Friday, December 30, 2011

Favourite Books of 2011

I am always amazed by those people who profess to read 100 books a year. This year I managed 20, outside of those I read as a publisher. Of those 20 the following are my top five favourites and ones I'd recommend.
  1. Such a Long Journey, by Rohinton Mistry: one of those remarkable confluences of astonishingly beautiful writing, tightly crafted plot, and fully-developed characterization.
  2. A Paradigm of Earth, by founder, and fellow SF Canada member Candas Jane Dorsey, is a remarkable work of literary science fiction.
  3. North by 2000+, by H.A. Hargreaves; although one of Five Rivers' publications, this collection ticks all the boxes for me, and in many ways reflects Canadian cultural values: tolerance, collective cohesion, and a profound influence of the land on our fundamental nature. The print book releases March 1, 2012. It is now available in eBook through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Smashwords, and within six weeks from Apple and Kobo.
  4. The Damned Busters: To Hell and Back, by Matthew Hughes, is the first time since reading Terry Fallis’ The Best Laid Plans, I actually burst into laughter while reading a book.
  5. The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. This is a deceptively powerful novel, deceptively powerfully written.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

For you, this Christmastide

One of my favourite carols, in remembrance of Mr. Borov, my grades 9-10 Spanish teacher, from whom I learned a love of languages, music, and seeing beyond the sphere of my own isolated and provincial world. I remember a Christmas assembly where students and staff performed for the entire school during an afternoon. There were the usual silly skits and loud garage bands. And then Mr. Borov, a small man, barrel-chested, porcelain skin and dark hair, took the stage and stood alone under a spotlight. The audience was rowdy. Unabashed, Mr. Borov opened his mouth and, a capella, sang O Holy Night. From that first, clear, unwavering note he had us and brought us to epiphany, so that when at last his voice soared through those last crescendos we were on our feet, weeping, cheering, clapping for the beauty of this simple man’s gift.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Festive Ribs

Apparently I need a lot of kitchen therapy this week. Sunday I treated us to a wonderful feed of ribs. They were so ridiculously easy, and just wildly yummy, I thought I'd share that experiment as well.

Festive Ribs

1 pkg (about 16 ounces) fresh or frozen cranberries
3 Clementine oranges (or one large regular orange)
2 large cloves garlic
1 large onion
1 tablespoon Tobasco Sauce
1 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup Madiera
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 pound pork ribs per person

In a food processor chop the cranberries, oranges (whole, unpeeled), garlic and onions until you get a coarse sort of chutney or relish. Decant into a large glass pan or sealable plastic bag. Add the remaining ingredients (except the ribs) and stir well. Place the ribs into the mixture, cover the pan or seal the bag, and allow to marinade overnight in the fridge.

The next day preheat the oven to 200F degrees. Place the ribs, marinade and all in a covered, ovenproof pan or dish, and roast on low heat for about five hours.

I served this with a pilaf of brown rice, lentils and asparagus. Simply divine.

If you're at all interested in some interesting and delicious recipes, created by an ordinary book for ordinary people, consider my cookbook, Stonehouse Cooks, available in print and eBook from booksellers everywhere.
Available from booksellers everywhere
In print and eBook

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Cheddar and Greens Pasta Casserole

Available in print and digital
What does this have to do with writing? Probably not much directly. Having said that, I have published two cookbooks, the most recent of which is Stonehouse Cooks. And as an adjunct to that I find kitchen therapy, well, good therapy.

Take today, for instance. It's been a day of frustrations, between trying in my role as publisher at Five Rivers to edit, save and upload an interview I did with Patrick Lima, author of The Organic Home Garden, juggling scheduling problems in my role as administrator for the glass end of Five Rivers, and generally combating my usual seasonal disorder having to do with lack of sunlight, being a natural recluse (my own choice, I assure you) and this consumer-glut-fest they call Christmas.

So, it's dinner time. I knew vaguely I was going to make some sort of mac and cheese (see my cookbook above), found myself short on milk, long on stock, a surfeit of frozen greens, and a modicum of creativity.

The result? A really yummy cold weather casserole that requires a wee bit of time, but not much, and will prove to be economical as well.

