Book Review: Hellgoing

November 6, 2013 Book Review 0

Book Review: HellgoingHellgoing: Stories
Author: Lynn Coady
Originally Published: 2013
Length: 240 pages
Published by: House of Anansi
Why I read it: Giller Shortlist
Where I got it: Library

Quick thoughts: A collection of short stories which truly fires on all cylinders.

Short story collections often remind me of music albums. Usually I can’t shake the notion that a good chunk of material was included as filler to meet some marketing criteria for length. But every now and then a collection is released where every single story (or song) strikes the right chord. That pretty much sums up my response to Hellgoing, Lynn Coady’s most recent collection of short stories.

I think what made this collection resonate so strongly with me is how the stories flirt with those parts of our lives which would usually remain unvoiced. There was an intimacy and introspection that made the inner dialogue feel tangible without ever being spoken aloud. Take for example this excerpt from “Take This and Eat It”, where a nun realizes in a moment of clarity that she has misread an interpersonal situation:

I’m startled. I have been imagining this whole time that she was making fun of me. I assumed we were speaking to each other in the same way my sisters and I always did — the hostility frothing up around the edges of our every sentence like scum on soup. We could spend entire holidays in a single house together, talking to each other like that, without a second thought, like picking and picking at your cuticles and being surprised when they start to ache and bleed.

Another excerpt, this one from “Clear Skies”, works as a great example of breathing life into some moment of inner thought:

She was standing there thinking that talking to her brother Wayne was like talking to God. Maybe this was the reason she still stayed in contact with Wayne, despite the futility of their conversations: the acid frustration it provoked. It was like talking to God — pointless, maddening and compulsive. Wayne didn’t make sense; he didn’t have to make sense. He didn’t bow to the logic of Man. Wayne’s wisdom was his unfathomable own — undreamt of in her philosophy. The Wayner was what The Wayner was.

Then there were other moments that didn’t so much express what I would never say aloud, but rather gave voice to some emotion deep within. This passage from “An Otherworld” stood out in that regard:

Just walking down the same hill made her stomach roil — provoked a visceral remembrance of sailing over her handlebars during the long, doomed oh-no time warp that hitting the speed bump had triggered. She had been playing a lot of computer games that month and, after crunching face-first to the ground, her instinct was to wonder: When did I last hit save? I can go back. It was that feeling of losing, of having screwed up badly in the game and just wanting to quit in disgust and start over.

Who hasn’t faced those moments where you wish you could just go back to some crossroads in life? But to couple that with video game logic, juxtaposing reality with escapism, for some reason that lit up my neural pathways like a fireworks display. So many pivotal moments from my own life flashed before my eyes in that moment, creating a surreal bond of empathy with Coady’s fictional character for a fleeting instant. That moment is what I’m trying to capture when talking about finding a connection with a a book or an author, and Hellgoing was chock-full of such experiences.

It was also nice to have a book so pan-Canadian, with story locales dotting the national map. From the nail-biting drive along the Pacific Rim Highway to watching icebergs just beyond St. John’s harbour, Hellgoing reads like a whirlwind tour of Canada. What’s more, Coady writes these far-flung people and places with authenticity and authority. Everything feels so real in her hands.

This ended up being my personal favourite from the Giller shortlist this year, and I was extremely happy to see it awarded the prize. What will be interesting, though, is to see the reaction of average Canadians who succumb to the “Giller Effect”, buying the book simply because it was recognized by a jury as the best in Canadian literature this year. Only time will prove the relative merits of the book, but for me Hellgoing will remain a high water mark in my personal journey through CanLit.

From the Publisher: With astonishing range and depth, Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Lynn Coady gives us eight unforgettable new stories, each one of them grabbing our attention from the first line and resonating long after the last.

About Lynn Coady

Lynn Coady is the author of the bestselling novel The Antagonist, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, as well as the novels Mean Boy, Saints of Big Harbour, and Strange Heaven and the short story collection Play the Monster Blind. She has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, and has four times made the Globe and Mail’s annual list of Top 100 Books. Originally from Cape Breton, she now lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where she is a founding and senior editor of the award-winning magazine Eighteen Bridges.

