Random Musings: Giller predictions

My library copy of 419 came in on Monday night, which means I dropped pretty much everything else to take in the final title on the Giller shortlist. And there went my plans to invest time this week on something insightful for this week’s musings…. With all five shortlisted books now in hand, though, I figure I’m entitled to hijack this spot with my Giller prediction.

Since I don’t have a review posted for 419, and because it’s going to take me a few days to frame my response, I’ll give the extremely short version: With the exception of one side story, it felt like a clunker. 419is the one book in this year’s selection that will have me throwing my shoes at the TV should it be announced as the winner. That said, I’ve certainly heard the same opinion voiced about books that I enjoyed from this year’s shortlist. I’m sure there will be some colorful invective from certain quarters no matter who ends up winning.

I find with most awards there tends to be one entry that stands above the rest on a personal level, yet you instinctively feel that it won’t be able to withstand the politics involved in declaring a winner. Ru was by far my favourite book of the five, but I’m well aware that it would be a bold choice by the jury. Despite that, it remains my personal winner for this year.

So which book do I think will take home the Giller? I’m predicting Alix Ohlin’s Inside. Using the crass political calculus of popular appeal, it seems to check off all the necessary boxes. It would also make for a great feel-good story after the almost offensive review it received from the New York Times. And in strictly literary terms, I personally think it has enough substance to merit this year’s Giller.

There it is, then. Alix Ohlin for Inside. Be sure to catch the announcement next Tuesday, and feel free to come back here to either applaud my foresight or point fingers and laugh.

Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

half of a yellow sunHalf of a Yellow Sun (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

Quick thoughts: One of the better civilian-themed war novels I have read. Highly recommended both for literary merit and as an accessible entry point to modern African literature.

A good number of the books I read and review are the result of book clubs or reading challenges. Sometimes I’m introduced to a hidden gem, and other times I suffer through a complete dud. The one constant that makes everything worth my while is that I am continually exposed to material that would have otherwise escaped my notice. I tend to leave entire literary avenues unexplored because I am afraid of tainting my perception by choosing the “wrong” book as my introductory point. A big reason why I’m so appreciative of my own book clubs and reading challenges is that they force me to get past that first step. In this instance, Half of a Yellow Sun gave me the kick in the pants I needed to begin my foray into African literature.

For those who don’t necessarily follow this blog, I actually prefaced my reading of this book with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. That was a smart move on many levels for me. Achebe is widely regarded as the first example of modern African literature; Adichie is commonly referred to as his literary daughter. BothThings Fall Apart and Half of a Yellow Sun deal with pivotal points in Nigerian history (the introduction of colonialism and the Biafran war, respectively), and I appreciated how the issues raised by Achebe’s book helped to give a wider perspective to this novel.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a fictional retelling of the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War (1967-1970) through the eyes of a small handful of characters. The particular selection of these characters was impressive, as they represented a broad cross-cut of experience: a houseboy raised in the tribal swamps of the Nigerian Delta; twin daughters of an African shipping magnate; a radical university professor; and a white writer whose love causes him to become entwined in the Biafran struggle.

The plot becomes quite harrowing, as many atrocities were committed on both sides in this gruesome war. It’s certainly not a read for the faint of heart. What makes this particular novel worth reading, though, is that it refuses to become a jeremiad. There is weeping and wailing, but the intent is not bitter lamentation. It unerringly remains an exploration of the human condition, and a well-balanced remembrance of an event which should not be forgotten. This is a book that cuts to the quick of human experience rather than taking the easy out of indignation and reproach.

In terms of story elements, one angle that quickly won me over was the character arc of Ugwu, the houseboy. He is introduced to us as a superstitious and naïve bumpkin with little experience of the world beyond his tiny village in the swamps of the delta. Adichie handles his character with wonderful delicacy, without ever demeaning or criticizing his outmoded cultural beliefs. His gradual development allows him to act as a cultural buffer between the modern sensibilities of the urbanites and the superstitions of his home village, providing the reader with an incredible window into what makes the hearts of the Igbo people beat.

It might sound horrible of me to admit this, but I truly think that the addition of the white Western writer (Richard) to the cast of characters was a stroke of genius by Adichie in embracing a global audience. As a white man myself, I will probably never understand what it feels like to experience racial slurs and degradation based only on the colour of my skin. What I can identify with, though, is what it would feel like to have those slurs directed at someone I love. Through Richard’s character, I experienced a swell of emotions that hit me like a sledgehammer, swaying between extremes of violent anger, stunned disbelief and impotent despair. I know that this book will stay with me whenever I think about the lack of Western attitudes toward African struggles. Adichie managed to strike a chord in me that I think shall never remain silent.

