Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Joy from me to you

As a girl I have wonderful memories of singing carols in St. Paul's Anglican cathedral in Toronto with the Havergal choir. One of my favourites was Angels We Have Heard on High. I remember how our voices seemed to rise and collect in those towering, vaulted ceilings, creating a sublime resonance that could bring tears to the most arctic of hearts.

In tribute to that memory, but with a fresh, modern jazz vibe, I thought I'd share with you a music video by the hugely talented group, Pentatonix.

Wishing all of you joy.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Review: Was, by Geoff Ryman

WasWas by Geoff Ryman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Geoff Ryman clearly demonstrates his prowess as a writer with his novel Was. This is a tragic exploration of the Dorothy/Oz culture of L. Frank Baum from both an historical and modern perspective.

Ryman chooses the voice of a fictional inspiration for Baum's story, that of Dorothy Gael, who is orphaned due to a diphtheria epidemic, and is sent to live in Kansas with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. That story explores the benign neglect of Dorothy and the eventual destruction of what had been an innocent, intelligent, creative soul under the weight of religious zeal, ignorance, and the inability to control primal needs.

As a counterpoint to that tragedy, Ryman also introduces the character of Jonathan, with whom we journey from his boyhood struggle with autism through his tragic demise as an AIDS sufferer.

The story is told with an honest, compelling narrative, beautiful in its delivery, rending in its simplicity. Highly recommended.

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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Review: Keeper'n Me, by Richard Wagamese

Keeper'n MeKeeper'n Me by Richard Wagamese
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is difficult to offer literary comment on a novel which is, in fact, the first published by Richard Wagamese, and second all but autobiographical.

Certainly if one were to study Wagamese's work it would be easy to identify the promising talent of an emerging author with this his first published work. Keeper'n Me offers a great deal to the canon of Canadian literature. There is a deft handling of the idiom of language and dialect. He does create evocative images and settings. Wagamese certainly is capable of drawing emotional response from his readers.

However, as compared to his later work, in particular Indian Horse (in which Wagamese demonstrates an author come to maturity and comfortable with his craft), there is a naivete to Keeper'n Me which does discredit to the very real issues that form the foundation of the novel, and the talent of the author.

In telling the story of an Ojibway boy who is seized by Children's Aid authorities and raised severed from his heritage, Wagamese ends up portraying the return of a lost soul to his remote, reservation community. There, he finally comes to accept his birthright.

It has the makings of a moving and profound tale. In its own way the novel is. But it could have been more. Had Wagamese refrained from sketching life on a reserve without water facilities, hydro, sufficient housing as one virtually without hardship, where the people are generally content, relatively well-adjusted, in constant laughter, and all pursuing the path of their ancient paradigms, there would have been a greater ring of truth. Unfortunately, there is a bit of a feeling of Disney in the background, of rainbows and chattering, befriended wildlife.

And that is very sad indeed. Still, Keeper'n Me is worth reading, if for no other reason than to further discover Wagamese's later work and come to understand the profound development of an emerging Canadian author.

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Three reviews

Have been a bit busy of late and am catching up on reviews. There are three today, varying widely in subject matter and genre.

Kraken BakeKraken Bake by Karen Dudley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dudley absolutely captivated me with the first in this series: Food for the Gods, and the sequel Kraken Bake follows the wit, humour, whimsy and galloping good narrative of the first.

Our hero, Pelops, celebrity chef to Athens' elite populace and pantheon of gods and demigods, finds himself in deep disfavour with Poseidon, to the point he cannot take advantage of the surfeit of kraken (thanks to the California-stylin' hero, Perseus) in which Athens finds itself awash. And it is imperative, Pelops is sure, that he overcome Poseidon's jinx in order to win the culinary competition of the century to be held in Dionysus' amphitheatre.

Filled by turns with deeds dastardly and benevolent, this is simply an intelligent, rocketing good read. Highly recommended, especially for lovers of all things culinary and mythological.

Well done, Karen Dudley! Well done!

And you will please forgive the reviewer the many puns and allusions.

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The Next Sure Thing (Rapid Reads)The Next Sure Thing by Richard Wagamese
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A gritty, crusty, very male-oriented novella from Richard Wagamese, exploring the underbelly of mobsters, playing race track odds, and an Ojibwa man just trying to make his way in the world.

A bit naive in its ending, but given the Rapid Reads series is likely geared toward YA readers, understandable.

As always Wagamese delivers remarkable detail, although in this story I felt his characters were a bit predictable and cardboard.

Still and all, a good read, if not one of Wagamese's best offerings.

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Him StandingHim Standing by Richard Wagamese
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another in Orca's Rapid Reads series, Wagamese delivers a novella drawing from his own rich Ojibwa heritage, this time sketching the story of a wood carver commissioned to carve a mask. The story which unfolds is a classic power-play between dark and light, good and evil, in this case of a dark shaman who wishes to resurrect an evil shaman of old.

Guided by an Ojibwa elder, the carver discovers the power of his own ancestors, and a way to defeat the emergence of an ancient and destructive power.

Again, a bit naive in its delivery, and with a definite feeling of being rushed through the story, I felt Wagamese was unable to deliver his usual rich world-building and story-telling ability.

Still, a good read, and one which would certainly appeal to a younger audience.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: The Door in the Mountain, by Caitlin Sweet

The Door in the MountainThe Door in the Mountain by Caitlin Sweet
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Caitlin Sweet approaches ancient Greek mythology from the YA market with a dark retelling of Ariadne and the minotaur's labyrinth at Crete.

Sweet's world shudders with the power of the gods. It seems near everyone but Ariadne has some eldritch and scintillating ability, mostly misdirected and excessive. Therein lies the undercurrent of Sweet's story: Ariadne's envy of the gods-given powers bestowed on everyone but her, but most especially her envy of her brother who is the minotaur.

