on in The Enchantment Emporium, you're right there is. However, one of the wonderful things about Tanya Huff is her ability to build a story like a giant jig-saw puzzle, and each piece that's supplied makes the picture that much clearer, not more confusing. So as Alysha, and her compatriots, gradually figure our what's going on, so do we. In this way Huff not only has created a story that's easy to follow, she also pulls us into it by keeping us involved with its development. Even better is the fact we are able to enjoy the ride at the same time.

Part of what makes the ride so enjoyable is that all of the characters, from Alysha to the dragon lords, are a pleasure to read about. They are funny, smart, and not without their flaws; all of which makes them real to us no matter how outlandish they might be. The depiction of a dragon lord in his human form, a being who could destroy the city of Calgary without thinking twice, white knuckling through his first car ride is a great example of not only Huff's humour, but her ability to create multidimensional characters.

Tanya Huff fans will be pleased to know that The Enchantment Emporium is filled with examples of her rather offbeat humour like the scene described above, and that her slightly askew world view hasn't changed in the least. While there's nothing normal about the Gale family in terms of our world, within the covers of this book their reality is normal and it just might change the way you look at things. It's not very often that you find a book that's not only hugely entertaining, an exciting adventure, and that also provides you an opportunity to change your perspective on the way the world works, but that's what Tanya Huff does here. If you've never read anything by Huff before, this is as good a place as any to start, and if you're a long time devotee you won't be disappointed either. This is one fantasy book that is genuinely fantastic.

Tanya Huff's The Enchantment Emporium can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or another on line retailer like Amazon.ca

May 27, 2009

Book Review: Heather Jansch's Diary...A Life In The Year Of By Heather Jansch

I've always been fascinated by the process that individual artists follow in their creations. On a few occasions in the past I've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview writers and musicians and talk with them about the approach they take in creating their work. The only truism I've discovered from those conversations is process is as unique to an individual as the art they produce. Therefore, by extension you can add that looking to another's process is not much use if you're looking for tips or shortcuts to help with your own work.

However there are benefits of a less tangible nature, for both non-artists and artists alike, to be found in reading about how somebody goes about creating and then making their art. For the non-artist it's a way of learning more about art in general and gaining a deeper appreciation for the amount of work involved with creating. More specifically, reading about one person's methods and efforts gives you insights into their work that can only increase your enjoyment of whatever they produce. For those who are also trying to create, sometimes just reading another's tales is sufficient to bring one's own efforts into perspective and might just encourage you to keep flailing away even when things seem most futile.

It's with all that in mind that I recommend to both artist and non artist alike a new publication by British sculptor Heather Jansch, Heather Jansch's Diary: A Life In The Year Of. Laid out like a cross between a journal and sketch book, this sixty-four page spiral bound package is replete with not only the joys and travails involved in Ms. Jansch's efforts to produce her extraordinary sculptors made of driftwood and other fallen timbers, its fleshed out with anecdotes about her life in general. As a result you not only learn something about her work but also the artist as well and how her life and her art intertwine.
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What Ms. Jansch is primarily famous for are her sculptures of horses. Ranging from scale models to life size they are unlike any other statues of horses I've ever seen. Constructed by attaching drift wood and other found wood to a frame work, her creations capture more of the wildness and power of the animal subject - more of its spirit in fact - than you would think possible for an inanimate object. Somehow she is able to arrange the individual pieces of wood so they coalesce into a single entity of muscle and sinew. Posed in mid-motion, she has so successfully captured the kinetic energy of the animal that you are in constant anticipation of their next move.

Almost as incredible as that may sound, what's equally amazing is that in spite of the fact that they are made up of materials that should lend them a skeletal appearance, there's nothing scary or spectral about them. Instead they have all the characteristics of living horses, down to the near arrogant carriage of the stallions' heads, the slight curve in their spines, and the multiple strands that make up their tails. As the illustrations in A Life In The Year Of... show the horses are exhibited outdoors in various environments, and I think you could be forgiven if coming upon one of them suddenly in a field for mistaking it for the real thing.
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Once you get beyond the wonder and joy of exploring the photographs of completed sculptures included in the diary, and your envy over the beautiful Devonshire countryside where Jansch happens to live and work, it's time to start exploring the text of this particular journal. As the title suggests she does take you through a year of life with her art, but she also describes a few other adventures as well that may or may not have been part of that year as they exist as entities onto themselves. However, each and everything included in the pages of this book contribute to helping us build a picture of who this person is and gives us clues as to what compels her to create her magnificent beings.

Judging by her descriptions of sore muscles, broken nails, blistered hands, and strained ligaments the work is not without its detractions. However, none of those difficulties seem sufficient to prevent her from taking on projects or stopping her from working when inspiration strikes. In her forward to the journal she says," When the muse in on my shoulder I am helplessly enthralled and have to follow her fast. To deny the muse is to deny life." However at the same time she also has the self awareness and insight to know when she needs to step away and take breaks from the work. Usually that seems to be for her when she begins to complain about what's involved with the making and has lost enjoyment for the process.
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In Heather Jansch's life inspiration seems a rather haphazard thing, as she doesn't appear to know just when it will come and it seems to depart with equal suddenness. However, while some might find that frustrating, she seems to be able to accept that with equanimity. One of the reasons for that is that she also appears to lead a very full life even in the times when she's not creating, thinking, dreaming and building her art. This is made clear by the amount of space taken up in the journal describing events and happenings that on the surface have little to do with her art. For while they may not directly result in the creation of a horse or other sculpture, they can't really be separated from her creative process either as they offer evidence of a mind that's constantly finding the pleasure in life that's required for inspiration to flourish

One of the delights of the journal is it's layout, with text, photographs, and reproductions of sketches and preliminary drawings evenly distributed throughout its pages. Whether it's a picture of children attending an open house at Jansch's studio, a rough ink sketch of a horse, or a stunning shot of one of her creations silhouetted against a misty morning sky surrounded by trees, each piece helps to explain why she does what she does. There are no simple answers as to why any artist creates. They may be able as Jansch does to tell you what inspires them, in her case life, but as far as why is concerned, it comes down to a cross between, because and I must. However, when we see the results of her creativity, and try to image the feelings generated by knowing you were responsible for creating something as astounding as one of her statues, or were responsible for the smile on that child's face, a piece of the why comes a little bit clearer.

While her process might seem somewhat random, dependant on inspiration as it is, the reality as we learn is that once inspiration hits, hard work, sweat, and toil have as much to do with artistic creation as they do with any labour. One thing you'll learn for sure from reading A Life In The Year Of... is that there's one heck of a lot of hard work that goes into making something beautiful and no matter how magical inspiration might be, without the down to earth perspiration nothing would ever get done. This is a delightful and insightful journey into the mind of a truly inspired artist that will be a pleasure and an education for artist and non-artist alike.

You can order a copy of Heather Jansch's Diary: A Life In The Year Of... through her we site and she'll ship anywhere in the world. For those of us on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean who stand little or no chance of ever seeing her work in person, one of these diaries represent our best opportunity to have a piece of it to hold onto for ourselves. The fact that its an entertaining and perceptive read at the same time makes it even that much more of a treasure.

May 10, 2009

Book Review: Sivler Phoenix By Cindy Pon

To the eyes of us in the West the geographical area of the world we know as China has been long a mystery. I'm sure the majority of North Americans still think of breaded chicken covered in lurid red sauce and badly dubbed Kung-fu movies as the epitome of Chinese culture. Those who are slightly more enlightened maybe able to tell you that its one of the world's most populated countries and has recently developed into an economic giant. Depending on your view point she's either an oppressive regime using slave labour to flood the world with cheap merchandise, or the land of opportunity where a shrewd businessman can make his fortune.

Thankfully things are different when it comes to books, and we've seen the publication of numerous works translated into English from Chinese starting to show up on the shelves of bookstores. Even better, is that after years of silence the sons and daughters of Chinese immigrants are also beginning to create art which honours their heritage. Cindy Pon, whose first novel Silver Phoenix was just released by Harper Collins Canada doesn't quite technically fit into either of the above categories as she was born in Taipei Taiwan, but her family immigrated to the US in 1980 and she writes in English.

I'm no authority on Chinese culture, particularly folk tales, but in Silver Phoenix it appears like Pon has drawn upon her knowledge of figures from myths and tales to create her story. She has elected to set the novel in an era a Western audience would be familiar with as it sounds like the typical feudal society depicted in many of the better Karate movies, but has included the added touch of making it obvious that initial contact has been made with people from beyond China's borders.
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At seventeen Ai Ling is feeling unwanted. As the daughter of a respected scholar and former advisor to the Emperor you would think her parents wouldn't have any trouble arranging a marriage for her. However seventeen is old, and when that is combined with the fact she is a little tall, somewhat wilful, and rumours of her father having left the court in disgrace, it's fast becoming apparent that finding her a husband is going to be a lot more difficult than her parents anticipated. While Ai Ling feels somewhat badly for her parents, she is also relieved, as the thought of having to surrender the freedom she's enjoyed up to now to marry someone she doesn't know hasn't been filling her with great joy anyway. Unlike most young woman of her age she's been taught to read and write and has a great deal of independence.

Just as she's resigned herself to a life with her parents, her father is called away mysteriously to return to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams - the court of the Emperor. While saying his good byes, Ai Ling's father gives her a beautiful jade pennant with the instructions that she's never to remove it while they are separated. Although slightly bemused at the request she complies and a good thing to. For, after a couple of months she is forced to flee her house to escape the attempts of a loathsome local merchant to force her to marry him, and sets out to bring her father home, and the pennant becomes a key to her survival.

For no sooner has she set out then inexplicably demons from ancient folk tales start showing up where she is travelling. At first she only sees one in action, but soon she realizes they have taken an unhealthy interest in her. She barely escapes drowning when a young man pulls her from the lake where the first demon that attacked her was attempting to drown her. Naturally as a young woman travelling alone she is at first wary of Chen Yong, but he eventually wins her trust. This is partially due to the fact that he's as much an oddity as she, due to the fact that he is obviously of mixed blood. It turns out he's never met either of his birth parents, but he knows his father was a foreigner from the lands to the north where they have hair that's so pale it's almost white and eyes the colour of the sky.
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Like Ai Ling he's hunting for information about his father, and they decide to join forces. Along the way they are joined by his younger step-brother, Li Rong, and the three of them continue to encounter beings, both benign and evil, from myth as they make their way to the palace. As the journey continues and they find out more about why Ai Ling is the target of these attacks, they also discover that she and Chen Yong's fates have been intertwined since before she was born. However if they have any hope of discovering the truth, and finding Ai Ling's father, they are going to have to survive the hidden danger that awaits her at the Palace of Fragrant Dreams.

In Silver Phoenix Cindy Pon has done the remarkable job of not only telling a wonderful fantasy story with believable characters, but bringing alive a period of a culture's history. It comes as no surprise to learn that she is a student of Chinese brush painting, as she has a gift for bringing a scene to life in a reader's mind's eye. As only a few perfectly selected brush strokes of a water colour painting can create a picture, Pon's words bring each scene in her book to life vividly. Whether she describing the beauties of a garden, the intricate patterns of the two brothers sparring in unarmed combat, or the evil incarnate of one of the demons who attack the trio, a reader has no trouble visualizing what she's written.

While Silver Phoenix is nominally a book for young adults, the story is sophisticated enough and interesting enough for anybody who not only appreciates good fantasy, but who thinks there might be something more to Chinese culture than take out food and action movies. While it may only be a represent a sliver of time in the history of that country, and a glimpse at a few of their folk tales, its far more than what we are used to seeing and might just whet your appetite to find out more on your own. An adventure story with a taste of romance and an author with an ear for dialogue and an eye for description are a combination that's hard to beat, and that's what you'll find in Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix

Silver Phoenix can be purchased either directly from Harper Collins Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

May 7, 2009

Book Review: Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

The imagination has always been the enemy of repressive regimes or any group hoping to dictate the way people think. For, how can you control a person's thoughts if they are constantly wondering, "What If"? The time honoured method employed for controlling people's imagination is to control those who do their best to inspire them to pose the question which opens the door to a million possibilities. Writers, film makers, playwrights, musicians, and anyone else involved in artistic creation, have always been the target of those wishing to ensure a population's thoughts don't stray in directions they shouldn't.

From the pressure groups who try to have films and books banned because they disagree with their message, to governments who prevent works from seeing the light of day because they encourage people to think in ways that they don't approve of, censorship has been the favoured means of controlling artists. Whether it's by the simple expedient of locking troublesome individuals up, dictating what is permissible to be published, or editing work to make it acceptable for public consumption, they do their best to stifle anything that would encourage thinking they deem unacceptable. Yet such is the creative impulse, that artists of all stripes will continue to try and produce works no matter what the circumstances, and attempt to encourage those flights of fancy considered so dangerous.

In its first English translation Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour, that was just released by Random House Canada, depicts an author's attempt to write the novel he wants while doing his best to assure its approval by Iran's censors. In a society where it is forbidden for men and women not married or related to be seen in public together, writing a love story that will win permission to be published is fraught with difficulties. Simply figuring out the logistics of how a couple can meet in a way that's acceptable to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance under these circumstances is probably more of a creative challenge then most writers face writing an entire novel.
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Mandanipour's Censoring An Iranian Love Story is written from the point of view of an author as he tries to tell the story of how Sara and Dara meet and fall in love. Told in the form of a conversation with the reader, our protagonist guides us through the ins and outs of writing one thing and meaning another, the importance of "..." at the end of an incomplete sentence in contemporary Iranian literature, and how to best make use of stream of conscience to express forbidden thoughts. While the author is telling us the story of his two characters, he reproduces excerpts from the manuscript he's writing recounting the same events in a manner he hopes will meet the approval of Mr. Petrovich, the censor who decides if a book can be published or not.

Obviously he can't include such details as Dara's history of being a political prisoner for selling illegal videos, as Mr. Petrovich would never allow such a morally degenerate character to be the a romantic hero. Nor can he describe their clandestine meetings in Internet Cafes, their fear of arrest for being seen in public, or any of the thoughts they might have of each other. For Mr. Petrovich couldn't allow anything to be published that would encourage people to commit similar offences or encourage immoral thoughts. However, instead of dampening people's imaginations, it seems as if censorship has had the opposite result. For according to our author the modern Iranian reader has become very adept at filling in the blanks left by those three dots at the end of a sentence and interpreting the hidden meanings behind seemingly innocent phrases.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Censoring An Iranian Love Story is the way in which the relationship between the author and the censor Mr. Petrovich is described. For instead of hearing the voice of a muse of inspiration in his ear while he is writing, our narrator carries on an internal conversation with his censor. The manuscript he periodically shows us is full of sentences with lines through them where he's gone back over his text and censored it himself in anticipation of what Petrovich won't allow. While most writers only have to struggle with finding the words they require to tell their story, our author spends a great deal of his creative energy on devising the means to tell his story in such a way that it will be published or marshalling his arguments to convince the censor that a sentence will not lead anybody to have sinful thoughts.
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While Mandanipour's book does nothing to dispel the image we have of Iran as an autocratic theocracy, it brings to life the faces normally hidden behind the veils and beards imposed on its population. The Persian culture is one of the oldest civilizations in the world and has a tradition of poetry dating back more than a thousand years that was redolent with sensuality and passion. However, we also learn that the Sufis, who were the greatest of the Persian poets, almost never used explicit language. Instead they wrote in such a way that their words could be interpreted as praise for the divine as well as more earthy matters. So, ironically, a modern Iranian writer who is forced to write one thing and mean another, is actually carrying on the legacy of these long dead poets.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story is a beautifully written book in which moments of satire rub up against examples of humanity found in the most unlikely of places. (The blind film censor "watching" Al Pacino playing a blind character in Scent Of A Woman, understanding and appreciating it better than his sighted advisors and demanding they leave him alone to watch it.) While it could have easily been a bitter and angry book that railed against the tyranny of censorship and the Iranian regime in general that merely reenforced our perceptions of a monochrome society, he's elected to take a different approach. By focusing on the dilemma of the author trying to write his story, and the efforts his characters go through to establish their relationship, Mandanipour has infused a difficult subject with warmth, love, and humanity. This is not the Iran we read about in the media, and that makes his message even more powerful.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story 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

March 5, 2009

Book Review: A Life Full Of Holes By Driss Ben Hamed Chahadi - Recorded And Translated By Paul Bowles

Have you ever considered what makes a story that is told different from a story that is written down? The most obvious one is your relationship to the person who is recounting the tale. In the case of a story that's been put down on paper there is a sense of distance between the author and what they are recounting, while the story teller is more directly involved with his narration. Whether or not what they are telling you actually happened is irrelevant, their physical presence and the sound of their voice connects them to their story in a way that creates an intimacy that is hard to recreate with the written word.

It's been my experience that when a story that was originally told is converted into a written work it loses that sense of intimacy. However, that was before I read A Life Full Of Holes, published by Harper Collins Canada, a story told by Moroccan author Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi (the pen name of Larbi Layachi) that was recorded and translated by the great American writer Paul Bowles. Somehow or other, even though you are reading this story, it manages to capture the experience of having it told to you.

