Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas Books

I always re-read some of my favourite books at Christmas and this year is no exception.

I packed last night for two weeks at home and while I packed numerous books I have not read, I also loaded up my gorgeous STRAND bag ( right from Greenwich Village and the largest used bookstore in the world ) with:

Vienna Prelude (Thoene) --- I have read this every year since I was 12. Always at Christmas. The first book I ever re-read

The Man with a Load of Mischief (Grimes)

Something by LM Montgomery ( usually Jane of Lantern Hill --- which it is this year )

Great Expectations (Dickens)

the Blooding of Jack Absolute (Humphreys)

Horatio Lyle ( a new tradition )

Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom (Alcott)

I will let you know if I think of any more.

Remember to get your hands on a copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Schaeffer because I LOVED it!

Starting Ariadne Franklin's City of Shadows because I am hankering for something to do with the Romanovs and this looks thrilling and fun.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

author meme

I snatched this from At Home with Books

1. Do you have a favorite author?

This is a really tough question because I have favourite authors for favourite genres. I have authors who are my favourite for very different reasons. Usually, when asked big umbrella questions, I answer Charles Dickens.

From a scholarship point of view, it's LM Montgomery

Mystery: Martha Grimes

gah! too many.

2. Have you read everything he or she has written?

Yes. I have read it all ( atleast I think I have, he was so prolific; but, a lot of letters, the serials, Sketches by Boz.....)

3. Did you LIKE everything?

I like the range of everything. I respect everything. Some books are better than others---but no two are the same.

4. How about a least favorite author?

Dan Brown.

5. An author you wanted to like, but didn’t?

Libba Bray is one. I was so excited about the Spense Academy books. The covers were gorgeous and I love historical YA but yawn. I hate it when authors' blogs are more clever than their novels ( which is the case here )

Monday, December 08, 2008

harry potter and doctor who hybrid...what?

Book covers and editions fascinate me. They are part of the bibliophilic experience and I collect numerous editions of my favourite books. Some for the covers;some for translations; some for prefaces or biblographies or historical significances or footnotes.

Here we have the upcoming edition of The Doomsday Machine -- the third volume of my beloved Horatio Lyle sequence.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

got Dickens?


  • Saw The Sound of Music. Magnificent. The new production ( as produced and revamped by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber ) was more than worth the price of admission
  • Saw this year's National Ballet production of The Nutcracker at the Four Seasons Centre
  • the temperature dropped ( and dropped )
  • fair Toronto got snow
  • Read Midnight Magic by Avi
  • watched Dead Poets' Society

But, the most exciting thing in my world right now is the fact that glorious TVO has a headstart on Masterpiece Theatre and is showing the new ITV Dickens' Season starting with The Old Curiousity Shop .... HUZZAH

Next week, Oliver Twist.

Just like the Jane Austen Season of yore... only better.

Lots of carols to sing in church tonight! Woot!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

literary doppelganger

And we had not talked about this

I was chatting with a friend at work yesterday. Someone with whom I have shared a SUITE at past conferences, yipped to ad nauseum during the day, eaten meals with and somehow (???!!!!!! ) we had never discussed that her favourite authors include
  • Maureen Jennings
  • Martha Grimes
  • Patrick O'Brian
  • Reginald Hill

How does that not come up? HOW?

I mean, sometimes, I will find someone who intersects genres with me ...mayhap a Reginald Hill fan ( they are few and far between in my world, so it would seem ) but Reginald, Martha Grimes AND Patrick O'Brian?

Monday, December 01, 2008

books I love that you've probably never read:

While reading Scott Lynch this weekend, I was forced to think about all of the books that I love that a lot of people would never stumble upon or read under normal circumstances.

So, I give you a bunch of books that have probably fallen under your radar, but are worth every word:

The Blooding of Jack Absolute
by CC Humphreys. You've probably heard of Sharpe by Bernard Cornwell, you probably haven't heard of Humphreys. I love this series. Especially this book. It's one of the funniest I have ever read.

The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle, The Doomsday Machine, the Obsidian Dagger by Catherine Webb. Actually, if you have stumbled upon this blog you have read about them because I seem to talk about nothing else.

Captain Alatriste ( and subsequent novels ) by Arturo Perez Reverte. You have probably read or heard of the Flanders Panel and The Club Dumas but you have probably not read Alatriste.

Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt. This is a gorgeous, dark and brooding fairytale with a chilling ending that will steal your breath.

The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies and soon The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch. Sort of George RR Martin, Sort of Robin Hood, a heist and witty repartee that would make The Sting jealous, the best of high fantasy/imagined historical fiction.

Tribes by Arthur Slade. If you're Canadian, you have probably heard of Dust and Megiddo's Shadow but you probably skipped Tribes. Shame on you. Good book.

The Spell Book of Listen Taylor
by Jaclyn Moriarty. This book is published by House of Anansi and has not quite risen to the status of The Year of Secret Assignments or The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie but it is brilliant and worth the read.

Deafening by Frances Itani. Set in small town Ontario during the years preceding and during the Great War, a well-spun romance between a deaf woman and a hearing stretcher-bearer who develop a language of their own. Glimpses of the homefront and the warfront are expounded upon poignantly.

Skulduggery Pleasant, Playing with Fire etc., by Derek Landy. Fire-throwing Skeleton detective pairs with whipsmart 12 year old in this funny and fresh series with the quickest dialogue since Nick and Norah Charles. Unbelievably good!

Montmorency: Thief, Liar Gentleman by Eleanor Updale. I am a champion of young adult novels with adult protagonists ( see Horatio Lyle ). A Jekyll and Hyde-esque romp through Victorian London.

Mairelon the Magician
by Patricia C. Wrede. Magical, luminous historical novel.

The Privilege of the Sword
by Ellen Kushner. Medieval-type fantasy starring sword-wielding heroine and a plethora of moody eccentrics.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

no bad books?

The gorgeous and talented Shannon Hale ( author of Goose Girl and Austenland etc., etc.,)

wrote this blog: all informative and erudite.

please read.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Landings and Penderwicks and Benjamin Button..... with some W. O. Mitchell for good measure!