One would think with such powerful myth and motivation Sweet's story would sweep away the reader, but somehow the story stutters under the weight of all that adolescent angst. Ariadne becomes a predictable and unlikeable antihero who whines and plots and inflicts pain as though that were her own god-given power.

Unlike Sweet's earlier novel, The Pattern Scars, there is a lack of depth in The Door in the Mountain, a parsimony in her former elegant phrasing, character development and narrative arc. It is a readable story, indeed quite consumable. But for this reader it is a disappointing second novel, lacking the considerable talent of her earlier work.

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Review: Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett

Feet of Clay (Discworld, #19)Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What one might expect from Terry Pratchett: whacky humour, intimately realized world, twists, turns and nefarious deeds. In short, another installment of escapism at its best.

In this Discworld edition, Pratchett returns to our stalwart policing crew, The Watch, who become embroiled in a series of dastardly murders, the question of what makes a thing a thing with rights, or just a machine, and the examination of class structure. All of this told with intelligence and aplomb.

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review: Canada, by Richard Ford

CanadaCanada by Richard Ford
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Drawn by the title, and the author's pedigree, I came to the novel Canada as a Canadian, anticipating a story illuminating this vast and diverse country and people.

Instead, what I came upon was an author trying too hard, and unsuccessfully, to channel the likes of F. Scott FitzGerald or John Steinbeck, carrying with him a typically American ignorance of Canada, its people, its culture, its heritage.

The story revolves, endlessly, around a bank-robbing mother and father who, through their idiocy and sense of entitlement, leave their children, fraternal twins, barely into adolescence as orphans and essentially homeless.

The novel is full of implausibilities: the fact there are no social services to take charge of the children at the time of the arrest of the parents; the smuggling of the unreliable narrator into Canada to an alleged safe house; the robbery itself. The list is just too long to enumerate here.

The writing, although lauded by critics as a 'meticulous concern for the nuances of language', to this reader fell flat, lacklustre, without that alleged meticulous concern for the nuance of language. Frankly, it read as so much blah, blah, blah. In fact, the first third of the book is interminably expository, given little credence or gravitas by the nature of Ford's use of the unreliable narrator.

When we finally come to the denouement, we are treated to a moment out of an old Peggy Lee song, Is That All There Is? Which is followed quickly by a complete change of scenery and time, one cannot help but feel because the author ran out of steam.

The characters were so utterly cardboard as to be ridiculous.

And let us not even begin to speak of the gross misunderstanding of anything to do with Canada, let alone Saskatchewan. Frankly, upon consideration, I would recommend every Canadian to pick up this novel, particularly if you're from Saskatchewan, just to explode into laughter at how wrong this writer could envisage that oceanic, wildly free geography we know as the middle province of the Prairies.

Finally, good job, Richard Ford, by way of insulting every Canadian who might read this book by stating several times in the novel: Canadians are just like Americans, and, Canadians want to be just like Americans. Seriously?

Next time the author of Canada wishes to write with authority about a foreign country, I suggest he actually live in that country for a period of time, immerse himself in the culture and the people, then, and only then, he might begin to approach the subject matter with some authority. But, then, maybe not. Any author who can write with sublime confidence that Canadians are just like Americans plainly hasn't a clue and should stick to writing about his own culture.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: Maskerade, by Terry Pratchett

Maskerade (Discworld, #18)Maskerade by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Pratchett remains a great story-teller, sweeping his readers away to a cleverly conceived world, populated by unlikely and believable characters.

In this installation, Pratchett writes a spoof on Andrew Lloyd Weber's international hit musical, Phantom of the Opera. Pratchett also takes on the superficiality of society, of the preoccupation with physical appearance, and the beauty of a noble spirit, all done with deliciously irreverent British humour.

A great escapist read.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: Mercy Among the Children, by David Adams Richards

Mercy Among the ChildrenMercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Periodically there are books which come into our lives we choose to read not because they are guarantors of entertainment, escapism, pleasure, but because we are aware the writer has something to say, hopefully says it well, and the scent of which lingers in years to come like a primal memory, an underlying truth.

Such is the case with David Adams Richards' Giller Award winning novel, Mercy Among the Children.

Told through the unreliable narrator of Lyle Henderson, son of the main protagonist and chief underdog in the story, Sydney Henderson, Mercy Among the Children is an epic tale of hypocrisy and greed, of ignorance and poverty not only of economics but of morality. It is not a pleasant read. Nor is it an easy read. But it is gripping and needs to be read much in the way Steinbeck needs to be read, or Harper Lee, or any number of writers who have championed the cause of the disenfranchised and downtrodden.

Set in the Miramichi Valley of New Brunswick, Canada, this labyrinthine tale weaves through betrayals, robberies, murder, toxic waste of the soul and the environment, through generations of people held under the implacable autocracy of the company town. It is relentless in its brutality and sorrow. There are no happy endings in sight. And it resonates with an awful truth which simply cannot be ignored.

My only quibble is in the opening third of the novel the relentless barrage of misdeeds against the Henderson family teeters on the brink of the precious, so that at any moment I fully expected Dickens' Tiny Tim to make an appearance. Beyond that, there is a court scene which very much put me in mind of Harper Lee's now legendary court case in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the societal burden Steinbeck presented in The Grapes of Wrath

A recommended read which should be followed immediately by something mindless, hilarious and utterly frivolous, just for balance.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Review: Why Men Lie, by Linden MacIntyre

Why Men LieWhy Men Lie by Linden MacIntyre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The last in MacIntyre's Cape Breton Trilogy, Why Men Lie completes the fallout from a brutal act in WWII which has haunted the men involved and their families.

In this novel MacIntyre visits the character of Effie Gillis, who lived in silent fear for years, and now as a middle-aged woman attempts to reconcile that past and her own visceral, instinctive reactions to any trigger which might be construed as related.

While it is a story about latent violence both of the spirit and the body, it is also a story of quiet hope, one without blazing moments of epiphany, but rather of muted understanding.

