Sunday, December 31, 2006

SUITE FRANCAISE by Irene Nemirovsky (2006)

Published 54 years after the author was killed at Auschwitz, SUITE FRANCAISE offers an insider's perspective of German-occupied France in the early years of WWII. Nemirovsky writes beautifully and compassionately about the French and about the soldiers whose very presence made wartime life all the more complicated.

The story of this novel is as intriguing as the novel itself. For years Nemirovsky's daughters moved what they believed to be their mothers journals from place to place. Only after her younger sister Elizabeth died in 1996, did Denise Epstein read and transcribe this manuscript.

Friday, December 29, 2006

THE DISSIDENT by Nell Freudenberger (2006)

A performance artist and political activist from Beijing accepts a post as an art instructor at an all girls' boarding school in L.A. He is hosted by the Travers family: Cece, Gordon (her psychiatrist husband), Olivia (their anorexic dancing daughter) and Max (their son who has survived an attempted suicide--or so they think). Gordon's siblings breeze in and out as well--Joan, the novelist and Phil, the playwright who has optioned his play about a man who has an affair with his brother's wife to a Hollywood studio.

As the dissident becomes increasingly entangled in the family's life, Freudenberger reveals secret upon secret from his past.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

ME AND ORSON WELLES by Robert Kaplow (2003)

Set during one week in November 1937 when Welles mounted a production of JULIUS CAESAR at the Mercury Theatre on West 41st Street, this absolutely charming novel inhabits that time and place through the eyes of Richard Samuels, a seventeen-year-old beginning actor who happens to be in the right place at the right time. We meet John Houseman, Joseph Cotten and the tyrannical twenty-two year old Welles at the beginning of his meteoric rise. During one week, Samuels falls in love, sleeps in Orson Welles' pajamas at the encouragement of his winsome production assistant Sonja (herself making a bid for an introduction to David O. Selznick), acts beside the behemoth in JULIUS CAESAR and loses his job.


This is O'Neill's first novel and it will break your heart, phrase by phrase. Baby is a savvy twelve year old being raised by her father Jules, little more than a child himself when Baby was born. They shift from flop house to flop house in Montreal's red light district and Baby is temporarily housed in foster care with other castoffs while Jules is hospitalized.

And, although the circumstances of Baby's life are grim, her attitude towards it is refreshingly ebullient. In LULLABIES FOR LITTLE CRIMINALS, O'Neill has created memorable and sympathetic characters who will encourage you to look at life in an entirely appreciative way.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

HELPLESS by Barbara Gowdy (2007)

Celia Fox is a single parent holding down two jobs in order to provide for her and her beautiful young daughter Rachel. On the night of a blackout in Toronto, Rachel is abducted and her mother's life becomes a living hell. Much of the novel is told from the perspective of Ron, a troubled appliance repairman, with an inexplicably close attachment to Rachel.

In HELPLESS, Gowdy, forces you to face your own fears about loss and love. It is a profoundly upsetting and human story.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


This 6th collection of Dave and Morley stories from CBC Vinyl Cafe host Stuart McLean is as engaging and heartwarming as the previous ones; though this time, cartoons by Seth, reminiscent of naive designs for the Flintstones or the Jetsons, imply another layer of storying. So, on the cover you may see yourself in Eavesdropper, Home Haircutter, Nostalgist, Tight-Wad, Sympathy Faker or Fact Fudger to name a few.

The stories range from quietly sentimental as in "Opera" and "The Laundry Chute" to knee-slapping, bladder-bursting funny in "Teeth" or "Kenny Wong's Practical Jokes." In every instance, McLean follows the path of the heart and nudges you, oh gentle reader, to examine your own.


MacIntyre's memoir about growing up on Cape Breton in the years bracketed by the construction of the Canso causeway and his strained and complicated rapport with his largely absent father is compelling. He neatly adopts the convincing voice of his 10-12-14-year-old self and recreates the community of Port Hastings in the 1950s and 1960s. The wonder and mystery of the world and the people in it weave through MacIntyre's nostalgic lens.

Friday, November 17, 2006

BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS by Giles Blunt (2006)

Detective John Cardinal has spent years supporting his wife through manic episodes, some during which she had to be hospitalized. Recently, however, Catherine, has been going through a good patch where she has seemed energized by her work as a photographer. When Catherine is found dead, with a suicide note written in her schoolgirl script, her husband is naturally devastated. He's also suspicious. And, when a spate of suicides leads to Catherine's psychiatrist Dr. Bell, Cardinal is obviously concerned and curious.

The subplot involving a cold case of child abuse is equally chilling. Giles Blunt is a master of the crime genre.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

THE WILDFIRE SEASON by Andrew Pyper (2005)

Learning that Andrew Pyper is the author assigned to the table where I will be sitting on Wednesday at the Writers' Trust Great Literary Dinner Party, I picked up his most recent novel.

The prose is gorgeous and the dialogue precise and authentic.

An arsonist starts a bush fire in a remotely populated area of the Yukon in order to give the firefighters something to do during the dog days of summer. Miles, the fire chief, not only has the burden of reading the fire and how it will spread, but also the anxiety of saving his five year-old daughter Rachel, whom he has only met recently.

The subplot in which a New York couple, strangers to each other although married for decades, hires a local guide to hunt a bear is no less anxiety-provoking. Especially when they are trapped in the licking flames as well.

The plot had me gasping for breath at times, in panic. And, I had to put the book down because the images were all too real.