Finally! The GG award-winner for Children’s literature, Globe and Mail’s Washington correspondent writes The Landing: a kuntsleromanesque novel for young adults about Ben Mercer: a would-be violinist trapped in Depression-Era Muskoka.

A region very dear to my heart, Ibbotson carefully crafts and evokes Muskoka as a paradise amidst economic and social turmoil. A bittersweet region that is at once: mesmerizing and beautiful, dangerous and isolating.

The wealthy tourists spilling into the lake country view it as a prime position for lavish and grandiose parties. The residents whose livelihood relies on cushioning the granite and pine-treed spanse of northern Ontario , view it as a way of tireless existence.

Nevertheless, for good and for bad, Ibbotson painted home for me.

Ben Mercer is stuck at the Landing with his crippled and embittered uncle, Henry and his mother: still heavily grieving the passing of Ben’s father.

Ben dreams of leaving Muskoka, scooping up his violin and leaving the life of odd jobs aboard steamers like the Segwun ( which still ports out of Gravenhurst ), and chipping away at cottages for the wealthy and elite.

Ben wants to go to the Conservatory in Toronto and ensure that the steady fingers that move so liquidly ‘cross his violin are not smirched and worn by the hired hand work of his family.

The musical motif of the novel is pursued quite deftly. Especially with the arrival of Ruth Chapman: a Miss Havisham of a widow who smokes long cigarettes, drinks beer every day for lunch and wine for dinner ( a custom unheard of to small community Ben ), introduces hired Ben to martini olives and to stories of New York and glittering parties.

Ben sees in Ruth Chapman what his life as a musician might be. It is this vital relationship that is explored most intimately and that shadows the other relationships in the novel ( such as Ben’s rocky rapport with his equally-trapped uncle).

Unfortunately, a hefty amount of build-up as executed in a novel with eons of potential falls a little flat. Disappointingly so because I was so invested in seeing this full potential realized.

The ending speeds to an awkward and unexpected climax that staves off as quickly as it was built. It reads rather abruptly, as if the author was in a mad dash to tie up loose ends. They are tied, curtly, and with little grace.

I appreciate Ibbotson’s contribution to this year’s YA library especially because his nostalgiac retelling of a gilded age is painted on a Muskokan landscape: a region often eluding Canadian YA literature.

I will hunt Ibbotson down again… if only because he set his stage so intelligently and some of his phrasing was so compelling I returned to sentences more than once.

The end might reverberate harshly, but the journey was cleverly spun.

I give it a B+

Want more books? Fine. I give you The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by National Book Award Winner Jeanne Birdsall.

The Penderwicks make me nostalgiac. Episodic, charming, sweet. Birdsall is a first-class homage to Burnett, Alcott and Montgomery. She proves infectious.

I love the (mis)adventures of Batty, Skye, Jane and Rosalind. I love their little mishaps and the Sabrina Starr stories and their plays and soccer games. I love Batty’s chilling Hallowe’en bumping into the enigmatic Bug Man.

Each sister gets equal attention and Birdsall’s effortless narrative allows you to crawl into the characters’ thought processes and lodge there.

I especially loved clueless Mr. Penderwick: forever quoting Latin and harping on etymology. Prey, here, to visiting Aunt Claire’s blind dates, he becomes the central focus of a “Save Daddy” plot the sisters concoct to steer him from disastrous blind dates.

Not a fast paced book nor is it strewn with adventure. But, children will love it: Especially those who are champions of charming imaginative stories of home, colour and small adventures.

A peppermint-tea kind of book.

Oh. And plenty of space is given to faithful dog, Hound!

The nice people at Harper Collins sent me a hardcover, illustrated, swanky copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I am going to see an advance screening of the film on Sunday and hope that it fleshes out details that Fitzgerald’s sparse writing and the infinitesimal length of the book did not allow.

A surprisingly visceral read, Benjamin Button creeped me out with surreal illogistics. Fitzgerald and I go way back…. But I cannot say I’ve read him in the past five or so years. How odd to be thrust back into the sphere of his terse writing. I had forgotten. As a teenager, I had a major fling with Fitzgerald. I fell hard. … especially for Tender is the Night and the Great Gatsby. But mostly for This Side of Paradise .

Ironically ( and unintentionally), the lavish lake parties in the Landing immediately sparked a correlation to Fitzgerald…. Long before I knew a reading of Benjamin Button was looming.

In fact, Ruth Chapman even mentions Gatsby in one of her random tirades to Ben Mercer.

But Benjamin Button is not the flourish of languid flappers, coy mistruths, long cigarettes , gild and alcohol. No excessive ritz here. Instead, it is a bizarre circus of crude happenstance relating to a man who ages backward.

Erm… not really my thing but that distinctively Fitzgeraldian brand of clipped writing ( Scottie wrote by the sentence, or so we are told ) was missing in my life. Can I mention Fitzgerald ( or any other novelist from the Moveable Feast circle of Hemingway, Fitz, Ezra Pound and James Joyce ) without harping on Morley Callaghan? Umm. No.

So consider this my weekly reminder to go read That Summer in Paris .

Post-Benjamin Button, I picked up my jacketless, well-thumbed hardcover of Jake and the Kid: craving a different kind of short story. And THIS dropped out:

The ( unedited )words of Rachel-a-decade-ago. The ghost of my 16 year old self is here to haunt you:

Friday January 30, 1998

I guess, of all my favourite books I should write something 'bout Jake and the Kid. This is nothing short of a charming book. It adds life and pizzaz to these rainy days when nothing but the best will do. W.O. Mitchell is a literary Genius. Read the first story. If you're not hooked by the end of "You Gotta Teeter" then your imagination craves colourfulness and life. This collection of stories (added to the hard-to-find According to Jake and the Kid) makes me extremely proud that my country, Canada, owns W. O. Mitchell. I'm glad I witnessed the grandeur of the prairies these stories boast. I'm glad the RCMP are our landmark. I'm grateful our men sacrificed their perfect lives to fight overseas and I am fascinated by the history Jake expands when nonchalantly story-telling. Everyone of these phenomenal aspects are blended into the main plot about a boy and his rough-edged mentor. Both characters are masterieces and this book amazing. I always desire to embark on the great adventure through our Western Provinces. The small town of Crocus fascinates me.-- as a writer. How can so many amazing things take place in such a small area? How can such descriptions outweigh other classics? These ideas are fresh. There's only so much of foggy London or steamy Paris one can take.

