Thursday, December 31, 2009

THE HUMBLING by Philip Roth (2009)

I'll read anything by Roth, but this most recent novella had me a little disappointed in the predictability of the three act outcome.

Roth continues to be preoccupied with sex and aging and here his protagonist, a formerly famous actor who recently admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital, finds himself smitten with a lesbian 25 years his junior whom he first met in utero when he played against her mother in Synge's Playboy of the Western World 40 years ago.

Pegeen Mike lands on Simon's doorstep and offers him sexual salvation and companionship, but of course that can't last what with her parents and her scorned lesbian lover interfering.

Yet, I can't help but admire the directness and honesty and the believability of the words that Roth puts in the dirty mouths of his characters.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

THE BRUTAL TELLING by Louise Penny (2009)

It's the end of summer in Three Pines and good things are happening for some of the locals: Ruth has adopted a duck named Rosa who follows her around like a lost lamb; the Bistro is brimming with business over the Labour Day weekend as visitors stretch out the last long weekend; and Clara Morrow has an upcoming show of her paintings at the Fortin Gallery in Montreal, a vernissage that promises to provide connections to some of the most influential people in the art world including a curator from the MoMA in NYC.

Even though the old Hadley House has been sold and gutted to become a posh inn and spa, it has been tainted again, by the corpse of a stranger and by the living breathing presence of a man who is a stranger to his son, but a "saint" to the wider world.

When "the Hermit's" bludgeoned body shows up on the floor of Olivier's Bistro, Inspector Gamache and his crew from the Surete are called in from Montreal to reveal not only the killer but also some ugly truths about greed.

In addition to purposeful plot twists and being welcomed into the homes and hearts of Three Pines locals like the Morrows, Myrna, Ruth, Olivier and Gabri, the inclusion of a subplot involving a first edition of Jane Eyre, the china of Catherine the Great and the work of Emily Carr kept me flipping pages through the night so I gulped the book in one sitting from start to finish.

The Brutal Telling is Globe and Mail crime fiction editor Margaret Canon's favorite pick for 2009 and I can see why. Pass the word about Louise Penny. She deserves to be read widely and with enthusiasm.

Monday, December 28, 2009

THE BOY IN THE MOON by Ian Brown (2009)

I probably read close to 100 books/year, many memoirs, mysteries and novels and no book has moved me more than this one this past year. I put Ian Brown's memoir on my Grade 11 English reading list because of the connection to L'Arche ( a community established by Jean Vanier for adults with intellectual disabilities) where all of my students are spending an evening volunteering throughout this school year.

What is astonishing about this book is the honesty, directness, compassion and love that infuses it. Brown does not set himself up for a pity party as a parent of a profoundly disabled son. Instead, he has the humility and grace to write truthfully about the exhausting and infuriating challenges of raising a child who not only rages and self-abuses but also has the capacity for joy.

Your attitudes will be altered by The Boy in the Moon and your heart might just be opened to a radical way of thinking about disability.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


This is a book I wish I'd written. I'm always a sucker for a story that's told by a dog (shouts out to Virginia Woolf, David Wrobelewski and Erika Ritter for particularly memorable canine tales) and in this case, Enzo is especially engaging.

On the last day of his life Enzo recalls the recent upset and troubles that have befallen his alpha male Denny, a young widower who has had to fight for custody of his only daughter because his rich in-laws refuse to accept that he could ever provide for Zoe in a sufficiently materialistic way.

Enzo and Denny are as close as man and man's best friend can be. They bond over Zoe, Eve and car racing. Yes, car racing-the art of the racing in the rain that is the title.

From the outset you know that Eve is going to die and it can't possibly be a surprise when it happens, but Enzo's description from his canine perspective underscores how transformative death can be.

Treat yourself and read this book that you will wish could just possibly be true.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

HELLO GOODBYE: A NOVEL by Emily Chenoweth (2009)

This novel about a brain cancer patient's final summer is deft and not self-pitying. It's written from a third person perspective, so you have a little emotional distance from the three main characters, a self-absorbed university-aged daughter (Abby) and her parents (Elliott and Helen).

Clearly Chenoweth has walked this grief walk in her own life, because many of the details smack of a reality that is not contrived and essentially believable.

