University Press Week!

It’s University Press Week! This must be a new designation because in the past I have honoured university press books in a haphazard way, apparently at the wrong time of year. My efforts to get some Canadian university press books on the Canada Reads longlist was a sad failure, but those savvy folk at the Association of American University Presses have brought this one down in time for Christmas shopping. I have more than my share of opinions about what you should gift your loved ones with this year, so with no further ado, I give you three amazing university press offerings sitting on shelves right now!

Harvard University Press’s Jane Austen Annotated Editions

Emma is the third in Harvard University Press’s Annotated Jane Austen series, and every bit as beautiful as the previous publications of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. The whole oeuvre of Austen in these hardcovers would be magnificent on the shelf of any collector, but be warned that no paperbacks are currently forthcoming. These are lavishly illustrated editions beautifully assembled, and would barely hold together in a less sturdy format. But at $35-$40 each, who could complain anyway? Harvard, by the way, seems to be going whole-hog into these amazing annotated editions. An annotated Frankenstein also appeared on our shelves this fall, and is no less recommended.

Northwestern University Press’s World Classics Series

I think one of the greatest services university presses renders is in keeping lesser-known works of great literature in print in good, well-edited and produced editions. Northwestern University Press has a number of these series, but I have a special spot in my heart for the World Classics. They have editions of the poetry of Pushkin and Pasternak, a lovely new Divine Comedy of Dante and Rilke. Lesser known additions include Anne Seymore Damer, Ivan Shcheglov, Luigi Meneghello and Ilya Ilf. These books are paperbacks, but exceed Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics in quality by a mile. If you like NYRB editions, you’d love these.

Yale University Press’s The Woman Reader

Of course, most of what university presses tend to publish are academic books. This doesn’t, however, mean inaccessible, specialist books. Belinda Jack’s The Woman Reader is what Yale considers a “trade” publication, but this is a step beyond “books for anyone”. It is a historical overview of how women read, and have read, over the ages and cultures complete with endnotes and citations. But the book is anything but dry: Jack’s prose is succinct, funny, and totally readable by the non-specialist. Yale has a great backlist of similarly academic-but-enjoyable books on books, including Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the RenaissanceMargaret Willes’s Reading Matters and Alberto Manguel’s A Reader on Reading.

Hardly the Bottom of the Box: An Interview With JonArno Lawson

I practiced the poems from JonArno Lawson’s new children’s poetry collection for two days before meeting with him to talk about them. Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box is an absolute treat to recite, but as I’d discovered that first night reading aloud to my 4-year-old, putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable can result in an unrhythmic stumble and a loss of musicality. A well-rehearsed poem, on the other hand, dances off the tongue and tickles the ears. These were poems that rewarded a careful performance. Consider “Monkeys in the Dump”:

A clump of clumsy monkeys lumbered through the dump.
The clumsiest amongst them tumbled over in the junk-
it jumped and spun and tried to run but crumpled to its rump
then slunk away until it slumped into the muck, and sunk.

I was pleased when I mastered the performative aspect of Lawson’s poems, and surprised to discover that he himself doesn’t enjoy doing readings. It’s a question of temperament rather than a philosophical aversion, but nevertheless unexpected given Lawson’s emphasis on sound.

Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box is a collection of nonsense poems for the young (and young at heart) in the tradition of Dennis Lee and Dr. Seuss. Lawson starts his poems from sounds and builds with orality in mind. The results are clever and fun to read, and so it’s no wonder that he has found success as a children’s poet. He has won the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry twice (in 2007 and 2009), and has been short-listed for the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award. He estimates he has published ten books so far, though his first two collections of adult poetry have recently been pulped by their publisher, Exile. It has been as a children’s poet that Lawson has found success, though there is nothing about his work which is facile or simple.

Every parent in the country reads poetry to their children, and yet as adults many of us seem to have lost the taste. What changes? Lawson suggests that as adults, we look down on rhythm and rhyming, which is at the core of what we offer to our children. “Adults can recite Dr. Seuss without thinking,” he points out, but we don’t think to look for the same qualities as adult readers. Could that gap be bridged? Perhaps, we agreed. “We could use the lessons from childhood to inform adult poetry.”

Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box is unquestionably a book with adult appeal. It is beautifully produced by Porcupine’s Quill on their distinctive Zephyr Antique paper and features 32 full-page paper-cut prints by Mexican-Canadian artist Alec Dempster. It was this pairing with Dempster that Lawson says sold the book to Porcupine’s Quill. Though Lawson had published A Voweller’s Bestiary with Porcupine’s Quill in 2008, they weren’t sure what to do with the poems that would become Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box. These poems were originally part of the manuscript that would become Kids Can Press‘s Think Again, but they were culled to give Think Again the narrative structure it has in its finished form. Alone the poems of Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box are cute, but alongside Dempster’s stark, surreal relief-cuts the book takes on a stranger, more macabre quality. “The Inksters like a challenge,” Lawson says of his publisher, and the Lawson-Dempster combo gave them an off-the-beaten-path project.

Indeed, life as a children’s poet seems to mean a lot of collaboration. Lawson’s children’s books have been illustrated by a variety of artists, including Voweller’s Bestiary, which he illustrated himself. Speaking of Dennis Lee & Frank Newfeld’s contentious collaborating relationship, Lawson concedes the classic illustrations for Alligator Pie were “Ugly, but unique,” but that it’s good for a poet to be pushed “outside his comfort zone.” He has generally had only a small amount of control over who illustrated his work and how. Dempster certainly seems to have had free reign with Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, producing more work for the book than anyone thought he would. Lawson only met him a couple of times, including at the book’s launch. The artist and poet produced their contributions independently  – but Lawson had faith in Porcupine’s direction, and seems pleased with the results.

As for the kids, I think they’d be pleased too. Lawson’s three children – aged 11, 8 & 4 as of this writing – provided input and inspiration for the work, and Lawson tells me they still read poetry willingly. My 4-year-old found the poems challenging initially, but after some practice on my part she warmed to them. The intended audience is likely the older child, but adults should pay attention too. The language is smart and flows beautifully. An emphasis on sound and rhyme ought to recommend it as much to the adult reader as to the younger. If you need a final selling point, just have a look at a physical copy. You’ll be loathe to relinquish it to the sticky and inexact care of your children! It’s a beautiful work in every sense, and highly recommended.

This review and interview based on a review copy courtesy of Porcupine’s Quill, and an enjoyable in-person chat with JonArno Lawson.

Wattpad and the New Reader

On October 24th 2012, Margaret Atwood released her latest novel, a serialized zombie horror novel co-written with the relatively unknown young British author Naomi Alderman, through the free online reading service Wattpad. As of today, Monday, November 5th 2012, it is being read by approximately 4,300 people. By conventional Canadian bestselling wisdom, The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home is a bestseller in just under two weeks. And it’s not even a completed novel.

Is this the future of publishing? Or, at least, a straw on the back of traditional publishing’s camel? Wattpad is a fascinating service, and I can see why traditional publishers are hand-wringing over their future given the existence of this and other similar services.

Let me break Wattpad down for you. Wattpad lets users upload content, usually grouped as a project divided into “parts”. In June it reportedly hosted more than 5 million user-generated stories in 25 languages. These stories (and poems) can then be read on Wattpad’s website or with Wattpad’s app by any number of its 3.5 million registered users. Stories are tagged with genres – most popularly, Romance, Teen, Vampire, Fan Fiction and Fantasy – as well as some miscellaneous write-in tags, then sent off into the ether. Readers “discover” future reads through browsing (much like Kickstarter) rather than with a more fine-grained searching process.