I like to lay other clicheed books aside and travel to Saskatchewan. It is part of my heritage, part of my history, part of my country, and Jake and the Kid is part of me.

Wasn't I cute? Wow! I think I was blogging long before blogs existed. Also, I think I determined the path of my future long before I went into English Lit and publishing.

Trip down memory lane, you were fun!

Thursday, November 27, 2008


How Did I End Up On The Cover Of This Romance Novel?

By Duncan Larksthrush
December 13, 2006 | Issue 42•50

How Did R

Last week at the supermarket, while shopping for my weekly supply of three dozen eggs and 12 pounds of mutton, I spotted a rack near the checkout lane containing several romance paperbacks. Normally, such trash wouldn't get a second glance from my coal-black eyes, but the sight of one book practically made my chiseled jaw drop. There, on the cover of Dark Passions was yours truly, Duncan Larksthrush, in the flesh.

At first I thought it must have been a coincidence. There must be thousands of men with huge, glistening pectorals and shoulder-length golden hair whose steadfast gaze betrays immeasurable fathoms of passion.

But there can be no doubt it was me. The cover artist must have followed me during a recent visit to my ancestral estate on the tempest-swept promontories of Northern Scotland. Judging from the picture, the sketch was based on the occasion in which I chanced upon Arden, the crofter's nubile young daughter, kneeling upon a rocky outcropping and picking some wildflowers from the weathered stone. Even though I had only just finished tilling seven acres of firm earth, I knew at once my broad, thewy arms could take her. "You rogue! I shall not allow this offense against my honor!" she cried out, her titian hair uncoiling in the Caledonian wind. As I dipped her low, her pounding heart betrayed her pleas for her chastity, and my turgid manhood would be denied no longer.

That bastard must have been hiding with a sketchbook in the bushes.

You can understand my smoldering rage. I certainly don't recall agreeing to have my well-hewn physique splashed across every newsstand and bookrack in town. Admittedly, my schedule has been full lately—I purchased a new leather arm cuff, reclined on an empty beach in my tattered sheepskin boots and full riding gear, waxed and re-oiled my chest—however, posing for the cover painting of Dark Passions definitely was not on my list. But apparently, a rugged, flat-stomached man's privacy means little to author Stephanie Blackmoore when it comes to the pursuit of profit.

I just hope no one I know sees it. The other blacksmiths would never let me live this down.

Nor can I imagine what would possess someone to depict such a scene. I was certainly far from respectably kempt: Having just finished reaping oats with my scythe, my white, blousy tunic was dirty and tattered. It was practically torn from my shoulders, and the striated muscles of my bronzed torso were exposed for anyone to see. And my errant tresses had slipped out of their leathern knot and clove to my cheek with the dewy sweat of a full day's labor. Blazes! Had I known I would be fronting a bestseller, I would have taken a shower and put on my nice red shirt, and maybe a tie.

I never asked for this. The life I chose to lead is one of solitude, whether I'm building log cabins in the foggy Ozarks, or tending to my vineyards in the Tuscan countryside. But those blissful days of rugged independence seem to be over. Will I ever again be able to collapse wounded into the arms of a busty field nurse during my town's annual Civil War reenactment without becoming the poster boy for the next vulgar potboiler?

Can't a brawny, brooding man ride his stallion slowly through the fresh-smelling air of a misty forest at dawn and think ruefully back to his tender childhood that seems to him now to exist in another world entirely—without having to constantly look over his perfectly sculpted shoulders?

No, this is no way for a free and unfettered man with a small fortune inherited from a distant noble relative to live. Therefore, I have decided to weigh anchor and set sail with my crew of strapping young seamen aboard my sloop, The Moonlight Arrow, toward destinations exotic and unknown. Once at sea, as the suzerain's daughter I have shanghaied from our last port-of-call clings hungrily to my abdomen, her honeyed breath playing about my breast, I will gaze stoically at the horizon from the prow of my ship, where none of those frauds at Harlequin/Silhouette would ever care to find me.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

the post that was supposed to be about The Landing

I was supposed to write about the Landing. But, I left the review on my work computer and my work work.

So, instead I have decided to write about Charles Finch. I love Charles Finch.
He has a nice face. And, most importantly and ever less superficially, the books ARE fantastic, chock full of plaintive verisimilitude and boasting beautiful titles.

Also, to the point of Literary Alter Egos, we can muse on Charles Finch naming his hero Charles Lenox. That should be fun ...'specially because the second installment finds our hero in Oxford: Charles Finch's old stomping ground ( I say "old" with a grain of salt because we are 'bout the same age ). Now, a real review ( because I do like to do things properly and not lackadaisically: hence this blog's sporadic tendencies to wane to and fro ) requires me dipping back into A Beautiful Blue Death and The September Society. Followed by extravagant praise and then a melange of anecdotes on the British detective front---obviously including the darling little mystery store in New York City ( Greenwich Village to be precise ) that editor Otahyoni and I pillaged on our vacation there this past summer ----and obviously a foray into Will Thomas
( because I really do like him and The Black Hand was more than decent!) and maybe a dash of that Rhys Bowen, Her Royal Spyness which was the best of froth and Deanna Raybourn's Silent as the Grave which was also the best of froth ......

and then, being in the frame of murderous mind, I would probably talk about the gorgeous new covers bestowed upon those Nero Wolfe omnibuses.

Then I would talk about Archie Goodwin.

Then I would muse on my favourite fictional characters. Leading to Alatriste, perchance, and then to The Painter of Battles ( on the Perez-Reverte front)

oh cursed stream-of-consciousness--- I would come full circle back to YA fiction and to Horatio Lyle and....

what's the point?

I have none of this planned out.

Oh blog-in-embryo, you doth fail me.

Oh well! Do you all have some titles to write down in your notebooks?

Monday, November 24, 2008

courtney takes on "Megiddo"

Erm... I'm tired tonight and it is snushing ( snowing and slushing at the same time=snush).

