Browse Tag by obligatory Daniel Handler tag
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Review: We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler

We+Are+PiratesWe Are Pirates (HarperCollins) is a witty adventure through modern-day piracy. The story alternates perspectives between Phil Needle, an increasingly unsuccessful radio executive, and his daughter Gwen, an increasingly bored teenager, as they both try to find happiness, or at least excitement, along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. While Phil waffles about pitching the next big radio show and sleeping with his secretary, Gwen and a band of misfits elect to become literal pirates, and damn the consequences.

Like Handler’s other novels, We Are Pirates excellently portrays what it’s like to be a teenager in the face of indifferent and incompetent adults. I would have liked less of Phil, whose storyline feels interchangeable for any other unhappy middle-aged white man in literature, and more of Gwen, who was daring and unpredictable and a hundred times more interesting. Despite the imbalance between his characters, Handler deftly knits irony, humour and danger into a surprisingly adventurous read.

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This review first appeared as “Frisco Freebooters” in Geist 96. 

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Great Books You Probably Haven’t Read

Last week, John Green, the patron saint of authors on social media and online communities, made a video recommending eighteen of his favourite books that aren’t bestsellers. The full list is available in the video description (and here). He was right – I hadn’t read any of them, although I’ve added a number of them to my mountainous to-read list (and some are great for my 2014 reading challenges!). John’s video got me thinking about how everyone probably has a list of favourite, underrated books, and how sharing them could be a fun way of discovering new reading material. So here is a list of my top five beloved books that you probably haven’t read.

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The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

A fictional true-crime diary, The Basic Eight satirizes the satanic panic of the 1990s in a San Francisco high school, loosely based on Handler’s own high school. Flannery Culp is a pretentious teenager with a pretentious friend group and an unrequited crush on the indifferent Adam State. Features include: three layers of narration (including, hilariously, moralizing vocabulary and study questions inserted by an uptight TV psychologist), croquet, terribly clever writing, absinthe, glamorous best friends named Natasha, unreliable narrators, and murder. This is my actual favourite book. If you choose to read it, report back wisely.

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Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones’ books are wonderful children’s fantasy, and I devoured every one the library had in stock when I was a kid. I had a hard time choosing which DWJ book to include here (a very close second was the Chrestomanci series), but Eight Days of Luke won out because it’s the book that ruined American Gods for me when I read it years later; basically everything I’ve read of Neil Gaiman reads like a pale imitation of a Diana Wynne Jones book. Eight Days of Luke follows David, a neglected boy stuck at home during school holidays with his miserable guardians, and the strange things that happen when a mysterious boy named Luke appears in David’s backyard. Fantasy and reality blend as David realises Luke and his relatives are not what they appear. As a standalone, this book is a great introduction to Jones’ work.

watchyourmouth-handler Watch Your Mouth by Daniel Handler

There is probably a good reason that Watch Your Mouth is on no one’s radar, and that’s because it has questionable content, and a lot of it (namely, all incest all the time). However, this is the best young-adult incest-comedy gothic Jewish porn opera novel that you will ever read. The first half of the narrative is constructed as an opera, with plot events arranged in acts and scenes, accompanied by strings and woodwinds, and the operahouse audience reader is directly addressed; Joseph spends the summer at his girlfriend’s parents’ house and discovers they have a terrible secret, which culminates in the appearance of a life-sized clay Golem and murder. The second half (printed in dark red; symbolism ahoy!) is set up as a twelve-step program, in which Joseph tries to recover from his summer at the Glass’s and figure out this Golem business. Watch Your Mouth is risky in form and content, but witty and satisfying.

