Friday, June 26, 2015


Book cover design by Stephen Best 

I was so entrapped by Barbara Kyle's novel that I devoured it in two days. Another dinner not cooked… *

This thriller will please fans of Linwood Barclay, Paula Hawkins or Gillian Flynn—all the left-field twists and turns are there, plus you actually learn something, and without boring exposition.

One of the things I loved most about the setting of the book was how unabashedly Canadian it was. Kyle includes doffs of the hat to our coloured bills and ‘bull’s eye’ coins, maple syrup, the RCMP, Canada geese and the CPR, but there are no clichés or schlock: no cops ordering double-doubles at Timmy’s or references to losing hockey teams. These cultural markers are seamlessly woven into the plot. And the Canadian setting is actually part of the plot. (I don’t know if the situation in the States is comparable, but I suspect American readers will find familiar themes.)

An American oil company with a Canadian division is extracting in rural areas in Alberta and ‘sour gas’ (hydrogen sulphide) poisonings from fracking have caused uproar from some citizens who are opposed to it; then there are those who rely on the oil company’s annual payouts to use their land. That’s as far as I can go if I am to avoid spoilers. But destruction of the land (top soil removal, for instance) and industrial safety issues and accidents are definitely illustrated in the characters’ sub-plots. Canadian legalities are also touched on.

Another theme that the author brings into the story, again without sounding saccharine, is caring for family members with mental health and physical disability issues. I won't reveal the details of that either, but will let you discover Kyle's treatment of it in one or two of the characters on your own.

But that’s just the background! The industrial espionage, corruption and corner-cutting; the characters you think you know; the oppressive mood; love and betrayal, courtroom drama, mystery—who knew fracking could be so exciting? Perhaps I shouldn’t be so light about it, but it doesn’t read like Kyle wrote this novel from a soapbox: it’s just good story-telling, made all the more interesting by a refreshingly different backdrop. Call me uninformed or apathetic, but I found that reading about this issue in a fictional framework got me interested in the issues and implications for landowners more so than reading about them in news reports or investigations.

Barbara Kyle writes a successful historical fictions series, the Thornleigh Saga, which I would like to check out, but first I want to read her other thriller, The Experiment, which sounds right up my spec-fic alley.

*Actually, I seem to be doing that more and more lately, so perhaps I will start using a number out of 5 dinners not cooked, represented by wine and cheese, to represent how good a read it is. Entrapped gets 5 wine-and-cheeses. 

Photo credit: begemot_dn / Foter / CC BY-NC

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Remember those 1970s posters that said “I’m Special”?