Cheddar and Greens Pasta Casserole

400 gms rigatoni noodles (1/2 a 900 gm package)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the rigatoni about nine to 11 minutes, until it's just underdone. Drain and set aside.

1/2 large Vidalia onion (or whatever kind of onion you wish, finely chopped, to equal about 1 cup)
2 large cloves garlic, finely minced
about 3 tablespoons finely minced fresh rosemary (or about 1/2 that amount dried)
1 450gm package frozen spinach (or fresh, slightly wilted. You can also use any kind of green you wish. In tonight's version I used some of our own homegrown, frozen arugula [rocket])
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Mix together all these ingredients in a greased or non-stick 4 litre oven-proof, lidded casserole dish. Add the drained pasta, mix and set aside.

1/2 cup low fat margarine
1/2 cup flour
946ml beef stock (You can also use chicken or vegetable stock.)
2 cups grated cheddar (I imagine Swiss would be wonderful as well.)

In the same pot in which you cooked the pasta, melt the margarine over medium heat. Add flour and stir, allowing the mixture to bubble but not scorch. Cook, stirring, for about one minute. Add the stock slowly, stirring well, to avoid lumps, but truly it doesn't matter that much, because you're going to bake this and any lumps will get lost in the mix. Once the mixture thickens slightly, add the cheese, and continue to stir until the cheese in melted.

Pour the sauce over the pasta. Stir together.

2 big hunks of leftover crusty bread, cubed finely, or grated
2 tablespoons golden flax seed (optional)

Sprinkle bread crumbs and flax seed over the top of the pasta. Cover the casserole with a lid and bake in an oven preheated to 400F degrees about 30-45 minutes.

Serves 6-8

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My latest for Christmas

Thought I'd offer my readers a wee Christmas garland of three short stories this year I wrote over 20 years ago, which came about in part to chronicle some of my mother's childhood experiences entitled Memories, Mother and a Christmas Addiction. They're sort of Rockwellian vignettes with what I think is a very Canadian overtone.

The first, Santa and Mr. Buck, captures the excitement of four year old Barbara Brown on Christmas Eve, and her meeting with Santa, only to discover she missed out on the best part of all, holding Santa's reindeer with her father.

The second, The Year Santa Didn't Come, is an exploration into the pressures of poverty on a family at Christmas, and the true meaning of sharing.

The third and final story of this small collection, A Christmas Promise, tells the tale of Barbara Brown's first Christmas without her step-father, who died earlier that year, of how she overcomes the pressures of being a wage-earner at the age of 15, while still keeping a promise she made to her step-father.

Memories, Mother and a Christmas Addiction is now available through Amazon's Kindle, as well as Smashwords, and hopefully before Christmas from Kobo, Nook, Sony, Apple and Diesel.

Hope you enjoy this wee seasonal read.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Deciphering Marketers

Perhaps it's my seasonal dysfunction, lack of light; the month of mayhem and rampant consumerism and delusional dreams of Rockwell realities. Perhaps it (my cynicism and raised eyebrow) is nothing more than a passing malady, like indigestion or flatulence or that plague that everyone south of me seems to suffer.

Today's grump is about marketers, self-proclaimed experts who mouth buzz words and scry trends in the entrails of the day's news, declaiming that they, and only they, can reveal the path your fortune will walk, Grasshopper.

There is a veritable infestation of these types on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media, all of them madly clicking away to befriend/link/associate/buddyup/whatever and sell you their brightly painted nuggets of marketing sophistry.

Query most of them as to what, exactly, they can do for you and your career, and you'll often receive an inscrutable response. And of course the overall question must be: what makes you an expert? Oh, you've self-published several books about self-publishing, which you then sell mostly through lectures you coordinate and teach to local writer's groups. Put enough spin on something and I'll bet you could sell a bottle of water as a miracle cure. Or maybe those shiny, plated Celtic-Romano style bracelets that will align all the magnetic fields in my body and cure my arthritis.

And have you ever noticed how all these marketing types have that retina-searing smile of perfectly manufactured teeth? Makes me feel like I'm looking into the mouth of some new hybrid wolf, but at least the wolf would have the honesty to let you know she's having you for dinner -- NOM, NOM, NOM -- instead of promising you possession of the Holy Grail which you'll be too anemic to grasp after she's done with you, should you ever find it.