Read what some other bloggers have said:

Curled up With a Good Book and a Cup of Tea: “These are stories of flawed people with unusual problems and yet the characters come across the relatively few pages and make you like them.  The theme that runs through the book are people whose inner lives are at odds with the world they inhabit… Coady uncovers the things that live deep down inside of us, the things that people keep hidden and she brings them to the light of day in her pages.”

Jules’ Book Reviews: “One of the aspects I enjoyed the most about this collection, is that there was a lot beneath the surface that wasn’t revealed until the end, and even then, the author buried it deep into the story, almost like a hidden meaning to the whole story, that isn’t revealed until the last sentence.”

Buried in Print: “Lynn Coady’s stories prick beneath the skin, and her characters pull back the tissue, so that something else – whole and fresh – emerges.”

Divider

Random Musings: My Giller Predictions

November 5, 2013 Random Musings 5

The winner of this year’s Giller Prize will be announced tonight, and I don’t want to let the moment slip by with committing at least some of my thoughts to paper. I’ve actually read all five of the shortlisted books, along with a handful from the longlist as well, but life has been busy enough that I haven’t had the chance to write up my reviews yet. In fact, I’ve probably got 15 or so backlogged reviews, which tends to feel a little suffocating. But enough of my whining…

This year’s shortlist was a bit of a disappointment for me. Both Going Home Again and The Crooked Maid never really got off the ground in my opinion. There were some high points and memorable vignettes, but the final payoff in both novels seemed watery and insubstantial to me. Cataract City and Caught had fantastic and meaningful stories, but they both failed to impress me. For some reason, I was constantly jostled out of my reading groove. Often it was ideas that didn’t jibe with my reality (who uses Cataract City as a slang term for Niagara Falls, or smuggles marijuana into BC?). There was plenty to appreciate in both novels, but I obviously wasn’t on the same wavelength as the authors.

The one book that really grabbed my attention, though, is the book which seems to be garnering the most middling reviews from readers. Hellgoing, Lynn Coady’s latest collection of short stories, might well be the first collection I’ve read where every single story resonated with me. It’s definitely the book I’ll be rooting for tonight, but, considering my track record for the past few years, my preference likely signals the kiss of death – the final nail in the coffin, so to speak. In fact, my favourite book from the longlist, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, didn’t even make it into the running. Assuming that last year’s pick of 419 is some indication of what the Giller committee is looking for in a winner, then my hands-down pick for the winner is Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again.

The ceremonies will air tonight on CBC at 9:00 EST, but the taped delay should mean that the winner will be all over the Twitterverse before the broadcast even begins. If you’ve read any of the books from this year’s shortlist, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Divider

Audiobook Review: Ender’s Game Alive

October 31, 2013 Uncategorized 2

Audiobook Review: Ender’s Game AliveEnder's Game Alive: The Full Cast Audioplay
Author: Orson Scott Card
Narrated by: Full Cast Recording
Originally Published: 2013
Length: 7 hrs 24 mins
Why I read it: Review Request
Where I got it: Audible.com

Quick thoughts: This full cast audioplay adaptation of the classic novel is an interesting concept, but it fell short of my admittedly high expectations.

To call Ender’s Game Alive an audiobook is almost grasping at straws, but I don’t think the publishers are trying to mislead anyone. In fact, the title goes to great lengths in defining the content as an audioplay. That’s an interesting evolution in and of itself, because this “new” branch of audiobooks is little more than a throwback to radio shows from the beginning of the 20th century.

Orson Scott Card (the author of the original Ender’s Game novel) wrote the script for this audioplay himself, which is sort of a double-edged sword. In the one hand, you’re pretty much guaranteed that the audioplay will be faithful to the book. On the other hand, I have to wonder whether Card is so familiar with the material that an outsider to the Ender universe might end up lost in the translation from novel to audioplay. Having read the original book myself, I can’t really make any claims as to how well the audioplay would hold up for a first-time listener. The jury is out on that one.

The story itself is peerless, and really stands in a class of its own. There were definitely no problems on that front. The audioplay version brings a great energy to the proceedings, especially when it comes to conveying emotions. The huge cast of voices ensures that characters are [usually] easily identified without having to resort to constant narrative interruptions. Sound design was also impressive, with stereo effects put to great use in simulating zero-g spins or moving away from characters in the battle rooms. High marks also go the foley work, where the sounds were just enough to add to the story without becoming obtrusive.