Photo by V.Wells Copyright 2015 
New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks has written a book that quashes that adage of modernity: in The Road to Character, he proposes that we have two sets of value systems that are embodied by inner selves Adam I and Adam II: the former reflects ‘résumé virtues’ and the latter, the ‘eulogy virtues’. We should be as worried about the latter as the former, he argues, and we’ve done a lot of damage by bringing up a few generations of kids by telling them incessantly and in every way possible that they are ‘special’.
Brooks examines the lives of several illustrious individuals and fleshes out the defining moments and influences in their lives that led them to develop character. For instance, his thesis is upheld by the likes of George Eliot and her interest in ‘moral improvement’ (p.183). He also discusses several in light of their vocations, but not with the self in mind: “A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us” (p.266).
He is not afraid to discuss the now-unpopular topic of sin, either. In fact, his definition is rather refreshing: “Sin is not a demonic thing. It’s just our perverse tendency to fuck things up, to favour the short term over the long term, the lower over the higher. Sin, when it is committed over and over again, hardens into loyalty to a lower love” (p.55). Well, I definitely think sin can be a demonic thing:
The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Then Satan answered the LORD and said, "From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it."  Job 2:2
Anyway, the moral ecology that Brooks says is necessary is in danger from various attitudes both in us and in how we raise our children, or ‘incite’ them: they are ‘incessantly told how special they are’ (p.254). He talks about the ‘cult of busyness [that] develops as everybody frantically tells each other how overcommitted they are’ (ibid), which cannot help but be internalized by children as a desirable goal. Then, because they are so special, they expect to grow up to be millionaires (p.255). This surprises me because apparently they won’t know how to navigate the waters of real life if they don’t even know what a moral dilemma is (p.258). “Humility reminds you that you are not the centre of the universe, but you serve a larger order” (p.263) is a pretty scarce moral standing these days.
If he hadn’t spent several chapters discussing examples of virtuous lives, reading his discussion about the impoverished moral ecology (“Ch.10: The Big Me”) would have left me completely depressed. But I think that the fact that the book is getting so much media attention and reader interest (#4 on the NYT Bestsellers non-fiction list after 9 weeks) is indicative of the public’s general awareness that we are morally almost bankrupt and of their interest in saving what’s left of our unfulfilled lives by re-shaping our worldview and actions. But he provides a pseudo-manifesto—propositions for a Humility Code—which may not be accepted by all but which I applaud for its audacity. After all, it’s sort of a voice crying in the wilderness when you consider the celebrity fetishism and dive of decency into new abysses that we support now.
Sin aside, I’d like to share a story that made me, the former Latin teacher, want to cheer about. He tells of social activist Frances Perkins’ academic struggles in a school where her Latin teacher (God bless ’er) would make Perkins recite Latin conjugations and declensions ad nauseum, for so many hours that she would break down. But she later appreciated the hard discipline: “For the first time I became conscious of character” (p. 28). See, discipuli and discipulae, what I was trying to do when I told you to learn your forms?
If you’re interested in contemplating your inner life with an ecumenical text, I’d recommend The Road to Character as a gentle start. It does not judge the sinner or even the sin, but rather extolls the rewards of a life based on character, both for the person endeavouring to live it and for those around the forthcoming gifts.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Book Recommendation: Disenchanted by Janet Ursel

I have a confession: I pick up fantasy novels somewhat cautiously. My favourite genre, speculative/post-apocalyptic lit, often gets lumped under fantasy/sci-fi, which I find curious, because I don’t think a post-apocalyptic world is necessarily fictitious. But the branch of fantasy that involves dragons or other worlds or time travel…sometimes I need to be convinced. (Don’t get me wrong: I had to stop reading a spec. lit. book that I was going to review: it wasn’t worth my reading or writing time.)
So when I embarked on Janet Ursel’s upcoming fantasy novel Disenchanted, I didn’t expect to be hooked to the point of not making dinner that night and reading a third of it in one go, after a full day of other editing work. It is another world and time, and it does involve magic. But this is a multi-dimensional treatment of fantasy that Ursel makes work beautifully.
As an editor, I see a lot of writing problems, so my mind is trained to note them even when reading for pleasure. I dog-ear, I underline, I highlight. Disenchanted is smooth sailing, however, and will appeal to a broad range of readers. It’s hard to write well in any one type of story, but this novel involves fantasy, magic, intrigue and love, all of which hit the mark.
Ursel’s characterization is rich, integral to the plot working; in fantasy writing, I often see it failing or undeveloped. Her prose is crisp and light, even when the implications of the climax are presented, so that it doesn’t get bogged down with preachiness. Redemption and conversion are introduced clearly but as an offering, and the reader can decide how they* want to respond to the push and pull of those themes.
One of the dangers of creating other worlds, with or without magic, is the tendency to try too hard with vocabulary. Other realities must involve other objects and customs, right? Naming those can lead to wordiness and linguistically incredible words themselves. In the shires of Coventree, life is accessible to the reader, and from that basis they can immerse themselves in the fictive parts.  
Another danger is the potential for disjointedness: the author of a story with different realities, places and timelines must be a meticulous planner and developer of the plot, or the reader will catch loopholes in the storyline or, worse, abandon the book for its lack of cohesion. The interwoven generational subplots and the variant themes could lose readers, but Blayn’s and others’ stories are not only plausible but irresistible—hence my quick read.
Finally, both professionally and personally, I feel that writing should not irk. And one of the easiest ways to irk savvy readers (particularly this one) is by using bad tropes. Good metaphors and similes must go unnoticed, like good editing or musical composition for films: if you notice the ‘as’ or ‘like’, for instance, you’ve failed. You might be able to tell that this is a pet peeve of mine. I believe that in the movement towards simpler communication and plainer language, omitting weak tropes (amongst other types of stylistic choices) may be the wisest writing decision. (So, too, with overused dashes or thesaurus choices without consulting the new words’ definitions, but I risk digressing.) My point is that Disenchanted is successfully and appealingly described without overly resorting to this dangerous device. Or maybe the writer did use many but they were crafted well enough that I missed them.
I like anything that involves Latin, having taught it for lo these many pre-editorial years. Many fantasy—and especially historical fiction—novels contain excerpts in Latin that are either badly translated or left untranslated, leaving the non-classicist reader to feel perhaps a little unsophisticated, which is not a nice writing practice. Unless it’s something like A Canticle for Leibowitz, it’s just not necessary to show off in your book. But a little is a nice touch. So I loved the story being placed in the year of Anno Coventrei ###. It showed the author’s careful consideration about how to ascribe an unfamiliar setting to the story.
The only Wish List item that occurred to me was a map: something à la Middle-Earth illustration in the front of the book. Place is adequately conveyed in the book, but there were a few times I found myself reading closely to picture journeys and action. However, I am spatially challenged, so it might have just been my issue. I learned since my beta reading that the final version does include a map, so I look forward to seeing that.
In a time when fantasy has become popular again, Ursel’s novel is sure to do well: it is utterly charming and yet has the substance to make it a satisfying and thoughtful read. There is historical allusion, the theme of brokenness and the hope of conversion. This is a debut novel that gets a big checkmark from me, the fantasy-skeptic.