I will wait until tomorrow to write my review of John Ibbotson's GG winner "The Landing"

and send you over to Courtney's to read about Megiddo's Shadow.

Because, seriously, who doesn't want to read another glowing review?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I saved a life

University Avenue
5:30 pm.
First snowfall of the winter.

Toronto somehow forgets there will be snow every year and that we live in Canada so it is always a mind-numbingly dumb production.

Women wearing stiletto-boots and sliding down Yonge Street; no car in its right mind remembering how to signal at King West; streetcars screeching to an icy halt, passengers running amuck out of the offices at Bay with briefcases o'er top their heads like umbrellas and fighting over cabs.

( I had proper footwear and always think it is a little pretty and Christmas-y, what with Dundas Square being lit up like a Christmas tree of luminiscent dazzle).

I stomp around in my less-than-aesthetic but wholly practical boots and come across a young man in toque just outside the Four Seasons Centre at Osgoode Hall, nose stuck in a book.

I will never say a nay to the nose stuck in the book, thing. Howe'er, it was rather silly last night what with the snow throwing people into dervishs of insanity and it was not the ideal circumstance for read read engrossingly read read followed by the rhythmic blowing of snow of off his book page.

He lagged behind me a bit til we neared Sick Kids hospital and the slope to Queen's Park.

I skidded to avoid a near-changing traffic light accosted by stupid, non-signalling, speeding Torontonian drivers, but fair reader failed to note, and stepped out into the mayhem.

I grabbed his arm instinctively and pulled him back.

He looked up. Thanked me.

I just asked him to tell me what book he was so into.

First Rumpole Omnibus by John Mortimer.

to which, I smiled: " That's a good way to go!"

Thursday, November 13, 2008

dear Exile editions

You know I love you, Exile editions. Do you know why I love you? Because you basically survive by publishing the works of two authors:

a.) Morley Callaghan b.) Barry Callaghan ( who founded you )

Do you know why I love you even more? Because you are now publishing Exile classics ! I will list to you what these classics will be:

That Summer in Paris by Morley Callaghan
The New Yorker Stories by Morley Callaghan
More Joy in Heaven by Morley Callaghan
Such is My Beloved by Morley Callaghan
Luke Baldwin's Vow by Morley Callaghan
the Loved and the Lost by Morley Callaghan

and maybe something by Mavis Gallant.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Reginald Hill interview ( aka he shares my love of Dickens )

I found this interview with the consommate detective novelist, creator of Dalziel and Pascoe and an all-time favourite, the glorious Reginald Hill. I thought it was hilarious in his acerbic, curmudgeon way.

NOTE: What he says about Dickens and Christmas cards? ... same here!

Book Brahmin: Reginald Hill

"I was born on the third of April 1936 in Hartlepool, U.K. I cried a bit, then fell asleep, and awoke to find myself completing this questionnaire."

But Reginald Hill must have had a few other waking moments, since he's written umpty-some very popular books, particularly his Dalziel and Pascoe mysteries, the latest of which, The Price of Butcher's Meat, was published this past Tuesday by Harper.

On your nightstand now:Upstairs, Making Money by Terry Pratchett (one of the great comic writers); downstairs, The Aeneid translated by Robert Fagles (who sadly died earlier this year but will not be forgotten. I thought his translation of Homer was a masterwork and he hasn't disappointed with his treatment of Virgil), Shakespeare by Bill Bryson (nothing new here, except of course the Bryson humour and readability that has made him such a favourite on this side of the pond at least).

Favorite book when you were a child:Just William (and all its successors) by Richmal Crompton.

Your top five authors:Dickens, Austen, George Eliot, Terry Pratchett, P.G.Wodehouse.

Book you've faked reading:In my younger days I did a bit of faking with stuff like Finnegans Wake, but once I grew up and began to realize no one really gives a damn what I think about a book (or a play or a movie or a pork pie for that matter), faking seemed pointless. Now if I don't like a book after 50 pages, I hurl it aside with great force, but, unless provoked, I try not to elevate my personal taste into a critical position.

Book you're an evangelist for:In a dimly remembered previous existence when I was a teacher, I recall the shock of discovering that for every student who responded to my enthusiasm for any book, poem or play, there'd be at least two who made it clear they thought it was crap. Maybe a better teacher would have done better, but while I will say boldly that I loved, for instance, Cloud Atlas or The Book Thief or The Lord of the Rings, I will not evangelize. (Though anyone who is indifferent to Dickens is immediately expunged from my Christmas card list.)

Book you've bought for the cover:The first Harry Potter paperback, but only because there was also on offer a version with a dull anonymous cover so that sensitive adults didn't have to reveal they were reading a kids' book on the train! That struck me as really sad, so I bought the original and flourished it for all to marvel at my childishness on the way home. Didn't enjoy it all that much though, but who am I to disagree with x million readers across the whole age range?

Book that changed your life:Tess of the D'Urbervilles, not because it turned me into a crusader for the rights of fallen women or anything like that but because when I first read it, at age 15 or so, for the first time I really got it that these great classics also happened to be marvelous reads, giving me the same kind of pleasure plus maybe a bit more as my contemporary reading.

Favorite line from a book:"It was the best of times: it was the worst of times."Another of those books which made me realize that great thrillers didn't start with Dashiell Hammett. I still get a kick out of that opening.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:None really. The books I love re-reading are those that give me something new every time I return to them. Dickens of course, Austen, Eliot, but I see I'm repeating my list of favourites!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Getting the Girl: Sherman Mack Steals my Heart

"Getting the Girl" Susan Juby (Harper Collins 2008)

This book had me at the Travis McGhee quote preceding the story.

In a nutshell, "Getting the Girl" is the full-disclosure of underdog ninth-grader, Sherman Mack. Achingly awkward, Sherman spends his teenaged years with his Burlesque-dancing mother and few male role models. A product of his environment, Sherman feels particularly attuned to the female psyche. Luckily, he has entered the realm of high school where there are plenty of ladies to dazzle. Well, one in particular: Sherman’s heart thrills to an older and more sophisticated artist, tenth grader Dini.