Pyper sure knows how to write. I'll be picking up a copy of his earlier novel LOST GIRLS.

DEAD COLD by Louise Penny (2006)

I read Louise Penny's second mystery in one gulp yesterday. (Published as A FATAL GRACE in the US) Set in a sleepy Quebec village, DEAD COLD is a satisfying crime novel wherein several suspects are unlikely-- a bereaved octogenarian, a yoga-studio owning septugenarian and a bullied child who spends her days at an exclusive boarding school for girls in Montreal--the loosely disguised Miss Edgar's and Miss Cramp's.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache takes on the case of a Boxing Day murder that happened in broad daylight among many witnesses at the annual outdoor curling briar.

The twists and turns and occasional laughs out loud will have you flipping the pages of this compelling tale right to the end. Acronyms acquire certain power under Louise Penny's pen.

Friday, November 10, 2006


Lam's collection of linked short stories was recentlly awarded the 2006 Giller Prize--for the best English language book of fiction in Canada. In it you follow Ming, Chen, Fitzgerald and Sri through their human anatomy lab at Medical School and into their residential practices at walk-in clinics and emergency room triage. BLOODLETTING & MIRACULOUS CURES is not for the squeamish or faint of heart, especially in "Take All of Murphy," where the descriptive detail is absolutely visceral.

However, in addition to precise prose, Lam is also an adept storyteller, and it is his craftsmanship that will have me reaching for his first novel due out in Fall 2007 from Doubleday.

ECHO PARK by Michael Connelly (2006)

Detective Harry Bosch has a stale case that he just can't leave alone--the unsolved murder of Marie Gesto that has nagged him for more than a dozen years. When he gets a call from a hot-shot prosecutor who has Raynard Waits ready to admit to the murder in order to avoid the death penalty for a series of crimes, Harry is both relieved and bothered by the offer.

The wild goose chase that follows after Waits leads them to the alleged burial site of Gesto's remains is anxiety ridden.

Former defense attorney Connelly is at the top of his crime-writing form in ECHO PARK.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

REQUIEM FOR MY BROTHER by Marian Botsford Fraser (2006)

When I saw this title listed in a summer edition of Quill and Quire as forthcoming, I special ordered a copy--having met Marian through PEN Canada work and having buried my only brother.

I had no idea that there would be such haunting similarities in our stories: the eldest of three children; raised in small-town Ontario; a younger brother named David who loved the north--its landscape, its rhythms; a family code in which "I love you" was understood but never said face to face.

Fraser's spare prose hits the mark. As Nino Ricci notes, it is "uncompromising and deeply affecting...a meditation...on how much of even those we are closest to remains unknown."

We are still, David, Denise and I, just the three of us.

THE FEARSOME PARTICLES by Trevor Cole (2006)

I picked up a copy of this GG short-listed novel after hearing Trevor Cole read excerpts at IFOA at the end of October. I was also intrigued by a reviewer's reference to Cole as a stylist belonging to "the Truman Capote school." However, although the sections dedicated to Victoria (the high-end house stager) were wryly amusing, and the narrative dedicated to her son Kyle was painfully engaging, the portions about Gerald's musings and his work life were yawn-worthy.

I must be missing something.

LAST STOP SUNNYSIDE by Pat Capponi (2006)

Living in a rooming house in Parkdale, Dana Leoni finds herself in the middle of a mystery involving a former housemate whose body has washed up along the Lake Ontario shore where the old Sunnyside Amusement park used to be. When the police decide to close the case, Dana and her remaining housemates--people pushed to the margins of society through mental illness and misfortune--decide to do detective work of their own inspired by their reading of the seedy, but hopeful tales of Janet Evanovich. Their dedication leads them to discover a terrible reality that is all too plausible.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

PAINT IT BLACK by Janet Fitch (2006)

Fitch's new novel opens with a tribute to lyrics by the Rolling Stones that include "everything that's red, paint it black," a sentiment that well suits Josie Tyrell, the protagonist. Josie's boyfriend Michael, a Harvard dropout, is an artist unsure of the depth of his talents. In spite of the love that surrounds him, Michael drives to the edge of LA and checks in to a seedy motel as Oscar Wilde and puts a gun in his mouth.

Following Michael's suicide the grief that emerges for Josie and for Michael's Mom, a world-famous concert pianist, makes them fast enemies and even stranger friends.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN by Wole Soyinka (2006)

Soyinka's memoir of his involvement throughout the early years of Nigeria's independence reads more like an intellectual tract than reminiscences. This accomplished poet, playwright and university professor--and the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature--is frank about his many affairs de coeur and about his treatment while imprisoned for speaking out during the Biafran war that consumed Nigeria.

Monday, October 09, 2006

A LONG WAY DOWN by Nick Hornby

Written as four convincing first-person narratives, in the style of Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE FURY, Hornby's most recent novel chronicles the lives of four strangers who meet at "Topper's House" in London on New Year's Eve. Each is convinced that s/he will put an end to their miserable existence to ring in the new year.

Jess is a teenaged girl who is lost to herself mostly because of her older sister's disappearance/death. JJ is a wannabe rockstar who broke up with his girlfriend and canned his band. Martin is a middle-aged Dad and former tv host who recently completed a jail term for having been involved with a fifteen-year-old girl. Maureen is a middle-aged woman who is weighed down by the care of her adult son who is confined to a wheelchair and diapers.

