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Saturday, August 02, 2014

Summer Reading Recommendations

Here are the last 3 books I devoured.

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The Light of Amsterdam by David Park
A novel that often reads like interwoven short stories about misunderstandings and miscommunication. A December flight from Belfast to Amsterdam brings together the otherwise unconnected characters of this drama. We have a father and teenage son who are at odds, a single-mother and a spoiled daughter on her hen party (dippy girlfriends in tow), and an almost-retired couple who are losing touch with each other. The trip to Amsterdam changes them all for better or worst. Author David Park has written 7 books, including the hugely acclaimed The Truth Commissioner. I think Darren will like this novel. The book has a very European feel to it, complete with Irish slang and descriptions of Amsterdam’s nooks and crannies.

Opening lines:

The ink was black, the paper the same shade of blue as a bird’s egg he had found a week before. In their balanced elegance the capital G and B mirrored each other. Unlike most of the soccer signatures he collected which were largely indecipherable hieroglyphics — the bored scribbles of fleeing stars — this name was readable and perfectly formed.

The Light Of Amsterdam by David Park, published by Bloomsbury


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The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper
A thrilling, and terrifying read, with lots of Milton’s Paradise Lost insights for the book nerds. A major departure for the bestselling author of Lost Girls, The Demonologist has the same literary prowess as Pyper’s other novels but is more like a literary version of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Professor Ullman is a world-renowned expert in Milton’s Paradise Lost. He’s a scholar but not a believer, until he witnesses demonic acts with his own eyes, including the possession of his daughter. An advance copy crossed my desk in early 2013 but since I was pregnant at the time, I waited until now to dip into the shadows of this book. I recommend it for Kiley who said she was looking for page-turner summer read. This is Canadian, literary, and creepy-crawly.

Opening lines:

The rows of faces. Younger and younger each term. Of course, this is only me getting older among the freshmen who come and go, an illusion, like looking out the rear window of a car and seeing the landscape run away from you instead of you running from it.

The Demonologist: A Novel by Andrew Pyper, published by Simon & Schuster


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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Winner of the Man Booker Prize. Add this to the classic school-boy novel list. Four boys meet during their formative years at school. One boy standout. One boy dies. One boy, now grownup, tells the tale. Barnes’ novels are so smart that they make me feel smart. This is a bit of a snobby book and I loved it. In some ways it reminds me of Fifth Business by Robertson Davies in that the reader must beware of an unconsciously unreliable narrator. I’m afraid to recommend this one for fear of identifying the snobby readers among us, but you know who you are.

Opening lines:

I remember, in no particular order:
– a shiny inner wrist;
– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.
This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, published by Vintage Canada

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book Review: All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

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All the Broken Things is this month’s Vancouver Sun Book Club read. Since the book club members get a say in what we read, I’m predisposed to like the books we pick and All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is no exception. It’s well written, the story is interesting, the characters are true characters and parts of the book are stuck in my mind.

All the Broken Things is about a Vietnamese family who moves to Canada in the early 80s. They are suffering in various ways from Agent Orange. The father died on the boat. The mother has sores that she keeps from the children, the youngest was born deformed and the boy Bo is mentally scarred by the experience. Bo oscillates between fight or flight and after one particular bout with a boy named Ernie, he’s picked up by Gerry who’s working the circus circuit and is looking for a bear wrestler. No seriously.

Although the book is set in 1984, Kuitenbrouwer mentions in the introduction that bear wrestling was a fixture in Ontario sideshows until 1976 and she’s simply shifted the timeframe to suit the story.

Bo joins the circus and the rest of the novel is about the tension of two captive bears, a boy who feels like a captive, the atrocity of war and circus Freak Shows. It’s strange and beautiful at once. The majesty of the bear, the hilarity of her on a bike. The beauty of Bo’s mother, the sullen, drunk. Orange the sister, Agent Orange.