On the not-so-positive side, however, there were some real drawbacks. I’ve always laughed at the cheesy narrator voices from those old radio shows, but the complete lack of a narrator highlighted the necessity of that function. Even knowing the story as I did, there were still moments where mental orientation took a little longer than I would have hoped for. There’s also the fact that the story begins when our character is just six years old, yet absolutely no effort was put into making him sounds that young. For an audioplay — where everything is interpreted by what the listener hears — that sort of dissonance between what we’re told and what we hear really hampers believability.

I also have to wonder if this audioplay would have benefitted from being broken into episodes or chapters. There are some musical interludes that hint at divisions in the play, but seven-odd hours is a long time to go without giving the listener a pause to process and compartmentalize what he or she has just read.

As an audioplay, Ender’s Game Alive hints at real potential for the format — even if I don’t think it’s ready for prime time just yet. If you’ve read the book before, this is a worthwhile extra which offers a unique experience. For anyone who hasn’t yet read the book, I wouldn’t recommend this audioplay as a good starting point, but I would encourage you to try out the original novel or the unabridged audiobook instead. It’s a superb story, and the movie adaptation premiering this weekend offers a fantastic excuse to read it sooner rather than later.

From the Publisher: Experience Ender’s Game as you’ve never heard it before! With an all-new, original script written by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game Alive is a full cast audio drama that reimagines the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning classic.

Divider

Book Review: Dance, Gladys, Dance

October 26, 2013 Uncategorized 0

Book Review: Dance, Gladys, DanceDance, Gladys, Dance
Author: Cassie Stocks
Originally Published: 2012
Length: 344 pages
Published by: NeWest Press
Why I read it: Personal selection
Where I got it: Kobo

Quick thoughts: A heartwarming read with both humour and bite.

Dance, Gladys, Dance popped up on my radar when it won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour earlier this year. It’s not a literary prize I’ve been following for long, but I’ve come to respect the savvy of the organization behind it. That might be largely on account of my quixotic efforts to find another book that will impact me as strongly as one or two previous winners – a literary equivalent of chasing the dragon, if you will. Yet if success in this regard can be defined as finding something that warms your heart and makes you proud of your homeland, then Dance, Gladys, Dance is another feather in the Leacock Medal’s cap.

At its heart, I saw this as a novel about finding one’s muse . . . or losing it. It’s full of characters who yearned to create something beautiful through painting, film or dance, only to have their dreams quashed by the harsh realities of life. The many journeys of self-discovery provide the beating heart of the tale, but it’s the multifaceted exploration of sexism and gender [in]equality that give the story some teeth. Whether the heartrending tale of spousal mistreatment from a hundred years ago, the genius screenwriter who can’t make it past the Boys Club politics of the industry or the aspiring painter who is crushed by a one-sided affair, there is an agonizing familiarity to these tales that delivers a devastating punch beneath all the laughs.

I have to admit that the humour is a bit rougher around the edges than I would have expected of a Leacock winner. That’s not to say it’s rude or bawdy. There is still a great deal of innocence here, but it’s tinged with a brittle sensitivity that hints at an underlying emotional hurt. The humour is definitely effective, because it tugs at the reader’s sympathy in an effort to strike at something deeper.

Dance, Gladys, Dance left me with just the right mix of laughter and profound meaning, even if there were a few moments where the pacing faltered a bit. When things were humming along on rails, though, this book absolutely sang. I also have to admit that I’m pretty easy to win over when a book is so shamelessly Canadian. The moment when a conversation took an inordinately lengthy detour into how Saskatchewaners have a habit of placing a box of Kleenex in the rear window of their car . . . well, that was probably the moment I knew this was a book for me. Strongly recommended if you’re looking for an emotional read that delivers plenty of laughs along the way.

Read an excerpt

Listen to a podcast interview with the author

From the Publisher: WINNER OF THE 2013 LEACOCK MEMORIAL MEDAL FOR CANADIAN HUMOUR WRITING!

Twenty-seven-year-old Frieda Zweig is at an impasse. Behind her is a string of failed relationships and half-forgotten ambitions of being a painter; in front of her lies the dreary task of finding a real job and figuring out what “normal” people do with their lives. Then, a classified ad in the local paper introduces Frieda to Gladys, an elderly woman who long ago gave up on her dreams of being a dancer. The catch? Gladys is a ghost.

About Cassie Stocks

Cassie Stocks (Photo Credit: Terry Gasior)

Cassie Stocks was born in Edmonton, Alberta. She’s been a biker chick, a university student, an actress, and a rich man’s gardener; she’s worked as a waitress, an office clerk, an aircraft cleaner, has raised chickens, and once upon a time, was even the caretaker of a hydroponic pot factory.

In 2002, she was accepted to the Writing With Style Workshop at the Banff Centre, where she received support and encouragement from Sharon Butala and the late Gloria Sawai. Upon her return to Edmonton, she quit her job at a steel fabrication plant and applied to the MacEwan Applied Communications Degree in Professional Writing Program.

Cassie was a winner in the CBC Alberta Anthology Short Fiction contest and a student writer for the Edmonton Voices portion of the Canadian Authors Series. Her short story “The Painter” aired on CBC Radio One. She completed her Bachelor of Applied Communications in Professional Writing Degree with Distinction from MacEwan University in 2011.

Cassie currently lives in Eston, SK, with her son Julian. Dance, Gladys, Dance is her first novel.

Divider

Book Review: Dirt Music

October 16, 2013 Book Review 2

Book Review: Dirt MusicDirt Music
Author: Tim Winton
Originally Published: 2002
Length: 411 pages
Why I read it: Book club selection
Where I got it: Library

Quick thoughts: An exceptional evocation of the Australian land with a riveting story to pull everything together.

“Dirt music” isn’t a term I’m at all familiar with, and I’m still not sure whether it is common Australian slang or just something Tim Winton came up with on his own. Regardless of the term’s provenance, it ends up being a fitting choice for the title of this novel. Before venturing into the why, however, it’s probably best to start off with the definition as given in the book: “Anything you could play on a verandah. You know, without electricity. Dirt music.”

Oddly enough, music doesn’t even begin to enter the picture until the story is well underway. We begin in an isolated fishing village on the west coast of Australia, where a glut of foreign money spent on the rock lobster harvest has made life very comfortable for residents. So comfortable, in fact, that they think nothing of discouraging interlopers and poachers with lawless displays of armed violence. Thrown into this mix is a love triangle of sorts: Jim, the leader of the fishing community; Georgie, the outsider who is filling the void left by Jim’s dead wife; and Luther, the poacher who sparks in her the need to escape the life she has come to accept.

It’s only when Luther is being run out of town that we really discover his musical background, along with the devastating reason why he left that music behind. In his subsequent travels through the outback, the theme of music begins to take on a much more elemental connotation – as though the land itself is thrumming with some vibrating note or chord. “Dirt music” might be described in the book as acoustic sound, but Luther’s journey into the wild begins to give it a different meaning, as though the dirt itself is possessed of some primeval music that echoes melodies from millennia past. In many ways, the land itself becomes a character which looms large over the story.

As Luther’s purgatorial journey into the outback moves toward a featured role in the narrative, it begins to take on take on echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – something which seems intentional based on a few references to that novella early on in the book. There is also a strong connection to the romantic notion of a walkabout, that lone journey into the bush that is both spiritual and sacred. Of course, that’s not the sort of writing that will appeal to readers looking for a gripping story. For those who enjoy revelling in the creative use of language and literary themes, though, this might be right up your alley. Dirt Music is full of prose that resonates with terrestrial harmonies. Some moments are vast and expansive. Others are painfully intimate. Scattered between are moments of levity and biting humour. It’s a symphony in words—an oratorio celebrating the wondrous beauty of the Australian land, and a requiem for the death of innocence.

From the Publisher: Luther Fox, a loner, haunted by his past, makes his living as an illegal fisherman — a shamateur. Before everyone in his family was killed in a freak rollover, he grew melons and played guitar in the family band. Robbed of all that, he has turned his back on music. There’s too much emotion in it, too much memory and pain.

[author-info]

Divider

Audiobook Review: The Art of Fielding

October 11, 2013 Audiobook Review 0

Audiobook Review: The Art of FieldingThe Art of Fielding
Author: Chad Harbach
Narrated by: Holter Graham
Originally Published: 2011
Length: 16 hrs
Why I read it: Personal selection
Where I got it: Audible.com

Quick thoughts: It's not perfect, but this literary sports novel has enough heart to make up for its shortcomings.

The Art of Fielding had been on my reading list for a little while, but there were a few issues that kept nudging it to the bottom of the pile. First, it seemed to suffer from flash-in-the-pan syndrome. Everybody seemed to be unanimously hailing it as the best novel of 2011, and then it just vanished. I’ve seen that scenario play out often enough that it’s cause for concern. A second strike against it was the sports theme. I like a good sports novel, but it’s usually an exception for me. It’s the rare author who can rise above the tired clichés to create something unique and interesting. I have to admit that the title didn’t exactly win me over either, providing a trifecta of excuses to keep putting it off despite some lingering interest.

Considering how long I procrastinated, it came as quite a surprised to me that I enjoyed it so much. The story hinges on the character of Henry Skrimshander, a small kid with an outsized passion for baseball. His preternatural skill defies the expectations of scouts conditioned to look for something more physically imposing, and you can’t help but cheer for this kid fighting an uphill battle just to play the game he loves . It’s a time-worn formula of triumphing against the odds, but Harbach puts a unique spin on his telling, dodging the bullet of tired clichés that I was admittedly expecting. It’s not often that I’m on the edge of my seat while reading a book. With The Art of Fielding, I was utterly absorbed. You couldn’t predict which way the story would go or where a character arc would lead, and the passion was contagious.

Despite the obvious and pervasive emphasis on baseball, The Art of Fielding is very much a literary novel, packing in all the trappings one would expect from modern fiction. The Art of Fielding is actually a book within a book – a Zen Buddhist manual on baseball that riffs on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – and Westish College, the fictional school where Skrimshander plays, is loaded with references and homages to Herman Melville. There’s also the fairly standard soul-searching twist of fate, side-trips of agonizing introspection, and even (in what’s beginning to feel like a prerequisite for serious novels nowadays) a gay subplot.

All that literary stuff AND a sports novel, you ask? Well, that’s the idea in theory, but the execution isn’t always so seamless. At times it feels as though Harbach is trying to paint a mural onto a postage stamp. There is just too much going on to fully develop any one theme or idea, and the result is that things tend to get lost in the shuffle. Even something as central as baseball is occasionally relegated to irrelevance as “serious” themes are explored. Having said that, though, it’s not something I really noticed when the story was in full swing. It was only in retrospect, when trying to piece together the story elements into a cohesive whole, that the themes and allusions began to seem less than the sum of their parts.

While it might not be a perfect novel, it’s certainly got heart. In many ways, it’s a little like Henry Skrimshander himself: something that seems below the mark, but has such a keen eye for what matters that it eclipses any shortcomings. It’s that person who seems so ordinary in a photo, yet so compelling in real life. The character inside threatens to burst out at every seam, and you can’t help but be won over by some sort of ephemeral life force. So long as you’re not expecting the great American novel — or even the best novel of 2011, for that matter — The Art of Fielding is a great choice if you’re looking for something arty that dishes out an equal amount of whimsical fun.

Audiobook notes: Holter Graham’s narration really plays on the muted emotions and the feeling of inertia that accompanies a few of the character arcs. It serves well to set the artistic tone which the book seems to be striving for, although there are times when the combination of voices in conversation sounds staged and hokey. Overall, though, this production works quite well.

From the Publisher: At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for Big League stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended. Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future.

About Chad Harbach

Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan www.beowulfsheehan.com

Chad Harbach grew up in Wisconsin and was educated at Harvard and the University of Virginia. He is a cofounder and coeditor of n+1. - See more at: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/authors/chad-harbach/#about

Divider

Book Review: Timbuctoo

October 3, 2013 Book Review 0

Book Review: TimbuctooTimbuctoo
Author: Tahir Shah
Originally Published: 2012
Length: 544 pages
Published by: Secretum Mundi
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Publisher

Quick thoughts: A historical re-imagining which seems barely able to contain the author's passion and exuberance.

“WHEN I SAW IT FIRST, I was lost in the bowels of the London Library, searching for an obscure volume on shrunken heads…

“A leather-bound book, an inch thick, jammed up against a water pipe. Without thinking, I reached up and yanked it out. Cupping the book gently in my hands, I pulled it open at the title page and began to read. That was the moment my obsession with The Narrative of Robert Adams began.”

This is how the author prologue begins, and it perfectly sets the stage for the story that follows. You can only imagine the impact of such a serendipitous moment as described here. It’s like finding a long-lost secret, something precious that hints at deeper and more hidden historical knowledge. And aren’t we all, to some degree or another, thrilled by the possibility of hidden knowledge, of an alternate account that questions our assumptions? That same surge of excitement courses through Tahir Shah’s Timbuctoo as he imagines the mania accompanying rumours of a mythical golden city, and the cover-up which could have been effected to hide the truth.

Shah’s love for the Regency era is blindingly obvious, and he fills every nook and cranny of the story with tender detail. The world he creates is lush, vibrant and altogether plausible. He also weaves in plot elements from across the social spectrum, creating a veritable tapestry of Regency life. The manifold plot lines were a distinct source of pleasure in that they seemed so unnecessary and superfluous at the outset, yet each thread of the story proved to be in some way essential by the end.

Although I personally prefer historical fiction where the author assiduously sticks to known facts, Shah’s exuberance begins to take on an appeal of its own. It’s not often that I let myself be swept away by a story with this much artistic license, but that tended to be the case here. It wasn’t just that the story moved along so fast, or that the constant intercutting of story lines always kept my attention engaged. It may sound a bit silly to say, but I think what made it work was the feeling that Shah actually cared about his creation. It was so pronounced as to be tangible, and most definitely contagious — like how you can’t keep yourself from smiling when you witness someone so utterly consumed by their own happiness that they are oblivious to the world around them. In the same way, I couldn’t help but smile even though the blurring of facts would normally trip me up.

That sense of care and devotion also extends to the physical presentation, where the end product is practically wrapped with a bow. While the size makes it a little inconvenient to tote about or read in the lunchroom, it really is quite stunning. The old-fashioned gold embossing on a faux-leather cover is eye-catching, and the gorgeously rendered fold-out maps occupied my attention for hours on end. Timbuctoo is undeniably a labour of love from Tahir Shah, and his passion for the material threatens to burst out of every seam.

As a sort of footnote, there’s also an accompanying website which serves as a complement to the novel. It’s worth checking out, and the attention to detail there will give a pretty good idea of what you can expect of the book.

From the publisher: Inspired by a true story…

In October 1815, an illiterate American sailor named Robert Adams was discovered roaming the streets of London, half-naked and starving. In the months that followed, high society was rocked by his tale.

About Tahir Shah

Tahir Shah

Tahir Shah’s books have appeared in thirty languages and in more than seventy editions. They are celebrated for their original viewpoint, and for combining hardship with vivid description.

He also makes documentary films, which are shown worldwide on National Geographical Television, and The History Channel. The latest, LOST TREASURE OF AFGHANISTAN, has been screened on British TV and shown worldwide. While researching the programme Shah was arrested along with his film crew and incarcerated in a Pakistani torture jail, where they spent sixteen terrifying days and nights.

His other documentaries include: HOUSE OF THE TIGER KING, SEARCH FOR THE LOST CITY OF GOLD, and THE SEARCH FOR KING SOLOMON’S MINES. And, in addition to documentaries, Shah writes for the big screen. His best known work in this genre is the award-winning Imax feature JOURNEY TO MECCA, telling the tale of the fourteenth century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta’s first pilgrimage to Mecca.

Tahir Shah lives at Dar Khalifa, a sprawling mansion set squarely in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown. He’s married to the graphic designer, Rachana Shah, and has two children, Ariane and Timur. His father was the Sufi writer, Idries Shah.

Divider

Media Mondays: Russian Ark

September 30, 2013 Media Monday 2

With so much emphasis on fast and furious storytelling in modern cinema, it’s refreshing to experience a movie that takes the time to linger. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) takes this to an almost fetishistic extreme in that the film is one long, unedited take. It’s an unbroken 96-minute tour through the Winter Palace, with the interesting twist of replicating a walk through time. Each room of the palace is occupied by people from various eras of Russian history, with exquisite costumes and choreography. It’s an experience at the expense of any actual storytelling, but you’ll likely find yourself holding your breath in disbelief at this impossibly long and gorgeously realized cinematic masterpiece.