Getting read on Wattpad depends on readers finding your story. Readers can browse by vague criteria like “What’s Hot”, “What’s New” and “Undiscovered Gems”, they could choose to investigate your book if it happens to pop up in your randomized “recommended” window, or they can be directed right to your story with a link – if someone brings that link to their attention. The default browse option is the “Hotness” chart. “Hotness” is determined by a top-secret Wattpad blend of activity measures.  Your story gets a boost for being new. There are points for new chapters being added. You get points for receiving “reads, “votes” and “comments”. The highest scoring books will show up first and most often when readers go to find new books. A long-completed book will tend to flounder. So will a book that doesn’t get enough “activity”, which means reads and votes. New writers are encouraged to get the word out, to stump their book amongst their friends and relatives. The reward for getting those favours is a higher ranking in the search engine, which hypothetically will result in more “real” reads from actual Wattpad users. A system like this rewards the serialized novel. With new updates every few days or weeks the novel has constant activity and thus a high ranking. Not surprisingly, a typical Wattpad reader has a dozen or more stories on the go at once. Each book might only update a couple times a month, so they read more of them at a time. A book or author that doesn’t update might be forgotten as new, active, hot reads are found.

Two things you have to understand: an enormous amount of what is on Wattpad is terrible. I mean, it’s really, very bad. The average age of the Wattpad user is 20 – no small number of the stories are written by the 14-16 year old bracket. But secondly, many Wattpad users don’t seem to care. Things you might consider to be fundamental to a novel like spelling, grammar and, oh, I don’t know, an ending are routinely disregarded on Wattpad.  Some of the hottest, most-viewed titles on the page barely qualify as amateur. Do the readers care? Apparently not. There are millions of users reading millions of stories a dozen at a time and absolutely nothing offered by a traditional publisher matters to them. The editing? Design? Advertising? All irrelevant. The traditional publisher has absolutely no place in the reading lives of these users.

These readers have always existed. The internet age did not create them. Janice Radway’s 1984 ethnography of romance readers, Reading the Romance, reported that something like 88% of her romance readers were reading between 1-9 romance novels per week. That’s 50-450 per year. They were devouring content with very little, let’s be honest, literary value. If we’re generous and assume those novels cost as little as $4.99 each, then those readers would have been spending $250-$2250/year on just romances. Each.

Well, now they can get them for free. These are the readers that services like Wattpad, Smashwords and Fictionpress appeal to, and this is the money that traditional publishers are hemorrhaging. The hand wringing – I get it now. That’s a lot of money. And how much of that money was underwriting the publication of the much-less lucrative literary fiction?

Literary fiction would have a lot of trouble in this format, Ms. Atwood’s efforts notwithstanding. There is simply no time to edit, let alone revise. I won’t even touch on the very-welcome input of third-party editors and fact-checkers. Speed is the name of the game: you need to update your novel at least every couple of weeks, and while you are welcome to go back and make changes to previously-published chapters, it’s unlikely any of your followers will go back and take any note. Dropping a whole, edited novel at once doesn’t capitalize on the algorithm for getting your book to the top of the charts. A successful writer in this medium pulps out quick, easy-to-understand content in short bursts and spends the rest of her time working the forums and social media sites. Reading, research, and consideration are secondary concerns you won’t likely have time for. This type of reader is impatient. Content has to be delivered quickly, and that content has to be understood quickly. If your novel takes three chapters to set up mood and setting, you may be doomed.

Despite Wattpad’s being a free service filled with free content, its highest ranked writers do try to monetise their work. A number of Wattpad writers have snagged agents and traditional publishers for their work, most famously Brittany Geragotelis, author of What the Spell & Life’s a Witch, who got a 3-book, 6-figure deal with Simon & Schuster for her trouble. Many Wattpad writers also self-publish their completed work through Lulu, Amazon or Smashwords, or continue to offer their first books for free while charging for sequels. Already-published authors also make an appearance, contributing partial novels or short works in order to whet an appetite for the completed work, for money, offered elsewhere.  I’d love to know how this works out for the self-published writer.

Atwood has suggested that Wattpad isn’t a replacement for traditional publishing, but a gateway to it. While yes, because the money is still in traditional publishing, I think Wattpad’s writers see that as being the case, but I am less convinced about its readers. What does a published book offer them that a Wattpad story doesn’t? Will these readers make the transition to whole, slow books?