*This piece contains the use of the singular ‘they’ intentionally. It is becoming the reality of this world. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

I Bid You Welcome...

Both of my movie recos this week touch on the topics of intimacy and mental health.

I went on a bit of a vampire movie-binge this weekend because of my recent tweeting with author M. Jess Peacock about his new book Such a Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture (a read that I recommend). I saw some common themes in the 1931 Tod Browning version of Dracula—that of Bela Lugosi fame—and Two Days, One Night (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014) starring Marion Cotillard (who is becoming a Meryl Streep for me). This French film is about a factory worker whose coworkers must vote on keeping her on staff or earning sizeable bonuses, and she has the weekend to contact them at their home addresses and persuade them to vote for her.

With this, my first viewing of Dracula, some things were fun—guyliner and haunted-house armadillos—and made me think of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I also noted some fun trivia about it online. But there were other things I noted.

One was the intimacy—and by that I don't mean sexual—of the vampire’s bloodsucking. I have not read the book yet, so I don’t know if that is evident there, but in the film, there seemed to be a precarious and tenuous relationship, however brief, between vampire and victim. This occurred to me when the count sends his three brides out of the room when he is about to attack Renfield: it’s as if no one, not even they who have presumably also drunk the Kool-Aid, is permitted to observe the moment.

In Two Days, One Night, there are some fun moments: apparently even in Belgium, they have the world’s ugliest sign, too! Van Morrison’s “Gloria” is a very welcome moment of lightness. But there are several examples of intimacy, the main one being the husband’s ongoing and obvious support for his wife, Sandra. She has been on leave for depression, which has affected almost every aspect of their life and marriage, but in very quiet ways he demonstrates his love of and continued intimacy with her. She also has moments of intimacy with the people she works with when she sees them at their homes and outside of their usual roles. Sandra also deepens her level of friendship with a few of them due to circumstances I won’t describe here (#spoilers).

The other common theme that struck me was that of mental illness. In Dracula, all campiness aside, Mr. Renfield’s total breakdown is pitiable, especially in light of the confident businessman and happy husband he starts out as. His suffering is palpable. In Two Days, Sandra’s depression may have lifted to the point where she can return to work, but she struggles with low esteem, anxiety and fear of relapse:

Sandra: “I don't exist. I'm nothing. Nothing at all!"
Sandra: “I wish that was me.”
Manu: “Who?”
Sandra: “That bird singing.”

She struggles with maintaining motivation to canvass the sixteen workers all weekend and we are on the emotional rollercoaster with her. The industrial park wasteland of her job’s location and the paucity of soundtrack emphasize her suffering and fragility.

So both films show differing degrees of quietness and subtlety despite them otherwise being polar opposites in content and theme. Except perhaps about the secrets we hold vs. how much of our real lives we show the rest of the world.