Thursday, October 10, 2013

Margaret Atwood ends her Dystopian Trilogy

“Oryx and Crake” (ISBN No. 978-0-3073-9848-2; Vintage Canada)
“The Year of the Flood” (ISBN No. 978-0-7710-0844-3; McClelland & Stewart)
“Maddaddam” (ISBN No. 978-0-7710-0846-7; McClelland & Stewart)

 There’s something unfair about using only 500 words to review 900+ pages of a dystopian trilogy but such is the state of blogging about books about the coming dystopia in our age of drive-by publishing and nanosecond attention spans.
To put it so the Millennials understand it, Margaret Atwood’s threesome is basically AMC’s “The Walking Dead” – without the gore, and with scientists, ciphers and their human-like creations as its survivors. And like TWD the start-up is thrilling and enthralling; the later stuff not so much.
In some action movies the budget is so large that the final half hour is nothing but special effects and explosions, a burning off of what’s left of the budget. “Maddaddam” applies a similar technique. Here Atwood burns off some of the most punishing back-and-forth dialogue I’ve ever read in order to use up the background she’d apparently written for her characters – but wouldn’t/couldn’t/didn’t use in the first two books of the trilogy. When a character says “needless to say” they’ve summed up three-quarters of “Maddaddam.”
To be fair there’s an emptiness here that eerily suggests a world suddenly uncluttered by pretty much everything - except the obligatory power struggles required in most dystopian fiction. There are “wow” moments about the book (I especially enjoyed the glowing rabbits, just one of the lab experiments of the future running wild when everything collapses) but for a writer of Atwood’s stature (and perhaps indicative of the disposable vampire/werewolf/teen romance content of Wattpad, the creative writing site she champions) the quiet assuredness of “Maddaddam” suggests a darker future for fiction. “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood” were wonderful but “Maddaddam” is that most typical of millennial pursuits: elegant, empty art.

"Ace's Basement"/"Caught in the Act"

“Ace’s Basement” by Ted Staunton
ISBN No. 978-1-4598-0437-1
“Caught in the Act” by Deb Loughead
ISBN No. 978-1-4598-0496-8

 “Ace’s Basement” is – depending on your POV – about how Rebecca Black really feels about her YouTube video for the song “Friday” or well, okay, it’s a fictionalized treatment about how Rebecca Black probably feels about her YouTube video for the song “Friday.” In “Ace’s Basement” a youth band puts out a video and the attention it gets is a lot like Rebecca Black got for her YouTube video for “Friday.” What the band really gets is a good introduction to the consequences of hastily posted videos and tweets and the permanence of social media. All of this will be covered in the next news story about online bullying (gee, how did I know there’s a “next” one?) but the long form of a short novel allows Staunton to suggest the freaky frustration of self-absorbed youth who suddenly become punchlines, entertaining other self-absorbed youth.
The kids in “Caught in the Act” are the usual good kids who do something bad and then try to explain it away with an “I don’t know” when asked why they did it. The difference here is that they know how to get out of the stuff they’ve done – and not feel too bad about doing it or lying about it. Well, for a while, at least. It’s surprising how long Loughead dangles the prospect of redemption in front of her characters before they decide to do the right thing, but the wait is weighty enough to impress even the most hardened reader of finger-wagging tween fiction.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Mail (idea) theft!

Did The National Post newspaper steal an idea from Canada Post to save a slumping readership?

The flyer says “News & Netflix” but the only news here is that The National Post is suddenly going door-to-door asking its many non-readers to buy a subscription to the newspaper. If you subscribe, you’ll get a free trial period of Netflix.
What’s the catch?
The catch is that The National Post, for all its complaining about Canada Post has kind of stolen the idea of “admail” (delivering flyers door-to-door) from Canada Post in an effort to stem the rapidly declining readership of The National Post. 
The newspaper has always had an irrational hatred of unions, and especially Canada’s mail delivery service; a service that includes the delivery of the very type of flyer The National Post is now distributing. When Canada Post locked out its unionized employees, The National Post, Metro, and MacLean’s Magazine (which has also seen its readership halved in recent years) continued to incorrectly inflate a postal worker’s wage and benefits and called the dispute a “strike” in an apparent effort to turn public opinion against CUPW, the postal workers’ union. Instead, public opinion seems to have turned against The National Post. That is, if anyone ever cared about the newspaper at all.

