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Books Podcasts

Warlight (Review for The Slow Reader)

I posted the review for Warlight last week on my feed for The Slow Reader (https://slow-reader.pinecast.co). Here’s the text! Please excuse any minor typos – I didn’t really write it to be read, but to be heard.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje  

Welcome to the Slow Reader – a podcast about books. I’m Steve and in today’s episode I am reviewing Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. 

About the book  

Publish date: May 8, 2018  

Back of the book summary:  

In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself – at once both shadowed and luminous – Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire. It is 1945, and London is still reeling from the Blitz and years of war. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are apparently abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and grow both more convinced and less concerned as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women with a shared history, all of whom seem determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all he didn’t know or understand in that time, and it is this journey – through reality, recollection, and imagination – that is told in this magnificent novel. 

Warlight is a book that, because it’s by a renown Canadian author, is going to be found prominently displayed at most large bookstores in Canada, so that’s how it first appeared on my radar. I’ve never read Ondaatje before (even though I was supposed to read In the Skin of a Lion in university), so it didn’t immediately go on my to-read list. It wasn’t until I read the back-of-the-book description that made me want to read it. I also knew that it was critically acclaimed and on several book prize lists. So that’s what really sealed the deal and prompted me to add it to my library hold list. 

The book has different chapter headings, but they’re not numbered. I might not have had a good idea of how the chapters were divided, reading an eBook copy. Unfortunately, in preparing this review, I didn’t have a physical copy to rely on and can’t really elaborate further. But the way it worked in the eBook was that the novel was split into 3 overall parts, and within those parts were chapters (with headings such as “Wildfowling”), and within those were other, smaller breaks.  

I found it really easy to read full chapters at a time, as they were all small chunks. It made for some easily digestible reading sessions – and as I’ll elaborate on in a little bit, this was really helpful in trying to decipher the book. 

My Reading Timeline 

I started reading the book on November 13th, and finished reading it on November 28th. That’s 16 days, which is quick for my standards – but the reason for that was because it was a library eBook that I had no opportunity to renew.  

My copy had 272 or 292 pages (depending on my font settings), so it was a short book to move through as well. Because I read it in my Kobo Clara HD, I was able to get some good stats: it took my 8.6 hours to read, with my average minutes read per session at 6 minutes, and an average of 0.9 pages per minute. 

Questions to Answer 


I didn’t come up with any questions before I started reading Warlight, mostly because I had to just dive right into the book. The summary I read earlier is actually a fairly good indication as to what the book is about. But to really understand it, I need to delve into spoiler territory. From this point out, while I won’t get into every detail, I recommend reading the book before continuing with the podcast. 

What’s the book really about? 

This is a complicated question, and a complicated answer. On the surface, I don’t think the book is “about” anything in the sense of conflict. It really feels like it’s three different stories mashed together. It starts out as what appears to be a coming of age story, but at the end of part one, it becomes a spy story when there’s an attempted kidnapping of Nathaniel and his sister. But given the details weaved throughout the first part, you can see that it also has always been a spy story. In Part Two, it becomes a fact-finding mission – Nathanial as an adult trying to uncover secrets about his mother. And the third part is his mother’s story – but in the end, all three parts are woven together and tied up neatly.  

I’m not going to lie, I had to do a little bit of extra reading to try to pick apart this book. There’s a section in the Warlight Wikipedia entry devoted to “interpretation”. I’m grateful for it, because it helped distill some of the more confusing aspects of the story (and also helped inform my own interpretation of the book). There’s a New York Times review by Penelope Lively where she suggests the theme of the novel is that “the past never remains in the past”, and “the present reconstructs the past”. I think this interpretation is bang on – and fits with some of the observations of the main character at the end of the story.  

When I think about it personally, I can’t help but come to the same conclusion about the present “reconstructing” the past. It’s really easy to look back at past events and remember them in a different light. “Hindsight is 20/20” is a saying for a reason, after all.  