Ultimately a very Canadian novel from a very Canadian writer.

Highly recommended.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: The Long Stretch, by Linden MacIntyre

The Long StretchThe Long Stretch by Linden MacIntyre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first of MacIntyre's award-winning Cape Breton trilogy, The Long Stretch is a beautifully crafted illustration of the axiom: the sins of the parent shall fall upon the children.

The narrative, set on Cape Breton Island, reveals the mystery and horror of one brutal act during WWII, and how the men involved in that crime attempt to retain some semblance of normalcy for themselves and their families in the years which follow.

Written in a staccato style of stuttering sentence fragments, MacIntyre creates a story of tension, pain and ultimately of love without recourse to graphic descriptions and hysteria-blown scenes. A master work of literature from a master Canadian journalist.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: The Emperor's Soul, by Brandon Sanderson

The Emperor's SoulThe Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sanderson was recommended to me as a genre author worth reading. I'm not sorry I followed up on that recommendation.

The Emperor's Soul presents an intriguing story of a forger who is able to create reproductions through magical carving of seals, inscribed with the history and detail of the object and its maker. In fact, she is so good at her art she is employed by the Emperor's most trusted advisers to create a seal which will return the Emperor to himself after a botched assassination.

Rich with character studies, environmental detail and intrigue, this is an engaging bit of escapism.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Review: Touch, by Alexi Zentner

TouchTouch by Alexi Zentner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Zentner presents a fascinating, historical story of hardship, endurance and superstition set in the British Columbia/Yukon interior around the late 19th century. The characters are well-defined, the environmental descriptions vivid, the plot intriguing.

Memorable, readable, recommended.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: Gibberish, by Gordon R. Gibb

Gibberish: Tall Tales & Domestic Disasters from Beyond the MicrophoneGibberish: Tall Tales & Domestic Disasters from Beyond the Microphone by Gordon R Gibb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An engaging, witty, often hilarious series of articles, anecdotes and broadcasts by Peterborough native and broadcaster, Gordon R. Gibb. The collection is highly readable, written in very easy and accessible language. Very much put me in mind of Stewart McLean.

Great reading for the commute, the waiting room, wherever, whenever.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: Stonehenge, by Bernard Corwell

StonehengeStonehenge by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written with Cornwell's usual impeccable historical detail, research and biting vision, Stonehenge is a vision of how the great henge may have come to exist, richly embroidered with believable characters, political machinations, and religious fervour.

As always Cornwell's writing is lean, and his plotting searingly tight.

Recommend highly for the lover of good historical fiction.

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Thought I'd share a short story from my collection And the Angels Sang, in this case one entitled Over-exposed.

ISBN 9780973927801 $23.99
eISBN 9780986563058 $4.99
Barnes and Noble
Google Play

He runs now, the siren hurting his ears. His legs rise and fall, rise and fall, although he feels as though he travels nowhere. Heat spurts through his chest. Adrenaline. His hand touches the camera bag. He looks over his shoulder to Kay and Meagan. His wife’s face is red from running. She clutches Meagan’s small hand. He tightens his grip on Chris’. In his mind the frame freezes – an image of terror.

Keep the children close.

He looks now to the escalator. It’s crowded with shoppers who shove, fall, trying to escape to the shelter on a sub-level of the mall. The river of people becomes a torrent on the escalator as they tumble one over the other.

“The stairs, Peter!” his wife yells.

He veers to the left. His camera bag tags a display case. Royal Doulton explodes through the case to the marble floor. Still the siren shouts.

Get to safety. Get below. Get to where the terrorists can’t get you.

A side-entrance to the mall flashes by. He changes direction sharply, grabbing Kay’s hand. She loses her hold on Meagan. His daughter screams.

Kay scoops her up. He wants to clutch both children. He knows better. One adult to one child. That has always been their rule. It has always served them – against charging rhinos, in capsizing canoes; the fact that they took care of one child each brought them through.

He has to believe it will bring them through now.

The escalator in the empty hall is near. It remains motionless. He leaps onto it and bounds down, Kay close behind. A voice announces over the broadcast system: Proceed to shelter.

Another part of him notes the stilted cadence of the voice. Auto-systems are in place, he thinks, and sets off at a sprint when he reaches the bottom of the stairs, pulling along his son. His camera bag bangs heavily against his side. It does not occur to him to throw it away. So much of his life is tied up in that bag. He has run with it before.

Further down the hall the crowd pushes in from another entrance. Their screams mix with the siren.

“Hang on,” he yells at Kay.

His wife clutches the strap of his bag and runs with him, his gear keeping them together. They break upon the flow of bodies, now pushing across them, sweeping down the hall in a relentless flow. He must reach the other wall. On the other wall is the door to the shelter.

Fighting, he comes to the centre of the flow. He cannot help memorize the faces around him: an adolescent girl, her face twisted with fear, black streaks on her face from mascara. He thinks of a battered harlequin.

He blinks and pushes further.

An old man, his eyes closed, carried like a grey leaf.

Almost to the wall now.

Fear is real around him. It is in the sweat of every body he shoves past.

Was it a dirty bomb that hit? Are there bio-agents hidden in that bomb?

He feels Chris’ fingers slip. He grabs his son’s wrist, tightly. Chris yelps. No time to apologize. His son’s skin is damp beneath his palm.

He hits the wall and shoves his shoulder to it, moving in the tide to the door. It is within view. He can still feel a pull on his camera bag. Kay and Meagan are with him.

The door rises, slowly, inexorably, as if the floor sprouts this massive, white slab.

He lurches forward, shoving people out of his way. A toddler screams before him, terrified in the crowd. For a moment he hesitates.

The door is up half way.

His eyes still see that child when he shoves past. It has to be either his children or someone else’s.

People stand before the ascending door, screaming, pounding on the concrete. Red splotches pattern the whiteness. People attempt to scramble over the top.

It is three feet from the ceiling.

