Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good read!

Well kids, I’m tapping out.  No more reality for me!  After an incredibly shitty year in which I lost my job (and had to change career paths), a mysterious hospital visit, and working a job that I had to quite due to panic attacks, I decided that I couldn’t stand the thought of a high-stress, pressure-filled Christmas.  So I did what any reasonable adult would do – I’ve decided to run away from home.  That’s right, for a whole week (starting tomorrow), I’ll be lounging on a beach on the Caribbean.  Nothing but me, some flip-flops, and a whole bunch of books!

I’m brining a smaller Charlain Harris run (something about dead people?  I’ll investigate further from the beach), the Pendegast/D’Agosta series (minus the first 2, since I’ve read them recently), and my all time favorite Christmas read for the 25th: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.  And, just in case I run out, I’m also brining my eReader.

I’ve promised myself that I will do nothing BUT read.  The plan is to go from bed to the beach with my book(s) for 6 days.  I’ve been looking forward to this soooooo badly for the last 6 weeks.

So, I wish all my readers a wonderful holiday, and encourage you all to check back here in the New Year for my beach-reading reviews, and the reviews of books I’ve got waiting for me when I get home!

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good read!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dark Hearts of Chicago, by William Horwood and Helen Rappaport

I find one of the simple pleasures of reading is being able to pick up a large book and, with some time and patience, finishing it.  There’s a sense of accomplishment that goes along with finishing a 500 pager that I’ve always enjoyed.  My latest read, Dark Hearts of Chicago, started off like that – one of the reasons I chose it was because it looks like a great big brick of a book.  It took me most of a week to get through, but there is no denying that I enjoyed it – both for the sense of accomplishment, and the plot.

Dark Hearts, written by novelist William Horwood and historian Helen Rappaport, is set in Chicago in the closing days of the World’s Fair of 1893.  The story truly begins with Anna, a young girl visiting from New York who goes missing and is reported dead several weeks later after an accident.  In reality, Anna has mysteriously turned up half-dead and without memory in Bubbly Creek, a common dumping place for murder victims.  She is taken to Dunning, Chicago’s mental institution where she is victimized in various ways by the staff there.  Realizing she is pregnant, Anna flees the place and tries to remain one step ahead of the people trying to catch her as she recovers her memory.  Meanwhile, her loving father, morose over loosing his last surviving child, has turned to the World newspaper in New York asking that others be warned of the dangers of Chicago.  That’s where Emily Strauss comes in; intrepid beat reporter who’s between jobs, Emily bluffs her way into Mr. Pulitzer’s presence to ask for a job.  He informs her that, if she can file a story on Anna the day before the end of the World’s Fair, he’ll put her on staff.  Off goes Emily to discover what happened to Anna, and the countless other women that have gone missing over the span of the Fair, and what she finds is a world of corruption, degradation, and human depravity.  Fighting a deadline, and powerful forces within the city that she doesn’t understand, Emily chases down every last lead in an effort to file her story.  Kindda’ wish I would tell you if she makes it, don’t you?  Well, I won’t.  Read the book.

There are more good things than bad that I want to say about this book.  The first is about the writing device most commonly used, and that’s the sense of smell.  It’s an odd device to find an author using, and it’s even odder for an author (or authors, in this case) to use it well; scent is hard to describe and can easily be lost between the reality the author is trying to build and the page.  But, in the same manner that Perfume by Patrick Suskind leaves you convinced you can pick up certain notes in the air, Horwood and Rappaport are able to paint you a picture of Chicago in the 1890s based almost solely on smell.  And it’s not a pretty smell.  Kudos to the authors for this feat – the use of the scent devise is strung throughout the entire work and never fails or comes up short.  It’s an interesting dynamic for the reader.

The other major point I wanted to touch on was the historical research that went into the work.  As I’ve mentioned before, it can be hard to find works of historical fiction these days that aren’t Tutor- or Medieval-based, so when you find one that isn’t, it’s interesting to compare the level of research that went into it.  Now, I’m no expert on anything as late as the World’s Fair, nor as far West as the Americas, but as a historian, it’s easy to spot when the basis is solid, and it definitely is in Dark Hearts.  There is a wide variety of worlds that the plot takes the reader through – business, newspaper, politics, female, institutional, and under – and every last one of them is complete and without holes.  Another kudos to the authors for so perfectly nailing the feel and reality of those ephemeral locations.  

Cap the strength of the plot, writing style, and realism of the work off with solid characters, and you’ve got me.  Emily Strauss is a no-nonsense, smart and forward-thinking kind of woman who won’t take no for an answer.  Her drive to get her story in on time, while selfish at times, leads to great things.  Anna, the poor, abused immigrant girl has to be the strongest ‘person’ ever.  I know she’s a fictional character, but her fortitude and drive are written in such a way that they never seem contrived, but rather extremely genuine.  The secondary characters are just as interesting, be they on the side of good or evil.  (There was one miss-step, however, and that was the introduction of an Asian gentleman who taught Emily self-defense for all of two minutes.  His appearance in the book felt shoe-horned in, and he [and all his lessons] disappeared as quickly as he appeared.  But still, one mistake in 500 pages.  I’ll live.)

Of course, the first thing I did upon finishing the book was look for the next in the series.  In the closing chapter of the book, reference is made to the fact that Emily comes across many of the secondary characters in her future adventures.  This book was published in 2007, and there has yet to be follow-up.  Between 2007 and the present, Horwood has written other works, so it appears as if he’s done with this train of thought.  And that’s a shame.  I might, however, look into his other historical works.  Rappaport continues to write, but in the non-fiction field.  Her areas of interest are Russian, Victorian, and woman’s history.  It’s a disappointment to know that such a strong collaboration has fallen apart.  But, that being said, Dark Hearts of Chicago stands as a fabulous read, and I highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

EW's 20 Classic Opening Lines

So, lately, I've been thinking of undertaking a reading challenge.  When I came across Entertainment Weekly's list of 20 Classic Opening Lines in Books I decided that I had found one.  Now, I've read some of the books on this list - either recently or a long time ago - and I decided that I would re-read them again.  Some books I've wanted to read for quite some time, and some I had neve heard of before.  Below is the list I'm going to be working my way through in the coming year!