Sparing the reader the final goodbye, Chenoweth wisely closes the book with Helen (in the final stages of her inoperable brain cancer--a fate her healthy lifestyle couldn't spare her) looking over her shoulder as her husband and daughter jog up the path to meet her.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

SPADEWORK by Timothy Findley (2001)

Although a novel, this could easily have been a morality play. You find infidelity, murder, betrayal and lust on the side streets of sleepy Stratford, the provincial Ontario town that discovered its raison d'etre when Tyrone Guthrie launched the theatre festival in the 1950s. And, in the tradition of 16th century morality plays, no one remains unpunished: avarice and lust eventually take a backseat to more pressing situations that involve real grief.

If you're lured by peering into the private lives of theatre folk, this is the book for you. Findley weaves a tapestry of small town preoccupations and peoples the warp with characters those familiar to his other work will identify: the lonely, the dispossessed, the sexually confused.

The tale unfolds and all of the digging begins after an accidental spade severs the line of communication into the home of the festival's nascent and dishy actor Griffin Kincaid.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

9 DRAGONS by Michael Connelly (2009)

I picked up Connelly's most recent novel at IFOA where I heard him read on a night that Ian Rankin hosted. Both are masters of the crime fiction genre.

In 9 DRAGONS, Detective Harry Bosch is sent to investigate a homicide at Fortune Liquors, a small shop in a seedy section of south L.A. There he discovers John Li has been shot to death at close range, three times in the chest. Having met Li several years before, Bosch feels a connection and vows to his family that he will find his killer.

As he closes in on a suspect, a triad gang member who had been collecting protection payments from Li, Bosch receives an upsetting text video from his daughter's phone. Madeleine lives in Hong Kong with her mother and it appears that she has been abducted and Harry is being threatened from afar to drop his case in L.A.

Over the next 72 hours, Harry is on the chase of his life to find his daughter before she is trafficked out of Hong Kong and her organs are sold on the black market. Before they are reunited, Harry and his ex-wife's new love (and former triad member) Sun Yee find themselves in the seediest districts in Kowloon where there is real danger at every turn. There are 9 corpses that accumulate--the 9 dragons of the title.

Fans of Connelly will be amused by the appearance of Mickey Haller as Bosch's defense attorney when the Hong Kong police follow Bosch back to L.A. and try to pin the slaughter on him.

9 DRAGONS zooms along at a breakneck pace. I read its 374 pages in one gulp.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


I have been meaning to read this crime novel since I first learned about it in the Sunday New York Times over a year ago. However, no amount of crime novels exposing man's inhumanity to man that I've read in the past could have prepared me for the horrific details connected to the masochistic serial killer at the heart of this story.

Thankfully Larsson tempered such graphic descriptions with a subplot involving a difficult romance, the tenuous health of a frail business icon and a through line about the mysterious disappearance/possible murder of a beloved woman who is part of a rich and famous family with questionable relationships.

Translated from the Swedish, I did find proper names with unfamiliar accents distracting, but not so much as to persuade me to stop reading this fiery-footed tale that gallops apace. And, the only situation that I found not credible was the remarkably open sexual rapport that journalist Mikael Blomkvist has with his married best friend Erika Berger.

Don't take only my word for this compelling book. Listen to Michael Ondaatje who blurbed "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an utterly fresh political and journalistic thriller that is also intimate and moral."

Monday, November 16, 2009

THE COMPLAINTS by Ian Rankin (2009)

Taking place over the course of 18 days in February in Edinburgh, this newest Rankin crime novel doesn't miss a note, even though I still pine for DI Rebus whom he stopped writing about two books ago in EXIT MUSIC.

Malcolm Fox is a more ordinary fellow, though like Rebus, he's not so lucky in love, having been divorced from his spouse after less than 2 years together. Malcolm has a sister who gets knocked about by her boyfriend and an aging father who is in a facility for which Malcolm foots the full bill without a grudge. Malcolm sees himself as the caretaker for both, though it's not until his sister's boyfriend shows up in a morgue that Fox acts on his genuine concern.

Because he is incapable of letting sleeping dogs lie, Fox finds himself on the wrong end of a promise and is suspended from the Complaints department with pay. He and another cop with a conscience, Jamie Breck, take the law into their own hands and get into even more trouble along the way to resolution.