According to the introduction this story was told to Bowles by Charhadi over the course of a couple of months. Charhadi would simply plunk himself down in front of the tape recorder and tell a section of the story without stopping or even pausing to think about what he was going to say next. Instead of adapting the story into something polished, Bowles elected to simply translate it from Charhadi's dialect as literally as possible without any editing.
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A Life Full Of Holes is the of the story of Ahmed ben Said Haddari in Morocco. Told in the first person, the story follows him from early childhood through adolescence until adulthood. The picture that is painted is one of abject poverty and misery as he tells us of the various ways in which he tries to make a living, and the misadventures that befall him. From his step-father who refuses to feed him unless he goes to work when he's a child, the beatings he experiences at the hands of bullies, the racism he faces from the Europeans (referred to as Nazarenes in reference to the fact that their prophet Jesus was originally from Nazareth) who occupy and rule Morocco, to the times he spends in jail, his life is one long struggle to survive. Every time it looks like he might finally be getting his head above water something happens to pull him back under again.

What makes this story so powerful is the straight forward manner that Ahmed reports on what happens to him. Whether it's the prison guards stealing the food and cigarettes his mother has brought him in jail or him being arrested for being in possession of kif and his sentence being decided by a representative of the tobacco industry (they want people to smoke tobacco instead of kif and pressure judges into passing stiff sentences against kif users in order to discourage its use and force people to switch to their product), his various misfortunes are presented in a matter of fact manner that makes them seem like everyday occurrences that could and do befall everybody.

There is something about reading about injustices presented without emotion that makes them even more disturbing. It makes them seem like just another part of life that people have to deal with, and that nothing anybody does is going to make it any better. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's the Europeans or fellow Arabs in charge, as anybody whom Ahmed comes across who has some sort of power is corrupt in one way or another.
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There is a pervasive element of fatalism that flows throughout A Life Full Of Holes that is personified by the way Ahmed and other characters accept their lot in life. "Allah wills it" - God wills it - eventually becomes his one solace against misfortune as it allows him to take whatever comes his way with a certain level of equanimity. There's no point in getting upset about being sentenced to jail for three years for something you didn't do, because there's nothing you can do about it anyway. If its God's will that you're going to spend that time in jail, you might as well just try to make the best of a bad situation instead of giving yourself aggravation by fighting the inevitable.

What really gives this book its power though is the fact that in spite of it being written out, you still have the sense that the story is being told to you. While Charhadi electing to tell it from the point of view of his lead character in the first person helps create that impression, the fact that it is told completely in the present tense gives it an immediacy that's normally lacking in a written narrative. Each stage of Ahmed's life is recounted while he is living it, so we are experiencing it at the same time he does with none of the usual division between characters and readers.

A Life Full Of Holes is not only a powerful and slightly horrifying portrayal of life for the poorest of the poor in colonial Morocco in the 1960's, it's also a brilliant example of how it's possible to recreate the magic and immediacy of oral story-telling in writing. Most times when people write out a story that's been told to them they tend to adapt it to meet the needs of the novel form. That's not been the case here, and the result is something truly unique and special.

A Life Full Of Holes can be purchased either directly from Harper Collins Canada or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

February 26, 2009

Published At Last

Way back in October of 2005 I began writing the series of articles for Blorgcritics.org called NaNoWriMo Notes. The NaNoWriMo of the title refers to something called the National Novel Writing Month competition in which participants attempt to write 50,000 words towards a novel in the space of thirty days, or the month of November. NaNoWriMo Notes started off as a record of my efforts to make the deadline in 2005, and then evolved into a record of taking what I started that November to completion and my continued efforts to find a publisher for the final manuscript.

It's been getting more and more difficult for unpublished authors to find a publisher, and I was no exception. So I put the manuscript aside for a bit and focused on writing as much as I possibly could, because it's what I liked doing. Then the strangest thing started to happen: people began approaching me to buy my work. It started off with the German edition of Rolling Stone magazine asking me for permission to reprint an interview I had done with American singer/songwriter Willy DeVille (I ended up providing most of the copy for a special feature they did on him for their February 2008 issue) and continued that fall when the web magazine Qantara.de approached me to contribute articles on a freelance basis.

Finding my work in demand, I decided to re-visit my manuscript and began the process of going through it again with an eye for making edits and re-writes to prepare it for publication. I had come across a new publishing house whose web-site said they were actively seeking new authors, so I figured it was worth the effort to polish it up and send off the standard query letter. I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that if I wanted people to read it that I was probably going to have to go the self publishing route, but it couldn't hurt to make one last effort at having somebody else publish it for me.

Much to my surprise, and delight, not only did they respond positively to my query letter, after reading a fifty page excerpt they requested the full manuscript. That was at the end of January/09 and although they said they would get back to me in a week or so, I'm still waiting to hear from them as to their final decision. I'm not sure whether that's a good or a bad sign that they're taking longer then they said they would, but for the time being I'm not all that disturbed by their slowness, for as it turns out I'm going to be a published author anyway.

The day after I received the e-mail requesting the sample pages from the publisher I had sent the query letter to, one arrived in my inbox from Ulysses Press in California asking me if I would be interested in writing a short book, 50,000 words, predicting what would happen in the fourth book of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle. It seems they had experienced great success with a similar book they had published for the Harry Potter series, MuggleNet.com's What Will Happen In Harry Potter Seven, and felt there was a good chance of repeating that success with Paolini's series.

To say I was taken aback is an understatement as it felt like the equivalent of winning the lottery. Needless to say the first thing I did was follow the link to their web site in order to make sure this wasn't one of those, congratulations you have just been selected by Bill Gates to receive a chunk of his money things, and discovered they were for real. It turns out they had read my reviews of the first two books in the Inheritance Cycle and been impressed enough by it, and other work of mine that they read on line, to think that I'd be a good fit for what they wanted.

Needless to say I was, and am still, immensely flattered and thrilled, but that didn't stop me from having some hesitations. First of all there was the whole issue of legality - I didn't feel comfortable with writing something like this if it wasn't with the approval of the original work's author. I had genuinely like and appreciated Ergaon and Eldest, the two books of the series that I had read at that point, and wanted nothing to do with something that was being done behind his back and that didn't respect his work. If I was going to do this, I wanted to be sure it was more than just an exploitation of another person's creativity.

The letter I received in response to the one I sent them expressing those concerns was very reassuring as they told me they were in the midst of negotiations with Paolini, his publisher, and their representatives in order to make certain there were no problems. For although they obviously wanted the book completed as quickly as possible, my deadline is April 1st/09, they didn't want it to be some quickie exploitative thing that diminished the original. Not only did the content of the letter make me feel better about the project, but the way in which the editor who wrote addressed my concerns convinced me that they were sincere in wanting to publish a book that honoured the original more than anything else.

Now everyone knows how popular the Harry Potter series was, but the other concern I had was whether or not there really was an audience for a predictions book about the Inheritance Cycle. I hadn't been keeping up with any of the news surrounding the series, as is obvious by having to ask that question, so I didn't know that Paolini had originally planned to write a trilogy. It was only when he started writing Brisingr, the third book, that he realized he wouldn't be doing the story or his characters justice if he stuck to his original plan. About a year before Brisingr was due to be published he and his publisher announced that a fourth book was going to be necessary, which when you think about it was quite a risk. People could as easily been turned off by the fact the series was being extended as they were excited by the prospect of another book. It turned out that it was the latter, as Brisingr sold around half a million copies in North America on its release date, a record for a young adult title published by Random House.

Needless to say once I found that out, and began checking out the Internet and seeing all the blogs and various web sites devoted to discussions and analysis of the series, I saw why Ulysses Press figured there was a market for a book predicting what would happen in Book Four. So since the middle of January I've been immersing myself in all things Inheritance Cycle, and began seriously writing in the second week of February. This means I've not had time for much else since, and probably won't until I've finished. I'll still be writing the occasional review, and I hope to write a few articles about the experience as it happens (no spoilers though as the publisher has requested I don't talk about the content).

If I'm really fortunate, once I finish with the predictions book for the Inheritance Cycle, my own novel will be in editing and final preparations for publication. Maybe that's a little too much to hope for, going from unpublished author to having two books published in one year, but all of a sudden it's a very real possibility. This could be a very interesting year.

February 21, 2009

Book Review: Fool By Christopher Moore

Some of the best roles in Shakespeare aren't necessarily the title role of a given play. Ask any actor who he'd rather play in Julius Caesar, and old Julius will be well down the list as he doesn't even make it half way through the play. Even in those plays like Othello where the lead has a lot to do, it's Iago, the villain of the piece, who is by far the juicier role to play.

While the part of The Fool in King Lear is not as substantial as that of Iago, he's still one of those secondary characters that many actors would give their eye teeth to play. When Kenneth Branagh was still staging live theatre productions, Emma Thompson, his wife at the time, played the role of the Fool in his staging of King Lear and practically stole the show.

So the idea of retelling the story of Lear from the point of view of the Fool as Christopher Moore has done in his most recent release, Fool, published by Harper Collins Canada, is an interesting idea, especially if one were wanting to turn the story into a bawdy farce that's as much a tribute to British humour as is it is to Shakespeare. Anyone who has read any of Moore's previous works knows that he is as capable of writing intelligent, subtle satire as he is pie in the face slapstick, and often combines the two with great success to write stories that are both thought provoking and hilarious. While Fool tends to lean more towards the outrageous than the subtle, imagine King Lear being staged as an episode of Fawlty Towers, its kept from descending into mindless farce by Moore occasionally injecting doses of reality.
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For those not familiar with the basic plot of Lear, an elderly king of England decides the time has come to split his kingdom between his three daughters, and bases his decision on who gets what on how much each love him. Being a vain old man he allows his two eldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, to flatter him with false words of love. However, when his youngest daughter, Cordelia refuses to play that game he disinherits her and splits his kingdom between his two eldest daughters with the proviso that he live half the year with one, and half the year with the other while Cordelia is married off to a Prince of France and banished from England. As it turns out, of course, Regan and Goneril show their true colours fairly soon and refuse to take care of Lear and end up plotting against each other for sole control of the kingdom.

In Shakespeare's version of events a third character, Edward, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, is the one who contrives to set the two daughters against each other by feigning love for both of them. In the version of events as narrated by Pocket, Fool (or Court Jester as we'd call him) to the court of King Lear, he's the puppet master behind the scenes doing his best to manipulate events. Unfortunately too many of his puppets have minds of their own and his plans quickly go awry. Initially he had hoped to ensure that Cordelia, his favourite among the three sisters, would remain at home in England and not be married off to a foreign prince, and when that fails he's left scrambling to find ways to make things right.

While Moore adheres pretty much to the story line of Lear as Shakespeare wrote it, it doesn't stop him from adding in a few extras from other plays as well. There's a vengeful ghost, shades of Hamlet (because there's always a "bloody ghost"), as well as a couple of guest appearances from the three witches of Macbeth, Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary, ("What no Thyme" said Kent. "We've the got the time if you've got the inclination") to help propel the plot along. Of course the major difference between the original and Moore's version is the tone; instead of Lear the tragic hero undone by his flaw of vanity as the main theme we are treated to a ribald adventure along the lines of The Decameron.

In most instances when a modern writer attempts to satirize Shakespeare they fall flat because no matter what they do their efforts pale in comparison to the original. What separates Moore's effort from any of the others that I've read is the fact he is able to reproduce the tone and spirit of the original in his use of language. Even though he is writing in mainly modern vernacular when his characters resort to bawdy language he draws upon the vast and colourful vocabulary of Elizabethan England giving them a verisimilitude lacking in most modern attempts at creating characters from this time period.
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However it's more than just his characterization that makes the story work, it's the fact that underneath all the humour and silliness one can't help but see Moore's admiration for the original work. Whether it's his adherence to the original story line, or the fact he retains some of the more powerful lines from the script - Lear calling on the storm to blast him after he's been betrayed by Regan and Goneril and is wandering upon the heath on the verge of madness for instance - it all adds to the overall sensation that although Moore is having fun with the the text, he's not making fun of it.

In his after-word to the novel, where he explains how and why he came to write Fool, Moore tells us not to bother going back to the original script to compare the two as he's drawn upon a number of Shakespeare's plays as a sources for dialogue. However, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, what Moore managed to do is actually increase my appreciation for the original. Not because he's done such a lousy job that it made me ache for the original in comparison, but because it was so well done that it reminded me what a wonderful play he had based his story upon.

It's been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but a codicil to that should be added that includes a work like Fool. What Moore has done with Fool is taken one of the great works of literature, King Lear, turned it on its head, and in the process reminded us of Shakespeare's genius. Genuinely funny, and wonderfully irreverent, Fool will appeal to any reader, whether they are familiar with the original work or not.

Fool can be purchased either directly from Harper Collins Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

February 5, 2009

Book Review: Little Bee By Chris Cleave

I wonder if any of us can imagine the straits somebody would have to be in to stow away in the cargo hold of a ship in the desperate hopes that whatever awaits at the end of that journey is better than what they have all ready experienced? What would it take for you to flee with nothing but the clothes on your back? I would think that anybody who went to those lengths must seriously believe their lives to be in danger or have cause to fear for their personal safety.

Yet the usual reaction in the so called developed world to people that desperate is to lock them up in detention centres while some government bureaucrat tries to decide whether or not they deserve to be granted refugee status and given asylum in whatever country they've ended up in. If the person can offer no proof that deportation will put their lives in jeopardy, as if they had time to get affidavits from the gunmen who came into their village and shot everybody or a copy of the arrest warrant that resulted in their being tortured, the only hope they have is if the country they've landed in has identified their country of origin as one where its civilian population is at risk.

Unfortunately if you're from a country like Nigeria in Africa which is now in the top ten of the world petroleum producers, most of the industrialized world has a vested interest in the activities that have put your life at risk. This is the case that the title character of Chris Cleave's most recent release, Little Bee, available from Random House Canada February10th/09, finds herself in. When deposits of crude oil are discovered under her village in Southern Nigeria, the oil company sends in soldiers to kill everybody and burn the village down. Since the government is aware of this activity - whole villages can't just disappear without somebody noticing after all, any survivors who escape become subject to immediate arrest and disappear usually never to be seen again. (Check out the author's web site for more information on Nigeria)
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Little Bee is the story of two women, Little Bee a Nigerian seeking asylum in Great Britain, and Sarah O'Rourke (nee Summers) a successful British journalist seeking refuge from the life she has created for herself personally and professionally. It's been two years since Little Bee landed in England as a stowaway onboard a ship from Nigeria and she has spent nearly every day since in the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre while her fate is decided. As the book opens it appears that a decision has been reached as she is being released. She and three other women have each been given chits good for a taxi and are free to go - that they might not have anywhere to go, or that they have no papers documenting their status as refugees, appears to have escaped everybody's notice.

It turns out that the release is not as official as Little Bee hoped. One of the three other women traded sex for illegal release, and it looks better for three or four to be released instead of just one. So Bee and two others find themselves standing in line waiting to use a phone thinking they have been granted asylum, when in actual fact they have just been turned into illegal immigrants.

At least Little Bee does have someone to call aside from a cab. One of her few treasured possessions is the driver's licence of one Andrew O'Rourke, journalist and husband of Sarah, both of whom she had had a chance meeting with on a beach in Nigeria slightly over two years ago. That Little Bee was with her sister at the time and fleeing the men hired by the oil company to destroy their village and kill its inhabitants at the time meant their initial meeting was not your typical interaction between tourist and local.

Sarah and Andrew were on the vacation in the hopes of saving their marriage as Sarah had been having, and would continue to have, an affair. They had separated briefly upon Andrew's discovery of Sarah's infidelity, but had decided to try to rebuild if for no other reason than their child Charlie. However by the time Little Bee phones them from the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre, their marriage is as precarious as it ever was. For not only had their attempt at a second honeymoon failed to save their marriage, the events surrounding their meeting with Little Bee while in Nigeria had changed them both irrevocably.
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In Little Bee Cleave has managed the very difficult task of writing about an issue that he obviously feels very passionate about without ever becoming polemic at the expense of his story. He had done a masterful job of creating two very believable lead characters in Sarah and Little Bee, and an equally brilliant job of alternating the narrative between them. By sometimes having the two women describe the same situation he is able to show us the ways in which they differ and are the same without having to spell anything out.

What I particularly appreciated is how Cleave built the story so that he weaves the past and the present together as he gradually develops the history that existed before Little Bee came to England. When Little Bee shows up unexpectedly on Sarah's doorstep near the beginning of the book it not only triggers Sarah to remember the events that led up to the trip to Nigeria, but what happened when she and Little Bee first met. While at first her decision to try and help Little Bee might seem like the knee jerk reaction of a guilty, affluent, white liberal, as she reflects on her life we realize there is more to her than that. At some point in her life she had become lost and Little Bee is the catalyst that helps her find her way back to being the person who wanted to make a difference.

While some of Little Bee's narration is what you'd expect, stranger in a strange land sort of thing, it never feels cliched or inappropriate for her character. After all she is a sixteen year old girl from a small village in Africa who had never been in a city before let alone out of her own country. Yet at the same time Cleave doesn't let her become a sweet little refugee girl who we all should feel sorry for. She wants vengeance on the people who are responsible for killing her sister, and, in a way, she gets to see it carried out even though its not in a manner any of us would have expected.

It's the unexpected things that Cleave brings to his characterization of both Sarah and Little Bee that make this book so real, for neither of them fit into anyone's easy stereotype of white liberal guilt or the plucky refugee whose an example for us all. Intelligent, well written, and with believable characters, Little Bee offers readers the chance to try and understand what would drive a person to climb into that cargo hold and search for a place to start their life over again. While the characters and the institutions mentioned in the book are all fictional, the description of conditions in both British detention centres and in Southern Nigeria are accurate and based on factual evidence. You might never think of asylum seekers in the same way again after reading this book.