He drags his family the final distance. The door rises still. He manages to hoist Chris to the lip of the door, yells at him to jump. He glances at Kay who is doing the same with Meagan. Chris disappears down the other side. Peter leaps. Two feet left in the opening. His fingers catch. People pull on his legs from below, trying to bring him down so they can come up. Concrete grazes his arm. In the moment he falls to safety he glimpses his wife and daughter falling away from him, back down into the mob.

The siren screams and screams in his ears.

These bombs go off in clusters now. They have become clever, these terrorists.

The door seals with a deep rumble.

Oh, God, Kay. I love you.

He presses against the door, his chest pounding. He is unsure whether the pain in his chest is fear or loss and realizes it doesn’t matter. Chris is at his side, quaking. Peter slides down the door and gathers his son into his arms, tucks the boy’s head under chin. In a moment he feels his son sobbing.

“What about Mum and Meagan?”

The pain in Peter’s chest explodes. He has no answers. He weeps when the ground tilts beneath him; he clutches his son to himself. The sounds of grief keen through the shelter.

There are so many of them here – men, women, children, huddled together like lumps in a web. Their faces are distorted. Some scream. Some weep. Some try simply to organize in an attempt at normality. Some begin to strip and stuff their garments into plastic bags from the shelter’s supplies.

Reduce the risk of radiation. Reduce the risk of contagion. Mechanically he forces himself and Chris to do as the others.

He closes his eyes to shut out the faces his mind won’t stop recording. In the darkness there are only the faces of his lost wife and daughter.

Mercifully, grief exhausts him. He crawls to a corner and braces himself, tucking his son under his arm, his camera bag a pillow. It isn’t the first time he’s used it for a pillow.

There is a distant sound – the people in the shelter silence for it — thin, wailing, like the screams of all the world. It is the wind that comes after the blast. He knows if he can hear it they aren’t safe. That becomes apparent when a hairline crack snakes down the wall. It runs from the ceiling to the frame of the massive door.

This, he also shuts out. For a few hours he and his son will sleep. Perhaps carbon dioxide won’t fill the shelter. His mind flashes photographs of his wife and daughter, like a relentless slide carousel.

He wakes all at once. Chris stirs in his arms. He touches his son’s yellow hair. It is damp with sweat. For a moment Chris looks up at him. His eyes are odd. Fear swells.

Carefully, he eases away, checking his watch. He has slept twelve hours, enough time for one of the designer viral hemorrhagic viruses to manifest.

He glances around. There are so many people here, bundled into blankets, whispering in groups, wandering idly. He rises to gather information. The survival of his son and himself relies upon that. Yet even as he passes through this, the main room, he knows there is nothing of survival here. Already sickness seeps among them. One infant is dying. He can tell just by the way it wails, frail and helpless. Other children are apparently dehydrating, swinging through fits of stupor and hyper-excitement. The smell of ammonia hangs in the air.

From here he walks down a wide corridor off which many rooms and dormitories open. They are all as crowded as the entrance where Chris sleeps.

When he passes one doorway the smell of food stops him. A man stands over a Coleman stove, stirring something in a black skillet. Whatever it is, there is garlic in it – savoury, unusually home-like in this grim place. A woman sits at a table nearby, cradling a girl’s head on her shoulder. The girl’s eyes are glassy. Like Chris’

He steps into the kitchen and sees another twenty tables around which adults and children sit. It is then he smells the coffee – burnt, acrid.

He cannot stop recording the faces. As if to find a focus he walks to the woman and the girl. The man at the stove brings the pan to the table and sets it down, offering the woman a fork. As Peter draws near, the woman tries to feed the girl yellow eggs. The girl, her hair a meadow of tufts, whimpers and turns her face to the woman’s neck. A hopeless look passes between the man and woman.

They notice him now.

“She ill?” Peter asks. It is a stupid question, he realizes.

“She has cancer,” the man answers. “We were taking her shopping before her next treatment.”

His attention centres on the girl. She can be no more than ten. The lantern lights are harsh. His vision distorts so that there is only light and shadow. He thinks of the Sabatier effect, solarisation of film. She sits there motionless, all darkness and brightness, as if she were the print over-exposed to create art. Her hair forms the Mackie lines around her face – sharp scratches of whiteness where light meets dark.

With this light and a 100mm lens he could shoot at f8 for a normal exposure. But if he opened up to f4 that would over-expose by two stops, just enough to start the Sabatier on film. Just the way he had shot Meagan and Kay last year. The print won him acclaim in his last exhibition.

He blinks and the Mackie lines dissolve. There is only a girl sick with radiation. It is not cancer that kills her, he knows.

“She has cancer,” the mother weeps. “It’s the cancer.”

It’s not. He turns away to Chris, back through the corridor thick with people, back through the conversations of organizing, back through the people sleeping wherever they find a place.

His son still sleeps on the concrete where he left him, pallid, his head on the cushion of his arm. There are bruises on his son’s arms – ruptured cells, haemorrhaging. He knows when Chris wakes hyper-excitement will set in, his nervous system under attack. There will probably be seizures like epilepsy. He’s read about some of these new viruses. Science designed for destruction.

Carefully, he slides down the wall beside his son. He hides his weeping behind his hands, his shoulders shaking. How is he to save his son from this?

After a while Chris awakens and complains of hunger and the need for a bathroom. Peter nods and composes himself. He leads his son through the shelter to the bathrooms. From there they go to the kitchen and find a meal being served. They sit. They eat.

He watches the girl who has cancer. She is still lethargic, resting her head on her arms.

His attention flicks back to Chris. The boy shovels canned stew into his mouth, oblivious to the chatter around him.

A man shouts over the noise, bringing the room to silence. The organization of survivors begins. There has been no radio contact. They have no idea if rescue is coming. A doctor is identified, then a biologist. Other people with their own fields of expertise come forward. Labourers, office workers. Peter stays silent. They will have no need of photographers. It wouldn’t do any good anyway. He doesn’t believe in digital photography. All his film is exposed, he knows. Use a dirty bomb to deliver a double threat.

