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Amazing Stories Blog Tour

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As part of the Amazing Stories Blog Team, I have completed a book review for a blog tour. The review was published today.

I’d like to point out that the first story in the collection I reviewed (called Tomorrow: Apocalyptic Short Stories from Australian publisher Kayelle Press) was penned by a friend of mine from Saskatoon who now lives in Calgary. His name is Calvin D. Jim, and his work has also appeared in another collection I happen to enjoy quite a bit. (Rigor Amortis from Edge Science Fiction Fantasy Publishing. It’s a collection of “zombie erotica”. I know, I know. You can’t picture it. It’s okay. But I love that book.)

The collection is worth a read. One thing I didn’t mention in the Amazing Stories review (because, believe it or not, it felt TOO NERDY) was that the minimal design in the ePub version was really cool.

Anyway. I could republish the review here, but I kind of like leaving it at Amazing Stories and giving you the link. Because, really, the AS website has a lot of really cool other stuff you should take a look at.

http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2013/07/who-knows-what-tomorrow-brings/

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Stones for my Father

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Categories: Books, Reviews, Tags: ,

A while back, I learned about a new book tour. More specifically, it was a book tour that would be taking place entirely in the, as they say, ‘blogosphere’. This isn’t the first blog book tour that’s ever been done, but it’s the first one I’ve got to take part in. Now, let’s just step back and think about this for a moment: they send cenobyte a book, and the cenobyte reads the book, and then they ask cenobyte to write about the book on her bournal. Gee. That would totally suck.

Stones For My Father blog tour

Stones for my Father by Trilby Kent

As I write this, I have a refrigerator full of turkey and stuffing and vegetables and fruit. I have a deep freeze full of beef and veggies and home-made stock. As I write this, I am preparing soup stock, while my children sleep peacefully (and snorefully) upstairs. I reflect that I have never had to live through war, insurrection, revolt, resistance, or rebellion. I have never been forced from my home.

Santayana put it so well when he said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. I don’t know what happened when you studied history in social studies, but in our high school, the Boer Wars were glossed over, barely touched upon. It was my father who told me about the Boers (the Dutch living in South Africa) , and the battles waged between the Boers and the British. Specifically, between two independent Boer republics and the British.

Trilby Kent’s Stones for my Father takes place in the Transvaal, one of these two indepedent republics, during the second (and longest) Boer War.

About writing this book, an historical fiction based around one family chased from their home and interred in a concentration camp, Kent says :

[the most challenging thing] was probably trying to tell a story without reading history backwards, if that makes sense. I realised that for many people South African history basically means ‘apartheid’, but although the seeds of that terrible regime were already being sown in the early years of the twentieth century, I felt that it was important to tackle the Boer War on its own terms, and in context. I was also hesitant to soften or sanitize the racist attitudes of the day, while at the same time remaining sensitive to the sensibilities of modern readers.

I like the idea of ‘reading history backwards’, but it only works if you know the history to begin with. Otherwise you run the risk of a misunderstood past. When we read history with a modern mindset, we begin to try to explain historical figures’ actions, ascribing to them our own moralities. To us, it’s morally abhorrent to ‘own’ another person. Slavery is wrong. But that’s a relatively new concept; in fact, it’s only a couple of hundred years old. So writers have to first centre you in an historical place and time before you, the reader, can look at the rest of the story and say, “yes, I understand this, and these are not Bad People. They are simply products of their time.” In other words, writers of historical fiction need to set history in its proper context. And I think Kent does this particularly well.

Stones for my Father

Stones for my Father by Trilby Kent

The story itself centres around a girl called Corlie, her brother Gert, and their family (younger brother, mother, aunts, uncles, cousins) who live in the Transvaal at the turn of the 20th century during the 2nd Boer War. They have a small amount of land, and a somewhat emotionally distant but close knit family living nearby.

Kent explores, with a somewhat rough treatment, the landscape of Corlie’s heart. The roughness is necessary and is not unkind. This novel, geared toward young adult readers, is neither simple nor pandering. Like the savannahs and dusty plains of the Transvaal in which it is set are the savannahs and dusty plains of a young girl’s uneasy upbringing. The Transvaal itself is familiar, while still achingly exotic, to anyone who’s lived in rural southern Saskatchewan, Alberta, or Manitoba. Or the northern/midwestern States. And the Canadian connexion in this book, which I don’t want to tell you too much about because of the spoiler alert, reinforces some of those similarities and differences.

Corlie sees her father in everything, her father who has recently died, and though she yearns for acceptance from her mother, she does not know where to begin with a woman who is emotionally remote, and indeed, at times cruel. In those in-between ages, who has not felt utterly alone and abandoned? Yet, Corlie manages to find some degree of closeness whatever happens, in spite of her mother’s viciousness. When the British soldiers come and burn down her home, her bother Gert and her lifelong childhood friend Sipho, who had been a gift to her at birth, share her fears and provide some joy. As her family flees from the encroaching troops, she discovers and cares for an abandoned monkey. Even when they are incarcerated in a concentration camp, Corlie summons the strength and ingenuity to survive.

An important part of this story is the experience Corlie, her mother, and her two brothers have in a concentration camp. We all of us know about the German concentration camps in WWII. But how many have learned that there were similar camps in many other countries, even in Canada? Ostensibly, people sent to the camps in the Boer War were called ‘refugees’, but as Corlie Roux describes it, and certainly according to her mother, they were prisoners of war. It is a difficult subject to broach, particularly in a Young Adult novel, but Kent does so brilliantly. She does not shy from describing, through Corlie Roux’s eyes, the desolation, disease, and desparation people are driven to. It is a section necessarily meant to be unsettling, and because Kent does not shy from the grittier, more difficult details, it is vivid and weighty.