I’m looking forward to what my fellow Book Club members have to say about the novel.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Book Review: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love was The Afterword Reading Society book club selection for Nov 26. I stupidly, and for a second time in a row, was not my usual 100% and I missed submitting my information. That said, my untimeliness in no way represents how much I enjoyed this book, nor how much I appreciate receiving a copy of this fine novel.

Alma Whittaker, born Jan 5, 1800, bears witness to the vast changes taking place in science, religion, commerce and class, all without leaving her home White Acre. Ok, she does leave near the end of her life, but what leads her to that point is such a sweeping tale of botany, early childhood education, colonization through cultivation of plants for medicine and food, charity (misplaced or not) and a family lineage that is fearsome in its tenacity. The story is told through Alma’s interactions with a number of visitors who come to White Acre to meet with Alma’s father Henry Whittaker. Henry Whittaker made his fortune travelling the seas as a young lad on behalf of Joseph Banks and the Kew Gardens. He was a swift learner and had few scruples so he quickly used his knowledge of botany and commerce to his advantage. When the time was right, he picked a wife, moved to America, set up a partnership for a profitable pharmaceutical company and continued to add pennies to his pockets through his expeditions.

The story moves from Henry’s travels to London to Peru to Philadelphia, then follows Alma’s trek to Tahiti and Amsterdam. There are beautiful descriptions of orchids, mosses and other botanicals. There’s adventure on the high seas, a retracing of human history, Darwin’s theories of evolution, and the push by abolitionists and adventurers to reconsider the world.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It reminds me of Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, which was a nonfiction look at the cultural baggage this bulb brings with it. The Signature of All Things: A Novel is The Tulip’s fictional counterpart.


Check it out on ElizabethGilbert.com along with the reading group guide and other goodies, including a Signature of All Things cocktail. Yum.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Come Barbarians by Todd Babiak

Todd Babiak’s latest novel about a Canadian family accidentally caught up with mobsters in the south of France needs to be read with the lights on and the doors locked!

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This is not earnest Canadiana. Babiak has written a spine-tingling, torture-ridden, political drama about the Kruse family who end up hunted by a Corsican crime family hired by a political party with connections throughout the country and in the gendarmerie.

Christopher and Evelyn Kruse bring their 4-year-old daughter Lily to South France in an attempt to rekindle their love. Instead they are driven apart when their daughter is hit and killed by a drunk driver who happens to be their landlord and the poster-boy candidate for the Front National party, Jean-Francois de Musset. The next morning Jean-Francois and his wife are found brutally murdered, Evelyn is on the run, and Christopher discovers Russian goons hired by a Corsican crime family are hunting his wife. He must draw on his security forces training and own investigative skills to find her before they do.

Come Barbarians is a fantastic thriller where South France is as much a character as Christopher himself; dark, mysterious and desperately seeking some form of stasis.

If you like The Wire tv series, you’ll like Come Barbarians.

I think I also enjoyed this novel because we were in South France last year and visited many of the towns mentioned in the book, including Vaison-la-romaine where the book opens.

Door knocker

Cote de Rhone loop drive

Vaison-la-Romaine

Come Barbarians by Todd Babiak
Published by HarperCollins

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Book Review: Healthy Mum, Happy Baby

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Hey, my friend Annemarie wrote a book that I can now fully appreciate it. Healthy Mum, Happy Baby is part anecdote and part cookbook for moms who are breastfeeding.

First, I had no idea how hungry I would be all the time. The anecdotes from other moms were funny and reassuring. By 4 pm I am hangry (this is hungry + angry for those of you fortunate to not know this word). I was diligent about food and exercise before being pregnant, during pregnancy and I’ve been pretty good post pregnancy as well. Although really, I owe all my thanks to James. Annemarie’s book is for anyone who doesn’t have a “James” who cooks awesome food and slides healthy snacks across the table at the right times (being mindful of keeping his fingers out of the way).