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My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

I first read this book last year as a part of a course I was teaching, and all my friends and students hated it, but I loved it. Literary editor Sarah is lured to Malaysia by a sleazy family friend, and there discovers Christopher Chubb, a writer who tells her an incredible tale of his fictional character Bob McCorkle coming to life, haunting him, and abducting his daughter. Sarah must choose whether to believe or confront him in order to get her hands on the finest piece of literature she has ever read – a manuscript written by McCorkle (or is it Chubb?). My Life as a Fake is based on the 1943 Ern Malley hoax and questions the intersection of fiction and reality. It’s also an intertext of Frankenstein; I love the reading of Chubb as a mad scientist who stitches together McCorkle out of his own skin. Delightfully confusing and macabre, I change my mind about the truth of McCorkle every time I read it.

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Movies in Fifteen Minutes by Cleolinda Jones

So, Cleolinda is my favourite blogger, and her screenplay-style parodies of popular movies took LiveJournal by storm back in the mid-2000s. They’re still funny, and she posts one or two new ones a year, although these days you can more commonly find her recapping television shows and nailing it, as usual. Her book features Movies in 15 Minutes that never appeared online, including Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Sorcerer’s Philosopher’s Stone, The Matrix, Titanic, and (hilariously) the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is my go-to book for bedtime reading when I need something funny to settle my brain raccoons.

Have you read any of these (or have I convinced you)? Let me know what you thought, and what your favourite under-the-radar books are!

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Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Every decade or so, Donna Tartt reemerges from her reclusive writerly life to publish a new book, at which time her readers crawl back out from under the spines of other novels, ready to accept the magnificent volume into our lives and libraries. I don’t keep it a secret that Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is my favourite book (along with Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight, which is in the same vein, really: pretentious teenagers, witty writing, murder), so I was eager to see if Tartt’s new book could compare. Spoiler alert: it does. The Goldfinch returns with Tartt’s signature combination of unforgettable characters and gorgeous prose.The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

I was fortunate to attend Tartt’s reading at the Toronto Reference Library last November, and since I thought I would never, ever get the opportunity to see her in person or get a book signed, I was thrilled. Like, really thrilled. Cross-it-off-the-bucket-list thrilled. At the reading, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Tartt is less severe than her author photos and reclusiveness might suggest: she warmly answered questions from both the interviewer (Jared Bland, who was wonderful as always) and fans (only appearing weary at one questioner’s insistence that she name her top four books. They were, for the record: Lolita, Bleak House, Jekyll & Hyde and The Great Gatsby). Dream fulfilled, I settled down to finish the novel.

At nearly eight hundred pages, The Goldfinch was certainly worth the eleven-year wait since The Little Friend. The story is told by Theo Decker, who as a young boy survives a bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The explosion kills his mother and creates a bond between Theo and a dying old man, who encourages him to take the titular Goldfinch painting. For reasons he can’t explain, Theo doesn’t return the painting, but keeps it secretly with him when his his previously absent, alcoholic father turns up to whisk him off to Las Vegas for a life of artificial domesticity, complete with McMansion, dog and new stepmother. In Vegas, Theo befriends Boris, another abandoned son, and the pair search for meaning in the desolate desert landscape, and increasingly in petty theft, drugs, and alcohol. Theo later returns to New York (with painting hidden in his suitcase) and grows up under the care of Hobie, a delightfully absent-minded antiques restorer. Theo remains haunted by his past, his parents, his painting, until Boris shows up to turn Theo’s life upside down, again. The Goldfinch is a sort of Tell-Tale Heart story, with Theo slowly being driven mad by his act of theft – obsessively checking on the painting, compulsively tracking the news for hints that the authorities might be on to him, and gazing on it in a my-precious sort of way.

The Goldfinch questions the difference between life and art by consuming Theo’s life with paintings, museums, and antiques, but seems to suggest that what both have in common is not love, or passion, but artifice. The novel’s  character-like settings (art-obsessed New York City, the spectral suburbs of “Lost Vegas,” and feverish Amsterdam) mirror the important people in Theo’s life (shallow Kitsey, his delinquent father, and the unattainable Pippa), and highlight his loneliness. Perhaps only Boris escapes accusations of artifice: hot-tempered, drunk, and charming, he embodies the chaotic life that Theo is thrown into, but simultaneously manages to ground him and provide freedom. As usual with Tartt’s male protagonists, Theo is a wonderfully deceptive narrator, and Tartt manages to surprise the reader again and again with her skillful plotting. With its beautiful writing and engaging story, The Goldfinch is my favourite book of 2013.