This is Trilby Kent’s second novel for young adults. Medina Hill, her first novel for young adults, again deals with an historical time frame in a very real and very relevant manner. I imagine readers of Stones for my Father being left, as I was (far, now, from ‘young adult’) breathless, teary, and proud. Part of the book’s appeal will be, of course, the fact that Kent does not shy away from colonial mindsets, and does not offer a heavily moralistic tale – for those who know the history of slavery, the inherent racism of the Boers may well leave an uncomfortable feeling. But on the other hand, it’s very easy to look at history backwards…it’s much more difficult to present a protagonist whose ideas are distasteful but who is a likeable character in spite of those ideas, and who does ask some of the same questions we do.

Yet this is what Kent has done, and I’m not quite sure how she’s done it. But done it she has, and there are so many levels to this book, presented in such a small package (fewer than 200 pages) that I cannot even begin to talk about all of them. But, you know, I will. There’s the Boer angle – the white Dutch living in colonial South Africa, who were in support of slavery and indentured servitude of blacks. There’s the tween angle – a girl is having to deal with being half grown-up and half littlekid. There’s death – Corlie is learning to understand and to come to terms with the death of her father, a man …more than a man – a hero to her. Don’t forget about sexism – the best Corlie can hope for is to become well wed. She is treated vastly differently from her brothers. There’s the issue of living in wartime, and then, of course, trying to survive in a concentration camp…and another angle, another storyline that bubbles along through the entire novel, but which isn’t revealed until quite near the end…but it’s all so tightly woven and so well written that you don’t realise how much “stuff” is in there until the end. And it seems that any one of these layers, any one of these topics, would be an excellent starting place to use in a classroom setting.

I asked Trilby Kent if she would be willing to draw a couple of characters from her book, but unfortunately, I was a Poop and asked FAR TOO LATE to include any such forthcoming drawings on the centre of the universe bournal. But I would really like to see some drawings of Corlie (whose full name is CORALINE, which just makes me love her that much more) and Gert, her brother. I’d like to see Sipho and the little twins. And the monkey! Oh! I’d love for someone to draw a picture of the monkey! So please read the book and then forward me pictures of these characters. And I can send them on to Ms. Kent. Which, if I were a writer, I would think was pretty cool.

I’m probably way over my word limit here, so let me just finish with: Trilby is the most beautiful name I have ever heard (and I’m sure Ms. Kent is tired of hearing that). She’s a Canuck, you know! Although she lives in London now (yes, THAT London; not the one in Ontario), she was born in Canada, and that makes her Cool For Life. And she writes about really, really cool stuff. I mean, her novels, of course, but she’s also (in her own words) “written a piece on the handling of race in historical fiction for young adults for the summer issue of Canadian Children’s Book News. It’s a huge subject, of course, but one which I think deserves frank and open discussion”.

It absolutely does, Trilby Kent.

[Goodreads is doing a giveaway for Stones for my Father! If you're a Canadian or American member of Goodreads, you're gold; if you're not, you have to sign up. There are five copies available, they tell me.]

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Blog Tour

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Stones For My Father blog tour

Stones for my Father by Trilby Kent

I’ll be participating in a blog tour for Trilby Kent’s Stones for my Father. I’ve never done a blog tour before, and I’m not really sure what’s going to happen here, but on 28th April, something related to Kent’s book will appear at the centre of the universe.

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Some things are better left unread

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Categories: Books, Porblems, Rants, Reviews, Tags: ,

I got into this discussion twice in the last week. Granted, once was because I started the discussion, but still.

A while ago, a friend of mine suggested I read a certain book. It was, the friend said, a favourite. The sort of book one reads over and over so that none of it is forgotten. The sort of book that changes lives. I read the book (as a side note, I do try to read most of the books people recommend to me).

I don’t like to think I’m one of those literary snobs who only reads books that are incomprehensible or that have been shortlisted for an award no one has heard of. I don’t like to think I’m the sort of person who starts a book discussion with : “The perspicacity of the characters are reminiscent of early Dickensian writings, although in a far more parochial, muted sense”. You know what I mean…the kind of high-brow academic malarky that basically makes everyone think you’re an enormous jerk. People like that usually go on to compare *something* in the book to some Greek philosopher, or to some obscure French medieval poet, and then start talking about how *important* the book is. This is usually a precursor to ripping apart everything about the book, from the opening title pages to the author’s photograph on the inside leaf. Maybe I *am* that sort of person and just don’t recognise it in myself.

I really prefer to find something wonderful about every book I read. It’s not always possible.

It wasn’t possible with this book. I agonized over what to tell my friend. In fact, I might not have ever told my friend what I thought of this book. I might have just decided to cop out with something like : “Well, it’s not something I would ever choose to read. Again. Ever.” But the truth of the matter is, the book was a total and complete waste of my time. Now, I know my friend reads my bournal, and I just want to be clear that my opinion on your most favourite book of all time in no way colours my opinion of you, so none of the vitriol and yellery that follows is directed at you. I know I probably don’t have to say that, but. Favourite books are sometimes like dear friends and I’ve discovered purely through trial and error that if I insult someone’s best friend, I often raise ire.

Although I cannot imagine what one could say about this book that could be insulting. There is nothing *rude* you can say about it that isn’t true. Except maybe that it’s pornographic. But that’s not rude. It’s also not true. It also would have made the book tolerable.

It’s important to me, when I don’t like a book, to really think about *why* I don’t like it. There was one book I read (also recommended by a friend) that I didn’t like. In the end, I figured out that the writing was extremely well done, and the book itself was amazing, but I just hated the protagonist so much it made me dislike the book. Which is ultimately a *good* thing, because it certainly highlights the writer’s skill. But that character was a total douche.

So. What didn’t I like about this book?

Well, I didn’t like *anything* about this book. Not. One. Redeeming. Factor.