Another part of the novel that I picked up on, and confirmed in Lively’s interpretation, that the narration is deliberately vague and not revealing. The term “warlight” is mentioned several times throughout the story, referring to periods in the war where England would create blackouts to make it difficult for German bombers to see the landscape at night. There’s also a point in the novel describing a small village outside of London where during the war, they removed all signposts from the countryside to make it virtually impossible for anyone on foot to navigate.  

Ondaatje does this in the novel as well – he makes it deliberately difficult to navigate the narration and follow along, forcing us to fill in the gaps ourselves with a close reading. There’s a quote from the main character: “I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth.” 

This really made my reading sessions somewhat overwhelming and hard to get through. I mentioned earlier that my reading sessions were short and easily broken up, but there were times where I just couldn’t keep reading because of how much information is just thrown at you to try and digest. It’s very difficult to follow and you really need to concentrate on what you’re reading. 

Highlights from the Book 

I highlighted a lot of lines from the book – for various reasons, these passages spoke to me. Unfortunately, I neglected to get the page numbers or which chapter they’re from before I returned the book, so it’ll have to remain a mystery to you. 

“Nothing lasts. Not even literary or artistic fame protects worldly things around us” 

– I’m not entirely sure why I highlighted this line. I think maybe I picked this out as one of the underlying themes of the novel. I don’t think that’s the overall message I got after finishing the book though. 

“It was strange to consider their world being organized in such a godlike way by a woman who was remembering less and less of her own universe” 

– This was referring to a bee colony and a woman from, whom Nathanial was buying a house. I just enjoyed the contrast displayed in this short sentence, which at the same time made a somewhat sad statement about the mental state of the woman it was describing. 

“In any case, this was the government job I had enigmatically referred to that afternoon in Mrs. Malakite’s garden while the bees moved uncertainly in their hives and she had forgotten who I was.”

 – There’s nothing particularly special about this line – I just highlighted it because it reminded me of how we sometimes tell stories. Something mentioned in passing gets elaborated on further. There was a lot of that happening in the novel. 

“There was a hasty, determined destruction of evidence by all sides”

 – The destruction of documents that was being described by Ondaatje put in my mind the image of the various Ministries in 1984

“In this post-war world twelve years later, it felt to some of us, our heads bent over the files brought to us daily, that it was no longer possible to see who held a correct moral position” 

– I think this might be referring to the kinds of atrocities committed on both sides of the war. Part of what Ondaatje illustrates in the novel is that we have this idea of the “good guys” winning the war, but – alongside the previous quote about destroying evidence – as his mother put it in the novel, “sins were various” no matter which side you look at. 

“She was not in her right mind, of course, then. She was exhausted. A seizure had been activated in her and she was probably never clear about the details of what had happened” 

– The fact that Nathanial’s sister, Rachel, had seizures in the novel turned out not to be an important detail. It helped to weave some minor points together in the story; but what made me highlight this was that I recently experienced a seizure for the first time. This part of the description: “…she was probably never clear about the details of what had happened” resonates with me completely. One minute I was cooking breakfast, and the next thing I remember after is waking up in the back of an ambulance. I don’t know what happened other than what was told to me. 

“Do we eventually become what we are originally meant to be?”

 – This idea of pre-determined fates was explored a little bit in the novel. I’m not sure that the question was ever really answered. But personally, I believe that yes, we all have some sort of destiny and life exerts itself to put is in a particular path. We have some control over what direction we go, but ultimately, we end up where we’re supposed to be. 

““So how long are you here? What do you do with yourself?” 

It felt to me that both questions, side by side, showed a lack of interest.” 

– I laughed a little at this quote. The way these questions were written, that’s exactly the tone I imagined. They feel like small talk made to say something and doesn’t require attentive listening. 

“But above all, most of all, how much damage did I do”

 – To be honest, I’m not sure why I picked this line out of the book. I think it was Nathanial realizing who he was and what his past meant to him and others. 

“We are foolish as teenagers. We say wrong things, do not know how to be modest, or less shy. We judge easily. But the only hope given us, although only in retrospect, is that we change” 

– This is a very bleak outlook on how we act as youth. Still, it’s fairly accurate. I think we all acknowledge that we do stupid things in our youth (from teenagers on up including even our 20’s). As adults, we look down on teenagers and chalk up their actions to “they’re just teenagers”.  So I guess I highlighted this line for truth. As for the previous line – I think it followed this line so now I understand it in context. Nathanial is asking how much damage he did as a teenager – and I suppose, asking himself if he changed. 