I decided to take the dive and try the service myself, uploading a bottom-drawer manuscript to see how it plays with the reading masses. The experiment has been informative – I am no nearer to knowing if my book is any good, or if anyone likes it, but I am becoming deeply aware of how important author engagement is to getting there. It took very little activity for my book to shoot up into Wattpad’s Top 20 Hottest books, but much of that activity is readers glancing at the first chapter and moving on. The same can be said for Happy Zombie Sunrise Home – the first chapter has been viewed 10,000 times, vs the 2,200 who have looked at Chapter 4. About 1 in 5 readers sticks with in, meaning you need to get that many more people to even go take that glance. This means chatting people up, handing out your card and yes, keeping the book on the charts. It is no different than a traditional novel. How many books sold sit unread on shelves? This is certainly a cheaper way for a reader to dabble. Readers are coming to expect to be able to sample for free – publishers now routinely offer first chapters for reader perusal. Whether the reader is willing to pay to continue is the million dollar question.

So in keeping with the spirit of Wattpad I offer you a sample of my book, The Incredible Bazza’Jo. It’s a Young Adult Fantasy with colonial, environmental and social themes. It also has, if I do say so myself, some really excellent action and adventure elements, as well as an “age appropriate” romantic sub-plot. Click away! And while you’re at it, take a look at Wattpad and let me know what you think – a fad, or a keeper? Will these kids grow into paid, long-form books?

Canada Reads 2013: By The Numbers

Ladies and Gentlemen, your Canada Reads 2013 Longlists!

So how does it shake down? Here’s some statistics:

Total Nominated Women: 30

Total Nominated Men: 20

Gold Star Goes To: British Columbia, with 9 women & 1 man nominated.

Total Nominees By Publisher:

Random House: 23
Penguin: 6
Harper Collins: 5
House of Anansi: 5
Douglas & McIntyre: 4
MacMillan: 2
Everyone Else: 5

Oldest BookAnne of Green Gables, 1908

Published in 2012: 8

Published 2001-2011: 25

Published 1993-2000: 6

Published before 1993: 11


Published in the last 10 years: 66%

Published in the last 20 years: 78%

Published 20 or more years ago: 22%

Lots of books I’d like to read among these finalists! Get your votes in by November 12th and on the 14th we’ll know who our finalists are!

Book-Lover’s Guilt

In case you weren’t feeling glum enough about the imminent closure of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, last night we got the news that Canada’s largest independent publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, has filed for bankruptcy.

The news brought a chorus of astonished gasps and moans from Twitter. Nobody likes to see things like this. Good, experienced publishing people could lose their jobs. Writers could lose their publishers. Their books could go out of print. Oh, and something about the cultural contribution too. Canadian culture, supporting our own, something something.

Of course, if everyone who was so sad to see them in straits actually spent money on their books, they might not be so bad off. That was the first thing I thought, in any case. Oh man, when was the last time I bought a Douglas & McIntyre book, anyway? The summer of 2010, Darwin’s Bastards, Zsuzsi Gardner? July 2010. Cigar Box Banjo, Paul Quarrington, for my husband’s birthday. November 2011, Something Fierce, Carmen Aguirre, for Canada Reads. That’s $80 in two years. No wonder they’re going out of business! Why didn’t I pick up Daniel O’Thunder, Lightning, The Book of Marvels when I saw them? And why didn’t I buy them all at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore?!

The fact is I can barely feed myself and my children, let alone every writer, publisher and bookseller in Canada. But that doesn’t prevent the lingering guilty feeling that I somehow should have tried.

My coworkers and I sit here scratching our heads this morning, wondering how this could have happened to D&M. They have a phenomenal list. We bring in – and sell – almost every single book they publish. What more must a publisher provide? Great, well made books that people want to buy. Isn’t that the formula? How can that fail to pay the bills?

Admittedly, I live in a bubble. Our bookstore sells books nobody else can manage to move. My customers are heavy readers who – bless them – never ask about the prices, just pay them. My friends are heavily educated and literate, with a strong sense of social responsibility when it comes to supporting the local. My 276 Twitter followers seem to be 200 authors, 75 publicists and my mom. The millions of people who buy and read 50 Shades of Grey? I don’t know who they are.

