Richard Wagamese in Thunder Bay

Richard Wagamese in Thunder Bay

My Favourite Book of 2014

My Favourite Book of 2014
Sweetland by Michael Crummy

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Great books here.

Christmas is just around the corner and to herald in the season, the Northern Woman's Bookstore is having a 20% off sale on hard cover books. Works by such authors as Ann-Marie MacDonald, Heather O'Neill, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Naomi Klein and Jean Pendziwol, to name a few. Just in time for gift giving! 

Northern Woman's Bookstore
65 South Court Street
Thunder Bay, Ontario  P7B 2X2
Phone (807) 344-7979
Store hours: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays 11 am - 4 pm


Friday, December 12, 2014

God, I love a good book. And 2014 has been a great year even though I read only eighty-six books  rather than the ninety plus.  Here, in no particular order, are my top ten favourites.

1.The Son by Philip Myer. A Texas western with ranches, oil, Comanches, greed, betrayal and violence. This a sweeping book covering two centuries and includes the downfall of the Commanches and the Mexican settlers, the influx of whites, the destruction of the Texas range.  The characters are superb mainly centring on a single family. Peter is the conscience and Eli represents the hard men who triumphed using violence. The character of Jeanne Ann is nuanced, showing the internal pressures on a woman trying to rise in business in a man’s world.

2.  The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland. A good straightforward historical. Mme de Montespan becomes King Loius XIV’s mistress and takes in a young  actress from a travelling troupe.  

3.The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith aka J. K. Rowling. I love a good mystery and this is one of the best. What more can you ask than a great plot and fascinating characters, in this case a curmudgeon detective, Cormoront Strike and his sweet secretary, Robin, who also wants to be a detective.  Robin becomes more assertive and this affects her relationship with her selfish boyfriend. Grumpy Cormorant becomes a bit more empathetic.  Danger lurks. Rowling also takes a few good slams at literary critics who romanticize violence and gore.

4. The Train to Warsaw by Gwen Edelman. An elderly couple go to Warsaw.  Both are survivors of the Warsaw ghetto. They are imprisoned in memories and, at first, refuse to go out of the hotel room. He, a writer, invited to speak to a prestigious gathering, lambasts the Polish crowd for their anti-Semitism. The book is written in short vignettes, without an attempt to give each a witty or ironic twist as so often happens in this style of novel.  The vignettes slowly build a picture of their past lives.

5. Sweetland by Michael Crummy Moses Sweetland refuses to leave the Newfoundland island which has been crippled by the loss of the commercial fishery. As the remaining residents take the government compensation package, Sweetland schemes and dreams to stay on in the community where his family has lived for twelve generations but, cut off from the outside world, surrounded by memories, he needs all his guile and strength to survive. This book affected me deeply.  I stayed up until past three to finish it. So be warned. The next day I reread the powerful ending chapter.  A masterpiece.

6.Plainsong by Kent Haruf A mesmerizing book about a few characters in the small prairie town of Holt. Lyrical writing tells great stories in a compassionate manner. I enjoyed this book very much.

7.Hologram for the King by Dave Eggars. Another masterpiece. A 54 year old washed up Death of a Salesman type is in Saudi with his team to sell a hologram to the king. His former jobs were taken over by the Chinese and this one will too. But meanwhile, memorable scenes in which the inept protagonist trys to bolster his confidence and carry on. Sad, sharp, terrifying.

8.A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufield. A graphic novel. Excellent book which follows several characters as they live through Katrina and the flood. The Convention Centre figures prominently where thousands, including hundreds of children, were placed and left without food or water. The military came by but gave them nothing. Those who tried to leave were turned back at gunpoint.  Finally the gang members broke into local stores, scavenging for supplies and taking the initiative in distributing them. This is a different story from the one unusually told of the streets being controlled by gangs.

9.A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. This is a classic, written in 1929. It is considered one of the top 100 books written in English.  Children captured by pirates.  Death and fun on the pirate ship.  A sinister pall carries the story from one extraordinary scene to the next. It is an original and amazing work of art. Like the children, I was captivated. 

10. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. Marvelous stories, each one a gem. The best is the last, “Torching the Dusties” The world is sick of the old folks who use up too many resources after a lifetime of screwing up the environment. Various groups want to kill them all and the protagonist, a woman in the targeted old people’s home, wryly considers the situation while her beau, an old arthritic romantic Hungarian, plans their escape. Recently an article in the Atlantic suggested one should not live past 75 and a surprising number of readers agree. As usual Atwood touches a nerve.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Workshop on YA Fiction

Bonnie Ferrante

Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop (NOWW) will be offering a free workshop entitled Writing young adult fiction. 

The facilitator will be Bonnie Ferrante. Bonnie is a hybrid author. Her short stories, newspaper articles and columns, and novels have been published traditionally. She has begun simultaneously self-publishing novels and picture books and is doing her own illustrations. 

She received an Ontario Arts Council Writers Works in Progress grant to complete a YA paranormal historical which will be published by Tradewind Books in British Columbia.

 "Desiccate: Sphere of Vision Book One," her most recent YA book, was completed with the support of an OAC Northern Arts grant. 

She was a grade school teacher for thirty-three years, ten of those as a teacher-librarian. 

Her work has been described by Gordon Korman as "hauntingly believable", Richard Scrimger as containing "genuine surprises", Anne Coleman as "effectively told", and Angie Abdou as "insightful and emotional". Fred Stenson wrote "this author has exciting gifts...what a talent."

Three participants will win a critique by author Michelle Krys.
The workshop will be on Tuesday, January 20th, 7:00-9:00 p.m. at the Waverly Library, 285 Red River Road. No need to register.

A Review of John Pringle's The Truth Ratio

Alex Kosoris published this review on Good Reads. I am in complete agreement with his opinion that John Pringle is one of Thunder Bay's most talented writers (but I have to add that Pringle lives in Atikokan.) The book, The Truth Ratio, would make a good Christmas gift.

Review of The Truth Ratio by John Pringle 

Over the course of my time in Thunder Bay, trying to get a feel of the local writing scene, I have picked up various publications and occasionally found myself reading a John Pringle short story. Given that they’re usually the best of the best writing that the region has offered me, I picked up The Truth Ratio without hesitation, assuming it would contain more exceptional tales. To my delight, it does.

To begin with, I will admit I wasn’t in love with the stories. Yes, everything was enjoyable and competent, but it wasn’t until Fragments – which, incidentally, isn’t particularly far into the collection – that Pringle really starts to showcase the immensely creative ways he can tell a story.

As the collection progresses, not only does a diversity in writing become clear, but, if you look carefully, you start to be able to see many of the greats in the Pringle’s style: the evocative prose of Burroughs; the bleak, but hopeful, voice of Kerouac; the structure and presentation of Vonnegut.

What comes across is an author who is very well read and works hard to perfect his craft.

While I didn’t absolutely love every story as I did with a few – far and above the rest was definitely Seeds – I liked them all. There’s no doubt in my mind that Pringle is the most talented writer in the Thunder Bay region.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

I Hate American Food

boiled peanuts

American Food on the Road
By Joan M. Baril
I hate American food. No, pass the grain of salt. Of course, I don’t hate all American food. In New York, we had wonderful meals. The Minnesotan village of Grand Marias, just south of Thunder Bay, boasts excellent restaurants. New Orleans, and the entire state of Louisiana, dishes out one heavenly meal after another. For three days running, I went back to the same restaurant in Grand Isle for the shrimp etouffe. I still remember the mussels cooked in wine in San Francisco. And so on.
But driving through a Kansas small town I saw a sign that said Thai Restaurant. I ordered pad thai. It was an unusual pad thai. I considered it. Certainly there must be various regions of Thailand with their own regional cooking and even their own types of noodles. But macaroni? I looked for the shrimp mentioned in the menu but could not find it. The waitress, using my fork, pulled open the pile of macaroni to reveal one canned cocktail shrimp.
“One?” I said.
“It says shrimp, not shrimps,” she replied.
You can’t argue with that.
In North Dakota, I ordered a veggie sandwich on croissant. Except it was a hamburger bun.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Duncan Weller Discusses Canadian Publisher Scams.