I will read anything that Rankin pens and hope that this isn't the only time I'll be reading about Fox, though I do hope that he'll find more to do than alphabetize his exploding book collection in his spare time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

TIME WAS SOFT THERE by Jeremy Mercer

This was a dreamy little memoir of the English language bookshop with heart in Paris, originally founded by Sylvia Beach who famously loaned books to Hemingway and published Joyce when no-one else would look at his writing.

I especially loved meeting the current octogenarian owner George, a true Renaissance man, with the heart of ten thousand men.

Did you know that you could move in to Shakespeare and Company and work in the bookshop if you are a writer passing through?

TOO MUCH HAPPINESS by Alice Munro (2009)

You can't rush reading Alice Munro. I savoured each story and felt altered by every one of them. Violence shimmers under the surface, yet each flawed character draws attention to our own humanity.

Too Much Happiness is a collection not to be missed, nor is it for the weak of heart. Here is 78-year-old Alice Munro at the peak of her storytelling powers--until she dazzles with her next book, of course.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


I picked up this collection in Paris at Shakespeare and Company at the end of June and rationed the stories while I was reading many other novels.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, writes such heart-stopping and utterly beautiful stories. Assembled here are the ones that Munro chose, stories that she believes have a "sturdy sense" of self, "built out of [their] own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile."

Dip in and then delve. You will change the way you read fiction.

THE STRANGER HOUSE by Reginald Hill (2005)

I can't get enough of good crime fiction and Hill is at the top of his game in this novel. A young Australian mathematician is on her way to graduate work at Cambridge, but en route she decides to visit Illthwaite, the village from which her paternal grandmother was displaced thanks to a child migrant scheme forty years ago. Samantha Flood discovers quite quickly that the villagers she asks about her gran are definitely not telling her the full shilling about the past and she is determined to find out the truth, in spite of the consequences.

Hill never insults his readers, rather assumes that you are up to the chase, both physical and mental.

THE DAY THE FALLS STOOD STILL by Cathy Marie Buchanan (2009)

First time novelist Cathy Marie Buchanan writes with precision and aplomb in this tale which begins in 1915 in Niagara Falls, the dawn of a new era of hydroelectric power. Seventeen year old Bess Heath has lived a life of privilege as the youngest daughter of a hydro executive; however, after graduating from her boarding school and returning to her family home, she discovers that nothing is as she'd remembered. Her father has been fired, her mother is working as a seamstress instead of managing her household staff and Bess's beloved sister Isabel has taken to her bed, her engagement to Boyce Cruikshank broken.

A chance meeting with Tom Cole on a trolley platform changes Bess's life. And, although her blossoming relationship with him causes friction with her family, Bess is determined to make it work because Tom is not only handsome, but also talented and kind and thoughtful. Prejudice makes life difficult for the two lovers, but they persevere and remain devoted to each other throughout the years that Tom serves in WWI and returns a broken man.

Archival photos of the era as well as news clippings interspersed throughout the story add a degree of verisimilitude, though Buchanan's telling is deft enough without them. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey along the shoals and eddies of this story and you will too.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

SWAN PEAK by James Lee Burke (2008)

Louisiana lawman Dave Robicheaux is taking a well-deserved and much needed break in Montana on his friend's ranch with his wife Molly and his bail-buddy Clete Purcel. They've left their Hurricane-ravaged New Orleans parish homes for respite in the mountains where they hope to spend their days fishing and relaxing.

However, the unusual and brutal murders of two college students on their friend's property pulls them into the whirl of a nefarious community run by a vicious and twisted oil tycoon.

Clete continues to be haunted by nightmares of a bloody episode in which the remains of a former mob boss had to be "combed out of the trees..." looking like "pulled pork somebody had dropped into a fire."

Dave and Clete and Molly have to keep their wits about them in order to get out of Montana alive.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


This is the second Jaquot novel I've read and it is as equally satisfying as the first also set in Provence.

A German family is extinguished by close-range gunfire and the case is one of the most baffling of Inspector Danile Jaquot's career. Many of the villagers believe that the crime could be personal since they remember the atrocities committed by the Germans during WWII, crimes that included the execution of innocent civilians.