Second, of course I am aware that my diet affects the baby’s diet. But as an exhausted new mom who is low on energy, making decisions is hard. Annemarie’s book offers some delicious meal options that make it easy to flip through and say, “ah yes, I’ll have that for dinner.” I appreciate the legend showing the prep and cook time for each recipe. I mostly flagged the 30 min or less recipes but I did drool fondly over the 60-min recipes while daydreaming about the days when I’ll have time to actually do some dinner prep.

Overall there are 35 recipes that don’t require exact measurement and will be tasty immediately or sometime later that evening when the baby has nodded off and you can still function to lift fork to mouth. Hands down, the list of healthy snacks is worthy of space on the fridge.

Also good, this book comes in whatever print or digital format works for you.

Healthy Mum, Happy Baby
How to Feed Yourself When You’re Breastfeeding Your Baby
by Annemarie Tempelman-Kluit
Published by Random House

Good job Annemarie! Thanks for this lovely, and timely gift.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Book Review: The Miracles of Ordinary Men & The Metamorphosis

I don’t normally review two books together but I do often have two books on the go. This time it was a fiction book and nonfiction book and I’ve never had such a pair. Amanda Leduc’s The Miracles of Ordinary Men is about a man who wakes up an angel and through a series of coincidences attempts to figure out God’s greater plan for him. Bruce MacNab’s The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini is about Harry Houdini’s Maritime tour in the years before he became a famous escape artist and all the coincidences between his fame and that tour.

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In both we have a transformation from ordinary man to extraordinary being. We have magic. And we have the coincidence problem. (Aside: If you haven’t read Stephen Osborne’s The Coincidence Problem please do so!).

From the Foreword of The Metamorphosis

Harry Houdini died in 1926. By 1959 only three biographies detailing his life and legend had been published. Today, in 2012, there are literally hundreds of books about the great showman, and almost all of them share the same problem. They concentrate on the part of Houdini’s life when he was a star, one of the most well-known personalities of his time, a time when he maintained an almost daily relationship with the press. He was one of the most photographed men of his time.

The Metamorphosis looks at the time before the fame, when Houdini was travelling with his young wife who was also a performer and they were getting the barest of audiences. The book’s focus is 1891-1899, in particular a tour of Nova Scotia that Houdini and Bessie undertook in their second year of marriage, and it’s full of photos from those early years both of the Houdinis and of the locations where they performed. In short, it’s a fascinating read and Bruce MacNab’s research highlights all the small stepping stones that took Houdini from the Marco Magic Company all the way to the big time.

The first chapter of The Miracles of Ordinary Men is labeled Ten, and the reader goes backwards in chapter numbers but not necessarily time.

From Chapter Ten

Sam’s cat crumpled like paper under the truck’s wheel. He knelt down to touch her and then something like heat, some sudden shock of air, surged through his hands.
Suddenly she was breathing, blicking up at him through a mass of matted fur. Dead, and then not-dead, and his were the hands that had done it.

From there we follow Sam and Chickenhead (the cat) through the death of Sam’s mother, the reconnection of Sam with Father Jim (who can see the wings) and Sam’s eventual discovery of Timothy, who also has wings. Timothy has taken to the streets, not knowing how to cope with his transformation, and his sister Lilah becomes another connection to Sam.

The two storylines that intersect are that of Sam and Timothy/Lilah. Lilah, or rather Delilah, is a wandering soul who is dating an abusive, power hungry man who is also her boss. The Boss is a bit of a dark force who’s the counterbalance to the mediocre, weak angel that is Sam.

The novel is philosophical in its open-end questions about God’s plan, our time on earth and the role of evil. I can’t say it’s an uplifting read but what it lacks in optimism it makes up for in eloquency.

Want more? Check out the publisher websites:
http://www.ecwpress.com/miracles
http://www.gooselane.com/books.php?ean=9780864926777

Friday, July 19, 2013

Book Review: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland: A great novel about the ying-yang of twins with ESP and the choices 1 makes to try to hide it while the other embraces it.

I was lucky enough to participate in the first National Post Afterword Reading Society where 20 readers reviewed Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Sisterland.

