Friday, March 08, 2013

ANOTHER BULLSHIT NIGHT IN SUCK CITY by Nick Flynn (2004) W.W. Norton, 341 pages

Not only is the title beguiling, but so is every story unfurled in this unabashedly direct memoir of a lost father and a son trying to find his way.

Flynn opens with a close-up of his father Jonathan in an ATM, pretending to be banking, “brought to you by the Museum of the Homeless” where he “bends to his deposit slip, Six hundred and seventy thousand cash…puts it in an envelope, licks the envelope shut” then “curls up on the ceramic floor, turns his face to the baseboard, tucked below the window so the fake police won’t see him.”

Flynn-the-younger worked in a Boston homeless shelter from 1984-1990. His father was homeless for five years, beginning in 1987. It was inevitable that their paths would cross. And, you witness both of them struggle with addiction. About his father’s insistence on writing a novel, he discloses: “His novel, such as it is, if it is at all, written in blackout and prison, is his ark, the thing that will save him…His single-mindedness impresses most, his fathomless belief in his own greatness, in his power to transform a failed world, to make it whole again by a word. By a story. That if you stick with your vision long enough you will be redeemed.” And, you hope for redemption for both, a shared redemption that in the end comes in the shape of the book in your hand.

Each sentence in Nick Flynn's memoir is a gasping punch to the solar plexus or a curare dart to the heart.

I will read everything he writes.

Follow @_nick_flynn_ on Twitter or visit his website:

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

WAVE by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013) McClelland & Stewart, 228 pages

Harrowing, heartbreaking and healing, Sonali Deraniyagala unflinchingly recounts her journey since the tsunami that devastated her immediate family on December 26, 2004. That morning her husband Steve, their two young sons Vikram and Malli, and her parents were killed by the 30-foot wave that swallowed the lives of 200K others in Yala, Sri Lanka.

In prose that is spare and precise and a gasping gut-punch, Deraniyagala begins her narrative by admitting, “I thought nothing of it at first…It didn’t seem that remarkable. Or that alarming. It was only the white curl of a big wave.” Yet within moments that stretch into hours and days, the centre of her world falls apart and although she is the only one in her family who survives the disaster with cuts to her face and limbs and stones in her tangled hair she says her “mind could not sort anything out.” And, when a truck arrives at the hospital triage with a load of recovered corpses the “wild, wretched” shrieking crackles “into the numbness” in her head, “blasting the smallest stir of hope” in her heart.

How extraordinarily excruciating it must have been for Deraniyagala to live those personally apocalyptic moments and then relive them as she committed them to paper. What strikes me as most remarkable about WAVE is the generous way in which she so vibrantly recreates her sons and her husband and as in the fiction of Alice Munro and Carol Shields celebrates the ordinariness of daily life. And, in flashes we hear their voices, as when then-five-year-old Malli tells his older brother Vikram, “Don’t be scared. It’s good when it’s all really black. You can see your dreams better.”

Deraniyagala moves from plotting her own death to reconciling herself to yearning for what never will be. She assures that “their voices have doubled in strength now, not faded with time. Their chatter plays with my thoughts no end. And, I am sustained by this, it gives me spark.”

WAVE is simultaneously published today by McClelland & Stewart in Canada, Virago Books in the UK, and A.A.Knopf in the United States. Find the courage to read this extraordinary book. It’s the least you can do since Deraniyagala faced such darkness and summoned the grace and courage to not only write it, but to share such an ultimately redemptive story with the world.

Monday, March 04, 2013

THE DEMONOLOGIST by Andrew Pyper (2013) Simon and Schuster, 285 pages

Pyper's finest yet, THE DEMONOLOGIST has a terrifying, taut, intelligent narrative featuring a Milton scholar who faces an unthinkable darkness that challenges everything he believes about this world and the next.

From the familiarity of paradoxically intimate public spaces in New York City like the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal to the labyrinthine calles of Venice, Pyper will have your heart thudding an impatient tattoo as you feel with each gasping breath what his protagonist David Ullman feels as he attempts to recover his lost daughter Tess. With whiplash-inducing narrative drive, THE DEMONOLOGIST will have you flipping pages through the night.

Already optioned for the big screen and in development at Universal Pictures by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Flight), Pyper’s smartypants storytelling will certainly reach an even wider audience than his already dedicated readers. In my dream casting Michael Shannon—surely one of the finest, most fearless actors of our time—will play the Paradise Lost scholar for whom everything falls apart because of his unwavering paternal love.

THE DEMONOLOGIST deserves all of the superlatives heaped upon it and I hope it firmly establishes Andrew Pyper as a writer with the courage to face deeply human fears in a profoundly human way.

Get your own copy of this remarkable book, available in stores today. Follow @andrewpyper on Twitter and visit his website: 

Sunday, March 03, 2013


A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME by Wiley Cash (Harper Collins)
If you're a fan of Margaret Laurence's style, then you'll love this debut. If you're snake phobic like me, the first 50 pages will be a struggle. Follow @wileycash on Twitter. Visit his website:

SHINE SHINE SHINE by Lydia Netzer (St. Martin’s Press)
The best book about alopecia, astronauts and autism that you'll ever read. A startling debut novel. I read it in one great gulp. Follow Lydia Netzer as @lostcheerio on Twitter. Visit her website:

WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple (Little, Brown and Company)
Quirky, smart, sly, this novel by Maria Semple (who cut her teeth as a writer for television on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) is maddening, joyful and deeply human. Visit her website:

Monday, February 11, 2013

SPEAKING FROM AMONG THE BONES by Alan Bradley (2013), Doubleday Canada, 358 pages

Precocious, amusing, chemistry genius 11-year-old Flavia de Luce returns to solve yet another mystery in this most beguiling series set in 1950s rural England. Batman had Robin as his trusty sidekick, but Flavia has her bicycle who she christens Gladys “because of her happy nature” to spirit her to and from her crumbling family estate, Buckshaw. There she’s beleaguered by her girly older sisters Feely and Daffy, and finds kinship with the family’s longtime butler Dogger, who treats her like a person instead of a meddlesome little kid.

It’s the 500th anniversary of St. Tancred’s death, and the local church is planning to open its patron saint’s tomb. Nobody could be more intrigued about his remains than Flavia. What she does not expect, however, is to be faced with the fresh corpse of the current organist Mr. Collicutt, kitted out as he is in an eerie mask reminiscent of the most recent war. And, to complicate matters the precious “Heart of Lucifer” stone has gone missing.

It takes all of Flavia’s chemistry wiles, best behaviour, instinct for allegiance, and greatest acting for her to puzzle out the timely murder that has all of the tongues wagging throughout Bishop’s Lacey.

More satisfying than the realization of whodunit, however, is the delicious secret held back until the final sentence. A writerly trick Bradley filches from Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” And, it’s a secret that cracks the ongoing narrative wide and anticipates even more intrigue to follow for all of the de Luces.

Hop on Gladys’s handlebars and join Flavia for the dizzying ride.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

THE PAINTED GIRLS by Cathy Marie Buchanan (2013) Harper Collins Canada, 349 pages

Set in late 19th Century Paris, Cathy Marie Buchanan’s THE PAINTED GIRLS transports you to another time and place with such evocatively rich sensory detail that you’ll find yourself immersed in the clatter and clamour of those narrow streets, your head turning at the imagined scents wafting from the local boulangerie.

Impeccably researched, Buchanan’s narrative peels apart the darker criminal elements that were inevitable pieces of the lives of the impoverished class at the same time that Zola’s words played on Paris’s stages and les petits rats trained and performed in the corps at the Paris Opera Ballet.

If you’ve ever seen a copy of Degas’s sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, you have already met the protagonist of Buchanan’s tale: Marie van Goethem, a petit rat herself who posed as the paid model over the course of several months, under Degas’s mindful gaze. The painted girls of the title are the van Goethem sisters, Antoinette, Marie and Charlotte, who, after the early death of their father and due to the alcoholism of their mother, are required to make their way in the world, earning money in order to live.

I remember seeing a copy  of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen here in Toronto at the AGO in 2003 and marveling not only at the appropriate posture for a dancer and the open fourth position in which her feet are placed, but also at Degas’s fingerprints that remained visible after his wax maquette was alchemized into a bronze. And, how fragile and young she seemed immortalized by one of the finest sculptors of his time.

19th Century Paris was a rough place, if you weren’t wealthy. Girls especially had to make difficult choices if they were going to survive. In THE PAINTED GIRLS, Cathy Marie Buchanan focuses her unflinching eye on the struggles of the van Goethem sisters and makes you believe, through her craft, that every moment she unravels is true. True to the core.

This is a novel that will work its way into your heart and leave an indelible mark.

Monday, February 04, 2013


On a recent trip to NYC, I stopped in at the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue and picked up a copy of Ben Fountain’s BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, a title that I have been meaning to read for some time. All of the superlatives used to describe this debut novel are utterly deserving. This is the 1st in the triple crown of Iraq War novels I read in January. It's smart, funny, and moving and until Beyonce’s appearance last night at Superbowl LXVII, it would have also provided renewed enthusiasm for Destiny’s Child at a fictional half-time show.

Kevin Powers’s THE YELLOW BIRDS is the second Iraq War novel I read this year and the first by a soldier who actively served; Powers was deployed as a machine gunner in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005. I became aware of this startling debut through prize-winning novelist Chris Cleave’s twitter feed where he kvelled about it as the best book he’d read in a long time. (Follow him @chriscleave.) Because Powers is a poet, there are lines on every page that will make you gasp at their beauty. THE YELLOW BIRDS is a harrowing, heartbreaking, healing read.

FOBBIT by David Abrams ( @ImDavidAbrams) was the third jewel I found my way to in this Iraq War novel triple crown. And, Abrams, like Powers, was deployed to Iraq in 2005 where he served as part of the U.S. Army’s public affairs team. I found FOBBIT to be the novel with the most verisimilitude of the three and its fine satire to be reminiscent of early John Irving. When you finally have a copy between your hands, be prepare to be gobsmacked.