Sunday, December 28, 2008


Detective Dave Robichaux finds his past isn't completely past when his murdered friend Dallas Klein's daughter Trish, a suspected grifter, shows up in town counting cards at blackjack tables and then involves herself with his longtime buddy and P.I. Clete Purcell who has a weakness for damaged women.

At Dave's day job he is put on the case of a young woman who has apparently committed suicide after being raped repeatedly at a frat house. Investigating that case leads him back to an unsolved murder of Crustacean Man, an unidentified homeless wino who had died as a result of a hit and run that Dave traces back to the Lujan family who also seem to be implicated in the death of Cesaire Darbonne's daughter.

Throughout the investigation tempers flair and Dave finds himself pounding his fist into the face of the sleazy D.A. in defense of his lesbian boss, the unflappable Helen Soileau. When his own family is threatened, Dave seeks vigilante justice with full time thug Lefty Raguzza. Although Dave behaves with his own moral code, you can forgive him just as his wife Molly does (she's a former Roman Catholic nun) because he is almost always right.

James Lee Burke writes convincing characters with true human frailty and scripts a plot at breakneck speed. I'll be reading as many of his books as I can find.

THE NEW YORKERS by Cathleen Shine

In a neighborhood peopled with lonely, hardworking folks, you meet Polly and her brother George and their puppy Howdy who came with the apartment, Jody and her aging pitbull Beatrice, gay restauranteur Jamie and his cairn terriers and divorce Everett who is suffering from empty nest syndrome now that his daughter is away at university. Each character's life bleeds into each other's and they each find love and meaning in unexpected ways.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

THAT SUMMER IN PARIS by Morley Callaghan

Take a trip back to the halcyon ex-pat days in Paris of 1929 with Morley and his wife Loretta as they insinuate themselves into the lives of the Fitzgeralds ( yes, F. Scott and Zelda) and the Hemingways as each of those men build their writerly careers. Don't bat an eyelash when the abstract painter Miro carries Ernest's bag of boxing gear and acts as timekeeper in one of his friendly matches with Morley, or even turn your head when James Joyce invites them to stop by while he plays a recording of the suffragist Aimee Semple Macpherson.

The tenderness with which Callaghan recounts those luminescent days will encourage you to savour each beautifully wrought anecdote and will have you reaching for the novels each of those men were writing at that time: TENDER IS THE NIGHT; A FAREWELL TO ARMS and IT'S NEVER OVER.


The Star Wars parody cover of Fisher's memoir had me reaching for a copy. In addition to being a pop cultural icon as Princess Leia (having been replicated as a PEZ dispenser, a barbie doll, a shampoo bottle...) Fisher is also a celebrated novelist and screenwriter.

In WISHFUL DRINKING she begins at the beginning--being born into a celebrity family of famous parents: America's sweethearts of the 1950s, tap dancing, Singin' in the Rain Debbie Reynolds and crooner Eddie Fisher. That is until her father left her mother when Carrie was two to "console Elizabeth Taylor with his penis." She is this direct. Always.

By the final page, you'll feel you've become Fisher's confidante as she's spilled her personal beans about being an addict (no surprise because of the publicity her drug and alcohol addictions have drawn over 30 years) who was once counseled by Cary Grant as a favour to her mother; about her insecurity regarding her looks when George Lucas told her to lose ten pounds (and she only weighed 105) and to support her breasts with Gaffer tape since they didn't wear underwear in outer space, duh; about her powerful ability to turn men gay. Just ask the father of her only child who left her for a man.

Her daughter Billie, by the way (who was recently at a Paris debutante ball with Bruce Willis's daughter Rumer) has decided to abandon a dream of becoming a neurosurgeon who specializes in schizophrenia, in favour of becoming a comic of which her mother heartily approves:" If you want to be a comic, you have to be a writer. But don't worry, you have tons of material. Your mother is a manic depressive drug addict, your father is gay, your grandmother tap-dances, and your grandfather shot speed." And you will laugh and laugh and laugh just like Billie.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


What appears to be a cut and dry case of murder/suicide where a local theatre designer has apparently hanged himself after having bludgeoned his partner to death, turns out to be something much more that threatens the well being of Detective Alan Banks and DI Annie Cabbot as they try to peel back the layers of truth.

When Banks meets one of the dead men's mothers, she reveals to him that her son was a spy. In his work day world secrets and deceit were the norm and murder the Machiavellian solution. In the M16 realm of kill or be killed "the end almost always justified the means." The closer Banks and Cabbot get to revealing other truths about the players, the closer they come to their own mortality.

Robinson's ability to create tension and to build suspense lasts through to the final pages. And, he has me reaching for a copy of OTHELLO, to re-familiarize myself with its web of deceit and darkness that give this 18th Banks mystery its title.

CHASING HARRY WINSTON by Lauren Weisberger

From the novelist of the bestselling blockbuster THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, CHASING HARRY WINSTON follows the vapid lives of three late-twenty-something New Yorkers who have it all: looks, loves, avocations. Having it all isn't enough so the three best girl-pals decide to make a pact to alter their already enviable lives. Emmy (just dumped by her long time boyfriend) resolves to embark upon meaningless safesex with strangers on all continents, but Antarctica; Leigh, a rising junior editor on the NY publishing circuit takes on the enfant terrible of the literary world, Jesse Chapman, at his request and muddles her rapport with her gorgeous and successful fiance in the process; and Adriana, the drop dead gorgeous daughter of a supermodel who spends most of her days luring men and being, well, drop-dead gorgeous, decides it's time to settle down with a suitable boy and establish a suitable career.

Complete escapist New York fantasy, this chick-lit selection kept my crankiness at bay while I was suffering my way through an interminable superbug and coughing myself awake every hour for the past three days.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


In this collection of short fiction, the Booker Prize-winning writer invites you into the intimate lives of men and women in contemporary Ireland. Here characters struggle with love in all its forms: platonic, romantic, familial. Sharp, tender and rarely predictable these stories hold up the mirror and ask who are you, really?

Monday, November 10, 2008


This dual narrative follows Will Bird and his niece Annie as the two of them struggle along separate paths of self-discovery, both of which are fraught with obstacles physical and emotional.

Will is a legendary Cree bush pilot, lying in a coma in a hospital near his hometown of Moose Factory. His niece Annie, a beautiful and resilient young woman, has returned from trying to find her missing sister Suzanne down south where she disappeared into the maws of Toronto, Montreal or New York, a victim of the drug trade and a career as a high fashion model, it would seem.

At her uncle's hospital bedside, Annie confesses all and articulates some truths about herself for the first time, hoping that all of her chatter will keep Will's brain flickering and encourage him to wake up, a possibility increasingly remote the longer he remains unconscious.

This is a story of traditions and of true love. I will not be surprised to hear Joseph Boyden's name called this week as the winner of the 2008 Giller Prize.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

GOOD TO A FAULT by Marina Endicott (2008) Broadview Press

This first novel from a new small Canadian press made it to the short-list (named by Margaret Atwood, Bob Rae and Colm Toibin) for this year's Giller Prize. It is a gem. Even if it isn't the prize-winner on November 11th, go out and get yourself a copy.

Clara Purdy is a 40-something insurance adjuster who in a moment of distraction causes a car crash with incredible personal fallout. The Gage family, whose innocent lives Clara has accidentally interrupted, was on its way to build a new life in the relatively prosperous working class town Fort McMurray, living out of their delapitated Dodge Dart along the way. None of them is horribly injured, but the Mom, Lorraine, is diagnosed with cancer. Unable to cope with this shocking reality, her husband Clayton flees, leaving Clara to accommodate each of them into her single life.