The meeting goes on for hours. There are arguments over plans of action. He becomes aware of Chris sleeping against his arm. Carefully, he carries his son back to their corner. Chris sleeps while he remembers those last moments when he lost Kay and Meagan.

He wakes to the sound of people calling breakfast. Now there is a queue for food. Oatmeal.

He takes coffee and makes sure Chris eats. They find a table and sit.

The girl with cancer fidgets this morning, dark smudges like charcoal under her eyes. Her mother leans toward her, whispers. The girl bursts into tears and flees the room.

At lunch he catches only a glimpse of her as she darts in for a peanut butter sandwich and darts out.

When dinner is served she doesn’t appear at all. He can hear her, though, racing through the shelter, screaming. Her mother sits at the table and weeps, her husband’s arms enfolding her.

That night, after the lights darken, Peter’s attention is drawn by a flurry of sounds near the kitchen. He rises, walks, his steps quicker as he sees lights. When he enters the kitchen the girl thrashes on the floor in a seizure. The doctor is with her, trying to free her tongue. Too late. She bites it. She screams and screams. Her mother sobs in great shudders, clasping her hands to her face. A foul smell rises from the girl as she loses control of her bowels.

“It’s the cancer,” the mother mumbles.

The doctor stares at her bleakly, returns his attention to his dying patient. The blood won’t stop coming.

Peter turns away, his hands impotent, and makes his way through the sleepers to his son. He eases down the wall. With his fingers he traces a line along his son’s cheek. He presses his lips against that cool skin, straightens.

He flips open the bag filled with two cameras, film, lenses, flashes. The Nikon is in his hands. It is a battered camera, all manual, better artistic control that way. The 100mm lens is on. His favorite. A lifetime of creation in this camera.

He fingers the black strap, his attention sliding to his son who sleeps fitfully. The strap is still strong, even after al these years of use.

He inhales sharply and slips the strap around Chris’ neck and pulls. His vision of his son blurs, as if he were shooting a frame with a Vaseline screen. Chris kicks, his hands tight around his father’s arms. Peter tries not to look, his eyes hot with tears, his skin crawling with horror.

He still weeps when he goes back to the kitchen for a chair, brings it to where Chris lies, climbs it, hooks the camera over a support beam, ties a knot that will tighten with weight, and slips his head into the strap. No one pays attention when he kicks the chair out.

Monday, July 21, 2014

At Union published in Postscripts to Darkness, vol. 5

My dark speculative fiction short, At Union, appears in volume 5 of Postscripts to Darkness this month.

cover art by
Cherry Valance

The story is about a train a father meets at Toronto's Union Station, hoping to find his daughter who died of leukemia.

The gang at PstDarkness are hosting a launch on July 31, which happens to be the day after my birthday, in Ottawa, at the Raw Sugar Cafe.  Some of the authors appearing in this issue will be there to do readings: Evelyn Deshane, Alexander Polkki, and Matt Moore, along with cover artist, Cherry Valance.

Copies can be purchased here, although I see the good folks at the mag haven't yet added volume 5 to the offerings.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Review: Dreaming the Serpent Spear, by Manda Scott

Dreaming the Serpent Spear (Boudica, #4)Dreaming the Serpent Spear by Manda Scott
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In this the final novel in Manda Scott's Boudica series, the entire historical credibility of the novels falls apart for this reader. Scott seemingly abandons research in favour of complete immersion into lucid-dreaming and its alleged effects upon the physical world.

Her portrayal of pre-pubescent Grainne, who was raped by half a century of Roman troops, goes beyond any hope of credibility. If the child lived after such brutality, it is highly likely she would have been so traumatized both physically and emotionally as to be incapable of functioning, yet Scott has Grainne discussing military tactics and strategy with her elders, a discussion a healthy, functioning child would be hard-pressed to conduct, let alone one as brutalized as Grainne.

Scott further weaves the not very subtle threads for a possible Arthurian link here, which she admits in her author's epilogue, a literary device perfectly acceptable if one were writing fantasy, but certainly not for any kind of credible historical fiction.

Character point of view looses any coherence in the final novel, so that within any chapter the reader might first be presented with Grainne's point of view, then switch to Breaca's, or Valerius', or any number of others. Where the editor was leaves me wondering.

There is a substantial scene Scott has woven into the denouement which seems of little relevance to the story arc other than the author's own fascination with the Iron Age peat bog find of the Lindow Man. This scene completely arrests the tension and action, and again one has to wonder about the editor assigned to this novel.

For me, a disappointing end to a middling series.

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Review: Dreaming the Hound, by Manda Scott

Dreaming the Hound (Boudica, #3)Dreaming the Hound by Manda Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Certainly Manda Scott must be applauded for her research into the era and subject matter, as her surrounding details are vibrant and for the most part credible. Characters are larger than life. Were this marketed as historical fantasy, certainly many of my criticisms would disappear. However, the entire Boudica series is, alas, not marketed as historical fantasy, rather as historical fiction, and it is there I find fault. Why? There are several reasons, however foremost of these is the overarching neo-pagan, fringe spiritualism in the guise of lucid dreaming which forms the backbone of much of the series.

While the concept of seeking dreams and spirit guides certainly is prevalent throughout many indigenous societies, the physicality and causality of the dream-sequence has never been given any scientific, credible corroboration, and so to credit Eceni and other native British tribes with the ability to manipulate weather and events through the act of lucid dreaming stretches the bounds of what might be considered historical fiction.

And in this, the third book of the series, Scott very much relies upon lucid dreaming and the effects this has upon her main characters.

An entertaining read, especially if the reader sets aside the question of credibility in historical fiction.

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Review: Dreaming the Bull, by Manda Scott

Dreaming the Bull (Boudica, #2)Dreaming the Bull by Manda Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Competent writing, a talented story-teller, and excellent research all contribute to the entertainment value of this, the second book of Manda Scott's Boudica series.