A less likely group of folks you won't have met; however, there is something absolutely appealing about each one of these characters as they look mortality in the eye and bite their thumbs at it. A topic that seems dreary and depressing will have you cheering by the time Hornby is finished.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


I now understand why I've found Ian Rankin's crime writing to be so literary--he spent a former life as a graduate student of English Literature at Edinburgh University where he wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the novels of Muriel Spark.

In this non-fiction book of ramblings and reminiscences and gorgeous--albeit moody-- photographs, Rankin explains his idea of Scotland and how the country is as much a character as Detective John Rebus in all of his novels.

It is a charming and personal book that offers a guided tour along the streets of Edinburgh as well as through Rankin's mind.


Veteran Louisiana Detective Dave Robicheaux finds himself in New Orleans, out of district, investigating the brutal beating of his friend Father Dolan, a controversial RC priest. However, another crime closer to home, the deaths of three teenaged girls in a car crash, leads to a series of revenge killings. Putting his own safety on the line, Robicheaux clearly understands the complicated nature of grief as he seeks to balance the scales of justice.

Monday, September 25, 2006

THE COMMUNIST'S DAUGHTER by Dennis Bock (2006)

Bock's hugely anticipated second novel reveals layer by layer the life of Norman Bethune. A life that he guardedly offers up to the infant daughter he has yet to meet. In Spain, Bethune meets Kajsa, a formidable woman who works with an anarchist group to get prostitutes off the streets of Madrid and into respectable work raising orphans of the Spanish Civil war. Although pregnant by him, Kajsa never admits as much and Bethune finds out after the fact that she was allowed to deliver the baby, but then killed because she was suspected of having pro-Fascist connections.

In this series of letters, Bethune confides all to his imagined daughter. He tries to face the truths about himself and his past and tries to communicate to her the necessity of the Chinese struggles against oppression through the leadership of Mao and the communist revolution.

Rife with historical detail and gorgeous descriptive passages, Bock paints a convincing portrait of a flawed man.

THE LINCOLN LAWYER by Michael Connelly (2005)

Defense attorney Mickey Haller has just about had it with his suspect clientele. He has two ex-wives--one on the payroll running his office from her condo; the other raising his only child. To protect himself he curiously runs his business from the backseats of several Lincoln Town Cars that are chauffeured by a former client who is going straight.

Mickey gets picked by a Beverly Hills rich boy realtor to defend him in a case of assault which he claims he didn't commit. The twists and turns of this hyper narrative will keep you second guessing right until the murderer is revealed at the climax.

THE LINCOLN LAWYER will have me reaching for other Connelly books. I will certainly make a point of hearing him read at IFOA in October.

Monday, September 11, 2006

CERTAINTY by Madeleine Thien (2006)

Thien's debut novel tells the story of Gail Lim, a radio documentary producer, who lives in Vancouver with her doctor husband Ansel. She believes in the serendipitous nature of life--that eventually everything will connect in a meaningful way. In her attempt to make a documentary about a man who encoded a journal during WWII, Gail discovers that she must crack the code of her own father's past in war-torn Asia.

Thien's understanding of grief is accurate and her evocation of it eloquent.

This is a stunning novel in which the characters are fully formed. Thien is the bright new voice in Canadian fiction. You will be able to hear her read from CERTAINTY at this year's IFOA at Harbourfront in Toronto this October.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

THE GRAVE TATOO by Val McDermid (2005)

Atypical torrential rain drenches the Lake District and exposes a bog body that has been wildly tatooed. Local lore suggests it could be the corpse of the legendary sailor Fletcher Christian who led the mutiny on the Bounty against Captain Bligh. For four centuries people in the district have gossiped that Christian returned home to England after staging a massacre on the island of Pitcairn in the South Pacific. He told his story in confidence to the most famous man of the district, William Wordsworth, a school chum and longtime family friend. Wordsworth, at the height of his poetic power, may have turned the sailor's tale into a long narrative poem that he never published.

Enter Jane Gresham, a Lake District girl who has become a Wordsworth scholar. Jane discovers fresh correspondence between Wordsworth's widow and their son John that intimates the existence of such a poem. As she tries to follow the genealogical labyrinth to the possible whereabouts of this precious manuscript in the present, there are a series of troubling murders.

I couldn't put this book down because of its galloping pace and interweaving subplots. No stone is left unturned by McDermid in her research. I stayed up reading into the early hours even knowing I had to haul myself out of bed at 5 a.m. to row this morning.

Monday, September 04, 2006

TURNING ANGEL by Greg Iles (2005)

Following the current run of mysteries I seem to be devouring, I've added an author who is new to me: Greg Iles. Set in the American South and rife with the racial strife that continues to stain that area, TURNING ANGEL, follows Penn Cage (a prosecutor-turned-novelist) whose best friend Drew Elliott is desperate for his legal counsel once the body of a high school senior has been found near the Mississippi River. Penn plans to do all he can to help Drew (a respected town doctor who had been sexually involved with the murdered Kate Townsend) who saved his life when they were boys; however, Penn suspects Drew is hiding the truth.

The story is utterly consuming.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

DEAD SOULS by Ian Rankin (1999)

Inspector Rebus stumbles upon a freed paedophile at the Edinburgh Zoo while he is stalking someone who has been poisoning the animals. By outing Darren Rough, Rebus has roused the local vigilantes from the housing project where Rough has been located since completing his sentence.

In addition to his troubles with the former paedophile who has been out for a year and not re-offended, Rebus has to deal with the apparent suicide of his colleague Jim Margolies who has hurled himself from Arthur's Seat on a dark and stormy night. And, if that isn't enough, a convicted murdered who has served his time in US jails, is looking to play games with Rebus as his pawn.

