A Canadian book blog: Publishing, marketing, books and technology from a Canadian perspective

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Book Review: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt


Open any page of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and you’re in for a treat. The novel vacillates between poignant then hilarious moments in a way that kept me flipping the pages in a race to the end. I’m ready to start again. The Sisters Brothers is such a pleasurable read.

Oregon City, 1851
I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie’s new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called Tub. We did not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with the names intact, so that was that. Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it wasn’t as though we did not need these new ones but I felt we should have been given money to purchase horses of our own choosing, horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be addressed by.

The same way that the film True Grit was casual yet brutal, poetic yet slap-stick, so too is The Sisters Brothers. It’s a challenge to the conventional western, and, as Chad Pelley aptly says, “deWitt’s tale of two outlaw brothers challenged conventional CanLit to a duel in 2011, and it won.”

Yes it won big.

Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, plus shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize

Back cover quotes often seem empty to me but Esquire nails it by saying “Thrilling ... A lushly voiced picaresque story ... A kind of True Grit told by Tom Waits.”

The Sisters Brothers is a new frontier you must cross. I promise you there is gold at the end of this stream! I often give away my books as I’m not one to re-read, but The Sisters Brothers is a novel I must own. It’s also the one I’ll be giving away as gifts this year.

Published by House of Anansi. Buy it here.
The Sisters Brothers on Amazon.ca

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Celebrate Freedom to Read Week February 26-March 3

The Writers' Union of Canada presents Lawrence Hill with Freedom to Read Award

On February 22, the Writers’ Union of Canada presented Canadian author Lawrence Hill with the 2012 Freedom to Read Award.

Freedom to Read Week 2012

Even in Canada, a “free country” by many standards, there are restrictions, policies and social snubbing that we should question.

Author Lawrence Hill is honoured this year on the basis of his reasoned and eloquent response to Dutch activist Roy Groenburg who objected to the use of the word “negro” in the Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes and threatened to burn the book (which he did in June 2011).

Lawrence Hill offered to speak with Roy Groenburg and also wrote an op-ed piece in The Toronto Star.

Burning books is designed to intimidate people. It underestimates the intelligence of readers, stifles dialogue and insults those who cherish the freedom to read and write. The leaders of the Spanish Inquisition burned books. Nazis burned books…

For those who followed the story, you may recall that New Yorker blogger Ian Crouch compared the story to a similar incident where Florida pastor Terry Jones torched a copy of the Koran. Crouch notes that the two cases are similar in that their publicity stunts used the same tactic to attract attention.

I’ve never understood the power of burning a book or a country’s flag. Why do people do this? Why does rational, political discourse devolve into disrespect? I suppose because one party decides to be irrational, to make assumptions. In the case of The Book of Negroes, it appears that Groenburg didn’t even read the book because he was so incensed by the title.

In Hill’s op-ed piece, he notes that The Book of Negroes is published in the USA, Australia and New Zealand as Someone Knows My Name.

Are we really this fragile? There’s no policy or restriction in US publishing that would require this title difference but somewhere in the publishing process it was deemed necessary. The social snub won out. How unimaginative.

The title The Book of Negroes is drawn from that of a 1783 historical document, which lists the names of Black Loyalists who, having fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War, were to be transported to Nova Scotia.

Surely the novel promises to be a transformative, or at least informative, read? As part of Hill’s response, he says:

Rather than flinching from a document that addresses the history of African people, Mr. Groenberg and his followers should put down their matches, respect freedom of speech, and enter into a civil conversation about slavery, freedom and contemporary language. On that subject, Canadians and the Dutch have much to learn from each other.

To me the most wonderful thing about books is people’s passion for them. The freedom to read should never be taken for granted. This is why I celebrate Freedom to Read Week, which encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom.

Spend some time in the upcoming week considering what books are available and why in your school, library, or office. Think about your reading materials: books, newspapers, magazines and websites. Even consider the stories you watch on television or hear on the radio.