When a local son is arrested and charged with the murders because of his passing dalliance with the dead granddaughter, a young stranger comes to town to temporarily run the family's flower shop. Marie-Ange's talent as a horticulturist and a business woman means the shop flourishes, but it is her talent as a psychic that is even more important in helping Jaquot to solve the crimes as the corpses continue to pile up.


Cameron Rouse, a right-wing freelance journalist from London, shows up in Lydmouth to do a piece on the "communist" squatters in a disused military camp outside of town. However, Rouse's working visit to Lydmouth is short-lived indeed. He's one of the corpses that mystifies Detective Richard Thornhill who is on a bit of a wild goose chase of "persons of interest" that includes local Philip Wemyss-Brown, the esteemed editor of the local newspaper, and dear friend to Thornhill's former lover Jill Francis.

Taylor weaves a tangled web that is supremely satisfying as the real criminals are unable to escape its sticky grasp.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

JAQUOT & THE MASTER by Martin O'Brien (2007)

Having just been through Provence on some of the hottest days of the year this past June, the setting with Cavaillon yawning in the distance was especially appealing to me.

Dreamy Chief Inspector Daniel Jaquot is called to an artist's retreat in a luxury hill-top hotel near Luissac, an old Monastere, when one of the guests, a beautiful young woman, disappears, her bedclothes blood-damp. There are several guests easily suspect due to means and motive as well as having their own lecherous secrets to conceal.

In the Ivory Tower itself is a celebrated and reclusive painter who had been friends with Picasso and Matisse and whose current favour many of the guests are attempting to curry, among them an award-winning documentary filmmaker from Cannes, aspiring landscape painters, a rich patron of the arts and the artist's agent.

When two corpses are discovered, everyone's passion erupts.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

THE FIELD OF BLOOD by Denise Mina (2005)

When I learned that Ian Rankin would be hosting an evening with Denise Mina and Michael Connelly during IFOA here in Toronto in October, I was delighted to find one of her novels in a stack of cottage reading.

Rankin blurbs that Mina is "one of the most exciting writers to have emerged in Britain for years," and Connelly gushes, "really quite wonderful. I am a true fan." And these two know what they are talking about.

Set in Glasgow in 1981, a toddler goes missing from his garden and two young boys are subsequently arrested for beating the child to death and leaving him on the railroad tracks. Protagonist Paddy Meehan is working for the Scottish Daily News where she dreams of becoming an ace investigative journalist some day. When one of the boys turns out to be a cousin to Paddy's fiance, Paddy attempts to distance herself from the emerging story but finds herself all the more in the thick of things.

If you haven't already found Denise Mina and you devour mysteries, add her to your list.

GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT by Reginald HIll (2004)

Anyone who uses Emily Dickinson as a literary springboard has my attention.

Hill is an acknowledged master of the genre whose "intelligence, quick humour [and] compassion...blends elegance and grace." In this mystery, DS Andrew Dalziel is faced with what appears to be a copy cat suicide when Pal Maciver's corpse is discovered in a locked room where his father offed himself 10 years before.

Dalziel is determined to uncover the truths about both the past and the present and finds himself revealing curious connections beyond Yorkshire to London, NYC and even Iraq. Throw in a hooker who is actually the meek younger sister of the local vicar and you have a compelling web of deceit to unravel.

Monday, August 24, 2009

BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE by Martin Mordecai (2009)

This YA novel follows twins Pollyread and Jackson as they complete their grade 6 year in a small country school in Jamaica where they are known and loved by their classmates and teachers.

Infused with local belief in duppies, colourful descriptive detail of the landscape and authentic dialect, this first novel is a revelation.

BLACK SWAN GREEN by David Mitchell (2007) Random House, 304 pages

This coming of age novel set in Warwickshire in the early 1980s reads more like a memoir from the point of view of 13-year-old Jason Taylor, who is a burgeoning poet, and adolescent outsider who is reconciling with his emerging sexuality as all teens do.

It is funny and warm and insightful and rife with pop cultural and political references. Anyone who suggests "Neil Young's voice sounds like a barn collapsing, but it's dead epic" [and that's a good thing] has my attention.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


RUSH drummer and lyricist Neil Peart is a favorite creative nonfiction writer of mine. If you haven't stumbled onto Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, you must make the time for Peart's very personal account of his grief journey when his only daughter was killed in a car crash and he buried his longtime spouse a year later.