Duncan Weller and friend at Chapters

In his blog (Art on the Edge at Duncan Weller, esteemed Thunder Bay artist and author,  describes unethical practices which he has learned by experience sometimes occur in Canadian publishing. Some of the scam practices outlined here can also be found on the web site Predators  and Editors at The size of this site alone, with its long lists of scams, should give every writer pause.  And Duncan's blog post (reblogged with his permission) should also give every writer pause. 

When a former intern at a major publishing company located in Toronto told me two weeks ago of the criminal behavior he witnessed there, perpetrated by the publisher and all their employees, I was gleefully fascinated, almost ecstatic. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Poem by Rona Shaffran

Rona Shaffran's Ignite explores the lives of a man and woman who have lost emotional connection and physical connection in a relationship too long unattended. Ignite is available at the Northern Woman's Bookstore and on line at Chapters. More about Rona Shaffran at


Amber fields scuttle away
and crouch in tall mist.

Trees angular
as a runic alphabet
line the roadside,

their naked
limbs reach
into nothing.

I'm driving myself...where?

One touch
                one touch.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Santa Baby, Bring Me a Good Book…

Nothing better for a gift. Here are a few suggestions:
For the Mystery buff:  
The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Alder-Olsen. A Department Q novel. Department Q deals with cold cases and was set up to get rid of acerbic detective Carl Morck. Carl is a great character, a slacker and a walking annoyance but he has a mysterious side kick, a Syrian refugee who is smart and cheerful.

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith The black humour goes on. Arkady Renko the Moscow prosecuter, has survived Stalinism and is now, in the age of Mafia domination under Putin, faced with the murder of a famous woman journalist, a murder everyone blames on politicians and mob billionaires.  A great story in two great settings, Moscow and Kaliningrad, the Soviet left over city with the highest crime rate in Europe.

For the History Buff:
Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma. At the end of World War II, great cities lay in ruins. Old regimes fell and new ones rose. 1945 brought three things; exaltation, revenge and hunger and Buruma devotes a chapter to each. He then turns to the attempts to rebuild including the callous treatment of many of the victims.

Watergate by Thomas Mallon This is a novel but all the old characters are there: Pat and Richard Nixon, Martha Mitchel, Gordon Liddy, secretary Rose Wood. We know the ending but the slow slide into presidential disgrace took with it many fascinating people who have their own stories. I could not put this book down.

Emma Donoghue

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Greatest Canadian Short Story?

The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carriere is 30 years old this month. Just one of the best!

Ethical Author Code

(reposted from blog by Dylan Hearn) A couple of weeks ago the Alliance of Independent Authors announced the establishment of an Ethical Author Code in response to a general concern about the behaviour of some authors, both self-published and traditionally published. Like the vast majority of authors I know, I already follow the principles behind this code but I believe there is a real value in stating this more explicitly.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Wab Kinew replaces Gian at Canada Reads and host of Q

Wab Kinew, the accomplished aboriginal broadcaster and reigning champion of Canada Reads, is stepping up to host the popular battle of the books on CBC. To read the CBC story about Wab and Canada Reads follow the link.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Thomas King wins GG for fiction.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sophie Kinsella's Top Ten Writing Tips.

1. Always carry a notebook

Carry a notebook everywhere and write down everything that springs to mind, even if it doesn't seem relevant at the time. You can do a lot with a passing thought or a little bit of overheard dialogue. 
Get into the habit of looking at life like a writer and writing it all down. Don't worry about what "it" is going to be yet, just write it down as a habit. Because then, when you do have your big idea and want to write a book, you'll already be used to that process and have material to work with.