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Curtis Sittenfeld is the New York Times bestselling author of American Wife and Prep, neither of which I’ve read so I was keen to get into Sisterland. I wouldn’t normally go for a book about twins and ESP because although I like magical realism and fantasy, I find things psychic abilities a little creepy. My imagination is too susceptible and maybe that’s why this novel is sort of mesmerizing.

The story is about twins Daisy and Violet who have ESP. Their “senses” help them know things like what a guy likes in a girl and they can sometimes see things like the name of a person who’s kidnapped a little boy. As little girls, the twins have fun playing games guessing at what the other is thinking, which creeps out their mom. As teens, they aren’t popular girls, twins were less common in the ‘70-90s, but they do become a little infamous when Daisy takes a chance and tells another girl that she has ESP. The other girl is a popular, rich girl who takes advantage of Daisy to win a boy but then betrays her to the school as a witch.

One of my favourite lines in the book is early on at page 67 in a section of dialogue between a substitute teacher doing roll call, Marisa the mean, popular girl and Daisy.

She took attendance by calling out our last names, and when she got to Shramm, I raised my hand and said, “Here.”
She looked again at the list. “There are two Shramms. You’re which one?”
“No,” Marisa said immediately. “She’s Witch Two.”

Out of context it can seem a bit slack stick but what I like about that line is that it sums up that caustic humour of teenagers. A less skilled writer would have made Marisa more of a caricature but instead she is craftily constructed.

From then on Daisy masks her senses and Vi embraces them. Daisy even changes her name in college in order to hide from the stories. She starts going by Kate instead, marries a nice sensible boy and has two kids. Violet on the other hand is a lesbian, psychic medium who predicts a massive earthquake and ends up on local, then national, tv broadcasting her predictions and stirring up old tensions between herself and Daisy/Kate.

Kate is of course mortified about the prediction and the publicity, has a run in with old Marisa, who is still chasing boys despite being in her late 30s now, and ends up making a ton of mistakes in her attempts to just be normal.

Between Kate and Violet, I think Vi is my favourite twin. Violet, the first born, who embraces her ESP and rocks the flowy shirts and birkenstocks, really puts the woo in woo-woo. And even though she’s worthy of many eye rolls, there’s something redeeming about her.

At the beginning of the novel I was cheering for Kate but by the end Vi was the champ. Sittenfeld’s set up of the dynamic between the twins and the what-if concerns about Vi’s earthquake prediction made Sisterland into a fun, summer read. The bit of a mystery kept me cruising through the book.

imageIf you like Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, then you’ll like Sisterland. Both are about twins who are intensely attached to each other, emotionally removed from their parents and who possess some extraordinary abilities. Not to say that if you like a twin book, you’ll like another, but more so because Niffenegger and Sittenfeld are both great writers who turn these plotlines into well-written, page turners.

Follow Curtis Sittenfeld on Twitter
Visit her website
Or buy the book Random House Canada

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book Review: The World by Bill Gaston

The World by Bill Gaston is this month’s Vancouver Sun Book Club read and I’ve been enjoying re-discovering Gaston. I was first introduced to his work when I was at Raincoast and I’ve followed his career but haven’t really dipped into his books. Too bad I waited!

The World is both the title of this novel and the title of a novel in the book, written by Hal, one of the main characters. Hal has Alzheimer’s and is in a home and we don’t really get to his story until the final third of the book, but he is introduced early. The book begins with the sad life of Stuart Price who is a high-school shops teacher, recently retired. Stuart is split from his wife and has poured his energies into paying off his mortgage. Indeed he has just paid it off in a lump sum and, in burning the mortgage papers on his deck, burns the place down. Oh Stuart. To add insult to injury, he has forgotten to pay his insurance premium.

Stuart’s meltdown, or rather burndown, takes him on the road. Whether he’s running away or running to somewhere is questionable. He’s swiftly decided to drive his ancient Datsun from BC to Ontario in order to visit his long-lost friend Mel who is dying of cancer. It happens that his insurance company HQ is in Toronto and he wants to plead his case in person.