Wrapping Up 

I liked the book – I wasn’t really bored while reading, except for a few places here and there. But this was not an easy read, by any means, and I really feel like I need a palate cleanser in between. Luckily I have a couple of lighter books on the go that help in that regard – the only problem being that I feel the need to take a short reading break. 

On Goodreads I rated Warlight 3 out of 5 stars. After reading through I like to read other reviews, and a lot of what I saw matched my opinion. It’s a solid book, but Part Three suffers a little compared to the rest of the book. This is where it really slows down, when Nathanial starts to recount his mother’s childhood and how she learned to become a spy.  

I didn’t really think it fit with the rest of the book – I’m not sure I even understood how Nathanial knew all of these details. I think maybe he was making a lot of it up based on small bits of information he learned over the years. That could very well be what happened here. But to me it felt very unimportant to the overall story and I just wanted to breeze through it. 

I recommend the novel, with the caveat that you should give yourself time to get through it. Don’t rush through it as I felt I had to. 

What’s Next on the Podcast 

So, what’s next for The Slow Reader? I have two books that I put on hold while I read Warlight: The MVP Machine and Master and Apprentice. The latter is a Star Wars novel set before The Phantom Menace. I intend to finish these books before the end of the year, but I’m not sure if I will get to the recording process before then. I anticipate that you’ll see a new episode in January 2020.  

After those books I think I want to get through some shorter material, so I’ll have a look on my shelf and pick out some thin reading.  

The music at the start of this episode was called Labile Polvere, recorded by Mattia Vlad Morleo. Find out more at Jamendo.com. 

If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out previous episodes and books at https://slow-reader.pinecast.co. Share this with other people and leave me a comment on Twitter, @stephen_g. Thanks for listening! 

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Podcasts

New podcast up!

Wow! It’s been a while. I dismantled my studio, cleaned it up, and put it back together again since the last episode. I was going to record two today (Slow Reader + Alternative Airwaves) but I opted for just The Slow Reader. I might do Alternative Airwaves later this week.

I like the way this turned out; I’m pretty much resigned to not worrying about the length of the podcast. It’s going to be a sub-10 minute show. There’s a niche for that and I’m filling it.

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Podcasts

Slow Reader? More like Slow Podcaster

I just finished (yesterday) typing out my script/outline for the final podcast episode about The Saturday Night Ghost Club; I still need to go back over it and give it a little polish, but I’m happy with it in general. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to structure the episode, but all of a sudden I got an idea yesterday afternoon and just got going.

In a perfect world I would have had this done and published as of August 8th, but I didn’t want to publish something sub-par. I’m not sure when I’ll get this episode done, but I think it will be good when I finish it.

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Podcasts

Slow reader – Saturday Night Ghost Club Chapters 1-4

Got a new episode out! On time! I recorded it in Halifax while on vacation, so the sound quality is slightly off from what I usually cobble together.

I’m very excited to start a new book! This wasn’t entirely intended (influenced only by when I received the book from the library), but The Saturday Night Ghost Club (by Craig Davidson) starts today with episodes 1-4, right when most other people are watching Stranger Things 3 (I’ve only seen the first season + the first episode of season 2 so far). This is a spooky book, and really good so far. So dive in with me!

The theme music in today’s episode is titled “Hor Hor” by composer Alexander Nakarada, and is available under a public domain license.

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Meta

I’m excited for The Slow Reader – 2 weeks from now

I haven’t even completed the pre-production on the final episode for “Gone” (catch up on the book by following the Podcasts category on the blog) and I’m already excited for it. I’m excited for me, and I’m excited to have people listen to it. Because I think it’s going to be the best one yet (for this book). I’ve been really up & down with my own personal reaction to the podcast and how I’ve produced it, but I’ve been taking in everything I’ve done for it so far and internalized how I want to make the podcast sound better.

