Author Archives: Bill Wren

About Bill Wren

Writer, editor, social media practitioner and observer of how and where people connect and engage online.

Still Life by Louise Penny: A Review

Cover of Still Life by Louise PennyReading Still Life was a curious reading experience for me. The first three paragraphs had me. The murder victim, the crime, and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec are all introduced. Then the scene shifts.

The business of exposition begins and we are given the village and people of Three Pines, the all but hidden and seemingly idyllic community in the eastern townships of Quebec. Louise Penny creates a very vivid image here. And I was immediately put-off by it.

I remember thinking something like, “Oh, heaven help us. It’s one of those earnestly Canadian novels, tediously in love with the landscape and effusive about the gentle, polite people.” (I was wrong.)

The book moves back and forth between the compellingly interesting Gamache and the anything but compelling (for me) evocation of Three Pines. So for about the first third of the book I was a less than willing reader. But I was determined to give it a chance.

It’s a good thing I did because slowly, inevitably, my predisposition to dislike it evaporated as the book’s mystery got its hooks into me. And after a time I realized that the world the author was creating was a deliberate one meant for the contrast of a gentle village against a murder that speaks to something very dark beneath the surface. If I recall correctly, Agatha Christie did this kind of thing all the time.

Three Pines is a community filled with aging baby boomers. There’s a love of food, antiques, art, crafts … not a lot of computer programmers here or accountants or garbage men and women (though they must exist). Perhaps this explains my initial bias against it. Three Pines was a little to artsy for my tastes.

But it is also the heart of the crime, the victim being a woman with a number of mysteries that tend to centre on her art.

Louise Penny
Louise Penny

Given a chance by someone like me, Still Life becomes an absorbing mystery/crime novel with a particularly fascinating inspector (Gamache) tasked with solving the case.

(“He always felt a pang when looking at the hands of the newly dead, imagining all the objects and people those hands had held. The food, the faces, the doorknobs.” This reminds me of the odes of Neruda, a poet who found worlds in the most common of things.)

This is a whodunit of the old school variety placed in a contemporary Canadian setting and it works wonderfully.

In fact, I’ve already made a start on Penny’s subsequent Inspector Gamache books and look forward to reading them all.

Cloud by Eric McCormack: A Review

Book cover for Cloud by Eric McCormackI’m having the hardest time reviewing this book and I know why. I want to categorize it. I’ve all kinds of terms rattling around in my head as I try to write about it but ultimately what I end up with is just thinking out loud on paper.

Everything centres on the narrator of Cloud and this is as it should be as it is essentially his autobiography. Thematically, the novel concerns the nature of memory, to some degree narrative, and also narcissism. The narrator, Harry Steen, is a less than reliable fellow. He’s secretive and self-deceptive though he seems, or at least tells us, he’s quite sincere. He readily admits to his secretiveness – he even explains it as if it is a virtue.

But the question is always there: Can we believe anything about Harry other than his untrustworthiness as a witness?

Harry finds a book in an out-of-the-way bookstore in La Verdad, Mexico. It is a very old, mildewed book with the title, “The Obsidian Cloud: An account of a singular occurrence within living memory over the skies of the town of Duncairn in County of Ayrshire.” The story it tells is bizarre to say the least but what catches Harry’s eye is the reference to Duncairn, Scotland, a place he lived for a brief time in his life, a time that defined him because of a love found and lost and never understood. (Actually, a love misunderstood.)

There is a Dickensian, or at least Victorian quality to Cloud in that it is episodic. Harry’s life takes him around the world. As a young man he begins as a school teacher, becomes a sailor for a time (one that suffers from seasickness), and eventually the head of a Canadian mining company, a position that sends him on trips all over the globe.

Now here’s the thing about Harry: he’s a frustrating ass, so much so you want to kick him in the ass. This is largely due to his secretiveness, his constant caution about how people might react to truth and, because of this caution, his inevitable reluctance to tell it. He is constantly explaining that he isn’t revealing the truth because it’s best for someone else, when in fact it is really because he’s afraid to do so. In most, if not all cases, he eventually finds out that people already knew the truth anyway.

It is also because of his constant focus on himself and how events affect him, his interpreting of the world only to the extent that it relates to him, to see everything in terms of how he feels. And (usually) how he feels is wronged. For much of the book he sees himself as a victim.