Stuart is hilarious, and a bit insane, so his third of the novel is pretty funny. The middle section begins with Mel bailing Stuart out of jail and continues from her perspective. It’s a bit dire in comparison to Stuart’s tragedy, but really it’s just another personal crisis from a different perspective. With Mel, we also finally meet Hal, author of The World which is about a leper colony on D’Arcy Island. Hal is quite the character and he and Stuart together are certainly a pair of looney tunes.

We’re going to be discussing Bill Gaston’s The World for the next couple of weeks in The Vancouver Sun so I’ll save my thoughts for that.

In the meantime, check out this gushing review in the National Post.

The World by Bill Gaston
Published by Hamish Hamilton

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Book Review: The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson

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A melancholic love story

The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson is a series of short, interconnected love stories set before and after World War I in Paris. The most prominent storyline is of Emile Notre-Dame, thinnest baker in Paris and his wife Immacolata, who have a son Octavio. Both father and son cannot read but are amazing storytellers and Boulangerie Notre-Dame becomes rather infamous among its regular patrons who come for the buttery croissants and baguettes but also for the stories.

The bakery occupied the ground floor of a narrow flatiron building known throughout the neighbourhood as the cake-slice. As far back as anyone could remember the letters above its windows, in their carved wooden flourishes, had spelled out:

BOULA GERIE NOTRE-DAME

the N having long since vanished.

imageThe story of the N’s disappearance is a regular request from the bakery’s patrons, the most fantastical version being about thieves who spread across France stealing Ns and the most favourite being that of Napolean stealing the N himself.

The love of books is another thread through the story. Despite not being able to read, Octavio is a regular buyer from a book stall near the Louvre. For both Octavio and the bookstall owner, books have a special meaning, and lead to friendships and relationships.

CS Richardson has crafted a very fine story indeed. His cast of characters each contribute to the overarching story while having their own backstories as well. Emile, Immacolata, and Octavio run the bakery as I mentioned. Then there’s the fashion designers Pascal Normand and his wife Celeste, who hide their daughter Isabeau from view because of a facial scar from an unfortunate childhood accident. And we have three generations of the Fournier family who own the bookstall. On top of that, there’s a blind watchmaker, a starving portrait artist and Madame Lafrouche whose husband Alphonse gifts Emile The Arabian Nights which becomes the first book in Octavio’s collection and eventually makes it into the hands of Isabeau.

I was first introduced to CS Richardson from my publishing ties. Richardson is an award-winning cover designer for Random House and his first novel The End of the Alphabet was my favourite book in 2008. The Emperor of Paris is a strong contender for 2013.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Book on Sign Painters


Documentary: SIGN PAINTERS (OFFICIAL TRAILER)
Book: Sign Painters by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon

imageIn 2010 filmmakers Faythe Levine, coauthor of Handmade Nation, and Sam Macon began documenting the dedicated practitioners of hand-painted signs, their time-honored methods, and their appreciation for quality and craftsmanship. Sign Painters, the first anecdotal history of the craft, features stories and photographs of more than 25 sign painters working in cities throughout the United States.

The Canadian premiere of the Sign Painters documentary that accompanies the book will be in Vancouver on June 7th and 8th at the Rio Theatre. Get tickets ($20) and additional information.

Related Books

Draw Your Own Alphabets
Thirty Fonts to Scribble, Sketch, and Make Your Own
Tony Seddon

Little Book of Lettering
Emily Gregory

UPDATE
Another great sign maker: glass & mirrors

Monday, April 08, 2013

Celebrate National Poetry Month

April is national poetry month and I thought that I’d celebrate by re-reading some of the poetry collections on my shelves.