My only quibble is purely personal taste in that with such a remarkable, historical backdrop I'm wondering why Scott had to wander so deeply into neo-pagan spiritualism and magic. The result, for this reader, diminishes the quality of the story and the skill of a writer otherwise comfortable with her craft.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sorrel Soup

This time of year one of the early delights of the herb garden is sorrel, that wonderful perennial green, salty and savoury, a spring delight.

It occurred to me sorrel would make a delicious cold soup, a variation on watercress soup and vichyssoise.

  • 4 medium white potatoes, scrubbed and cut into about 1" cubes
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
  • a few grinds of fresh black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 900 ml vegetable stock
  • about 3 cups well washed and drained sorrel leaves
In a large microwavable covered casserole dish combine the potatoes, garlic, onion, and seasonings. Microwave at full power for about 10 minutes or until potatoes are tender.

Remove from microwave. Add a little of the stock to the potatoes, and with a hand blender gently and carefully begin to purée the potato mixture, adding a more stock as you go. When all the stock has been added, and the mixture is a smooth purée, add the sorrel and handful at a time, and purée until smooth.

Chill well and serve cold with curls of lemon or garnished with chive flowers.

Makes a wonderful, colourful starter for a fish entrée. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Review: Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden

Three Day RoadThree Day Road by Joseph Boyden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An astonishing novel. An even more astonishing first novel. There can be no disputing Joseph Boyden is not only an accomplished story-teller, but a significant Canadian voice in the 21st century.

Three Day Road, drawn from real people and real history, is an impeccably researched, and skilfully wrought tale of two Cree soldiers who fight in the nightmare of WWI. It is a story about the terror of residential schools, the descent into madness, and the arduous journey back to peace of mind and body.

A singularly great novel and great read. Highly recommended.

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Progress report: The Rose Guardian

After many long months of cogitation, I have finally touched fingers to keyboard again and finished one of the narratives for my current work-in-progress, The Rose Guardian. 

This section was especially difficult for me, as the narrative is constructed entirely of journal entries, and so carrying plot and tension through a very focused voice took a great deal of restraint. I think, however, I have the bones of it done, am pleased with the overall tone, enough I can now move on to the dream-time narrative of the story, the dark fantasy.

I must be honest and admit I have never struggled so hard with a work as I have with this. Sometimes I've thought I'm perhaps being too caught up in technique and device. At others I've known my instinct to write this story through three distinct narratives is the right choice, albeit challenging.

But we'll see, won't we?

Still and all, I'm pleased.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Review: Dreaming the Eagle, by Manda Scott

Dreaming the Eagle (Boudica, #1)Dreaming the Eagle by Manda Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The historical heroine Boudica is one who has always fascinated me: warrior woman, leader of the legendary Eceni, fierce defender of her homeland, nemesis of the might of Rome. So it was with relish I picked up the first of a series of novels about Boudica by British author, Manda Scott. I was not disappointed.

Scott's realization of Boudica and her development as the leader of her people is a well-researched, richly detailed historical novel without the usual descent into romantic saccharine usually accompanying the work of many female historical fiction writers. This is a gritty portrayal, not unlike the work of Bernard Cornwell. There are, of course, artistic liberties which have been taken, but most of them done with sensitivity to the integrity of historical accuracy.

If you love realistic historical fiction I highly recommend plunging into Dreaming the Eagle, by Manda Scott. Very much look forward to reading the next in the series.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Review: Spirits Rising, by Krista D. Ball

Spirits Rising (Spirit Caller, #1)Spirits Rising by Krista D. Ball
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Spirits Rising, by Krista D. Ball, has all the elements to make it an entertaining Canadian paranormal novel. Alas, for this reader, it fell far short of the mark.

Ostensibly a story about a resurrection spell gone awry in the hands of a novice, the novel chronicles a mainlander's attempt to return the arisen hoards back to their rest.

While the setting is engaging for any lover of Canadian literature, (St. Anthony, Newfoundland, the home of the UNESCO Heritage Site L'Anse aux Meadows), there is little by way of environmental description to illustrate this haunting landscape. In fact, there is little by way of any description to engage the reader, whether environmental, character or emotional landscape. The entire novel seemed hurried, perhaps as a device to create tension, but alas failed.

There are some moments of delightfully sharp Newfoundland dialogue. The majority, however, tends to cliché, as do many of the characters. The arisen spirits of Vikings and Beothuk, which play an integral element in the story, are left almost entirely undeveloped and almost cut directly from the erroneous and stereotypical. The villains are villainous, the heroes heroic. And the story ends. Abruptly.

I believe Spirits Rising is an excellent first draft which requires the touch of a developmental editor and a considered revision. Certainly there is much potential here. But for this reader the potential of the novel isn't realized.

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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Review: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a complex, ambitious novel which is written with a master's hand. David Mitchell succeeds in creating a series of seemingly unrelated stories and weaving them together into a cohesive whole, each replete with rich character development, environment and plot, tied together with an overarching theme examining slavery of the body, spirit and mind.

The individual narratives take the reader through both historical and fantastical futuristic worlds, each richly drawn and credible. Mitchell succeeds brilliantly in suspending disbelief. And each narrative employs a completely different voice, so that one might be as journal entries, another as a series of letters, one in a futuristic patois which is stunningly complex yet easy to read. Altogether Cloud Atlas is an engrossing, satisfying and illuminating read, one I feel confident will become a classic decades from now.

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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Review: Boundary Problems, by Greg Bechtel

Boundary ProblemsBoundary Problems by Greg Bechtel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It would be egregiously erroneous to fail to recognize Greg Bechtel's accomplished writing. There is no question he understands the nuance of language. His work is witty, clever, targeted for an audience looking for literature rather than escapism.