The Shack, by William P. Young (Self-Published)

First of all, it’s a thinly veiled attempt to talk about Christianity without talking about Christianity. As if you could slip it in there without anybody recognising what you were up to. This pisses me off. It’s insulting. First of all, to assume that your reader isn’t going to figure out in less than five seconds what you’re up to is, frankly, a gross misunderstanding of your readers’ capacity. Second, why beat around the bush with this? Why try to be coy? Why not just come right out and say: “I’m trying very, very hard to write one of those…whattayacallits…ALL-A-GORY…thingummies” Because unless you’re CS Lewis or Tolkien (which you’re really, really not) or any number of other writes who’ve written allegorical stories, you’re not going to do it well. Do you know how difficult it is to write a competent, workable allegory for any religion’s theology? It’s REALLY HARD, without sounding like a simpering idiot or a pretentious jerk.

So.

The basic premise is offensive. I mean, it’s even offensive to Christians.

The execution is terrible. It’s a book full of meandering, pointless prose, and dry, repetitive narrative. It’s hackneyed and trite, and there isn’t, I don’t think, a single original thought in the entire manuscript.

On to the thinly-veiled and horribly executed ‘allegory’ of the Trinity.

Jesus, of course, is a young middle-eastern fellow with a beard. He wears jeans and a plaid lumberjack shirt. And workboots. Or no boots. I don’t remember if he has stigmata, but it wouldn’t bloody surprise me. The Holy Spirit is some kind of weird, garden-tending hippie that is ‘shimmery and difficult to see’. I know a lot of hippies. Many of them are shimmery, some of them are difficult to see, and all of them tend gardens. I think the Holy Spirit might also be Asian. I don’t remember now. But his/her name is Sarayu, and I think s/he is supposed to be Asian. The ethnicity of any of the characters really oughtn’t be important, but the writer makes such a big deal of it, I suspect what he wants us all to know is that HE IS INCLUSIVE. HE IS NOT RACIST. HIS HEAVEN CAN INCLUDE THE YELLOW PEOPLES AND THE BROWN PEOPLES.

Which brings me to God. The Holy Father. Who is an African-American woman. Who calls herself Papa. And Elouisa.

I mean. ELOUISA? Really? You get a note in your mailbox after you’ve just announced to nobody that you’re giving up on your faith, and the note is signed from “Papa”, and your own father is dead, and you come to the conclusion that the note must be from God, and not from some weirdo who wanders around putting notes in people’s mailboxes? And God – I mean ELOUISA – *puts a note in your post-box*?? I guess things have really gone south since the whole burning bush thing. Modern-day equivalent would probably be a slightly charred and smoking potted plant, which just doesn’t have the same panache.

And let me go back here, a moment. I’m not saying it’s ridiculous to picture God as a black woman. I’m saying that by making it such a big deal in the novel, and by making the main character have to work so hard to get his own mind around the idea, you’re basically saying: “Look! Readers! God can be anything! EVEN a  black woman!” And “Even ASIANS can be included in theology! Even though many of them are godless communists!” And “Not ALL Middle Eastern men are terrorists who want to destroy western culture and eat your babies! Some of them are Jesus!”

One of the tenets you’ll hear as a writer is “show, don’t tell”. It’s really not a difficult concept to grasp. Except for William Young (the author of the book).

Apparently, he wrote the book as a Christmas gift for his children. And then, as is the way with things like this, some of his friends made the mistake of telling him that the book was *really good* and that he should get it published. And it’s books like this that sometimes make me disparage the relative ease with which people can now publish their own work. Don’t get me wrong, self publishing has been around since the 1600s. William Blake, for God’s sake (or should I say for “Elouisa’s Sake”), was a self-publisher. I don’t even know, to be fair, whether William Young tried to shop The Shack to traditional publishers, but if he did, it would have been rejected by most. Why? Because it’s trite, it’s not well written, it’s pedantic, the narrative is plodding, unnatural, and forced, the dialogue is stilted and ridiculous, the premise is tenuous, and even the editing is shaky. There are self-publishers out there who are extremely professional, who wouldn’t want anything out under their name that isn’t perfect. William P. Young is not one of those sorts of self-publishers.

So aside from the story itself, the actual writing, the production quality, and the narrative, what’s left to criticise?

The page numbers are stupid.

Okay, I say that kind of in jest. But it was also clear to me that the people who produced this book didn’t give a fiddler’s fart about design. And design is important. But then again, the people who produced this book didn’t care that it was terribly written to begin with, so there are a few strikes against them already.

Other Christians have spoken out against this book, from ministers who say there are heresies in the story, to apologists who claim there are “theological errors” in the book. Of COURSE there are theological errors in the book; the author is not a theologian. He’s probably never even read the church fathers. He probably hasn’t even read anything but the biblical passages he’s required to read in church. I don’t doubt the man’s devotion to his faith and to his family, and that’s all lovely, but his book sucks.

I mean, sure, theologically, if you happen to be Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, the book is rather terrible on a religious front. The basic message it gives you is: “if you’re having a terrible time of things, if things are really hard, you should know that God will do everything He can to make it better, provided you pray hard enough and properly”, and “God is whatever you want Him to be”, and “God makes everything happen for a reason”. If you’re Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish, and if you’ve actually taken the time to learn what your faith teaches, you’ll know that all three of these premises are incorrect, hurtful, and are damaging to your faith and to the expression of your religion. I mean, I could go on about the horrible depiction of the Trinity as three separate persons, but that’s probably a little too heavy for a Monday morning, and you probably don’t care much about deeply theological arguments like Trinitarianism. (Incidentally, what Young offers in his book is not a Trinity. It is a Tritheism, which is very, very different…or, I suppose, you could argue that it’s Modalism, but again, Heavy. Monday. Stop.)

In short, don’t waste your time. Or your money. I’ve no idea why this book is so popular, except perhaps that fundamentalists think it’s incredibly clever and hopeful, like The Celestine Prophecy was, or The Secret (both of which were terrible books that attempted to disguise a thought pattern/belief system either in narrative or in a series of revelations…not unlike any holy book, I suppose, but the ancients did it so much better…I mean, at least the Old Testament is a good, rip-roaring fantasy adventure, right?), and that it bolsters their belief that prayer is about God helping them. Which it isn’t.