So, I suppose my overall caveat is this: carry with you a healthy skepticism. Find out exactly what a person or firm is trying to sell you, whether it has to do with your literary career, or home renovation. Ask for credentials and then check out those credentials. Get a written quotation as to exactly what remuneration the firm is expecting for exactly what services. And then shop around and compare.

Just because someone has published books on a subject doesn't make them an expert.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: Such a Long Journey

Such a Long JourneySuch a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey is one of those remarkable confluences of astonishingly beautiful writing, tightly crafted plot, and fully-developed characterization. The work is neither pretentious nor formulaic. And although there is no major crisis that takes place, no earth-shattering destruction of place or person, there is a sustained tension throughout the novel that keeps you reading, that draws you into the life of the main protagonist, Gustad Noble.

The novel is set during the rule of Indira Gandhi, and is a damning indictment of both her government and American foreign policy of the time. The journey is both a physical and metaphorical one, of Gustad’s bedside visitation of a friend he thought had betrayed him, and of Gustad’s eventual realization that there are few absolutes in life beyond that of death, that for every face there are a myriad of facets.

There are several subtle but poignant metaphors woven throughout this narrative, the most memorable being the character of Tehmul, who is a physically and mentally disabled man with the character of a boy, and it is this pull of the innocent versus the carnal that mirrors much of the political and social turmoil of the novel.

Although short-listed for the 1991 Booker Prize, Such a Long Journey was pulled from the University of Mumbai’s English curriculum because of protests from the family of Hindu nationalist, Bal Thackeray – yet one more example in the world of unenlightened people nurturing fear-mongering.

I’d urge you to read Such a Long Journey. It is a story that will nestle in your psyche and remain.

View all my reviews

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: The Sentimentalists

The SentimentalistsThe Sentimentalists by Johanna Shively Skibsrud
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In 2010 Johanna Skibsrud won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the youngest author to date to take the coveted literary award, for her debut novel, The Sentimentalists.

My own experience of The Sentimentalists was not entirely positive. There are a few moments of poetic writing and beautiful insight; but overall character development often ran to obscurity and confusion, so that it was difficult to connect relationships and individuals. Geographic locations were often muddled, as were nationalities and the justification of characters’ actions.

And while this is a tender tribute to Skibsrud’s own father’s experience during the Vietnam War, there are moments when his wartime memories are revealed, only to devolve into a philosophical daydreaming that didn’t rise much above the navel. To be honest, I closed the book and remained unsure what, exactly, had been the point of the novel. But maybe that was the point. If so, it’s the most subtle and obscure of rationales I’ve come across in some time. And this from the reader who adored Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

In the end, I remain quite confused as to why this novel merited the Giller.

View all my reviews

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Review: Black Ships by Jo Graham

Black Ships (Numinous World, #1)Black Ships by Jo Graham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Based on Homer's epic Aeneid, Jo Graham's Black Ships certainly has dynamic and profound material with which to work. Unfortunately, Graham's delivery falls short of anything but a mildly entertaining chick-lit read.

Having said that, there are echoes of Marion Zimmer Bradley's style here, a retelling of a male-oriented legend from a female, even feminist point of view, in this case the oracle known as Pythia replacing the Arthurian Morgaine. And yet Graham's characters failed to rise off the page, to engage, to vividly occupy the imagination. In fact, I very much felt throughout the story that Graham simply populated her story with dolls and predictably moved them about. It was as though Graham found herself bound by the very legend she attempted to illuminate.

Which is disappointing. This is stuff to fire the imagination. And because of the writing style, and the lack of vivid character development, it's a sure bet I'll give the rest of this series a pass.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Social Media as White Noise

I am about to write heresy.

It's occurred to me social media and networking has become little else than white noise.

It's hard for me to write that, because as a publisher at a indie press social networking and media are alleged to be the lifeblood of marketing. Certainly it's what all the marketing gurus keep yelling. Tweet it. FB it. Boost your SEO ratings. Create Google Ads and FB ads, and Goodreads ads. Create a profile on LinkedIn, and Google+, a professional page on FB.