1.  Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1813)
2.  Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville (1851)
3.  A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (1859)
4.  Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (1877)
5.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1885)
6.  The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (1951)
7.  Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953)
8.  The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath (1963)
9.  One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez (1967)
10.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vega, by Hunter S. Thompson (1971)
11.  Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon (1973)
12.  High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard (1977)
13.  A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole (1980)
14.  The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (1981) *I’ll respect the spelling, but it’s wrong.
15.  Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984)
16.  A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean (1989)
17.  Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
18.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling (1998)
19.  Paradise, by Toni Morrison (1999)
20.  The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2008)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fewer Ontario students say they 'like to read', from

Updated: Mon Dec. 12 2011 8:56:57 AM Staff

The number of Ontario Grade 3 and Grade 6 students who say they like to read has declined significantly over the past decade, according to a new report.

Each year, Ontario students in these grades must take part in standardized testing, as well as annual surveys that require them to report on whether they like to read.

Last year, only 50 per cent of Grade 3 students said they "like to read," compared to 76 per cent in the 1998/1999 school year.

For Grade 6 students, the proportion of students saying they liked to read fell from 65 per cent to 50 per cent over the same time period.

People for Education, a parental advocacy group that analyzed the school-survey data in a newly released report, suggests that the province needs to work harder at making reading more enjoyable for students.

"Our education system should be focused on building students' enjoyment of reading," Annie Kidder, the executive director of People for Education, said in a statement released Monday. "Instead, the evidence seems to show we're stifling it."

On a related note, People for Education is also calling on the province to boost the number of teacher-librarians in public schools.

The advocacy group says that prior research has shown that schools with a teacher-librarian are more likely to have students who say they enjoy reading.

But People for Education says that the number of teacher-librarians in the school system has declined significantly in the past decade.

Last year, just 56 per cent of Ontario elementary schools had a teacher-librarian compared to 76 per cent in the 1998/1999 school year.

For Ontario secondary schools, 66 per cent had a teacher-librarian last year, down from 78 per cent in the 2000/2001 school year.

These are some disappointing survey results.  Unfortunately, they confirm concerns raised by James Patterson and myself in earlier posts.  Are you doing some Christmas shopping for kids this year?  If so, buy them some books!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Author review on Clive Cussler

Speaking of engaging characters, I thought it might be time for another author review.  Let me start off by telling you about the winter semester of my second year of university.  Those were some crazy 12 weeks….  I was working (almost) full time retail, I had finally started to specialize in my classes so I actually gave a shit about my grades, and I was organizing a year end gala for the school’s History students (I worked on student government).  Of all the stressors I’ve experienced in my life, that gala damn near killed me.  In essence, it was an event very much like a wedding reception for 150 people that I had about 3 month to execute while working with a negative budget (ticket sales were going to pay for the event, but AFTER the fact).  The consequences for me were very little sleep, very little sanity, and a 4-month long eye twitch.  Needless to say, come the end of that semester, I was burnt out.

Luckily, I was living at home at the time.  I immediately responded to the end of the semester by quitting everything – job, society, and common sense.  I found myself a 10-hour a week, low expectation, cash-under-the-table job, and that was all I did all summer long that required a bra.  The rest of my time I spent in my jammies at home reading.  Was it a mature response to stress?  No.  Was it the best summer of my life before and since?  Goddamn right it was.  My reading that summer took on 3 patterns – books that became movies, the House of Niccolo series (which I never did get to finish, it was so long), and Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels.  And honestly, it was the latter that saved my sanity and is the topic of this author review.

My dad had been reading Cussler books since I was a kid.  I think he mainly stuck to the Dirk Pitt series, because when I stumbled on them he already had the full run, and there weren’t many books from Cussler’s other series kicking around the house.  The reason they popped onto my radar was because that was the summer that Sahara, starring Matthew McConaughey, was released.  My dad knew I was reading book that had been turned into movies and suggested Sahara, and he also thought I would get behind the historical spin on the series.  He was right.  What followed was totally emersion into the Dirk Pitt series of books – I went through them back to back to back like they were literary crack-cocaine.

Anyone whose read them might be a little surprised that I had the stomach to do so.  None of them are particularly well written – the plot inevitably follows the same pattern: historical event occurs and sets up the impetuous for the modern-day story, a billionaire (insert exotic local here) businessman/company/evil genius seeks to exploit both the results of that historical event and (insert liminal segment of society here), Pitt and his crew work to save both the historical artifacts and (insert that liminal segment of society here).  And a lot of it happens under water.  Not only are the plots repetitive, but they usually have holes you can drive Mac trucks through – notable ones I remember from 6 years ago include raising the Titanic without it falling apart at the seams (which is what would literally happen, no matter what James Cameron is telling you), a huge oil deposit under Quebec, and the true story behind Abraham Lincoln’s death (which I can’t tell you about without ruining the plot of Sahara – the book, they left that silliness out of the movie).

So why, why, would I read these books (and there are a lot of them).  The characters.  The characters are engaging as fuck.  Dirk Pitt has that boyish charm all rogues seem to have, but he’s incredibly smart and fit and loves history.  There is almost nothing a girl couldn’t forgive him for.  His best friend and sidekick on his adventures is Al Giordino, a guy whose physical description is more brick shithouse than man, but who’s always got Pitt’s back, and who has a wicked sense of humour.  Rudi Gunn, the lovable support character who always has the answer to the technical/logistics problems.  Loren Smith, Pitt’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, who you can’t help but like for her ball-busting personality.  And, of course, the Admiral (James Sandecker), director of NUMA and Pitt and Giordino’s boss; with his cigar and van dyke beard, he’s a compendium of lovable character traits (and was played to near perfection by William Macey in the film).  Authors can get me to shell out for their works if there is ONE strong character involved – Cussler wrote a handful!  Of course I loved these books.