The kindness of strangers and prairie warm-heartedness combine to create stability for Lorraine's young family as she is faced with chemo, radiation and eventually a bone-marrow transplant. Clara welcomes the new challenge in her life in caring for Dolly, Trevor and Pearce and enlists the help of her neighbour and her cousins and even her pastor, Paul Tippett to do so. Recovering from her own divorce and lack of purpose, Clara finds real meaning in her life, but not before she is faced with emotional loss of her own.

Friday, October 31, 2008

NO SUCH CREATURE by Giles Blunt (2008)

I'm a fan of Blunt's John Cardinal mysteries like BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS, FORTY WORDS FOR SORROW and BLACKFLY SEASON, so was keen to pick up his new book, in which he takes a break from the gripping suspense that defines the series.

In NO SUCH CREATURE we follow a gregarious thief named Max and his great-nephew, Owen, as they travel across the American southwest in search of robbery jobs where they fancy themselves modern day Robin Hoods, stealing only from the wealthy Republicans in their wake. Max is a washed up actor with a flair for accents and disguises who loves to quote Shakespeare even as he's getting his short-term hostages to add their Rolexes, diamonds and emeralds to his goody bag. Owen, is his orphaned nephew, who dreams of enrolling at Juilliard in NYC and training to be a real actor.

Out of deference to a fellow thief nicknamed the Pontiff whom he met at "Oxford" (Max's euphemism for incarceration), Max looks out for John Paul's daughter Sabrina on his way through Las Vegas. She ends up joining Max and Owen for a while, and just as they feel comfortable trusting her with their secrets, she takes advantage of them and splits to pursue her own American Dream.

There is a sweetness to the telling that is new to Blunt's books, with the grace, compassion and emotion I already expect when I pick up one of his novels. Reading NO SUCH CREATURE is a heartening way to pass the time, keeping company with Max and Owen, in spite of their flaws.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

THE MURDER STONE by Louise Penny (2008)

At a charming boutique hotel called the Manoir Bellechasse, in the Eastern townships of Quebec, Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache are intending to celebrate their wedding anniversary in quiet contentment, returning to the place where they first became intimate.

The Finney family, established and moneyed Montrealers, also gathers to pay tribute to their father by having a figurative sculpture in his likeness unveiled in the back garden. In the heat of summer, in the height of blackfly season, the irascible middle-aged siblings barely behave in an effort to suck up to their aged P, demanding mother. A storm brews, tempers flare and one of the siblings is murdered, leaving those remaining suspicious of each other and their intents.

As Penny was editing this fourth novel, she decided to use the name of a former student of mine, one who got me on to her books in the first place. It is delicious to find him among these pages as one of the suspects and I can't wait for him to see his name in print.

Friday, October 17, 2008

THE FLYING TROUTMANS by MIriam Toews (2008)

Hattie Troutman gets called back from hanging out with her boyfriend in Paris to run interference for her mentally ill sister Min. Min's kids Logan and Thebes have ministered to her invalid needs, but she refuses to get out of bed and face the world and her responsibility as a parent. Hattie and Logan manage to get Min to hospital where her needs will be assessed.

Min beckons Hattie to her beside and asks her to help her die. Hattie refuses. It is obviously a decision she's had to make before. Hattie takes Logan and Thebes on a roadtrip to the midwest to try to find their father who Min kicked out of the house when the children (now 15 and 11) were small.

Nobody writes about teenaged angst more convincingly or sympathetically than Miriam Toews. This novel will claw its way to the top of bestseller lists.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Parkdale P.I. Dana Leoni and her unlikely crew of boarding house sleuths have their first paying gig. Harp, a university friend from Dana's past, thinks his wealthy Rosedale mother is being taken advantage of in her efforts to help the homeless at the local Out of the Cold program where she has volunteered for years, because that is just what one does. Harp turns to Dana because he trusts her and because he knows that she knows only too well how to navigate her way undetected through the rough life on the streets.

When a strangely handsome and charismatic do-gooder at one of the church shelters takes an interest in Dana, her judgment is temporarily impaired and she finds herself face to face with fear and real danger. Through Dana, Pat Capponi writes convincingly about Toronto's marginalized and makes a terrific argument for compassion without a note of pity.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


If you are at all intrigued or bemused by camp and gay culture and like to read mysteries, this confection is the escapist read for you. Bradley Fairfax works for a topsecret agency where he is only known as "Red" and where his boss, whom he has never met, is the mysterious "Grace." Fairfax is going to Provincetown, a gay mecca on the eastern seaboard, where he is claiming his former lover's body. Ross died accidentally, and Brad is pretty certain that his death was also intended.

While in P-town, Brad discovers there is more to the gay-friendly town than meets the eye. Big Ruby, a lesbian who runs a high end coffee shop, Cinder, a transvestite who becomes Marilyn, Renee and Cybil with a brush of lipliner, and Zach, a natural healer with indigo locks and a washboard stomach, all form distractions for Brad as he attempts to remain undercover.

Round follows the prescription for a conventional murder mystery, but enhances the experience by pulling back the curtain to see the wizard operating the strings.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

THE CASE OF LENA S. by David Bergen

This heartbreaking coming-of-age novel follows Mason Crowe, a 16-year-old who dreams of becoming a poet, along a vulnerable path to love. At the beginning Mason has a crush on Seeta, a beautiful East Indian girl a couple of years his senior who has been betrothed to a man she's never met. Seeta soon rejects Mason's attention for his older brother Danny's and Mason finds himself intrigued by Lena Schellendal, an impulsive and provocative girl who opens up a world of intimacy to him he hasn't previously experienced. Lena is a troubled soul, unable to be saved, especially by those who love her.

Bergen writes convincingly of teenaged love/lust and matter-of-factly creates authentic sex scenes. If you are at all prudish about burgeoning sexuality and its discovery, you won't be able to read the first 150 pages without blushing.

Monday, September 08, 2008

YOUTH by J.M.Coetzee

One of my students loaned me his copy of YOUTH because he thought I would enjoy the narrative and the literary references to Eliot, Pound, Beckett and Ford.

18-year-old John, the narrator, is disgruntled especially about living in apartheid South Africa in the 1950s, so he moves to London to begin his life as a poet. He is equally disappointed there when he secures a job as a computer programmer with IBM, a vocation that totally depresses him.

In this coming-of-age novel, this young man's struggle to find his way in the world Coetzee writes with tenderness and clarity.

Monday, September 01, 2008

THE FORGERY OF VENUS by Michael Gruber

I love the way Gruber paces his novels and engages me culturally. In THE FORGERY OF VENUS, painter Chaz Wilmot makes his living producing parodies for ads and magazine covers and squeezes by financially to support his ex-wife and children. His talent is, however, of another time when portrait painters such as Rubens, Titian, Rembrandt and Velasquez created canvases that read like photographs.

Wilmot gets two breaks: one financial where he agrees to participate in a drug study led by a former university peer who is interested in its effect on creativity, and one creative where an art dealer arranges a commission for him to restore a fresco in a Venetian palazzo.

During the drug trials Wilmot experiences hallucinations where he becomes younger versions of himself as well as time travels and becomes the esteemed Spanish 17th century painter Diego Velasquez, the finest portraitist of his time.