So, I’m sorry that I hated your favourite book. No, ‘hate’ is the wrong word. I despise your favourite book.

If I was going to rate this book, I wouldn’t even flip the bird once. I’d just toss the book in the recycling bin.

 

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Endings are Heartless

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Categories: Books, Reviews, Stories, Tags: ,

I think the key to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series is at the very end of the very last book. More importantly, I kind of feel like most of the world got completely ripped off with this series, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. One of the things that King says in the “Coda” for the penultimate book in the Dark Tower series (up until very recently, the seventh book in the series, The Dark Tower was considered to be the last book, but another one is slated to be released in 2012):

I can close my eyes to Midworld and to all that lies beyond Midworld, yet some of you who have provided the ears without which no tale can survive a single day are likely not so willing. You are the grim, goal-oriented ones who will not believe that the joy is in the journey, not in the destination, no matter how many times it has been proven to you. You are the unfortunate ones who still get the lovemaking all confused with the paltry squirt that comes to end the lovemaking…you are the cruel ones who deny the grey havens where tired characters go to rest. You say you want to know how it all comes out. You say you want to follow Roland into the tower. You say that’s what you’ve paid your money for – the show you came to see.

I hope most of you know better. Want better. I hope you came to hear the tale, and not just munch your way through the pages to the ending. For an ending, you only have to turn to the last page and see what is there writ upon. But endings are heartless. An ending is a closed door no man or Manni can open.

I tell you this. Should you go on, you will surely be disappointed. Perhaps even heartbroken … There’s no such thing as a happy ending. I never met a single one to equal “Once Upon a Time”. Endings are heartless. An ending is just another word for goodbye.*

- Stephen King, The Dark Tower

I want to tell you this: I stopped reading Stephen King’s books sometime in the late 80s/early 90s. I started getting really tired of reading the same phrases over and over. I got tired of reading the same scare tactics, the same drudgery, the same town, over and over. But what I *loved* were his fantasy stories: The Talisman (written with Peter Straub), The Eyes of the Dragon, the original 1980s EDITED version of The Stand, and the Dark Tower series. Well. I stopped reading after The Drawing of the Three because I made the mistake of a) reading another of his ‘regular’ books and I got pissed off at his formulaic crap, and b) I *hated* one of the three main characters in that book, and so decided the rest of the series would not be worth my rage. I’ve been over how much Detta/Odetta/Susannah bites the wax tadpole, so I won’t revisit it.

But let me tell you this: the rest of the series is SO WORTH all of the shite. These will be hours of your life you won’t WANT to get back. And you can always just flip past all the stupid bad bits with Detta/Odetta/Susannah/Mia, most of the crap with Pere Callahan, almost all of the drivel about Mordred (Worst. Plot device. EVAR), and a goodly chunk of the business with the villain at the very end.

I think in truth, this series ought to have been three books long. Maybe four at the outside. When I remember this series, I will remember it as three or four books long, and I will remember it well. Because the truth is, the good bits stay with us even after the details of the chaff have been blown away by, as King would say (AT LEAST SEVEN TIMES IN ONE BOOK ALONE), “the sough of the wind”. This is also the idea behind a writing technique known as a blank page rewrite, which is terrifying but is also often quite effective.

I don’t want to review the last book in the series. There were good bits in it, and some things happened that had to happen, and there were plenty of bits that ought to have been edited out, or at the very least edited way far down. In fact, I agree with the author that everything after Roland entering the dark tower itself ought to have been left out.

I’ve told you rather an awful lot of what I *don’t* like about this series, and what I don’t like in the last book really mirrors what I didn’t like in the last five books, period. I don’t need to name names. So I want to focus on what I *do* like about this series.

Wait. I’ve talked about that, too. Instead, I’m going to tell you what I think this story is really about.

One of the questions that writers get when people ask them about their work is “where do you get your ideas?”, and another question is, “is your work autobiographical?” The answer to the first is pretty straightforward (the same place you get yours, except I listen to the unbelievable) and the answer to the second is usually “not really”, but I think the answer is really closer to “you can’t get away from being at least somewhat autobiographical, because art is an extension of the self, at least to some degree.”

In this series, King does more than that. He writes himself into the story. I was told I would hate this, and at the beginning, I did. I thought it was self-serving, egomaniacal crap. But then I started really listening to how King characterised himself: lazy; frightened; unwilling; reluctant; disbelieving; self-absorbed. At first, I thought, ‘well, yeah. You are. Anyone who casts himself as God in his book is being more than a little pretentious’. But then I really focused on what King was saying about writing. About storytelling. And therein, I found something beautiful.

In the story, Stephen King finds himself almost taken hostage in his kitchen, when two characters out of a novel he wrote fifteen years earlier show up and tell him that he has to finish the story. He (the character Stephen King) reacts about as you would expect a newly-famous writer to react, particularly one with substance abuse problems. But then, through the course of the story, it becomes clear that Stephen King is *not* God, nor *a* god, nor even really a prophet. He’s just a mouthpiece. And he’s being used.

When you write, or paint, or compose, or dance, or *create*, it’s as if a force flows through you. When you hit a really good stride, you cannot ignore this creative force; you cannot will it away. You fall before it, and it takes hold of you and fills you with such ideas, such feelings, that to keep it all in check would drive you mad. You become a mouthpiece, and although you are the creator, that which you create is something *other* than you. It’s bigger than you. When it’s good…when it’s *really* good, it becomes…real. And this is difficult to explain, but I’m sure that even as a reader, you know when something is *good*, because you smell the dust in the air, and you hear the train whistle blowing across the prairie, and you feel the heat bearing down on you even after the sun has dipped below the horizon. You can taste your own sweat, and imagine what a drink of cold water would feel like on your parched throat. You *live* it, when it’s good. When it’s really good.

And that, I think is what this series is about. It’s about being a writer. It’s about telling a story. Because even though Roland is a gunslinger, he’s a storyteller. And he’s more than a storyteller. He’s a god. And he’s less than a god; he’s a man. He’s a Christ-figure, and he’s a King-figure, if that makes any sense at all. And I see where King has written aspects of himself into the *good* characters in this series.

He’s there as Jake. I certainly see the author in Eddie and in Cuthbert. He’s in John Cullum, and of course, as Stephen King. I don’t think as much, though, in Roland. I think Roland is someone very dear to King, though. And I think the whole point of this series is to talk about what it means to tell a story. About what it means to be a writer. Particularly considering the ending of the soon-to-be-penultimate book.

And this is why I’m willing to forgive King his many, many, ma-hany peccadilloes (some of which are far greater, I think, than small indiscretions); because the *nub* of this story is important, and brilliant, and enduring, and heart-rendingly beautiful. Stephen King has created *entire worlds*, as do all writers, and Roland gets to explore them. If King is a mouthpiece for the god of creative exploits, then Roland is his prophet, his messiah. It makes sense.

In this manner, I don’t think King writing himself into the series is “deus ex machina” as he claims it is when Roland and Eddie first visit him in Song of Susannah. I think it’s much more of a commentary on the creative process, on what it’s like to be so compelled by characters you meet during the course of writing a story.

When I used to host a radio show about books and writing, I often heard writers talking about what it’s like to hear voices in their heads, and to find out that they didn’t know anything about such-and-such a character when they started out, or that the character they pictured or dreamed of turned out so vastly different that it was essentially a completely different person. Psychiatrists *medicate* people for this shite! But as writers, we give rise to characters, places, scenes, and entire worlds that we have no control over.

So ultimately, to borrow a form of usage from this series, Stephen King, you say true; I say thankya. If you want to know what it’s like to be a writer, read the Dark Tower series. I know that King has written a book about writing; I think it’s called On Writing, and from all accounts, it’s a good read. That one *is* autobiographical as well, and it comes at things from more of an historical perspective. But I think the Dark Tower is really about what it is to BE a storyteller; a writer. It’s also just a hell of a good story.

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Not sure I’m ready for this

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Categories: Books, Porblems, Reviews, Tags: , ,

Okay, THIS post is going to be short. Seriously.

If Stephen King had cropped out 95% of the priest’s story from Wolves of the Calla and 95% of the garbage he wrote about Susannah in Song of Susannah and combined what was left into one book, everything would have gone much better for the Dark Tower series.

Seriously. The guy prattles on for, what, TEN CHAPTERS about a woman in labour. No, longer than that. Half the goddamned book. I totally “got it” after the first scene in Susannah’s “Dogan” (snicker) and did not need to be beaten about the head and neck with it any further. I don’t know if King figured that he had to throw “more stuff in there chix would dig”, or if he really thought that page after page of repetitive dreck was *appealing* to his readers (I’ll reserve my comment about a large part of what he’s produced in the last ten years being repetitive drivel), or if his publisher just said, “Steve, this is good, but we’re going to need another 150 pages to market it to all those people who like the series but who want to get their money’s worth if they’re going to spend thirty bucks on a paperback”. In short, I don’t know what happened there, and I don’t care.

I could even live with the expository narrative of the priest in Wolves of the Calla if that had been the worst of it. But, like that feeling you get after you throw up a couple of times and are sitting in front of the terlet, pale and sweating, and thinking “I’m sure most of it HAS to be over by now”, and then you’re surprised and disgusted when whatever it is decides to erupt explosively from your body at both ends simultaneously, it was not the worst of it. If the priest’s rambling, plodding tale in Wolves of the Calla was the uncontrollable vomiting, then Susannah Mia’s one hundred page labour (and three paragraph delivery) is the explosive watery diarrhea of this series.

Now that may or may not be seen as particularly harsh. And I want to make the point that I *really like the Dark Tower series*. I LOVE the story of the Dark Tower. But what I *don’t* like is when Stephen King, like the character of the same name who appears in Song of Susannah gets lazy and forgets that he really can be a wonderful writer. What *bothers* me about those two narratives is that they are pedantic, and they do not add anything whatsoever to the story.

The old maxim “show, don’t tell” is about expository writing in a narrative. Which is to say, don’t do it. I mean, I think there’s a real danger in assuming your reader either doesn’t have the required information or cannot suss it out from the context of what’s happening in a narrative scene or passage to really grok what’s going on. That danger, of course, is in, once again, insulting your reader and their intelligence. The very best books out there just assume you can follow along, and if you can’t, well, then, you’ll just have to catch up.

The real downfall of both of these two books, the fifth and sixth in the series respectively, is that King departs from what he’s *really* good at, and that’s narrative, and instead forcibly removes the story from itself. It’s jarring, and it’s not effective. And it’s MADDENING. If that was the point, I think there would have been far better ways to do it. It’s just another one of those cases of a bunch of information that bogged down the novel rather than propelling the focus forward.

To be completely honest, the first time I went through Song of Susannah, I skipped over most of those parts. I then went back, after I’d got through the *good bits*, and re-read the boring and pedantic ones. It was a whole lot of blah-blah-blah, self-reflective bullshit, if you’ll pardon my language.

And I’m not even talking about the Deus ex novella (heh). To be completely honest with you, I LOVE how King has written himself into this series. I think it’s excellently done, and I think it says an awful lot about what this series really is about. But that’s for another post. What’s got me, once again, is what seems to me to be a disregard for the reader’s intelligence and imagination. And/or just sheer laziness.

For all that, there really was a lot that was good in the Song of Susannah, but it was overshadowed by the sheer baddery of all the crap surrounding it. One of my favourite characters in the series is introduced in this book. Why is he one of my favourites? Because he’s real, he has imagination, he has depth, and he makes sense. He FITS. Just…just flip through the crap with Susannah and move on.

I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for the discussion with his manuscript editor wherein they talk about what bits to leave in the book and what books to remove. Actually, I would have liked to have been the editor with whom King was having that particular discussion. I would also like to be independently wealthy, weigh 60 pounds less than I do, and have a cabana boy called “Gustave” who is proficient with massage and who is on call at all hours of the day and night. But, as they say, poop in one hand and wish in the other and see which hand fills up first. (It’s the poop hand.)

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It’s like when you have this really great idea but then you forget the most important bits but sally forth anyway and then your great idea becomes an okay idea

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Categories: Books, Porblems, Reviews, Tags: , ,

This post will probably be very short.

In addition to underestimating his readers and assuming they won’t be able to “keep up” with a really good story about time travel and parallel worlds, King has made the risky and ill-advised decision to try to combine a novel that’s mediocre at best with his heretofore original and engaging epic fantasy. At the end of Wizard and Glass, King talks about how he realised in writing that book that Midworld and the land of Roland Deshain’s Dark Tower is really a convergence of all worlds; it is a place where there are multiple doors to multiple wheres and multiple whens. This meant, of course, that King could bring in any number of storylines and plot elements from any number of his other books.

“Boo,” I said when I heard that. In fact, I was in the citrus fruit section of the grocery store when I heard that, and I suspect that some shoppers thought I was particularly displeased with some of the produce. But ‘boo’, indeed.

Part of my disgust at a large chunk of Wolves of the Calla is that it presents a continuation of one of Kings weakest novels (that being ‘Salem’s Lot). That book in and of itself came between Carrie, a stark and disturbing first novel, and The Shining, which is, arguably, one of the better examples of 20th century American literature. ‘Salem’s Lot is like the disappointing avocado which has gone decidedly off in an otherwise delicious deli sandwich. It’s a plodding tale about a small town beset by vampires. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

There are moments in the fifth book of the Dark Tower series that are part of the wild west high-ish fantasy that are still brilliant and wonderful. There are sections of Wolves of the Calla where the pacing is perfect and the scenery is so real you can smell the heat of late summer; there are portions of this book where you can hear the whisper of the wind as it tousles the dry stalks of corn in the fields. And then King goes and buggers everything up by tossing a character from a mediocre-at-best book into the mix and hijacks his own gorram story to write a second book in the ‘Salem’s Lot “series”.

I read an interview with the author where he talked about how ‘Salem’s Lot is his own personal favourite, and how he always wanted to write a sequel but then realised he didn’t have to because he could just incorporate that book into his Dark Tower series. And I said, “you twat”. I said it very derisively, too. If I wanted to read another book in that series, **I wouldn’t be reading the Dark Tower series**. So again, we’ve arrived at a point where Stephen King says, “screw you, reader. You’re not sophisticated enough/you’re too sophisticated for this whole story, and it’s not really the story I want to tell anymore, but since you seem to like this Dark Tower dreck, I’ll give it to you, but I’m going to tell this other story, and you can love THAT instead.”

To be completely fair, the story of the priest could have been a very interesting one. On its own. But because it’s an anecdotal recollection tossed into the middle of a book about something ENTIRELY DIFFERENT, King does *it* a grand injustice as well as the Dark Tower story he’s trying to tell. It seems to me that a good editor would have mentioned this to him, because it becomes readily apparent…very readily apparent…that King spreads himself too thin and tries to accomplish too much in this novel.

The story of the Calla itself; its history, its people…that story was thrown away, when it could have been almost as rich as the story of  Mejis in Wizard and Glass (arguably the best book in the series). If King didn’t want to do another Mejis story, he could have told the story of the Manni people, but he doesn’t seem too interested in them (although they provide one of the most massive plot revelations in the entire series). He could have, for all that’s holy, chosen to tell the story of the fricking Dogan* (and I’m not sure if Stephen King even knows why using that word is funny). By focussing so much of this tale on a character from another novel, King has really diminished the Dark Tower tale.

I guess this post wasn’t as short as I thought it would be. It got a bit ranty. But if the point…or if part of the point…of literature is to tell a story, then Stephen King, in this book, has really effed up. It almost makes me not want to finish the Song of Susannah. You already know how I feel about that character (Susannah), and now I have another toss-away character in the mix to be poopy about.

Incidentally, on the heels of reiterating how much I dislike the character of Susannah Dean and think she is a flat and boring two-dimensional character, let me just say that the character of Rosalita in Wolves of the Calla is, in the limited time we know her in this book, FAR more developed than Susannah.

I also have to say that characters recurring in books isn’t in itself a Bad Thing. One of my very favourite Stephen King books is The Eyes of the Dragon, which features Flagg (who also appears in The Stand and in the Dark Tower series). I like that there are hints in many of King’s books that there might be something grander going on among all of them; that they could all be inter-related. That’s *REALLY COOL*. Partly because it’s subtle. It’s the sort of subtlety you pick up on when you read the books. What’s picking my arse about what King’s done in some of the Dark Tower books is that he’s tossed the subtlety to the hogs and is hoping that if he POINTS OUT ENOUGH TIMES that THESE THINGS! THESE THINGS HERE! also appear in other works of his, you will “get it”.

I think you’d have got it if you hadn’t been tugged along by the nose hairs, but maybe I’m expecting too much.

_____

*In Canada (and I don’t know where else “they” use this expression), a “Dogan” is a Roman Catholic. The etymology of the derogatory term is unclear, although I suspect it has something to do with it sounding vaguely Irish, and with a large portion of poor, dirty, drunk Irish immigrants being Roman Catholic. Poor and dirty and drunk because they have altogether Too Many Children. Because they’re Roman Catholic. Anyway, in Wolves of the Calla, the character I’m peevish about is an Irish priest who drinks too much, loses his faith, becomes a ghoul, etc., etc., etc. and finds himself in another world eventually. During the course of the story (the main story, not the crappy Priest’s Tale), a book surfaces called “The Dogan”, and it’s a rare book because the title is misprinted (it’s supposed to be called “The Hogan”), the author is miscredited, and the author died before his Western series is completed. That book has a connexion with the Calla (“town”) in which the Gunslingers find themselves. Anyway. The Irish priest, the Dogan…it made *me* giggle something awful.

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And still I’m talking about that series of books that I actually quite enjoy even though you can’t tell because it sounds like all I do is bitch about them

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Categories: Books, Porblems, Reviews, Tags: , ,

In the course of re-reading (or re-listening to) The Dark Tower series of books by heavy-hitting writer Stephen King, I’ve been finding some really persnickety little things that I’ve found bothersome. It could be because when I first read the series, I was a fledgling editor (read snot-nosed teenager who knew the difference between ‘there’, ‘their’, and ‘they’re’), and now that I am more …seasoned? May I say seasoned here? Of *course* I can; this is my bournal, for Pete’s sake…now that I am a more *seasoned* editor, getting closer and closer to ‘professional’ designation, I notice little things like this that I would flag (if you’ll pardon the Dark Tower pun there) for the writer to revisit and/or explain because it seems incongruous.

I’ve come across some “continuity errors” that for some reason are really sticking out in my mind. Some of them seem like the sort of mistakes that an editor would catch if they weren’t tasked with the job of editing a big-name writer like Stephen King. Some of them seem like the sorts of things that might pop up after, as we say in the gaming world, “retconning” something (which means, in short, changing the original narrative to make subsequent stories more cohesive). Some of them, I think, are just me and my overactive thinker causing problems.

I do know that the original version of The Gunslinger, which was published in 1982, was changed in subsequent publications so that it would “fit” with the rest of the series. This pisses me off on many levels, the least of which is that parts of The Dark Tower series is about *time travel*. So you’d think that, for example, something like Jake Chambers being 9 years old in the original Gunslinger book would be fairly easy to explain his then being 11 in subsequent books. References to the fall of Gilead having taken place in the last generation were changed because later in the series, it’s revealed that Roland is “extremely old”, “hundreds of years old”, and “maybe as many as a thousand years old”; again, in a series in which time travel is possible…and in fact, is a fairly major part of the plot…it doesn’t make sense that he didn’t just use the concept of the world having ‘moved on’ or time having ‘softened’ or any number of time-travel/parallel worlds explanations for these phenomena.

Did King think his readers wouldn’t *get it*? Did he think that we would find it *less* mysterious if two different “bad guys” were actually the same guy, even though at least one of those bad guys had been killed in a previous book? In these books, *people change the past*. Numerous times, we’re told about all of these multiple worlds, and parallel universes, but for some reason, although King provides this sort of information for his readers, he doesn’t seem to trust that we could suspend our disbelief *just as far* in this regard.

When I began listening to the audiobooks, I was frustrated because some of these details were different. I thought I was simply misremembering them, but then I looked it up, and sure enough, Stephen King pooped around and made the ridiculous decision to change stuff in The Gunslinger. You might not much care about stuff like this, but it seems to me that if you’re a writer, and you’ve a story to tell, and that story should take place over the course of multiple novels, you should figure out a way to work with what you’ve already done rather than go back and muck about with what was *already really good*. And stop underestimating your audience.

Then there’s this really brilliant opening to The Drawing of the Three, where Roland gets attacked and munched upon by some local fauna. In this scuffle, he loses one of his boots. Well. He knows where it is; it’s in the belly of a monster. I may have just missed it, but somehow, this issue becomes less of a problem. And by ‘less of a problem’, I mean either his boots magically reappear or he managed to find new ones. On a beach. In the middle of nowhere.

Later in the same book, he has ripped his shirt to threads. But somehow, he is not shirtless later in the same story, although he has not had the opportunity to reshirtify. Again, maybe I missed the Great Reshirtification of Roland of Gilead. The boots bother me much more than the shirt, for some reason. ALSO stemming from the third book is that Roland names the monsters who et his boots (and most of one of his hands) “lobstrosities”. The passage says something like, “the creatures Roland had come to think of as lobstrosities”…but later, characters who had never been on that beach, characters to whom Roland had never previously spoken, either refer to “lobstrosities” or they immediately seem to understand what “lobstrosities” are, even though they’ve never seen them, or even been to the Western Sea. And I’m not talking about the Bad Guy, who seems to be somewhat omnisicent; I’m talking about other characters….characters who really should have no reason to know this word or what it means somehow do. That, to me, is just lazy.

Granted, ‘lobstrosity’ is a fabulous word, and it is *absolutely perfect* for what the creatures are. And if the explanation for this is that somehow, the things that Roland thinks up somehow mysteriously become canon, that would be REALLY COOL. But instead, it just kind of comes off as something that has happened for no reason, with no explanation…which is the sort of thing that beginning writers sometimes stumble with; particularly if their editors miss things. Like a really cool word being mystically adopted into everyone’s lexicon for no reason.

I think ultimately what’s really bunching my knickers is that in being careless like this, in revising the first book, in missing little big things like the boots and the shirt, King underestimates, and therefore undervalues, his audience. On the one hand, he’s taken us by the hand and has said, “look! See? This is magic I have made. This is something wonderful.” But on the other hand, he’s saying, “just don’t invest yourself in it too much because it’s just a veneer”. If I thought that he’d done that *on purpose* as some kind of allegory, I might be impressed. But I really don’t think that’s the case. I’d be extremely surprised if that was the case.

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On re-reading or listening to a series of books that I loved enough to keep.

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Categories: Books, Porblems, Reviews, Tags: , ,

It’s about Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

I don’t remember if I received The Gunslinger as a gift or if I picked it out at the bookstore on one of the many times my Mum and I happened to accidentally stop at the bookstore on the way to get groceries. In our house, you remember, books were considered staples, like broccoli and milk. You will die after a couple of days without water, they tell me, but you can last for months without food. I’m pretty sure you can’t last for months without books. Or at the very least, stories.