Traveling Music is lighter fare, though it has the same personal touches with letters to Brutus (a longtime dear friend to Peart) and actual journal entries from his 6-day 2500 mile round trip from Santa Monica to Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas in his dream car, a BMW Z-8. There are plenty of flashback sequences to Peart's formative years in St. Catharine's and then London, England and back to Toronto where he auditions successfully as the replacement drummer for RUSH.

What delighted me about this particular story is the breadth and intelligence with which Peart cultivates his burgeoning list of musical favorites which predictably includes Buddy Guy and not so predictably Frank Sinatra, Linkin Park, Patsy Cline and Madonna.

You'll find that Peart's narrative meanderings will lead you to your own nostalgia about the music of your youth.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

T.S. Eliot by Peter Ackroyd (1984)

I found this meaty biography on a cottage bookshelf and decided to dip in to remind myself why Eliot was considered such a great poet, albeit a supremely emotionally damaged man.

The youngest in the St. Louis-based Eliot family, Tom was educated at Harvard and moved to London where he became a banker and then an editor of The Criterion (where he published Ezra Pound)and at Faber and Faber where he published the esteemed American poet W.H. Auden among other notables of their generation.

Eliot spent fractious years with his first wife Vivienne who was institutionalized repeatedly for mental instability. They split with the encouragement of their common friends the Woolfs and Ottoline Morrel. In 1939, inheriting the lyric cloak of W.B. Yeats, Eliot gave the first speech in Dublin and in 1948 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honour and a burden since he would no longer enjoy the privacy he so coveted.

It will turn me back to his great pieces including "The Waste Land," "The Four Quartets," "Sweeney Agonistes," "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and his plays Murder in the Cathedral, The Cocktail Party and The Elder Statesman (the only one written when he was admittedly happy in his marriage to his second wife Valerie Fletcher in the decade before his death in 1965).

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Pick up this first novel that Stephen King blurbed: "It combines Mark Twain, Thomas Pynchon and Little Miss Sunshine. Good novels entertain; great ones come as a gift to the readers who are lucky enough to find them. This book is a treasure."

Twelve-year-old map-making obsessed genius Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet will grab you by the hand and pull you along his cross country journey from his family ranch in Montana to his mecca, the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

Read Larsen's delightfully whimsical book and admit that fiction has no boundaries. You will slow down to read all of the marginalia, turning the novel to its side and upside down to examine all of T.S.'s sketches and musings.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

INDIGNATION by Phlilp Roth (2008)

I will read any title by Roth--one of the finest English language novelists working today.

INDIGNATION is set in the 1950s, the time of the Korean War. Protagonist Marcus Messner decides to transfer to an out-of-town college in his sophomore year, primarily to get away from the controlling hand of his father, a man whom he respects for his earnest work ethic.

There he meets Olivia, the daughter of a doctor alum who has a history of mental illness--a fact that eludes Marcus for some time as he is swept up by the whirlwind of new passion and sexual awakening. At the conservative campus of Ohio's Winesburg College, Marcus discovers that he is more of an outsider than he could even imagine.

WHERE WE HAVE TO GO by Lauren Kirshner (2009)

Lucy is eleven when we meet her in this "sparkling first novel" and we watch her find her way in her world through fantasy and reality. Through the unexpected kindness of "Crashing Wave" (a former exotic dancer) at Lucy's dad's AA meeting and the tension of her parents' temporary split, Lucy navigates her way messily through adolescence as an outsider and develops an eating disorder that has her institutionalized where she is known as "Bananas" rather than her name.

Set in Toronto in the 1990s rife with pop cultural cues and the angst that adolescence is for most of us, WHERE WE HAVE TO GO acknowledges that more often than not the most difficult journey we have to take is the one home.

Monday, July 27, 2009

THE WAY HOME by George Pelecanos (2009)

This thriller was on the "Best bets" shelf of my local library. I haven't read any of his other titles, but Pelecanos certainly writes convincingly from an insider's point-of-view. (His bio notes that he write for HBO's THE WIRE as his day job).

Chris Flynn is a sixteen-year-old with an attitude. Ironically, in an adolescent rush to avoid the law, he ends up incarcerated in a juvenile facility, the only white boy first offender among many coloured faces accustomed to spending time on the inside.