So maybe out there in the real world, D&M’s excellent books are going unnoticed. Maybe all the “buzz” the journalists, bloggers, reviewers and publicists claim to be out there is being generated by review copies and good intentions. I’m a bookseller and a blogger, after all.  I have my share of books given to me, and what I buy I often buy at cost. Maybe I am to blame after all. Do we excuse ourselves from buying books because we feel our endorsement, our “word of mouth” is worth more than the $19.95 we’d spend on the book? I wonder sometimes. I don’t know how else to reconcile the contradiction I’m seeing. We all love and “support” these books, and yet the money isn’t there. Are the readers – the ones who don’t work for the publishing houses, who don’t get their copies for free – there? Are they reading our reviews and buying the books? Does buzz equal sales?

We’re troubled, this morning, about what this could all mean. If a Douglas & McIntyre can’t make it, I wonder if anyone can. Does a publisher need to be propped up by a mega-bestseller (and does a Canada Reads winner not suffice)?

Canada Reads 2013: Dundurn Press

And so, to recap: This year Canada Reads is once again crowd-sourcing their shortlist, asking members of the very literate public to submit their suggestions for long-form, fictional contenders for the top prize. This year’s catch: the books will be divided regionally, one each from five Canadian regions will go toe-to-toe. I don’t think this is much of a limitation – we love our writers wherever they come from, right? The only thing I would like to see, and what I am actively promoting this month, is some representation from Those Who Came Before us, a book or two, maybe, written at least 20 years ago. I don’t care where they are from.

For the last two weeks I have been profiling publishers who have, for one reason or another, been safeguarding our literary heritage and keeping some older classics in-print and available for us. From those publishers I have been putting forth a few suggestions, books I don’t think should be overlooked by writers whose names we all know but who we haven’t, I bet, actually read. Look back: I have covered House of Anansi’s A-List, The University of Alberta Press, McGill-Queens University Press and Penguin Classics.

Let’s kick off this week with Dundurn Press. I looked this way because I remembered their lovely and, frankly, hilarious Voyageur Classics (check out the Hudson’s Bay Company colours – awesome!), but quickly reminded myself that they do us the great service of keeping ALL SIXTEEN of Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna books in print. I know, !!! With no further ado, look this way:

Atlantic Provinces:

L.M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle

“Valancy lives a drab life with her overbearing mother and prying aunt. Then a shocking diagnosis from Dr. Trent prompts her to make a fresh start. For the first time, she does and says exactly what she feels. As she expands her limited horizons, Valancy undergoes a transformation, discovering a new world of love and happiness. One of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s only novels intended for an adult audience.”


Mazo de la Roche, The Building of Jalna

“In The Building of Jalna, Adeline, an impulsive bride with an Irish temper, and her husband, Captain Whiteoak, select Lake Ontario as the site of their new home. De la Roche chronicles their trials and tribulations during the building of the house, the swimming and skating parties, and the jealousies and humourous events that arise. This is book 1 of 16 in The Whiteoak Chronicles.”

Canada Reads 2013: Penguin Classics

One week left to get your Canada Reads 2013 nominations in! I’m waiting ’til the bitter end to send mine in, and in case you are too I’m offering recommendations as a free public service! There’s a catch, though, which is that I am trying to bring our heritage back, trying to drag an oldie into the mix to see how it holds up in debate to all the youngsters we’ll no doubt see in the line-up. All of my recommandations will be at least 20 years old, arranged by publisher to give you all a sense of who is keeping what in print, in case you have forgotten.