“Their telemarketing didn’t work. Ads in their own newspaper didn’t work. Even giving away copies of the newspaper didn’t work,” an editor at a competing newspaper says. So what's working now? Canada Post's admail.

For all the money that’s been thrown at it The National Post still feels more like a hobby than an actual newspaper. It doesn’t publish on Mondays during the summer to save money, ironic headlines in elegant font fight with garish, eye-popping graphics, and the writing, according to one online posting, is a mess of simplistic, meandering opinions that read “like the comments section of a YouTube video.” (Two recent columns were about how 1986’s “Blue Velvet” was a weird movie and how one columnist’s brother was defriendling people on Facebook. And those stories were on the same page.) For all the credentials its writers throw around (book author, professor, editor), no National Post writer has yet to achieve anything of note outside the newspaper. Yet for all the loud, unsolicited opinions offered by those credentialed editors, columnists and writers at The National Post about anything and everything, their low readership is a subject they’re uncharacteristically quiet about.
Ironically, dropping flyers on doorsteps lowers The National Post to that most suspect of newspapers: the free weekly “ad rag” tossed on a porch – whether the resident wants it or not. 
But desperate times call for desperate measures.
According to TheNationalDocumentarian website 500 residential points-of-call were studied for their newspaper reading habits in 2011. Only 12 of those homes subscribed or bought The National Post.
As one letter writer said, “only a handful of people subscribe or even read a biased newspaper but every address in Canada wants to get mail and probably likes their letter carrier.” Perhaps The National Post should consider contracting Canada Post to deliver their flyers? “Their telemarketing didn’t work. Ads in their own newspaper didn’t work. Even giving away copies of the newspaper didn’t work,” an editor at a competing newspaper told me on the condition of anonymity. So what does work? “The more things change the more they stay the same,” the editor continued. “There really is no more effective form of advertising than having [a Canada Post letter carrier] – often considered an extended member of a resident’s family - handing mail, parcels and advertisements right into the hands of a potential customer.” Any other advice for The National Post? “Well, if [The National Post] insists on doing their their own admail,” the editor said with a laugh, “they should deliver the flyer like their mailman does and at least put it through the mail slot.”
And this just into our newsroom: Netflix almost always offers a free trial period. You don’t need to subscribe to a newspaper you don’t want in order to get it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


By Adrian Chamberlain
ISBN No. 978-1-4598-0150-9

A lonely student named Danny becomes popular at school when he invents a “Facespace” profile for a British rocker named James and befriends him. Then things get complicated. “What’s so special about Danny?” his classmates wonder. “What could a lonely kid who plays Parcheesi with his Mom on Saturday nights have in common with a big glam musician?” “What kind of banner ads would something like ‘FaceSpace’ run?” “FaceSpace” answers the first two questions, no problem. But I would have appreciated a bit more of the third: reading more of the mechanics of Danny’s deceit; the little nuance of character that makes readers believe James is a real person; the close calls when he’s nearly revealed as Danny’s invention. Certainly fake internet profiles and online bullying are hot-button topics these days, but – probably for space reasons – Chamberlain rushes to the moral point when a long, leisurely satirical roll-out of vanity, perception and technology would have been a more enjoyable read - for readers over a certain age, of course. But his book is intention-perfect: it’s a great starting point for all sorts of theoretical talking points. Given the cannibalistic state of TV, film and books today (where narrators are bright-eyed novices and cute, shadowy acquaintances are werewolves, vampires or worse), the fake profile has become more Wattpad than escort ad. Crunching a human being down to a few para- and photographs which evoke contemporary yearnings, the creator of the fake online profile is the new bedtime storyteller for the internet age.