Back in the present in NYC Wilmot suffers a mental breakdown and then finds himself able to create a portrait of Venus, in a style that is indistinguishable from the work of the original master. This forgery stands to make Wilmot a very rich man who will finally be able to provide the exclusive private health care his son Milo needs to survive his childhood.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A PRISONER OF BIRTH by Jeffrey Archer

I heard Archer speak here in Toronto in the Spring. He was charming and thoughtful and unflinchingly honest about his time in prison: apparently nothing quite focuses the writing mind like a 6 by 10-foot cell you share with a stranger.

This most recent novel follows the fate of the wrongfully convicted Danny Cartwright who is sentenced to 22 years in the highest-security prison in England for the murder of his best friend, who just happens to be his fiancee Beth's brother. Danny shares a cell with the erudite and kindly Nick Moncrieff who helps him to navigate his way through the prison hierarchy to a safe job in the prison library.

Brimming with insider allure, and enough red herrings to make your head ache, Archer's latest book will have diehard fans clamoring for more of the same.


A fire damages a rare bookshop in NYC and the calfskin covers to one of the water soaked collectibles reveals what appears to be an authentic 17th letter written by a spy to his wife on his deathbed. In a sad and bizarre game of "finders-keepers" several people are prepared to kill for the potential to find the most valuable literary find in history--a previously unknown Shakespeare play about Mary Queen of Scots that is penned in the bard's own hand.

There are twists aplenty in this thriller that involves a wannabe film student, a bookbinder, an intellectual property lawyer, a Swiss heiress, a former Polish spy and an NYC librarian. I couldn't put it down. Gruber knows how to pace a narrative and to drive it to the brink.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Though Engel is known more for his Benny Cooperman detective novels, this little memoir covers the time following a stroke Engel suffered one midsummer morning and the rare condition he suffered from called alexia sine agraphia: while he could still write, he could no longer read. When he picked up the copy of the Globe and Mail, the letters had mysteriously jumbled themselves together.

In addition to not being able to read--a lifeline to the outside world since he was a young boy-- Engel's memory failed him. Names of old friends, the street names in his neighbourhood, the difference between appels and grapfruit all eluded him.

Engel contacted renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks for advice and began to learn how to read all over again.


Though I do not typically reach for collections of short fiction, I did pick up this copy at the library because Trevor is a master of the genre and the title intrigued me. In this particular group of stories you travel around the world, alighting briefly in Paris or at the infamous "Harry's Bar" in Venice.

What Trevor does most impressively is inhabit the characters about whom he writes. He can be equally convincing as a recent widower or as the cuckolded wife observing her husband's tryst.

3 mysteries worth your while

Ian Rankin, Donna Leon and Minette Walters have all established themselves as superb crime fiction writers. If you want to visit another country without leaving the comfort of your favourite oversized armchair pick up any one of their novels where place plays a character and establishes mood as much as their detectives.

SET IN DARKNESS follows Rebus through Edinburgh as it is set to become the home for the first Scottish parliament in three centuries. As Queensbury House is being renovated, builders uncover a body behind a fireplace wall, that has been there for some time. However, at the same time there are two fresh kills, one of whom is a previously hopeful candidate for a parliament seat, and Rebus has to figure out if any of these crimes are possibly linked. Fast-paced and brimming with Rankin regulars like Rebus's nemesis Big Ger Cafferty, SET IN DARKNESS will make you a surefast Rankin fan.

In Venice, Commissario Guido Brunetti confronts the grisly sight of the corpse of a young foreigner as he is dragged from the canal in Donna Leon's DEATH IN A STRANGE COUNTRY. All clues point to a violent mugging, but Brunetti believes the truth is far more sinister. And, as usual, he's right.

Minette Walters's THE TINDER BOX is set in a small Hampshire village where an elderly villager and her live-in caregiver are brutally murdered and where one of the neighbours is immediately accused because of his past history and because of the built-in animosity that the locals have towards the Irish immigrants. Lies unite all of the suspects, but the truth is even more frightening in this psychological thriller that you will polish off in one sitting.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


I loved Mary Lawson's first novel CROW LAKE, so was pleased to find her second one staring at me from the Best Bets shelf at my local branch of the Toronto Public Library yesterday.

Again set in Ontario's northern landscape, in a small fictional town called Struan, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BRIDGE bridges generations in its dual narratives in the years of WWII and then in the 60s. You get to know well the rivalry between Arthur and Jake Dunn, brothers who are distinctly different in the way they view their world and the way they treat the people in it.

In the present of the novel you begin to understand the nature of that rivalry through the eyes of an outsider, Ian Christopherson, the town doctor's son, who goes to work as a farmhand for Arthur in order to be close to his beautiful and gentle wife Laura with whom he has a typically teenish obsession. It is there over the course of several summers that Ian discovers the secret that will ultimately tear the Dunn family apart.

Monday, August 04, 2008


MItch Albom, by chance, is flipping the t.v. channels when he hears the voice of his undergraduate professor Morrie Schwartz talking about his diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's disease. He gets in touch with Morrie after two decades and what emerges is this little book about "life's greatest lesson,"--how to live and how to die.

Albom records all of his visits with Morrie and the discussions they had about love, marriage, children, dancing and dying. He decides to publish the pieces to help pay for Morrie's health care and the little book about their conversations and their friendship was translated into 31 languages, becoming an international bestseller spreading millions of copies around the world.

If you want to feel good about being human and the beauty of life especially in its frailty, read TUESDAY'S WITH MORRIE, and be prepared to weep.

THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeannette Walls

I picked this memoir up in the airport on my way to New York a couple of weeks ago. It is a remarkable achievement. Walls manages to write about the extreme poverty in which she and her siblings were raised by two very eccentric parents. Their lives were deeply dysfunctional and extraordinarily vibrant.

What astonished me about the Walls children was their resilience and their sure belief in each other that they would eventually escape the shocking depravity they were forced by their parents to endure.

THE GLASS CASTLE is an unflinching and brave account without an ounce of self-pity. It is on my list of top ten books I've read this year.

HOW TO BE GOOD by Nick Hornby

I've been a fan of Hornby's novels for years, long before his work attracted new readers who saw the film adaptations of HIGH FIDELITY, ABOUT A BOY and FEVER PITCH.

HOW TO BE GOOD examines the breakdown of a marriage that seems completely stable from the outside. Kate is a successful MD with a thriving practice and her husband David is a freelance writer known for his irascible columns in the local paper. The story is told from Kate's perspective and explores how she struggles with the notion of goodness. She is the one who compromises the marriage by having an affair, and then watches as her husband follows his own path of self-destruction on his intended road to enlightenment with a different kind of interloper metaphorically sharing their marriage bed.

Hornby writes convincing characters, plausible plots and authentic dialogue that will have you believing every word of it.

BRIDGE OF SIGHS by Richard Russo

Russo is considered one of the finest contemporary American novelists who has accomplished with small town America and its locals what Alice Munro has achieved with her stories set in southwestern Ontario. His characters are so real, they could be your neighbours.

The story is Louis C. Lynch's to tell as he attempts to write a history of his hometown and his own life. He has spent all of his sixty years in Thomaston, New York, where he has remained an optimist like his father before him who established a little empire of convenience stores on the right side of the tracks. "Lucy" is married to Sarah Berg, a one-time visual artist who studied in NYC, who is generous of spirit and kind of heart and a recent cancer survivor. They are planning a trip to Venice where Lucy's oldest friend from boyhood is now a renowned painter.

That painter friend, Robert Noonan, has remade himself in Italy and it is his connection to both "Lucy" and Sarah, independent of each other, that reveals truths about everyone.