Excerpt: “at night cooley listens” published in Sunfall by Dennis Cooley (Anansi, 978-0-88784-580-2)

at night cooley listens to his body
an answering service he bends over now
          the day’s over the day’s messages
the rest of the day he does not listen
does not pay it much attention, his neglect shameful
cooley knows he shld do better shld take it out more often
          show it a little more affection

once the noise of the day drops like shoes untied away
every night when the tired switch clicks night on
the body becomes importunate spouse
it’s about time you listened to me
you self-centred bastard the body says you barely listen
the body rehearses a long list of grievances, sniffling
                        there are violins

Dennis Cooley is one of my all-time favourite poets. I find his poems to be flamboyant and a little crazy. Some of them are incredibly heartfelt, while others use tone and timing to turn otherwise casual observations into challenges or wisecracks. He’s the only poet I keep coming back to. Others I enjoy and soon forget whereas I’ll eagerly read, and re-read, Cooley. This poem in particular makes me giddy in the same way that episodes of Seinfeld do.


Excerpt: “Wolf Tree” by Alison Calder published in Wolf Tree (Coteau Books: 978-1-55050-359-3)

The wolf tree’s arms reach out
in a question that is also an answer,
as we seek another name for what we have.
The tree embraces us in its branches,
holds the buds of our tender dreams.
What happened, it says, what happened
to the farm grown over, the buildings
sagging into slope-shouldered grayness.
The wild comes back, as lilacs
explode over the woodshed,
irises and roses bloom beside
decaying doors.

Alison Calder’s whole collection of poems is wonderful to read, in particular because each poem offers a wonderful balance of dream and reality. I also like her poems because many are set on the prairies. Calder grew up in Saskatoon and I first met her at the University of Manitoba where she was teaching CanLit and creative writing. I’ve admired her work ever since and perhaps became a fan of prairie poets because of her and Dennis Cooley, along with David Arnason, Robert Kroetsch and newer poets like Alexis Kienlen. I enjoyed the “bee” poems in her recent collection 13.


Poem: “The Home Inspection” by Jamie Sharpe published in Animal Husbandry Today (ECW, 978-1-177041-106-7)

Before I even step
into this house
let me point out
something about
the foliage

Those leaves on
that there bush
were new in spring;
given it’s late July
I’d say they have
two months tops.

I doubt they’re
under warranty.

Jamie Sharpe is new to me, and I appreciate that he sent me a copy of this collection of poems because I’ve been enjoying exploring it. Like the poems above, Sharpe’s poems are accessible while still being lyrical. It’s a great collection.

What poems strike your fancy? If you’re keen to share, consider checking out the poetry contest on 49thShelf.com for a chance to win a prize package of new Canadian poetry.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Live Chat with Annabel Lyon, author of The Sweet Girl

I joined author Annabel Lyon in a live chat today as part of the Vancouver Sun Book Club.

Annabel Lyon is the author of The Golden Mean and The Sweet Girl.
Annabel Lyon’s Books on Amazon

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Here are a few highlights from the chat with Annabel Lyon on The Sweet Girl

On how The Golden Mean and The Sweet Girl work together
I was really drawn to Aristotle first and foremost, his intellect, and then I was stuck with the fact that he happened to be an ancient Greek - it was the philosophy that drew me first, the history second. But after I finished writing The Golden Mean, I knew my project was only half-finished. That was such a male book, but I wanted to look at the female world also.

Tips on writing dialogue
always, always, always read it aloud. That’s my first instruction to students. If it doesn’t sound natural aloud, it’s not going to read like natural dialogue. I also encourage students to make the dialogue do the work, and not rely on what are known as dialogue tags (she shouted menacingly, that kind of thing). Those are like stage directions, and for me they dilute the power of the line itself. And finally, in historical fiction, make sure your characters still sound like real people. I don’t think “Zounds, my liege, thou hast verily captured it” is nearly as good as “You got it,” even if you’re working with ancient characters.

In response to my question about routine in writing (whether for fiction, or in my case business writing)
Thanks for your question about routine, Monique. I’m not a big believer in the Romantic image of the writer—alone, suffering, pirate blouse in a garret somewhere, waiting for the muse. It’s a job, and I treat it like a job: dress professionally, go to the office, do your work. You wouldn’t procrastinate relentlessly if you were a lawyer or doctor or drywaller or barrista, and you shouldn’t let yourself do that as a writer, either. I like to compare creative writing to journalism, partly because my dad was a journalist, but partly also because there’s a huge overlap between the skill sets. A good non-fiction sentence and a good fiction sentence have a lot in common. A good opening to a short story and a good lede in a news story are playing on a lot of the same principles. And, similarly, I believe strongly that good creative writing can be taught, just as journalism can be taught. Inspiration, no, but craft, yes.

On factual references in the novel, in particular midwifery and stillbirths being buried with puppies
The puppies: yes, this was something I learned about on my trip to Greece. I was fortunate to travel with a university class from Carleton and U Winnipeg (I made friends with some academics, who let me tag along), and one of the things we got to do was learn about the work of Maria Liston, who teaches at Waterloo and also works at the American School in Athens. I joke that she could be the star of CSI: Ancient Athens, because her work focuses on things like bone remains. She can look at a bone and tell you what it is, how the person died, etc. She told us about her research into the remains of babies found in wells with puppies, and concluded that these were drops midwives used for babies who hadn’t survived. The puppies were one of those touches that was so bittersweet: awful, and yet you could imagine someone grieving the baby’s death and (in their belief system) wanting to send something cuddly with them, to keep them company. You can’t invent this stuff! And of course, as a fiction writer, you can’t pass it up either. I got her permission to use this.

On why I included The Sweet Girl in my Shoebox Project for Shelters package
Related to Golden Mean as a male world and The Sweet Girl as a female world, I’m participating in The Shoebox Project this year (final dropoff day is Monday!), where you put together a shoebox of gifts that are delivered to women in shelters. I felt that Pythias’ story was a good survival story, or at least showed how you need to keep your wits about you even when the world seems against you. So it’s included in my shoebox. http://www.shoeboxproject.com/

If you’re looking for a great gift this season for a reader then I highly recommend The Golden Mean and The Sweet Girl. A combo pack or singles.

Related Links:
Annabel Lyon’s website
Published by Random House
Amazon.ca

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Penguin and Random House Merge

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Media outlets are reporting that two of the big six publishers have merged.

It’s interesting to see the coverage, in particular the Canadian opinions of the merger. What we have are two of the publishing industries biggest players forming one super publisher, Penguin Random House.

Realistically both were already owned by international media giants Bertelsmann (Random) and Pearson (Penguin). The new super publisher is “super” because it merges the publishing divisions and imprints across North America, Latin America, the UK, Australia & New Zealand, India, South Africa and operations in China and Spain. Wow.

The media reports, likely from the merger press releases, are spinning this as a fight against the dominance of Amazon. The idea being that a larger entity can play ball better with the dominant retail vendor. Even though Random House is quite advanced in terms of their digital publishing and data savvy, and Penguin is advanced in terms of innovative digital publishing and brand recognition, we still have two publishers (now one) against a data and technology machine. I’m not sure what people are expecting can be leveraged here. Nor why they think that their publishing buddy, if they are successful in playing better with Amazon are somehow going to open the door for smaller publishers.

My take is good for Penguin and Random House. I hope they don’t spin their wheels trying to consolidate operations and create efficiencies that likely don’t exist.

My concern would be for authors and agents and the diminishing diversity of established publishers because I do still believe publishers have a lot of valuable industry knowledge not yet earned by innovative publishing startups. We’ll see how merged these operations and imprints become but I suspect there will be reductions.

My advice to all publishers is to look closely at the skills Amazon has developed since the late 90s and catch up as quickly as possible. Look at your direct to consumer marketing, look at your brand experience, look at your website usability, look at your purchase funnels, go mobile, get your head around the data, stop looking at what other publishers are doing and look at the leaders in b2c retailer/ecommerce, assess your products, find your audience, find the budgets, hire the right staff and doggedly seek the winners. (I know you think you’re doing that, but if you step way back and take a look at you vs. them, you’ll see the difference.)

As Joe Wikert says, ‘Instead of just merging I’d rather see one of the big six stand up like this small publisher and say “we’ve walked on eggshells for far too long…it’s time for us to get serious about building that direct channel and not worry about how our existing channel partners will react.”’ (TOC.OReilly.com)

Dennis Johnson of Melville House has a good review of the media reports on the Penguin Random House merger.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Louise Penny’s New Novel Out!

If you’re looking for that blockbuster summer read, it’s here! The latest in the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny arrived in stores on August 28.

The Beautiful Mystery
Louise Penny
Buy on Amazon
More details at Raincoast Books

No outsiders are ever admitted to the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, hidden deep in the wilderness of Quebec, where two dozen cloistered monks live in peace and prayer. They grow vegetables, they tend chickens, they make chocolate. And they sing. Ironically, for a community that has taken a vow of silence, the monks have become world-famous for their glorious voices, raised in ancient chants whose effect on both singer and listener is so profound it is known as “the beautiful mystery.”

But when the renowned choir director is murdered, the lock on the monastery’s massive wooden door is drawn back to admit Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Sûreté du Québec. There they discover disquiet beneath the silence, discord in the apparent harmony. One of the brothers, in this life of prayer and contemplation, has been contemplating murder. As the peace of the monastery crumbles, Gamache is forced to confront some of his own demons, as well as those roaming the remote corridors. Before finding the killer, before restoring peace, the Chief must first consider the divine, the human, and the cracks in between.

Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache delivers again and again. Traditional mystery fans will like the whodunit plot, but those who have a literary bend like me will appreciate the well-written dialogue and excellent story arch.

Indeed, it is a page turner, but Louise Penny’s prowess is in delivering fallible heroes in a way that still makes us cheer. I’m speaking of course of Inspector Gamache, but also of Lieutenant Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who is suffering from an addiction to painkillers.

The evil twist, beyond the murder at hand, is the psychological foul play used by the police force’s headman who has it out for Gamache and his team. I won’t tell you any more about what happens here because it is all too irksome.

For a book set in a monastery with an ancient secret to hide, this novel sure is illuminating. I 100% am in love with Louise Penny’s Inspector, the village of Three Pines and this awesome series.

If you haven’t read Louise Penny, I really liked A Trick of Light, which seems like a natural place to start before getting into The Beautiful Mystery—this is book 8 in the series. There is so much revealed in book 8 that I wouldn’t want you to start here. If you have the time and aren’t itching to read The Beautiful Mystery right this minute (which you should actually), then read the full series. It does not disappoint.

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny is also available as an audio book
Listen to an audio clip

And if you’re in Vancouver, Louise Penny is at the Vancouver International Writers Festival on Oct 20.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Book Review: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

The Chaperon by Laura Moriarty reminded me a little bit of The Paris Wife. The book opens in 1922 during a summer in Wichita when not much is happening for Ms Cora Carlisle. Both her sons are grown and moved away, her husband’s successful law practice keeps him busy and Cora is idling away her time. What seems like an adventure is presented to her: chaperon 15-year-old Louise Brooks to New York City for her dance audition.

Cora, of course, has her own private reason for making the trip, and it’s not just boredom. We quickly find out that Cora was orphaned in New York and was sent out on an orphan train to be adopted by willing parents, who have since died. Her plan is to accompany Louise and seek out her birth parents. The orphanage has already refused to provide that information by mail, but Cora is optimistic.

The part of the story that reminds me of The Paris Wife is the insights into the 1920s. It was a time of transition where skirt lengths (above the ankle) were still shocking and girls were coached that no man would want to marry an unwrapped piece of candy. At the same time homosexuality, the bob haircut, jazz and other shocking disregards for convention (like black and white people sitting side by side in the same theatre) were part of daily life in a bustling metropolis like NYC.

Cora takes all the shocks in stride, in particular the difficulties posed by Louise’s free-spirit attitude, and really finds her own place in the world. She goes by to Wichita with quite a backbone.

The Chaperon by Laura Moriarty
Published by Riverhead Books (Penguin Canada)
Available in hardcover on amazon.ca