Little Bee can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca as of February10th/09.

February 2, 2009

Book Review: The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two By Gordon Dahlquist

In The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume ONe Gordon Dahlquist created a fantastical version of 19th century Europe which he populated with an intriguing cast of heroes and villains. On one side a mysterious cabal of individuals made up of captains of industry, government insiders, high ranking military officers, and the aristocracy of various nations and their diabolical plans for obtaining power. Seeking to thwart their plots an unlikely a trio as you'll ever see; Celeste Temple, a single woman of good breeding and some money, Mr. Chang, also known as The Cardinal (a disfiguring scar from the whip of a young noble that gave his eyes an Asiatic cast and his preferred garb of a long red coat are the genesis of his names), a killer for hire, and Dr. Abelard Svenson, an army doctor attached to the diplomatic mission of the Duchy of Macklenburg, a German principality.

While Volume One explained how each of our heroes became embroiled with the intrigue and gave us a good idea as to what their foes were attempting to do and how they were going about it, The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two, being published by Random House Canada on February 3rd/09, reveals the extent of the cabals plans, and goes into even more explicit detail as to how they aim to fulfill them. Although we had previously learned something of the mysterious alchemy that allows a person's experiences to be recorded in blue glass and that an individual looking into that glass becomes immersed in the emotions recorded, it becomes clear that is only the tip of the ice berg.

After a brief period of working together to discover more information about the cabal the three again split up to pursue separate investigations. Although their parting helps each discover more details of the plot they are up against, it was not the result of considered planning. Instead it was an indication of the emotional fragility that marks each of the three characters. One of the things that Dahlquist has recreated accurately about this era is the state of emotional repression that most people existed in. What's more he also manages to capture the effect that an emotional upheaval has upon people who are normally alienated from their feelings perfectly.
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For when Celeste succumbs to her feelings about finding her ex-fiancee among the cabal, and falls to pieces in front of The Cardinal and Dr. Svenson, she is mortified with thoughts that they might think her weak. Blind to anything else, including reason, she decides that in order to prove herself she must carry out a dangerous adventure on her own. So she slips away to confront the leaders of the cabal. Not having any idea where she might have gone, The Cardinal and Dr. Svenson are forced to separate in the hopes of finding her, with the result that they all end up in deadly peril.

While there have plenty of fantasy and science fiction books that deal with mind control or psychological manipulation of one kind or another, Dahlquist's books are some of the first that I've read that deal with the power of emotions in the same way. Politicians today are past masters of manipulating our emotions at the expense of reason by playing on our fears in order to convince us they are the ones who will keep us safe. What Dahlquist does is take that basic premise and magnify to a degree that is horrifying.

His decision to set the series in a fictional 19th century setting and retain the moral codes of the time have given him the ideal societal conditions to explore the effects of unbridled emotions. In a society where propriety is the foremost consideration and sexuality is sublimated, experiencing sensual pleasure would be like taking a drug. Using their method of recording people's experiences, the cabal feeds its targets undiluted doses of the most stimulating and rawest emotions they can accumulate in order to seduce them to their aims. However the process not only encodes emotions, but all of a person's experiences and thoughts as well. So anybody going through the process allows the cabal access to any knowledge they have stored in their memory.
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Imagine if you have lived your life in a state of near frigidity, and all of a sudden someone promises you that they can not only free you to experience waves of pleasure without any guilt or shame, but also help you achieve any ambitions you might have for power, wealth, or status. Simply undergo "the process" and you will ascend to a higher level of being. If you were an ambitious politician or a greedy industrialist in the 19th century would you be able to resist? It may not sound plausible to our ears put so baldly, but Dahlquist makes it all ring true.

For even our three heroes become ensnared by the strength of the emotions that emanate from the pieces of blue glass which contain a specific moment and the deadlier glass books which are the record of person's entire experiences. Even the ways they are able to overcome the effects of the glass are such that it adds to the verisimilitude of the circumstances. For it's not because they have any superhuman powers or are "better" people than those who surrender, it's because they know that the people behind the scenes don't have their best interests at heart. Remembering you're in deadly peril usually helps prevent you being seduced by your enemy.

The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two like its predecessor is not only an exciting and alluring adventure, its a terrifying look at the potential to control people through emotions. What was impressive about the first book, an intriguing plot and interesting characters, is improved upon here as Dahlquist not only manages to spin new webs of intrigue in this volume he also unravels them with eloquence. Meanwhile he also allows his three lead characters to learn and grow from both their experiences and their acquaintance with each other and show how it is possible to free your emotions without the aid of alchemeny.

It's not often that a book can be escapist fun and thought provoking at the same time, but that is definitely the case in this instance. I'm looking forward eagerly to the release of the final volume in this series for what promises to be more of the same.

The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume Two can be purchased directly from Random House Canada as of February 3rd/09 or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

January 30, 2009

Book Review: The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 By Gordon Dahlquist

There's something about the mid to late nineteenth century that makes it the ideal period for setting a mystery novel. Perhaps it's because of the atmosphere created by the lack of electricity and houses lit by either gas or candles. Even in the best lit houses there are places where the light didn't reach creating pools of shadows in which anything could happen. It was also a period of great political and social unrest as various nationalist interests across Europe strove for independence and the aristocracy were being forced to share power with a merchant class demanding their money give them a voice in government.

A writer couldn't find a better era to create intrigues involving people of power lurking in the shadows seeking to take advantage of the era's industrial and scientific advancements in order to carry out their nefarious plots. It doesn't hurt either of course that cities of that time would have been filled with rundown and desperate neighbourhoods and even in the better parts there would have been plenty of ill lit allies where anything could happen to anyone. It's an age that positively cries out for stories of secret cabals, knives in the dark, and other strange carryings on.

Which is exactly what playwright turned novelist Gordon Dahlquist has done in The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Volume One, published by Random House Canada, that kicks off what promises to be an adventure/fantasy trilogy different from anything you might have read previously. Set in an era much like our nineteenth century Dahlquist has created a tale of gothic splendour to match those written during that time, but laced it with doses of modern awareness. The characters might be governed by the morality of the times, but unlike their counterparts written by authors of the period, these people have thoughts that would never have made it to print in Victoria's time.
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Through coincidence and luck three very disparate characters stumble upon a plot involving people from the highest ranks of the military, government, aristocracy, and industry from countries across Europe. Exactly what the plot is neither Celeste Temple (a single woman of good background and decent money), Mr. Chang, the Cardinal (a killer for hire whose names are derived from his penchant for wearing a long red coat and disfiguring scars he received to his eyes when young), or Dr. Abelard Svenson (a military doctor assigned to the principality of Macklenburg's diplomatic mission as medical baby sitter to the state's heir apparent) are certain, except that it must be dark and nefarious. For even before fate brings them together to pool their resources each of them has escaped a near death situation by the barest of margins.

What they have found out is that this mysterious cabal has discovered some sort of process that allows them to record one person's experiences and memories in such a manner as to allow others to relive them completely. They also discover that the people who undergo the process of having their memories duplicated become malleable to the point of being puppets. The implications of this of course are enormous, especially when Dr. Svenson discovers that his charge, Prince Karl-Horst, has undergone the process and has been taken into the plotter's inner circle.

With The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 Gordon Dahlquist has created the perfect opening salvo for what promises to be an intriguing trilogy of books. Not only has he created a tantalizing trail for our three erstwhile heroes to follow, and us to be captivated by, he has created three characters that allow us to have completely different perspectives on the same situation. The experience offered by partaking of the blue glass allows an individual access to another's innermost feelings and passions, and each of the three are effected when they experiment with a shard the doctor finds.
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To a typically repressed person of the era like Celeste a glimpse of raw, unbridled emotion of any kind is both shocking and alluring at the same time. For while her conditioning tells her she should be repulsed by what she is observing, no descent person would give into those types of feelings, a part of her yearns for the freedom of emotion that's she experiences. Each of the three react differently, according to their natures, but they each up end up realizing some sort of regret about their lives as well.

Not only do we begin to understand the allure offered by the process through the experiences of each of our main characters, it also allows Dahlquist the opportunity to give us a deeper insight of our leads. By allowing each of them to explore the feelings that looking into the blue glass awakens in them, he makes them far more interesting to read about. At the same time we also learn why each of them is willing to risk their lives pursuing a matter which they could just as easily have walked away from.

In The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 Dahlquist has done a great job of recreating the world of the nineteenth century through descriptions of the cities that the action takes place in and the behaviour of the characters involved in the story. As you follow his characters into darkened corridors or down dimly lit streets you can almost hear the hissing of the gas lights or the clip-clop of the horse drawn carriages as they proceed along cobbled streets. Even the plot reeks of the time as a key element of the intrigue is offering people the temptation to free themselves to experience emotions and feelings they have long held in check because of the morality of the times.

Not only has Dahlquist created a great period piece, he has managed to imbue it with enough of a modern sensibility to make it exciting and interesting to a contemporary readership. The characters are intriguing, the action exciting, and the plot is full of unexpected twists and turns. If the final two books match up the standard set by Volume One, this trilogy promises to be one of the most unusual and unique fantasy rides of the last little while.

You can purchase The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters Vol.1 either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

January 24, 2009

Book Review: Otra Isla Para Miguel (Another Island For MiguelBy Henry Eric Hernandez

Henry Eric Hernandez is a historian even though you'll not find his name listed as the author of any text book or learned article about the subject. For he doesn't "write" the kind of history that deals with dates, battles, or famous historic figures. In his book published a couple of years ago, La Revancha (Revenge), Hernandez documented a series of what he called interventions where he and a group of people carried out renovations on buildings in Cuba where events of historical significance had taken place. Through these restoration projects he brought history to life as he recalled what it was that had originally made a building famous; what is now a rundown toilet in a school was once the military barracks that both Batista and Fidel Castro had used as their the staging grounds prior to marching on Havana during their respective revolutions.

While the work he carried out in La Revancha focused primarily on events that took place in the earlier part of the twentieth century, either before Castro had taken power or in the early days of revolutionary government, his most recent book, Otra Isla Para Miguel (Another Island For Miguel), published by Perceval Press brings us into the modern era. This time though he has turned to the people of Cuba in order to paint a picture of the effects its involvement in the Angolan, Ethiopian, and Somalian civil wars of the late 1970's and early 1980's. The focus is split between stories that reflect the economic impact of the wars and personal accounts from women left widowed.

In his introduction to the book Kevin Power provides us with the basic facts surrounding the civil war in Angola, and the circumstances which led to Cuba's involvement first there and subsequently in both Somalia and Ethiopia. This being the height of the Cold War, Russia and America were up to their usual tricks of vying for influence in the region. Russia, instead of deploying their own troops "asked" Cuba to send advisors to the side they supported in Angola, while the US, South Africa, and China backed the other side. In excerpts from speeches given by Fidel Castro that are included in the first couple of stories, we see that in the late 1970's Cuba was considering normalization of relations with the United States as part of a plan to expand their industry and economy. Instead, they involved themselves in the civil wars in Africa and deepened the split.
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There are two parts to Otra Isla Para Miguel, the stories included in the book and a DVD of Cubans telling their stories. Like the book, some of the people in the DVD talk about loved ones lost in the wars in Africa, while others detail the economic hardships they face and what they have to do in order to survive. In an interesting twist both the book and the DVD combine visual elements with "words" to tell the story of the impact these wars have had on Cuba and her people.

Throughout the text Hernandez has scattered photo's celebrating people's contributions to the cause of Cuba. Tawdry certificates commemorating years of service and charitable contributions, pictures of men and women posing under banners celebrating agricultural triumphs, and images of men in uniforms either at training facilities in Cuba or in action in Africa are juxtaposed with a widow's reflections on losing her husband or an account of a woman working as a prostitute because she has no other way to raise her family.

In the DVD interviews with individuals talking about their lives cut away to footage of life in Cuba. We see row after row of buildings crumbling in disrepair, dirty streets with garbage heaped in mounds against the sides of buildings, and aimless groups of people wandering, sitting in desolate groups on street corners, wearing the blank expression of the hopeless poor the world over. While the individuals we see being interviewed are animated, the primary emotions that appear to be driving them are anger, fear, and grief, as they recount what they have been though and what they continue to experience.

Without using any of the usual characteristics of a history text book, dates, statistics, and the names of famous people, Ora Isla Para Miguel gives the reader/viewer a history of Cuba. While the picture that gradually develops isn't positive by any means, at the same time you never once get the feeling that anybody involved in the project has a particular political agenda in presenting this information. This is a people's history of their day to day lives, not a rant against the horrors of Communism or the "evils" of the Castro regime.

In the 1970's Cuba's government made the decision to become involved with a series of wars overseas with results that have proved catastrophic for the country. Not only did they leave countless of people bereft of fathers and husbands for reasons they still don't understand, they took the country down a path that has resulted in their near economic ruin. Not only does Ora Isla Para Miguel bring that reality to life in a way no text could, Henry Eric Henandez reminds us of the human face that resides behind the events that are called "History". In the process he has rendered one of the most accurate histories of a country and its people I have ever experienced.

January 22, 2009

Interview: R. Scott Bakker - Author Of The Prince Of Nothing & The Aspect Emperor

The last time I had interviewed R. Scott Bakker it was in reference to his book Neuropath that was due to be released. To say that Neuropath was a departure from his previous books - the epic fantasy trilogy The Prince Of Nothing (The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought) was an understatement, so we had lots to talk about at that time.

However, his latest novel, The Judging Eye is not only a return to epic fantasy, but a return to the world he had created in the previous trilogy. The Judging Eye is the first book in a new trilogy, The Aspect Emperor, that picks up a couple of decades after events described in The Thousandfold Thought. So the questions I e-mailed to Scott to answer focused mainly on the forthcoming series, as well as specifics to do with aspect of the books that piqued my interest in particular.

Like his books, Scott's answers are though provoking and intelligent, so enjoy the read.

Can you describe the evolution of what is now I presume going to be a sextet - the three books that make up The Prince Of Nothing and the new trilogy The Aspect Emperor - Had you always visualized six books, or did it gradually take on a life of its own?
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The entire sequence is titled The Second Apocalypse, which in its initial conception way back in the 1980's was to be a trilogy consisting of three books, The Prince Of Nothing, The Aspect-Emperor, and The Book That Shall Not Be Named. The Prince Of Nothing, of course, turned into a trilogy in its own right, as has The Aspect-Emperor. The final book will likely be a standalone or a duology, with the second book containing a massive omnibus.

The amount of detail that you provide your readers when it comes to the world you've created is incredible - the history and the various cultures in particular. Was there any specific time period in our own history that you used as a springboard? What's the overall impression you were going for?

Epic fantasy is unique as a literary genre in that it strives to tickle its readers with a sense of awe. The thing I realized long ago–in my teenage D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) days as a matter of fact–was the importance of believability. From that point, I strove to create the most believable world I could–the world that ultimately evolved into Earwa. It’s literally been twenty-five years in the making.

In The Prince Of Nothing trilogy we witness society, for the most part, through the eyes of four characters who are outsiders; Drusus Achamian - as a schoolman (sorcerer) is considered damned by society, and even among schoolmen he is an outsider because his order believes in something no one else does, Esmenet, a prostitute, Kellus, and Cnaiur the barbarian. Was that a deliberate choice on your part, and what opportunities did it allow you as a writer?

Great observation. I initially chose my characters because of the generic types they represented–the sorcerer, the barbarian, and the whore–not because they were outsiders. The fact that they were outsiders, of course, afforded more than a few dramatic opportunities. If you think about it, The Prince Of Nothing is a kind of ‘rags to riches’ narrative: I had to have rags (disempowerment) to make the rise to riches (power) dramatic. And now, particularly with Esmenet in The Judging Eye, you have the dilemma of someone bred to subservience finding themselves forced to rule.

I've always loved words just for their own sake, the layers of meaning that can be found within just one word, a sentence, or how you can change meanings just by repositioning one or two letters. The system of magic that you introduced us to in the first trilogy, especially as practised by Achamian's school, reminded me of that and I wondered how and why you devised it.

Humans are born essentialists, which is to say, we generally think things and people are what they are by virtue of their intrinsic properties or characteristics–their ‘immutable essence.’ We think that the way things appear to us are what they are fundamentally–and given the invisibility of ignorance, we generally encounter few reasons to think otherwise. No matter how narrow, how stupid or peevish, our perspectives always strike us as exhaustive.

This (combined with the logical function of language) underwrites the intuition that words have ‘essential meanings,’ that a passage of scripture, say, has one fundamental reading (which always magically happens to be our reading). So for the longest time essentialist interpretations of language ruled the theoretical roost.

In Earwa, however, essentialism is true, words have pure meanings, significations unpolluted by the contextual vicissitudes of circumstance. The idea is that if you can speak from the all-seeing perspective of the God, then you can literally rewrite the world. The different Schools of sorcery are based on the way in which these essences are mined. In the Anagogis, concrete metaphor is the primary mechanism. In the Gnosis, conceptual abstraction is the royal road to sorcerous power. (Both of these are what I call discursive magics in that they are linguistic and compositional, and as such quite distinct from intuitive magics like the Psuke).

Why did I design the world this way? Because I think epic fantasy has to be believable to succeed (and the fact that my fantasy theory of magic has interested a few real occultists (!!) suggests I succeeded). I’m certainly not an essentialist myself. I’m actually starting to think that language as we experience it doesn’t exist, that it’s a kind of epiphenomenal smoke. But the fact is no one knows what the hell language is...