There is, however, one character that I can’t get behind.  When I first came across him, I literally put the book down, sought out my father, and demanded an explanation.  I took a whole day’s break from the book after finding the character, because I wasn’t sure I was willing to embrace that silliness.  What, you ask got me so riled up?  The appearance of the unnamed man, in a Hawaiian shirt, who loved old cars.  Check out the picture above.  That’s right, Cussler wrote himself into the book as a character.  And not just a passing character – without him, Pitt and Giordino wouldn’t have solved the mystery.  And it wasn’t just one book – no matter where the boys are in the world, there’s this mysterious and unnamed character giving them a hand.  Now, I’m all for some meta (obviously), but this was too far.  Even all these year’s later, I’m still not reconciled that that plot device.

Sadly, after having loved the fuck out of these books in the summer after Second Year, I found I could never get back to them.  I’ve tried reading the latest books in the series, but usually peater-out after a hundred pages or so.  The characters are just as lovable, but the repetitive plots kill me.  I think what made these books so important to me was the time of my life in which I found them.  I was coming off a monster of a semester and needed something to help my mind recover.  Cussler landed in the perfect storm that was my life, and for that, I’ll always look back fondly at these books.  Will I re-read them?  I might try, but I have a feeling they’re never going to live up to the place I’ve put them in my mind.  That makes me sad, because I do loves those characters oh so very much.  I will say that I wish they would do more Dirk Pitt movies – Sahara got panned, but I found it to be a great ad-com.  More flicks might be the only way I get to re-live these characters without all the messy business of the long-winded and troublesome plots found in the books.

Final verdict?  Read a couple of Cusslers – see if you like them, because if you can get into them, they’re fantastic reads.  (But skip Pacific Vortex until you do love the characters – it’s a truly horribly written book.)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson

I’m finding that I have an odd set of measures for the books that I read.  Most people will recommend a book if they like a plot, or find the writing style to be good (and yeah, those are important points for me too), but more often than not, when I’m recommending a book, or grilling someone about their recommendation, the first thing I want to mention or want to know about is the characters.  Specifically, are the characters engaging?  I’m willing to overlook a multitude of sins committed by an author (go ahead, ask me about Dirk Pitt and Clive Cussler, I dare you), so long as their characters are charming and likable.  I find my thoughts of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories fall into this trap as well.

Case Histories follows the stories of multiple people and families over the years, all starting with a death in the family.  What ties all these stories (or case histories – hun? hun? See what Atkinson did there…) together is Jackson Brodie, the main (for lack of a better word) character.  Jackson is from Northern Britain, has done stints in the army and police force, and is now a private investigator.  Following a very acrimonious divorce from his wife, Jackson is trying to find a comfortable place in the world.  His struggles make him endearing to the reader, and his personality makes him lovable.  The only thing wrong with the character is that there wasn’t enough of him.  

Atkinson weaved Jackson’s story in with the survivors of family violence that are introduced through the case histories.  Some of these characters are lovable, some are annoying, and but most aren’t fully developed.  Worse, however, is that some of their stories never get a final closure.  Jackson’s personality the strongest of the bunch, but his story is often over-shadowed by those of the others interspersed around him.  I think the work would have been stronger had it just been told from his point of view, as he worked to solve the mysteries introduced by his clients/the case histories.

I hope, however that Atkinson addresses this problem in her future works.  There are (currently) three more Jackson Brodie books in publication and I am going to be picking up while running errands this weekend (which, as we all know, means I’m into the author).  From the write ups, it looks like Atkinson relies on the same dove-tailing device in her other books as she uses here.  I’m NOT excited about that, but it’s a testament to her ability to write engaging characters that I AM excited about revisiting Brodie.

What’s more, I understand that there’s a British TV show based on these books.  So, let’s get this straight: Atkinson is going to get my money for both the books and the (inevitable) DVD purchase?  All because she’s a good character writer?  Just goes to show – write me a good character study, and my wallet will follow you anywhere.  Well played, Atkinson. Well played indeed.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The need to raise readers

I LOVE to read (clearly).  And that is a passion and an art form that was instilled in me as a child by my parents.  For the longest time, the only furniture I had in my room was a bed, a bed-side table, a dresser and a book case (lets face it, that's all that's in there now).  My parents (both) constantly had a book on the go, often times spending large chunks of their weekend reading.  I had a roster of books that constituted bed-time stories that I loved to read on my own at any time of day.  I vividly remember my mom reading me Robinson Crusoe as a kid (in French, no less) during bath time.  My childhood is littered with instances of reading.  And it breaks my heart to hear that other children aren’t having those experiences.

James Patterson, in his opinion piece for, highlights the need to encourage kids to read.  It’s for their own good.  I have to concur given my own experiences in University, highschool, and through tutoring.  I had experiences marking undergrad papers only a few years ago and the quality wasn’t stellar.  From what I understand from friends, the quality is just getting worse.  Patterson’s plea for more reading in childhood has (I’m sure) a direct corollary with abilities to research, synthesize and write later in life.

While tutoring, I noticed a distressing pattern with this generation of students which, upon further reflection, I realized was in place when I was a teen.  For the most part, Ontario education requires students to take one English class a year.  In that class, students have several units which cover short stories, a play, and two novels (one chosen by the teacher, the other chosen by the student individually).  Do the math on that – in the average school year, students are only being asked to read two books and a handful of short stories (including, lets be honest, the play).  

I still distinctly remember what books I was asked to read, and what books I read on my own.  The assigned readings included zeitgeist classics like 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird, but I clearly wasn’t challenged by those as my 10th grade independent reading choice was Anna Karenina.  And yes, I finished it.  But, in retrospect, the only reason I finished Tolstoy was because our English teacher dedicated huge blocks of class time to reading.  Very much like the programs mentioned by Patterson (Drop Everything and Read, and Knowledge is Power), we were given dedicated reading time and had to have our books on us at all times – we never knew when we would be doing in-class reading.

What I encountered while tutoring was a shocking lack of interest or excitement from my students about reading.  One of the things I expected off all my English students was that they would chose a book and do independent reading while they worked with me.  All the students I put this assignment to rolled their eyes and immediately started with the excuses (‘I don’t have the time’ being the most popular).  But, as I told them, reading is a skill that requires practice – the more you do it, the better you become at it, and the more natural and enjoyable it will be.  Very few students followed my directions, and I’m pretty sure none of them believed me.