BRIDGE OF SIGHS is a magnificent read.

SAILING TO CAPRI by Elizabeth Adler

Although Adler is shelved as a mystery writer, this novel borders on romance. Billionaire tycoon Sir Robert Hardwick (often described as looking like Shrek) dies mysteriously in a car crash. In his will he names six people who he suspects of wanting to kill him and entrusts private investigator Harry Montana, and his personal assistant Daisy Keane to take those six as well as six "red herrings" on a luxurious Mediterranean cruise that will end up at his villa on Capri where the contents of his last will and testament will be read publically with the intention of unmasking the killer.

It is pure trifle, but marvellous escapism as the yacht calls at Monte Carlo, Saint-Tropez, Sorrento and Capri.

DeNIRO'S GAME by Rawi Hage

This first novel by Montreal's Rawi Hage won this year's Dublin IMPAC literary award--the richest prize for English language fiction. It was snatched out of the slush pile at Anansi, a small Toronto publisher, and found its way to the short lists for fiction prizes at home before it gained recognition in Ireland.

DeNIRO'S GAME chronicles the madness of the Beirut civil war and does not flinch from graphic violence. It is not an easy read, but Hage is a voice to watch.

THE SCULPTRESS by MInnette Walters

Teenager Olive Martin pleads guilty to killing and dismembering her mother and her sister, earning herself the nickname "Sculptress." She's already served several years of a life sentence when journalist Rosalind Leigh decides to accept the contract to write a book about the notorious murderess.

What Rosalind doesn't expect to discover is that Olive is an intelligent and rather ordinary woman, and something doesn't quite fit about her admission to the heinous crimes.

Walters delivers a fast-paced and gripping tale that creates sympathy where before there ought to have been none.

Monday, July 07, 2008


In this memoir of returning to New York to build a life for his young family (recently transplanted from Paris and its sensibilities), Gopnik writes convincingly of the thrill of being there. In spite of the ongoing game of the apartment hunt, Gopnik embraces everything that is steretypically associated with the Big Apple--its foibles and its joys in equal parts.

I have always coveted the idea of moving to New York, fantasizing a 3-bedroom walk-up on Riverside Drive, and with Gopnik's memoir it feels like it could be almost in reach.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

LOOK ME IN THE EYE by John Elder Robison (2008)

Writer Augusten Burroughs received the most requests on his website for a piece written by his older brother John, one of the returning characters in Burroughs' memoirs RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, DRY, MAGICAL THINKING and most recently WOLF AT THE TABLE, first launched in the essay "Ass Burger."

Robison has Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of Autism, and was only diagnosed as an adult--the great eureka moment of his life where the window to the past enabled him to see why he had felt so marginalized.

LOOK ME IN THE EYE is compelling and unflinching in its honesty. It's also entertaining, because Robison, as a teen-aged dropout genius found himself tinkering with electronics and modifying sound equipment, a talent and drive that led him to fixing amps for rock bands like Pink Floyd and April Wine.

His biggest rock n' roll gig, however, was touring with KISS, because he designed and crafted special effects for Ace Freheley's Fender guitars for their over-the-top performances. When he tired of the touring circuit, Robison worked for Milton Bradley designing games, including the immensely popular "Simon."

His son, whom he calls "Cubby" since his mother is "Little Bear," also has Asperger's though a milder form. His predisposition for nicknaming people he is close to (he called his little brother "Varmint" for many years, never his given name Chris) is also typical for Aspergians, a notion that amuses him.

Robison keeps his day job as the manager of his own company that refurbishes high end automobiles like Jaguars, Rolls Royce and Land Rovers and continues to write.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Paula Spencer tells her own story of falling in love with Charlo, a bad boy, and her early married days of complete devotion and bliss. The present, however, is far less romantic. Mother to four children, a single parent of a year, Paula learns that her estranged spouse has been killed by the Garda, having murdered a bank manager's wife. The detail that upsets her the most, is not his death, but the fact that the woman's autopsy revealed that he had slapped her face twice. That gesture opens up a chasm of past abuse that Paula recounts matter-of-factly until she leads up to the day that her husband considered beating their own daughter. That was the tipping point for Paula.

Doyle creates tremendous sympathy and writes a convincing portrait of this working class woman who endured years of spousal abuse because she believed her husband still loved her.

THE DEPORTEES by Roddy Doyle (2007)

This collection of short fiction resurrects one of Doyle's earlier characters, Jimmy Rabbitte (of The Barrytown Trilogy). Here, in the titular story, Jimmy's got an idea for another band in post-Celtic Tiger Dublin. Every player has to be an immigrant--no white faces aloud, bejeesus.

Throughout the stories here Doyle explores race and prejudice and roots for the underdogs all the while.

A WOLF AT THE TABLE by Augusten Burroughs

Burroughs's most recent creative nonfiction is about his memoires of his father, a math professor at an east coast university. Slowly, the narrative wends its way to the kernel of truth that depends on whether or not you believe the lead that as a small child Augusten traipsed with his father into the woods to bury a body.

Typically unsentimental Burroughs reveals this story sentence by sentence and creates a sympathetic portrait of his older brother Chris, who when it matters most teaches the young Augusten a lesson he'll never forget.

Friday, June 13, 2008

BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS by Lola Jaye (forthcoming 2008)

Lola Jaye's debut novel confronts grief and the notion of continuing bonds with the deceased in a fresh voice.

Opening in 1990, seven years after the death of her young father, Lois Bates is at her mom's wedding to "some prick she met down the bingo." Lois is a typical twelve-year-old who receives an unexpected and atypical gift: "The Manual" her dying father wrote for her projecting the kind of advice he would have liked to have given her face-to-face as she grew up.

His instructions are clear: read each entry on your birthday from age 12-30; don't peep ahead; please flip back through past entries.

Through the course of the entries Lois learns a lot about her father's adolescence and young adulthood as he projects that his own preoccupations (like a first kiss, burgeoning sexuality, the job interview) will be hers as well. By having access to her father's narrative voice, Lois feels his presence all the more palpably in her life. His words begin to fill the void he created between them when he died when Lois was only five, an age when there "is the strange luxury of not recalling the actual moment it happened...the realization that the man who'd read me stories at night, kissed me good night, every night, was no longer breathing in the same air as me."

Lois is a plucky protagonist and it's a bit dreamy to snoop over her shoulder in By The Time You Read This.

Monday, June 02, 2008

AWAY by Amy Bloom (2007)

I haven't read anything by Amy Bloom, but picked up AWAY because my friend Joe (a discerning reader and all round nice guy) recommended it.

Protagonist Lillian Leyb comes to America in 1924 after her family has been destroyed during a pogrom in Russia. Determined to make a new life for herself, Lillian finds work as a seamstress in a Yiddish theatre company in New York. Soon she finds herself living with the handsome, but gay, leading man to serve as a cover for him while she beds his own father who is fully aware that his only son is a fagola.

Lillian's life is turned upside down once again when her cousin arrives and tells her that her 4 year-old daughter Sophie is believed to be alive and living with former neighbours who rescued her. That news leads to Lillian's determined departure and journey to find her Sophie that finds her relying on the kindness of strangers including a prostitute in Seattle, a widower in Alaska and self-proclaimed bachelor who tends to her wounds.

Lillian encounters such tenderness in the most unexpected places and it is that emotional truth that kept me turning the pages to the satisfying end.