You've allowed nearly twenty years to pass in the world of the books before continuing with the story - while this allowed certain things to be established - Kellus as Aspect Emperor over all the world of The Three Seas - it also left large holes in your reader's knowledge of events leaving them to pick up the information through second hand sources rather than being first hand observers and making them sift through a variety of perceptions to form their impression of the state of the world. What was your intent with disseminating information in that manner?

Since history in the real world is interpretative and fragmentary, I think this approach actually makes the world more believable. This isn’t a license to be lazy–quite the contrary–since you have to continually gauge the way each fact (and I introduce more than a few contradictions) you give will contribute to the reader’s sense of the whole. When you get this right, you can generate and sustain not only some cool atmospherics, a real sense of epic gravitas, but quite a few message board debates as well!

In the first books Kellus was an active character who we saw the world through, but in The Judging Eye he is no longer a character, merely somebody we see through other people's eyes. Why did you make that change?

The original plan was to have Kellhus progressively disappear as a viewpoint character as he gained power throughout The Prince of Nothing. The problem, it turned out, was that all my draft readers began to believe him, rather than continually conditioning everything he said and did with what they had learned from their initial glimpses into his manipulative psyche. So I was forced to go back and to add several viewpoint sections to remind them what Kellhus was up to.
The reader is on their own in The Aspect-Emperor, I’m afraid. This is a lesson I learned from Hawthorne: if you want to create the intimation of power and transcendence, it’s far better to draw down the veil than to lift the skirts. I presume this is why all the ways the Bush Administration has saved America from further terrorist attacks seem to be ‘classified.’
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The Judging Eye of the title can be seen as referring to a talent that one of the characters introduced in this book, Mimara - Esmenet's daughter from when she was a whore- possesses, the ability to see a person's nature - evil or good. Yet in spite of her ability to see these absolutes you've still left a certain amount of ambiguity when it comes to good and evil in the book, why?

The thing about fantasy worlds–what makes them fantasy worlds, you might say–is that good and evil are more than projections of human self-interest. But think about a world where good and evil not only exist, but can be intuitively apprehended by everyone. Almost all conflict–and by extension, all narrative–turns on our inability to resolve our incompatible moral claims. If Earwa didn’t share the same problem, it would be so conceptually alien as to be unrecognizable. A hard place to tell interesting stories about, for sure!

I've often wondered why people who claim to be the reincarnation of somebody or other always say they are princes and kings but never somebody mundane like a slave. So I find it interesting that in Achamian's dreams that it's when he starts reliving mundane details of his forerunner's life that he realizes an important change is occurring. Did you have any particular intent with making the mundane and personal memories that come to Achamian in his dreams important, or is it just because they were different from the world changing events he and other sorcerers of his school normally experience in their dreams?

The relationship between the epic and the mundane is something that I’m deeply interested in, which is why I explore it throughout The Prince Of Nothing as well. Academics and literary writers generally regard spectacle with suspicion or outright derision–unless it happens to be more than a century old. I just finished reading a piece by Russell Smith in The Globe and Mail (Canadian Newspaper), where he describes how unbearable he found The Dark Night–because of the spectacle, it turns out. I’m sure that for him his disdain feels entirely obvious and natural, and that given time he could cook up numerous aesthetic rationalizations for why he dislikes spectacle.

I actually think this attitude is not only self-serving and pious, but socially pernicious as well. It’s no coincidence that literary specialists only came to regard spectacle as a kind of ‘opiate for the masses’ around the same time literacy rates boomed in Europe and North America. Humans have a hardwired yen for the spectacular, so if you want to distinguish your tastes from the general public, all you gotta do is turn your nose up at it. The next thing you know we have a literary culture a la Russell Smith, where our brightest, most socially and psychologically penetrating writers waste all their creative output on people who already share their values–become high-end entertainers in effect.

And where the masses harbour a defensive contempt of the mundane. (It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which the media ignored the fact that Obama’s single biggest liability wasn’t his race but his intellectualism).

From the very beginning, I’ve looked at The Second Apocalypse as an experiment in bringing criticism, writing that actually challenges, back to mass commercial culture. I see myself as part of larger sea change, one which integrates rather than segregates criticism and community. The Russell Smiths of the world need to be disabused of the self-congratulatory illusion that they are doing something critical with their artistic output, as opposed to simply confirming the educated assumptions of the educated classes. The so-called ‘literary mainstream’ is simply where we lock up our cultural rabble rousers where they can do the least amount of damage. The fact that they write books that would curl an evangelical Christian’s toes if they were to read it means nothing. Challenging is as challenging does. I’m no more clear on the ‘essence of literature’ than the next guy, but it strikes me as painfully obvious that literature–real literature–reaches out rather than in, that it bridges differences rather than reinforcing them.
And I can think of no better way of reaching out than with genre and spectacle.


You first introduced the ancient race of beings, the Nomen, in the books of the first trilogy, mainly through Achamian's knowledge of history and his dreams/memories, but Kellus also briefly met one in the first book. In the The Judging Eye not only does Achamian take one for his companion, but he enters into the ruins of one of their former retreats deep within the ground. Where did you draw your inspiration for the creation of the Nomen from?

Tolkien’s Elves have always exercised an almost totemic power over my imagination, and the Nonmen are simply my way of exploring that fascination. Psychologists will tell you that we are inclined to see individuals as belonging to moral orders, to see some as essentially better than us, and others as essentially worse than us. The tradition in epic fantasy is to concretize this with various races.

But where the Elves of Middle-earth have dwindled, the Nonmen of Earwa have fallen, the idea being that the very things that once made them better have reduced them to depravity over the ages. The result, I hope, is an associational palate quite distinct from the one you find in Tolkien, a sense of something glorious that has become ingrown and dark–something halfway between ruined and rotted.

As I hope The Judging Eye makes clear, the Nonmen will figure large in the events to follow.

I've been trying to avoid mentioning any particulars of the events in The Judging Eye, but I have to ask about Cil-Aujas, the ancient retreat of the Nomen. The journey through it reminded me of a cross between Dante's Inferno and the trip through The Mines of Moria in The Fellowship Of The Ring. If neither of those, what did inspire your descriptions of those events and the environment?

I reread both several times in the course of writing the Cil-Aujas chapters. There’s the ‘journey through the underworld’ component to be sure–which is a classic saw of the ancient epic. But there’s also a concretization of the past involved as well. In Cil-Aujas, you actually pass through the layering of history, plunging deeper into the atavistic bowels of Earwa’s past. But the bottom line is that I’m an just old, dope-addled D&D addict. Dungeons, man! Dungeons! Like many writers, I’ve had a life-long love affair with my fear of the dark.

R. Scott Bakker's fantasy isn't quite like anybody else's that you'll ever read, and I hope that you were able to catch a glimpse of what makes him so special through this interview. I didn't bother asking him what he had planned for the future as its pretty obvious he has his work cut out for him over the next little while. I'd like to thank Scott for taking the time to answer these questions, and encourage you to start reading his work. It's an adventure you'll not soon forget.

January 21, 2009

Interview: Reginald Hill - Creator Of Pascoe And Dalziel

It's hard to believe that their first appearance was back in 1970, but that's the year that A Clubbable Woman introduced the world to Reginald Hill's fictional Mid-Yorkshire's Odd Couple of police officers Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe. Numerous awards for crime fiction, and a television adaptation later, Reginald Hill and his creations are still going strong, much to the delight of anybody who enjoys intelligent, humorous, and challenging writing.

I've been an unabashed fan of their misadventures since reading a copy of that first book (sometime after its initial release date) and have happily devoured each new title as it has made its appearance on the market whenever I've been able. What has kept me, and I assume the millions of others who keep reading Mr. Hill's books, coming back is that you never know what you're going to find between the covers of a Dalziel and Pascoe investigation.

Not only have the plots for each book always been a notch above the usual you'd expect from the police procedural genre, but Mr. Hill has never allowed his characters to descend to the level of predictability. Where other authors have been content to keep presenting the same collection of mannerisms and passing it off as a recurring character, Pascoe, Dalziel, and their colleagues, have continued to fascinate by their refusal to be predictable. Although you can be pretty sure that you'll end up buying if you head off to the pub with "Fat Andy", don't count on being able to anticipate anything else about him.
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So when the opportunity arose to pose some questions to Reginald Hill about his work and his two most famous constables, I leapt at it. As Mr. Hill and I are divided by an ocean of water and a few time zones, it was easiest to e-mail him my questions about his creations and have him e-mail back his answers. So what you are reading are his answers as he's written them, not my stumbling efforts to try and transcribe a phone conversation. For those of you familiar with the series I hope that this interview provides you with answers to some of your own puzzles about the history behind of the characters and the books they feature in. If you have never read anything by Mr. Hill, let alone one of Pascoe and Dalziel's investigations, maybe this will pique your interest sufficiently to give them a go. You really don't know what you've been missing.

With the publication of A Cure For All Diseases (Price Of Butcher's Meat in America) how many Dalziel and Pascoe novels does that make? Obviously when you wrote A Clubbable Woman back in 1970, their first appearance, you could have no idea that they would become as popular as they have, but when did you first have an inkling that you might be spending a good portion of your life writing about them?

21 full length novels, plus a couple of novellas and some short stories. After the first (A Clubbable Woman) I had neither inkling nor intention that there would be any more. The second (An Advancement of Learning) was a campus mystery that needed a couple of cops to investigate the crime and it occurred to me that like the TV chefs I had one that I’d prepared earlier, so out they came again. But when I found myself wondering what was going to happen to the Peter Pascoe/Ellie relationship which I’d left dangling at the end of that story, I did begin to get that inkling – a most appropriate word as I was writing everything longhand back in those days.

Where did the idea for Andrew Dalziel come from - and does anybody not from Great Britain ever believe you when you tell them it's pronounced Dee-ell?

In the first book, Andy D was intended as a foil for Peter P – the antediluvian, steam-age, seat-of-the-well-scratched-pants cop against whom the new age, university educated whiz-kid would shine. It didn’t quite work out like that! As for the name’s pronunciation, it has I think become the shibboleth by which the series’ hard-core fans identify each other!

You've written novels not featuring Dalziel and Pascoe, but you've never strayed too far from what people would call mystery stories or thrillers. What is it about the genre that first appealed to you and that still inspires you?

I should have thought my two historical novels, two war novels and two sf novels were quite a long divagation from the mystery genre, but yes, my main track has been along the crime route. I have always been a great fan of the genre, but I think that creatively the its initial attraction was that it provided something interesting to be happening while I explored my characters and said what I wanted to say! In other words it provided (sometimes literally) a skeleton to support what might otherwise have been a somewhat flaccid narrative. Soon I began to feel, and still do feel, that it is such a varied and variable format that it can contain almost anything. To the essential narrative dynamic of nearly all good novels – what happens next? - it adds the intellectually intriguing question – what really happened in the first place? And because its so elastic a form, it readily expands when I want to focus on matters perhaps peripheral to the main whodunit themes, such as animal rights protest, the First World War, or medieval mystery plays! One of the reasons I’ve been able to keep going with D&P for so long is that knowing them so well means I can hit the ground running, and don’t have to spend too much time rebooting them every time I start a new book. This gives me space to stretch out in any direction I fancy. Of course I have to be sure to provide enough basic information to involve new readers, but I know from my mail as well as from personal encounters that my old readers are a lively adventurous bunch, ready to go anywhere I may take them so long as the company remains good!

Which comes first the crime, the criminal, or how to go about solving it? You write stories where you already know the answers to the questions that most of your characters are trying to figure out - so I was curious as to how you go about putting all those pieces together

It’s not quite true to say that I know all the answers when I’m writing the stories. Like most novelists, I often find the process is a voyage of discovery rather than the simple tracing of a path to a known destination. Often I have set out for the land of spices and found myself making landfall in America instead! Anything can be a starting point, a newspaper paragraph, a conversation overheard in a pub, a dream, a good idea for a title, an urge to write about a certain topic – sometimes the crime is there from the beginning, sometimes I stumble across it during the journey – and frequently the point I start from becomes irrelevant during the writing and the last thing that I write in the book is the first chapter. It’s an organic not an architectural process. No blueprints, and sometimes the looked-for rose turns out to be a cauliflower after all.
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Andy Dalziel came pretty close to snuffing it in Death Comes For The Fat Man (did you ever seriously consider letting him die?), and, even if he's reluctant to admit it, it's fairly obvious that his near death experience has changed him somewhat in A Cure For All Diseases. He's always hidden surprises under his gruff exterior - even though sometimes it's been an even gruffer interior - but to see him have moments of introspection was a bit of a shock, and I wondered what inspired you to push him down this road?

Certainly not. It would have been like killing an old friend! Obviously the experience has left its mark on him, and, being a bright guy, he wants to understand why he feels as he does, what he can learn from it, and where it is going to leave him. Throughout the books I’ve been at pains to portray Fat Andy as a man with much more going on inside than he ever cares to show. All that happens in A Cure For All Diseases is that for the first time his situation permits him to speak directly to the reader. In the next book (Midnight Fugue, out later this year) Dalziel is back at work and discovering what most people discover if absent from their job for a while, or when they retire, that no one is indispensable.

Why did I push him down this road, you ask. Because, like all my character, I hope, he’s not a fixed point. He has to develop, change, and, yes, get older. Bit like me, I suppose. With the first third of my life behind me, I suppose I may be getting a tad more reflective….

A Cure For All Diseases, is much lighter in tone than the two or three that proceeded it, was this a deliberate decision on your part, or was it just the way the story worked out?

Is it? I suppose so, though I always like to have a bit of a giggle as I go along. In the case of "A Cure"…I’d like to think its tone might owe something to its origins in Jane Austen who mingled mirth and high seriousness more deliciously than almost any other writer.

As the series has advanced you've gradually been introducing two new members of the Mid-Yorks; Hat Bowler and Shirley Novello, giving each of them gradually larger roles. When you first introduced them did you have long term plans in mind, or has having them available as cast members, so to speak, suggested ideas for putting them to use - as each of them have now had a "starring" role and are now given more to do in each subsequent book

I hate creating characters simply in terms of their function. No matter how brief their appearance, I like to know them as people. Even dear old PC Hector had to be more than just a clown. While I don’t have usually long terms plans for anyone when they first appear, if they “live”, then obviously they aren’t going to simply vanish after a single appearance.

The character of Fanny Root has been popping up to plague Peter Pascoe for a number of years now, and although the dynamic of their relationship has changed radically since he saved Peter's daughter, there's still the feeling that Fanny is Peter's personal Albatross to bear and perennial blind spot. Where did you get the idea of coming up with a character who plays this type of role in Peter's life, and what did you hope to accomplish with him?

Franny Roote was a very early creation, appearing in the second D&P novel over thirty years ago, God help us! I was fascinated by him and though he was obviously out of commission in jail for several years, I often found myself wondering what he would do when he came out. So I decided to take a look – that’s the great thing about being a writer – we have free access to everyone’s private life! He’s a very laid-back, cool kind of chap, and thinks it would be rather amusing to gently haunt Peter Pascoe, but he is in the end hoist on his own petard and finds that Pascoe has come to mean great deal to him also. He is a spirit of mischief, and in some ways he’s even a match for Dalziel, who like to think he sees through him, yet finds it very hard to lay a finger on him.

I'm curious as to why the American edition of your latest book has such a radically different title from that released in Canada and Great Britain? Considering the story line I thought A Cure For All Diseases was a highly appropriate title

My American publisher assured me that for reasons I still fail to understand, A Cure For All Diseases would not signify anything to an American audience. Across the border in Canada they had no such problem. In fact given the choice of the two titles, they opted for A Cure… nem con! What the American choice does have going for it is that it’s a direct quote from Sanditon. I’d put it on my list of possibles when I was still looking for a title as I wrote the book, but nobody over here liked it and as the book developed, I could see it wasn’t really suitable myself. But in New York they seized upon it with glee, and I hope that sales figures will prove they know their market!

The idea of Andy Dalziel attending a "health spa" was funny enough on it's own, but to find him plunked down in the midst of a town filled that's billing itself as a centre for "New Age" health treatments brings the words Bull and China shop to mind. What inspired that particular combination?

This really all came out of JA’s (Jane Austen) Sanditon, the theme of which was clearly going to be absurdities which always dance attendance on the new, whether it’s in art or fashion or healing or anything. It’s time alone that tells us what works and what is merely daft. There is real healing going on in my Sandytown, and that’s why Dalziel is there. But all the alternative stuff’s there too, a lot of treatments that mainstream medicine would like to dismiss out of hand, but which are proving remarkably resilient. With Dalziel in need of somewhere to convalesce after his explosive experience, this updating of 19th century Sanditon to 21st century Sandytown seemed the perfect place for him. He too, remember, is in a somewhat ambiguous state!

At some point even Andy Dalziel will have to consider retirement, have you given any thought to what the future might hold if that ever came to pass?

As those who have read my novella "One Small Step" will know, next year, if I am spared, I will have reached a time that seemed so far ahead back in 1990 that I was able to imagine Andy Dalziel coming out of gouty retirement to investigate the first murder on the moon. How I will reconcile this with his continued presence in Mid Yorkshire as a very active head of CID I have not yet worked out. One thing I am certain of - my lively, imaginative and hugely intelligent readership, having come thus far along this always winding and often perilous path with me, will not be daunted by whatever outrageous explanation presents itself.

Perhaps it has all been a dream….

I don't think we have to worry too much whether Reginald Hill will be able to figure out some innovative means of reconciling his truth and fiction. As he's proven so many times in the past he never seems at a loss for an inventive plot. I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for answering the questions I posed with the same intelligence and humour that he brings to all his writing.

January 20, 2009

Book Review: Mostly People Photographs By Robert Whitman

Anybody can pick up a camera and snap off a bunch of photos that will serve as a memento of an occasion. However doing that has a much in common with the work of a photographer as the scribbles of a five year old have with the writings of William Shakespeare. For while the digital age has given us unprecedented access to the means to take pictures it hasn't changed the fact that only a few of us have the ability to not only see and capture something special in a moment in time.

In his most recent volume of photographs, Mostly People published by Perceval Press, American photographer Robert Whitman, shows that not only does he possess that ability, his photographs of people display an understanding of the importance of environment in portraiture. Yet his skills as a photographer, as the title of this volume suggests, don't end with his ability to bring people and their surroundings to life as he is equally capable of letting us see the meaning in the rust stains of a swimming pool as he is the frown lines of a brow furrowed in concentration.

Ask anyone who has ever attempted to take a picture of a loved one, or who has ever posed for their picture, about the process and you're more often than not bound to hear a variation of one of two complaints. That doesn't look like them/me and I/they aren't photogenic. Sure all the bits and pieces that make up the subject are contained within the frame and are all in the right place, but somehow or other nothing that you or they do can make your pictures look like them. Every holiday season it's the same thing; collections of photos filled with people who look vaguely familiar sitting on the family couch. Taking pictures of people so that we are able to see them is a skill that seems to escape most of us.
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Where most of us fail is by attempting to capture an accurate representation of a person in an atmosphere devoid of life or activity. Unless we have trained to work in front of a camera, standing still, or posing, leaves the majority of us incredibly self conscious and awkward. Without the focus that an environment can give - even if its something as simple as waiting in the lobby of a theatre for a play or movie to begin - the subject of a photograph appears lifeless or artificial. Yet the instant we liberate them from the shackles of posing and photograph them candidly, they miraculously turn into living breathing souls.

Of course we can easily ask people to go about their business and photograph them in the hopes of creating some wonderful portraits, but it takes a special eye to chance upon instances out in the world, recognize them for what they are, and capture that moment on film so that all can experience that same instant in time. Even a casual perusal of the content of Mostly People will give you an idea as to how talented Whitman really is. From the photograph of a street urchin crouching under the elevated chassis of a derelict auto on a street in Havana Cuba, the image of a mother and daughter talking in a kitchen, to one of the many pictures taken either at the beach or a swimming pool, each are examples of his excellence at capturing moments that contain the stuff of life.

A mother leans against her kitchen counter with one arm crossed under her chest and the other bent at right angles to her torso holding a cigarette while she stares at her daughter seated at the kitchen table. Instead of returning her mother's gaze, the teenaged girl is leaning her chest on the edge of the table staring into her clasped hands. While the daughter appears to be lost in her own thoughts, the mother is obviously focused on her daughter, her faced creased in what appears to be a mixture of anger and worry. If you didn't know before what it was like to worry about an adolescent child, looking at this picture tells you more about that experience than any text book or self-help manual could hope.

Scattered throughout the Mostly People are shots that Whitman has taken of the modern dance troupe Pilobolus in a variety of environments. The members of the troupe are contortionists of extraordinary abilities, able to fold their bodies back on themselves, and into a variety of shapes and forms. They interweave their bodies together to form constructions in an attempt to become part of their environment and as an exploration of the the relationship between humans and our surroundings. In one shot they are seen crammed within a barred opening in a brick wall with their naked bodies stacked one on top of the other much like the bricks in the wall that extends in either direction away from them.

While at first we can't help but only feel awe at the way they contort their bodies, after a while you stop thinking of them as humans. Instead they now begin to merge into the background and gradually begin to become one with the rest of the wall. For as they no longer look like our idea of what a human should they begin to take on the characteristics of the inanimate objects around them. Of course we will never mistake them for the brick wall, but as they have lost their original identity of "human" they become environment instead.

While Mostly People shows us that photographs of humans don't have to be the stilted things most of us are familiar with from the posed shots that pass for portraits there are the occasional pictures in the collection that also blur the lines between human beings and the environment that surrounds them. While completely different in their representation of people, each has its own haunting beauty that is thought provoking and that resonates with emotional honesty. No matter what his subject matter, Robert Whitman is a photographer with an exceptional eye that allows us to experience the world and the people in it in a way that we wouldn't otherwise.

As is usual for a book from Perceval Press, Mostly People is beautifully laid out, and shows the photos to their best advantage. The company has a history of presenting the work of individual artists in such a manner that our focus is always where it should be, on the work, and Mostly People is a perfect example of what a great job they do in honouring an artist's work. You can purchase a copy of Mostly People, and many other fine books of art or CDs directly from the Perceval Press web site.

January 14, 2009

Book Review: Milk, Sulphate, And Alby Starvation By Martin Millar

The phrase, are you paranoid if they're really out to get you?, might have been invented for Alby Starvation. Alby, the title character in Martin Millar's 1987 debut novel Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation being re-issued by Soft Skull Press, and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, on February 9th/09, worries constantly about his health, the hit man that the Milk Marketing Board has set on him, the Chinese gang leader trying to find him, and which of his friends and acquaintances are after his comic collection.

While those friends of Alby's who he's still talking to, well not really friends but some folk who buy drugs from him, tend to think that it's all in his head, the reality is that the Milk Marketing Board really have set a hit man on him and a mysterious Chinese gentleman is trying to get in touch with him. So he stays huddled in his apartment with only his hamster and his comics to keep him company watching as his reflection in the mirror looks gradually sicker and sicker. His doctor won't believe that there's anything wrong with Alby - but than again he's only waiting for Alby to die so he can scoop up his complete set of Silver Surfer comics.

It was Alby's health, and that bastard doctor, that was the cause of all his trouble to begin with. Certain he was dying, he wasn't able to keep food in and was gradually wasting away, he went to his doctor only to be told that it was nerves. It was only his buddy Stacey's suggestion that he might have food allergies that saved his life as far as Alby is concerned, unfortunately it also signed his death warrant with the Milk Marketing Board. You see Alby turned out to be allergic to milk and once he stopped drinking milk he got instantly better.
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That would have been fine and dandy, but he had to go and tell somebody else suffering from similar ailments and she got better instantly too. Which might have been okay as well except she had a friend who was also very sick and asked Alby to talk to him, and he turned out to be a reporter for the local community newspaper and wrote a little article about being allergic to milk. That's when things began to snowball, and Alby eventually found himself the head of an anti-milk campaign that galvanized all of Britain because it turned out there were millions of people across the country allergic to milk suffering horribly.

When the sale figures for milk go south, the Milk Marketing Board turns the matter over to their dirty tricks department - modelled after the CIA - to sort it out. With no time to lose they decide the best course of action is to nip things in the bud and take out the person at the top of the anti-milk campaign - Alby. By sheer luck the first person sent out on the job is "Born Again" on the way to kill Alby, and in a fit of remorse for past killings tips him off that he's a target for assassination. You'd think that nothing could make a paranoid happier than finding out somebody is really out to get him, instead it makes Alby all the more miserable.

Now Alby isn't the only odd soul living London's Brixton district during the waning days of punk in the mid-eighties. They're are the speed freaks he supplies; the archaeology professor posing as a city employee so he can dig up the street in his search for a lost crown said to be buried in Brixton; the mysterious Chinese gentleman who used to be in charge of Heroin quality control in the Golden Triangle; the psychic nurse who doesn't know she's psychic; and of course the second hit man hired by the Milk Marketing Board, who turns out to be a woman named June.

With the story bouncing around like a pinball game on acid, (or is it like you being on acid watching a pin ball game) what with the plot bouncing off one character or story line after another and back again, and with no clue as to whether somethings happening in the past or the present, it's initially hard to quite follow what's going on in Alby's life. In some ways its akin to reading a cubist painting by Picasso where instead of merely seeing a single view of the subject the artist shows you all sides simultaneously in what looks like a an insane jigsaw puzzle of body parts.
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The past and the present appear in adjacent paragraphs offering no clue as to which is which; we see the world through the eyes of characters who are on the periphery of the story; and intermingled with all of that we have Alby's disjointed narrative of events. Yet out of this seemingly random scattered collection of information a picture gradually forms of Alby's life, the lives of those around him, and the general air of desperation to find meaning to existence that grips so many of us.

Milk, Sulphate, And Alby Starvation is the flip side of the popular image of punk as a revitalizing movement for social change as we meet the ones who came for the party that never realized it wasn't just about loud music, getting drunk, and doing speed so they could dance all night. Like the dregs of the hippies on heroin after the days of flower power and peace and love had passed, the characters of Alby and his friends are pathetic lost souls with no direction who wanted something for nothing and ended up going nowhere fast. Whiles there's a dark humour to Ably's neuroses, in the end it's just sort of sad and pathetic.

What saves the book from being ultimately depressing though is Millar's sense of the absurd, for the story line is right out of Monty Python's school of taking an illogical situation to its most logical conclusion. That Alby is not crazy and the Milk Marketing Board has really hired an assassin to kill him because he has adversely affected milk sales across Britain, is merely the tip of the very peculiar iceberg contained within the pages of the book. While it might not be to everyone's cup of tea, if you're willing to put up with the slightly bitter taste and the twist and turns of the style,Milk, Sulphate, And Alby Starvation will never bore you and will continually surprise you. That alone makes it worth reading.

January 12, 2009

Book Review: Brisingr (Book Three Of The Inheritance Cycle) By Christopher Paolini

At the conclusion of Eldest, book two of his Inheritance Cycle, Christopher Paolini had seemingly laid the ground work for the series' climax in book three. Concluding as it did with a second major battle being fought and a meaty surprise being revealed it would have been easy for him to throw all his characters into the final confrontation and bring the story to an end. After all many a trilogy before this one has rushed headlong to its conclusion with an eye for its destination without worrying overly much how it arrived there.

However, Paolini has risked his reader's impatience by not giving into that temptation with Brisingr, book three of four, that was published by Random House Canada in the fall of 2008. Instead he takes the time to build a more complete picture the world and the people who inhabit her as well as continuing the story. Of course with each step down the road there is less and less time and the pressure on Eragon and Saphira to discover a means of defeating Galbatorix, the king who would destroy all the free people, increases. For unless they can solve that riddle it doesn't matter how many battles they win, they will ultimately lose the war.

Brisingr sees Eragon spending and extended period of time among the dwarfs. While he'd much rather be staying with the army of the Varden, (the resistance), their leader, Nasuada, insists that he go to the dwarfs as her representative. The King of the dwarfs had been killed in the last battle of book two, and they are now going to select from among the thirteen clan chiefs a new monarch, and its vital that whoever it is continue to support the war against Galbatorix. Nasuada hopes that Eragon's presence there will serve to remind those dwarfs who might be wavering in their commitment, of the need to fight for their freedom.
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Paolini's decision to enmesh Eragon in dwarf politics and spend a sizeable chunk of the book in the dwarf kingdom observing the process of selecting a monarch, instead of hastening the conclusion of the series might seem odd at first glance. However, by doing so Paolini is making the point that just because you're under threat doesn't mean you surrender those things that define you, even if there is a risk that it will cause a result not to your liking. If Eragon were to use his power as a Dragon Rider to influence who is chosen as the next dwarf king, no matter what his intentions, he would deprive the dwarfs of their freedom of choice, making him no less a tyrant than Galbatorix.

Throughout Brisingr Paolini returns to the theme of being responsible for one's actions with different people. For this isn't just Eragon's story, and the character of Roran, Eragon's cousin, represents how any of us can make a difference. How, even without magic or the companionship of a dragon, we each have the power to exact change. Yet Roran too learns about having to take responsibility for his actions, when he disobeys a direct order from his commanding officer in the midst of a raid against an enemy patrol.

It doesn't matter that by doing so he saved the lives of a great many men, ensured the success of his mission, and personally slew a great many of the enemy, Nasuada still has to have him punished. No one, no matter who they are or what they have done, can be seen to be above the law. After reading Roran's heroics it might seem ridiculous to us that Nasuada punishes him. but that is her living up to her responsibility to the people she leads to ensure that the law is equally enforced. Of course the fact that she demotes the officer who gave the orders that Roran disobeyed and then promotes Roran to be one of the Captains of her army mitigates the punishment and shows that she understands the true nature of justice.
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The sign of a really good author is if he can draw you so deeply into the story that you're reacting to characters or situations as if they were real. At one point while I was reading Brisingr I was really frustrated with Eragon's impatience and near arrogance when it came to accepting other people's orders or suggestions. It was only in the middle of saying to myself, "What an arrogant little..." that I realized what an amazing job Paolini had done in his depiction of Eragon.

Sure he's gone through all sorts of magical transformations, has magical powers, and has a spiritual link to a dragon, but at the heart of it all he's still only a teenage boy unsure of his identity and insecure about his capabilities. For Paolini to have been able to elicit that reaction from me about Eragon, is a perfect example of the magnificent job he's done in bringing this world to life. Though Eragon is the hero of the series, Paolini, doesn't shirk from showing him warts and all. Even when we are seeing the world through Eragon's eyes, his character is so honestly presented we can't help but wanting to slap him upside the head on occasion.

While the first two books of The Inheritance Cycle were exciting, fun to read, and well written, Brisingr gives us a deeper understanding of the world the series takes place in, and brings us closer to the people we had been getting to know in the first two books. Christopher Paolini took a risk by slowing down the course of events to allow us this opportunity, and its a risk that's paid off handsomely as I feel we now know more, and care more, about Alagesia and the people who inhabit her then we did before. If you weren't emotionally involved with the story before now, there's no way you can avoid it now. The table is set - let the final confrontation begin - we're ready.

Brisingr can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

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 9, 2009

Book Review: The Judging Eye (Book One Of The Aspect Emperor) By R. Scott Bakker

History is the record of what came before us and reminds us of who we once were and how we became who we are now. However, there is often a marked difference between what is recorded as history and what actually happened. Whether it's the mists of time that cloud people's memories or a deliberate colouring of the truth that distorts reality doesn't matter in the end as the result is the same and the past becomes a murky shadow filled with rumours and half truths.

In the world of The Three Seas that R. Scott Bakker introduced the world to in his The Prince Of Nothing trilogy most men had forgotten or refused to believe what had come before them. Partially from ignorance, and partially from hubris, for wasn't their civilization the pinnacle of achievement, they refused to believe that thousands of years ago the world came within a hair's breadth of being obliterated. However over the course of the trilogy events unfolded that brought history into the present and a long forgotten enemy was revealed for all to see.

Anasurimbor Kellhus is descended from the kings who fought against the doom two thousand years ago. Over the course of The Prince Of Nothing he rises from being an obscure outsider to becoming the Warrior Prophet who leads the faithful in battle against the heathen so they can reclaim their southern empire and he also confirms the existence of The Consult, the long forgotten enemy. When Kellhus is acclaimed Aspect Emperor at the end of the trilogy, one of his first promises is to seek out the strongholds of the Consult in the Northern reaches of The Three Seas and destroy them to prevent a return of their master the No-God.
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Ten years have passed since the events described in the first trilogy as Bakker picks up the story again in The Judging Eye, book one of The Aspect Emperor trilogy, being released on January 20th by Penguin Canada. It's been a busy decade for the newly anointed Aspect Emperor, what with eliminating opposition to his rule, consolidating the power of the Empire, and making the necessary preparations for his war on The Consult.

Yet there are still those who harbour misgivings, if not even doubts, about their Aspect Emperor, and chief among them is his former teacher Drusas Achamian. In the days before the ascent of the Emperor Achamian had been one of the few who believed in the existence of The Consult. A schoolman, the name given sorcerers in The Three Seas, he had belonged to the school known as the Mandate were gifted with possession of the most powerful sorcery in the world, The Gnosis, and cursed with the memory of two thousand year old wars.

Although it was Kellhus who vindicated Achamian and his fellow Mandate schoolmen by verifying the existence of The Consult when all else had ridiculed their belief, he turned his back on the Emperor the day he was crowned. Kellhus had stolen Achamian's lover, Esmenet, and made her his consort, a betrayal that Drusas could not forgive or forget. He also possesses the knowledge of who Kellhus really is and where he so mysteriously came from, which only increases his doubts and suspicions.

In the Judging Eye Bakker sets in motion two great quests; "The Great Ordeal", the holy war, led by the Aspect Emperor to scour the world of The Consult and prevent the rise of the No-God and a second apocalypse, and Achamian's quest to find Ishual, the birth place of Kellhus.
The two quests are as different as night and day. For while Kellhus and company are the bright shining light set forth to cleanse the earth of evil, Achamian's party are a motley collection of mercenaries and bounty hunters who have lived on the edge of civilization for years.
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In The Prince Of Nothing trilogy Bakker not only was able to bring to life the sweeping events of history but take us inside of it by rendering his characters and their place in events in exquisite detail. In book one of The Aspect Emperor, The Judging Eye, he shows that he hasn't lost that touch. No matter where we are, or whose eyes we are observing the world through, we not only live through overwhelming events as if they were happening to us, but Bakker never lets us forget the overall picture either. He is able to do this because not only are his characters are so well drawn that we feel we've known them all our lives after only just meeting them, but the environments they move through are depicted so vividly they appear in our mind's eye as if painted there.

Bakker has deftly laid the foundations for the various strands of plot and intrigue that will run through out the trilogy. From the religious cult plotting against the Emperor, the inner workings of the Emperor's court (and the strange behaviour of his children), the Emperor's army in the field, to Achamian's perilous journey into the North, events have been set in motion that promise the The Aspect Emperor trilogy will be just as memorable and remarkable as its predecessor. Return with R. Scott Bakker to the world of The Three Seas for a journey unlike any other you have experienced. Part Dante's Inferno and part Conrad's Heart Of Darkness this is fantasy literature like you've never read before.

You can purchase a copy of The Judging Eye as of January 20th/09 either directly from Penguin Canada or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

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

January 2, 2009

Book Review: The Enchantress Of Florence By Salman Rushdie

In our chauvinism the West puts Florence, and its renaissance as a place of arts and learning, at the centre of the world when it comes to cultural achievements in the 15th and 16th centuries. Our bias has prevented us from seeing that while supposedly civilized Europe struggled through dark ages of ignorance and plague in the years prior to that enlightenment, empires of sophistication and culture thrived under the rule of Sultans and Caliphs. The Ottoman Empire had stretched into Spain and by the 1500's their cousins had entered Northern India and established the Mogul Empire.

While we might believe that relations between the West and the Muslim world are tense these days, they are positively cordial when compared with the fervour of Christian hatred for the infidel during the renaissance. However, that did not prevent there being interaction between the two worlds and even the Vatican sent representatives to the court of Akabar the Great, the heart of the Mogul empire in North India. Still, there would be no reason to suspect any connection existing between Florence and Akabar's capital of Sikri.

Yet in his elaborate work of historical fantasy, The Enchantress Of Florence, published by Random House Canada, and being released in trade paperback January 6th/09, Salman Rushdie weaves together strands of fiction and history to tell a tale of how these two cities might have been linked. It is the story of three childhood friends from Florence whose love and loyalty stands the test of time and of two great cities equally capable of grandeur and self destruction. Yet, it's also the tale of a remarkable woman's quest to make her own way in a man's world and how the reverberations of her efforts shattered kingdoms, defeated generals, and brought about the ruin of one of the two great cities.
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The court of Akabar the Great is thrown into confusion when a mysterious blond stranger shows up at court. At first he attempts to pass himself off as the ambassador from the English queen Elizabeth, but when that ruse is seen through he finally reveals the truth of the matter. He is none other then Akabar the Great's uncle. At first this news is greeted with the derision that any lie deserves, but being the just ruler he is, Akabar gives the blonde stranger a chance to tell him how it could be possible for a non-believer from Florence to be his relative.

So begins the story of the princess whom history forgot, Lady Black Eyes, Qara Koz. When her elder sister was wed to the Wormwood Khan as the cost of preserving her father's life, Qara Koz was dragged off into exile as her companion at the tender age of eleven. Eight years later when the Shah of Persia, their father's cousin, overthrew the great Khan he offered to send both women back to their home, but surprisingly the young princess refused and elected to stay with their saviour as his wife. It was then that Akabar's grandfather, father to the sisters, caused her to be written out of the annals of the family's history - and Qara Koz was a name never spoken in public again.

In Florence there were three young friends, of whom one was destined to wander long and far before returning home again to die in the streets where he was born. Niccolo Machiavelli (the author of The Prince), Ago Vespucci (cousin of Amerigo whose name now graces our continent), and Antonino Argalia, were inseparable until the age of eleven when Antonino's mother died of plague and his father fell into the depths of depression. The young Argalia took it upon himself to leave Florence to seek his fortune among the mercenary companies fighting the "cursed Turk", although he said to his friends he wouldn't care if he made his fortune fighting for the Ottomans or against them.

Which is how years latter he found himself leading the armies of the Ottoman Empire when they defeated the Shah of Persia, and found himself face to face with the beauty of Lady Black Eyes. She had accompanied her husband the Shah to the battle field, but when he refused to follow her advice and attack the Turks before they were encamped (it wouldn't have been honourable) she turned her back so as not to see the carnage. As a result she did not see her husband flee the battle field and abandon her to his vanquisher, Argalia of the Turks.
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There's a lot to wonder at when reading The Enchantress Of Florence, not the least is the way in which Rushdie makes the seemingly implausible perfectly reasonable, with the remarkable tale of how a Florentine could be the uncle of Akabar, emperor of the Mogul Empire in India. Yet that pales in the face of what I consider his even greater accomplishment - bringing to life the two worlds in which the story takes place. Not only does he render both Florence and Sikri with such accurate brush strokes that we can see them in front of us as if he had painted their pictures, it's the manner in which he describes them that makes them fully alive.

Rushdie has developed a different language for each city, so that each is not only distinguished by their physical characteristics, but by the way they sound to our ear as well. Sikri flows like elegant silk draped over the arm of a beautiful woman, but with an undercurrent of danger that reminds you how quickly a scarf can be twisted to form the garrotte that cuts off a person's life. There is an assurance to her voice that only comes from years of experience and the surety of knowing everyone will listen to you no matter how quiet you whisper.

Florence is brash and bold, with a voice to match as she trumpets forth both her successes and her failures. Yet, in spite of the traces of insecurity that one hears in her proclamations of greatness, you can't help but notice the subtle notes that twist underneath the blare. It is the home of the infamous Medici after all, who smile to your face while plunging a dagger in your back, and whose most famous son became Pope. However, in the end the cities are still only the backdrop for the woman who was the Enchantress of Florence, and the bewitcher of every man, and not a few women, who came in contact with her.

In Lady Black Eyes, the princess whom history forgot, Qara Koz, Rushdie has created one of the most enigmatic and romantic female characters since Sheherazade. For its around that one strand that Rushdie has woven his entire story and creates the elaborate web which eventually snares all his characters and us his readers. For not only is she able to enchant all of Florence by her presence, just by telling her story, the blond stranger claiming kinship with Akabar, brings Sikri to its knees.

The Enchantress Of Florence is a beautiful story that in delineating the differences between renaissance Italy and the Mogul Empire actually brings East and West closer together than anything I've read before. With guest appearances by everyone from Vlad the Impaler to the Medici Pope, Rushdie has created a historical fantasy that's both a pleasure to read and an education in its recreation of two of history's most fascinating cities.

You can purchase a copy of The Enchantress Of Florence in trade paperback format as of January 6th directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

January 1, 2009

My Favourite Reads Of 2008

Another year has winged its way by and with a day left it's fair to assume that I'm not going to be reviewing any more books slated for publication in 2008. So it seems like as good as time as any to put together a list of the books that I liked the most over the past twelve months. Naturally the ones I liked the most stuck in my memory, but I still had to wade through the site's archives so I could locate their links, and I was shocked to see how many articles I had actually published in this time, and how many had been book reviews that I'd forgotten about.

The trouble was that even before I started to wade backwards in time to last January I had already compiled a list of nine books, and the list didn't change. The criteria I used for selecting the books that would make my top list was simple enough; which ones would I be most inclined to re-read. I also decided to limit myself to books that were published in 2008 for the simple fact it made my life somewhat easier when it came to choosing.

So, in no particular order, here are the nine books, of those I reviewed in 2008, that I preferred over the rest.

Binu And The Great Wall by Su Tong was a retelling of a traditional Chinese folk tale/myth of one woman's quest to find her husband after he was conscripted to work on the construction of The Great Wall of China. Accompanied by only a blind frog, she sets out across the breadth and length of China in what seems a fruitless quest to bring her husband a winter coat so he might stand a better chance of surviving the deprivations of slave labour. A beautifully told, and eloquently written story of devotion that provides readers with a wonderful portrait of life in China during the time of the Emperors.

You wouldn't expect a book that deals with the accumulation of statistical evidence about HIV/AIDS to be entertaining, but The Wisdom Of Whores, by former UNAIDS worker Elizabeth Pisani, not only crunches the numbers of the whys and wherefores of the spread of the disease, it does so in such a manner as to leave the reader fascinated. Part of that is due to Pisani herself, who is equal parts iconoclast and idealist. The breeziness of the writing style only accentuates the passion she feels for her subject, and the compassion that she feels for the people her work on the front-lines of the fight against HIV/AIDS has brought her in contact with. From board rooms to brothels, Pisani, takes us behind the scenes everywhere to paint one of the clearest pictures about the state of our attempts to curtail the wave of death and destruction the disease is causing.

Skovbo by Viggo Mortensen, is the companion book/catalogue to a photography exhibit in Reykjavik Iceland. As befits the title, Danish for forest, Skovbo is a collection of photographs of trees and forests taken by Mortensen. Not merely content to "take pictures" of trees, he manages to depict their interaction with light and shadow to bring them alive in ways that makes even the solitary tree in a town square majestic. Even more impressive is his ability to celebrate the tree without romanticizing nature as something ethereal and beautiful. There are dead animals in the fields, broken branches on trees, and ugly and gnarled limbs proliferate. The true beauty of nature is its wildness, and that's at the soul of each picture in Mortensen's latest collection.

Neuropath by Scott Bakker probably caught a lot of people by surprise. Bakker's first three books had been the opening salvo of a major epic fantasy series, so for him to come out with a psychological thriller that bordered on a horror story was a bit of a shock. Be that as it may, it was a brilliantly written, terrifying descent into the potential (and unfortunately very real) dangers of how the mind can be controlled and manipulated. Pleasure becomes pain, feelings and emotions can be artificially stimulated with the flick of a switch or the removal of a synapse. Nothing you feel is real, it's all just conditioned response, and the government can condition you to feel and believe anything they want. Neuropath might be one character's roller coaster ride into a personal hell, but we're all along for the ride, and while the scenery isn't very attractive if we don't learn to recognize it now, it soon might be too late.

One of the best ongoing epic fantasy series took another step towards its conclusion this year as two new instalments in the Malazan Book Of The Fallen were released. Toll The Hounds by Steven Erikson, was followed by The Return Of The Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont and what a one two punch they packed. For while Erikson was following events that were unfolding in the farthest reaches of the Empire affecting the pantheon of Gods and Goddesses of the world, Esslemont was writing about the Empire's struggle for survival. Both men once again prove that not only can they handle the sweeping events of history, but the demands of creating characters who we care about and believe in. Each new book released in this series only reconfirms its pre-eminence among a world of pretenders in the field of epic fantasy.

The King's Gold by Arturo Perez-Reverte continued the adventures of Captain Alatriste during the waning days of Spain's power on the world stage. Here he has been chosen for the delicate task of stealing gold from Spanish merchants for the King's treasury. Hiring some of the worst cut throats and pirates he can find, Alatriste once more takes on the jobs no "honourable" man could be trusted with. However, since Alatriste has no illusions about fights for glory, king, and God, and only does a job when the money is good, he can be counted on to succeed where others would fail. Set against the backdrop of the Inquisition and the church's grab for power in 17th century Spain, The King's Gold proves once again that cynicism can be every bit as noble as blind faith.

A Man Most Wanted by John Le Carre drips with the author's scorn for the "War On Terror". On the surface it deals with the attempts of a German intelligence officer to convince his superiors to let him use an illegal Islamic immigrant as the means to establish a double agent among the jihad terrorists. However, at the moment where he thinks he's scored his ultimate triumph, it's snatched away and he's left holding nothing, while the Americans and British have another prisoner to interrogate at their leisure. What does it matter that the subject knows absolutely nothing? It looks like you're getting results when you arrest somebody, even though the next bomb attack will surprise you as much as the last one did. This is Le Carre's searing indictment of the way in which intelligence communities the world over have botched their job, and succeeded in motivating terrorists more than stopping them with their ham fisted behaviour and stupidity.

Ravensoul by James Barclay sees an author carry off the impossible; bring back a group of characters from the dead and succeed in making the story believable. Most of the Raven had been killed in their last battle, but when even the dead are no longer safe, who else is there to ride in and save the day again but dead heroes? It's a rollicking good time when the Raven come back from the dead, and once they convince their old companions its really them, it's time to try and save the world if they can. Of course if they can't do that, there's the next best thing - find a new one where we can all start over again. Probably the most fun you can have with sword and sorcery without strapping on a sword yourself.

Well that's it, I know these lists are supposed to be ten, but only these nine were able to pass the test of being ones that I'd want to re-read. Whether they're the best books of the year is another matter, but I read because I like too, and these were the books I liked reading most of all. See you next year.

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 26, 2008

Book Review: Human Landscapes From My Country (An Epic Novel In Verse) By Nazim Hikmet

Epic poems were things they used to write in the olden days to record the deeds of heroes and recount the histories of earth shattering events. They most definitely were never about the likes of you and me, nor did they bother themselves with the minutiae of everyday life. Even if they ever did talk about lessor mortals, they were written in language that made them inaccessible to all but the most highly educated.

Now that we are into the twenty-first century, the idea that any art form's subject would be limited to somebody or something because of status sounds ridiculous to our ears. Yet the idea that an epic poem could be about something other than a hero, or written in vernacular instead of elegant language, is as alien to our ears as it would have been a thousand years ago. Yet in the 1940's, not only did Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet commence work on an epic poem about the people of his country, he wrote in a style that could easily be understood by anyone with basic literacy skills.

A complete translation into English of hisHuman Landscapes From My Country, published by Persea Books and distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada, is now available for the first time. Hikmet began writing it in 1941 while a political prisoner in his native Turkey, and only finished it in 1950 when he was released as part of a general amnesty. Parts of it were published in translation in 1960 and '65 in France and Italy, and in the former Soviet Union in 1962, but it wasn't until after his death in 1963 that it was published in his homeland.
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To understand this work you need to know something about Nazim Hikmet, and about Turkey. Hikmet was born in 1903 (there seems to be some dispute over his birth date as I've read everything from 1900 - 03) in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. By the end of WWl Turkey had gone from an empire whose borders stretched from the Balkans to Egypt, to being the size it is today. Hikmet was born into a family of progressive intellectual professionals, and was exposed to poetry at an early age through his artist mother and poet grandfather. He had his first poems published in 1917, but after the war he left Allied occupied Turkey to attend university in Moscow where he was exposed to artists and writers from all over the world.

He returned to Turkey when it declared independence in 1924, but quickly ran afoul of the new republic and was arrested for working on a leftist magazine. He managed to escape and flee to Russia, only to return again in 1928 during a period of general amnesty. Although he was able to publish nine books of poetry and worked as a proof-reader, journalist, scriptwriter, and translator over the next ten years, he also spent time in jail on various political charges. In 1938 he was arrested and sentenced to twenty-five years in jail for "writing poems that encouraged thoughts of mutiny in navel officers".

As an intellectual leftist Hikmet had very little contact with people outside his class and education background until he was sentenced to jail in 1938 and found himself immersed in their world. Meeting these people, and being forced to see the world from their point of view, was what inspired him to begin working on Human Landscapes From My Country. Not only did he want to describe who these people were and what their lives were like, he wanted to do so in such a manner that they would be able to read it. So "Landscapes" is a lot like a sketchbook as its filled with descriptions of people and places that Hikmet encountered during his roughly thirteen years in prison.

"In the third class waiting room/two red headed Bulgarian immigrants/with blue buttons on their shirts/and homespun yellow pants worn at the knees/squat/on the concrete/against the wall/instead of sitting on the wooden benches." With only a minimum of words Hikmet has drawn a picture that not only gives us a physical description of the men, but tells us something of their station in life. They are obviously poor, as they are wearing threadbare pants and shirts whose original buttons have been replaced, but there's more to this picture than just a description of poverty. You can be sure that Hikmet has mentioned them not using the benches for a reason, but why? Whatever the reason, Hikmet has not only given us enough information to visualize the scene, but has also so in such a way that his readers will see the men as segregated from the rest of the train's passengers. Any Turkish person reading this will be aware that the Ottoman Empire warred with Bulgaria at one time and understand the implications of that separation
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The train they are waiting to board is carrying a variety of people across Turkey; three prisoners being transferred and their guards, a student, a small time crook, a widow, a pregnant woman travelling alone, a mother and a daughter, and a variety of other people. These are the occupants of third class carriage number 510, and as Turkey alternatively speeds and creeps by their windows, we drop in and out of various conversations and individual's memories. A former soldier recounts the horrors of Gallipoli (WWl battle between Turkish and Australian/British troops that was a slaughter for both sides) and the awful conditions for the wounded: "My wounds got maggots./I open my cape:/little white worms/with black heads./I bend over to look,/but the critters are smart:/when the see me,/they scurry back in the wounds."

There's nothing romantic about those blunt words, and you try and imagine what it would be like to carry that memory with you for so long. Gallipoli was in 1915 and the train ride is taking place in 1941. Twenty-six years later and still his strongest memories are of war and maggots in his wounds. Yet he's so matter of fact about it, that not once do you feel like he's seeking sympathy or complaining. It's just how things were.

Human Landscapes From My Country carries the subtitle "An Epic Novel In Verse", yet unlike most novels it doesn't just follow the fortunes of one or two characters, it draws a picture of a people and a country. Using the same straight-forward, and sometimes graphic language, that I've cited here throughout, Hikmet has created a panoramic view of Turkey and her people. Through the eyes of the various people who he sketches we are given a view of what life was like in Turkey from the end of the Ottoman Empire to the start of WWll. At turns poignant, funny, and thoughtful, it is always eminently readable and wonderfully accessible.

You can purchase a copy of Human Landscapes From My Country either directly from Persea Books or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

December 23, 2008

Book Review: A Snowball In Hell By Christopher Brookmyre

It used to be in order to be famous you had to have done something important or have an ability that distinguished you from other people. Artists, scientists, thinkers, explorers, inventors, and military leaders were all likely candidates for fame as they were all in careers that provided opportunities for renown. Any celebrity or fame that came their way was earned because of their talents or skill. Now, things have changed, and celebrity has become a goal on to itself with people willing to do almost anything to get their moment in spotlight.

These are the people so many of us love to hate, especially those who appreciate the work that goes into actually creating something of intrinsic value. It's enough to make you pretty hot under the collar seeing talentless wasters with column space in newspapers and having their faces splashed all over the popular magazine. Wouldn't the world be a better place without these air-heads, or the people who created the opportunities for their creation in the first place?

Well, in Christopher Brookmyre's most recent book, A Snowball In Hell, available through Penguin Canada, former terrorist for hire Simon Darcourt has decided enough is enough and its time to give the public what they really want, reality television with celebrity guests competing against each other for the public's approval just like they do on Big Brother and Survivor. However, getting voted off Simon's show doesn't just mean you won't come back next week, you won't be coming back at all, except for in a box.
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You can't help but be struck by how intelligent his arguments, and compelling his justifications, are for the things he's doing. Sure he's a bit extreme but you do have some sympathy for what he's doing, don't you? However, after abducting a prominent producer, one Nick Foster, boy band producer from the 1980's and 90's, and a reality show creator in the present day, and broadcasting his execution live to those attending an industry tribute to the same Nick Foster, the police don't quite agree with this assessment. They even agree less when it's become apparent that he has created a new reality show for the public to watch by kidnapping the winners of Nick's last venture.

Of course he's not going to kill them off one by one - he's going to have the audience vote on how much oxygen each girl gets in a day based on her performance until one runs out of air time - so to speak. Oh, and to make sure everybody broadcasts his little extravaganza he lets it be known that he will kill all three of the girls immediately if the broadcast is shut down or any attempt is made to trace the server it's being beamed from. So the cops call in the one person who handed Darcourt his ass before, Detective Inspector Angelique de Xavia, who thwarted Simon's plan to blow up a hydroelectric installation in Scotland back in 2001. The biggest problem they face this time though is figuring out what the former mercenary wants.

As if things aren't complicated enough, it turns out the police aren't the only ones not amused by Simon's telecasts, as Angelique finds out when she receives a text message from an interested party wanting Darcourt delivered to them instead of being hauled off to prison. As incentive they send a photo along with the message - her parents handcuffed to chairs.

If she ever wants to see her parents alive again she's going to not only have to track down Darcourt, but make him disappear in plain view of her superiors and the public. It's a good thing she knows a magician, Zal Innez, who five years ago not only made off with a whole lot of money from a Glasgow bank, screwed over two mob families, but had stolen her heart. Although the feelings are mutual, he's as equally besotted with her, they both believe they are doing the other a favour by not being in each other's lives - what kind of future can a thief and a cop have together? Yet without Innez Angelique knows she's not a hope in hell of saving her parents, let along snaring Darcourt.

Christopher Brookmyre's skill resides in not only writing plots which have more switch-backs than a road twisting up the side of a mountain, but in making those same plots believable. With parts of the book being written in Darcourt's voice, we see him assembling all the pieces for what we think is the penultimate game and are chilled by the delight he takes in revelling in other people's weaknesses. He is, unfortunately, as brilliant as he thinks he is, and we can only sit back helplessly as he lets us in on his secrets or as he invites us to laugh along with him at his perverse form of social critique.
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What's even more amazing is that Brookmyre is able to use this highly amoral character to brilliantly satirize our obsession with celebrity and fame. Day after day the press publish tallies on which of the three original contestants are attracting the most attention in the press, and thus earning the right to breath. Night after night the public gather around their computers and televisions to watch the performances as the three girls compete for the approval they so desperately need to stay alive. It's reality television taken to its most nightmarishly logical conclusion with the only real winner being the one behind the scenes pulling all of our strings.

A Snowball In Hell is a brilliant and devastating book that proves once again that Christopher Brookmyre is one of the best social critics going as well as being one of the most original crime fiction writers you'll ever read. There are no cows sacred enough not to be slaughtered by his pen, over inflated egos safe from the prick of his words, or moralistic hypocrites who can escape his wrath. Yet at the same time he ensures that we never forget, in contrast to Simon Darcourt's opinion, that even the "contestants" in the reality show from hell are living and breathing people who are just looking for something to fill the void in their lives.

It's a sad and confused world that we live in if people feel they have to prove their worth by becoming famous. Who are we to begrudge them their moment of glory, no matter how contrived or silly it might appear in our eyes? While aiming a slap at the industry that creates these opportunities, Brookmyre hits those who sit in judgement on the participants with a shot between the eyes: How are you any different from Simon Darcourt except for perhaps how you express your opinion of these people?

A Snowball In Hell can be purchased directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca.

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.

December 5, 2008

Book Review: Ravensoul By James Barclay

When an author kills off the majority of his lead characters after having written six books tracing their adventures you tend to accept that just maybe you won't be reading any more stories about them. Oh sure the author could write some sort of pre-quell which could tell of their early days together or how they first met, but no matter how well written those things are they can be strangely dissatisfying. It's like having grown up with a group of friends and shared many life experiences with them along the way to all of a sudden have them revert back to the way they were when you first met them. In your minds eye you can still see them as they are today, but what you "hear" and witness is them years ago, and they are virtually strangers.

Of course there are other ways an author can bring characters back from the dead if he or she so chooses especially when they inhabit the type of worlds that exist in fantasy literature. There's usually no shortage of magic or magic users capable of performing a resurrection or two. In fact so many characters do seem to pop back after having kicked the bucket that it has become something of a cliche. Even worse is that the majority of those stories are a disservice to the original books that featured the characters in question as they end up feeling like attempts to exploit the characters' popularity.

When James Barclay wrote Demonstorm he seemed to have brought the adventures of the mercenary group known as The Raven to an end. After two trilogies, The Chronicles Of The Raven and The Legend Of The Raven only two of the group of soldiers and warrior magicians remained alive after saving their world from the grips of a demon invasion. So when I learned that a seventh book, Ravensoul, distributed in Canada by McArthur & Company, was forthcoming, I was surprised. Yet, after having watched as the books featuring The Raven had grown increasingly complex, and seen how Barclay's ability to make the implausible possible had resulted in another magnificent Epic Fantasy series, The Ascendants Of Estorea (Cry Of The Newborn & Shout For The Dead), there was reason to hope that he could make bringing his people back from the dead work.
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It's been ten years since The Raven had successfully beaten off the invasion of their world by the denizens of the demon dimension, and under the leadership of Sol, The Unknown Warrior, who had once led the mercenary troupe into battle, the country of Balaia is finally starting to recover. While some things, like the destruction of the various colleges of magic and their attendant cities, and in particular one college's heart (the conduit of magical power for all who studied a specific college's methodology), will take longer to recover from than others, it's finally starting to look there will be a future that is based on more than just eking out an existence.

However, for the last while Sol has been plagued with nightmares of his former companions desperately reaching out to him for help. Although his wife puts it down to his having had to watch them all die while he and Denser, the magician who was the only other survivor, made their way back to their own dimension, when a re-animated corpse claiming to be possessed by the soul of his former brother in arms, Hirad Coldheart, shows up at his front door the dreams take on a new meaning. For it's not just Hirad who has returned, but other members of The Raven, even some who had died long before the battle with the demons, are walking around in other bodies, claiming that their dimension has been destroyed, and Sol's world faces the same threat.

Needless to say, despite the presence of forty or fifty re-animated corpses walking around the city of Xetesk, the strongest surviving college of magic, Sol and Denser take a little convincing that the threat is real. However when they lose contact with the Southern continent, the home of the elves, they begin to suspect there might be some truth to what these lost souls are saying. Yet how do you pack up a whole continent's, let alone a world's, population and move them to another dimension? In fact why should you? Hadn't Balaia and its people proven itself in conflict before and overcome almost impossible odds to fight off the demons? What could be worse than that?
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The elves know, as two thousand years ago they had fled their original dimension to travel to the one they all now occupy in an attempt to escape the destruction wrought by the Garonin. It's not that this race comes to conquer - they come to suck the very life force out of any dimension they enter in a bid to fuel themselves to fight the wars being fought in their own dimension. Fighting the Garonin is impossible as for every soldier cut down they are immediately able to transport 100 across dimensional space to take its place. Even worse, since they are harvesting the life force of the planet, once they reach Balaia they are focusing their attacks on the centres of magic - the college cities - where that essence is concentrated in each magical branch's heart. As the hearts die, so does the country's best means of defence, magic.

The Raven stories were always a cut above typical sword and sorcery stories in their sophistication as Barclay always managed to make them about more then just the plot. Somehow topical themes; the relationship between power and responsibility, no action exists in isolation, and the very delicate balance that must be maintained for any world to survive, were always an integral part of each plot without them ever being in your face. Even more impressive, was that no matter how incredible some plot twist might seem, within the context that he created for the world of his characters and their adventures, they always made sense and were never outlandish.

If you haven't read the previous six books featuring The Raven, the bald details of Ravensoul's plot that I've laid out for you might seem outrageous, but within the context of what he had previously written this book not only fits into the world, it feels like an even better conclusion to the series than the previous book. It's as if Barclay has gathered up all the various threads of the previous stories and woven them together to finish the picture he had begun drawing in the first book.

As a band of warriors The Raven were always greater than the sum of their parts, somehow always managing to win through in the end no matter how insurmountable the odds against them appeared. Yet what made them such an appealing group of individuals was their humanity as none of them were perfect and they were subject to the same fears and foibles as the rest of us. However, not even death could shake their faith in their belief that they would win through in the end, simply because they were The Raven, and The Raven always won through in the end.

In the hands of a lesser writer a book that relied on resurrecting the majority of its characters for the story to work could have come across like a crass attempt to cash in on earlier popularity. Instead James Barclay has written a story equal to, or better, than any of the ones previously featuring The Raven. However, no matter how good any of the individual novels in either The Chronicles or The Legend Of The Raven are, like the mercenary group itself they are greater than the sum of their parts. Reading one of the seven books might be an exhilarating experience, but it's only by reading all of them that you can truly appreciate Barclay's accomplishment with this series. Now, with the publication of Ravensoul the picture is truly complete, and we can see just what a masterpiece it is that he has created.

November 24, 2008

Book Review: The Cream Of Tank Girl By Alan C. Martin & James Hewlett

Once upon a time, well in the late 1980's anyway, when we were all younger and lost in the wilderness, desperate for the type of example only a true leader can set, fortune sent us an anarchistic typhoon to clear all the bullshit from our path. With a can of lager in one hand (well actually anything with an alcohol content that could be used in an internal combustion engine without too much corrosive activity) and the other either on the steering wheel of her favourite vehicle or the controls of its weapon's system, she'd stomp out any perceived injustice and give conventional morality a few swift kicks to the groin.

It was 1988 when Tank Girl first saw the light of day. The world had only just survived eight years of Ronald Ray-guns and conservative Christianity's first kick at the can, and anybody else who was down on the ground hurting. By blaming society's woes on the poor they were able to stop spending money on pesky programs like school lunches and increase military spending in order to ensure American business interests around the world were safe from local government interference. Restoring pride in family values meant they were able to call HIV/AIDS the price of amoral behaviour - fags are only getting what's coming to them - and turning the clock back on any advances society had made on gender equality in the previous decade.

We were in desperate need of someone willing and able to give that world the collective finger followed by a boot up the arse and a grenade enema and Alan C. Martin and Jamie Hewlett's creation was just what the doctor (if he was stoned out his head on weird cacti found only in the remoter parts of the Australian outback) ordered. Tank Girl, her somewhat faithful companion, Boga, the kangaroo, and various hangers on, partied, pillaged, rampaged, and generally behaved in ways that would make the average barbarian hoard green with envy, in adult comics, graphic novels, short stories, and one brief appearance on celluloid for a glorious seven or so years.
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Now, just in time for the festive season, the good folks at Titan Books have served up a heaping pile of steaming - uhmm - a celebratory coffee table book, The Cream Of Tank Girl, in honour of her thrusting herself upon the unsuspecting world of comics chest first twenty odd years ago. According to Messrs Hewlett & Martin "Tank Girl" came about by accident. Together with other art school classmates in 1987 they had self-published a twenty-eight page comic featuring the two strips they believed showed most promise as being their entrées into the glamourous world of comic books. As neither "Atomtan" or "Max Nasty" have become household names, and "Tank Girl" was a one page ad on page twenty for a comic they never planned on writing, it's obvious prescience wasn't one of their strong suits. However when the editor of Deadline magazine approached them for a strip featuring our heroine they showed they could be counted on to deliver the goods when it mattered and a legend was born.

As its a book you're meant to give pride of place to on your coffee table (which when you think about how many Tank Girl readers own coffee table let alone furniture not made out of orange crates you have to wonder about the minds in the marketing department at Titan Books) the primary focus is of course on illustrations. From full colour reproductions of comic book panels and front covers of Deadline that Tank Girl graced, story boards and design ideas for Tank Girl the movie, to black and white pen and ink drawings, The Cream Of Tank Girl doesn't disappoint in that department.

Over the years Tank Girl underwent various modifications in her appearance as Hewlett's illustrations became more sophisticated. Yet no matter what there has always remained that certain je ne sais quois about her that would shrivel the balls of miscreants to the size of an atom. For, although there is no denying her lasciviousness nature, or that she is built along the lines of super heroines designed by men who still live in their parent's basement where gravity and the laws of proportion don't exist, the glint in her eye - and her willingness to level small towns with her tank - are enough to make even the most testosterone laden idiot pause for thought. Of course there are always those who aren't that swift on the uptake and they find out that yes indeed those are rocket launchers attached to the side of her tank.
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As a bonus Hewlett & Martin have also included some of the other strips they have worked on, or attempted to put before the public eye. It's nice to see that Hewlett's talents stretch beyond drawing kangaroos with attitude, tanks, explosions, and Tank Girl as we are introduced to various other characters in their arsenals and a variety of strangeness that somehow has yet to have seen the light of day.

One thing that they make clear in the books is that as far as they are concerned the movie version of Tank Girl not only was awful, but ruined her for ever. Instead of being the parody of the over-endowed super heroine (no those aren't intercontinental ballistic missiles under her t-shirt) the movie softened the hard edges and pointy bits about the character we liked so much and diminished her by filling the movie with stupid locker room humour in an attempt to make it appeal to a mass audience. What the studio didn't realize is that most of "Tank Girl's" appeal was the fact that it wasn't for mass consumption and didn't play well in Peoria.

The Cream Of Tank Girl is a trip back in time to those innocent days when a girl and her tank could travel the outback in the company of her kangaroo boy friend content in the knowledge there were stupid people to terrorize and towns to blow up. If you missed out on the action the first time round, it will give you a taste of what you missed. For the seasoned traveller its a fitting memento from your misspent youth and one that just might make you question your judgement in selling out and taking that straight job.

As of May 2007 that time has come as she made her triumphant return in the Gifting and is now appearing on a regular basis in the British magazine Judge Dredd in a twelve part series, Skidmarks. Look for it to be made into a graphic novel next year around this time, as a new generation of illustrators, Rufus Dayglo and Ashley Wood, have set Tank Girl loose on the world again. Just when we need her most, after eight years of George Bush's social conservatism, Tank Girl is back to send the forces of decency back to the rat holes they came from.

November 20, 2008

Book Review: Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress - Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnibone Book 3

In works of fiction, especially fantasy and romance novels, the old maxim of nice guys finishing last receives a reworking to "nice guys just aren't as interesting". While its true that the really evil characters have diabolic natures that make them fun to read about they're usually too one dimensional to to make and enduring character from. No, since the earliest day's of story telling, the characters that have made reader's hearts of both genders beat a little faster have been those bearing the scars of a tragic past.

Preferably he, or she, should exude the type of sadness that only comes from being the cause of their own misery. They should never simply sit and think, but always brood - lurking in a shadowy part of the room where the occasional flicker of light from a nearby candle or fire can throw their face into momentary, stark, relief or give a glimpse of eyes that send shivers down spines. Ideally they are of course loners who eschew the company of others on the grounds that being cursed as they are, all who they dare to love, or even have a casual drink with, will die in their arms.

It was the 19th century gothic novel where these characters pushed their masses of dark hair, and smouldering good looks into the forefront - Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights fame being the Platonic ideal - and they have been brooding their way into the hearts of millions ever since. Unfortunately the line between archetype and cliche is a thin one, and an endless supply of tall, dark, and morose characters can start to wear on you no matter how attractively they are packaged. So when Michael Moorcock first introduced the character of Elric, the brooding, sickly, and cursed albino scion of Emperors from the lost kingdom of Melnibone, novelty alone made him interesting. Bone white skin, long flowing white hair, and pink eyes may not sound immediately romantic, but make him tall and thin and clothe him entirely in black and have his sickly body sustained by the souls his sword, Stormbringer, steals as it slays, and that puts an entirely new complexion, so to speak, on the matter.
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Since his first appearance in the 1960's Elric has been popping up in everything from comics, graphic novels, magazines, to books. As Moorcock primarily wrote the Elric stories with the magazine market in mind, most of them were of short story or novella length. A new series, Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnibone, has gathered together not only the tales of Elric, but all of Moorcock's work that intersects with Elric and his world. In volume three of the series,Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress, being released by Random House Canada on November 25th/08, two interconnected series of stories have been gathered together. The three novellas that make up the title series, The Sleeping Sorceress are set in the mortal realms, The Young Kingdoms, with Elric in his familiar guise of a soldier of fortune. The second series, originally written in 1972, Elric Of Melnibone, is a prequel that details events that took place when Elric was still Emperor and how he came to be in possession of Stormbringer, his fearsome runesword.