And now think about Bill C-30 and what the government’s proposed initiative to enhance internet surveillance means to our freedoms. If the police and government can have unrestricted access to our email communications, for example, how does that play out in terms of what an investigative journalist will be able to research, his or her access to sources, the ability to unmask issues of public concern? This is only one example of how such a policy could have unintended (or intended) effects on your access to information.

Challenge the complacency of those who say these measures make us more secure. More important, read more about both sides of the debate and make an informed opinion.

Freedom to Read Week is about recognizing our right to read, write, speak and publish freely, which includes speaking out against challenges to these freedoms.

For more on Freedom to Read Week, visit their website for Freedom to Read events, posts and school and library kits.

And here’s the link to
Google results for Bill C-30 because I really urge you to pay attention to this issue.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

25 Books Will Have Been Sold or Circulated in Canada By the time You Read This Sentence

imageCanadian book sales and circulation numbers are in and the National Book Count findings provide an interesting look at Canadians’ interest in reading.

The big picture: More than 3.4 million books are bought and loaned in a typical January week in Canada. 10% of English book sales are now in e-books.

Or as the National Post puts it, “By the time you read this sentence, 25 books will have been sold or circulated in Canada.”

How do we know that? Each year the National Book Count, sponsored by the National Reading Campaign (NRC), takes a snapshot of book sales and public library circulations for a typical week in Canada (not during holiday time, not summer reading, just a plain, old, regular week in January).

A total of 3,405,687 books were counted as being sold or circulated for the week of January 23-29, 2012. That’s 5 books every second in a nation of 34,278,400.

  • Book sales were collected by 3 book sale aggregators: BookNet Canada, BookManager, and la Société de gestion de la Banque de titres de langue française (BTLF).
  • Book circulation was tracked by the Canadian Urban Libraries Council (CULC).

This covers 28 public library systems (circulation to over 13.7 million Canadians), 80% of the English language book retail market and 45% of the French language book retail market across Canada.

No individual consumer information was collected.

This is also the first time e-book sales have been counted in Canada.

E-book sales comprised 10% of all books sold in English Canada. To put that into perspective:

  • The “Global Assessment of E-Book Markets” presentation by Giovanni Bonfanti, A.T. Kearny / Marco Ferrario, BookRepublic, in January at Digital Book World ranked the top 3 e-book reading countries: United States at 20% penetration, South Korea at 14.5% and the United Kingdom at 7%.

Since e-book lending has also been in the news lately, it’s good to finally have some numbers. The National Book Count reveals that public libraries reported that 3% of their circulation comprised digital formats.

Where are the numbers from?

  • Online print book sales were captured from major online retailers including Amazon.ca and Indigo.ca.
  • Digital downloads from public libraries were provided by the CULC, and
  • English language e-book sales were provided by the Association of Canadian Publishers and the Canadian Publishers’ Council, and e-book sales from Kobo, Kindle, Sony Reader and Apple devices were included.

The second annual National Book Count shows that Canada is a nation of readers. Although the count is only over the course of 1 week, the combined tabulation across the spectrum of book retail and public libraries provides insights we don’t otherwise have into this industry.

Major findings this year include:

1,153,081 print books were sold by retailers including Indigo Books & Music, Amazon.ca and other national chains, as well as over 260 independent bookstores across the country. English language print book sales for the week increased 4% over 2011.

111,053 English language e-book sales were counted. As this is the first year counting e-book sales, no direct comparison can be made, but publishers report a “significant” increase from 2011.

2,141,553 print books were borrowed from 28 participating public library systems.** 63,196 e-books were downloaded. Canadian libraries saw an 8% increase in print circulation and a 50% increase in digital circulation for an overall increase of 9% total circulation for libraries that participated in 2011 and 2012.

French language print book sales increased 35% over 2011. This number primarily reflects increased count coverage, not necessarily a surge in book purchases. No French language e-book book sales were captured this year.