I worry about the current generation for a variety of reasons, but the most pressing is their lack of literary interest in favour of technology and laziness.  We’re raising a generation that only knows of Big Brother in context of a reality show, that doesn’t associate Bat Man with the written word, and that will likely never know the joy of books that don’t make it to the silver screen.  It breaks my heart to know that the literary childhood I look back on fondly is a thing of the past and isn’t the norm.  Am I speaking in generalities?  Of course.  But the reality is that more kids aren’t reading than are.  And that’s a trend worth a closer look, and serious efforts by parents and stakeholders (i.e., everyone) to reverse.  

How to get your kid to be a fanatic reader, by James Patterson, Special to CNN

I read this article a few months ago, and I'm still thinking about it.  I thought I would share!
How to get your kid to be a fanatic reader, by By James Patterson, Special to CNN
updated 1:38 PM EST, Wed September 28, 2011

  (CNN) -- You're reading, so maybe this isn't a stress-inducing worry in your house, but for too many kids in this country, reading is a dirty word. Fortunately, we know exactly whom we have to talk to in order to start a much-needed intervention.

Sorry, moms and dads, but it's your job -- not the schools' -- to find books to get your kids reading and to make sure they read them.

Here's some good news: This can often be as easy as teaching children to ride a two-wheeler or to throw a baseball. Case in point: When our son, Jack, was 8, he wasn't a gung-ho reader. Now, I'm sure my wife, Sue, and I have made a half-million mistakes raising Jack, but during that eighth summer of our stewardship, we did something right: We told him he didn't have to mow the lawn (hooray!), but he was going to read every day (boo).

We then told Jack we were going to help him find books we promised he would like: the Mom-and-Dad "Reading Can Be a Joy" Guarantee. We picked out "The Lightning Thief," a book in the "Warriors" series, "A Wrinkle in Time," "Al Capone Does My Shirts," a novel from my own "Maximum Ride" series, and a few others. By the end of the summer, Jack had read half a dozen books that he loved, and his reading skills had improved dramatically.

Here's a simple but powerful truth that many parents and schools don't act on: The more kids read, the better readers they become.

The best way to get kids reading more is to give them books that they'll gobble up -- and that will make them ask for another. Yes, it's that simple. 1 + 1 = 2. Kids say the No. 1 reason they don't read more is that they can't find books they like. Freedom of choice is a key to getting them motivated and excited. Vampire sagas, comics, manga, books of sports statistics -- terrific! -- as long as kids are reading. Should they read on e-tablets? Sure, why not? How about rereading a book? Definitely. And don't tell them a book is too hard or too easy. "Great Expectations"? Absolutely. "Finnegans Wake"? Well, maybe not. And remember, books can be borrowed free at libraries.

Some schools and school systems are on top of the reading problem. Is yours?

Many schools around the country are successful at getting kids reading. That raises the obvious question: How come so many schools aren't?

There are terrific models for success with reluctant readers, but many school systems and state governments need to set aside their "not invented here" and "we have more important problems than education" attitudes.
The Drop Everything and Read program is a brilliant learning tool used by more than a thousand schools. Drop Everything and Read schools devote one period a day to kids -- and their teachers -- doing nothing but reading, and mostly reading what they want to. The results can be dramatic.

The Knowledge Is Power Program schools in Washington require students to read at least 20 books a year and to carry a book with them at all times. Hooray! The Sun Prairie public schools in Wisconsin stopped buying textbooks and used the money to buy children's trade books. Reading scores improved, because the kids wanted to read. P.S. 8 in the Bronx, New York, has a rotating library of student-published and student-illustrated books. Kids love books written by their peers. One Texas school librarian has a club for fourth- and fifth-grade boys called the BUBBAs. The kids read books such as "It's Disgusting-- and We Ate It!," "Holes," the "Time Warp Trio" series, and the "Joey Pigza" books. Silly, funny, and it works.

Speaking of boys, here's how to get reluctant readers -- er, boys -- reading and loving it.

First, try to understand that boys can be a little squirrelly when it comes to reading, and what's squirrelly about them needs to be praised and encouraged.

Boys should be made to feel all squishy inside about reading graphic novels, comics, pop-ups, joke books, and general-information tomes -- especially the last. has categories such as "Robots," "How to Build Stuff," "Outer Space, but with Aliens," and "At Least One Explosion." It's a wonderful site for finding books that will turn boys on to reading.

Teachers and school administrators might want to consider this: in many schools, there's a tendency not to reward boys for reading books like "Guinness World Records" or "Sports Illustrated Almanac" or "The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll." Too often, boy-appealing books are disproportionately overlooked on recommended reading lists.

Big mistake. Tragic mistake. Avoidable mistake. It's all about attitude. If your kids' school library isn't a boy magnet, the school probably needs to check its attitude.

Where to find books your kids will gobble up.,, and's Kids Reading List are excellent resources, and they're simpler to use than an iPhone. The American Library Association and the Young Adult Library Services Association have recommendations for terrific books, easily found by searching "ALA reading lists." has a "Favorite D.E.A.R. Books" tab on its home page.

Most libraries and bookstores are extremely generous with their time and help. Kids and parents should visit Scholastic and other book fairs. Free or low-cost books for schools are available (while supplies last) at,, and

Reading role models, please apply here.

Let's face it: Most of us don't realize it, but we are failing our kids as reading role models. The best role models are in the home: brothers, fathers, grandfathers; mothers, sisters, grandmothers. Moms and dads, it's important that your kids see you reading. Not just books -- reading the newspaper is good too.

The president and the first lady can be powerful role models if they are willing to pitch in and press the issue from their bully pulpit. In England, the entire country celebrates World Book Day. Every young lass and bloke gets a pound to buy a book of their choice, and most bookstores lower prices for the day. Cheers for former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was an active role model for getting kids reading.