MAD WEEKEND by Roddy Doyle (2006)

Written for the Open Door book series in Ireland that benefits the author's charity of choice, MAD WEEKEND follows the antics of three Dublin lads, Dave, Pat and Ben, who have been friends since childhood and who now, in their twenties, decide to go for a long weekend in Liverpool to support their favourite soccer team.

Dave and Pat chat up some local girls in a pub while Ben excuses himself to go to the bog (toilet). Problem is, Ben disappears.

If you haven't read any Roddy Doyle, this little book is a perfect way to dip in to his dialogue and to observe the shenanigans so many of his characters get themselves up to.

SPILLING THE BEANS by Clarissa Dickson Wright (2007)

This candid and unsentimental memoir by one of the "Two Fat Ladies" will take your breath away. Wright's childhood was spent in the shadow of her much older siblings and her tyrannical, alcoholic father (who happened to be a brilliant and sought after surgeon) who smacked Clarissa and her heiress mother around whenever it occured to him. Clarissa was also clever and totally determined and became the youngest woman ever called to the bar in the UK at the age of 21.

Her life falls apart when her beloved mother dies unexpectedly and Clarissa spends the following decade drinking herself into a stupour and partying away her entire inheritance. Only when she finally becomes sober does Clarissa find happiness and success with her unlikely partner in the Fat Ladies franchise.

There is no self pity in this book and it is rife with gossipy bits about the Royal family passed along as though it were mess hall conversation.

NINETY YEARS WISE by Doris McCarthy (2004)

Our pre-eminent landscape painter who happens to be a woman takes you into her summer embrace on Georgian Bay where you spend the season with her as she sketches, cooks and paints her legendary canvases. As with the two previous instalments of her memoirs, McCarthy is breezy and intimate immediately. She credits her good health and longevity (98 this year and still painting) to eating and drinking in moderation and to daily exercise with leg weights.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

3 by Roddy Doyle: THE SNAPPER (1990), THE VAN (1991) and PADDY CLARKE HA HA HA (1993)

When I recently learned that Roddy Doyle would highlight the fall event that I am co-chairing, I reached for several of his books to refamiliarize myself with his work.

Many of you will be familiar with his Barrytown trilogy: THE COMMITMENTS, THE SNAPPER, THE VAN from the feature films that were adapted from each of them. All three novels follow the Rabbitte family, a motley crew of lovable "ne-er do wells" who live in the projects in Dublin. It is Doyle's talent in writing authentic dialect that makes each of these books sing.

PADDY CLARKE HA HA HA is a triumph of childhood narrative from the perspective of 10-year-old Paddy who fumbles his way through the schoolyard and home life where the tension between his parents is palpable. Doyle was awarded the Booker Prize for this book in 1993 (beating out Canadian favourite Carol Shields' THE STONE DIARIES). Fellow novelist Nick Hornby calls Roddy Doyle "the best novelist of his generation."

I'm looking forward to laughing out loud along with Doyle's other characters in THE COMMITMENTS, A STAR CALLED HENRY, THE WOMAN WHO WALKED INTO DOORS and THE DEPORTEES before meeting him in October.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN by James Lee Burke (2007)

Set in New Orleans in the weeks following the devastation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN offers up people under extremis at their best and their worst. Among other places Burke takes us into the dome where many victims were "rescued" and where looters and criminals raped with abandon among the human waste. Talk about "man's inhumanity to man."

In the through line of the narrative, a young black criminal tries to make right all of his wrongs by apologizing to the family of the girl he gang-raped a few years previous and offering them blood diamonds he stole from the local Mafia hood as compensation.

TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN will make you feel like you are there, swirling in the detritus along with local cop Dave Robichaux. But, don't take my word for it. Go to Ian Rankin's website and find out why he calls Burke's new book the best book he read in 2007.

THE CHAMELEON'S SHADOW by Minette Walters (2007)

My friend Helen has encouraged me for years to read Minette Walters and this recent novel was my first go round. Walters doesn't shy away from gruesome detail if it develops character or pushes the plot forward, nor does she pussyfoot around bad human behaviour and its consequences. Satisfyingly, the evil characters (both male and female) get caught in THE CHAMELEON'S SHADOW but not before you are led on an adrenhaline-pumping chase that touches on prostitution, crack-cocaine, spousal abuse and death in the line of duty.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

ORPHEUS LOST by Jeanette Turner Hospital (2007)

Leela is a mathematics post-doc fellow who is captivated with numbers in musical instruments and her boyfriend Mishka is a passionate musician who plays the violin and the oud, a Persian instrument like a lute. They are both obsessed with their avocations and committed to each other. Committed, that is, until Mishka meets a Muslim student in a class at Harvard who claims to know his father in Beirut. That piece of information turns Mishka's world upside down.

Using the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice as a motif, Turner Hospital probes the terrifying underworld that threatens to draw both Mishka and Leela down. Past and present are masterfully linked in this story of love, fear and terror. It is all too convincing not to be real.

If you liked DUE PREPARATIONS FOR THE PLAGUE, you will love this book.

Friday, May 02, 2008


When a Senegalese "vu cumpra" is murdered in broad daylight in front of a group of American tourists who are gawking at his wares (fake Versace, Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags produced by the same factories that make the authentic ones!), Inspector Brunnetti finds himself curiously compelled to solve the death at the hands of a professional killer.

What Brunnetti discovers leads him to co-opt one of his father's oldest friends, a discreet Venetian gem dealer. And, as the layers of government corruption are peeled away, Brunnetti realizes what matters most.


When the police break into the home of a local pediatrician and remove his adopted son, he finds himself defending his family in the only way that makes sense to him: breaking the nose of one of the officers. As Inspector Brunnetti begins to peel back the layers of this bizarre case he finds himself questioning his own morality.

Yet another gripping read delivered by Donna Leon, who has developed one of the most believable detectives in English language fiction.

Friday, April 25, 2008

THE KILLING CIRCLE by Andrew Pyper (from the uncorrected proof)

Patrick Rush is a widower raising his young son Sam. He has been demoted as an entertainment critic for the National Star to a t.v. reviewer, forced to write pandering commentary about reality television which he scorns. He decides to join a writer's group to force his hand at fiction, but at the Kensington Circle, Patrick gets more than he ever expected.

This is Pyper's fourth novel and it is as gripping as his first three (LOST GIRLS, THE TRADE MISSION and THE WILDFIRE SEASON). The narrative is like Russian dolls, story nesting in story, and its clever, albeit contrived, structure never disappoints as it moves to its redemptive conclusion.

The psychological terror was so convincingly palpable that I found myself yearning for the light of day.

THE KILLING CIRCLE will be published by Doubleday Canada in August 2008.


A truculent octogenarian widow has her head bashed in and her housekeeper is accused and quickly pursued by the police who terrify her so convincingly that she throws herself in front of a train, never able to defend herself against the accusations.

Inspector Brunetti is put on the case after a neighbour comes forward to defend the housekeeper. What is revealed is a nefarious path to blackmail that involves the widow's only son and implicates officials in the Board of Education.

OUT STEALING HORSES by Per Petterson (2007)

Retired Oslo Native Trond moves to splendid isolation in rural Norway with his adopted dog after following the deaths of his wife and his sister. There he contemplates a tragedy in his past that reforms itself in a reconnection with his friend's younger brother, now a middle-aged man himself who happens to be a neighbour.