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8 New Books I’m Excited About This Fall

For me, autumn is usually a time of new school books and an increased reading load. This fall, however, marks the first year I’m not in class, and so to celebrate, I plan to use some of my free time to read for pleasure. Luckily, it seems like all my favourite authors are putting out new books this season. Some of them are out already, and some of them I’ve been waiting for for years. Here’s what’s on my to-buy to-read to-love list, in no particular order:

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1. Longbourn by Jo Baker (Random House; published October 8, 2013)

I actually just finished reading this one, and it was wonderful. Longbourn a below-stairs reimagining of Pride and Prejudice, featuring our favourite Bennets and new characters with mysterious pasts and secret ambitions. Baker creates a more complex household than seen in Austen’s work; if you like Downton Abbey, you will enjoy this novel!

 

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2. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh (Simon & Schuster; published October 29, 2013)

It’s no secret that Hyperbole and a Half is my favourite blog. One part webcomic, one part hilarious stories, Allie Brosh illustrates the weird and embarrassing things and relatable episodes that happen to her (must-read: This is Why I’ll Never Be an Adult). Her posts about depression are honest and accessible. I’ve been excited about this book since Allie first announced it, and don’t expect to be disappointed. Hyperbole and a Half is a mix of posts that appeared on her blog and new content. Counting down the days!

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3. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Random House; published August 28, 2013)

This one is on my shelf, waiting to be read. A historical novel set in New Zealand, it follows a man trying to solve a number of mysterious crimes. The cover is my favourite of the season. The Luminaries has been shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Read it before it wins!

 

 

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4. Not Quite the Classics by Colin Mochrie (Penguin; published October 22, 2013)

I grew up watching Colin Mochrie’s comedy on TV, so when I found out he was publishing a collection of short stories, I was intrigued. In Not Quite the Classics, Mochrie takes the first and last lines of famous stories, including Dickens, Sherlock Holmes and, I’ve heard, a cameo by Doctor Who, and improvises a new and twisted middle. I’m curious to see whether his written comedy matches his wit on television.

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5. Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Random House; published August 20, 2013)

Marisha Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006), was, for me, a book with a great first half and a dissatisfying ending. Despite this, I’m eager to read Pessl’s new book, a thriller about a mysterious (dead) cult filmmaker and his mysterious (dead) daughter, and the enigma that surrounds them. Postmodern and noir, Night Film contains website screenshots, news clippings and other pieces of “evidence” that propel the story. Reviews are mixed so far, but I’m hoping that it doesn’t disappoint.

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6. Allegiant by Veronica Roth (HarperCollins; published October 22, 2013)

Do I even need to say why I’m excited about this one? It’s the final book in the Divergent trilogy, and I love dystopian YA. In Allegiant, Tris ventures outside the fence with Tobias to try to discover a more peaceful life. This book is told from both Tris and Tobias’s perspective and I’m interested to find out how that affects the reader’s view of Tris and her society. Looking forward to the conclusion of this series!

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7. When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snicket (Little, Brown; published October 15, 2013)

My long-standing love affair with Lemony Snicket’s books (and alter ego Daniel Handler’s) extends to his new noir-style series All The Wrong Questions, of which When Did You See Her Last? is the second installment. Following a young Lemony Snicket through his V.F.D. neophyte training, this book finds Lemony searching for the missing Cleo Knight and the runaway Ellington Feint. Full of the usual incompetent adults, mysterious organizations and witty turns of phrase, When Did You See Her Last? promises to be a funny and satisfying read. Read the first two chapters here.

