Book Review: One of Our Thursdays is Missing

This is the sixth installment in Fforde’s Thursday Next series, and if, like me, you haven’t read any of the previous books, you’ll probably be hella confused. The series’ titular heroine (wait, can I write that?) is a no-nonsense detective in a world of nonsense. Using the fantastic technology of Fforde’s parallel universe, she travels into the Bookworld, a sort of distillation of the collective consciousness, where plots both new and classical are acted out for the sake of anyone currently reading the book in question.

Since Next travels and works within the worlds of famous literary works, you can imagine there is plenty of opportunity for parody, punning, and tongue-in-cheek references of all kinds.

This much I knew going in. What I didn’t realize is that the “real world” of Thursday Next, outside of the Bookworld where she works alongside the Jurisfiction policing service, is also an elaborately imagined parallel universe from our own, sharing much of our literary canon (with occasional tweaks), but with a very different history and modern political organization. Randomly enough, the Crimean War continues into the 1980s, Wales is an independent republic (and the UK as a political entity does not exist), and both neanderthals and humanoid robots are commonplace sights. Quite apart from her adventures in the Bookworld, Thursday lives in interesting times.

What I also was surprised to find is that this latest book doesn’t feature Thursday Next, it features the “written” Thursday Next. I.e., a fictional version of the Next of the previous books, who popped into existence in the Bookworld when the real Thursday Next’s adventures were ghostwritten into a marginally popular book series of its own. This seemed rather meta to me, and took me awhile to figure out. Especially because I didn’t realize at first that the original Thursday Next wasn’t also fictional in the context of Fforde’s universe, and that the books haven’t been self-referential since the beginning of the series, i.e., the world of Fforde’s novels including the existence of his very own novels, in an infinite regress.

All this is a point in favour of not choosing this novel as your introduction to the series. But if you have read the previous books, you may wonder, how does this one stand up? Even though I can’t speak to that directly, I’ve read both of Fforde’s Nursery Crime novels (a third is upcoming), which are a spin-off from the Thursday Next series, and I devoured each in a day or two. Both proved satisfying crime stories with a streak of wicked humour. A world that includes serial killer gingerbread men and an alcoholic Humpty Dumpty does require a suspension of disbelief, but the absurdity never overpowered the whodunit narrative.

In One of Our Thursdays is Missing, however, I had some difficulty keeping track of what was going on, and as a result never really got hooked the way I was with these previous novels. The clever literary references are still there, of course. Thursday finds herself on the trail of a missing cabbie named Gatsby. “I didn’t know the Great Gatsby drove a cab,” she says. “No, not him, his brother. The mediocre Gatsby.” But the convolutions of the Bookworld, not to mention Fforde’s very weird “real world”, gave me too much to keep track of to be able to follow the mystery at the same time.

It seemed like the world-building took over and the plot took a backseat. Since everything was equally unusual/suspicious, I couldn’t follow the logic of what Thursday was thinking or doing, or the trail she was following, and as a result it felt less like figuring out the solution of a puzzle along with the hero than simply being told in narrative that the puzzle had been solved. And really, it’s a bit of a disappointment to read a Thursday Next book that turns out not to star Thursday Next. Though the written Thursday Next is sympathetic enough, she’s a bit too passive for a starring role.

I still love the concept of this series, but I’m sorry that this particular book wasn’t a little easier for me to get into. It’s not bad, by any means; it certainly wasn’t a slog to finish, it just wasn’t a stand-out for me.

(Viking, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2011) The Sleeping Hedgehog

Costa Rica

Well, here we are in Costa Rica. I’m officially freelancing full-time, and my services are always available. More importantly, my fiancée and our two pups also survived the trip. It wasn’t easy for our little man, but he’s a trooper, and the longest flight was only five hours.

(Photo by V.)

Plodding Publicist

For the second time in a few months, I’ve had the same one-sided conversation with the same publicist from the same publishing house. One of the review publications to which I contribute received a press release asking for reviews, I volunteered to take a look, he proceeded to ignore the e-mail from my editor, the e-mail from me with my mailing address, the follow-up e-mail asking if he was still planning on sending it.

In both cases, the books are niche titles, an odd little non-fiction, and a translation from a foreign author that is not known here. These are the kinds of books that struggle to get enough exposure, and being one of eclectic interests, I try to do my part. Both times, the same series of e-mails from me to him. And never a response. Not one.

Now you know why you’ve never heard of these books. What a slacker.

