Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Concern, Bewilderment and Optimism

The hardest thing about writing [reviews] is being smart about books.
          Neil Peart, creator of Bubba's Book Club, on CBC's The Next Chapter (5/1/15 Encore)

'Ain't it the truth? Ain't it the truth?' said Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion. My first section involves concern, but only thematically:

Advance Reader Copy. Cover art by Sammy Yuen
If this excellent book does not get adapted into a movie, I'll be very surprised.

I do tend to talk up great books, and perhaps avoid negative reviews, mostly because I feel it is important to boost our writers and other artists in a time of government undersupport and book publishing changes. I was eagerly anticipating reviewing Mark Alpert’s novel, The Six, and did it ever über-deliver!

There’re lots of YA fantasy novels being published these days, but this one stands out for several reasons.

First, while sci-fi in genre, it accomplishes something currently rare: it's believable. As Alpert says in his Note, the science is real, right now. Also, the author clearly has experience parenting teenagers: the characters are true to life and garner the reader’s empathy. Except that, like a stand-up comedian who doesn’t need to rely on coarse language, he has written dialogue that coveys all the attitudes of real youth without resorting to curse words or the slang of the day, the latter of which will lend the book to standing up in the future. Each young person is easily imaginable, not from explicit description but from well-crafted writing. And he doesn’t underline their youth by having them whine about adults being dumb, he does it by having us see the kids’ malleability as an advantage they can make use of. Refreshing for YA!

Not only is the story believable, it is accessible. I’m no oldster luddite, but let’s just say math and the sciences weren’t my strong point, and even I was able to follow the technology. This is key to engaging with the book. (No spoilers!)

Another reason this is refreshing YA lit is its use of the theme of disabilities. Mental health issues are treated with compassion. Terminal illness is addressed with facts rather than saccharine hesitance. A protagonist with Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy doesn’t sound like superhero material, but Alpert not only makes Adam Armstrong a role model for struggling kids, he opens to the reader who is unknowledgeable about the disease unbiased views on the emotions of young people who are dying, so that we are not pitying them but understanding them better than we might. Someone with MD may call me on this and say their experience is nothing like the main character’s (as Alpert notes, himself, as possible), but basically I am applauding the way the author tackles a difficult premise and turns it into an addictive story. And the added component of AI (artificial intelligence) doesn’t make the Pioneers mere superheroes, it makes them differently abled, without smacking of political correctness in writing.

Finally, the dénouement, already deftly created, ends with a last-page twist that could easily segue into a sequel. But again, spoilers are the Bubonic Plague of the arts, so mum’s the word.

So here’s my thought, Hollywood: (Please bare in mind that this is Tongue-in-Cheek Tuesday.)

Essentially we have a type of story where Patriot Games meets Hunger Games on AI steroids. Casting is key.

Sigma….John Malkovich (voice part)
Adam….Ezra Miller
Tom (the dad)….Ewan McGregor
Anne (the mom)…Sandra Bullock
Shannon….Elle Fanning
Brittany….Saoirse Ronan
General Hawke….James Woods  
I was thrilled to learn that Mark Alpert has written four science thrillers for adults: Final Theory (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2008), The Omega Theory (Touchstone, 2011), Extinction (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2013), and The Furies (Thomas Dunne, 2014). You can find info on all these books on his website: www.markalpert.com. Back to the bookstore I go….

By the way, The Six gets 5 Wine & Cheese Awards!

Jonathon Young and David Raymond in Betroffenheit. Photo by Michael Slobodian.
Under bewilderment, a double-entendre usage for this review, is the CanStage production of Betroffenheit. Let me be clear: I LOVE what Matthew Jocelyn is doing with non-rep theatre in TO. So much so that I became a subscriber last year. I believe he deserves all the accolades he gets in the media. But this piece was just okaaaay. I really liked 25 minutes of it. The rest left me asking, What just happened here? This is the part where I don't feel so smart. Maybe I don't understand basic things. But as my husband says, Art's gotta move you, and this part only moved me somewhat, and I suspect that was because I have seen what addiction does to people, so seeing it internally (I think) was something I responded to.
I loved the spare set. I loved the two key players (Jonathon Young and Jermaine Spivey). I loved that it was a combination of theatre and dance, with good A/V effects. The part I feel stupid about is this: I didn't get a lot of it. I understood it, I just didn't get why it was in there. Unlike the middle part that I liked, I felt the beginning and whole second act were redundant. What I did understand was systemic turmoil; think: Bob Fosse on Addiction. The sometimes robotic, sometimes lyrical movements were well executed by accomplished dancers. There was even the occasional laugh and cool puppetry. But the un-costuming, as I'll call it, (except for the variety show scene) did not support the piece, and while I think asceticism was the right call, I would have preferred to see AsceticismPro, let's say. 
Part of Panamania, this show is slated to return to CanStage in 2016; I wonder if they will tweak anything so the Average Joe audience member does not react with betroffenheit.
My final comment is just a quote from one of my favourite authors, my Dystopian Muse, Margaret Atwood, whose next novel comes out in a few weeks. Asked if writing in this genre reflects a pessimism about present times, she said:
Everybody is an optimist when they get out of bed in the morning. If you're really depressed, you don't bother doing that. We're always looking forward, and we're optimistic enough to think that there's going to be a story with us in it. So you'll notice that, in all of these dystopias, there's still somebody left standing at the end.     Canadian Living, Author Q&A, Sept/15, pg 50.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