Engage people in groups on library lists and book club sites. Join Empire Avenue and create hype. Get yourself a YouTube channel and go viral. Podcast and go Apple. Go. Go. Go.

But while you and thousands of other indie publishers and authors are out there beating your own bibles, who is really listening? You have 1000 friends on Facebook, and 2000 followers on Twitter; your Goodreads account has maxed out your friend allotment, and you stare at all these invitations and notices flooding your email and scrolling by like ticker tape on your TweetDeck feed, and you wonder, what does it all mean? And who reads all this stuff?

You're not. That's for sure, because you're trying desperately to edit that next manuscript in the editorial line-up, or (faint hope!) trying to bash out a few hundred words on your own work in progress.

So who's reading all this stuff? Is anyone? Is anyone even reading this blog?

We call this the Information Age. I'm thinking maybe it's not so much about information as it is about people just blathering. Blah, blah, blah, and it's all like listening to spring peepers in May. It creates a music of sort, a song of fecundity and hope. But no one voice rises above, stands out. It's all just one, homogeneous voice. And if you wanted to be part of the symphony, well, you would have joined the symphony. But you had dreamed of soaring, like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, beyond the flock, beyond the music, into something unique and remarkable.

So, is anyone listening?

Yeah, that's what I thought.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Review: The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje

The English PatientThe English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I come late to reading award-winning author, Michael Ondaatje, and decided to discover his story-telling ability through a familiar tale, that of the award-winning film made from his novel, The English Patient.

I have been captivated by the film for years. I can now say I have been captivated by Ondaatje's novel. Unlike the film, the novel examines the lives and relationships of Hana, Caravaggio and Kip, rather than the love story between Almasy and Katherine.

Ondaatje's research and presentation of the final days of the Italian Campaign of WWII is impeccable and beautifully presented. There is very much a sense of suspension in the story, of lives on hold, of the last breath before the long exhale of release. There is also a remarkable sense of ambiguity in the story, of the search for meaning when in fact there is none. There is only survival and moments of beauty in between.

This is a deceptively powerful novel, deceptively powerfully written.

View all my reviews

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Switching Stories

My desk, where it all happens.
There is a bit of a lull between books at Five Rivers at the moment, allowing me some time to devote to my own writing. It's always a challenge to find time to write.

I've been thrashing around with a new novel for about two years now (blogged about that previously here), and tried returning to it now. To put it bluntly, I foundered. There's a huge emotional investment in that novel, and I find myself avoiding it. So rather than let this opportunity evaporate, I decided to unearth a novella I'd written 20 years ago.

Originally titled Dreamweaver, I decided to call it Caliban instead, given the nature of my main character and the theme of the story which questions what is reality? To my surprise the architecture of the story isn't half bad, certainly worth time and revision. So it looks like that's what I'm doing with the bulk of my time for the next few weeks, while I wait for other manuscripts to come back in from revision. There are a few submissions for me to read, but that's afternoon work.

If I'm at all successful with this revision, I should have the novella off to one of our editors for comment and criticism before the close of the year. We'll see.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Two Reviews: Books 2 and 3 of Pratchett's Discworld

The Light Fantastic (Discworld, #2)The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this the second book of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, we continue with the adventures of Rincewind, Twoflowers and best of all, the Luggage. (I love the Luggage!) We meet with Cohen the Barbarian (love it!), trolls with diamond teeth, feisty maidens being sacrificed to prevent the red star from crashing into Discworld, and even at the end have an opportunity to share in Great A'Tuin's blessed event.

Pratchett's wit, humour and intelligence are sharp and rapid. Reading this at bedtime proved problematic, in that in a somnolent state I'd completely miss the lampooning of some real world star, and have to go back and reread just so I wouldn't miss out on yet another delightful giggle. Honestly, I haven't laughed so much reading books in my lifetime. I'm hooked. Completely, hopelessly hooked on Pratchett's Discworld.

Some of the best entertainment of the 20th and 21st centuries, and I daresay destined to become classics in generations to come.

View all my reviews Equal Rites (Discworld, #3)Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In book three of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, both tone and characters change. More of a high fantasy than a farce, Equal Rites explores the rights of women in the patriarchal society of wizards.