I’m not going to release any details – because there’s still two more episodes for the book left (tomorrow, and 14 days from now); but I will give you a little bit of behind the scenes to chew on.

Left: My Kobo Clara HD reader
Right: My podcast notebook

This is a new approach to podcasting for me; I usually just take notes and improvise as I go on the mic, because I don’t like working with a script. While this isn’t exactly a script, and I deviate from what I write from time-to-time, I figured that doing a solo show needed a bit more structure and that doing it unscripted would be harder.

Indeed, even partially scripting it is more difficult than I thought (for example, for an episode I thought would definitely be longer than 15 minutes, I came in under 10). But I’m having a good time doing it. As I said to Vanessa last night, I’m doing a lot of the work for the podcast in small chunks, because I don’t want to burn myself out and have it actually feel like work.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been trying to make the podcast sound better as I continue through the books and reading that I’m doing. It bugs me a little bit that most of my episodes are still quite short – 10 minutes or less. I feel like I’m not putting as much effort as I could be into the episodes, so that’s mainly why it’s bugging me. So that’s why this episode coming up in a couple of weeks has me excited – like I said, I’m still doing the pre-production work and have a lot to put together, but the material I’ve written already is some of the best I’ve done for this podcast to date.

Something I’m struggling with at the moment is a lack of time, though. I’ve finished Gone, but haven’t picked a new book to read yet – so while I have plans for an episode or two in between Gone and the next book, I don’t know how all of that will work out yet. If I sit down and think about it, I likely have a lot of time to puzzle it out. I definitely want something planned to release so I don’t get caught with several weeks without a new episode again.

I’ve got a few notes and ideas for the next book and how to cover it a bit differently. Some of that will go into the final chapters of Gone; but for the most part you won’t see a change until the start of the next book.

Thanks for reading / listening. Let me know if you are listening to the podcast!

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Podcasts

New Podcast Discovery: Science Fiction Shorts

I’m not going to lie, the inspiration for the name of this blog was pulled directly from a podcast I enjoyed from years back that no longer publishes: No Format Podcast. (Also not a lie, I sometimes think about re-branding this blog and calling it something else.)

The podcast was hosted by Josh Wetencamp and his friend Jason (can’t remember the last name, and Apple won’t give me more info right now!), and they covered a number of different topics – as the name suggests, they didn’t have a set topic, or a specific show clock that they followed. They were fun to listen to, and definitely one of the first podcasts of its kind; nowadays you’ll probably find several shows that follow the same premise (“It’s a show…about nothing!”).

But I’m getting away from my main point. Josh has a new podcast available on Apple Podcasts (also via RSS feed)! The main premise is basically Josh reads a story to you, and talks about it a bit. The first episode (and first four episodes I guess) cover a story from the late 1800’s called The Brick Moon. It’s an interesting thought-experiment story and I enjoyed Josh’s thoughts and some of the ramblings that related to the story.

When I was brainstorming what I wanted to do with a new podcast, I thought about doing something similar to Science Fiction Shorts. What I’m trying to accomplish now with The Slow Reader is basically what Josh has done with one episode (albeit I don’t ever plan on narrating the books in full). So this was a lot of fun to dive into and I got a lot out of it, personally.

If you want to listen to sci-fi short fiction, then this is a good place. I think he’s going to be reading public domain stuff for the most part; The Brick Moon comes from Project Gutenberg specifically. If that is up your alley then subscribe!

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Podcasts

Slow Reader #6: Gone, Chapters 20-32

Finally got this one out. I thought it was going to be a long one, but it’s around the 10 minute mark. Pretty happy with that! Expect two more episodes.

After a lengthy delay, a 12-chapter update for Gone, chapters 20-32. Things are really heating up, and if this were a movie we’d be pretty close to the third act by now. There are going to be two more episodes for Gone, before moving on to the next book. Enjoy!

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/stephen_g

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/2474979-stephen-gower

Blog: https://www.noformatblog.ca

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Meta Podcasts

No Podcast Today

Photo copyright Robert Lamb.
Source: https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/5364653

I’m travelling back home on the train while I write this; I’m sorry to disappoint anyone who was waiting for it (hey…there are at least 60 listens! That’s not nothing.), but I don’t have a podcast to release today. Normally by my schedule it would be out early Thursday morning.