The three parts of The Sleeping Sorceress detail Elric's attempts to track down an evil sorcerer named Theleb K'aarna before he can find him. Jealous of a queen's unrequited love for Elric, Theleb hopes that by destroying the albino he will win the heart of the woman who spurned him. While Elric doesn't really have a problem with dying, in fact there are days he would quite welcome what he hopes would be the lovely embrace of oblivion, he knows that Theleb K'aarna won't be satisfied with only killing Elric, but will seek further vengeance by harming those few Elric loves.

As Elric and his companion Moonglum seek out the evil one they meet up with an unexpected ally, the beautiful Empress of the Dawn, Myshella. Although a long time enemy of Melnibone, she serves the gods of Law while those of Melnibone served Chaos, it is Elric she turns to for help to free her from an enchantment that Theleb K'aarna has placed her under. Her body has been forced into an almost eternal sleep, and although she is able to resist and appear to Elric in his thoughts for now, soon she will succumb to the curse and die.
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Moonglum and Elric are able to successfully revive her and with Myshella's aid defeat Theleb not just once but twice over the course of the three books. Unfortunately the last battle, from which Theleb still manages to escape alive, costs Myshella her life. When Elric first set eyes on her he had been struck by her uncanny resemblance to the lost love of his life, Cymoril, and all his old guilt and remorse had been brought to the surface. Worst of all was the fact that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't resist loving Myshella. Her death only further convinces him that there is a doom upon his head that ensures any who he loves, or who love him, will die a violent and needless death.

Was there ever a time when Elric wasn't a tragic and doom laden figure? In answer to that question Moorcock takes us back in time to when Elric still sat upon the Ruby Throne as Emperor of Melnibone. The only child of the previous Emperor, not only was he born weak and sickly, his birth killed his mother. Needing special herbs and medicines to maintain his strength, he, unlike previous Emperors, spends a great deal of time studying the ancient tomes that have been collected in the nation's libraries. The world is changing outside of the island on which Melnibone is located as mortal men, recent arrivals to the world, are gaining in strength and gradually building kingdoms that might soon threaten the ancient land's existence.

However, in Elric Of Melnibone Elric's most immediate threat lies much closer to home, as his cousin Yrkoon makes no secret of his disdain for his sickly relative and ambition to usurp him. Complicating matters is that one, Elric tends to agree with Yrkoon's assessment that he would be a better Emperor of Melnibone than Elric, and two that Elric is in love with Cymoril, Yrkoon's sister. Ironically Yrkoon points to his own survival as an example of Elric's unfitness to be Emperor. For what occupant of the Ruby Throne worth his salt would let someone like him live?
Yet, we see in these stories an Elric whose life has not yet been burdened by the death of those he loves, and he is happy in the company of his true love, even if he is not content with the cruelty of his people. His studies, which have made him a far more potent sorcerer then any Emperor before his time, have also caused him to question the use of violence and power as a means of exerting control over others. Wouldn't it be better to co-exist with the people of the Young Kingdoms, mortals, then engage in a never ending struggle with them to see who would control the world?

After defeating his cousin's attempts to overthrow him, and in the process claiming the runesword Stormbringer, he returns to Melnibone determined to travel among humans for a year so that he might begin to understand them better. Thinking Yrkoon thoroughly cowed after his second defeat, he not only allows him to live on, but appoints him regent for the year he will be absent. Cymoril begs him not, fearing, rightly so of course, that her brother is even more dangerous now that he has been humiliated. Elric in his pride disagrees, and of course dooms them all; his beloved Cymoril, the Empire, and him. The first two to their death and destruction, and he to a life spent seeking out the means to forget, even if only for the shortest of times, the sorrows that plague him.
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The stories in Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress have all been released before, but these new editions being published as part of the series Chronicles Of The Lost Emperor Of Melnibone represent an opportunity for those who have never experienced Elric, or the writing of Michael Moorcock for that matter, to do so in a convenient and elegantly packaged manner. The books also contain some fascinating extras, and in this edition they include; examples of the original art work that accompanied previous publications of these stories, essays by Moorcock on the nature of fantasy and comparing Elric to the Spanish hero El Cid, and the introduction to the graphic novel version of Elric Of Melnibone.

The stories as they appear in this book are the definitive editions, with any edits that magazines or other publications might have made in the name of space restrictions, or whatever, restored by Moorcock. The illustrations by Steve Ellis, which are superb black and white pen and ink drawings, are all new for this publication and are a wonderful compliment to the text. Reading these stories in their new surroundings means even those of us who have followed Elric for years, will feel like we are coming to him fresh. They not only still have the power to entertain and move, they will also give you plenty to think about. That's the real difference between Elric and other heroes, not his lack of pigmentation or the colour of his eyes.

You can pick up a copy of Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

November 19, 2008

Book Review: The Clash By The Clash (Strummer, Jones, Simonon, & Headon)

A sure sign that Christmas is approaching is the sudden proliferation of coffee table books on the market. As sure as holly and mistletoe, each book publisher can be counted on to have one, if not two, of these extravagances available at this time of year. With subject matter ranging from antique farm implements to celebrity photo spreads, the coffee table book is usually long on glossy photos and short on text, as they are meant more for display purposes than reading. (Hence the name "coffee table book"; its meant to be ostentatiously placed on your coffee table for bored family and friends to leaf through when they have nothing better to do during holiday visits)

For the most part I consider these books a waste of space and money. Each time I look at one I think about how many novels by how many authors could have been published for the amount it cost to produce a volume that might not even sell enough copies to pay for itself. Check out the remainder bins each year, or even more telling, those publisher clearing house stores, and you'll find most of the space taken up by last year's coffee table books. Even a year of supposed economic hardship like this one hasn't stopped book publishers from putting out their obligatory Christmas coffee table book.

However, once in a while there will be a publication of this kind where an effort has been made to make it not only eye catching, but also informative, with the text being as important to the book as the photography. When there has also been a deliberate attempt on the part of the publisher to make it as anti-coffee table book in presentation as Atlantic Books have done with the recently released The Clash you've stumbled upon something that your not going to leave around for people to use as a coaster this holiday season, or ever.
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The Clash, distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, is not just a pictorial record of a band, its a history of the band written by the band. Drawing upon personal accounts left behind by the late Joe Strummer, interviews with the three other principle members; Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon, and previously unreleased print material (tour posters, band members' journals and scrap books, newspaper clippings, and tons of photos) The Clash tells the story of the most important band to come out of Britain's 1970's punk scene.

Like a Clash song, the book pulls no punches as the boys aren't shy about admitting to their cock-ups nor hesitant to talk about any of the bad times along with the good times. Using album releases and tours as a framework, the book is laid out chronologically. To start off with each of the four fills in biographical detail of their years BC (Before Clash); growing up, and how they ended up in the band. If you didn't know the guys in The Clash were different from other musicians before, reading what and how they write about themselves clues you in. There's nothing sentimental or mawkish - we were poor but loving - or any of the other bullshit you find in these sorts of things.

In fact Joe and Topper both had fairly middle class lives, with Joe spending most of his childhood in boarding schools as his dad was in the foreign service, and Topper's parents both being school teachers. Mick and Paul did grow up in Brixton, London's rough and tumble working class slum, and each recall a childhood spent playing in abandoned bomb shelters. Both of them came from broken homes - Mick was raised by his grandma, and Paul divided his time between his mom and step-dad and his dad - but neither make a big deal out of it. In fact they are each really quite matter of fact when it comes to reporting on growing up, owning up to when they were shits and all, but never looking back to lay blame or to seek excuses.

From reading those bits, and then everything else each of them wrote about their time in the band, you can't help feeling relieved. They sound like the guys who played and wrote the songs that preached personal responsibility that made The Clash so distinct from other bands. Even straining your ears, and reading between the lines, there's not a hint of anything to contradict that impression. There's no bullshit false modesty about what they accomplished, but neither is there any self aggrandizement where they pretend they were anything more than a rock and roll band.
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Along the way the boys dispel a lot of the myths that grew up around them and the Sex Pistols hating each other, putting it down more to antagonism between the groups' respective managers at the time. Bernie Rhodes, The Clash's manager, had worked for Malcolm McLaren, who managed the Pistols, and the impression given is that he was constantly trying to outdo his former boss. So when Malcolm decided to try and make the Pistols more in demand by not having them play, Bernie went the opposite route and had The Clash in the public eye as much as possible. That made for some friction because the Pistols thought it was a deliberate attempt to outshine them.

However, hearing Joe, Mick, and Paul talk about the early days, there was a real sense of camaraderie between the two bands - us against them, and they genuinely liked each other. This is one of the few times I've ever read anything where Sid Vicious comes across as a human, instead of some deranged maniac. Sure a lot of shit happened to him at the end of his days, but that didn't stop The Clash from trying to organize a benefit for him to pay his legal fees when he was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend Nancy. That doesn't sound like the kind of thing you'd do for people you didn't like.

In the end what truly makes this book special, and what differentiates it from the usual run of the mill coffee table book shlock, is the fact it is a Clash creation. From the shocking, fluorescent pink of its cover, to the scatter shot lay out reminiscent of the old punk fanzines that were lovingly cut and pasted and run off at Kinkos in the middle of the night, The Clash by The Clash has about as much in common with other books of its type as the band had with the bloated corporate rock that preceded them. In keeping with Clash history, this is the band that released a triple album, Sandinista for the price of as single, the book is retailing at a price only slightly more than that of a normal hardcover.

At 380 plus pages, some 300 photos and illustrations, and around 60,000 words of text, they've not stinted on material either to make this inexpensive. Informative and visually exciting The Clash manages to capture a good deal of the energy and spirit of what made the band for a period of six years "the only band that matters". Who know whether or not this will be the definitive book on The Clash, but for now, its the only one that matters.

You can pick up a copy of The Clash in Canada at selected bookstores or on line through Chapters Indigo and other on line retailers.

November 13, 2008

Book Review: The Graveyard Book By Neil Gaiman Illustrated By Dave McKean

Walking through a graveyard in the middle of the day, nobody is going to be overly disturbed as it's much like wandering through a park. In fact there are some graveyards in the world where thousands of visitors flock each year to wander their confines to search for the celebrities like Jim Morrison or Oscar Wilde who are buried there. However, let it be after dark and that very same graveyard is apt to be deserted.

While some might ascribe it to a fear of the supernatural, I think the real reason for people avoiding graveyards at night is because they unite two of mankind's most primal fears: death and the dark. Our fear of the dark is a hangover from the days before we discovered fire and were at the mercy of the many denizens of the night who looked upon us as snack material. While we've devised many belief systems to try and answer the question of what happens to us after we die, there's never been a shred of proof offered that any of them are true. Death, for all the promises of pie in the sky made by so many religions, is the the great unknown, the great darkness that no fire we possess can disperse.

So there aren't that many of us that would think of graveyards as a sanctuary from danger, but in his latest release, The Graveyard Book, from Harper Collins, Neil Gaiman has done just that. Replete with illustrations by his look time collaborator Dave McKean, The Graveyard Book offers a behind the scenes peak at what happens to us after we are laid to rest as it tells the story of the night the inhabitants of one graveyard became involved with the affairs of the living and the events that ensued in the years following.
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The story opens with death, as befits a novel set in a graveyard. Thankfully the deaths are all ready accomplished when we enter the story, for they were the violent deaths a husband, wife, and daughter at the hands of a knife wielding killer. However the killer, a mysterious man named Jack, is still on the prowl for the survivor of the house's inhabitants, a baby boy. Yet when he reaches the top floor nursery where the crib lies waiting, it's only to find it empty and the boy vanished.

Sniffing out his trail, for like all good hunters our man Jack follows his prey more by scent than by sight, he follows it out of the house onto the street which leads up the hill to a graveyard. Although he could swear he smelt the baby's scent leading into the cemetery, once there he loses the trail. In fact, all of a sudden he realizes that he's come in the completely wrong direction and there's no reason for him to be in the graveyard at all. The boy he decides must have gone down the hill, not up, and anyway, who or what would a baby find shelter with in a graveyard. No, somehow or other Jack must have followed the wrong scent, and he heads off into the night.

Of course if Jack had been able to see properly he might have noticed the great amount of consternation that had gripped the graveyard's residents as ghosts from as far back as Roman times debated the practical issues involved with them raising a live child. The real sticking point is how are they to provide for the child - none of them can leave the graveyard in order to gather the food he'll need to survive. It's only Silas, the graveyard's only undead resident, offering his services as guardian to the boy until he's grown, and a timely reminder from the Lady on the Grey, the one all the dead know as it's her and her great horse that wait for us at the end of our days, that the dead should know charity, that finally sway them to offer the little tyke Freedom of the Graveyard.

So it is that Nobody Owens, Bod for short, came to live in the graveyard at the top of the hill. As it was the Mrs. Owens who promised the shades of little Bod's parents that she would protect their son, she and Mr. Owens became his Mother and Father and he took their surname. As for his first name, well as Mrs. Owens put it, "he don't look like nobody but himself", and Silas agreed that's indeed who he looked like and named him appropriately.
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When next we meet young Bod he's five years old and like all young people is full of questions about what he sees around him. Primary among them is why can't he leave the graveyard, and how do I do what he or she just did, and who lives in which plot. The answers he receives from the ghosts are most unsatisfactory, so he turns to the mysterious Silas for answers to his questions in the hopes of receiving a straight answer. So it is that Bod finds out that he is different from the rest of the graveyards inhabitants, and that things like Fading, Dreamwalking and Haunting don't come naturally to him. It's also when he discovers that there is something or someone outside the graveyard who means to do him harm. Any trip he takes outside the graveyard could result in his whereabouts being discovered and his death.

There is something about Neil Gaiman's writing that no matter the subject, and no matter how scary things might be getting, there's the sense that he's not trying to exploit your fears like other writers who deal with the supernatural. There's such a feeling of awe and wonder to his writing that you can't help but feel entranced by all that's going on in the story. That's the case again with The Graveyard Book as we wander around with Bod meeting the various inhabitants of his graveyard home and watching him grow from a young boy to a young adult. In fact it's the human world that's the scariest as the people out there, from teenagers to adults, are decidedly unpredictable and apt to act nastily without any rhyme or reason.

Gaiman's other great gift is his ability to make all of his characters instantly believable no matter who or what they are. From Bod to Silas, and all the inhabitants of the graveyard, each character has such a distinct personality that as readers we are able to see them in our mind's eye almost immediately upon meeting them. While the world they inhabit might be completely alien to us, after all there aren't probably many among his readers who are terribly familiar with life in a graveyard, we quickly accept their reality as normal because they are so real.

While Gaiman doesn't need much assistance in generating atmosphere in his stories, Dave McKean's illustrations add that little extra something that ensures we remember the other worldly quality of the environment the book takes place in. While his drawings aren't necessarily frightening, they do remind us of the differences between Bod and his friends and neighbours by representing their physical differences. For while Bod is always drawn as a relatively solid person, there is something always ethereal about the way the other characters are depicted.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Dave McKean is a delightful mix of fantasy and mystery that will entertain readers of all ages. Like the best fairy tales there are moments that are scary enough to make us worry about the fate of Nobody Owens, but there are an equal, if not greater number, of magical moments that transport us out of our world and make us forget our mundane reality. What could be better than that.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean can be purchased directly from Harper Collins or your local book seller.

November 12, 2008

Book Review: The Siege By Ismail Kadare

When the world first started hearing the term "ethnic cleansing" coming out of the Balkan countries that made up the former Yugoslavia, once they recovered from the shock of understanding what that reality meant, probably their next reaction was surprise. Where had such a large community of European Muslims come from and what was the basis for the amount of hatred being directed towards them? To properly understand that you would have to travel back close to five hundred years to when the Ottoman Empire was carving its way through the Balkan states in an attempt to follow the Danube river all the way into Europe.

Like all wars where religion is a factor, the ones between the Christian defenders of the various Balkan countries and the Muslim Turkish invaders were pursued with a certain amount of fanaticism on both sides. While some countries were able to mount a fair resistance and even repulse their would be conquerers, others weren't so lucky. While the Ottoman Empire would have tolerated other religions under its rule, there would have also been advantages to converting to Islam in terms of standard of living and comfort. However those who did would have been considered traitors and betrayers by their neighbours, and history doesn't get forgotten easily in some parts of the world. Five hundred years after the fact people were forced to pay with their lives for the so called sins of their ancestors.

I'm sure most people have heard the tale of Vlad The Impaler, who supposedly slew hundreds of Turks by impaling them on stakes, and is the purported model for a certain blood sucking fiend from Transylvania. While Vlad may not have actually drank his victim's blood, there is no denying that the war between the Ottoman Empire and the various Balkan states they invaded were bloody and protracted affairs. Instead of engagements in the field, where the superior numbers of the Empire would prevail, key castles and strongholds were defended, with the result that long and bloody sieges were common. In his recently translated book The Siege, published by Random House Canada, Albanian author,