This is crime writing of the highest order.

Read Ian Rankin.

Monday, August 21, 2006

THE HANGING GARDEN by Ian Rankin (1998)


Any book that begins by quoting both T.S. Eliot and the Lerner and Loewe musical BRIGADOON is a must read as far as I'm concerned. That it happens to be a rapid fire murder mystery makes it all the more charming.

In THE HANGING GARDEN Rebus is trailing a WWII war criminal when their paths cross with a Chechen gangster who is running prostitutes out of eastern Europe. It becomes very personal when Rebus's only daughter Samantha is the victim of a hit and run. Rankin makes you hypothesize how the rules of the game change when family is threatened.

LET IT BLEED by Ian Rankin (1995)

I'm beginning the back-to-school Rankin-reading blitz. I just can't get enough of his fast-paced literary thrillers featuring Detective John Rebus, who speaks his mind often to his own detriment. But, his Edinburgh bravado has its winning ways.

Rebus is, as usual, in the wrong place at the right time. Three storylines interweave: the Lord Provost's daughter seems to have been kidnapped; a city counsellor is caught shredding documents; Rebus finds himself on the invitation list to a private shooting party hosted by the Scottish Office's Permanent Secretary. It can only me corruption at the heart of modern Scotland.

THE LAST HEATHEN by Charles Montgomery (2004)

Shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction, this memoir is subtitled "Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in Melanesia." Montgomery's great grandfather was the Bishop of Tasmania at the end of the 19th century. At that time, the volcanic islands that make up Melanesia were a hotbed of cannibalism and witchcraft. Travelling in his relative's footsteps, Montgomery explores the effects of colonialism and marvels at cultural anthropology and myth making.

A compelling read.

Monday, August 14, 2006

A WAY OF LIFE, LIKE ANY OTHER by D'Arcy O'Brien (1977)

Set in Hollywood in the 1950s this is about a former cowboy movie star, his leading lady wife and their son. Their heyday far behind them, the husband and wife split and she spends the rest of her life searching for the perfect man through her alcoholic stupor. She thinks she's found him in a short, stocky sculptor.

The best part about this book was the epigraph attributed to Benedict Kiely: "There's what I want on my tombstone: Growth, Self-Deception, and Loss."

Don't bother reading it. That's 3 hours of my life wasted.


The narrator, Devlin Stead, was born in St. John's Newfoundland in the late nineteenth century. Through this bildungsroman we witness Devlin's early years when his doctor father abandons his wife and son to explore the Polar seas in the company of Lt. Robert Peary and Dr. Frederick Cook. Devlin's mother dies when he's only six and he's raised by his aunt and uncle until he decides to pursue a dream in New York under the tutelage of Dr. Cook from whom he has been receiving letters for many years.

Devlin learns truth after truth about his past and comes to find himself secure in love at last.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

MONSTER by John Gregory Dunne

Screenwriter and novelist John Gregory Dunne chronicles the years it takes to pitch, draft and re-draft a story for the big screen. He and his wife Joan Didion collaborated on the script for UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL, a movie finally made once Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer attached their names to the project--8 years later.

Ten years ago the best "script doctors" in the business (Dunne cites Carrie Fisher a.k.a. Princess Leia for one) got paid upt to 200k for one week's work.

There's a gig worth getting.

Monday, August 07, 2006

EVERYMAN by Philip Roth (2006)

Roth's 5th novel of the 21st century takes its title from the allegorical early English play about the summoning of the living to death. In it his everyman is a retired advertising executive who lives alone outside of NYC along the Jersey Shore and paints watercolours, an avocation of which he has dreamed. He has three failed marriages behind him, a doting daughter, an iconic older brother and two sons who have alienated him most of their adult lives.

Every word in this 182-page novel counts. Roth manages to get the reader on side from the opening sober scene at the graveyard where the cast gathers to contemplate this life.

"The terrain of this powerful novel is the human body. Its subject is the common experience that terrifies us all."

MORTAL SINS by Anna Porter (1987)

Journalist Judith Hayes gets an exclusive interview with secretive businessman Paul Zimmerman thanks to her friend Marsha Hillier. For some reason Zimmerman is ready to spill the beans about his private life. Hayes is invited to a special dinner party chez Zimmerman and there, in the company of strangers, bears witness to his unexpected death at the table. What follows is a journey into Zimmerman's obscure past in Hungary.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

NIGHT GAME: A KATE HENRY MYSTERY by Alison Gordon (1992)

Kate is in Florida covering the "Grapefruit League" pre-season training for the Toronto Titans, when their pre-season rituals take a sinister turn. A rookie from the Dominican Republic is arrested for the murder of a blonde bombshell reporter, and Kate sets out to clear his name.

You get an inside peek at the complicated relationships between players and their wives and families during life on the road. Many of the adults follow Oscar Wilde's advice that the only way to deal with temptation is to yield to it.

SAFE AT HOME: A KATE HENRY MYSTERY by Alison Gordon (1990)

Ace reporter, Kate Henry, is about to break a story featuring a gay baseball player on Toronto's major league team. The news is sure to throw the sports world a curve ball. At the same time, Kate's lover, Detective Andy Munro, is trying to find the person responsible for the murders of two young boys. When their paths cross, Kate and Andy find that it's just not safe at home.

This novel clips along right to its satisfying end.

Perfect summer reading.

MOUTHING THE WORDS by Camilla Gibb (1999)

This is Gibb's debut novel. In it she writes convincingly from the perspective of Thelma, a young girl who has moved from England to Toronto and tries to make sense of her new world. Themes of incest and self-discovery make this book uncomfortable, but important reading.

Monday, July 17, 2006

ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith (2005)

England's wunderkind novelist who broke on the scene with the satiric WHITE TEETH, has established herself with this third novel about a blended family living in small town New England. Dad is a progressive professor who made the predictable middle-aged man's mistake and had an affair with a colleague. Mom is a luscious African American whose kindness keeps her weary family together. The three siblings position themselves for approval from a variety of sources. What Smith does most convincingly is write dialogue. Zora and Levi and Kiki leap off the page.

ON BEAUTY won the Orange Prize for fiction. The title is stolen from a poem by Smith's equally ambitious literary spouse, Nick Laird.

THREE WISHES by Deborah Ellis (2005)

Banned by the Toronto Board of Education, this collection of personal essays from the point of view of both Israeli and Palestinian children and teens tries to account for the prejudice into which they are born. In their own words, these vignettes are equally despairing and hopeful about the burden of growing up in the Middle East today.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

THE MASTER (2005) by Colm Toibin

Toibin inhabits the psyche of American man of letters Henry James in this triumph of imagination and style that takes place over the course of five years in James's life in England, when he found himself writing for the stage at the same time as the celebrated and immensely popular Oscar Wilde.

THE MASTER recently won the 2006 Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, the richest prize for English language fiction.


This novel explores the life of quirky siblings Emma and Blue who embark on separate journeys of self-discovery due to their mostly inept parents. Emma becomes obsessed with archaeology and digging up the past and Blue finds his own way through his work as a tatoo artist with the support of his girlfriend, a former stripper.

Camilla Gibb won the Trillium Book Award this Spring for her most recent novel SWEETNESS IN THE BELLY.

THE MEMORY BOOK (2005) by Howard Engel

Private Investigator Benny Cooperman is recovering in a Toronto hospital from a serious blow to the head. He has a peculiar condition that allows him to write, but not to read. And, while he can remember great swaths of his distant past, he finds himself sometimes brushing his teeth with his shaving cream. Friends in homicide tell Benny that he was found in a dumpster on the U of T campus beside a dead woman. Probably left for dead himself.

Engel's book gives an insider's perspective on what it feels like to be utterly frustrated by a head injury.

There is a captivating afterword by Dr. Oliver Sacks, who does his best to explain Engel's condition alexia sine agraphia and its ramifications.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

THE DELICATE STORM (2003) by Giles Blunt

Already a fan of Detective John Cardinal from Blunt's other crime novels, it was a quick decision to pick up this one. Blunt's characters are believable and cunning and full of human frailty. I especially enjoyed the mini-history lesson refresher about the 1970 FLQ Crisis which is the thread that connects the contemporary murders Cardinal is compelled to solve.

PRAIRIE HARDBALL (1997) by Alison Gordon

Baseball writer Kate Henry takes a holiday at home in small town Saskatchewan and brings along her partner, Detective Andy Munro. They join her parents for her mother's induction in the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame since she played in the 1940s (while all of the boys were at war) on the legendary Racine Belles.

While at the reunion in North Battleford, one of the Belles is murdered.

PRAIRIE HARDBALL is part nostalgia for the glory days of the game, part road trip and all intrigue. It has me reaching for the rest of Alison Gordon's Kate Henry Mysteries.

THE BOOKFAIR MURDERS (1997) by Anna Porter

World-class editor Marsha Hillier is networking her way through a posh party at the Frankfurt Bookfair when she stops to chat with Andrew Myles, a top literary agent who represents the darling of the event, Margaret Drury Carter who has recently signed a three-book deal for $20 million--a sum worthy of Stephen King and Tom Clancy. As the narrator quips, "Andrew was dead, so he didn't respond."

In addition to being populated with real people from the publishing world, THE BOOKFAIR MURDERS is an intriguing mystery with many suspects.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


At a small family run museum outside of London, a grisly murder is committed, one that appears to be a copycat. When Dr. Neville is burned to death in his vintage Jag, his brother and sister co-operate with the police to try to figure out who could possibly wish their psychologist brother any harm. With a dash of romance on the side between the poet-cum-detective and a literature professor at Cambridge, this mystery is a satisfying romp.

RACE AGAINST TIME by Stephen Lewis (2005)

Delivered as the Massey lectures this past fall, Stephen Lewis contemplates the fate of Africa as the first world stands idly by. The opening lecture, "It Shames and Diminishes Us All," will convince you that 0.7 is potentially the most powerful number. Period. If the G8 countries actually delivered on their promise of 0.7 of the GDP, and forgave existing debts in sub-Saharan Africa, then those devastatingly poor countries might have a chance to rebuild.

Lewis's honesty and integrity and passion about the dire circumstances of women and children suffering the HIV/AIDS pandemic will make you want to raise a call to arms.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Prolific novelist Philip Roth blurs fact and fiction in this remarkable novel which supposes what might have happened had Anti-Semitic, world-famous aviator Charles Lindberg been elected President of the USA, sending FDR to defeat in the years surrounding WWII. The narrator is eight-year-old Philip who grows up in New York City, proud of his Jewish cultural heritage and then conflicted when his older brother Sandy appears to support the charismatic new leader. This novel is brave and terrifying in equal measure.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

BABES IN THE WOODS by Ruth Rendell (2003)

Two teenaged children and their adult minder go missing during a storm while their parents are away for an extended weekend in Paris. Their mother believes they've drowned in the floodwater and when a t-shirt that unmistakably belongs to her daughter is found by the police, she is convinced of foul play. The detective on the case has his awareness heightened by the fact that his adult daughter is trying to extricate herself from an abusive relationship.