So far I’ve talked a little about House of Anansi’s A-List, the University of Alberta Press, and McGill Queens University Press. That’s two academic publishers to one mainstream – a bit of an inevitability when you’re talking about who is willing to provide the public service of guarding our cultural heritage for its own sake. But there are big players in the Classic Canadian Literature game, maintaining lists of, also inevitably, some of our biggest, brightest, most well-known literary giants. There is a romantic tendency, on my part as much as anyone’s,  to want to use Canada Reads as a vehicle to promote lesser known writers deserving a kick at the Professional Writer can. While I absolutely want to see some unknown titles on a good top-five list, I also like to see a few good old stalwarts. It lends credit to whoever wins – an unknown winner among unknown nominees feel a bit like a straw dog, standing in for something with a real soul. If a book is that good, surely it can stand it’s own against the best?

Penguin Books Canada will probably represent at least one or two of this year’s finalists, whoever they be. But I’m going to look in particular at those titles which have made Penguin’s internationally relevant Penguin Classics line. I’m not going to lie to you, some of these books are on my list of all-time favourite books. They stand up against the giants of literature from any country, any time. I’d be happily shipwrecked with them. I’m so proud to be a product of the same culture which produced them. I hope to Pete that you had to read them in school, if not on your own time, but if you haven’t, do yourself a favour: do.

So please consider:


Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels
It is an abject CRIME that Davies has never been represented on a Canada Reads shortlist. This is probably my favourite book by one of my favourite authors. From the blurb: “Gypsies, defrocked monks, mad professors, and wealthy eccentrics—a remarkable cast peoples Robertson Davies’ brilliant spectacle of theft, perjury, murder, scholarship, and love at a modern university.” How could you not love this?

Timothy Findley, Famous Last Words

Another favourite book from a favourite author! Findley was already up for Canada Reads for Not Wanted on the Voyage, but while Not Wanted is definitely my favourite work of Findley’s, I think Famous Last Words is a more literary, more accomplished novel. Read as a “retelling” of a brilliant poem by Ezra Pound’s, it is a work of unqualified genius. The blurb: “In the final days of the Second World War, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley scrawls his desperate account on the walls and ceilings of his ice-cold prison high in the Austrian Alps. Officers of the liberating army discover his frozen, disfigured corpse and his astonishing testament—the sordid truth that he alone possessed. Fascinated but horrified, they learn of a dazzling array of characters caught up in scandal and political corruption. The exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor, von Ribbentrop, Hitler, Charles Lindbergh, Sir Harry Oakes—all play sinister parts in an elaborate scheme to secure world domination.”


Mordecai Richler, Solomon Gursky Was Here

Did you know Mordecai Richler and Margaret Atwood are the only Canadian novelists to ever make the Canada Reads finals twice? Neither of them have won, either. Nor do I think they would, because the panelists tend to like to give the prize to books which “need the attention”. But their presence in the field is important, I think, in order to bring the discusion up to standard. So how about Solomon Gursky? The blurb: “Moses Berger is very young when he first hears the name that will obsess him and drive him on a quest across Canada and Europe. His life becomes consumed with unravelling the secrets from the startling, almost mythical life of a man and family shrouded in lies.”

Argh, Neal Stephenson!!!

WARNING! What follows is like a review, only without any of the pensive analysis and even-handed evaluation one might expect from a reasonably seasoned reviewer. What follows may contain coarse language, frustrated outbursts, and crass sentiments. What follows is my I-just-put-the-book-down reaction to Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, REAMDE.

First of all, know that I am a huge – HUGE – Neal Stephenson fangirl. I think he’s just brilliant – a smart, big-idea thinker who writes snappy, smart, funny prose and tells intricate, incredible, well-plotted stories. I admit, yes, he is long-winded. But I have ever maintained that it pays off. Sure, it takes like 500 pages to get in to Quicksilver. But, no worries: there’s another 2500 pages after that in the story. It’s worth it, it’s to the point. Anathem might have two appendixes of raw mathematics to absorb but who cares? It’s plot math. Learn the math. It will enrich your reading experience and make you a fundamentally better person.

And I’ll admit, yes, his writing lately has been a bit rough-shod. Anathem is a minor mess of typos and in bad need of a substantive edit. It seem clear to me that it was written in one pass with no especial effort made to edit – but it is precisely this quality of instant, unedited genius that makes me love Stephenson. Obviously, everything that falls of his tongue is golden. He’s just talkin’, man. He’s just telling you a story, and it’s the greatest story ever told. He’s just raw dumping ideas straight into your lap. Ideas communicated to you by the best, funniest, most excellent characters doing all the coolest things.

So I was so very psyched about REAMDE even though, admittedly, the jacket flap made the story sound dull. Because, it’s Stephenson! He could write a phone book and it would blow your mind. 100 pages in, okay, maybe it would have been nice if someone had done an edit. Specifically, someone who understood Stephenson’s audience because, you know, we know what an URL is. We don’t need it explained. 200 pages, now we’re getting somewhere. 400 pages, it’s not clear where we are now.

500 pages in – the half way mark – I’m starting to feel disheartened. Because the story as I understood it blew up 200 pages ago, and the new story isn’t clear yet. I’m waiting for one of those big-idea bombs of Stephenson’s to hit and make it all mean something. I flip ahead to the end – yes, I read the end before the middle, this is common in my world – and it doesn’t seem immediately obvious that anything revolutionary is coming. So I wonder, well shit, what if this is all there is? And I have another 500 pages of it to go?

I equivocate on whether or not to finish the book. Over 24 hours I talk myself into and out of forging ahead. In the end I stick to the book for the sole unquestionable reason that I am completely in love with Csongor – the romantic lead, if the book can be said to have one – by now, and am skimming the paragraphs for physical descriptions of him. “Armed Hungarian man-tank” – be still my heart! It helps that Sokolov is also turning out to be a very yummy badass, so, okay, I can do this. It’s still Stephenson. There’s probably some pay off coming soon anyway.

700 pages and I’ve rallied a little. The characters have stopped meandering and they seem to be coming together to form a more unified plot of some kind.

800 pages, most of the characters are meandering again. Csongor – where is Csongor? I don’t know, but now we’ve met Seamus, who is sort of amusing.

900 pages. I’ve resorted to reading other people’s reviews of the book already, as they are less tedious than the book itself. I learn the final 150 pages of the book are basically one big gun battle, packed with the minutia of various firearms. Classic Stephenson infodump, but who the hell cares about guns? They aren’t even futuristic scifi guns. Oh man. I’m skimming again. Csongor’s back, but he’s had to take a back seat to the other, actual badass characters in the book. Sokolov makes every other character in the book entirely redundant. People are killed who I don’t remember having been introduced. The romantic climax of the book is over in three lines and pays off not at all. I can’t tell you how robbed I am feeling at this stage.

I’m still waiting for the payoff when I realize I’m reading the acknowledgements. I slam the tome shut. So that happened. I have finished, despite resistance, Neal Stephenson’s latest novel and basically, I’m so disappointed that I’m numb. Was it even that bad? Maybe I was hoping for something else? Would I be so disappointed if I hadn’t set the bar so high?

Well fuck that, really. I read Stephenson because I like my bar HIGH. REAMDE falls on its ass during the qualifiers and I still sat around for the final, that’s all. Should have read something else after the preliminary flub.

Back in the saddle, though. It’ll be at least another year before Stephenson’s likely to be able to vomit out another 1k pages, so that’s a good amount of time to detox and find what I wanted in someone else’s work. And who am I kidding? I will be all over Stephenson’s next. One fall? Really? I’ll survive. Maybe the next will be all that and more.

Canada Reads 2013: McGill Queens University Press

Votes are due in October 24th! I can’t believe how soon that is, so without wasting more time today I continue my Canada Reads 2013 campaign. For those of you just tuning in, I am bound and determined to raise the visibility of older works of Canadian literature, and so I will be featuring some overlooked publishers who have been keeping up the good work of keeping older CanLit in print. I hope to make a range of suggestions for each region defined for this year’s competition. Last week I pointed to House of Anansi’s A-List offerings and the University of Alberta Press.