DVD Review: The Red Green Show: The Mid-Life Crisis Years

Acorn Media has been releasing the complete Red Green series in three season sets, from The Infantile Years to The Geezer Years, released this month. But it’s The Mid-Life Crisis Years that I’ve been revisiting over the last couple of weeks: seasons 10-12, which originally aired from 2000-2002. Each season in this set has a consistent look in its packaging and menu design. DVD extras are limited to some brief production notes from titular series star and writer, Steve Smith, but every episode is present and accounted for, and isn’t that what we really want?

Season nine marked the departure of writer and co-creator, Rick Green from his on-camera role in the Adventures with Bill segments, as well as a story-arc involving star Patrick McKenna’s character, Harold, getting a job in the city. As a result, neither of these actors are seen on-screen during season 10 (with the exception of the Christmas special, when Harold was in town for the holidays). Harold happily returns in season 11, though irregularly at first. Meanwhile, host Red Green (played by Steven Smith) interacts more with secondary characters, who became much more distinguishable to me as a result.

Just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about: Red Green takes the form of a faux low-grade cable access fix-it and men’s interest show, run out of the fictional Possum Lodge. Regular segments include “The Possum Lodge Word Game”, wherein Red’s partners humourously misunderstand every clue he gives them to guess the secret word; a brief monologue Red delivers on life north of 40, delivered deadpan but unerringly hitting its comedic mark; and “Handyman’s Corner”, where Red builds everything from home-made auxiliary window-wipers, to a method of cooking a holiday dinner inside a moving car. Unlike Tim Allen’s Home Improvement escapades, these creative Rude Goldberg contraptions do usually work, after a fashion (no doubt thanks to a talented technical team). Hopefully you don’t mind gravelly mashed potatoes.

The series has really hit its stride in these later seasons, with the contraptions getting bigger and better, though they’re still fresh and original. Each of the short, skit-like segments are consistently funny, and nicely break up the main story of each episode. In fact, said “story” usually takes up the minority of the total running time, but provides a nice continuity to an otherwise ADD format. These stories usually focus on some hare-brained scheme of lodge members (a season 10 episode has them entering a sausage-making competition) failing spectacularly by episode’s end.

It’s no secret that the average Canadian watches much more American television than the home-grown variety. Cultural pride notwithstanding, it’s generally difficult for our stuff to compete. But we have the odd gem, and Red Green is one of them.

After watching so many episodes in such a short time, what sticks out for me the most is that the show is so consistently entertaining while remaining family-friendly and completely apolitical. Anyone can sit down and enjoy an episode, and they do. For 15 years (not counting syndication), this has been the show that channel-surfing Canadian families would often settle on, to satisfy both the kids and grandma.

Never resorting to dirty jokes or profanity, rarely referring more than vaguely to pop culture, and set in a small town that could be almost anywhere in Canada, Red Green is not a show for conservatives or liberals, Albertans or Ontarians, old or young. It’s not even for men exclusively, or Canadians, for that matter. Septic suction segments notwithstanding, it’s good clean fun for anyone who wants to plop down in the living room and have a good time.

(Acorn Media, 2011)

Article first published as DVD Review: The Red Green Show: The Mid-Life Crisis Years on Blogcritics.

Time For a Fresh Look at Assessment?

The latest issue of Canadian Teacher Magazine is hitting teachers’ lounges everywhere, and it may be early enough in the school year that some of those educators still have the time and energy in their day to read my article.

I haven’t even gone through it myself to see if there have been unexpected changes. This is my first time appearing in a national circulation magazine, specialized though it is, and right now I’m just basking.

This article was the culmination of some very basic questions that had been bouncing around in my head for awhile. It was also really nice to get back into feature writing — that special combination of essay- and editorial-writing I used to do all the time but have let lapse for the arts and culture scene.

Book Review: The Magicians

It should be pointed out that The Magicians is not Lev Grossman’s first book. His previous novel, Codex, was a bestseller. Previous and coincident with that, he has been the book critic for Time magazine. I mention this because Grossman appeared on genre radars apparently out of nowhere with the original 2009 release of this novel, and has just been recognized with a Hugo Award for Best New Author. But his is a man who had some literary chops before he ever decided to write fantasy.

Little surprise, then, that Grossman acknowledges many of the classic fantasy tropes only to turn them upside down. A brief summary of the plot – a high-achieving Brooklyn teenager is accepted into America’s only college for magic – and you can see why so many of the blurbs mention Harry Potter. But this really isn’t Harry Potter for adults.