Yet in this collection of short stories one has the feeling of being the stranger at a gathering of a closed order of colleagues, all sharing clever inside jokes. This exclusion of the reader reaches an uncomfortable crescendo in the trilogy of writings entitled the Smut Stories which are placed in reverse order without apparent cohesion throughout the collection. There is definitely an homage in the stories to award-winning author, Candas Jane Dorsey (Black Wine and Paradigm of Earth). There is a definite attempt to examine the concept 'being one's own pornographer'. But the entire triad remains inaccessible and irrelevant to any but those involved in that inner circle.

As to the remainder of the stories in the collection, while clever, there is little by way of character or background development to snag a reader, and so despite Bechtel's attempt to illuminate the social construct around sex and sexuality, the stories, for the most part, run too deeply to the academic to elicit any emotional response.

However, as I've constantly stated, art is subjective. I would by no means dissuade a person from reading this ambitious collection, for what to one is opaque, to another may be visionary.

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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review: Maleficium, by Martine Desjardins

MaleficiumMaleficium by Martine Desjardins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Written very much in the dark and twisted tradition of Guy de Maupassant, Maleficium creates a single story comprised of eight short stories, all charged with sexual deviance, repression, greed and pretty much the embodiment of the seven deadly sins, save for murder. It is exotic and reveals an extraordinary imagination. For lovers of dark erotica, this is your drug.

Which is to say, I am a lover of none of these things, and hence this review may be coloured by that prejudice.

That aside, the translation is deftly handled, balancing an homage to 19th century writers of dark fiction, and modern sensibilities of literary style. Martine Desjardins herself demonstrates impeccable historical research and an understanding of a variety of arts and trades, so that details of the various artifacts and arts, so lustily pursued by our seven protagonists, form a credible backdrop.

Overall, a haunting read which lingers like the dark euphoria of an opiate.

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Mango cashew salad

This is a succulent, fresh salad to serve as a compliment to chicken or fish.
a bounty of ripe mangoes

Mango cashew salad

1 large, ripe mango, peeled and cut into small pieces
1 small apple, preferably a tart variety, washed, cored and cut into small pieces
2 green onions finely minced
1 orange, peeled and sectioned
1/3 cup whole cashews
zest of one orange
juice of one orange
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tbs. honey
cracked black pepper
pinch of salt

Combine the prepared fruit, zest and cashews in a medium bowl. Set aside. Whisk together the remaining ingredients and pour over the fruit mixture, tossing well. Cover and refrigerate for an hour before serving. Wonderful served on a bed of tender greens, as a side to chicken or fish, although wonderful as a side to a rare steak.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rachel Joyce has written a novel which, despite its improbable premise, quickly gathers the reader into a story both uplifting and shattering. On its most basic level The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is about a man who receives news of an old friend who is dying, and decides upon a whim to walk a ridiculous distance to visit her on her death bed, and thereby keep her alive just a little longer.

What starts out as a whim and ill-considered journey quickly becomes a pilgrimage in the truest meaning of the word, visited by physical, moral and spiritual pain; by travellers seeking solidarity, redemption and notoriety; and in the end by a very private journey into the depths of Harold's personal inferno.

Joyce crafts this story with simple elegance, employing a witty, unpretentious style which is highly readable, utterly captivating. Her characterization reveals an insightful understanding of human motivation and foibles.

For the tender of heart, like me, you will weep, you will laugh, and in the end close the cover of the book somehow edified and transmuted. Which is what the best storytellers cause to occur.

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

The would-be jurors

Recently a colleague from SFCanada posted a link to a review site which published an article, entitled Is genre fiction creating a market for lemons, about the rise of self-publishing and the proliferation of reader reviews.

Despite being intelligently written, I'm afraid it hit the Taz button for me. You know, the Taz -- Tasmanian Devil, the misunderstood growly beastie.

Why? Well, here's why:

I am heartily weary of this discussion, that somehow self-publishers, or small presses, or gods forbid the unenlightened, uneducated hordes might dare to think they, also, could create art, that somehow art is only art when adjudicated by a precious few who are somehow authorized to canonize a writer for their work. Only THEY can say, ‘This is worthy of publication.’

Oh horse-cookies.

People have been writing stories for millennia, and recording them either through their memories and retelling them as the shaman or bard or wise-person, or through pictographs, scratching on papyrus or parchment or vellum or paper, or now digitally. And people have been listening to stories for millennia. The stories which are remembered generations from now are the ones which resonate with some part of the human spirit. If not, the stories diminish; they die.

So many of these would-be gatekeepers, these chickens who wail, “The sky is falling. Art as we know is under siege!” forget that but 150 years ago people wrote their stories and yes, grab the smelling-salts, they self-published! They created their own kickstarter campaigns, only then contributors were called patrons, and every patron received a copy of said book. And so many of those published works are forgotten but perhaps by a precious few. And that’s okay. Really, it is.

For the love of sanity, I do wish these toffs would get over themselves. The public will read what they will read. And if you don’t like the marketplace, well, take your stall somewhere else.

Just one last comment regarding reader reviews: Whether they’re fake or not makes little difference, because since when did we allow someone else to decide what we should and should not read? Why not just read or watch something because you think the subject matter might be of interest? And then, gasp, make up your own mind whether you wasted your time or not.

And you know what, even if you didn’t like said piece of art, it wasn’t a waste of time finding that out! Why? Because YOU’VE LEARNED SOMETHING! Even the negative can teach us something.


Rant off. Apologies in advance for the myriad people I will have pissed off. Going back to my Taz-Devil ways in the loft.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Maple ginger chicken drumsticks

Recently had another Sunday kitchen therapy day. Had a quantity of chicken drumsticks in the freezer. Had a hankering for something slow-roasted, sweet and savoury. Came up with this concoction which turned out to be schmecking good.
light to dark maple syrup

Maple Ginger Chicken

1 1/2 cups dark maple syrup (don't use pancake syrup)
1/4 cup lemon juice
zest of one lemon
1/4 cup teriyaki
3 cloves garlic
2" fresh ginger
1 dried chilli pepper
2 long peppers
12 chicken drumsticks (or whatever chicken pieces you wish to use)
long pepper
available in most East Indian food shops

In a large rectangular oven proof glass pan whisk together the maple syrup, lemon juice, zest and teriyaki. Finely grate the garlic and ginger and whisk into the syrup mixture. Crush the chilli and long peppers in a mortar and pestle, and whisk into the syrup.

