Thursday, September 27, 2007


Jet east all the way to Toronto to find fantasy master, Guy Gavriel Kay. Unsurprisingly, GGK was born in Saskatchewan, a strange and mystical land full of intrigue and mystery that must have filled him with bizarre and eccentric tales he was to use later in his fiction. GGK went to the University of Manitoba, became friends with Christopher Tolkien there, and ended up in England helping Christopher edit the notes of his dad, J. R. R. Tolkien, into the book, The Silmarillion. Pretty good apprenticeship for a future fantasy writer! While GGK went on to practice law in Toronto, the fire was lit and he is now a critically-acclaimed and popular fantasy novelist.

Like other writers tossed in the "genre writer" bin, Kay resists the label. But he does generally write within the "historical fantasy" area, with beautifully-written novels such as the three that make up The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road. His latest novel, Ysabel, is a slight departure, in that it is set in the present-day, about a 15 year old Canadian boy vacationing in Provence. Ned Marriner meets a girl, an attractive American exchange student (see? it is a fantasy!), Kate Wenger, who knows the history of the area and the local cathedral by heart. Publisher's Weekly picks up the story:
"In the ancient baptistry, the pair are surprised by a mysterious, scarred man wielding a knife who warns that they've "blundered into a corner of a very old story. It is no place for children." But Ned and Kate can't avoid becoming dangerously entangled in a 2,500-year-old love triangle among mythic figures. Kay also weaves in a secondary mystery about Ned's family and his mother's motivation behind her risky, noble work. The author's historical detail, evocative writing and fascinating characters, both ancient and modern, will enthrall mainstream as well as fantasy readers."
The good folks over at Bookninja have an audio interview with Kay in the spring issue of the Bookninja Magazine:
Kay is not only a thoughtful, graceful writer, but also an erudite, generous and funny interview. Men writing women, what sparks inspiration, the changes writers undergo over their careers, intelligent characters, the boundaries writers of all genres face, and the strength of myth. Fischer Guy asks Guy about his novels, process, and thoughts on literature.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Twice Born

Canada is especially rich in mystery writers, but there are a number of top fantasy and science fiction writers hereabouts too. And one of the most successful anywhere lives right here in Alberta, near Wainwright in a village called Edgerton. Pauline Gedge has sold over 6 million copies of her 11 books, which has to make her one of Canada's most successful authors methinks. She makes the drive in on Highway 14 to Edmonton tonight for a reading at Audrey's Books (7:30pm - 10702 Jasper Ave.)
Gedge specializes in "historical fantasy", a genre in which the action takes place in an imagined past here on Earth rather than in future outer space or an imagined world a la Tolkien. Gedge's preferred setting is Ancient Egypt, with historically detailed stories of pharoahs and priests along the banks of the Nile. Or perhaps not her "preferred setting", as the seven year break since the last novel included time spent trying to interest publishers in a novel set in 1970s rural Alberta. Apparently there's no interest in the exotic world of pickup trucks and eight-track tapes as no publishers went for the book, forcing Gedge back to Egpyt (or as Richard Helm so aptly put it in his article in the Journal today, "Gedge could see the writing on the papyrus.")

Gedge returns to Egypt in The Twice Born, in which a poor farm boy, Huy, is sent to a prestigious school for a chance at a better life as a scribe. Just as Huy starts to feel at home with his rich new friends, he is killed in an unexpected attack. After five days in a burial crypt, Huy miraculously revives. His mysterious return to life makes him a pariah (that's pariah, not pharaoh!), and although he longs to lead a normal life, Huy is haunted by visions of the deaths of those around him. Filled with the meticulous historical detail Gedge is known for, this is a welcome return for Gedge's many fans.

Robert J. Wiersema's review in the Journal notes that while "readers looking to immerse themselves in a strange and ancient culture and come out wiser (or at least more informed) will find much to savour in The Twice Born", and "reading this book will delight newcomers to ancient Egypt and satisfy ardent amateur Egyptologists", but he found the novel a bit slow and too detailed.

Looking south from Gedge's Edgerton, we find Calgary's Dave Duncan (okay, he moved to Victoria recently, the fate of all retired Calgarians). He is a successful fantasy/sci fi author of over 30 titles, including his most recent, a historical fantasy: The Alchemist's Apprentice. This novel, the first in a planned series, is set in an alternate Renaissance Venice and stars Alfeo Zeno, an apprentice to the alchemist (and seer) Nostradamus. When Nostradamus is accused of murder by Venice's ruling Council of Ten, it is up to Zeno to clear his master's name. Publisher's Weekly calls it a "charming farce" which provides "more amusement than chills."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Friend of the Devil

Oft-neglected by the critical establishment, Canada's so-called "genre fiction" writers are giants among readers and buyers of fiction. The crime fiction genre, aka mystery novels, is the top genre here at the Library, with an entire big section hived off on its own. The Canadian king of mystery fiction is Toronto's Peter Robinson. His Inspector Banks' novels have grown in popularity with each new title, and people note that the quality has not diminished over time as happens to many series with a continuing character. Indeed, Natasha Cooper in The Globe and Mail noted in her review that "Peter Robinson has now written 19 novels and he gets better with each one."