Petterson collapses present and past seamlessly in this haunting and eloquent story of forgiveness and redemption that won the 2007 Dublin IMPAC literary award.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

THE OUTCAST by Sadie Jones (2008)

In this first novel set in rural England in 1947 and 1957, Jones primes the pump with secrets and rumours among the upper class. Lewis Aldridge returns home at nineteen after serving two years in jail for burning down the local church where his family worshipped a few years after the accidental death of his mother Elizabeth--one that he witnessed helplessly at the age of 10. His return to his father and his stepmother's home leads to new trouble in the two weeks before he reports for service in the British Armed Forces.

Kit Carmichael, a few years younger than Lewis, watches from afar as the local community makes it very difficult for its prodigal son to start over. The younger daughter of a prominent businessman revered by the townsfolk has her own secrets to protect.

I couldn't put this book down and can't believe that it's a first novel. Jones's narrative voice is the true thing.


When she was six, Robyn Scott moved with her family from New Zealand to Botswana and met her grandparents for the first time. When Robyn's parents Kevin (a flying MD) and Lin (an Oxford-educated rebel) decide to transport their three small children to live in what was once a cowshed in a tiny village, everyone is excited about the possibility of the adventure.

The children adapt easily to being home-schooled and to the new flora and fauna, including snakes and scorpions. In a memorable scene, their grandfather dribbles grape juice out of both corners of his mouth for giant moths to drink as they perch on the ends of his moustache.

Scott is only 28 and she writes with grace and conviction and pure delight in the daily routines of her remarkable childhood.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

ACQUA ALTA by Donna Leon

Commissario Brunetti is one of those detectives you wish you could find around your dinner table. He is kind, smart, well-read, thoughtful and determined to see the increasingly elusive justice served in his hometown.

As Venetians prepare for the awful winter flooding of the acqua alta by donning high rubber boots and sloshing through the cobbled streets, Brunetti finds out that his friend Brett, l'Americana, who is an expert in early Chinese pottery and ceramics, has been horribly beaten by Sicilian strangers in the comfort of her exclusive palazzo while her girlfriend, the reigning diva, Flavia Petrelli, is singing along to one of her own recordings at full blast in an adjacent room.

As the waters rise, Brunetti discovers the corpse of the director of the Doge's museum--the very man Brett Lynch was disuaded from contacting by her attackers. Will she be next?

Leon balances the tension and the horror of Brunetti's work life with the loving stability of his home life with his professor wife Paola and their adolescent children Chiara and Raffi.

THE SECRET LIVES OF PIPPA LEE by Rebecca Miller (2008)

Pippa Lee--a fifty-something third wife to the publishing lion Herb-- moves with her 80-year old husband into a retirement community after liquidating the trappings of their Manhattan life before Herb finds himself further and further along the path to decrepitude. Pippa is a doting wife, supporting her artist husband, who expects it. Their grown children, Grace (a photographer) and Ben (a soon-to-be-called-to-the-bar lawyer), are interesting and interested.

I enjoyed the witty repartee of the present in the novel, but found the flashbacks to Pippa's past where she worked as a model for an S&M lesbian filmmaker trying a little too hard to be hip.

The novel is currently in development as a film starring Alan Arkin, Julianne Moore and Winona Ryder, directed by Rebecca Miller. I am curious enough about the adaptation to go and see the movie when it's released.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

PATRIMONY by Philip Roth

A friend of mine loaned me this memoir because both of us are working on manuscripts that include people learning to live with inoperable brain tumours.

Roth deals with his own father's diagnosis at 86 with directness and compassion and a certain wariness when surgeons are keen to put him under the knife to carve out bits and pieces of the brain tumour that has affected his hearing and his facial muscles: he looks as though he's either suffering from Bell's palsy or has had a stroke, and finds it next-to-impossible to eat and drink without dribbling the contents all over himself.

His father, ever the enthusiast in other people's lives, wants to have his writerly son help one of the retirees from the Jewish Y get his manuscript published. In an hilarious scene over a meal in the elder Roth's modest apartment, the friend, a Holocaust survivor, hands over the draft to Roth-the-younger's chagrin, especially when he realizes that the old man has written a pornographic memoir that he's having his own daughter edit to improve the English translation.

Philip Roth's appreciation for life is heightened all the more when he finds himself in surgery for an unexpected quintuple bypass about which he lies to his father not to add to his worry, a decision that upsets both of them.

Roth looks past all comfort and condolence to mine the truth about himself and about his father and about death and our fear of it. This is an extraordinary book, strengthened by the power of Roth's narrative genuis.

Monday, April 07, 2008


Chief Inspector Guido Brunnetti is assigned the case of an apparently murdered maestro, who was poisoned in his dressing room, it would seem, during the intermission at La Traviata he conducted in Venice's renowned La Fenice opera house.

As Brunnetti tries to create a profile of the victim, he learns that he was openly homophobic, to the point of preventing talented singers from receiving roles to meddling in their personal lives. The inspector digs into the Maestro's past and peels back rumours about his Nazi affiliation and previous affairs that ended badly.

Leon doesn't flinch from tough questions, nor does she candycoat human behaviour, especially when it's reprehensible.


My friend Ben invited me to meet author Daoud Hari at a little event last week as he was passing through Toronto to promote this extraordinary book. He is shy, soft-spoken and sweet-natured--all the more remarkable when you read about his life in Darfur.

The book opens with the African proverb: "If God must break your leg He will at least teach you to limp." Hari's resilience throughout his harrowing journey is astonishing and he unfolds his tale in a matter-of-fact, direct and distinctly unpitying way. Take for example his reflection about not being killed (something that happens repeatedly): "To not get killed is a very good thing. It makes you smile again and again, foolishly, helplessly for several hours," or his understanding of camels: "A camel, by the way can be away from its human family or camel family for twenty years and still know them very well when somehow it comes back. Camels are completely loyal and full of love and courage."

Or what about his comment: "It says everything about this land to know that even the mountains are not to be trusted, and that the crunching sound under your camel's hooves is usually human bones, hidden and revealed as the wind pleases."

That this man is still hopeful about humanity is what is most moving when you consider his experience in burying his brother Ahmed after an attack on their village where Ahmed stayed behind to defend with other young men, similarly slaughtered: " I found Ahmed. The effects of large caliber weapons and perhaps an RPG round were such that I barely recognized his body. I dug a grave as we do, so that he would rest on his right side with his face to the east. I put the pieces of this great fellow in the deep sand forever."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

FRIEND OF THE DEVIL by Peter Robinson (2007)

I've been a fan of Robinson's Detective Banks since I picked up GALLOW'S VIEW, one of his earliest novels, probably 15 years ago. In FRIEND OF THE DEVIL, there are two murders of young women--both grisly. The first, a 30-something quadruplegic, has had her throat slit and left to bleed to death slumped in her wheelchair on the beach, and the second, a university student is raped, gagged and strangled moments after she parts from her drunk friends after a night out on the tiles.

Robinson complicates the first case by revealing that the victim was a serial killer herself, in a case that seems all too eerily akin to Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo, especially when you remember that Homolka was known for "making a deal with the devil" in her efforts for leniency in her sentence while her husband received life in prison for the murders of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, two of the high school girls they tortured and murdered. While Banks and Annie Cabbot are investigating the separate cases, a third is murdered, but this time it's an officer, and more specifically a member of their own team who was apparently lurking in his off hours to try to catch the repeat offender.

FRIEND OF THE DEVIL moves to a thrilling conclusion. If you haven't read Robinson before, this would be a good place to start.

Monday, March 24, 2008

THE GUARDIAN by Nicholas Sparks

Sparks is the same guy who wrote THE NOTEBOOK that was adapted for the screen and made into the heart-rending captial R-romantic vehicle starring Ryan Reynolds and Rachel McAdams--not to mention James Garner. THE GUARDIAN is another novel about love lost and found.