I finished my notes of the chapters I read – actually, I decided to stop short of a few chapters, because it was just getting really long in the tooth. I’ve lamented before that my episodes are so short, but I’ve gotten used to the idea of little 8-10 minute chunks. I can’t say for sure how long it will take me to record this upcoming episode, but it really felt long. So I added one more episode to cover “Gone” to my list of episodes, which is fine by me.

I’m not entirely sure if the format I’m using is going to stick. I’m still only 5 or 6 episodes in, so I feel a bit of freedom when it comes to finding my footing for a format to use. I think that is pretty normal for most podcasts. However, most podcasts also don’t have a single host.

I really wanted to avoid missing a week (let alone 2 in a row now) while starting out fresh. However, just due to timing, that’s the way it worked out. But I have a plan written out (slightly modified now that I’ve decided to add an extra episode for Gone), so I will probably take some time off work shortly to get a few episodes ahead.

So I hope I haven’t lost all of the listeners I accumulated so far, and that you’re eager to hear what’s in store for the kids in Gone. I made a conscious choice not to get something released last night; I could have done the work from my hotel room last night, but I chose to relax instead. I don’t regret that decision.

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Books Podcasts

Slow Reader Episode 5 – Gone – Chapters 13-19

I changed things up a little bit. I discovered that taking detailed notes every time I read a chapter is not my optimal reading method, so I went back to how I normally read books and took notes AFTER. I like the result this week.


I doubled my reading output and read 6 chapters over 2 weeks. Covering off chapters 13 through 19 in this episode, things have escalated very quickly in Perdido Beach.

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/stephen_g

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/2474979-stephen-gower

Categories
Podcasts

Thoughts on Luminary

No one has really asked me about my thoughts on Luminary, but as I have a lot of opinions about podcasts, I thought it worth sharing some observations about the latest podcast platform.

If you haven’t heard of Luminary, it’s a new podcast platform. Most of the same podcasts available on any other platform are there for free, but if you pay $8/month you get access to exclusive content available only on Luminary. It’s not too different from Stitcher, although there are some slight differences in the platforms that I won’t get into right now.

It just launched this week, though it made a splash a few months back when it purported to be “the Netflix of podcasts”. It’s received a lot of backlash, most notably for its ad campaign (“podcasts don’t need ads!”), and for taking some popular shows away from the realm of free downloads.

The backlash is simple: people don’t think that you should pay for podcasts – at least not in this form. I agree with that notion. The other part of the response to Luminary is that it is pulling podcasts that were previously freely available to their platform, and will only be available to Luminary subscribers.

I don’t begrudge the podcast producers at all for taking the money from Luminary. It can be expensive to produce a podcast, and having guaranteed funding (for however long that is) gives you the freedom to create better content.

I mentioned that their platform seemed to follow Stitcher’s model, with some differences. Namely, Stitcher requires you to submit your podcast to their database. They have a premium tier ($4.99 monthly, or $2.92 / month for their “premium annual” plan) as well, which gives you access to exclusive shows; but I believe these premium shows also become publicly available after a short period of time. For example, Wolverine: The Long Night was a Stitcher exclusive for several months before becoming available to everyone else in the Fall of 2018.

I personally prefer this model of offering premium content. I also like the way Spotify handles it – everything is available on their platform (music and podcasts alike) – but you get ads if you don’t subscribe to the premium level.

With all of that said, I admit I’ve changed my stance on Luminary since I first heard about it. I think that they need to make some changes to their platform, though; they are not a revolutionary solution to a problem or making podcasts more convenient, so they need to drop their “Netflix of podcasts” attitude. I think they should also follow Stitcher’s premium window model – make the shows freely available after 4-6 months. Heck – make it a year if you want to try to be competitive.

A lot of people have the opinion that Luminary is going to fail. I don’t think it will fall flat on its face, but I do think they will suffer a little. Hopefully for them (and the shows they are paying for), they decide to make adjustments rather than be prideful and end before they even get started.

Further reading: