Fantastic first novel by Neville

On March 18, 2016, in Book recos, Good reads, by John Ellis

nevThe ghosts of Belfast went by too fast.

I enjoyed every chapter of Stuart Neville’s first novel ‘The Ghosts of Belfast‘. I felt as though I was getting to know a writer with great style while also meeting Belfast for the first time. The premise of a thug haunted by the ghosts of innocent people, dead by his misdeeds easily carries the novel to its unpredictable conclusion.

Through the haunted killer Gerry Fegan we get some insight into the politics behind the historical violence in Ireland and the motivations of its bad guys.

The Wheatsheaf Literary Society gave “The Ghosts of Belfast” a good review – an average of 3.5 pints (out of a possible 4). I give it a 4 and will definitely make time for the Neville’s subsequent novels.

You can check out all of Stuart Neville’s novel on his site.

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Yellow Birds

On October 2, 2015, in Book recos, by John Ellis

The_Yellow_BirdsThe Yellow Birds will stick with you

Kevin Powers’ “The Yellow Birds” is definitely not war porn. This is an account of physical and mental torment that does everything but glamorize warfare. His account of young men in martial positions, fighting in questionable clashes ought to be enough to turn most of us against the men (because it’s mostly men) who send these young men into insane and life-ending conflicts.

The book is frequently compared to “All Quiet on the Western Front” and its easy to see why. Power’s character lives. Remarque’s character dies. Both leave us with a better understanding of the emotional damage that occurs when old men send young men to fight each other and die. Sadly, the original title of Remarque’s novel, 1n 1928 was “Nothing new on the Western Front”. Whats new? Nothing.




Us Wheatsheafers on Us Conductors

On May 1, 2015, in Good reads, by John Ellis

9780345813343_0Strange title but a nice little book regardless

The Wheatsheaf Literary Society met to discuss the Giller Prize-winning novel ‘Us Conductors‘ by Sean Michaels. Reviews were mixed but positive – somewhere in the neighbourhood of a 4-pint score (out of a possible 5 pints).

According to the publisher, the novel is inspired by the true story of the Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen – creator of the theremin – and of Clara Rockmore – its greatest player.

If you don’t know what a therimin is, geek out and watch this groovy video.

Michaels has managed to orchestrate (get it?) several stories into one. There is a love story, a spy story, a technology story and a long thread of misfortune. Yet, the book flows easily and the story lines merge well. It’s quite an accomplishment and a joy to read. I came away feeling sad for the main character. I read it as the story of a man who never got the chance to be in total command of his own creativity because of his obligations as a spy. He didn’t get the girl. He didn’t get to decide how his intellect would serve society. He didn’t get paid for his intellectual property. Without the spy stuff, he could be an intern at an ad agency.

Conclusion: 4 out of 5 pints from the Wheatsheaf Literary Society is one more reason why you won’t be disappointed by this year’s Giller Winner.



“Geologically, a T-Rex is closer to a Miley Cyrus concert than he is to a Stegosaurus” Wow.

Over a long enough time horizon, most of what we do is relatively insignificant. Make the most of today, love the people who are close to you, don’t add to the burden of others and never underestimate your ability to make the world a better place here and now.

This lovely little video puts time in perspective.

Guest post: Content is king

On February 11, 2015, in Writing for the web, by John Ellis
winni 2

Illustration by Fred Greiner. Yes, it’s an illustration. This guy is really good.

Today’s guest post is courtesy of Egan Louis, a former Sasquatch scholar and reporter who now earns a living writing online content. Below, he describes his familiar-sounding shift of occupation.

Writing Bad

There ought to be more guys like me. By that, I mean guys who manufacture high-quality product for a thirsty market of user who are accustomed to low-quality, street-level mediocrity. I mean an entire community of buyers accustomed to backroom brews and the underwhelming results of high-school-grade product, whipped up in makeshift labs. To be clear, I didn’t set out to sell this stuff. Economic necessity drove me into this life. I had a mortgage, car payments and a penchant for decent whisky. Time wasn’t on my side and I had nothing to leave behind as a legacy or inheritance. If I had children, they would have inherited gout and whatever happened to be in my chequing account that day. I had been self-diagnosed with a rare case of existential dyslexia as a child. By my best guess, I would be dead in about 43 years. There was no time to waste. I had to use my specialized knowledge in new and risky ways. Before long, I was in too deep. I couldn’t walk away. Last year I made twice as much as the average cop without breaking a sweat. I made more than a high-school principal working even fewer hours. My system was pure. I knew I’d never spend a day in jail and I’d pay less tax than a bus driver.

I have competitors but they aren’t out to kill me. I hook them up with deals when I can’t handle the volume so I’m more valuable alive. I started out as a naïve supplier, focusing on the product that I thought was sexy. I mostly sold H1s, H2s, sometimes H3s a ton of body copy. But that was gateway stuff. It simply wet my appetite for financial success. My best clients were web developers. As long as the quality was high, they didn’t care about the price. It was like they were spending someone else’s money. They would approach me all the time, saying “Hey man. I hear you’re the guy.” I didn’t care where they got my name. If they found me, they were legit. Those guys didn’t go looking for it unless they needed it bad. “I gotta go live man.” That’s what they all said. Like going live was going to solve their problems. I didn’t care what they did with my product as long as they came back for more. And they always did. “Go live and prosper.” I always said. They loved the Star Trek shtick and it made it seem like I was one of them.

I couldn’t believe that more guys weren’t doing what I was doing. It was like having a legal weed stand in the arrivals lounge at a Jamaican airport. Everyone wanted to buy and I was the guy with inventory. Sometimes I’d meet a rogue who would claim that his own, homegrown crop was just as good as my finest blend. I’d see him a few months later and ask “How’d it go man? Did you go live? How was the feeling?” He’d always admit that making his own was a colossal mistake that made him feel worse, not better. I loved those guys. They were converts. After messing up their first batch, they never questioned my prices or the results they got.

It didn’t take long to establish a reputation for quality product and I saw the chance to expand. I knew from experience that the best stuff had sexy names like Panama Red, Purple Mic (short for micro dot) and Acapulco Goldie (made famous by the members of Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show). I called my gift ARIAL.

“Like the girl in the movie? The Little Mermaid?” They asked.

“Sure.” I said. “Whatever turns your crank.” If they didn’t get the joke, it wasn’t my problem. I started doling out top-drawer coach marks, button labels, FAQs and error messages. I could even sell the same batch twice by calling it Alt. Text. Business boomed. Developers, project managers and web designers were lining up. As long as my product fit in the XML code and didn’t exceed the character counts, there was no limit to how much I could sell. They’d stand right beside me, with their hands out, expecting me to pull in out of my pocket and hand it over on the spot. “I don’t have it on me.” I would say. “But wait. Give me an hour, or a day, or a week. Then I’ll get you some great shit man.” That was my standard answer. The more I made them wait, the more they looked forward to the thrill of going live.

Every month, my operation became more efficient. I abandoned my Winnebago-sized office and disappeared into the wind, showing up here and there, hoteling, working out of coffee shops and virtual offices, sometimes even renting a meeting room at the local Board of Trade. When people asked about my occupation, I said I was an instructor of hatchet throwing at a hipster retreat in Orillia, Ontario. No one would make up a job like that, so everyone believed me.

Today, I’m at capacity. Expanding my operation would mean hiring staff and sharing my secret recipe. I prefer to live a simple life, serving a select clientele and writing the kind of online content that lets my clients go live and experience the exhilaration of success. I’m what they used to call comfortable. I’m what I call, content.

A Bend in the River

On February 11, 2015, in Book recos, Good reads, by John Ellis

bendCan you picture Africa in the 1970s? I couldn’t. 

The decade doesn’t stand out for me. I was too young to care about world events or what was happening in small towns in Africa whether they were near a bend in the river or not. That was a long time ago.

I found myself stopping often as I read “A Bend in the River“. I had to educate myself on the social, political and economic pressures facing immigrants to Africa at an unstable time. I had to read about Mobuto. I had to understand what independence meant at the time and how it affected ordinary people. The time-outs gave me time to ponder the novel and enjoy it more.

Naipaul makes it so easy to picture the ancient lifestyle of rural Africa that a scene involving a fighter jet makes the plane and its payload seem anachronistic. Thank you V.S. for opening my eyes to another time and place. Thank you for reminding me that the world is not one place but a constellation of places, each one evolving in its own way, at its own pace. Sometimes the distance between the stars is greater than it appears.

This book is more than a record or account of the times. There are beautiful passages and observations on life that are as relevant on the river as they are at the Cineplex on Kermit’s opening night. So “A Bend in the River” lives up to its commercial and artistic praise. It’s a wonderful story of displacement, hope, disillusionment and chaos. It’s also a master class study in the art of writing and the making of beautiful sentences. I plan to read more of Naipaul’s work soon.

Ouch, the Python bites

On February 11, 2015, in Book recos, Good reads, by John Ellis

CleeseWarning: It’s much of a cheese shop 

John Cleese and his over-educated pals gave me whatever comic timing I have. I owned every Python record and could pontificate along with any skit. So, when my sister Jennifer bought me a copy of “And so…”, the John Cleese autobiography, I tore into the text and finished it by New Year’s Eve. Like you other Python fans, I expected a book on Python, told in Cleese’s words, full of anecdotes told out of school. What I got was something completely different.

I have no basis beyond my opinion for what I’m about to write but I think John Cleese is trying to set the record straight before it’s too late and he’s only remembered as a high-stepping snob on a short-lived sketch comedy show. I believe this is why Python comes up so rarely in the book.

Cleese wants to be remembered as a writer, not an actor or comedian. He is most proud of his ability to write exceptional sketch comedy and he wants us to know how hard he worked at the craft. Don’t get me wrong. This is revealing and interesting stuff. It’s easy to think of Cleese as a lucky and privileged guy who isn’t the slightest bit stuck up but he’s more than that. He’s still a little lucky, privileged and stuck up but that’s not all.

I’m glad that “And so…” is not a tell-all. I feel more respect for Cleese after reading it but I’m also left feeling a little sad. I’m not sure he enjoyed the ride as much as we did.

If you’re expecting Python, this book comes with a message on the cover and the message is ‘beware’. At the opening of the Sydney bridge club, they were fishing readers out of the main sewer every half an hour…  oh stop.

Don’t expect a lot of Python but expect to learn a little bit about the craft of great comedy and how to get a laugh. That ought to be reward enough.


Sweet reading

On January 31, 2015, in Book recos, Good reads, by John Ellis


The story of Moses Sweetland is wonderfully conceived and masterfully executed. I was to have read it for a meeting of the Wheatsheaf Literary Society but I didn’t. So, I had the advantage of sitting through its review before I later broke the spine with some knowledge of what to expect. I thank Bill Coristine for insisting that I read this book. He gave me his copy and said, YOU will love this book. I think he did it because we both loved “Suttree” by Cormack McCarthy. Moses Sweetland will stick with me as a character. Thanks for the nudge Bill. And thanks for the great work Michael.

Sweetland is both the name of the main character and the name of the island where he lives, which bears his family name. Moses Sweetland is a stubborn holdout that won’t accept the federal government’s voluntary relocation deal and so he comes into conflict with all of the residents (of Sweetland the island) who want the deal (the cash). It’s a simple and compelling plot driven by the questions: why is he so stubborn and why won’t he leave? Below the surface are darker themes of aging, craziness, loyalty and inevitability. The life of Moses dissolves at the same rate as life on the island of Sweetland. Perhaps it’s a little sad. But don’t we don’t all want to die in our bed, so to speak? (Not a plot spoiler.)

Michael Crummey shows great respect for his readers by providing clues throughout the ages and letting the reader ponder Sweetland’s motivation at his or her own pace. Nothing is rushed or spoon-fed and all is revealed in a beautiful and believable conclusion.






On “On Writing” by Stephen King

On November 28, 2014, in Good reads, by John Ellis

I wish I had read Stephen King’s “On Writing” before now.

I made the mistake of believing that I understood his principles because he has been quoted so many times. “Kill adjectives! Kill adverbs! Kill your darlings!” He said. It made sense to me. Quoting E.B. White he said “Eliminate unnecessary words.” And so on. I thought I understood.

I bought “On Writing” expecting to find lists of dos and don’ts. I felt I had purchased a text book and my mindset was academic when I broke the spine. What happened next transformed my view of Mr. King. Over the first hundred or so pages, I got to know the man behind the legend. There is no talk of dangling participles or reflexive verbs, just King’s resume, written with great clarity and honesty. I didn’t know the extent of his drinking problem. I didn’t realize that he may have been operating outside of his faculties at the time when the world first embraced him as a favourite son. I didn’t know how hard he worked.

In the second half of “On Writing” King delivers on his promise to provide some guidance to would-be authors but there are no lists and no short cuts. The only formula that works for King is hard work and he’s very clear in his belief that there are no substitutes for talent and effort. Unlike lists, this full-length discussion of style gives him time to explain why and how his approach to writing produces superior work. It doesn’t feel like a lecture. It feels like the kind of conversation you might have with a successful but modest Uncle over lunch or a round of golf. But this Uncle is very clear about one thing: If you aren’t prepared to read and write a lot, you can probably find better things to do than writing novels or trying to become a professional content writer.

Should you read “On Writing”?

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, yes, of course. This is a humble and honest biography. You’re likely to put it down and be a bigger fan than you were. If you’re a reader, “On Writing” will help you become a more discerning one. If your job requires you to communicate with people in writing (most of us), it’s almost guaranteed that your style could be improved and your effectiveness quadrupled as a result. If your job is to create content in any form (video, web copy, editorial, social media, print) than you absolutely need to read it. If none of these apply to you, take a pass and rent the movies. You don’t have to read “On Writing” to love the work of Stephen King. But if you do, you’ll probably love him a little more.

If you can’t afford Stephen King, or he isn’t interested in the kind of content you need, you can always hire John the Writer.


Powerful street art

On July 10, 2014, in Artists, by John Ellis

Companionship, hope and art

One of my favourite days in London included two hours hiking through Shoreditch, observing the ever-changing gallery of graffiti art. My guide was a member of the tour group Street Art London. Here is its tribute to the street artist John Dolan (reprinted with the hope that they won’t mind because this post is solely intended to inform my readers and promote this fabulous tour in London).

Street Art London is pleased to be supporting notorious Shoreditch artist John Dolan’s return to Howard Griffin Gallery with a landmark exhibition entitled John and George. John Dolan is east London’s most notorious artist. For three years, he sat every day with his dog George on Shoreditch High Street. In the past, Dolan had been in and out of prison and often found himself homeless. Sitting on the street every day and watching the world go by, he became part of the community, speaking to passers by about his life, his experiences and George. Dolan began to draw the buildings on the street to document his day, elevating the old, decrepit buildings that are so often ignored and under appreciated. He also drew portraits of George as he sat beside him, and began to sell his drawings to the people he saw walk up and down Shoreditch High Street every day.

Howard Griffin Gallery met John Dolan a year ago. His debut exhibition in September 2013 focused on his unique cityscapes, and saw Dolan collaborate with some of the world’s biggest street artists, including ROA, Thierry Noir, RUN, Steve ESPO Powers, Know Hope, Pablo Delgado and many others. His next exhibition, John and George, moves away from his documentation of the street and turns inward, centring on the unique relationship between the artist and George.

The story of John and George is one of companionship and hope. Dolan was on the streets when he was given George in exchange for the price of a strong can of lager. Since that time, George has been Dolan’s most loyal companion, ultimately enabling him to change his life. With George at his side, Dolan managed to escape a twenty year cycle of homelessness and prison, establishing himself as one of east London’s most recognisable artists.

John and George will present viewers with an immersive microcosm of the street in which visitors will be surrounded by hundreds of drawings of George. The repetition in Dolan’s work stems from the years of working on the street where each drawing he made of George marked the passing of another day and George’s presence was the one thing in Dolan’s life which he could rely on totally. In the chaotic world in which we live, Dolan uses repetition to encourage viewers to take a moment and see things in a different way. The subtle variations in each drawing tell a story and document a quiet and unassuming friendship that for one month will be shared with visitors to the gallery.