By showing more respect for books, kid-influential organizations such as ESPN, the NBA, and the NFL could help thousands of kids become better readers. I cringe when I hear college-educated sports announcers scoff at books during broadcasts because they're afraid to man up to being readers themselves.
Hollywood studios and stars could inspire kids to read, but often don't. Apparently, some film directors think it's their civic duty to teach kids how to smoke. Magazines and newspapers could call attention to the reluctant reader and literacy problems on a daily or weekly basis. Fast-food chains could put stories in their kids' meal boxes -- most publishers will work with them. Video-game makers could incorporate written stories in their games; maybe it ought to be the price of admission for selling to kids. Many publishers could do a much better job of supplying free or low-cost books to schools in need.

Now, this entire article probably took you only a few minutes to read. Please don't let your effort end here. While you're thinking about it, send your thoughts, or even this piece, to your school principal or librarian. Heck, send it to the White House. If you have the means, offer to buy your local school a few good books. But most important, take your kids or grandkids or students to a library or a bookstore or go online to search for some books right now. If you have better ideas than the ones suggested here, terrific -- please share them with your school, or in the comments section below, or at

Your taking action will speak louder than words to kids about the power and glory of reading: First you read, then you get up off your seat and do something to fix the problem.

*The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Patterson.*

Read my own take on the situation here!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Britannia's Lineage, by a plucky new author we all know

This is a shameless ‘book review.’  Okay, it’s less of a review, and more of some self-promotion for my Master’s thesis, Britannia’s Lineage: The Development of British Identity in the Eighteenth Century.

As the tone of this blog implies (I hope), I’m a historian.  I hold both a BA and MA from the University of Ottawa in History.  My MA thesis was a study of Britain in the eighteenth century, specifically how the British Empire impacted the development of the British national identity.  I always propose my thesis like this: What do you think of when you think of the Brits?  Their love of tea is usually the first thing that comes to mind.  By why is that?  Tea isn’t grown ANYWHERE in England and the archipelago, and it wasn’t grown in the British Empire for the first 100 years or so after it became popular back home.  So why do we associate it with being British?  My thesis sets out to prove that we can’t separate the British people from their Empire when we’re trying to understand why they became what they are.

My thesis relied on A LOT of different types of sources: legislation, 18th century yellow-pages for London (known to contemporaries as merchant directories), art, personal diaries, household accounts and cookbooks, to name a few.  It was asked at my defense how I would respond to people accusing me of cherry-picking my sources, but I think the wide variety of sources proves my thesis – the Empire was everywhere in daily life in Britain in the 18th century.

About a year after I finished my thesis, a publishing company approached me to ask if I would be interested in working with them.  And, of course I was!  The result is a published and for-sale copy of my Master’s thesis.  (Found here, on

What makes me super proud of my work, however, is that it appears that I called a curve in the field shortly before the professional academics started publishing on it.  Part of my thesis is that we need to re-conceptualize the era and how we understand it.  I argued that we need to study the Empire, consumption AND national identity together (as a single concept) to understand Britain in the 18th century.  A recent article in History Magazine by the BBC, and Jeremy Paxton’s new book supports this conceptualization (and no, I’m not saying I inspired it).  These works would have been in progress while I was writing my own work, so it’s nice to see that I had the same train of thought as the grown-up historians.

So, it summation, if you’re looking for a great Christmas-gift idea, I highly recommend you pick up Britannia’s Lineage.  I must say, I’m quite the wordsmith, and it’s a great read!  Also, I’d like the royalty. 

Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare is a topic upon which I could pontificate for hours; I can hold forth on a variety of topics concerning the Bard, ranging from his prose to his place in the annals of Western history.  And I could do it all while sounding like a pompous wind-bag (sorry, I just finished reading the play, so my internal monologue is sounding a little 16th century at the moment).  

Last year, I was earning some extra money by tutoring highschoolers in English and History, and one of my students was assigned Julius Caesar as the Shakespeare play her class had to read.  At the time, I read the first Act on my way to our tutoring session, and some of the third Act with her, but nothing else – teachers seem to want to rush through the mandatory Shakespeare unit of the curriculum, and within a week and a half, my student was finished with the play.  What really broke my heart about the whole situation was this: the teacher had assigned them the edition that has the modern English translation opposite the original text, and she gave the class no historical context for the play.

The teacher in question was a major tool for two reasons.  First, one of the reasons you read Shakespeare in the 16th century vernacular is so that you learn how to read Shakespeare in the 16th century vernacular.  Most schools don’t give kids a modern translation, so she did a disservice to her class; the next time they have to read Shakespeare (without the translation) they’re going to be at a total loss.  The second problem I had with that teacher was that she gave her students no historical context on the play.  I shit you not, this is an actual conversation I had with my tutoring student while reading the play: “Wow, you seem to know a lot about this Caesar guy.”  “Well, I’ve studied the time period, so I have an understanding of the politics of the situation.”  “Wait, are you saying this Caesar guy was real!?!”  It almost broke my heart.  And I blame the education system for that.

What I did discover while perusing Julius Caesar in advance of my tutoring sessions was that it was a play that I could get into.  Generally, I have a problem with the quality of Shakespeare’s works – I don’t know who decided that he was the author of great works that deserved the attention of every generation and high school class until the end of time, but I generally don’t agree.  For the most part, Shakespeare’s works don’t interest me – the characters are unsympathetic, the plots are too angst-y, and the pacing always seemed off.  Julius Caesar suffers from these flaws as well, but I found the saving grace to be the moving monologues delivered by the characters.  (The best Shakespeare line of all time can be found in Act 3, s. 1: “ Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war...”)   Maybe it was the gravitas, or the slowed-down pacing, but I found this work to have more depth and to hold my interest more than the other plays I’ve read by the author.  Needless to say, I still don’t think Shakespeare truly deserves the place we’ve given him in our zeitgeist.  

So, in a review on Julius Caesar, why aren’t I giving you a plot summary?  Because we all know it.  And if you don’t, go out and do some independent research – Caesar’s tale is a pivotal moment in Western history.  The role(s) of the conspirators had devastating effects in ancient Rome; we might have the hind-sight of 2000 years-plus on the event, yet for some it’s still hard to decide if the ends justified the means.  Brutus, as portrayed by Shakespeare, was an honourable man who acted in the manner he thought was best for Rome, and one has to respect that about him.  But maybe hindsight that time has provided is what’s leaving me with the ‘who cares’ mentality surrounding the events in this play.  Sure, those events are part of humanity's narrative, and who knows where out story would be now without them, but then again it was so long ago (and the story so well known), that I have no sympathy for anyone involved; they may have been real people, but their legacies have been reduced to characters in a play.