Now, let it not be thought this a sobre examination of societal standards through the use of fantasy. Far from it. Pratchett employs his usual sharp wit and play on words to create a fast-paced, endearing and humorous view of wizarding society on Discworld. A quick read that will have you giggling throughout.

View all my reviews

Monday, October 3, 2011

Finding time to write

I began this self-publishing journey with the view that if my work wasn't commercial enough for the large publishers, I'd publish it myself and use that native imagination to market my work. So far I've been pleased with my humble success. Sure, I'm not going to retire on my earnings, but then there are a lot of my colleagues who are published conventionaly who are in the same boat.

My difficulty, however, is that I also sort of slid into being a full blown publisher. While I fully acknowledge and accept the fact I'm the one who chose to sail this ship, there are times I scratch my head and look around, wondering what on earth I've done. I put in about 55 hours a week as a publisher, reading submissions, editing, laying out books, sometimes creating covers, dealing with a ridiculous amount of correspondence and solicitions, and marketing. Sure, it's easy to say I need  help, but given this is a very tiny publishing house, with an equally tiny budget, the financial resources to pay for help simply aren't there.

And while putting in those 55 hours a week, somewhere in there I try to find small chunks for myself, to bash out a few lines, a page or two, on my current work in progress, The Rose Guardian. So far I've been working on this novel for two years. I naively thought I'd have it finished by now. Silly me. I only have about a quarter of it written.

To make that task just a little more difficult, I've upped the requirements of this novel. There are essentially three stories being told; the first is the story of a woman dealing with the death of her mother, a relationship that was never a happy one, and so there is a lot of angst, grief and discovery in that story. The second story is that of the mother, told from the grave through the medium of her diaries. I've chosen to do that because there are always two sides to a story, always different perspectives of reality and truth, so I felt that before the reader, and in fact my main character, assassinate the mother, it was only fair to allow her to defend herself, to present her case. The third story is somewhat of a red herring, told from the perspective of a little girl who has created for herself a fantasy world, filled with fears and uncertainties, dark creatures and some creatures whose benevolence is questionable, like the Rose Guardian she meets.

The story is part CanLit, part dark fantasy, my usual uncategorizable melange.

Because of the depth of this story, and the care and attention it requires, finding 10 minutes to hammer out a few phrases just isn't getting the task done. Were I writing a simple narrative designed for pure escapism it might be a little easier to bash out this story. But it's not a simple narrative. It's one of complexity and subtlety, and so when I'm gifted with a few free minutes I'm usually trying to bring myself back up to speed on the novel, trying to recapture the emotion and ambiance.

I will finish The Rose Guardian. Of that I'm certain. It's just this novel is going to take much longer than I'd anticipated. But, then, since when did my life ever follow a prescribed path?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review: Maelstrom, by Peter Watts.

Maelstrom (Rifters, #2)Maelstrom by Peter Watts
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Maelstrom by Peter Watts is the second book in the Rifters series, continuing the story of Lennie Clark, a deeply psychotic woman, part machine, who is the unwitting victim of psychological manipulation and a plague-carrier.

While the first book, Starfish, proved innovative and incisively written, that innovation and incisive writing failed in Maelstrom. There are pages and pages of technical exposition which slows the narrative, angst and violence which for the most part seems gratuitous and without justification. In fact, the narrative becomes so obscure that for two thirds of the novel I was unsure of exactly what was going on.

The world building which began in Starfish greatly diminishes in Maelstrom, offering nothing new to the already overdone SF dominion of dystopia. There was no sense of environment, of place. There was a great deal of burning and mayhem.

Was I sufficiently invested to continue Watt’s journey into the third book, Behemoth? Not really. Overall a great disappointment from a writer I previously touted as being a star in the firmament of Canada’s SF writers.

View all my reviews

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Halloween Special at Smashwords

In celebration of Halloween this month, I've put up a 50% discount coupon at Smashwords for my dark fantasy novel, From Mountains of Ice. Just click on this link, choose which of 10 digital formats you wish, and enter coupon code DL86K in the checkout menu.

If you prefer print, Amazon offers a 22% discount.

