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.