So what’s the final verdict?  If you have to read a Shakespeare play, this might as well be the one you choose.  Would I rather read any other author?  Probably.  (So why, you ask yourself did I read a work of his this morning?  What can I say - the mood struck me.)  Shakespeare plays are what they are – key pieces in our literary zeitgeist that, for good reason, don’t get much attention out of high school and academia.  Are you looking for an interesting account of this story?  Then watch HBO’s Rome; to be honest, it’s probably the DVD box-set I’m going to re-watch next.  I guess what I’m saying is read Julius Caesar to make your high school English teacher proud of you, but it’s not something that needs to go on your bucket list.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe

I like quirky points of history.  There’s something to be said for studying anomalies – they’re so much more interesting than the ho-humness that is quotidian life.  What do I mean by that?  Well, what’s more interesting to learn about?  Mayan human-sacrifice, or the daily life of the European peasant before the Enlightenment; the Salem witch trials, or domestic cottage industries engaged in by women during England’s Golden Age; the Nazi fascination with the occult, or working conditions in Banking in the inter-war years?  Of course you’re going to say the Mayans, witches, and Nazis; who wouldn’t?  There’s something entrancing about the quirky parts of our human experience that draw people to them like moths to a flame.  And that’s why I chose my last read, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe.

Howe’s work tells the story of Connie Goodwin, a PhD candidate in American colonial history at Harvard.  We meet Connie just as she’s completing her oral-comps, after which her advisor takes her aside to tell her she needs to plum new archival sources for her dissertation if she wants to continue working with him.  A daunting task for any grad students.  Shortly there-after, Connie’s mother calls and asks her to move up the coast in order to clean up and sell her dead grandmother’s home.  While poking through some books, Connie comes across a name, Deliverance Dane, in a family Bible, and begins hunting down the sources to help tell Deliverance’s story.  As it turns out, Deliverance was a wise woman, accused (and executed) during the Salem Witch Trials – and she was the only one to not receive a pardon several years later.  Now Connie is trying to hunt down the recipe/spell book that Deliverance used in her healing work in hopes it will be the unique source her advisor seems adamant she find.  While Connie's is the main story in this work, it is occasionally interrupted with the story of Deliverance and her descendents, providing an interesting historical foil to Connie's own tale.

Howe’s work has one very large pro and one very large con working for it.  The con first: once again, we see an author trying to weave the supernatural into their tale, when rational explanations could (and would) suffice to advance the plot.  To be fair, Howe doesn’t introduce the supernatural at the eleventh-hour in an attempt to tie up loose ends, but it is introduced rather late in the book, and quickly takes prominence of place in the plot.  I’m not thrilled with the device, but it was explained in the author’s note at the end of the book.  Howe is a direct descendent of two women accused of witchcraft during the Salem trials (Elizabeth Proctor being the one ancestor everyone will recognize).  Howe is an academic whose works in the colonial American period and found that all accounts of the Trials worked on the assumption that witchcraft and magic aren’t real – she set out to write her story without discounting the possibility of the supernatural.  So, I’ll give it to her, and will look back without hostility on its inclusion.

The pro: Howe is herself a career academic.  Her passages about Connie’s research techniques, interactions with Faculty, and thought processes are all incredibly genuine.  More than that, she is able to infuse her work of fiction with a great deal of information about the lives of colonial women, the interpretations of place and role of liminal members of colonial society, and the art and position of the wise-woman in western history.  Much of the information wasn’t new to me, but nothing stood out as being wrong either – Howe is clearly knowledgeable and passionate about her subject (as most historians are), and that comes across in her work.  I enjoyed my time in academia, and Howe’s work reminded me of it, so she must have done something right.

All in all, this was a good work.  Was it stellar and am I going to hunt down all of Howe’s subsequent works?  No.  It was a one-off read for me, and I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for it (yeay Chapters sales!).  That being said, if you’re looking for a book with a lot of good historical facts interspersed with an interesting story, than this is a read for you.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Grift, by Debra Ginsberg

The G[r]ift is an interesting little read.  With my interest in the psycic/medium con peaked by Affinity, I wanted to read a bit more on the subject and picked to Debra Ginsberg’s modern twist on the tale.  The G[r]ift tells the story of Marina, a survivor of a shitty childhood in which her mother used her to make money by having her read tarot cards and tell fortunes.  Having learnt the art young, Marina now plies her trade by picking up the signals her clients put out (a flicker of the eye, a slight creasing of the brow, the twisting of a lock of hair).  Marina, having been driven out of Florida by competing fortune tellers, winds up in California, where she meets a man, falls in love, and has her heart broken.  During this upheaval, Marina suddenly develops a true gift for seeing the future and speaking to the dead, and now her grift is useless.

This, of course, if a simplification of the plot.  There are a lot of twists and turns that make this a great read.  The plot is a good one, and I’m admit, I tear-ed up at a couple of points.  If this book does have a flaw, it’s that the characters (and there are a few through whom the author develops the story) are a little one-noted.  They vary from men to woman, rich to poor, straight to gay, but for all those differences, it’s a little flat.  There are points where Ginsberg steps into the skin of the character effectively, but these instances only highlight the times that she falls flat in this regard.  It is possible that, having finished World War Z just before reading it, I was spoiled and looking for the same quality of character voice, but this book does a yeoman’s-like job in this regard.

Having said that, however, this was still a good read.  The plot twists were a little predictable, and there was no happy ending, but I can get over that.  Would I have paid full price for this book?  Nope - got in on sale at Chapters.  Would I lend it out and not worry about getting it back?  Probably.  So, I’d recommend reading it if you’re into new-age and/or a good con story, but it’s not going on my list of ‘must-reads’ to recommend to friends.