The writing is also incredibly smart. Nothing was ever spelled out, yet I never felt lost despite yawning gaps in cultural knowledge. I can also pretty much guarantee that once you find out why the book is titled Half of a Yellow Sun, the reason will be burned in your memory forever. And despite my complete ignorance of the relevant historical events, the simplicity of story and complexity of character made everything work for me on multiple levels. Many of the events recounted in the novel also have a ring of truth that could only have come from personal experience. Adichie was born well after this war ended, but you can tell that she is surrounded by living memory. These ingredients make for a compelling reading experience that remains highly accessible to an outsider such as myself. Highly recommended.

Random Musings: Catching up to a new year

We’re only two days into a new year, and I already feel hopelessly behind on so many fronts. My kids should never have given me the LEGO Lord of the Rings video game for Christmas. I’m simply too immature to resist that sort of temptation…

I’m in the midst of catching up on everything else as I write this first post of 2013, so my intended “year in review” post is going to be a whirlwind. I began The Indiscriminate Critic on September 5th of 2012, and it’s been quite the positive experience for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started the blog. With 55 posts under my belt now and hits from 40 different countries, I’m still not sure what I expect. It’s very much a journey for me, and one that has been worth every moment. I can’t wait to see what 2013 will bring!

Looking back over 2012, there were certainly some big highlights for me. Top among these were the three author interviews. Each of these authors was so kind and patient, and I’m very proud of the finished product.

Coming a very close second was my introduction to some fantastic self-published/indie material. I’ve tended in the past to avoid this material, but through random and sporadic blog connections I was introduced to some wonderfully engaging (and personally inspiring) material. Matt Bone’s Endless was one of my most memorable reads of 2012, and I’m hoping to have a review up soon for the equally good but radically different Ascension Point by Dan Harris. I also consider myself incredibly fortunate to have stumbled across Chris Hernandez’s Proof of Our Resolve, which will probably be in the back of my mind every time I hear about Afghanistan. I wouldn’t have even heard of these books apart from connections on this blog, and my world is a richer place for the discovery.

I was also excited to receive my first Advance Reader Copy by request (Three Graves Full). In some strange and indefinable way, that represented to me a transition between playing at blogging and joining the ranks of bloggers. It was certainly a nice feeling, and a great way to finish the year.

Looking forward to 2013, my top goal is to get in at least five more literary-minded graphic novels to round out my experimental foray into that format. Craig Thompson’s Blankets is currently sitting on my bedside table, and Santa was thoughtful enough to bring me Chris Ware’s Building Stories. And, of course, I’m planning on plenty more reviews of print and audio books. To those following my reviews and engaging in comments, you have my immense gratitude for making this blog project a worthwhile endeavour. My wishes for all the best in the new year!

Random Musings: The decline of the e-reader?

e readersThe Wall Street Journal recently published this article suggesting that the glory days of the e-reader may already be over. Considering that dedicated reading devices have only recently become an accepted reality among many in the literary world, that seems like a pretty bold statement. But I think the Journal’s take on the issue highlights some major reasons why the “print vs e-book” discussion won’t be going away any time soon.

The reason posited for the demise of the e-reader is that consumers are migrating to tablet computers, which allow for a host of other applications apart from reading. There’s no argument on that from a business perspective, but it reinforces some worries that have been nagging at me over the past year. Take that as a rant warning, and consider yourself duly warned…

E-readers were supposed to be a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to printed books. A one-time expenditure would theoretically provide years of low-cost reading. But what began as an admirable goal quickly got lost in quarterly profits. The whole environmentally friendly argument sort of goes out the window when market success depends on users upgrading their e-reader on a regular basis. There’s no way that you can continue to make an argument against recyclable paper and renewable forestry resources when consumers are now expected to chew through rare earth metals and toxic elements at an unconscionable rate.

And cheaper? Don’t even get me started. In addition to dropping $100+ per year to keep up with the trendiest device upgrades, consumers have no choice but to accept an agency pricing model where publishers set book prices and prohibit retailer discounting. When I bought my e-reader in 2010, books were consistently cheaper when purchased electronically. Now it’s not uncommon to see the print version selling at a lower price because the brick-and-mortar retailers are allowed to offer discounts. What’s particularly galling to me is seeing a $5 paperback selling for almost $20 as an e-book. Can somebody please explain where the “cheaper” part of this sales pitch comes into play?

I’m curious to see where things go from here, especially if the markets are indeed souring on e-reader devices as a viable revenue stream. I appreciate having a device that isn’t backlit like my work computer, and that doesn’t disturb my reading with temptations of social media and other time-wasters. But let’s be clear: I’m in it for the books, and not just to have the latest reading gadget. If the future of e-readers is dependent on device upgrades, the Wall Street Journal might just be right in predicting their demise.

On a personal level, I’m starting to sour on much of the e-reading experience myself. I’ve already increased my library borrowing over the past six months or so, largely because of my flat refusal to buy agency-priced books. Once minor inconveniences—like the inability to loan e-books to friends, or the sheer aggravation of following footnotes—now seem like burrowing ticks. I was initially happy with my decision to migrate to an e-reader.