3 Renegades

Three disparate media about renegades: music, film and fiction. Picture two mountain ranges and a valley.
Cameron Carpenter is mountain range #1. I have been an organ geek (and opera for that matter) forever, so I don't know how I missed out on this guy. He's kind of like the Nigel Kennedy of the pipe organ: badass! He got some unflattering and inaccurate (and ironically pretentious) coverage on Tone Deaf, but if you ignore the ignorant copy and read the sensible comments (Yes! It's a Comments section that isn't poisonous!) and watch his Sony Electronic Press Kit, you may find yourself intrigued as much as I was. As someone said, Carpenter is dragging the organ into the 21st century. Just as I Furiosi have done for Baroque concerts. Check him out at his site and on Facebook. Cannot wait to see this guy live. 'Pretentious'? I think that's jealousy speaking... 
Mountain range #2: The Tribe or Plemya (dir. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, 2014). Ho boy: if you don't like violence, explicit sex or most human vices and failings, don't watch this. However, if you're willing to go for a ride, this is a unique ride. Filmed entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language with no captioning whatsoever, all the audience hears are environmental sounds--buses, squeaky snow, slamming doors. A good analogy for how lost many ESL students must feel initially. Filmed in the Ukraine, the scenes are mostly in overly lit, depressing buildings and cold, dark exteriors. And although the characters (and actors) are deaf and play the roles of gang members, you still can see the vulnerability of youth and their need for belonging. 
Mostly, though, it does have what I have heard elsewhere: visual poetry. Somehow that does transcend the brutality and starkness of the 34 shots that compose the film. That doesn't mean it is easy: it's difficult viewing, make no mistake. But it is affecting and thought provoking. Certainly a new take on sign language for the uninitiated like me. Just remember this descriptor if you decide to watch it: brutal.
On to #3. Okay, it's not a deep valley, but I was excited about my nightstand addition Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper. Having finished it, I'm left with mixed feelings.
Pilgrimage is a hugely important theme in my life and a favoured literary theme of mine. I LOVED The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Pilgrim's Progress, you name it. I love the movies (The Way; Walking the Camino) and the music (Oliver Schroer's Camino). I've walked one (the London-Canterbury Pilgrim's Way). I also love Saskatchewan and Can Lit. I also like writing that breaks 'rules'. But this debut novel had me vacillating between loving it and grumbling "rip off". I kept thinking The Great War meets Life of Pi. But that was the problem: I kept grasping at stylistic devices that worked to a point but seemed unresolved. Unresolved ending, I get. Messing around in the vein of experimentation, not so much. 
I would recommend reading it if you are not a pilgrimage junkie like me. Now I'm just not so excited about a book further down the stack, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. I hope I can connect to the characters more in that one, even if it is the dreaded humour genre...

Monday, July 13, 2015

Miss, Miss, Hit, Hit

A mixed bag of reviews this time.
I recently went to see Woman in Gold (dir. Simon Curtis, 2015), probably now at the end of its theatre run. Like so many artists and art forms these days, I used to like Gustav Klimt’s work, but he is now plastered (as is drily alluded to in the movie) on ubiquitous mugs and mousepads, and I’d lost interest in him. So I thought this film might reignite my appreciation for Mr. Gold Leaf himself: not so much. As my companion commented, you watch the whole film saying to yourself, “Oh, there’s Helen Mirren…there’s Ryan Reynolds.” You just can’t get swept away by the beauty of the art because (perhaps) the direction is so intentional that it seems to play the main role, like an obvious music score. My bad for assuming it was an art film. I want to escape at the movies, not have a heavy-handed history lesson. The one thing I was impressed with was the singing by Max Irons (yes, son of Jeremy)—and then I read that he had been dubbed. Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany was good however, and it was nice to see the venerable Charles Dance again: he does seem to always deliver. In general protest, however, I've posted a pic of Klimt and not a movie still.