The drama plays out on the stage of common high school hierarchy: cliques and typified jocks, "Trophy Wives" and even drug dealers. Amidst the usual teenage commotion lurks the Defiler: a student whose branding of young women becomes their social downfall. With a gawdy “D” scrawled across a photo of the Defiled girl, a regular student is exploited in a manner akin to Hester Prynne’s ostracizing “A.”

(Yes, I did just compare Susan Juby to Nathaniel Hawthorne—I told you I liked this book).

Spurned and scorned, the unfortunate Defiled are relegated to life on the boundaries of the school fence or in Alternative schools. When Sherman suspects that Dini is next on the Defiler’s hit list, he musters his courage and his fledgling senses of deduction (read CSI episodes) and sallies forth to save his lady fair.

Armed with a super-hero complex, an awkward friend Rick ( Sherm tells us that he is second-last in team-picking only to Rick), a flair for surveillance ( from obsessive watching of girls ) and a sense of (sometimes misguided ) justice, Sherman is determined to expose the Defiler.

You’ll get lost in this book. First, in the nooks and crevices of Sherman’s brain and then in the writing-- so flawless I felt a full conceptualization of what must go through a ninth grade boy’s mind (Unsettling, indeed).

I completely enjoyed this book --- it had some to-die-for lines and some tender, wistful moments. I know teenagers will see themselves in this book and that is the beauty (and likewise the most important part) of a Susan Juby novel. Teenagers can draw strength and validation from fictional characters that so candidly reflect their own triumphs and fallacies.

What makes "Getting the Girl" as exceptional as its predecessors ( see the "Alice Macleod" series and "Another Kind of Cowboy") is Juby’s candid freshness. She relays, through inner commentary, what we are all thinking in strange, fleeting moments. Juby’s craft is most prominent in her first person male narrative. I came to understand Sherman’s 15-year-old male subconscious. I am not quite sure how she pulled this off (perhaps some of the make-up of pubescent males is transparently obvious) but she executes it with a voice at times awkward, self-effacing and vulnerable.

I could think of no other author who could accomplish this feat with such ease and heart-tugging grace.

So go buy it ….and then buy some for your friends. Teenage boys and girls will love this novel.

p.s. Anyone know if this book has been banned yet? The Juby bannings are always wildly ridiculous, infinitely amusing and wonderful fodder for discussion on her blog.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Jolted: Newton Starker and the Incredible genre-defying YA novel

For my professional review of Arthur Slade's new novel, "Jolted: Newton Starker's Rules for Survival" (Harper Collins, 2008), I wrote "every classroom and library DESERVES a copy of this unique and clever novel."

I will shake my wording up a bit here to exclaim: go buy this book NOW!

I argue that, for sheer range alone, Arthur Slade is Canada's finest YA novelist and if you read "Jolted" sequentially with the excellent "Megiddo's Shadow" you will concede.

I also argue that "Jolted" cannot really be genre classified. But, this only makes its appeal seamless. In one sense, it is a booksellers' nightmare ( in a good way). For if I were still Rachel the Bookseller, and asked by some antsy 12 year old "What kind of book is it?", I would stretch for words and comparison.

Suffice it to say, it has elements of everything: gothic, supernatural, mystery, fantasy, comedy ( an almost unprecedented plethora of ), and history ( Jerry Potts namesake of Newton's stellar Academy of Higher Learning and Survival holds connections to the Riel Rebellion. In a stroke of brilliance, Potts' headmaster is named Dumont. Get it Gabriel Dumont, anyone, anyone.....Duck Lake? Northwest Rebellion? Fine. I'm a nerd).

In a nutshell, "Jolted" is about a 14 year-old boy, the eponymous Newton Starker who is the last surviving memeber of a family cursed by a long and ancient string of lightning-provoked deaths. (Well, technically second-last, next to his spiteful great grandmother Enid who is described as being as "friendly as a pickled wolverine." Newton, incidentally, is described as "handsome in an Edgar Allen Poe kind of way, that meant he was pale and dark" and likewise as "the quiet cutie most likely to turn into an axe murderer" -- just so you get a sense of how classic this writing actually is).

Newton takes what precautions he can considering his inevitably lugubrious fate. He has long known that his end-result will be catastrophic and spent his formative years adorned with a lightning-deflecting tinfoil hat that while protecting him from the cumulonimbus clouds he so fears, also kept him far away from friendship.

Newton's tale unravels in an exotic and magical realm known as Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and the prestigious Jerry Potts Academy of Higher Learning and Survival wherein students wear kilts and learn important lessons about how to brandish a knife, survive in the Cyprus Hills and make gopher quiche. Newton makes friends including Jacob ( a burgeoning author whose novel "The Brilliad" is optioned for publication), Violet ( a towering female who kicks the crap out of Newton in a boxing match ) and a pig called Josephine ( whose ancestry includes a porker once belonging to Emperor Bonaparte).

As infinitely clever as the plot itself, are the literary devices that infuse every page. Savvy readers will get shivers. I would love to confiscate a grade 6 or 7 class and read this aloud. Consider verb usage:" Were those cumulonimbus clouds skulking under the half moon?"; alliteration ( 4 bs on one sentence)" the Belfry's Bronze Bell Began to toll"; literal and figurative meanings used simultaneously, such as the word "shock."

Silly and wonderful chapter headings, interruptions by the narrator for backstory, emails, National Globe articles, phone conversations with Environment Canada and even insight into 18th Century journal entries, make this novel fresh and inviting. It is like nothing I have read before.

And it is funny. Really funny. For example, a lame comeback care of Newton prompts the narrator to observe: "These were the second stupidest words ever spoken by a Starker. The stupidest being when Andrew Starker ran towards a summer storm, clutching a lightning rod and shouting 'Give it your best shot, you spawns of the Devil!' They did. He died."

This book is ridiculously, giddily, brightly and wonderfully constructed making for the ultimate fresh and funny read.

Out of the hundreds of YA books I read for my work a year, I find but a handful that really make me want to start a sentence with, "Hi I'm Rachel. Go read *insert fantastic novel here*

If I were still wiling away my post-university hours at the World's Biggest Bookstore, I would be handselling this like mad to anyone who appreciated a great yarn ---regardless of minute details like age-classification and genre.