Always interested in what my fans and readers have to say, so post your comments here, and share with friends through Facebook and Twitter (you can do that right from here if you want to share the coupon with others.) You can also look up my fan page on Facebook and post comments there. Just click on the Facebook badge on the right side of this blog.

Happy October! Happy Halloween! And enjoy!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The 'How To' of Writing

I'm often asked if I can recommend writer's workshops or books on writing. The answer to that question often results in a shrug of the shoulders and an apologetic smile. Can't say I'm particularly a fan of either, although in the book department there have been a few that were helpful, just plain nuts and bolts, straightforward discussion of the craft, no cloud creations, no gimmicks.

I think the light went on for me in the 1980s when I started submitting short stories to Marion Zimmer Bradley's fantasy magazine and empire. At first I received standard form rejections. Then she'd pen a small suggestion. The last rejection I received from her was a very long, hand-written critique which ended by saying, "Stop trying to impress me, Lorina." And she went on to say that I could write; I just needed to do it from the heart. I sold her my next story, Smile of the Goddess.

I also studied a lot of writing, and read articles in Writer's Digest, articles I went on to use later in life when teaching creative writing through the local continuing education program. Orson Scott Card's book on character and viewpoint is an excellent book for anyone starting out.

Mostly, I'd have to say, examine the authors you enjoy reading. Start asking yourself why a particular story or passage resonates with you. Is it emotional? If so, how did the author set about writing something that would touch that personal experience of yours? Is it the words themselves? If so, examine how the writer crafted the passage. Is it the environment? If so, examine how the writer made real that environment.

Workshops, well, I think it takes a certain character-type to find workshops of use, whether online or a retreat. I've been part of several and mostly found them a dismal, frustrating experience. But that's because I'm probably just a wee bit too anti-social and jealously guard my privacy and solitude.

I formed a critique circle back in the 80s in the area I lived. Mostly writers would make tremendously useful comments like, "Oh, that's such a wonderful story," and of course I'd wade in, pen slashing, saying, no, this word, this phrase is redundant. This is clumsy. I think you could have used less exposition here and more action (show don't tell). Too many passive verbs. Too many adjectives; try choosing one, precise word over several. I think you've started your story at the wrong point, and all this back-story you've presented up front could have been filtered in through dialogue.

Needless to say people didn't like me much. Mind you, out of that group came Barbara Kyle who now teaches writing at the University of Toronto, and continues to write historical novels.

For a brief (one week) period I was part of an SF&F group out of Toronto, loosely affiliated with Michael Skeet and Rob Sawyer. But I met with such resentment and foolish comment with regard to my application story that I didn't bother to return, which was met with more resentment.

And I did do three of the six week alleged boot camp of SF&F, Clarion, which then ran a workshop at Michigan State University in East Lansing. By the end of the third week I'd had enough of adolescent frat-house commentary and writing that I packed my bags and left. And, yep, once again met with resentment and anger.

Do you see a pattern here?

So I pretty much decided to go it on my own, write my stories in a closet and shove them out under the door in the hope someone on the other side might find them compelling enough to actually read, dare I hope, even enjoy.

Were all those workshops a waste of time? I used to think so, but in retrospect I think not. It helped me to realize I don't write stories that are hugely commercial and likely won't find a broad audience. It also taught me that my stories tend to evoke strong emotion, and when I started examining the critiques I'd received there was little by way of common thread. Mostly it was nit-picking. But I did read carefully for those common threads, realized the story had a flaw, and I revised carefully to correct that flaw.

From that, and from some very excellent teachers I had as a kid (who very much believed in cultivating inquiring minds), I learned to remove myself from my work and examine with a critical eye.

Are workshops and books on writing useful or a waste of time? I think it depends on the person. For one person they're going to be a tremendous boon. For another, like me, a complete waste of time. Just as in life, I don't think there's any one hard and fast rule.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review: A Paradigm of Earth, by Candas Jane Dorsey

A Paradigm of EarthA Paradigm of Earth by Candas Jane Dorsey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Paradigm of Earth, by founder, and fellow SF Canada member Candas Jane Dorsey, is a remarkable work of literary science fiction.