Today I have the pleasure of featuring the McGill-Queens University Press and some of it’s affiliates. I’m pleased because a MQUP focus lets me do double-duty today. Not only does MQUP publish offerings from the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts, but they happen to have a good back-catalogue of Hugh MacLennan, and Mr. MacLennan gets my shout-out today because next week the Montreal’s Writers’ Chapel Trust will be laying a plaque in the Writers’ Chapel of St James the Apostle Anglican Church in his honour.  (Want to attend? contact Adrian King-Edwards @ The Word Bookstore,, 514-845-5640.)

So here is some MacLennan, but also some major selections from the Early Canadian Texts. Don’t turn up your nose like that – have YOU read them? That’s right. Please do consider:


Hugh MacLennan, The Watch that Ends the Night
“George and Catherine Stewart share not only the burden of Catherine’s heart disease, which could cause her death at any time, but the memory of Jerome Martell, her first husband and George’s closest friend. Martel, a brilliant doctor passionately concerned with social justice, is presumed to have died in a Nazi prison camp. His sudden return to Montreal precipitates the central crisis of the novel.”

Frances Brooke, The History of Emily Montague

Atlantic Provinces:

Thomas Chandler Haliburton, The Clockmaker

James De Mille, A Strange Manuscript found in a Copper Cylinder
I had to mention this somewhere – possibly Canada’s first science fiction novel! An oddball work of adventure and philosophy very much in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs or, hell, George Sand.


John Richardson, Wacousta or, The Prophecy

Phyllis Brett Young, The Torontonians

Canada Reads 2013: University of Alberta Press

On Tuesday I fielded the crazy idea that Canada Reads 2013 should feature one, if not more, older books. My reasoning being that we in Canada like to pooh-pooh our history without knowing it very well, and as the years crawl by deserving writers who forged the path for the newer ones are being forgotten and neglected. Canada Reads lets us remember them and, perhaps, compare them to the newer generation to see how both have fared, how both came to be, and how the old informed the new. Despite what you might surmise after browsing a bookstores shelves, quite a lot of good Canadian Literature remains in print in excellently curated serieses and editions. Over the next two weeks I will feature a number of presses who keep excellent backlists, and I will put forth some regional suggestions of classic CanLit which are at least 20 years old. Before you cast your vote in this year’s competition, I hope you will stick with me and remind yourself of some older but still worthy contenders.

Looking West? Let me point you at the University of Alberta Press, whose cuRRents series in Canadian Literature contains some excellent choices. Canada Reads has asked us to stick to full-length novels this year, but I hope you’ll have a look at U of A’s full list out of your own interest – they have a special focus on poetry and no small number of short story collections. But here are four novels from two under-read Westerners for your consideration!

Prairies and the North:

Robert Kroetsch, The Studhorse Man
“Hazard Lepage, the last of the studhorse men, sets out to breed his rare blue stallion, Poseidon. A lusty trickster and a wayward knight, Hazard’s outrageous adventures are narrated by Demeter Proudfoot, his secret rival, who writes this story while sitting naked in an empty bathtub. In his quest to save his stallion’s bloodline from extinction, Hazard leaves a trail of anarchy and confusion. Everything he touches erupts into chaos necessitating frequent convalescences in the arms of a few good women–excepting those of Martha, his long-suffering intended. Told with the ribald zeal of a Prairie beer parlor tall tale and the mythic magnitude of a Greek odyssey, The Studhorse Man is Robert Kroetsch’s celebration of unbridled character set against the backdrop of a rough-and-ready Alberta emerging after the war. ”

Robert Kroetsch, What the Crow Said

Sinclair Ross, Sawbones Memorial
“After practicing medicine for forty-five years, Doctor “Sawbones” Hunter is retiring. It’s April 1948, and the long-awaited hospital in Upward, Saskatchewan is about to open. Although the war is over and the town is buoyed by optimism, a change is in the air. Revealed through dialogue and memory, Sawbones Memorial is the story of one man as told by his town.”

Sinclair Ross, Whir of Gold
“Sonny, an aspiring musician, and Mad, a young woman down on her luck, struggle to survive in the mean streets of Montreal.”