What interested me about this book, in addition to having an almost human Great Dane, was the way that Sparks torqued the typical romance into a thriller that had me flipping pages to be sure the sociopath received his comeuppance at the end.

If you're looking for a quick, undemanding, yet entertaining read, this book should leap to the top of your list.


I spent the March Break in Paris and found myself reaching for books about that fair city from the bookshelves at Shakespeare and Company, in the Latin Quarter, facing the Seine.

PARIS TO THE MOON (2005) is New Yorker writer Adam Gopnick's personal essays about living with his wife Martha and their young son Luke in Paris in the 1990s. They are eclectic and charming, both the essays and the people and you learn quickly what matters to a five-year-old--evidently swimming at the Ritz where there are mermaid mosaics he can dive down and kiss is one thing.

THE FLANEUR: A STROLL THROUGH THE PARADOXES OF PARIS (2001) by Edmund White has a distinctly gay perspective of life in Paris in the 70s and 80s. I learned invaluable expressions like "poules de luxe" (high class hookers) and "le non dit" (the great unsaid) from White as well as an appreciation for flirting and how it is an essential part of everyone's day, gay or straight. White is a gossipper and I learned that Collette apparently asked her dentist to replace all of her teeth with jade, and that Josephine Baker claimed "the rear end exists. I see no reason to be ashamed of it. It's true there are some rear ends that are so stupid, so pretentious, so insignificant that they're good only for sitting on." I didn't know that Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes worked as a dishwasher in Montmartre where he wrote a poem about Baker and sold it to VANITY FAIR.

PARIS, FRANCE, Gertrude Stein's personal recollections about her life at the centre of an exclusive coterie of artists in the 1920s was the most difficult of these books to read because her style is choppy and affected. An amusing anecdote involves Picasso who encouraged her to purchase a completely different dog from her black standard poodle who died because he claimed it wouldn't be fair to the new dog. Her French friends had another opinion along the lines of "le roi est mort; vive le roi." She followed the French and bought another poodle and gave him exactly the same name.

Hemingway's memoir A MOVEABLE FEAST which records episodes from 1921-1926 was published posthumously in the 60s. It is an interesting balance to Stein's book since it involves the same characters including Fitzgerald and Joyce at the same time. Hemingway's prose is terse and strong and clean. I discovered that he and Fitzgerald and Pound curried funds together from their wealthy friends to raise enough money to spring Thomas Eliot from his life of drudgery in the bank in London--the great TS Eliot who became the modern poet to define a generation with "The Waste Land" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" What impressed me most about Hemingway was his self discipline. He "always worked until [he] had something done and [he] always stopped when [he] knew what was going to happen next."

CONSOLATION by Michael Redhill (2007)

I picked up a copy at the airport on my way to France and found myself immersed in the two Toronto worlds created so convincingly by Redhill, whose previous novel MARTIN SLOAN I admired. I was intrigued by the opening epigraph borrowed from Borges that "the man who commits suicide remains in the world of dreams"--a generous and romantic notion, perhaps a comfort to families who are the survivors of suicide.

In one storyline, Jem Hallam is an apothecary from the UK come to set up a business in 1856 Toronto with the notion of bringing his young family across when he's established. Circumstances find him befriending an unusual photographer and one of his models. The three of them become family to each other in the absence of their relatives.

In the contemporary narrative set in 1996, David Hallis has recently completed suicide, unable to continue to live his increasingly dependent and dwindling life due to Lou Gehrig's disease. While he is yet able to walk, albeit unsteadily, he arranges with his daughter's boyfriend to be dropped off at the Toronto Island Ferry at the foot of Yonge Street--his journey across the Styx where he leaps to his death in Lake Ontario.

Redhill adeptly shifts from one narrative to the next moving between Toronto's past and present evoking love, memory and grief all the while.

CONSOLATION won this year's City of Toronto Book Award.

SHORTCOMINGS by Adrian Tomine

I'm only beginning to read graphic novels (like PERSEPOLIS and MAUS), but I picked up SHORTCOMINGS while I was at the Beaches library branch and sat down to browse and ended up reading it from cover to cover in about an hour.

The simple black and white drawings are striking and Tomine's ability to develop character in such a limited space is impressive. If all graphic novels are as smart and insightful as this one, I could get hooked.

Friday, February 29, 2008

REMEMBERING THE BONES by Frances Itani (2007)

Georgie Witley is invited to share her 80th birthday with 98 others in the commonwealth also born on April 21, 1926--HM Queen Elizabeth II's birthday. She is driving herself to the airport when her car careens off the road and tumbles into a ravine. There, tossed onto the sloping woods, Georgie considers the arc of her life, which in its contemplation leads her to think about her role as mother, wife, widow, daughter.

REMEMBERING THE BONES is an extraordinary tale about an ordinary woman. I was suprised by its narrative drive.

Monday, February 25, 2008

RUN by Ann Patchett (2007) HarperCollins

After an evening of hearing Jesse Jackson speak at Harvard, former Boston Mayor Doyle and his two adopted sons Tip and Teddy find themselves stuck in a snowstorm unable to find a cab. Tip is a dreamer and is distracted with thoughts of cataloguing fish back in his lab when he is hit by an SUV, but not before he is pushed out of the way from being run over by a stranger, also making her way home with her 11 year old daughter.

The 24 hours that follow are harrowing for the family as new bonds are formed with the young black girl, Kenya, and her mother Tennessee, who is hospitalized and awaiting surgery for her internal life-threatening injuries. Kenya has known about Tip and Teddy and has followed their public lives in a way that is marginally creepy.

Patchett weaves the voices together with grace and beauty and explores the differences in opportunity available to those who are rich/poor, black/white in contemporary Boston. In the Harvard residence there's a sign promoting Obama 2012, a curious and forward thinking pop-cultural marker.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

ASHES TO BONES by Kathy Reichs

Forensic pathologist Temperance Brennan's new cases involve the decomposing remains of several adolescent girls. One of them presents clues that remind her of an Acadian girl from her childhood who had for all intents and purposes disappeared.

She met Evangeline and her little sister Obeline while they were staying with their aunt and uncle during the summers in South Carolina. Tempe and Evangeline bonded through storytelling, poetry and their joint obsession with Anne of Green Gables.

Typically fast-paced, with more forensic detail than usual, ASHES TO BONES is a gripping crime novel that is also educational. If you have a squeamish stomach, you might want to give this book a pass.

A FOOL IN PARADISE by Doris McCarthy

Painter Doris McCarthy's memoir of her childhood and early professional years is enchanting. I knew she'd been educated at OCAD by Lismer, one of the Group of Seven painters, but I had no idea that she taught in a vibrant art programme throughout the war years at Central Tech, in the heart of Toronto.

McCarthy's voice is intimate and honest. She continues to paint well into her 99th year.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

THE BIRTH HOUSE by Ami McKay (2006)

Set during the years of WWI in a small town in Nova Scotia, THE BIRTH HOUSE is the story of Dora Rare, the only daughter born to the Rare clan, in several generations. Dora, an unusual child, is drawn to Miss Marie Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for healing.

When modern medicine arrives at Scots Bay in the form of Dr. Gilbert Thomas, an obstetrician who promises painfree childbirth to the young mothers, the community begins to question Miss B's methods. Dora inherits the legacy of midwifery and finds herself frequently ostracized, so much so that she has to disappear. She travels to Boston where she stays with one of her brothers and his pro-suffragette girlfriend Maxine.