When the police learn that the son belonged to a fundamentalist Christian sect, everyone seems suspicious. Even the children's famous photographer grandmother.

Friday, June 09, 2006

I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE by Wally Lamb (1998)

Keith Cressy told me this book resonated with him more than any other that he's read so far. It's a whopper of a novel clocking in at more than 800 pages, but every page is worth your time. Really.

Thomas and Dominick Birdsey are identical twins who are raised in an abusive environment. Like all families theirs is rife with secrets. After their first year at university, Thomas experiences his first psychotic episode and after several misdiagnoses is properly diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE will tear at your heart in so many ways as you get to know quite intimately the emotional burdens of each of the characters. It is not an easy read, but it is well worth your effort. I'm adding it to my personal pantheon of favourite books.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Ian Rankin is a mystery writer at the top of his game. In MORTAL CAUSES, Inspector John Rebus is seconded to a special unit to investigate a ghastly execution that happened in Mary King's Close in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival. Those of you who know the streets of Edinburgh will find the geography compellingly familiar as well as creepy.

It turns out that the first victim is the son of a gangster who is doing time and, of course, is stoked by revenge once he hears of his only son's gruesome death. As in Renaissance revenge tragedy, the bodies pile up before the good guys figure out whodunnit.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

NOTHING LOST by John Gregory Dunne (2004)

Dunne's final novel (he died unexpectedly in December 2003) shows his fascination with "the forgotten, the rejected and the left behind." When a lurid murder comes to trial in small town America, there is a media circus as the celebrity machine comes to feast on the events.

There is a cast of memorable and credible characters including a defense attorney whose real father was a Las Vegas mobster, a tough gay former state's attorney, a sociopathic supermodel and sister of the accused, and a glamorous right wing congresswoman who is a gubernatorial candidate.

No one escapes Dunne's unsentimental narrative.

DEMOCRACY by Joan Didion (1984)

Inez Christian Victor is the wife of a U.S. senator who has designs on the presidency. Set in the years following the fall of Saigon, DEMOCRACY is a political satire as well as bildungsroman. Inez is spunky, intelligent and self aware. The politics of that time are inseparable from private life and join to assure both public and private disaster.

Didion's eye for social commentary is precise.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


A collection of linked stories that weave together to form a novel, THE WOMEN OF BREWSTER PLACE honours the lives of several tough Black American women who inhabit the margins of society because they are either on welfare, are prostitutes or are lesbians. When it was first published in 1980 one critic wrote that "vibrating with undisguised emotion" the book " springs from the same roots that produced the sings of sorrows proudly borne by black women in America."

LARRY'S PARTY by Carol Shields

Larry Weller is a florist who lives in Winnipeg with his wife Dorrie and his young son Ryan. He builds topiary mazes after "getting the bug" during his honeymoon visit to Hampton Court Palace. As he learns more about designing these labyrinths he also negotiates his way more adeptly through his relationships with his son and with the women in his life. Shields, as usual, shows herself to be the master of communicating what is remarkable about an ordinary life.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Detective John Cardinal faces his own criminal past again when his partner Detective Lise Delorme is assigned to determine the source of Cardinal's income that enables him to pay for his daughter's graduate education at Yale. Delorme and Cardinal are put on murder cases of children as yet unsolved. Once they discover the remains of a thirteen year old Native girl in an abandoned mineshaft on Windigo Island, a killer strikes again. Set in Algonquin Bay (fictionalized North Bay, Ontario) and in the Toronto forensics lab, FORTY WORDS FOR SORROW is fast-paced and, at times, terrifying. It makes you really wonder about youth in care.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


Detective Carol Jordan is wooed back on to the front lines of police work by a series of cold cases including missing children. Recent murders of prostitutes are especially difficult for Jordan to face since she is recovering from being raped when she went undercover in Berlin. The narrative twists and turns with the snap of the sexual predator's fingers. It is compelling and sickening to read.

KICK BACK by Val McDermid

Detective Kate Brannigan uncovers a mortgage theft scam that is run by a salesman who works for a greenhouse building company. In addition to fraud, this novel keeps you flipping through it because of twisted relationships between the characters. I can easily lose myself in such a fast-paced tale.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


I've recently become interested in murder mystery writing. A friend gave me McDermid's book insisting that she wrote at the top of her game. Set in a remote village in northern England, A PLACE OF EXECUTION is fast-paced and thought-provoking. It addresses the failure of the justice system and the messiness of ethical decisions and their ramifications. I was not disappointed and have picked up another McDermid book to see if she really is such a consistently fine storyteller.

NIGHT by Elie Wiesel

This brave and haunting memoir written by the Nobel Prize winner demands to be read over and over again. Wiesel is just a boy when he and his family are taken to Auschwitz and then he is moved to Buchenwald with his father. What astonishes me each time I read this book is how he manages to remain a man of faith in face of the atrocities he witnessed and experienced.

Friday, April 28, 2006

UNION STATION by Joe Fiorito

I went to Fiorito's launch of this non-fiction collection of essays about who we are now in Toronto on Tuesday night. Many of the people about whom Fiorito has written were there as well including the Nigerian cab driver whose son Fiorito has the privilege of calling Joseph after a naming ceremony and Enza-the-supermodel Anderson, the drag queen (and occasional mayoral candidate) who finally got the breast implants she desired.