2. Think "what if" and read 

Start to see the world in a "what if" way and keep your possibilities for a story. Teach yourself to take a tiny little nugget of substance and extrapolate and tease it out into something else, have fun with it and see the potential.
It can seem tiny and insignificant but if you can sense the grain of a story there and keep your mind open to those possibilities, you will constantly come up with new ideas.
Reading is vital if you want to be a writer, it's essential. I've been a bookworm ever since I was a child, I was the type who would read a cereal packet over and over rather than make conversation at breakfast!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Reading on the Road

Reading on the Road

 A five-day drive requires a lot of reading decisions. This was not the first time I have driven due south through the heartland of the USA.  Freeway driving means passing near many small towns along the way and stopping overnight at motels. Newspapers of any kind are getting harder and harder to find in mid America. Few motels provide newspapers any more or have a newspaper box outside. None of the gas stations carried newspapers.  When I asked one motel clerk about newspapers, she said, “go on line.”  

Bookstores are tough to find too. So I had to stock the vehicle with reading material before I left. What to take? I love audio books and when travelling in the States they help when MPR fades and only preachers, church services and vile right wing commentators remain.

I brought along a Michael Connelly police procedural called Angel’s Flight. The miles flew by. Connelly is a strong writer, straightforward, and a master plotter.  A Connelly plot twists but always makes sense. In this genre, the crimes are just backdrop to the story of the cop and his relationships in and out of the force. LAPD Harry Bosch is typical: a nuisance to his superiors, a failure in love and an ex-smoker who is forever pulled back to the weed.

For reading in the dim light of the motel bedside lamp, and in the equally dim but much noisier breakfast room, I chose the following:

Margaret Atwood’s new book of short stories, Stone Mattress. Great choice! She calls her stories tales and says they are based on fairy tales but I found this claim a bit ingenuous. Atwood’s fantastic imagination and her strong prose carry each story effortlessly. I read one or two stores at night and thought about them the next day as I drove along. You don’t easily forget an Atwood story. And yes, Zenia, from The Robber Bride, does reappear.    

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese. A ne’er-do-well drunken father and his very different son set out on a final trip, the medicine walk, the journey towards death.  I was with the pair every step of the way.  A powerful book.

Pushkin’s Short Stories. I have read many of them before but still, a master is a master. In typical Victorian fashion, they start with a man saying to the unknown reader, in effect, “let me tell you this strange thing that happened to me.”After a few paragraphs on childhood, we are in, journeying into a card room where one man always wins, or journeying across the steppes to a military garrison where love and death await. Pushikin is the master of the telling detail. Each character is introduced with a few descriptive phrases and we effortlessly take the newcomer into the tale. Pushkin often puts a duel into a story; ironically, he himself died in a duel. Too bad. 

When I visited his house in St. Petersburg, I was in tears listening to his fate on the headphones. The Russian women guides rushed over to comfort me, patting me on the back and handing me tissues.  In true Russian fashion, they did not find my emotion embarrassing but completely normal. “Too young,” one said, squeezing my hand. “He left us too young.”

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Alistair Macleod Last Work Reissued

For Remembrance Day, McClelland and Steward have re-issued a small book, only 47 pages, the last work of Alistair MacLeod. It is called Remembrance. When Alistair MacLeod came to the Sleeping Giant Literary Festival a few years back, I fell in love with his gentle personality, his soft voice and the way he made short story writing seem easy. In his workshop, he discussed plot. You start with a character,he said, and then think about her and just work out various things that could happen. It seemed so simple as he outlined his method but I knew it took him years to write a story. MacLeod died last April, a loss indeed.

In his recent CBC Sunday essay  Michael Enright remembers "Alistair with a red moon face, twinkling eyes and the smile of a young boy.

"He was not a prolific writer. He published only one novel and 20 short stories. It took him ten years to write his masterpiece, No Great Mischief. He wrote in longhand on yellow legal pads. His great friend and editor, Douglas Gibson, called him "a stone carver, chipping out each perfect word with loving care." His work is unique, unlike any other writer I can think of. It has the clarity of dialogue of Flannery O'Connor and the diagnostic precision and descriptive powers of Alice Munro.

The story deals with three characters all called David MacDonald (only in Cape Breton!). Enright calls it " a story that makes you sit up straight and take notice; it's not maudlin or sentimental. And although Alistair says none of the MacDonald characters is based on his father, there are similarities. "My father went to war when he was 17," he told a reporter, "and he wasn't full of patriotic zeal, he was just kind of starving."

To read all of Michael Enright's review