This is purposeful on McCormack’s part and in many cases allows for a good deal of humour and makes the story an intriguing, entertaining yarn. But it also leaves the reader feeling a degree of frustration with the narrator because he is such a self-involved ass.

The novel is a mock-heroic one, with a post-modernist sensibility with a few metafictional elements thrown in. It is about the dubious nature of perception and memory and, as a consequence, narration.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, narrator Harry sees people and situations in ways that suit him and his idea of how the world should be. Yet it is seldom, if ever, an accurate world he imagines. Cloud is a comic novel, though it may not strike readers that way. It’s not comic in the sense of a “fall out of your chair laughing” way. It’s comic in form, in the sense that it is a series of misreadings, misunderstandings, misconstructions of people, situations, and events.

Eric McCormackIn his novel, McCormack gives us a peculiar variation on the picaresque novel. However, unlike the traditional novel of this type, McCormack’s hero is anything but roguish. (It sometimes seems as if every character is except Harry.)

Harry is more coward than rogue.

It’s a peculiar book. But that is par for the course with Eric McCormack. I do know two things, however. First, I want to re-read this book. I liked it and want to get a better grasp of the story I’ve read (and enjoy it again).

The second is simply to rewrite this review some day because I feel it is a cobbled together series of impressions.

For now, this is the best I could come up with.

See also:

Westlake, Parker, Menlo and Sydney Greenstreet

The Mourner - coverThis is the fourth Parker book I’ve read in sequence and all have been very good. As one reviewer has said, Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark) is all about process and these books are nothing if not mechanistic in the way they unfold – and that is a virtue in books like these.

The Mourner differs from the others, however. In this one, I get the sense that Westlake decided to have a bit of fun. He riffs on The Maltese Falcon.

I couldn’t say whether its Dashiell Hammett’s novel or John Huston’s movie that provides the spark (I’ve seen the movie; I haven’t read the book), but as with The Maltese Falcon, the MacGuffin in The Mourner is a statue that a number of people want. (Granted, it’s a bigger deal in Falcon than in The Mourner.)

I suspect it’s Huston’s movie that Westlake plays cutesy with. As I was reading, particularly in the first half of the book, I kept thinking, “Why does this Auguste Menlo character seem so familiar?” Then it struck me: he’s Sydney Greenstreet from The Maltese Falcon! Both the speech and physical appearance of the Menlo character are very similar to Kaspar Gutman, the character Greenstreet plays in the movie.

The mechanistic aspect of how Parker stories unfold is as strong here as in any of the books but we also get a sense that, serious about his work though the author may be, he’s also playing.

Having said that, Westlake is too skilled and creative a writer to simply do a Parker take on the movie. Channeling the movie in the book’s first half seems to have delighted him but the novel certainly goes its own way, especially in the second half.

Once Part 3 kicks in with the usual Stark/Westlake switch to a new perspective (here, from Parker to Menlo), he starts adding detail, fleshing out the character of Auguste Menlo with background and motivation. Menlo becomes much more than the Greenstreet character from the movie, and more interesting – even sympathetic.

In the end, we have one of the Westlake’s most interesting and engaging characters. A scoundrel with a cherub smile.

This, along with the strands this Parker novel picks up from the three previous books, makes The Mourner my favourite of the novels I’ve read so far. I don’t like the word best but if forced to use it I would nominate this book while also hedging my bets by adding, “Or maybe The Hunter. It’s hard to choose.”

(And I’ve said nothing about the femme fatale, Bett Harrow …)

Greenstreet as Gutman
Sydney Greenstreet as Kaspar Gutman. The template for Auguste Menlo?

Lukewarm Response to Travis McGee

I read the The Deep Blue Goodbye by John D. MacDonald. This is less a review than a general gut response:

The Deep Blue Good-ByeThe Deep Blue Good-Bye by John D. MacDonald

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’d give this 2.5 out of 5 but since that’s not possible I gave it the benefit of the doubt and went with 3. Generally, I found this book sporadically engaging. It had rather more about boats than I needed and I also had a feeling it was trying a bit too hard to snag that tough “look at me, I’m an individual” style. I might have liked this more had the story been more involved. It struck me this could have been pared down to a novella.