Arrange the drumsticks in the glass pan, foot side in, turning in the syrup mixture to coat the pieces. Cover with foil. Place the pan on a baking sheet and place into the oven. Set the oven to roast at 250F degrees for five hours. Check periodically to make sure the syrup isn't burning.

Serve with a mango cashew salad on a bed of tender greens. (recipe for the salad to follow)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

In pursuit of the perfect novel

Over the years I've read my fair share of how-to books on the subject of writer's craft, scoured magazine articles discussing the particulars of writing scintillating dialogue, taken workshops with established authors in the hopes of finding the formula for creating that perfect novel. There are quite literally thousands of books on the subject, from the dos and don'ts, to world-building, character-creating, genre writing, motivation, and every facet and nuance you can imagine, some written by world-renowned names, others by little-known authors hoping to carve out a living and recognition by sharing insight.

And over the years I've also read a considerable body of literature, across themes and genres, time periods and subjects, from authors canonized and crucified, known and not.

If I'm honest, I'll admit I've learned more analysing literature than through study of how to write literature.

What have I learned? I've learned (and be prepared for howls of horror) there is no magic formula. There is no right or wrong way of writing. Sure you have to have the fundamental tenets of language well in hand. But the rest, the caveats about exposition, or run-on sentences, or any of a myriad mind-numbing details are all at the whim and purpose of the writer. Language is your palette and you choose how to mix and apply colour of words to suit your own expression.

Why? Because it doesn't matter a blessed damn whether you've followed So-and-Such's rule about world-building, or This-and-That's caveat about exposition. What matters, what really matters, is whether you can actually tell a story. What matters is whether the blood of the bard is in your heart, how well you spin a yarn, tell a tale, fabricate a fiction.

I have read in some of Rushdie's work such passages of run-on, breathless verbiage as to not only laugh at writing conventions, but shatter them completely, and realized in doing so Rushdie has created a story so vivid, so immediate I cannot help myself from turning the next page, and the next, and the next, from thinking on these characters and places and situations until my dreams are drugged with them.

Martel can employ exposition in such a way as to flip the bird at caveats, and do so in a manner that ends up a tale of such fascination it will remain beloved generations to come. Atwood writes such lean, spartan dialogue without identifying the speaker that sometimes the reader looses themselves in the rapid-fire wit unfolding paragraph after paragraph.

In realizing what these masters have done there is now a sense of freedom: Be not bound by convention, rules and regulation. There is but one rule: Tell your story. Tell it from your heart, as though you were speaking to a person sitting in the chair across from you; tell it so that their eyes remain wide, so that you slide like acupuncture beneath the fat and into soft tissue.

That's it.

Throw out the manuals, the guides, the magazines. Just write. Write as though you were Sherazade and your life depends on your skill to spin a yarn, tell a tale, fabricate a fiction.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Review: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To successfully write a novel like Life of Pi requires a skilful author capable of revealing the fantastic in a credible, engaging manner. Yann Martel clearly is one such writer, following in the footsteps of adepts at magic realism from the time of Jonathan Swift through Salman Rushdie.

The story itself is simple: a boy who survives 227 days aboard a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean. But what Canadian author Martel explores in this fantastic tale is far more. Martel reveals the struggle between the spiritual and the bestial, high moral ethics and the brutality of survival, the divine and the profane.

Martel chooses as champions for this struggle the characters of Piscene Molitor Patel, a practising Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and the awesome power of the Royal Bengal Tiger, Richard Parker. Of one body and yet two entities, thus the struggle to control the beast while maintaining the fundamental principles of the human in the grasp of the divine. How to balance this? How to reconcile that in each of us dwells the killer, the predator?

The answer Martel delivers in one of the last, frank, heart-breaking scenes when Pi responds to his interrogators after his rescue: And so it goes with God.

That only in embracing the divine can humankind find balance.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone 16 years of age and older. It is a profound work worthy of your time.

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Review: The Warrior Chronicles, by Bernard Cornwell

The Warrior Chronicles Books 1-6The Warrior Chronicles Books 1-6 by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When you go to Bernard Cornwell for a reading fix, you go for impeccable historical research, gritty reality(no sanitized Jane Austen romance here)and characters who are larger than life, very human in their flaws.

This six book series of Cornwell's is no exception, chronicling the embryonic years of England's conception under the vision of Alfred the Great, and told through the crusty voice of Alfred's fictional warrior, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. It should be noted, however, the character of Uhtred is very loosely based on one of Cornwell's own ancestors.

I would have to work hard to find a criticism of the series, and at that it would be the battle scenes often seem repetitive, the skill of the protagonists legendary. Such hero-building can become wearying; however, Cornwell retains a reader's interest in his unflagging dedication to his subject matter and minute details which he weaves beautifully into the flow of the narrative.

Overall, a great winter or summer read, escapism with virtue.

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Friday, January 3, 2014

Not an auspicious start to 2014

Have been casting about trying to find information about Ellen Datlow's forthcoming anthology, Fearful Symmetries, which is being published by ChiZine Publications. I'd submitted a story, Dreams of the Moon, back in May 2013. Heard nothing. Thought that was positive. Today discovered on Datlow's FB page the selections have been made. Only four stories from their slush made it into the 19 being published. Mine is not among them. Disappointing to be sure.

So, followed up with Sandra Kasturi, who was kind enough to go through her records, and sure enough a rejection was sent out June 19, 2013, which likely ended up caught in SPAM. So, I've kept a story out of submission for seven months, needlessly.

Ah well, research another market.