Although the premise of first contact is not new, Dorsey brings to the discussion a complex, poetic exploration of what it means to be human. Through the characters of Blue, one of twelve aliens dropped on Earth to become the essence of humanity, and his mentor, Morgan, a woman immobilized with grief, Dorsey incarnates a story part CanLit, part SF, part crime mystery. Her characters are vivid and compelling, avoiding stereotype. Her premise suspends all disbelief with facility and elegance. The writing is tight and yet poetic; the pacing deceptively brisk. Further, Dorsey unfolds her tale without devolving to the kitsch tech-speak which is the failure, and alienation, of so many popular SF writers, and as a result Dorsey creates an emotional environment that will bring a tender heart to tears.

If you love the work of Ursula K. LeGuin, you will fall in love with this story by Candas Jane Dorsey.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Do Reviews Matter?

If you're an indie author, there's a marketing philosophy that reader reviews matter. I suppose that strategy arose out of the fact critical reviewers (those who write for literary or trade publications) for the most part won't consider an indie book.

Books, experts, publicists -- all of them tell either the publisher or the author that you have to get your book out there for review, with the idea you'll then clip pithy lines for promotional purposes.

But does that really work? To be honest, I'm not sure. As both a publisher and an indie author I pursue that avenue of thought, but not as an exercise to gain good reviews, but rather by way of simple exposure, using the philosophy any publicity is good publicity.

How I came to that conclusion is the result of much scratching of head and muttering to the walls. My own books have been up on Goodreads and LibraryThing for review, and I've noticed a trend. People generally feel fairly strongly about what I write, so that reviews tend to come in very positive, or very negative.

For example, my historical novel, Shadow Song, has 66% of Goodreads readers giving it a five or four star review. 68% of readers gave From Mountains of Ice a four or five star rating, and 60% of readers rate my short story collection, And the Angels Sang at four or five stars. That remaining 30-40% of readers tend to rate the books at two and one stars.

For a time this concerned me. It's important to make sure, especially as an indie author, that you're not simply stroking your own ego, that you're paying attention to the craft of writing the best work you can. I started examining the ratings and reviews of other authors whom I admire and consider mentors. You might find the results of that research a bit surprising.

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rusdie: 62% 4-5 stars
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry: 73% 4-5 stars
The Bishop's Man, Linden MacIntyre: 50% 4-5 stars
Through Black Spruce, Joseph Boyden: 74% 4-5 stars
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood: 66% 4-5 stars

It's also interesting to note that of those readers who rated my own works at one and two stars, it was as if they had read something other than what I'd written. Clearly there was miscommunication on a profound level. I'd been accused of not doing my research in Shadow Song, of rewriting the Gladiator movie in From Mountains of Ice, and challenging a reader too much in And the Angels Sang.

It would seem my mentors above faced similar perplexing reviews:

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rusdie: too many moment of abstract non-sensical story; he used a lot of big words I’ve never seen like “orotund” and “obsolescent”
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry: quite vulgar and has a lot of sexual promiscuity; Nothing good happens in the characters life.
The Bishop's Man, Linden MacIntyre: This book would have gotten 4 stars if the storyline was changed to be linear, or possibly if I was able to read it in one sitting. the story seems aimless and slow for a good portion of the book....
Through Black Spruce, Joseph Boyden: I think Through Black Spruce should start from scratch all over again and the author rewrite his story. Spent most of it wanting to smack characters upside the head. 
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood: lacking in substance; plot really isn't going anywhere

So it would seem I'm in good company.

What did I learn from this exercise? Some people will understand what you're doing as an artist. Others won't. That's just the way of the world, that there are a variety of opinions, tastes, paradigms and levels of enjoyment.

Now, to continue the search for the grail of the best-seller.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Review: The Colour of Magic

The Colour of Magic (Discworld, #1)The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've come to Terry Pratchett somewhat late, only to find I've overlooked a writer deft at the difficult art of farce. Imaginative, funny, zany and without any pretense, Pratchett's The Colour of Magic is an easy, entertaining read that demands nothing of you but your willingness to again become a child and explore a sense of wonder.