Newton likes to ready himself for adventure (read: impending doom )with a bold: "Okay Newton, time to take on the world!"

And, you know what?, I really really think he should!

Here's some good stuff for you to look at: Arthur Slade's erudite blog;

And, here you will find some of Arthur Slade's guest blogs at Harper Collins' the Savvy Reader

Finally, my LM Montgomery experiment continues here at Maud and Me

Monday, October 27, 2008

Maud and Me: a life in Montgomery

because I have Maud on the brain, I have decided to keep an account at LJ wherein I relay everything I am thinking while undertaking the not-so-daunting task of revisiting her novels.

A preview:

I first read Kilmeny of the Orchard in high school and I cannot remember it making a lasting impression on me.

There is an inscription in the front flap of my copy written by my friend Carol. She writes:" Happy Valentine's Day. I never could get into this one."

In many cases, I can see why.

Kilmeny of the Orchard was originally published as a magazine serialization entitled Una of the Garden. It is a sugary sweet and somewhat implausible melodrama that was pieced together for publication by LC Page on the heels of Montgomery's resounding Anne success.

In the spirit of my experiment, I woke up eager to get started. If Montgomery's work, indeed, has the power to change one's life perspective that this dreary, rainy day was the perfect place to reimagine life in purple hues.

The Monday morning subway commute began my sojourn into Kilmeny's world.

Inspired by the James Hogg balad, the eponymous Kilmeny Gordon is a mute girl with striking ebony hair, creamy ivory skin and deep violet eyes who captrues the heart of Eric Marshall, a visiting school teacher. The scene is Prince Edward Island, naturally, and Kilmeny and Eric's burgeoning romance is overseen by the tall, ominous trees of a phantom orchard where Kilmeny expresses her emotions with her violin.

You can basically deduce the entire plot ( and even the outcome ) by a glance at the back. There is comfort to that.

I googled the Amazon reader reviews of Kilmeny in an effort to discover what other Montgomery fans thought of this lesser known novel.

"Old fashioned." states one.
"A feminist's nightmare!" exclaims another."
another wipes it away with "Fairytale"
Another vehemently advises: "Skip this and read the Blue Castle"
"ho hum" yawns one reviewer
"No plot" surmises another

There were some reviews that describe it as "adorable" and "magical" escapism with little substance.

There really is little substance in Kilmeny but my attraction to the story on this dreariest of days was the well-crafted atmosphere that teleported me to Prince Edward Island and Kilmeny's enchanted orchard.

Montgomery had a great knack of turning extraordinary and magical things out of ordinary circumstances. To her, life had the possibility of being a fairytale; if only you were blessed, born of the "Race of Joseph" and kindred spirit enough to see it so.

As such, and as product of her love of nature, Montgomery infuses every page with colour and light and romance.

"The wonder of her grew upon him with every passing moment," the narrator relays of Kilmeny and Eric's budding romance.

This romance is set amidst beautiful, muted pastels: "It was just after sunset", the reader is told, " and the distant hills were purple against the melting saffron sky in the west and the crystalline blue of the sky in the south. Eastward, just over the fir woods, were clouds white and high heaped like snow mountains and the westernmost of them shone with a rosy glow as of sunset on an Alpine height"

Who doesn't want to sink into a world sharded completely in colours: tangible, tasty colour. It calms your mood just thinking about it and, for me, stripped away the nondescript grey of my office building to a rainbow world beyond.

The reader discovers that Kilmeny prefers to remain isolated in her orchard and the aforementioned landscape with her violin and her thoughts and you can really see why. Especially, when she uses her voice to infuse the lyrics and ginger sounds of nature: "She began playing an airy, delicate little melody that sounded like the laughter of daisies."

Maud was always brilliant with the turns of simile. Nature to Kilmeny, as to many of Maud's heroines, beomes a companion: the lilies, the wind, all her friends. This theme of nature as friend is oft delineated in the way the heroine either names the natural spots around her ( i.e. the Lake of Shining Waters, for an obvious example ) or becomes " of " that place in intricate connection, such as Kilmeny of the Orchard.

Because my mind is filled with wondrous caverns of Victorian literary knowledge ( mounting on obsession), I was delighted that my ramble in the world of Kilmeny hosted a Brotean reference. Exotic, Italian outside Neil Gordon: who is situated near Kilmeny and her adoptive guardians, longs and yearns for Kilmeny much in the way that dark outsider Heathcliff prowls Catherine's grounds. In one particularly melodramatic moment, Neil is described with "the untamed fury of the Italian peasant."

I enjoyed my visit to Kilmeny's world today and particularly relished the introductory chapters setting up Eric Marshall's close friendship with the elder David Baker. The novel begins in Halifax with a rather pointed description of the hills lining the harbour up to the Citadel. I can attest to these hills and love that Montgomery takes me right to places I have previously been in... and loved.

Perhaps magic fairyland is on my doorstep after all.

Did my time with Kilmeny change my perspective? Well, during lunch hour: whilst slurping soup and gazing dreamily, chin-in-hand at the font of this darling little book, I stumbled upon a quote I highlighted: "I have so many thoughts and it seems so slow to write them out... some of them get away." Kilmeny states this to Eric in reference to the fact that her speech impediment forces her to write her end of their conversation. But how true those words resounded to my imaginative-writer mind.

It set me to thinking that perhaps Kilmeny does not hold up to the other novels ( atleast at this part through ) because she is stripped of a voice. Emphatic, considering that Montgomery's beloved heroines were loud and vocal and independent. It was their tongues and words that beguiled the villages and men around them. In many cases, too, their voices as emblemized by their pens. I don't just refer to the fact that Kilmeny is mute but that she is, indeed, a feminist's nightmare: a pretty, silent innocent girl who, upon feeling Eric's possessive kiss, steps away from her child and the protective bounds of her gorgeous orchard.

I found myself momentary incensed by this telling silence until I took a step back into the language and colourful world. See, I promised as much as I could to shelf my modern sensibilities on the shelf. If Kilmeny's charming and utopic orchard exists and a dashing and compassionate hero like Eric finds her there, what need has she to assert a voicde? If not challenged, must a heroine need to lash out? Perchance her many musings with Eric over books and current events will be enough to sustain her.