We do follow Quentin Coldwater through four years of intense study, and the usual social challenges of the academic elite, but then he is finished, and the question is, what now? Throughout, Quentin has triumphs, but we also see him screw everything up, like a low-speed train wreck, completely predictable but still entirely inevitable. From the beginning, he still thinks of the magical world of Fillory (Grossman’s take on Narnia), discovered through wardrobes and magic buttons, and gets angry at his own magical world for never quite measuring up.

The story is really about a guy who gets everything he thinks he wanted, the chance to live in the world of magic that obsessed him from childhood on, but keeps discovering that not only do “happily ever afters” not really exist, it’s sort of impossible to believe in them as an adult. Magic or no, life is gritty, dangerous, unfair, and nobody gets out of it alive. Coming to terms with that is a part of growing up.

Of course, our protagonist’s journey of self-discovery aside, the story really is magical. Sometimes depressing, horrific, or even mundane, but a compulsively readable, weekend escape, with subtly shaded characters, a very satisfying post-climax plot resolution, and many moments of pure wonder. It’s a rule of fantasy (and much literature) that its characters get beaten down, lose everything, and somehow, in the end, get the job done. But for the reader, the best fantasy is an emotional rescue if you need it, and an invigorating mental vacation otherwise.

The slightly paradoxical fact of this novel is that it’s all about exposing pat, escapist fantasy as a fraud, but in the end, its story – dark and gritty and emotionally genuine though it is – truly is a great escape. This doesn’t undermine Grossman’s message: it’s a great story but we wouldn’t really want to live there.

(Plume, 2010)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2011) The Green Man Review

Book Review: Among Others

When Morwena arrives in England, she is nearly broken. Her twin sister is dead while she depends on a second-hand cane to walk. She has escaped her mad mother, who is also a witch, only to throw herself on the mercy of a father she has never known, in a place that will never be home. She misses Wales, with its fairies and secret paths, even after the nightmare she experienced there. In short order her father’s three sisters pack her off to a snooty English boarding school where she is outcast for having a limp, liking to read, and being Welsh. And here begins her journey to cope with what she’s lost, and slowly put the pieces of her life back together.

Mor tells her story via near-daily diary entries, over the course of most of a school year, with occasional flashbacks. We only slowly learn the details of what happened before the novel’s opening. Initially, we know that Mor and her sister, also Mor, managed to foil their mother’s dark plans but only at the cost of one of their lives. As the survivor, our Mor has the more difficult task: to continue on, to keep on living. She knows Tolkien would understand. Remember the “Scouring of the Shire”? He obviously knew about what comes after the final battle, about coping with life after saving the world, with surviving but losing everything else.

Among Others is very firmly rooted to a particular place and time – England (and Wales), in the autumn of 1979 – and to read this book is to be transported there. In fact, the book’s sense of reality is so strong that it’s difficult to figure out whether the magic and fairies Mor takes for granted are to be read as really existing or if Walton is employing the device of the unreliable narrator. Truthfully, Walton’s (presumably) accurate rendering of post-industrial Wales is one of factory pollution and semi-urban blight, and her portrait of the ’70s era British private school system is just about the least magical place you can imagine.

And since her conception of magic is something that is completely immeasurable (it may not work at all, or the thing you wanted to happen may occur, but you can never be sure if the magic caused it or it would have happened anyway), there’s a lot of ambiguity as to whether we’re actually reading a fantasy story or a very sad tale about a girl who imagines fairies and mistakenly believes that dropping a flower into a pool releases a spell that will change the world. I don’t usually like the meaning of a story to be so open to interpretation, but that’s entirely personal preference.

The real draw of the novel is Mor’s compelling voice. Ultimate, this is a coming-of-age story for a type of person many of us may relate to. While other girls at school worry about make-up and the boy of the week, Mor hangs out at libraries and bookshops, avidly reading all the science fiction and fantasy she can get her hands on. Books are her haven. Being an outsider seems inevitable, but little by little, Mor discovers that there is a place in the world for people like her, that like-minded people do exist.

Depending on how you read it, the totems and protection magic she uses to ward off her mother’s long tendrils may represent the power of books to serve as a shelter against an emotionally unstable childhood (and particularly an abusive parent). The ability to see fairies may represent either the sense of wonder that some of us lose, or the voracious curiosity that some of us allow to atrophy.

Walton’s knowledge and love of SF comes through in every page, and I suspect that Le Guin, Silverberg, and Heinlein also served as life-preservers during her own teen years. Mor’s regular musings on what she is reading make this book both a story about surviving life as a teen and a loving testament to the written works that make this possible.