World War Z, by Max Brooks

One of the things I did during my tenure of un-employment was muse on how I could, and would, survive the zombie apocalypse.  I figured I had lots of food in my pantry that, with rationing, would last months; I lived in a high-rise apartment that could be easily defended from zombie-hoards; and I would be able to avoid cabin-fever thanks to all my books and DVDs.  Easy-peasy: I’d be a survivor, and you all would be zombie food.  Boy, am I ever glad I didn’t read World War Z during this hiatus from the work-force.

World War Z is a collection of oral histories from all over the world of the survivors of the zombie apocalypse.  Written as a side project to a UN-commissioned tactical de-brief on the war, this work tells of the human side of the global conflict.  Of course, because we all know of the war so intimately, the author doesn’t tell us when it happened, but I place this blight somewhere around 2004-2005.  No one seems sure where the plague first appeared, but it was in South Africa that it got its first popular nomenclature – African Rabies.  We now know that it is some sort of virus, much like a cancer though, that slowly takes over the cells in the human body until death (followed shortly thereafter by reanimation).  No country was safe, no socio-economic bracket was spared, and not many survived.  Miss-information and self-preservation led to The Great Panic, which infected everyone, as they tried to flee from the threat – but there was no fleeing.  There were reprieves, like camping out north of the snow-line, but come thaw, you were once again faced with the living dead.  Finally, the Americans (of course), decided to fight back and, after clearing most of the continental USA, began helping other nations clear their own lands.  We now live is a world where the occasional zombie sighting is reported (and the creature quickly dispatched to eliminate spread of the virus), but for the most part, we are a peace and working to re-build our population numbers, domestic production, and the global economy.  It’s going to be a tough slog, but we’re going to make it.  Humanity is going to make it.

But, in all seriousness, WWZ is a great read, if a little spooky.  I was about halfway through when I realized that the author, Max Brooks (son of wicked-hilarious film maker Mel Brooks) is a genius.  I realized while reading the book that my zombie survival plan was flawed: rationing food didn’t mean shit if there was no water to drink, and the water purification systems would be one of the first pieces of infrastructure to go; I might be in a high-rise building, but whose to say my neighbors aren’t already infected and turning into zombies as we speak?  Suddenly, the threat doesn’t need to get passed the security door – it’s already in the building; and the quickest way to get a zombie’s attention is with noise and lights: there goes watching DVDs or reading.  I’d be fucked. 

Putting my disillusionment aside, WWZ is a brilliant piece of creativity and research.  Brooks takes pieces of our modern world and cultures, and uses them as explanations for why zombies could so easily take over the world.  Economically, we are so globally interconnected that no domestic economy can function without importing and/or exporting goods.  Culturally, we’ve all got our heads in the sand and do our best to ignore problems until it’s too late.  Technologically, we have developed to the point where we don’t know how to do anything with our hands anymore.  Socially, we live individualize lives and don’t care about the collective as much as ourselves.  What does this mean to a zombie?  Nothing.  They’re fucking zombies – they have no thoughts beyond moaning and eating brains.  What does all this mean in light of a zombie apocalypse?  We’re fucked.  Our economy can’t support itself and, as we loose contact with the nations that supply us with basic goods like tube-socks and pens, we start falling apart at the seams.  Our ability to ignore what’s really happening around us if it makes us uncomfortable means we can rationalize away a problem like a zombie as someone suffering from a particularly vicious strain of rabies.  Our inability to repair basic mechanical items, coupled with the inability to import and buy new items means we’re going to have to go without things like cars and/or radios.  And no, there isn’t an app for that.  Our inability to care about our neighbor is going to be what really screws us over in the end: zombies are mindless drones – as we see in WWZ, humanity only succeeds when it bands together to fight them.

Beyond these thematic insights, Brooks provides us with a handful of direct examples.  Using current geo-politics and history, Brooks creates events within the zombie-context that are completely plausible and you can see as happening if just a little too much pressure came to bear on several nations.  Take Israel: Israel was the first nation to openly acknowledge the zombie threat.  Since WWII, Israel has operated on a ‘never again’ policy, and has been beefing up its military and political capabilities.  Zombies start showing up, and the first thing Israel does is close its doors – literally.  They offered asylum to all the Jews in the world, and displaced Palestinians, then they shut the gates.  France, considered to be cheese-eating surrender monkey by the world since WWII, got it into their heads that they would fight to the bitter end – and boy did they ever.  The Parisian underground system was used as a refuge and battle ground, and not enough international help was sought to clear out the City of Lights: the result were massive casualties of both military personnel and civilians.  But North Korea takes the cake.  North Korea refused to acknowledge to anyone if they were fighting the zombie scourge.  And, one day, they just disappeared.  Wait, what? you ask.  Yeah, everyone just disappeared.  Satellite images show no human movement in North Korea.  Did the zombies get them all?  If so, where are the zombies (because thanks to the mad dictator in charge of NK, you know the boarders were tight)?  Were the rumors true then?  Does North Korea have enough underground developed space to hide a nation?  If so, how are they getting food?  So many questions!  But Brooks taps into the fear of the Israelis, the insecurities of the French, and the madness of the North Koreans to tell his tale, and suddenly the zombie apocalypse is lent credibility.

What makes this books so believable though, is Brooks’ skill.  The style is that of multiple interviews, and Brooks nails every single voice.  From the traumatized woman who survived a zombie attack as a child only to go feral, to the Supreme Commander of Allied forces, Brooks’ subjects all come across as genuine and unique.  Considering the sheer number of ‘voices’ in this work, it’s quite a feat. 

This book is addictive and super-hard to put down.  They are currently filming a movie version (to star Brad Pitt), and I’m interested to see how they transfer the style (multiple interviews) into a flick.  Needless to say, being such a fan of the book now, I’m really looking forward to seeing it.  But, before you all rush out to see it too, read the book – find out how to survive.

Affinity, by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is an interesting little author that I stumbled across thanks to a Chapters sale last year.  Having read her book The Little Stranger, I was intrigued by her ability to use a male voice so effectively, her seamless blend of the supernatural with the mundane, and her ability to tell an effortless history of post-war aristocratic poverty.  So, having enjoyed Stranger so much, I set out to find some more of her books and landed on Affinity.