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8. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown; published October 22, 2013)

Donna Tartt publishes one book per decade, so everyone is very excited about The Goldfinch, her first novel since 2002. Her first book, The Secret History, was a massive bestseller and is my actual favourite book (and, as I’m sure you know, it’s hard for a book person to choose). Like all of her novels, The Goldfinch centres around death: this time, a young boy’s mother dies and he attempts to avoid being taken into a New York orphanage; he soon becomes obsessed with a mysterious painting. I’m trying to keep my expectations realistic, but I can’t wait to read Tartt’s beautiful, gothic prose again.

Let me know what you’re looking forward to reading this fall!

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Gendered book covers are over, if you want it: Tumblr, Fan Interaction and Publishing

Maureen Johnson’s Coverflip project, which made the rounds on twitter, tumblr and news sites such as the Huffington Post a few weeks ago, calls attention to the differential treatment of male and female authors, specifically in relation to the covers for their books. Johnson, a veteran YA author, notes that the treatment of texts written by female authors still “is of a lower perceived quality” than work by male authors, and is so outfitted in “girly” packaging and reduced to being called a “girl book” or “chick lit,” no matter what the subject matter. Johnson asked her followers to take book covers and redesign them as if a person of the opposite gender wrote the book. Her call to action resulted in hundreds of flipped covers, with books by Salinger, Kerouac, Jonathan Franzen, among others, appearing with teenage girls on softly-lit pastel backgrounds, while covers of Lauren Olivier, Sarah J. Maas and Johnson herself lost those qualities.

Coverflipped Why We Broke Up by tumblr user <a href="http://heart-deco.tumblr.com/post/49833231620/so-i-was-inspired-by-maureen-johnsons-post-to">heart-deco</a>. Used with permission.
Coverflipped Why We Broke Up by tumblr user heart-deco. Used with permission.

In a follow-up post after her idea went viral, Johnson both defended the right to like the more feminine covers (after all, femininity is not inherently degrading!) and stated that despite the buzz, nothing is likely to change on the publishing end of things unless the readers speak out. She invites readers to not only consider books beyond the cover, but contact publishers to let them know what they as readers would like to see instead.
Johnson acknowledges that the writers themselves, for the most part, have no say in what cover appears on their book.  She also is clear that she doesn’t believe publishers are “trying to subvert the cause of feminism and keep us down”. Instead, they are just trying to sell books. The decision for covers are up to the publishing house, usually a team of editors, designers and marketers. The publishing team chooses a cover that reflects what they think is the taste of the market. Since #coverflip, it has become evident that the taste of the market is more broad than publishers previously assumed, and that gender-neutral covers are, in fact, desirable.

As publishers, I think it is important that the demand for gender-neutral covers is not forgotten or disregarded. Besides eliminating underlying sexism, gender neutral covers expand a book’s market by making it more appealing to all readers, instead of just those who are attracted by “girly” covers. Johnson tweeted “I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, “Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. – signed, A Guy.” Johnson’s tweet suggests that there is an untapped market of male readers who are put off by feminine covers, and the following discussion surrounding #coverflip indicated that many female readers feel the same way. While this is not the venue to discuss why feminine covers are seen as unappealing to guys (and girls), it is significant to note that readers want book packaging to appeal more broadly to them, in order to help them find reading material that they like. If a gender-neutral cover could help sell more books, why would we as publishers not accommodate that?

06book  "Why We Broke Up" by Daniel HandlerInstead of creating another lookalike feminine cover because we think that’s what the market wants, those of us in the publishing industry should strive to deliver strong, interesting book packaging that doesn’t rely on gender stereotypes or suggest that women’s writing is inherently less valuable.

For publishers, #coverflip shows again the values of a fan base on social media as a means to engage and mobilize an audience, while at the same time it gives the publisher more information on what readers would like to see in regards to the books they read. In addition, Johnson’s call for readers to contact or tweet publishers with their concerns further highlights the role of social media as a way not only for readers to connect with authors but publishers as well. By giving consumers the opportunity speak directly to the publishing house, the publishing house is able to collect more information about what their readers want to read and possible new directions or trends to follow.