It is a raw look at Toronto. At our kindnesses, cruelties and foibles.

Fans of Fiorito's column must read this book.


I've just re-read this fantastic collection of linked short fiction published first in 1971. It is a progressive book for its time--so progressive that several libraries chose to ban the book because of its explicit depiction of Del's coming of age and growing awareness of her sexuality.

Alice Munro is a must-read author. Dip and then delve into her body of work.

THE QUEEN'S FOOL by Phillipa Gregory

Set in the early English Renaissance during the reigns of "Bloody" Mary and Elizabeth I, this historical novel follows the life of a young Jewish girl who has moved from Spain to England with her bookseller father to escape persecution that led to her mother's death at the stake.

Dressed in the clothes of a young boy, she piques the interest of one of the courtiers who invites her to become the fool in the court of the invalid boy/king. She then befriends Mary and Elizabeth and serves as a spy reporting between their two royal camps.

It is a novel filled with intriguing historical anecdotes and credible characters.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

MARLEY AND ME by John Grogan

For any doglovers, this memoir, that is a New York Times bestseller will affirm your loyalty to your furry four-footed companions. Grogan unabashedly recounts Marley's really bad behaviour, but reminds us that Marley approaches everything with joyful ebullience.

Sunday, April 02, 2006


Set in late 80s small town Saskatchewan, this novel reveals Toss Raymond's fierce loyalty to his remaining family (his Aunt Cora and her son Perry) and his emotional exhuberance for other social misfits like himself (including Dewey, the projectionist at the dilapitated movie house.)

Toss has a history of violence and in the recent past his wife Marcie has left him because of rumour and misunderstanding that so easily passes from mouth to gossipping mouth.

Toss is a crusader for truth. And he's willing to face his own demons to find it.

THE PROJECTIONIST is Michael Helm's first novel and it was short-listed for The Giller Prize. His prose is deft, rhythmic and clean. Read this book!

Sunday, March 26, 2006


Berendt's book will make you fall in love with the intrigue of Venice. He arrives just as the world-famous Fenice opera house is burning to the ground and decides to stay for several years. Through the course of Berendt's time in Venice we meet several ex-pats who have also made the canal city their home.

Woody Allen had been scheduled to play a jazz concert at the Fenice and instead plays a benefit to raise funds for its reconstruction but not before he is charged with trespassing in the company of the mayor.

Ezra Pound's longtime mistress, Olga Rudge (a violinist and Vivaldi expert) dies at 101, but not before her "friends" the Rylands who run the Guggenheim museum try to set up an Ezra Pound Foundation and convince her to sell all of his papers to them for $7000--a pittance when a few years later his private book collection of first editions signed by most of the authors sells for
$1 000 000.

Then there is the famous Murano glassblower who tries to recapture the night of flames in a limited edition of vases--still contested as his estate remains unsettled years after his death because of a family feud between his sons, the heirs.

Berendt's book is as intriguing as his billet-doux to Savannah: MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL. And, it is rife with a cast of memorable real life characters.

THE GREEK FOR LOVE by James Chatto

Chatto's memoir of falling in love with Greece is grounded in his early experience there with his newly pregnant wife Wendy in the early 1980s as they renovate a little home overlooking the sea. There she gives birth to their first son Joe and then several years later to their second son Ford a.k.a. "Nibby."

When Nibby is beginning to toddle, he drops to the floor one day as he is called for his bath. He can't get up. They discover that he has leukemia and he dies within weeks of receiving treatment back in London where Chatto's mother lives. When James and Wendy return to the little village where they began their family, the local people embrace their loss in a way that helps them to face their grief.


RUSH drummer and lyricist Neil Peart embarks on a motorcycle journey across North America and south into Mexico to avoid his first Christmas alone following the death of his only child Selena (who was killed in a car crash on her way to university in Toronto) and the subsequent death of his spouse Jackie who died of cancer within 7 months, though Peart claims it wasn't cancer, but a broken heart that did her in.

This memoir is part travelogue, part journal, part letter-writing and reveals Peart's emotional and geographical journey back to life. It is brave, sensitive and honest.


A former actress and painter ends up institutionalized for having abandoned her two small daughters as she is caught up in the creative flush of a new canvas. She spends the rest of her life trying to reconnect with the world with the faint hope of being able to remeet her grown children. When she discovers one of her daughters will be marrying in nearby Halifax, she decides to go to witness the wedding as an uninvited guest.


Classic detective fiction, this novel finds Scotland Yard's Inspector Grant bedridden in hospital going a little stir-crazy during his recovery. A friend distracts him with historical portraits and Grant becomes obsessed with a portrait of Richard III in which the face of the famous evil hunchback doesn't quite fit its illustrious reputation. Grant's curiousity leads him to revisit British history and reveal the truth about the murder of the Princes in the Tower of London.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Giles Blunt is an award-winning Toronto novelist who has written scripts for Law and Order. His most recent novel BLACKFLY SEASON is set in Ontario's north in the area around Algonquin Park. Detective John Cardinal is relaxing during an off-duty day when a disoriented 20-something woman crosses his path. She doesn't know who she is and when Cardinal takes her to hospital the attending physician discovers a bullet wound in her head, hidden under a tangle of red curls. She has been partially lobotomized by the bullet.