Random Musings: The verdict on e-book price fixing

EBook realOne of the big stories in today’s news involves an issue that I have been loosely following for some time: a possible conspiracy by the big publishers to drive e-book prices above Amazon’s desired selling point of $9.99. All of the publishers involved have already reached settlements, but Apple—the alleged instigator of the affair—insisted on bringing the suit to trial. Today, a US judge has ruled against Apple in the matter (Apple is, of course, appealing). Here are some quick links from around the world:The New York Times, Reuters, The Guardian, BBC and CBC.

Yet despite all of these settlements and the ongoing lawsuits, I have yet to see any evidence of practical change. Perhaps that is because I live in Canada, and all of the current legal wrangling is happening down in the States. Or maybe it’s because everything is moving at the glacial pace typically in evidence when large corporations are forced to admit to wrongdoing. In any event, it’s still cheaper for me to pick up a hardcover of the latest bestseller from my local retailer than it is for me to buy the e-book. That’s just plain wrong, but with this latest verdict I’m at least mildly optimistic that we could see a corrective effect in the next few years. Fingers crossed…

Random Musings: American Women Novelists

A few weeks ago, this article about Wikipedia’s classification of American novelists appeared on the New York Times website. The writer, Amanda Filipacchi, is herself an American novelist. She was rightly shocked to find that Wikipedia was in process of moving all female authors to a separate list titled Amercian Women Novelists, while leaving the all-male list still titled American Novelists. I recently took a peek at Canadian Novelists to see if that page was affected as well. Sure enough, Margaret Atwood—one of Canada’s most venerated literary icons—does not appear on that list. She’s been moved to the land of Canadian Women Novelists. Crazy, right?

Shortly after the NYT article stirred the pot, James Gleik posted this piece on the New York Review of Books Blog, which digs into the how and why beneath the hooplah. It’s actually a pretty interesting read if you’re at all curious about the inner workings of Wikipedia, but the crux of the issue rests on the intent of classification. It seems that some editors at Wikipedia are creating categories—of gender, race, culture, orientation, etc.—with the aspirational intent of highlighting areas of “cultural and sociological interest,” while other editors are just compulsively populating these categories because they are obsessed with classification and organization. Thankfully, Wikipedia is taking this fairly seriously, and if you visit the site for American Women Novelists you will see that the page has been red-flagged for discussion (or hopefully you’ll be reading this far enough down the road that it won’t be flagged anymore!).

What remains after the storm, though, is the reality that female authors are frequently treated as “other”. Judging by Wikipedia’s initial gaffe and their subsequent reactions, that perception is still pervasive. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place, and there shouldn’t be a need for discussion; it should be blindingly obvious.

As Filipacchi said in her NYT article, “It’s probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world.” I think that’s an accurate statement, and one that probably deserves a more active response from the reading public.

Author Interview: Dan Harris

I recently read Dan Harris’s Ascension Point with great relish—to the point that I couldn’t help myself from dropping Dan a line or two by e-mail. Our conversations quickly revealed an author who had clearly done his homework in many respects—not just about the writing process, but also in terms of what to do with a book once it has been written. Dan was kind enough to accept my request to interview him, and we ended up having a wide-ranging discussion that covered everything from writing in a foreign country to writing about the distant future. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

First of all, I’d like to begin by congratulating you on your debut novel, Ascension Point, which I found to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. I must admit to doing a bit of a double-take, though, when I saw that you lived in Brazil. Although I’d be curious to know how you came to find yourself living there, my bigger question really concerns the experience of being an English language writer in that country. What advantages or challenges did you experience in writing to an English market while living elsewhere?

Thank you very much for having me, and I’m delighted that you enjoyed the book.

Interesting first question! I honestly hadn’t considered it before. The slightly dull answer is that for me personally, there are no real advantages or challenges. I can well imagine that for an ‘ex-pat’ who was more firmly embedded in the culture of his new country, who lived and worked every day in a foreign language, the disconnect between that day-to-day, and an ongoing project in his native tongue, could be difficult.

But I’m in a slightly odd situation in that my day job is conducted entirely in English, from my home office, working for the same company I was with while my wife and I were in London. As a result there was a very smooth transition, and I’ve never needed to immerse myself in Brazilian culture to the point where I’d struggle to come back to my ‘English writer mentality’.

Whether I should have immersed myself more is another question, but like most writers I generally prefer to be at home at my desk writing!

Exciting times indeed, and I can’t wait to experience it all for myself! For right now, though, I’m afraid we’ll have to wrap things up. I want to thank you for agreeing to be interviewed on The Indiscriminate Critic. I’ve had a wonderful time chatting with you, and I wish you much well-deserved success with your Ascension Point sequence.