Divider

Audiobook Review: Steelheart

September 26, 2013 Audiobook Review 5

Audiobook Review: SteelheartSteelheart (Reckoners #1)
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Narrated by: Macleod Andrews
Originally Published: 2013
Length: 12 hrs 14 mins
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Audible.com

Quick thoughts: A crackling sci-fi thriller that already has me aching to read the next book in the series.

If some cataclysmic event caused a handful of people to develop superpowers, comic books have taught us to believe that superheroes would rise up to enforce justice against villains who might abuse those powers. Brandon Sanderson’s latest novel, Steelheart, imagines a near-future world where that isn’t necessarily the case. If I tried selling the story with a quick pitch, it would be to imagine a world where Superman is evil and average people must find a way to defeat him. It’s a twist that hones the tension to a keen edge, and Sanderson has delivered a real knockout in this first instalment of what will almost certainly be a stellar series.

After reading Legion, Sanderson’s novella from last year, I had high hopes that he would use the ideas behind that piece as a springboard into something unique. As much as wrapping up the Wheel of Time series did wonders for publicity, I think it also threatened to pigeonhole him as a Robert Jordan derivative. Legion really showcased his potential in thinking up innovative stories well outside the confines of high fantasy, and now Steelheart proves there’s plenty more inspiration in that creative well.

If there’s one element I’ve come to love about Sanderson’s approach, it’s that that he is very rule-oriented. Each of his books is based on a unique magic system that functions as logically and consistently as elements in a periodic table. Moving into the dystopian sci-fi world of Steelheart, the supporting framework really isn’t much different from his high fantasy worlds. Each Epic has both a primary and secondary superpower, along with a corollary weakness. These powers are then further categorized into broader categories with defining traits, and each Epic has a degree of power which functions as a multiplication factor. In many ways it reads like a novelized role playing game with all the regalia of geekdom. The beauty of it, though, is that it provides a logical consistency to the whole. I might chuckle and laugh at some of the plot elements, but I’ll never feel as though Sanderson cheated in finding a way to bridge a plot hole.

Although this book is being marketed as a teen novel, I’m tempted to say that’s a bit of a misnomer. I’m not suggesting that the content is inappropriate—Sanderson’s writing has always been and likely will always be squeaky-clean—but it would be like calling The Avengers a kid’s movie. Don’t be misled by the marketing. If you like books where you can’t help but give a few adrenaline-fuelled fist-pumping whoops, then Steelheart is definitely worth your attention.

Audiobook notes: The narration by Macleod Andrews was fantastic, although I say that with a mild caveat. The text was read so slowly that I was on the verge of gouging out my own eyes. After bumping up the playback speed on my iPod to 1.5x, though, it was silky-smooth perfection. Andrews was exceptional in creating distinctive voices for all of the characters, and it often felt more like a radio play than a novel. In fact, his performance was so outstanding that this Canuck can even forgive him for giving the French Canadian a Parisian accent (the difference between soft and harsh sounds, or “zee accent” compared to “da haxENT”). This style of book is already perfectly suited to great audiobook narration in the first place, but Andrews really takes it to the next level. Well, at 1.5X speed anyways, and that’s enough for a strong recommendation in my book.

From the Publisher: From the number-one New York Times best-selling author of the Mistborn Trilogy, Brandon Sanderson, comes the first book in a new, action-packed thrill ride of a series – Steelheart. Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics.

About Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson was born in 1975 in Lincoln, Nebraska. As a child Brandon enjoyed reading, but he lost interest in the types of titles often suggested to him, and by junior high he never cracked a book if he could help it. This changed when an eighth grade teacher gave him Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly.

Brandon was working on his thirteenth novel when Moshe Feder at Tor Books bought the sixth he had written. Tor has published Elantris , the Mistborn trilogy and its followup The Alloy of Law, Warbreaker, and The Way of Kings, the first in the planned ten-volume series The Stormlight Archive. He was chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series; 2009’s The Gathering Storm and 2010’s Towers of Midnight were followed by the final book in the series, A Memory of Light, in January 2013. Four books in his middle-grade Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians series were released by Scholastic, and his novella Infinity Blade Awakening was an ebook bestseller for Epic Games accompanying their acclaimed Infinity Blade iOS video game series. Two more novellas, Legion and The Emperor's Soul, were released by Subterranean Press and Tachyon Publications in 2012, and 2013 brings two young adult novels, The Rithmatist from Tor and Steelheart from Delacorte.

The only author to make the short list for the David Gemmell Legend Award six times in four years, Brandon won that award in 2011 for The Way of Kings. The Emperor’s Soul won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novella. He has hit the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best-Seller List seven times, with all three Wheel of Time books hitting the #1 spot.

Currently living in Utah with his wife and children, Brandon teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University.

Divider

Audiobook Review: The Story of Dr. Dolittle

September 21, 2013 Audiobook Review 4

Audiobook Review: The Story of Dr. DolittleThe Story of Dr. Dolittle
Author: Hugh Lofting
Narrated by: David Case
Originally Published: 1920
Length: 2 hrs 33 min
Why I read it: Personal selection
Where I got it: Audible.com

Quick thoughts: A classic, perhaps, but this wasn't exactly a winner with our family.

Even though I never read any of Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books as a child, the doctor who speaks with animals is too culturally pervasive for me to have been entirely ignorant. Between movie adaptations, TV references and one-liners in comedy routines, it’s rather hard to imagine remaining unfamiliar with the character on some basic level. When Audible offered this particular edition as part of a free promotion this summer, it seemed like an excellent excuse to make my acquaintance while at the same time letting my children listen to this classic on a road trip.

Apart from some general idea of a doctor talking to animals in the jungle, I was also aware of some accusations of racism, so we had a little family chat before pressing play. Things were relatively fine on that level until our heroes got to Africa. At that point, my wife and I dropped our collective jaws at the diverse usage of racial epithets, and at the storyline that involves an African prince wanting to become white so he can win the fair princess. Even though the story was always innocent and never actively bigoted, it was still quite shocking to hear such racially loaded terms in a beloved children’s book. I’ve read several justifications after the fact — some well-reasoned, others quite belligerent — but there’s really no way of excusing or avoiding the fact that Dr. Dolittle has more than its fair share of problematic colonial holdovers.

There were some quality lessons, to be sure, such as the need to actually listen to the needs of others, as exemplified by Dr. Dolittle taking the time to learn to talk to animals. The whimsical nature of the story, altogether too rare in our day, was also a most welcome feature of the book. Yet despite the many positives, I can’t say that we ever truly enjoyed the story. Perhaps we were too spoiled in our modernity to appreciate such innocence, or maybe the sheer number of children’s books makes it that much more difficult to impress. Either way, it was difficult to bridge the gap between this book and our modern sensibilities, although I can certainly appreciate why it has remained so loved through the years. For myself, I may just end up watching the Eddie Murphy adaptation which I’ve been so studiously avoiding these many years. At that point, I will undoubtedly revel in the sheer irony of an African-American playing Dr. Dolittle, and smile at how the seed of a good story can grow into something fundamentally the same yet entirely changed.

Audiobook notes: Although mostly a solid production, there were two issues in this edition which I found terribly distracting. First, it begins with a lengthy note by the author explaining why The Story of Dr. Dolittle was such a great children’s book. Yes, that type of author introduction was common back in the day, but I found it a poor decision to include at the start of the audiobook. Not only did the self praise set my teeth on edge; it’s also incredibly hard to keep a child’s attention focused when some adult is nattering on about nothing. I was also a bit turned off by the ludicrous accent chosen by the narrator for the African voices, as it only served to reinforce the colonial caricatures.

About Hugh Lofting

Hugh Lofting

Lofting was born in Maidenhead, England, to English and Irish parents. His early education was at Mount St Mary's College in Sheffield, after which he went to the United States, completing a degree in civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He traveled widely as a civil engineer before enlisting in the Irish Guards to serve in World War I. Not wishing to write to his children of the brutality of the war, he wrote imaginative letters that were the foundation of the successful Doctor Dolittle novels for children. Seriously wounded in the war, he moved with his family to Connecticut in the United States. Lofting was married three times and had three children, one of whom, his son Christopher, is the executor of his literary estate.

Divider