I had some nitpicks. I thought the story started to drag a bit during the last third or so, when I found myself asking, “but is anything going to actually happen?” Plotwise, the pacing was slow, and the conclusion was somewhat anti-climactic. But when it comes down to it, this was one of the more readable books I’ve read in some time. I found I could pick it up and immediately fall into Mor’s world, even if I could only spare 10 minutes at a time. And the last line is absolutely brill. This is a book for anyone whose best friends have ever been fictional characters.

(Tor, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2011) The Green Man Review

Billions and Billions

I’ve just finished the final chapter of Carl Sagan’s final book, “In the Valley of the Shadow”, in Billions and Billions. He died shortly after completing it. What a remarkable human being he was. Isaac Asimov, the prolific writer who was also (briefly) a Ph.D chemist famously said that Carl Sagan was one of only two people he had ever met who was clearly smarter than himself (the other was Marvin Minsky). However, it’s not his intelligence that I most admire, but he was remarkable ability to understand and empathize with other people.

Only Carl Sagan could bring together people from both ends of both the political and religious spectra, by being, apparently sincerely, genuinely able to understand all points of view in a largely non-judgemental way. Things have been so divisive in both American and Canadian politics the last 10 years, I think we really feel the loss of someone like him.

Book Review: The Manga Guide to the Universe

The Manga Guide series began modestly with a single title near the end of 2008, The Manga Guide to Statistics, and it was a surprise hit. Now here we are on book eight of the series, with book nine just around the corner. We’ve had Manga Guides to Databases, Calculus, and Molecular Biology. It seems there is no scientific topic that can’t be improved by adorable comic illustrations. Now we see if that even applies to the universe itself.

The premise is quite brilliant. Japanese high school students Yamane and Kanna are the only members of their struggling drama club. They’ve committed to putting on a show at an upcoming arts festival to justify their existence, but are at a loss as to what they will do. Just then, an American exchange student, Gloria, walks in, eager to join the club and displaying a deep enthusiasm for Japanese culture. The three of them put their heads together and settle on doing an adaptation of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, wherein a tiny girl is discovered inside a stalk of bamboo, only later to be discovered a princess of the moon.

There’s only one problem, this tenth-century tale needs some updating, today’s post-Apollo program audience won’t buy the idea of a kingdom on the moon. Yamane needs to update the story with a more distant, mysterious location. But knowing little about the heavens, more research is needed. Fortunately, Kanna’s brother is an astronomy major at the university, and his favourite professor is more than willing to share the wonders of the universe with an interested audience. But just how far will they need to go to find a home for their princess?

An introductory astronomy course or textbook normally surveys such a wide array of different disciplines and reasoning techniques that most of them can be covered only qualitatively. The hodge-podge nature of the topic thus provides a less obvious intellectual progression than something like molecular biology, calculus, or chemistry, wherein each new topic builds on a previous one. Ishikawa’s chosen narrative arc is both historical and natural to new students of astronomy, first focusing on the skies as seen from the Earth (especially our own moon), then expanding to the rest of the Solar System, our Milky Way Galaxy, other galaxies, and then the overall shape, history, and future of the universe as a whole. The final chapter discusses a number of open problems in astronomy, including the theory of other universes, and the mysteries of dark matter and energy.

Although I wasn’t expecting to learn about Japanese literature in this book, it was really a nice fit, and in retrospect, it’s quite natural to discuss how cultural views of celestial objects and the universe as a whole have changed over time. Ishikawa also ties the birth of new universes back to the original story in the final chapter in a brilliant and very satisfying way.

Throughout the book, we get a good view of why astronomers believed the universe was a particular way, as well as why they were proven wrong, from discarding the Earth-centered model, to recognizing the vastly greater distances of the stars compared to the relatively nearby objects of our Solar System. The text engages the reader with leading questions and logical implications, and the data and thought experiments are well served by the visual illustrations. Ishikawa uses both some classic analogies and some fresh, unique ones to get some difficult concepts across.

I was delighted that he also took time to cover some hot-button topics that a traditional textbook may have left out: Kanna discovers a UFO and by the end of a chapter, she has learned enough astronomy basics to figure out what it really was and why it seemed to be following her; the possibility of life either in our Solar System or elsewhere in the galaxy is discussed, including the specific details of our best nearby candidates, and the more general statistical argument made famous by Frank Drake.

The Manga Guide to the Universe is a perfect blend of lucidly argued basics and unfettered, cutting-edge possibility. One of the best yet in the series (which is saying a lot).

(No Starch Press, 2011)

Article first published as Manga Review: The Manga Guide to the Universe by Kenji Ishikawa on Blogcritics.