It’s been an absolute pleasure – thanks for having me.

Media Mondays: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

I had the pleasure of attending the Gentlemen of the Road Simcoe stopover this past weekend. Although Mumford & Sons was the big headliner (not to mention the reason why I bought tickets in the first place), I have to admit that my music-loving heart ended up being stolen by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, who closed up the festivities on the first day. I don’t think there’s any way of conveying just how incredible it was to experience this band live. There were so many musicians and instruments that they took up the entire stage, and the sound they created was so full of texture that I could feel myself being swept away by the moment. I’ll be the first to admit there is a certain level of cheese to some of their songs, but I’m quickly finding that it only takes a few minutes before I’m suddenly bouncing and shuffling about the house. But don’t just take my word for it. Have a listen yourself to the official video of “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, perhaps the best live band I have ever seen. Enjoy!

Random Musings: My Giller Predictions

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 Maidnever 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!

Book Review: The Dragon Whisperer

Dragon WhispererThe Dragon Whisperer
Author: Vanessa Ricci-Thode
Originally Published: 2013
Length: 197 pages
Published by: Iguana Books
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Publisher

Quick thoughts: A solid fantasy debut by a new indie author.

Fantasy books are often like warm blankets on a cold night. There is something familiar and reassuring in them that comforts the reader, allowing him or her to escape to a world where anything is possible. Yet the very things that make these books so comforting also have the potential to be suffocating. I imagine it’s rather hard to come up with an original story when the framework of classical fantasy is so rigidly defined, and there’s usually not much sympathy from readers when an author tries to be original by breaking the rules. It then becomes a game of how best to bend rather than break the rules. The Dragon Whisperer, Vanessa Ricci-Thode’s debut fantasy novel published by Iguana Books, succeeds in bending a few rules of the classic fantasy genre without breaking them, but my overall opinion is somewhat mixed.

The most visible stake in the ground—at least in terms of departing from classical fantasy—is the emphasis on female characters. Dionelle, a young woman whose “natural” immunity to fire thrusts her into the role of an envoy between humans and dragons, is the protagonist of the piece. Of the three main conflicts in the book, two involve female antagonists and the other is about Dionelle’s struggle to make her husband, Reiser, understand her perspective. The dragon realm is also firmly established as a matriarchal society, where only females have any real power or authority.

In many ways, that strong feminine aspect was a refreshing break from a genre that tends to circumscribe female roles, but I also don’t think it went far enough. The story was still rooted in a patriarchal society where a king is monarch and a husband is expected to be the head of his house. More than once, this juxtaposition of modern feminist attitudes with medieval patriarchal assumptions created a quandary for me. I found it difficult to understand, for example, how Dionelle could expect Reiser to support her quest for personal fulfillment when she was the product of an arranged marriage. There was also a fair amount of irony to be found in the fact that men are ultimately responsible for saving the day. The potential was there to create a real sense of empowerment and self-realization, but it ended up being washed away in a sea of patriarchal norms.

Another step back from the standard fantasy novel, although more subtle, was the internal nature of the quest. Yes, there was some element of saving the world from impending doom, but Dionelle’s personal struggles took on a much greater importance than any other story element. Bringing marital struggles, spiteful sisters and career aspirations to the fore was an interesting gambit, but my personal taste definitely leans more towards the traditional elements of action and adventure.

The strongest element of the novel, in my opinion, was Ricci-Thode’s handling of the dragons, although this really got a lot less time than it deserved. Rather than selfish beasts obsessed with gold, these dragons are creatures obsessed with beauty.  It’s a slight twist that works very well, and serves to make the dragons’ motivations and behaviours quite believable. Unfortunately, the plot had a tendency to veer away from this strong suit on more than one occasion, and I believe the story suffered because of it.

Although my personal response was rather mixed, The Dragon Whisperer is a respectable debut. Moreover, Iguana Books did a bang-up job of publishing, with a gorgeous matte black cover that simply begs to be read. A solid effort overall.

From the Publisher:

Dionelle was born unique: she is immune to fire. Shortly after marrying Reiser, Dionelle’s unique talents catch the attention of a wicked noblewoman, Lady Karth, who is in need of a new dragon whisperer. Dionelle is crudely thrust into the position, but shows a natural talent for dealing with dragons. Reiser is against the idea, but Dionelle loves what she does and grows fond of the dragons, breeding tension between her and Reiser.

Ricci ThodeVanessa has always been a bookaholic, even as a young child—making picture books before she learned to read and write. She has written seven fantasy novels, with an eighth book that only needs an ending to complete yet another. This is her first foray into the world of publishing, at least as an author, and she’s so excited that she hasn’t slept since her book was accepted. Vanessa lives in Waterloo, Ontario, with her husband, daughter, and two dogs and currently makes her living as a freelance fiction editor.