In addition to Dora's personal journey, you learn about the Halifax Explosion and the influenza epidemic.

I couldn't put this book down.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS by Khaled Hosseini (2007)

Hosseini continues to explore the troubled territory of Afghanistan throughout the past 30 years from the Russian occupation through the Taliban and post-Taliban rule in this second novel that follows on the heels of his international bestseller THE KITE RUNNER.

In A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS, every page resonates with loss: loss experienced and loss anticipated. We begin to understand the violence and the struggle to survive in a war-torn country through the stories of generations that focus on the lives of co-wives Mariam and Laila, both victims of circumstance. Mariam is culturally ostracized because she was born a bastard to her wealthy and influential father Jalil who, although he keeps several wives, refuses to marry Mariam's mother, his mistress.

Laila, is a 14-year-old neighbour to the adult Mariam in Kabul who is pulled from the rubble of a neighborhood bombing by Mariam's much older husband Rasheed. Rasheed decides to take Laila on as his second wife because Mariam has been unable to carry any pregnancy to term and he is shamed by not having any children. Laila's life with Rasheed is rife with abuse, both verbal and physical. In fact, the visceral way in which Hosseini writes those repeated scenes of domestic abuse, witnessed by small children, is extremely upsetting. And, that is entirely the point. No one is safe--not even at home.

At the height of the Afghani refugee exodus, more than 8 million were living outside of Afghanistan. Hosseini, himself born in Kabul, emigrated to the US in 1980. In 2006, he was appointed UN Special Envoy to the UN Refugee Agency. He writes that today over 2 million Afghanis who were forced out of their homes continue to live in Pakistan. If you want to learn more about their plight, visit

Sunday, January 20, 2008

TERRORIST by John Updike (2006)

With more than 50 published books of poetry, fiction, short fiction and essays to his name, John Updike is certainly one of America's best known contemporary men of letters.

TERRORIST, his most recent novel, is the story of high school senior Ahmad Molloy, who is disenchanted with the hedonistic and materialistic pursuit of his peers in the New Jersey town he calls home. Abandoned by his Egyptian father when he was a toddler, Ahmad was raised by his lapsed Catholic Irish mother whose Bohemian ways are an embarrassment to him. He turns to the words of the Holy Qur'an for comfort and guidance and devotes himself fervently to Allah and to the ministrations of a proselytizing imam at his local mosque.

Ahmad's narrative is balanced by the story of his middle-aged guidance counsellor Jack Levy whose sister-in-law Hermione works for the Department of Homeland Security. In surprising and satisfying ways Updike weaves the parallel storylines together to an unexpected conclusion in Ahmad's post-9/11 world.

Friday, January 11, 2008

BREAK NO BONES by Kathy Reichs

Crime novelist Kathy Reichs is a certified forensic anthropologist, like her fictional creation Dr. Temperance Brennan. Having also read CROSS BONES and found the plot fast-paced and the characters credible, I was eager to try another.

In BREAK NO BONES, Dr. Brennan finds herself teaching an on-site course in an archeology field school in Charleston, South Carolina. Among the ancient remains in a Native American burial ground, one of Brennan's students unearths a fresh skeleton. Within days, several other more recent corpses are discovered and Brennan remains in Charleston to work for the coroner's department.

There is a bizarre pattern among the homicides and the clues found in the cervical bones lead to an alarming discovery at a local street clinic where it appears that the marginalized clientele of the extreme poor are being used for nefarious and profitable means.

Written with a social conscience in addition to mastery of the genre, BREAK NO BONES has me reaching for every other title penned by Reichs.

A LIFE IN THE BUSH by Roy Macgregor

MacGregor's memoir about his father Duncan is a full portrait of a man who was an anomaly in his time--a bush-loving ranger, who read everything from Juvenal to Robert Service. Duncan MacGregor was most at home in Algonquin Park in his little cabin, managing the park and communing with the wildlife. Except during the summer months when his children were out of school, Duncan remained apart from his young family.

As an adult, Roy took his father on a roadtrip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. That story is the most charming of those unfurled in this loving tribute of a book. When they passed a low mountain range en route to the baseball shrine, Duncan asked what he was seeing and then remarked, "so that's what a mountain looks like." Until that journey, the only travelling Duncan had done was through his imagination.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

LIFE CLASS by Pat Barker (2007)

Best known for her REGENERATION trilogy of novels set during WWI, Pat Barker returns to the early years of the war with her most recent book. It's 1914 London and there is a burgeoning class of talented painters at the famed Slade School, under the tutelage of Henry Tonks, a former surgeon who runs the life-drawing studio. There Elinor Brooke and Paul Tarrant meet.

When Paul decides to volunteer for the Belgian Red Cross, his life is more than a world away from his days in art school. Though, on the front near Ypres, where he treats the maimed, dressing their wounds and amputated stumps, he does the best work of his life.

LIFE CLASS raises interesting and disturbing questions about the wounds of war and how they have been represented in visual art--or more often, hidden.

In 1916, the real Dr. Henry Tonks worked with Dr. Harold Gillies, a surgeon then pioneering techniques of plastic surgery on the faces of mutilated young men. Tonks made drawings of the patients before, during and after surgery and those drawings were not exhibited in his lifetime, eventhough they are among some of the most moving images to come out of any war.

THE UNCOMMON READER by Alan Bennett (2007)

If you only have time to read one little book, this is the one to pick up. The Tony-award-winning playwright of THE HISTORY BOYS has imagined a reading life for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. And, it is a delightful romp.

When the rambunctious corgis take exception to a strange vehicle parked on the palace grounds, the Queen finds herself apologizing to the librarian/driver about their over-enthusiastic behaviour. Because manners matter above all else, Her Majesty decides she cannot leave the little library on wheels without making a selection. So begins Bennett's delightful odyssey into a discourse on literature and why we all must read.

Soon, the previously duty-bound Queen finds herself making excuses, or playing sick in order to finish the current book under her nascent critical eye: from Alice Munro to Marcel Proust to Samuel Beckett. Her equerries are outraged and conspire to put a stop to her foolish reading. However, the Queen has a trump card solution to their high stakes game, which she plays at a High Tea for her Privy Councillors in celebration of her 80th birthday.

For its whimsy and intelligence, you can't match THE UNCOMMON READER.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

THE ALMOST MOON by Alice Sebold (2007)

I loved Alice Sebold's bold and unconventional breakout novel THE LOVELY BONES, told from the perspective of a murdered child, so was keen to read this new one. THE ALMOST MOON examines the strained rapport between mother and daughter Claire and Helen Knightly and opens with a shocking scene.

Sebold is unafraid to push the envelope and to challenge taboos, and if you are remotely prudish, this novel is not for you. And yet. Sebold is a sophisticated storyteller and able to write about the darkness and complexity of human relationships better than just about anyone else in the fiction game.

PEGASUS DESCENDING by James Lee Burke (2006)

Dave Robicheaux is a detective in Louisiana who is blindsided by the arrival of a casino hussler named Trish Klein, because he witnessed, and might have prevented, her father's murder over twenty years previous, had he not been completely drunk at the time. A fellow Vietnam Vet, Dallas Klein was killed in cold blood for gambling debts.

Nurtured by his second wife Molly ( a former nun), Robicheaux finds himself in the thrall of trying to solve the apparent suicide of a young black woman who fell in with the wrong frat crowd at university.

I especially like Burke's earthy diction and distinctly southern way.