The world Pratchett creates is a disc carried upon the the backs of four elephants, who in turn ride a great galactic turtle. On this disc-world magic abounds (and hence the interdict regarding the number eight), as do strange creatures (I particularly loved the luggage), strange adventures and even stranger outcomes. Just when you think you've figured out this world and this plot, Pratchett turns his story upside down to see what shakes out.

For sheer escapism and entertainment, it doesn't get much better.

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Friday, September 2, 2011

AzincourtAzincourt by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cornwell turns to the now legendary Battle of Agincourt as inspiration and foundation for his novel Azincourt, using the archer, Nick Hook (an actual historical archer who was at Agincourt) as the vehicle for this story.

The story itself attempts to illuminate the actual events that led to King Henry V's resounding victory over the French, using a fictional backdrop of Hook's family feud, a damsel in distress, and the guidance of Saints Crispin and Cripinian (who speak to Hook) as the plot arc.

On a personal level, I wanted very much to enjoy this story. The subject matter is one I've researched extensively and have found of fascination for decades. I'm afraid, however, my enjoyment was overshadowed by Cornwell's heavy hand illustrating gore, and several technical inaccuracies which, for the average reader, wouldn't be an issue, but for me twanged in the way of a badly-tuned instrument.

An entertaining read, but not a memorable one.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Eulogy for Karin Vandenberg

Karin and Bo Vandenberg
How do you summarize the life of a friend, particularly one you have loved, lost, found and then lost permanently? I'm afraid I'm not up to the task, it would seem. There is so much to say about Karin.

I first met Karin through my son, who was studying theatre arts in secondary school. Karin was an intern teacher at Orangeville District Secondary School. We all knew immediately this young woman was one who lived life in broad, sweeping strokes, who used colour and passion in all she created. It was never in Karin's vocabulary to do anything in half-measures, whether it was to teach, or live, or love.

Love, however, was illusive for Karin. Despite her enormous charisma, it seemed as though she would never find that soul mate, that person who was willing to simply dive blindly and blissfully into the ocean of what she had to offer.

And then came Bo. A quiet man. A bard. A man who also knew about the enormity of life and love, and when he met Karin at the Orangeville Medieval Festival in the early '90s that was it, quest fulfilled. It was like the meeting of Tristan and Isolde, Henry and Eleanor, Anthony and Cleopatra. Yes, their love was that epic, although far more enduring, stable, encompassing.

Karin was diagnosed with leukemia. Like everything else in Karin's life she faced it head-on, fiercely and with an optimism and determination that brooked no possibility of defeat. Defeat just simply wasn't part of her lexicon.

And so through Facebook, those of us who loved and admired both her and Bo, followed her journey, cheered her on through every frightening, tense, trying moment until the morning of August 31, 2011, when finally, delirious, she died with the love of her life who was there to walk every painful moment with her.

There is one less star in the firmament. She has arced across the sky in a blaze of brilliance, searing our consciousness with the grandeur of her life and her love. To say she will be missed is understatement.

Karin was my fellow earth-mother, a woman of wisdom, grace, huge of heart and long on loyalty. It is inconceivable she is not among us. My spirit is broken. The house is silent. And in that silence I listen for you, Karin. Will always listen.

Viewing is scheduled for Friday, September 2nd from 2 - 4 p.m. and 7 - 9 p.m. and services are scheduled for Saturday, September 3rd at 11 a.m. at Gilbert MacIntyre and Son Funeral Home, 1099 Gordon St., Guelph. It is the location marked 'A' on the Google map.

Instead of flowers, donations to the Grand River Hospital Foundation would be greatly appreciated.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Blog of my Own

It's been some time now I've kept a blog for the publishing end of my life at 5rivers News, Views and Points of Interest. Five Rivers has grown considerably, so that it seemed more and more inappropriate for me to give voice to my personal work and opinions through Five Rivers' blog. The last thing I want is for Five Rivers to come off looking like the Lorina Show.

And so I felt it was time for me to create a blog of my own, where I could discuss my own writing, the process involved in that; my personal views on the increasingly mercurial world of publishing, as well as post reviews of books I read, and general musing sometimes straying to pontification.

Given the demands on my time, it's unlikely I'll be updating this blog daily. I think if I manage bi-weekly I'll be amazed. Still, I hope to share some of what I've learned, pose some questions with which I hope you will engage.