About the National Reading Campaign

The National Reading Campaign had its beginnings in 2008, when a coalition of readers, parents, writers, editors, librarians, bookstore owners, teachers, publishers and distributors came together to assess and consider the changing reading habits of Canadians. Their third and final summit takes place in Vancouver May 2-4, 2012.

Download the full press release (PDF)

Monday, February 06, 2012

Lev Grossman Makes Me Dream in Magic.


The Magician King by Lev Grossman is hilarious. Following The Magicians, The Magician King picks up where it left off. The Fillorian Kings & Queens, Eliot, Janet, Quentin and Julia, are aimlessly enjoying the riches of Fillory. Quentin in particular is a tad bored by their royal status, which involves lounging, drinking and indulging in reckless games and overeating. This is the problem really. Quentin is bored. He’s looking for an adventure. After two years as king of Fillory, he’s got a little paunch and a bout of kingly aspirations to rule something or conquer the unexpected or to find some thrill in the routine that is now his day.

In case a memory spell has been cast upon you, the quartet are mere mortals who’ve come to rule Fillory via Brakesbill College (for wizardry) and a subsequent series of adventures much like an adult version of The Chronicles of Narnia.

What I love about Grossman’s writing is that it’s fantasy with questions. In Harry Potter and the Narnia books, the characters just accept that this is magic and it is what it is. But Grossman’s characters comment upon it. “Two years as a king of Fillory and he (Quentin) was still shit at horseback riding” ... “The news that real dragons lived in rivers, and didn’t go thundering around the countryside setting trees on fire, had come as a disappointment to him” ... and then journeying to the underworld “it wasn’t a perfect system—every time he got up a decent head of speed he would get stuck and have to scooch again, his butt squeaking loudly in the pitch-black.”

There’s something more real about characters that would comment on the world around them, and the descriptions of magic are visceral. Grossman describes the smell of casting a spell and the wonkiness of magic cast by those untrained, or the differences between old magic and newer magic. Old magic usually had any obvious bugs or loopholes worked out long ago, for example, you could expect that if you had a key that it would fit into an invisible lock even if you were on a moving ship vs. standing still on land.

I hope Lev Grossman continues to write this series. I won’t spoil the ending but I’m left with an intake of breath and wondering “now what?”

Oh, and Grossman’s novels always have me dreaming in magic, just like Harry Potter. It flips a switch in my brain, like when you ski hard all day and then dream of skiing.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Book Review: The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman


Chuck Klosterman has quite the reputation in my house. His novel Downtown Owl fast became a favourite and Eating the Dinosaur is one of the few books that I want to re-read over and over again.

The Visible Man falls somewhere in the range of Downtown Owl and If Minds Had Toes. The novel is philosophical in the way of If Minds Had Toes but quirky and strange like Downtown Owl.

The novel opens with Victoria Vick’s letter to the editor along with the submission of the final draft of her manuscript. The reader soon discovers that Vick’s ms is about a strange incident between her and her patient Y_____. Vick is a licensed therapist and the manuscript, which we are about to read, is a compilation of transcripts of phone, email and in-person sessions she’s had with a very strange man who, over the course of their sessions, reveals that he worked on a relatively secret government project to construct an invisibility suit. Y_____ is currently using the suit for his own “investigative” research into how humans behave when they are utterly alone. Through various means he gains access to their homes and observes them. His goal with the therapy sessions is to remove doubt or guilt that he believes society would like him to feel about these acts.

A ton of things are very wrong with the scenarios presented but Victoria goes along with it, assuming at first that Y____ is highly delusional. Then she’s suckered in. In some ways it’s like the stoner philosophical arguments you overhear and are unable to pull away from because you remember from your high school English studies that the Shakespearian fool speaks the truth. (Or, maybe that’s just me.)

According to this National Post review, The Visible Man is a fictional spin-off from the Eating the Dinosaur essay on voyeurism (titled “Through A Glass, Blindly”). In both, Klosterman explores whether we are most ourselves when no one’s watching.

I’m off now to swing pillows wildly around the room to make sure I’m alone. Just acting normal. PKS. Post Klosterman Syndrome.