Telling the interweaved stories of a ‘spinster’ (God, I love that word) and a con-woman in Victorian London, Affinity allows the reader into various worlds within the period.  Margaret is the eldest daughter of a wealthy family who has recently lost its patriarch – depressed over the loss of her favorite parent, and heartbroken over loosing the woman she loves (to her brother of all people), Margaret is recovering from a suicide attempt when it is suggested she volunteer at the local woman’s prison as a ‘Visitor.’  While there, Margaret meets Selina, a young woman imprisoned for assault of her patron in whose home she was living.  Selina was living with her patron because she was a medium, and was acting as the vessel through which the patron’s mother visited her.  During a session with a friend of her patron (a teenage girl), a spirit got a little rowdy and the girl was hurt – the patron saw it, had a heart attack, and died.  Selina ended up in prison.  Affinity is the story of the growing connection between Margaret and Selina, and Margaret’s willingness to cling to anything in the wake of her heartbreaks.  (The Advocate gave this book a good review, btw.)

I found this book a little slow to get into at first – Waters took her time in the opening chapters to describe settings and surroundings, which might have been better served working to develop her characters.  The character development is slow in coming, so you’re basically thrust into the middle of a book before you’ve even started it (and Waters cleverly address that feeling up-front).

There is a fair bit of the supernatural and macabre running through out this book, so I was worried that Waters would be a one-trick pony and mimic her story development line from Stranger, but this wasn’t the case.  While the structure is similar, it couldn’t be more opposite.  Unfortunately, details cannot be provided without ruining both books, which I absolutely refuse to do.

The characters are all strong, but there are several who probably could have used more development for the role that they played in the book.  Very little is told about Margaret’s sister, and what we know of her is gleaned from her interactions that Margaret witnesses; Margaret’s sister-in-law was clearly her lover at some point, but we never do find out if it was a physical relationship, and it’s unclear what happened to drive them apart, and her into a marriage with Margaret’s brother; and Selina herself – the climax provides context for the beginning of her tale, but there are holes left in it regarding her friends, and what there role was in the events that led to her imprisonment.  Waters was clearly trying to play it coy, to match the tenor of the tale she was telling (all about the long-con and griftting), but the mood she was trying to set meant the story suffered.

All in all, though, I’d recommend this book.  I’ve got another Waters’ work sitting on my shelf that I’m looking forward to reading, so I think she’s an author that will appear in my regular rotation and that I’ll be looking for new works from.  

Shake Hands with the Devil, by Romeo Dallaire

Shake Hands with the Devil is a controversial read in my home.  My Dad, who is proudly army, has been against this book since it first came out while I, who has a softer heart than is probably good for me, has been a staunch defender of Roméo Dallaire since he first started speaking publicly about Rwanda.  While I still support Dallaire as a human being, I’ve been slowly coming around to my Dad’s point of view of this book.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here….

Shake Hands with the Devil begins with Roméo Dallaire’s account of his career leading up to his command of the UN mission into Rwanda at the end of the country’s civil war in the 90’s.  But, the meat of the work is his telling of his time leading that UN mission.  To be perfectly honest, I didn’t finish this book.  I’m got about a third of the way through it and lost all desire to finish it.  Coming home from work and using my free time to read about a bureaucratic nightmare, a county imploding because of its own factions, and the guilt Dallaire is willing to heap on everyone for the situation bumed me out – I didn’t want to read any more.  

This is my major sticking-point with this book: the blame Dallaire is willing to dole it out to everyone.  The West is racist because it preferred to throw resources at the war in Bosnia; Canada fell down on the job by not committing enough resources to Rwanda (he makes a point about how hard he had to fight to get a support staff from DND); he blames the UN for being a red-tape loving, head-up-their-own-asses institution that was unable to respond quickly enough to mission demands (and, okay, he called that one right); and he blamed the UN-field staff that was unwilling to step outside their comfy 9-5 existence in what was clearly a deteriorating situation.  

Some of these people/organizations did fall down on the job – no doubt – but the part that made me uncomfortable reading this book (and the dynamic that set my Dad against it so early and quickly) is that you simply don’t speak about your chain of command like that (publicly) in the army.  There is an ethos amongst Forces personnel that is almost inviolate – you do the job they’ve given you, you work with the resources they’ve given you, and you shut up and get on with it.  While reading SHWD it felt like Dallaire, whose own account of his early career paints him as working hard to get into this old-school mentality, completely stepped outside what was/is acceptable for army personnel to speak about.

Now, I know what you’re going to say – as a historian, I should know better: History is written by the victors.  Dallaire gets to write his account and throw as many people under the bus as he’d like because he survived Rwanda (and his own personal conflicts), and he secured a book deal.  True.  But Dallaire’s bias does a disservice to the topic – the Rwandans are not best served by having an emotional account of their horror as one of the main publications on the lead up to the genocide.  What needs to be out there is an un-biased (okay, I’ll say it, historian’s) account of the events – Dallaire’s polarizing work doesn’t do the topic justice.

Before you get your dander up, I’d like to stress that I’m not a monster – I have the utmost respect for Dallair’s because he stepped into a situation in Rwanda that I wouldn’t have gone near with a 100-foot poll.  I used to see him every so often at the mall in Orleans where I was working, and it was clear that he’s a broken man.  There’s no happiness in him that I could ever see and, saddest of all, the one time I saw him with his kids, they had the same vibe to them.  Rwanda destroyed many families, and Dallaire’s was one.

So where to go from here?  Do I recommend this book or not?  I’m not sure.  I personally didn’t enjoy it, but not passionately enough to waive anyone else off either.  The writing style of solid, the book includes a glossary of names and terms that is easy to consult if you forget who someone is or what an acronym stands for, and you do get an interesting look at how international bureaucracy functions.  But for all the points that make it easy to read, countered against the points I had a problem with, the simple fact is that this is a depressing read; I fizzled out because I just couldn’t bring myself to welcome the negativity into my down-time.  While the victims of Rwanda need to be remembered and honoured, I’m not sure this is the book with which to do it.