Or maybe I’ve just been spoiled by too many Ross MacDonald Lew Archer books. :-)

View all my reviews

Beta Testing an Election

I heard a lot of whining about technology last night with the New Brunswick election “fiasco” but the only real problems that I can see (other than a delay that made people cranky) were communication ones. It was a beta test but no one described it as such prior to the vote; rather, they touted its ease and speed with few if any cautions about it being untried. On election night as the problems became manifest, communication from Elections New Brunswick was far too slow.

Even when you have no answer it is better to say so but that you’re working on the issue than to be silent.

New Brunswick is small and as a result it’s often a testing ground. A few years ago (2008) when Leonard Cohen was returning to touring after many years and at the unusual age of 74, he began it in New Brunswick. This was because it was small and he wasn’t sure he was up to what he was planning — a world tour. He also wanted to work out the kinks. In other words, it was a beta test.

So here in New Brunswick our election was a beta test of a new, digital voting system. We discovered that it had its problems — the point of a beta test.

Unfortunately, there was not a great deal (if any) talk about this aspect. And there was also little talk about redundant systems, or back-ups. I’d like to hear more about that because from what I heard last night the data was never at risk. It was on memory cards (some of which were AWOL for a while) as well as on a server. So it was accessible if not on one of them than on the other. And then there were the physical ballots that were in the machines – never lost and always available for a manual count in a worst case scenario. The data, then, was available from at least three sources.

This was actually a great election from the technical point of view because it highlighted where problems exist and presumably, now identified, improvements can be made. It sounds as if one problem, at least, was in the over-writing of manual data by the uploaded memory cards. The cards that went “missing” for a while, well that sounds like human error which also should be easily identified and fixed.

Whatever the case, it was a worthwhile exercise because of the fact it highlighted problems – all fixable, I suspect. I’d really like to see some kind of review or report on what issues happened last night and how they can be corrected.

One correction they need to make has to do with processes. When there is a glitch, how long do you wait to go to the backup? When do you initiate a manual count? What and when do you communicate? I think this is one element that may have led to the muddle. I don’t think there was a plan or process to cover this contingency. Put another way, there was a lack of risk management. In my experience, blind faith in technology is always a mistake.

You should always assume problems either from the technology itself or from the way it is being used. If there are no problems, everything’s peachy. If there are, you’re prepared with a plan of action.

During the election coverage I heard a few commentators complaining as they asked the Luddite question, “What was wrong with the old way of manually counting the ballots? Why did we have to change to this mess?”

Well, if those people had been listening to their own coverage they would have heard why. It is increasingly difficult to find reliable people willing to volunteer their time to help run all the polling stations and vote counting.

We may not have liked the delay and it may have been somewhat embarrassing but the use of the tabulation machines in the election was great for every future election because it identified issues, ones that can be addressed and avoided down the road. Other jurisdictions were watching this election and you can be sure that when they go to the machines (as they eventually will) these problems won’t occur because any latent problems have been identified and corrected.

And the next election in New Brunswick that uses the machines – municipal, federal, provincial – will be much quicker and smoother.

(By the way, the machines were used previously in municipal elections with no problems.)

8 Ways to Write for Social Media

It’s all about the headline. Try these:

  1. You will never look at (fill-in-blank) the same way again!
  2. You have to see this! You won’t believe what (fill-in-blank) does to (fill-in-blank)!
  3. 10 (fill-in-blank) you must do to (fill-in-blank).
  4. How to (fill-in-blank) in 3 quick steps.
  5. 10 (fill-in-the-blank) that will change how you see (fill-in-blank).
  6. 5 (fill-in-blank) successful people do to (fill-in-blank).
  7. 5 (fill-in-blank) smart people do to (fill-in-blank).
  8. 5 (fill-in-blank) beautiful people do to (fill-in-blank).

Did I mention you should put precede whatever you are embedding in your website with about four or more boring paragraphs of blathering as you pad your site with someone else’s content, summarizing the material that is to follow because it is social media and ergo nobody is capable of thinking for him or herself, although you could save everyone, including yourself, a lot of time by just bloody posting it?

Another rule-of-thumb … excuse me, heuristic … to keep in mind: The phrase “You won’t believe” must always be accompanied by an exclamation mark.

And that’s today’s exasperated, cranky moment. :-)