Robinson's latest, Friend of the Devil, is the 17th novel starring Yorkshire detective Alan Banks. While Robinson is a long-time resident of Toronto, he was born in Yorkshire and has set most of his writing back in the Old Sod. In this excellent addition to the series, Robinson revisits details of one of his best novels, Aftermath (2001), which focused on a British couple, the Paynes, who were loosely based on Canadian murderers Bernardo and Homolka.

And a bonus - many of Robinson's novels are downloadable as digital eAudiobooks from our NetLibrary digital audio service (free of charge, playable on PCs or MP3 players).

[***Update September 25 - There's an interview with Peter Robinson on the CBC's Words at Large blog, including:
CBC: Stephen King has called the Inspector Banks series the "best series on the market". How has it been living up to expectations based on prior successes and such acclaim?
Robinson: I don't really think about it. My only concern is to make the next book better than the one before, and that's more than enough to live up to. The series is doing well, though, and Friend of the Devil made No. 1 in the UK Sunday Times bestseller list.]

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Assassin's Song

M.G. Vassanji writes daunting books. Excellent, prize-winning, beautifully written books. But daunting. Even his biography is daunting - complex and byzantine [South Asian ethnoculturally, born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania, went to MIT in Boston, received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in theoretical nuclear physics, moved to Canada as a postdoctoral fellow at Atomic Energy of Canada, became a research associate at the University of Toronto. Began writing and soon enough was a best-selling writer and the first two-time winner of the Giller Prize!]

MGV was in Edmonton this week, reading from his latest critically-acclaimed, Giller-nominated novel: The Assassin's Song. St. Albert library patrons are not daunted - there are many holds on the many copies of his new book. But just looking at the short review from The New Yorker (August 20, 2007) exhausts me:
This resplendent novel traces the path of Karsan Dargawalla, who is brought up, as generations of his forefathers have been, to be the "gaadi-varas, the successor and avatar" of a seven-hundred-year-old Sufi shrine in Gujarat, a mausoleum of Muslim origin but for centuries open to all religions. Karsan, rebelling against "the iron bonds of history," leaves for Boston and Canada, though he ultimately returns to India to "research, recall, and write about" his abandoned heritage. Vassanji eloquently details the sufferings of Karsan's family as the price of his individual freedom, but suggests that this abandonment was necessary, and that tradition, in the face of India's "ancient animosities," must be engaged with critically and in the context of the wider world.
Okay, let's parse:
  • "brought up, as generations of his forefathers have been" - the dead weight of history, generations of pressure to choose the same career as Dad? Depressing! And that career is being a "gaadi-varas"? An "avatar" apparently, and not the avatar one creates when you are playing a video game. Quick wiki glimpse: in Hindu philosophy an avatar refers to the incarnation of a higher being onto planet Earth. So poor Karsan's hereditary job is as the physical incarnation of a god?!
  • "Sufi shrine" - Sufis are the Islamic sect known for their mysticism and their poetry. Moderates I think. But minorities everywhere. And it is in Gujarat, which is an area of India where Gandhi is from. And I would guess Hindus are the majority, with Muslims the minority, and perhaps the Sufis a minority of this minority.
Alright, the rest seems straightforward - not surprisingly our Karsan isn't keen on being an avatar and escapes to America, but one assumes he is filled with the regrets of anyone leaving their family and culture behind. So, perhaps, not as daunting as I fear. Perhaps I shall join the smart readers of St. Albert and request this "resplendent novel."

[**Update September 24 - Todd Babiak has an interview with MGV in his Sunday Edmonton Journal column here.]

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Turtle Valley

This is a great week for local fans of literature out loud, with the Gillespie launch yesterday, a double feature reading today and events every day during the Edmonton Poetry Festival:

Tuesday September 18
Turtle Valley, Anderson-Dargatz's fourth novel, revisits the setting of her first two novels, The Cure for Death by Lightning and A Recipe for Bees - BC's Shuswap region. As well, the new novel is a bit of a sequel to The Cure for Death by Lightning, with that novel's teenage character, Beth Weeks, reappearing in the new novel as a grandmother. The novel was inspired by the real Salmon Arm fire of 1998, when Anderson-Dargatz helped her parents evacuate their home.

Wednesday September 19

Thursday September 20

Friday September 21
Another poetry-filled day, including:

  • The Roar spoken word festival, aka the Lit Crawl, organized by writer Thomas Trofimuk. Starting at 7pm at various venues in downtown Edmonton.

Saturday September 22

  • Leonard Cohen Night: Crystal Plamondon and other musicians and poets honour poet and musician Leonard Cohen in this 6th annual event. 8pm at the Myer Horowitz Theatre, Students' Union Building, University of Alberta

Sunday September 23

  • The Edmonton Poetry Festival’s wrap-up event: Coffee Lines Stroll. Forty poets are lined up to give you a sip of their work. 2pm – 4pm at venues around Churchill Square

Monday, September 17, 2007

Crown Shyness

Edmonton writer Curtis Gillespie is known for his fine journalism, nominated many times for National Magazine Awards. His 2002 memoir of golf, family and Scotland, Playing Through is a perennial favourite here (and boasts back cover blurbs from Alistair MacLeod and Arnold Palmer!). His 1997 short story collection, The Progress of an Object in Motion won several major awards.

But Gillespie suffers a bit of the Edmonton effect, wherein Edmontonians don't realize the fabulousness of the folks right here in our midst, coupled with the Torontopian mindset out east that Edmonton produces bitumen, not culture. Never mind the real difficulties of getting a novel, and a novel about contemporary Alberta, published. Gillespie has already beaten the odds then, with today's launch of his first novel, Crown Shyness.

An Alberta story written by an Albertan and published by an Albertan publisher. Simply for jingoistic, regional reasons we should run out and buy the book! Happily, Crown Shyness is also an excellent novel, with interesting thoughts about Alberta politics and society plus a plot that chugs along nicely. The first review I have seen, a rave by Jay Smith in Vue Magazine [careful - this issue of Vue is their annual "Sex in the City" issue!] puts it well:
"Tackling the heart of Albertan identity, how we can be urban socialists who get along grandly with rural rednecks until gods, guns or homos enter the conversation, how we can have our feet planted in so many different social locations, Crown Shyness is a book that Albertans should read in order to feel the bliss of being finally understood, and that others should read in order to understand us."
Join Curtis Gillespie at the launch for Crown Shyness, tonight (Monday, September 17) @ 7:30 p.m. at the Nina Haggerty Centre of the Arts, 9704 111th Ave [close to Commonwealth Stadium].

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Reading through pop culture website PopMatters' review of the Toronto Film Festival, I realized I had neglected one film-based-on-a-book in my last post: Persepolis. Artist/author Marjane Satrapi has adapted her two graphic novel memoirs into an animated film with co-director Vincent Paronnaud. Both directors were on hand at the screening in Toronto, where the film received a standing ovation.

The books and the film use simple but effective black and white drawings to tell the story of Satrapi's childhood in revolutionary Iran and later, her experience in the West after she leaves Iran for school in Vienna. The books drew favourable comparisons to Art Spiegelman's iconic Maus (Satrapi acknowledges it was an inspiration).

Persepolis I & II received much critical acclaim as well as popular success. Here at the Library they languish somewhat, often on the shelf instead of in someone's home. Perhaps their location in the Teens area scares off adult readers? Other graphic novel memoirs seem to have trouble finding readers however, including the widely acclaimed, award-winning memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel.

A more traditional memoir (ie. text!), thematically similar to Persepolis, is Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. This book has been a favourite of local book clubs, full of good discussion possibilities. Nafisi was an English literature professor in Tehran but was fired once the Islamic Republic was declared. Her memoir tells of how Nafisi and a group of young women met in her home to read and discuss classic Western novels like Lolita, The Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Fugitive Pieces

Reading coverage of the Toronto Film Festival, I'm reminded of the odd thing about festivals - the disconnect between the serious stuff on stage and the buffoonery in the beer tent. I get whiplash at the Edmonton Folk Fest going from listening to the angry young folkster singing anguished songs at Stage 6 to the beer tent discussions of friends' avoiding ex-girlfriends.

This year TIFF opened with Fugitive Pieces, a film directed by Jeremy Podeswa, based on the much-acclaimed novel by Anne Michaels. A poetic, meditative novel about the Holocaust and the psychological damage it leaves in Jakob Beer, a young survivor, is the basis for a film described in The Toronto Star as "painterly"and "drained of drama". But I'm sure the post-film party was a blast! Actually, the Globe and Mail had a piece about the party here, and a snippit below:

Woman No. 1:
"It was a fabulous movie. I cried and cried and cried. Because of the hardships that he went through during the war. I didn't bring Kleenex. I forgot. My makeup was running down my face."
Man No. 1:
If we were allowed into the higher-end parties, we wouldn't be here, obviously. This is just another party. People expect to see famous people, but the most famous person I saw here was from MuchMusic.
Man No. 2:
Well, I saw the guy from Danger Bay.
Man No. 1:
The women here are really hot. I'd give this party a 10 out of 10 for hot women.
Man No. 2, trying to pick up a woman:
"Has anyone told you you look like Lindsay Lohan? You really do."
Woman's reaction:
"I don't think I've ever heard a worse pick-up line. She's apparently in rehab for the third time this year, she has two DUI's."

I really do hope Fugitive Pieces is a success. Perhaps our Friends of the Library will include it as a choice for their TIFF film series in the spring. But it sounds like a classic non-American film, in that it focuses on aspects other than narrative - the STORY. Say what you will about American films but what they share is the strong narrative drive that pulls you through from start to finish. And coincidentally the guru of story in film, the iconic Robert McKee, is in Edmonton Friday to Sunday teaching his famous "Story Seminar" at NAIT. What a coup for NAIT! The Journal's Todd Babiak talks about attending in his blog here.

There are a number of other films based on novels debuting at TIFF:Any others you've heard rumours of? Let me know...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bel Canto

I'm sure "Nessun Dorma", "Che Gelida Manina" and other arias were played full blast in many a home this week upon the news of the passing of the King of the High C's, Luciano Pavarotti.

Like many folks, my first introduction to opera was through Bugs Bunny ("Kill da wabbit!"). But later I had an opera epiphany when I saw my first opera, La Bohème, November 18, 1986 at the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) [above left]. A friend and I were backpacking through Europe after university. We joined the young people camped outside the Opera house for standing room tickets (20 schillings, about $2 Cdn). We met a fellow Canadian in line, a Montrealer living in Vienna, going to school to become an orchestra conductor. He became our guide to Boheme and opera, explaining the plot, telling us what to listen for, describing why this Franco Zeffirelli production was so good and who the singers were. And then the performance - a revelation! A light bulb crackled to life in my head as (manly) tears rolled down my cheeks.

Back in Canada I bought the classic 1973 recording of La Bohème, which stars Pavarotti as Rodolfo and Mirella Freni as Mimi, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. In the mists of time since them, I have remembered that it was Luciano Pavarotti who played Rodolpho that night in Wien. Alas, checking my dusty trip souvenirs this week I found the program and see Rodolpho was played by somebody named Alberto Cupido (not a bad name for an opera singer mind you!). No matter - it is Pavarotti on those cassettes that I have enjoyed all these years!

Pavarotti's fabulous voice plus his rock star celebrity and sense of showmanship pulled many others into opera over the years. But for a superb look at the appreciation of opera by true aficionados, you need to read the novel Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. This is one of my go-to, can't-miss readers' advisory suggestions at the Library. I've never had anyone return to say "I didn't like it." An interesting novel about opera? Absolutely. There's also kidnapping, romance, politics and stunning writing throughout. Plus it is based loosely on a real event, the 1996 Peruvian hostage crisis.

A birthday party is held at the mansion of the vice-president of a small South American country for Mr. Hosokawa, the head of a Japanese electronics manufacturer, in hopes of convincing him to set up shop in the country. The bait is a private performance by the world's leading soprano, Roxanne Cross, as Mr. Hosokawa is an opera fanatic. But terrorists break into the mansion during the party, hoping to kidnap the country's president. They soon find out that the president, not an opera fan, has skipped the party. And so a standoff begins, with 57 international guests, 18 terrorists and 1 opera singer learning to live together.

Sometimes implausible but always intriguing, Bel Canto is the very definition of a "good read". Try it with some Puccini and the King of the High C's on in the background.

[**Robert Everett-Green's appreciation in the Globe here. A gathering of obits in Arts & Letters Daily here]

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Miss Read

A gorgeous sunny day for back to school. It makes me wish I was wandering the groves of academe too. But I also remember my very first class, at the ungodly hour of 8am. The unbelievably long lines for everything. The terror of knowing absolutely no one on a gigantic campus. And that was just nursery school!

The Dewey Divas have a good post about Back to School books, including Diva Anne's thoughts on more bucolic school times. She recommends two Canadian Prairie classics, Gabrielle Roy's Children of My Heart and Max Braithwaite's Why Shoot the Teacher. Both are set on the Prairies during the 1930s, focused on a lonely, young teacher.

But for true bucolic school day goodness, Anne recommends Miss Read and her gentle tales of country English village life, which revolve around the local school teacher. I remember Miss Read as one of those authors like Jean Plaidy or Catherine Cookson or R.F. Delderfield that filled shelf after shelf in my small hometown library when I was young, hiding all the good authors like Isaac Asimov or Frederick Forsyth! But I know several people who would agree with Diva Anne:
"A friend introduced me to these wonderful, warm stories of village life .... They are wonderful books that you can pick up in moments when you just want a quiet read. The action is set around daily living and the personalities of the community and the children in the school house. You feel like they are neighbours once you get hooked. The muddy boots in the cloakroom, school lunches, the first snow flakes, Christmas parties and jumble sales. Treat yourself."