Cardinal suspects the local biker gang might be implicated in the attempted murder. However, questioning leads him to a charismatic character who calls himself "Red Bear" and claims to have Native status. A tale of corruption, greed and control, BLACKFLY SEASON will keep you flipping pages right through to the end.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


This year's Giller Prize winner weaves a tale of a man lost in place. When his ex-wife is killed in a car crash the protagonist attempts to raise his three small children in a remote area of northern B.C. His eldest daughter who hasn't reached double digits ends up doing most of the parenting. When their father takes a trip to Vietnam, two of the children decide to follow him. What they discover is frightening. THE TIME IN BETWEEN is profoundly moving and speaks to the demons that lurk in all of us.

Monday, January 30, 2006

THE SWEET EDGE by Alison Pick

Written in the style of Carol Shields' he said/she said novel HAPPENSTANCE, Alison Pick's break out novel THE SWEET EDGE is both lyrical and wise. Her protagonists Ellen and Adam decide to take a break from their three-year relationship. Adam embarks on a solitary canoe trip through the Arctic while Ellen tries to find herself among a new group of friends in the trendy gallery district of Toronto.

Pick's prose is exquisite. THE SWEET EDGE is a novel I wish I could have penned, even through moments of self-loathing.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

DEAFENING by Frances Itani

Grania, the protagonist of Itani's first novel--a contender for Canada Reads 2006--lost all hearing after a childhood bout of scarlet fever in the early 1900s. She and her family live in a village close to Belleville, Ontario where they run a hotel. When she can no longer be educated sufficiently by her Irish grandmother, Grania is sent to a boarding school for the profoundly deaf. There, the world of communication opens up to her as she learns how to sign as well as to read lips.

As a young adult, Grania meets and falls in love with a young hearing man. They are married two weeks before he leaves her to serve in the ambulance corps during WWI. His journey at the European front is gruelling. Itani's description of what it was like for those young men who fought for our freedom is absolutely harrowing.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


King's publicist sent me the galleys for his forthcoming "Dreadfulwater Mystery" in anticipation for the EVENING OF MYSTERY WRITERS I'm hosting in April.

THE RED POWER MURDERS engages the reluctant investigator/retired cop/now photographer Thumps Dreadfulwater to help the sheriff figure out who has killed a retired FBI agent in the local Holiday Inn and why former activist Noah Ridge has come to Chinook for a book launch and then disappeared.

Fans of King's literary novels will chuckle about his self-deprecating humour and allusions to his own work such as "There had been a Native guy come through with a novel that had the word water in the title. Thumps had gone to the reading and had been barely able to stay awake."

Thumps' wary attitude to remaining involved in the case makes you want to flip the pages all the more to find out whodunnit.

Friday, January 20, 2006


Gilmour's most recent novel won this year's Governor General's award for fiction. I took it out of the library yesterday afternoon and didn't put it down until I turned the final page. Roman, the narrator, makes one fatal error. An evening after he has tucked his six-year-old son Simon in bed, Roman decides to walk down the street to his local bar to have a drink. When he returns to his home 3 pints later, his only child is gone.

What follows is Roman's desperate need to find Simon and the lengths to which he deceives himself about Simon's safety. Gilmour uses magical thinking in a way that will make you want to believe it works.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

GIRLS OF TENDER AGE by Mary Ann Tirone Smith

My friend Ben says this is the best book of nonfiction he's read this past year, so I bought it yesterday and read it right through. It's about coming of age in the 1950s in a working class area of Hartford, Connecticut. Two things are gripping: ONE: Mary Ann's rapport with her older brother Tyler who is obsessed with World War II books and has never been to school a day in his life; TWO: her community's relationship with a serial predator who sexually molests and sometimes kills pre-adolescent girls.

The memoir is written in two tracks.

On the first track, chronologically we learn about Mary Ann's French and Italian relatives and her incredible bond with Tyler, an undiagnosed autistic, who is shunned by mainstream society. His acute sensitivity to sound means that even the telephone is swaddled so it doesn't upset him. When he is upset, he compulsively gnaws on his wrist until it bleeds. As an adult, Smith reflects that Tyler was her Boo Radley.

The second track reveals the backstory of Robert Malm, a serial predator born in California, who began assaulting pre-adolescent girls when he was only twelve. Their lives cross paths when, after he has served prison time in his twenties, he ends up working near Hartford. He attacks a 17-year-old girl who tells the police and then molests and kills a 10-year-old girl Irene (one of Mary Ann's classmates) when she insists she'll tell her mother. You are satisfied that he is suitably punished when Smith takes you step by step through his appeal ("I didn't mean to kill her.") and then to the executioner's chair where his end is horrific in order to save his eyes for donation.

Unbelievably gripping and honest, GIRLS OF TENDER AGE, is a must read.

Friday, January 06, 2006

BLOOD SPORTS by Eden Robinson

BLOOD SPORTS is a gripping and grim tale about the consequences faced by a couple of junkies from Vancouver who have become clean and sober. Tom and his cousin Jeremy have a brutal cat-and-mouse history that usually ends up with Jeremy controlling Tom. Tom and his girlfriend Paulie have a young daughter Mel whom they adore. Tom talks to the police and ends up being a pawn in a game in which he may lose everything.

BLOOD SPORTS is not for those who are squeamish, but it is compelling.

Thomas King writes about Eden Robinson that she "is one of those rare artists who comes to writing with a skill and maturity that has taken the rest of us decades to achieve." High praise, indeed.