Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mary Lawson, Crow Lake (2002)

Lawson, Mary, Crow Lake, Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2002. 291 pages


Crow Lake at Goodreads
For more Friday's Forgotten Books visit Patti Abbott's blog


Rating: 7/10


Not all tragedies are at the caliber of Oedipus Rex. Some are quiet and personal and play out in a land less opulent and recognizable than Ancient Greece. Crow Lake is the story of four siblings growing up in the harsh, farming landscape of the fictional Crow Lake, and their setting is amid the vast landscape of Northern Ontario.

Told through the point of view of adult child Kate Morrison, once the third child of the orphan quad and now a well educated graduate researcher. Since leaving home Kate has been lugging the guilt of having been the one to leave the farm to earn a modern education and an urban career. Originally it was eldest Luke who was destined to go to teachers' college, then brainy second son Matt, but it is Kate alone who has managed to make the leap from Northern Ontario small town to big city education.

Though education is portrayed as the single stepping stone toward success, life on the land, along with its hardships and drama, is not entirely frowned upon. This is Canada, after all, and in Canadian literature it is often our ties to the land that help define a great part of who we are as individuals. The geography of the novel is well delineated, as are the characters, and these two and their relationships are what make Crow Lake such a good read, more than the actual events of the story. The plot is made up primarily of smaller events and struggles: in the past it is the family and the community's attempt at keeping our orphans together in the family home, whereas in the novel it is Kate's inability to bind the life of her childhood with that of her academic present, and of the man she loves. Melodramatic sounding, but quite interesting and very real.

There is an inconsistency between past and present, and I found myself far more interested in child Kate over the adult version. Boyfriend Daniel is too good, and exists primarily as a deus ex machina, being the outsider who finally brings Kate to accept that the tragedy of the past is not the real tragedy of her relationship with brother Matt. The childhood sequences, on the other hand, are vivid and compelling, and I would not have minded a greater detailed buildingsroman, as in the days of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

But of course what I wouldn't mind is not necessarily the author's intention, and in Crow Lake Lawson's intentions are clear. Though there is little subtlety in her approach, she succeeds with the end result.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Shimmer Magazine Screwed Up

Shimmer Magazine website
My review of Shimmer 15


It was when I received their last newsletter, featuring their latest volume, Shimmer 16, that I suspected an oversight. While others were raving about the issue, I was without a copy. As a subscriber I felt I should have had my copy in hand, but knowing that in this chaotic post-modern age nothing is reliable, I was prepared to be patient and gave myself one week before inquiring. During that week I considered possible reasons why my issue was not in my hand.

Perhaps it was due to that heavy snow storm wreaking havoc along the Canada-US border. Perhaps Montreal, foreign soil as it is, lies legions away from Salt Lake City, and the shimmery carrier pigeon was too worn out to make it to my mailbox on time (the two are 3,119 kilometres, or 1938 miles, apart). Maybe it had to do with the Canadian dollar once again falling below that of the US. Or maybe, just maybe the shimmery staff simply forgot about little insignificant me.

A week passed and I wrote them a polite (I am Canadian) note, kindly inquiring about the delay. This was a Friday. On Monday I received this reply.



It looks like we screwed up your address when we entered it in our database -- so your copy has been returned to us. Woe!

I'll put another copy in the mail right away -- meanwhile, here's the electronic edition for you to read while you wait for it to arrive. I'll also extend your subscription by an issue to make up for the inconvenience!

I'm so sorry.


The term "screwed up" was theirs. A little harsh, I think. Excellent customer service though, particularly that "I'm so sorry" at the end. Something about it, either the "so" or its position at the bottom somehow managed to touch my cynical heart. I'm prepared to renew my subscription on the strength of this prompt response alone. I still have a couple of issues to go, however, and in the meantime I can only hope that the fine people at Shimmer screw up again.

You can support Shimmer Magazine via their subscription page.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Lou Cameron, Behind the Scarlet Door (1971)

Cameron, Lou, Behind the Scarlet Door, Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Gold Medal [T2493], 1971. 192 pages

Behind the Scarlet Door at Goodreads
For more Friday's Forgotten Books, this week please visit Davy Crockett's Almanack.
[Edit] Just realized that TomCat reviewed this title just as positively on his blog.

Rating: 7/10 (8, if considered among pulp novels alone)

Due to his knowledge of Cymraeg, a Welsh cop is recruited to help investigate an unusual case involving the occult. The autopsy of a recent corpse belonging to a dancer reveals it to be at least two weeks old, and yet police interviewed her only two days before. Later the body of a local witch is discovered, dead for well over a month, though our hero himself had just interviewed her. This is the nifty premise of this highly entertaining piece of pulp.

Lou Cameron was a prolific genre writer of primarily westerns. With Behind the Scarlet Door, however, he manages to weave a plot involving zombies, witches and warlocks, invisible cats, black roses, hallucinogenics, voodoo, Welsh folk tales, Moravian customs and the hint of time travel. Not to mention a love plot involving our Welsh hero and a small-town German widow.

The plot complication is far busier than the plots of your average pulp mystery, with various characters, locations and a mountain of unusual events. Our cops are pretty certain the occult is cultish fantasy and a ruse, and that there are rational explanations for all the odd events, and their investigative drive leads the reader to concur. It is clear early on that this is not a supernatural novel, but an unusual mystery.

The writing is pulpy but in a good way. It is energetic, at times humourous, and despite the repetition and stereotypes, it never wanes. The publication date of 1971 is evident throughout, displaying bellbottoms and afros, but dated primarily from a self-conscious awareness of race and gender. Black people are constantly referred to by their race ("The black detective said"), but not in a repressed racist ilk: black detective Pete Custis is the smartest of the cops, a Columbia-educated and entirely indefatigable investigator. He is far superior in every conceivable way over our often clueless protagonist Morgan. Women are also well educated, and there is no struggle to create a feminist world-view, no awkward "living in a man's world" comments as Michael Crichton drowned us with in The Terminal Man (1972).

The glaring exception to the easy social awareness is, perhaps, with Cameron's allusions to homosexuality. There are no openly gay characters in the novel, and yet there are several mentions of homosexuality, usually derogatory though primarily as an attempt at humour. Cameron himself was not necessarily homophobic; instead the era, beginning to accept blacks and women as equal to white males, was still feeling insecure around gay men.

The novel's complication is, well, complicated, and don't expect to try to piece everything together. The ending is unexpected though not shocking, and many of the puzzle pieces are semi-red herrings, leading perhaps to one piece of clue, but not always to the outcome.

This entertaining bit of silliness from Fawcett Gold Medal books is highly recommended.


Friday, February 1, 2013

Crying Just Like Anybody: Stories from The Fiction Desk 4 (2012)

Crying Just Like Anybody: Stories from The Fiction Desk 4, edited by Rob Redman, The Fiction Desk, 2012. 142 pages

Crying Just Like Anybody at Goodreads.
Overall Rating: 7/10


It took me a little longer getting around to the fourth release by the good people over at The Fiction Desk (where they've recently updated their site). Volume four reads much like three in that while there are no truly stand-out stories, they are all good. Unfortunately the last two stories were a bit of a let down for me, though not bad stories by any means. My favourite story here is "Crying Just Like Anybody," followed by "Just Kids."

I recommend a subscription to The Fiction Desk, my favourite fiction journal of 2012 (no I haven't read them all), particularly now that they are offering a deal.


Crying Just Like Anybody by Richard Smyth. 7/10

Depression-era New York and an almost nineteen year-old Anna tells of when her boyfriend Johnny (really Gianni) found a Martian. Amusing and even touching, "Crying Just Like Anybody" has a simple theme clearly implied by its title, and contains some nice detail to elevate its ideas.

And its the details that make this story so engaging. Like Mars's moons, Phoebus and Demos, no one in Manhattan goes by their actual names. Not only are we all alike, we are also not truly ourselves. Notions of individuality are set aside as we are told that Manhattan is a cosmopolitan place where, regardless where you are from, Ireland or Germany or Italy or even Mars, we are alike.

Incidentally, being Hungarian (as I am in part) transforms the story since, though I didn't catch on to the phonetics right away, I quickly realized what our Martian was wanting. Of course I won't give it away.

There is also an interesting background story by author Richard Smyth posted on the TFD blog.


I'm the One by Miha Mazzini. Translated by Maja Visenjak. 7/10

A voice message from a Slovenian mid-level government clerk to an estranged child who had fled to America. Not as much about the paternal-child relationship as I originally expected, and more about accepting responsibility on a humanistic scale. Some solid bureaucratic absurdity reminiscent of nineteenth and early twentieth century Eastern European fiction.


Just Kids by S.R. Mastrantone. 7/10

Frank is fed up with the young teens who loiter on the street below his third-floor window, and when his more forgiving wife leaves town for a while, he takes it upon himself to start a little war, only to then fear for his safety.

This one surprised me, for though the intent was obvious early on, the direction was not. Another story to hover the line of amusing and effective, it touches upon a variety of themes ranging from prejudice (ageism), media influence and how we can be driven by anxiety despite reason being so close at hand.

For some back-story, visit the TFD blog.


Wonders of the Universe by Colin Corrigan. 7/10

Kevin and Edel are having marital problems and their counsellor recommends they watch Wonders of the Universe, a BBC series, which oddly brings them closer. Yet while Edel becomes curiously attracted to the show's host Brian Cox, Kevin begins to notice tenant Angela and her overt sexual flirtations. Told through Kevin's point of view, the story is highly entertaining. It reveals to us that the most insignificant thins can be the most important, and proves it with the story's touching conclusion.

Corrigan's second TFD story after "The Romantic" in issue two, All These Little Words, "Wonders of the Universe" is easily the superior story of the two.


Across the Kinderhook by Matthew Licht. 6/10

A childless couple visit a successful old friend, only to discover that the facade of perfection is marred by the fact that their beautiful little girl is non-responsive. Until she inexplicably responds to the visiting woman. A good story but unfortunately the narrator is a little too unlikeable and the scene where he wanders the woods a little too uninteresting, partly because he is not terribly likeable while the more interesting characters in the story were left behind in the house.

Matthew Licht's previous TFD story "Dave Tough's Luck" appeared in issue one, Various Authors.


Phantoms by Die Booth. 6/10

"The scariest thing I've ever seen was my granddad's phantom." This story of a bullied little girl and her collector of oddities grandfather took me by surprise. I anticipated the ending, and yet it was effective nonetheless. The two stories, girl and grandfather and girl bullied at school, are narrated in separate sections, not interwoven except when the anticipated revenge comes about. The story closes with a strong image.


Carolina Carioca by Luiza Sauma. 6/10

A rare second person story tells of the doomed relationship between a young Londoner teaching in Brazil and the beautiful woman he falls for and takes home. There is nothing extraordinary about the story but the prose is solid and the emotions well delivered on paper.

For background story by the author you can check out this blog page.


Can We Have You All Sitting Down, Please? by William Thirsk-Gaskill. 6/10

This sketch features a professor who recounts some important points on current social behaviour via the achievements of computer science pioneer Alan Turing. The narrative, told through the point of view of the single attentive student, is less story and more lecture, and yet the lecture is a fascinating one, placing the technologies we are constantly hooked to in a thought-provoking context. As a non-fiction piece I would rate it higher than as a short story, per se. Good, smart stuff.


Me, Robot by Mike Scott Thomson. 5/10

Having lost his job and not wishing to upset his wife by telling her, our narrator takes on the career of robot busking, painting himself silver and impressing passers-by with his combination of statuesque stillness and slow robot whirring motions. Amusing, entertaining, but not too memorable. I like the title and its play on Isaac Asimov's popular collection I, Robot.


Tripe Soup and Spanish Wine by Matt Plass. 6/10

A troubled man hosts an unusual dinner party, during which he serves the barely edible while humiliating his guests. A good enough story but I was anticipating a more satisfying finish. Plass wrote "The Maginot Line" for TFD 3: The Maginot Line, a far superior story.



Testing a new map (as of 24 December 2015)