I rented Goodbye World (dir. Denis Hennelly, 2013) on the basis of the LA Times DVD-case review: ‘An apocalypse-themed drama that starts off as The Big Chill and winds up as Lord of the Flies’. Really?? In what universe? I love disaster/end-of-the-world flics, but this one had a weak climax and a lamer dénouement, as if it had been finished by a teenaged writer. Even James Grenier’s pale blue eyes can’t save the day on this commune snorer. Sheesh.

On to the positives. I recently received Content Chemistry: An Illustrated Handbook for Content Marketing by Andy Crestodina (Orbit Media Studios, v.3, 2015), which was serendipitous for me as I was working on my website. Not being an expert in this subject, I can’t comment on every point in it, but what I appreciated was the thoughtful layout: white space, simple diagrams and visuals, helpful examples and good explanations and definitions. It’s full of useful tips that even the most luddite of us can implement.  A resource I will refer to over and over, I’m sure.
Finally, I had been holding out for the paperback version of a most desired read: Margaret Atwood’s latest book of short stories, Stone Mattress (McClelland & Stewart, Emblem, 2015). I have read most of Atwood’s fiction, and amazingly that loyalty was not quashed by its high school English origin. She’s my fave CanLit author, though I don’t bother her for an autograph when I see her around town. Usually I don’t like dark comedy (or comedy for that matter), but her dry humour hooked me again. The stories that include vampires or nods to the weird are of course not akin to the current pulp of pop culture but, as good short stories often do, cause a bit of a mind flip, and even boring ol’ me got a kick out of them. And, like all good writing, Stone Mattress left me bereft: the melancholy that comes with finishing a great book.
I have a stack of books coming in from authors and publishers for review, so it may take some time before I post again. But teaser: I’m reeeeeally excited about one in particular. Almost as excited as about new Atwood books….
Photo credits: http://www.wienmuseum.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Presse/Gustav_Klimt/Klimt_Pressefoto_01.jpg ; http://www.asset1.net/tv/pictures/1024/341/movie/goodbye-world-2014/Goodbye-World-LB-1.jpg ; http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41K6SgXo53L._SX397_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg ; http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/237875/stone-mattress

Sunday, July 5, 2015

What I Didn't Like About "The Martian"

Photo: http://codices.info/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/machr.jpg

I just finished ripping through the 369-page The Martian by debut novelist Andy Weir, self-confessed science nerd. This year, I have read more fantasy/sci-fi than ever, and several books have been about scientific disasters and/or space, but I tend to go for the more blockbuster and less techie stories, having practically failed science every year after intro biology. We won't even discuss maths. I'm a luddite, and I don't want to be scratching my head during my precious escapism hours. So books that go into thrust and scientific measurements and velocity and the nightmare-inducing periodic table of elements are a little intimidating for me.
The story, if you haven't heard yet about the book or the upcoming Matt Damon movie, is about an astronaut named Mark Watney who gets stranded on Mars after a mission mishap. That's all I'll say in the interest of avoiding spoilers à la "Who Shot JR?". Clearly, if a science book (sci-fi or not) can keep me riveted, that's saying something.
I found it interesting to learn that Weir's success began with self-publishing this story in serial format for free; with good feedback, he decided to have it available as an e-book on Amazon, where he couldn't select 'free' as a purchasing option, so he listed it for 99¢. I think he's made up for any lost profits since then... I like this because he's just a guy, granted a science genius (see his bio), but just a guy who self-published and had every right to do so: he had a fantastic story with snappy writing and an infallible theme: survival or, as we sometimes like to frame things in criticism, man vs. environment. Weir handles the passing of time and different narrative POVs skillfully. He's got a not-lame ending, which comes right on the heels of the climax (no over-extended dénouement), believable characters and scenarios, and he's funny. 
[Perhaps the one teensy problem I foresaw was that some of his funniest lines are steeped in the slang of today's speech, and I wondered how that would stand up in twenty years. For example, hero Mark makes a funny and then says to the reader, "See what I did there?", in the vein of many an Internet-soaring meme. It works in the book now, but perhaps such references may be missed by future readers. Not a biggie, but I did notice it.]
I can't wait to see the movie in November. I believe Matt Damon does not take on crap work, so I suspect it will be excellent. I never totally loved 2001: A Space Odyssey (don't be hating on me, now!), but if the movie is anywhere as good as the book, it'll be another Gravity or Interstellar in the space and sci-fi film canon. The only way this book/movie could be ruined is if the word 'sequel' is uttered by anyone: as we have learned repeatedly, just because you can, doesn't mean you should...
So after all these kudos, resulting in five Wine-and-Cheeses awarded (see previous post), what, pray tell you may be asking, did I not like about this novel? Page 370. It seriously sucked.