At any rate, I read The Gunslinger. And it was good. It was very, very good. A post-apocalyptic/old west/steampunk/fantasy/romantic adventure story, it is. I also really enjoyed King’s/Straub’s The Talisman which was published after The Gunslinger but before The Drawing of the Three. Anyway, this isn’t meant to be a publications list for Stephen King’s readable books.

At its most basic, The Gunslinger is a wild west fantasy adventure story. It’s high fantasy set in a spaghetti western setting. I’m sure you can find plot summaries all over the web, or (better yet) you could just read the book. So I’m not going to do a plot summary or a review for you. If you haven’t yet read it, there will probably be spoilers, or some of this won’t make sense. For the record there are currently six books in the series, with King slated to write a seventh soonish. There are multiple novellas and graphic novels based on King’s Midworld and All-world setting. There’s even a television/movie series planned.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this series lately, because I recently got my fingers on the audiobooks, and I’ve been listening to the entire series every time I drive to and from work, or when I’m in the bath, or at bedtime, or whenever i’m at hockey practice. So something that stood out for me is the reason why I quit reading the series after the third or fourth book.

I read The Drawing of the Three, the second book in the series, close to when it first came out because I remember buying it in a bookstore in Florida. I was buying the collectors’ editions, with colour plates inside. I remember seeing The Wastelands, book number three, in the bookstore, and I was excited that it was finally out. I think I read most of it, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t read all of it. Probably just the first half. And now I remember why.

One of the characters, who first appears in the third book, is called Odetta Walker. She becomes Susanna Dean by the time the fourth book comes around. She’s a cripple in a wheelchair (yes, I *know* ‘cripple’ is considered to be politically incorrect, rude, insensitive, and all those other things). In fact, it’s not the fact that she’s short (ha ha) her legs below the knee that makes her a cripple; it’s an intensely disturbing “split personality” that makes her a cripple. She is both Odetta Holmes and Detta Walker; the former is a wealthy woman whose family fortune is inherited from her father, who pioneered dental materials, and the latter is a racist, misandrist bitch who has a problem with larceny and basic kindness.

This woman’s mental illness (a form of schizophrenia once called ‘multiple personality disorder’) stems from the time when she was hit in the head with a brick, and was exacerbated when she was pushed in front of a train and lost her legs. Well. She didn’t *lose* them. She *knows* where they are; they’re under a train. At any rate, the main reason I quit reading the series is because of this character.

I’m five books through the series, and I can’t yet figure out why King introduced her. And why she’s a female character. I mean, in theory, she’s a female character because she has two ex chromosomes, but I think the story would have been just as interesting without her in it. She’s two-dimensional. The other characters King writes in this series are absolutely not.

The main character, Roland, has more going on than a secret service Executive meeting. Talk about your onion with the layers. He’s a knight, he’s a criminal, he’s a lover, he’s  not interested in romance…the guy is a study in juxtaposition. Every time you think you know him, he does something that seems out of character until you really start to think about it.

Jake Chambers is just a kid, but he goes from being a simpering child on the cusp of adolescence to a strong young man with imagination, initiative, integrity, and honour. King undertakes the formidable job of seeing this kid through the ‘tweenage’ years, and he does it admirably. In Jake Chambers, I see The Captain. I see myself at that age. I *remember*.

Even Eddie Dean, the ex-junkie from Brooklyn, is well-rounded. You get to know Eddie, and through Eddie you get to know Roland better. Eddie’s a smartass. He has problems. He’s selfish and immature and he feels like the world owes him something. But he grows, and changes, and …well…he Becomes. If that makes sense.

But Odetta/Detta? Her personalities ‘reconcile’ and she marries Eddie and becomes Susannah and then another personality shows up and every time she speaks, I wince. It really seems like King decided he needed a feminine touch to offer something to the ladies reading this series, and figured the easiest way to do that would be to throw a chick in the mix. But not just *any* chick. She has to have three strikes against her: she is a woman, she is a cripple, and she is a woman of colour. In the grand scheme of things, this makes her the ultimate underprivileged person. And maybe, just maybe, through the course of the story, she can **EMPOWER** herself. She can BE someone. Someone IMPORTANT.

But everything about her is forced. Everything about her is flat. Forced. Even the relationship she has with Eddie is ridiculous. I don’t mean ridiculous like it could never happen; I mean ridiculous in terms of it being the kind of relationship you see on soap operas and end up shouting at the television about. In fact, I cannot find one single redeeming thing about this character. The plotline involving her and her get in the fifth book of the series just makes me angry.

She is most interesting in book two (The Drawing of the Three) when she is talking about some of Detta Walker’s history. But one of the things that really bothers me about this character is the fact that her mental illness is used as a plot device. I mean, okay, she *could* be an interesting character…a black woman who lived through race riots and segregation? A black woman whose father was well educated? Educated enough to be a dentist and to have become a man of means? A black woman who was, herself, highly educated, but who did not need to work because of her family’s income? THAT’S INTERESTING! But there’s only really lip service played to it.

It’s kind of like King said: “oh look! Here is a black crippled woman with mental problems! This is going to be like throwing a badger into an overcrowded prison mess hall!”

Maybe I just don’t see the point. Maybe I’ve completely missed why King introduced this character. Maybe I just wanted this character to be like some of King’s other female characters who *are* strong, mysterious women. Three-dimensional, real women. Women who have pasts, futures, *and presence*, if you will. This character is thrown in as a toss-away plot device. She might as well be the moll who walks into the film noir detective agency and claims that someone has stolen her cat. *She* doesn’t matter. She’s only there to further the plot, and that makes me angry, because I’m wasting my time with her.

There are some other things about this series that are sticking in my craw, too. But I’ll maybe bring those up another time.

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