Did my mood improve today as I sauntered through Kilmeny? Perhaps I would have been humming those strains of distant tune anyways
Perhaps the grey of my desk and the outside world ---out the window of my office and the Toronto skyline would have peeled to the possibility of enchantment beyond.

This daydreamer does know that today---paperclipping business cards to letters and licking envelopes and answering incessant emails --- redundant tasks all --- allowed her mind to escape elsewhere to a sleepy orchard world. I don't know if I want to be trapped in Kilmeny's world: I rather think it would be akin to being shaken in a snow globe ---- but, it is rather titillating to imagine what goes on.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Dear Maud,

My apologies if you think it rather informal of me to use your first name---but I think by this time, we should be on a first name basis, don't you?

I am writing to express some concerns I have. Not with you...god, no! You're fine and brilliant --- I lavish you with lofty laurels of praise daily. I write, instead, to express my disdain for a certain person of the same lineage as you.

Do you need some back story? Thought so. Most happy to oblige:

To start, you're quite on the tips of the tongues of most Canadians right now...

Fear not, old friend, the ever classic Mary Rubio has quelled the inopportune and distasteful suicide blurt while synonymously encapsulating your life faithfully in her new biography ( released early, which I argue, was to dispel the wagging tongues of those who couldn't loop a coherent sentence without the words: "Montgomery" and "suicide"). She has done you justice and the biography ( as prompted by your youngest son, Stuart) is definitive.

There's also, of course, the matter of the Anne Centenary: which has fickle Kevin Sullivanites plodding your treasured golden land of opal, red and turquoise in noisy droves. Oh, and some amateur playwright penned what is undoubtedly a travesty, a musical version of your life, cattily entitled: The Nine Lives of LM Montgomery . I know! You hate that, don't you ?

Thank the good lord you are spared those debacles.

But I will remain relatively laconic on those issues and delve into an issue pervading my realm of your scholarship.

I must tell you about KMB ( I concede the best way to handle her is to squish her name into monogram --- just in case some googlers get out of line ). You won't remember her, of course, because even though she is your granddaughter, her birth evaded your passing by some years.

Unfortunately, most of your followers ( not the authentic ones, mind, but the Sullivanites ) have made her into a full-blown celebrity.

Evidently, as KMB is constant proof, you can be famous and revered having done absolutely ( and I mean absolutely in the absolutest of senses) nothing. Pardon my italics, will you, I need to exude emphasis for the part of my brain forever in line with yours teeters desolately on this subject.

Last night, a revered Canadian Children's literature expert gave a lecture in your honour ( not Anne's honour as so many of the sub par events I have attended this year have turned out to be but yours). Aforementioned lecturer spoke of your tremendous influence on Canadian Children's literature and the indelible stamp you have forged on your literary heirs. Albeit, not your direct descendants, your heirs, I feel , in the truest sense of the word.

I arrived at the lecture slightly before its commencement to secure my seat and bury my nose in my book. I was subsequently tapped on the shoulder thrice by limpid Anne-ites begging: "Tell me, who is the granddaughter?"

Pathetic, eh?

Moreso when I tell you that she knows little of your work. Atleast that is what one has to assume given that a.) I have heard her speak and her knowledge seems minimal b) she ratted out the whole "suicide thing" at the same time as the Centenary celebrations ( how do you spell crass again? ) c.) she authenticated ( indeed, commissioned) a prequel entitled Before Green Gables. It seems sacreligious to breath its syllables and relay its full-bodied tragedy so, alas, I will leave you but a skeletal outline: Walter and Bertha Shirley's romance.

Do you need me to re-adjust you upright again, Maud, in your grave? Because your serene poise of eternal rest just took quite a tumble.

Don't blame you, dear soul.

I pointed out KMB, just in case you were wondering, and expressed her as she is: dyed blonde hair, oft-bespeckled, a hairband hoisting her severe bangs in a gaudy belfry atop her peaked face.

I am sorry to speak ill of one of your descendents, but I thought you should know you were being capitalized on. More than Sullivan, the stamps and coins, the Girl Guide Cookies (!!!) and the Niagara Falls-esque horror show lining the now-tortured and meretricious road to Cavendish is a woman who sold your "secret" to the Globe and Mail and the dignity of your writing to an exorbitant prequel.

I guess she expected to send another shockwave of your burgeoning popularity ( already potent and steady due to Anne's birthday ) in a pulsating undercurrent through the popular consciousness.

I don't try to reconcile myself to KMB's ill timed and ill-manouevered wish to out your private affairs and the manner of your death to the masses..... Maybe her long, bulging pockets ( laden with the fruits of your artistic labour ) feared the stealthy sounding of your multi-syllabled name would sink quietly back to its modest background.

As aforementioned, and most hearteningly, Mary Rubio countered the insanity with an eloquent extrapolation of the events. And, fortunately, the influx of ignorant comments polluting the internet have stilled and ceased.

There, Maud, it's all off my chest.

I hope you are resting well in the knowledge that I will brandish your name proudly. I will wave it high and defend it to the death.

The KMBs of the world are easily squelched!

So, dear Maud of the purple prose, ironic wit... you proclaimed painter of words, of fairystories, who tipped behind the veil of sodden reality to reveal jewelled sentences strung tautly like the faux pearl beads you bought in the West End Woolworth's Dept. Store, I sign off.

For now.

Thanks for everything. Next time I'll tell you about how elated I felt to realize Barney Snaith was based on a real person!

Your absolutely devoted,


(p.s. What is up with Dean Priest? )

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

All the Tea in China by Jane Orcutt

 Witty, intelligent, romantic and surprising with one of the most refreshing heroines I have met in Christian fiction for eons:

Isabella Goodrich is the most educated woman in Oxford. Under the tutelage of her famed uncle, the Dean of Christ Church, Isabella has more than five languages under her belt. She is more than accomplished in histories, literature, modern languages and culture. Moreover, thanks to her doting uncle, Isabella has the freedom to pursue and perfect her favourite hobby, fencing. Smart, sword-wielding and sharp witted, Isabella knows far too well at the age of six and twenty, that the gentlemen of society are not interested in a female with a rapier tongue and a mind of her own. So, when Isabella hears that an intelligent, well-travelled and, most importantly, eligible bachelor is to attend an upcoming dinner party in hopes of being a match for her, Isabella is intrigued. What she doesn’t count on is the bachelor being opinionated missionary Phineas Snowe. Their first encounter is dastardly. He takes her for the young, conventional, flighty young society women she so loathes. Even her interest for his missionary work in the Orient is challenged by her hatred of his dis-temperament and heavy use of irony.

Isabella knows that there must be a calling outside of marriage and a family for those young ladies with no marriageable prospects. But, she also knows that God did not give her a passion for books whose ideas she has no one to share with or a gift to write papers that no one will see. So, self-proclaimed spinster Isabella decides that if God has not intended for her to be wife... than he intends her to be His servant. Luckily (even if he is an enigmatic and sardonic man)Phineas Snowe is in town for the next few days. As a missionary and ordained man of God, Isabella is sure he will help her chisel her path. After a day of hard work in Oxford amidst the lowly and an eye opened to the world of those with lesser fortune, Isabella is certain she has found her calling. To serve the poor. In China. With Phineas Snowe. When Phineas refuses her offer to help his mission, she runs away from home and steals passage aboard the ship he is on determined to follow him to China nonetheless.

From Oxford to Cape Town and finally to China, Orcutt takes readers on a rollicking journey with Phineas and Isabella who both prove that the voyage is far more fun than the destination.

Now, this book has spunk and class and imagination. Three things that I find solely lacking in its contemporaries and the persistent absence of which makes this particular novel seem all the more fresh.

Orcutt has some class writing here. She did not pick up How to Write Christian Regency Novels for Dummies. Instead, she has a firm grasp of the ironical and didactic art of conversation during the early 19th Century.

Take Isabella and Phineas' first encounter at Charlotte Ransome's party:
Afeared she has a smudge on her beautiful new dress and ever conscious that she is already the center of speculation due to her single status, Isabella leans closer into the glass to examine her collar.

Says Phineas, observing: "Unless your vision is poor, you will not find your image improved by pressing against the mirror. Though I'll gainsay many ladies of believe it otherwise...Perhaps what you desire, if you so truly wish not to offend, is the raiment of a monastic, complete with cowl. Then every displeasing aspect of yourself would be truly hidden."

And sometimes the humour is just downright cute and, for Isabella, infuriating--
Later, when Phineas discovers she is aboard his ship, he informs: "I am sorry if you misunderstood my intentions toward you. My purpose was to discuss my work with the mission, not to court you. You have no need to follow after me like a poodle."

Cloistered upon a ship headed to China, Isabella learns quite quickly that missionary Phineas may be guilty of telling more than a few falsehoods. In fact, Orcutt gives us not one but two surprises in regard to his true identity and his interest in China.  But, what Isabella learns in regard to Phineas does not make her step back ( as other heroines in this genre would ) but draw closer. Disguised as brother and sister, they are permitted to share accomodation aboard ship. Tight quarters they have and the better for Orcutt to allow us a micrscopic view of not only sexual tension (Phineas tells Isabella that the reason he spins Chinese legends of hup warriors is to keep his mind off of her close proximity and the fact that she is clad in her inexpressibles) but two forceful minds battling each other with no intention of submission.

Ah, submission ..... which leads to yet another reason this book stands apart from its contemporaries. If you are expecting Paul's Corinthian love letter with sighings of: "wives submit to your husband" where a supposedly strong female relents in order to bow to scriptural sovereignty, you have come to the wrong party. Phineas and Isabella battle but, in the end, it is Phineas who gives way to Isabella. She will not back down. Battle is a major motif in this particular story. From the beginning, we learn of Isabella’s penchant for handling a sword. Later in the novel we see her take a hand in defending the ship from Privateers. Likewise, Isabella and Phineas also battle: verbally sparring and physically fighting. Keeping with the thread of Chinese myths, legends, warriors and warfare well-researched and spun throughout the novel, Orcutt gives us an extra treat when Phineas tosses Isabella masculine Chinese combat gear and teaches her how to fight hand-to-hand. This equality between male and female is well-expressed time and again: in the way that Phineas and Isabella maintain their informed and intelligent repartee, in the tales of both male and female warriors that exist in Isabella’s imagination fresh from Phineas’ tongue and in their ability to defend themselves physically and with erudition. No submission here. Instead, Lui Chun-bo introduces Isabella to the images of the dragon and phoenix, co-existing side-by-side as battling equals, neither bowing to the other, both sharing fortitude and talents that complement the other's weaknesses.

There are plenty of wonderful and delicious strengths to this lighthearted and sincerely comical adventure. What shines is Orcutt’s gift as an author. This novel was crafted well. There are no lo0se threads untied. Also, should she mention something in the first portion of the book it is given resolution in the third.

What strikes me most about this novel is its intellect. It does not talk down to the reader ( I read a book recently where the author actually included “a.k.a” to inform the reader midway through her ridiculous romp through the Yukon Gold Rush that a “sourdough” was actually also known as a ragged old gold miner) nor does it play for the reader’s benefit. Orcutt is having a blast embroidering the tale of Phineas and Isabella and if neither of them fit the mould of this genre, then she doesn’t care.

The saavy Christian reader will appreciate Isabella’s disdain for babies and her intolerance for society’s claim that a woman of five and twenty can have no calling from a God who expects the strength of a woman to lie in domestic bliss. The saavy Christian reader will also revel in the rebel hero that is Phineas. His motives for going to China are far from ordinary and far from anticipated.

This novel is well-played, wholly original and more than fun. Rooted deep in Christianity, but written with a secular flair for insight, turn-of-phrase and sheer bliss, Orcutt has done a brilliant job.

Unfortunately, Orcutt’s ending does not mirror the happy one of her creation, Isabella. Orcutt passed away from leukemia before she could follow up with another fun and fantastic read.

All royalties from All the Tea in China are now going to Orcutt’s family. So buy it. You will help a splendid cause and have a lot of fun in the process.