What is interesting about this book is not the relationships that Chris builds in prison or the loyalty he feels towards his fellow inmates, but rather the growing rapport with his father which for most of his life has been tense to say the least.

There are several graphic scenes that I would have closed my eyes for in the film adaptation--examples of man's inhumanity to man that are at once predictable and unforgivable.

With enough plot twists to keep you flipping the pages through to the end and a superb ear for the rhythm of the spoken word, THE WAY HOME is definitely worth a rainy afternoon.

Friday, July 24, 2009

PREP by Curtis Sittenfeld (2005)

If I had an acute ear for dialogue and the creative talent necessary to be a fiction writer, this is a novel I wish I'd thought to write. Because I've been immersed in private school culture for almost twenty years and because I remember my own brother as an adolescent at a boarding school and the antics he and his friends got up to and because my own adolescence was tortured in the way the protagonist's is, I had much of the same raw material.

However, I do not have Curtis Sittenfeld's ability to write with apparent ease and to create believable characters in credible situations.

Lee Fiora is an observant and intelligent 14-year-old when she begins life as a scholarship student at a prestigious Massachusetts boarding school in her freshman year. Accustomed to the pleasure of her own company, Lee is socially awkward, but manages to adjust to the insider rules by which the sons and daughters of the rich and very rich seem to play.

By the time Lee is in her graduating year, she has established herself as unique and independent rather than simply the loner she was when she began her life at Ault. And, like a typical teenager, she becomes distracted by the lure of sex and almost obsessed by her conflicts with her parents and some of her peers.

Luckily Lee has a true friend in Martha Porter, who supports her through the mess that adolescence almost always is.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

THE MAN OF MY DREAMS by Curtis Sittenfeld (2006)

Hannah Gavener is 14 in the summer of 1991 when her parents decide to split and she is sent to live temporarily with her Aunt Elizabeth. Hannah has always been something of a loner, in fact, often prefers the quiet of her own company through adolescence and into her university years. She finally makes friends with Jenny at Tufts where she studies Art History, and has a succession of boyfriends, but is not so sure that she will ever meet the man of her dreams, as it appears her older sister Allison has done in finding and marrying Sam.

We follow Hannah for fourteen years and realize, as she eventually does herself, that you can't blame your adult failures on your messed-up childhood.

But, don't take my word for it that this novel is worth your while. Take the word of Alice Munro, this year's Man Booker International Prize winner, who wrote: "THE MAN OF MY DREAMS is so free of tricks, the honesty is so startling, you feel there's a writer here who isn't trying to beguile you but to lay out some plain, raw truth about emotions and sex. This is a courageous, refreshing novel."

Friday, July 17, 2009

OLD CITY HALL by Robert Rotenberg (2009)

This is Rotenberg's first novel and I hope not his last.

In the opening pages, Kevin Brace, Canada's most famous radio host of The Dawn Treader (surely modeled after the late, great Peter Gzowski and his show Morningside) announces to his newspaper man (a charming 70-something East Indian named Mr. Singh) at 5:30 in the morning that he has killed his companion, Katherine Torn. And, although it seems like an open and shut case with the corpse in the bathtub, having expired from a stab wound to the stomach, neither the police (including Daniel Kennicott and Detective Ari Greene) nor Brace's lawyer Nancy Parish is convinced.

As truths about Torn are revealed and we meet Brace's ex-wife Sarah McGill, his only neighbour, 83-year-old Edna Wingate (they have the two penthouses in the condo) and learn more about his family past, the case doesn't seem so cut and dry.

What I especially liked about this book in addition to the sympathetic and complicated characters including the very likable Daniel Kennicott and Ari Greene, is the way Toronto is a character itself here. You sit in the Don Jail, spend time in Old City Hall, walk along Front Street and up Bay.

As a criminal lawyer and former CBC employee, Rotenberg writes convincingly from the inside.


11 year-old Flavia de Luce is a precocious and intelligent heroine in the tradition of Jane Austen's Emma and Harper Lee's Scout Finch. She's certainly a know-it-all with more than her fair share of curiosity about other people's business.

Set in 1950, primarily in and around Flavia's sprawling family home in England called Buckshaw, SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE follows the pre-adolescent devoted chemist and amateur poisoner (she does have two older irritating and narcissistic sisters, afterall: Ophelia aka Feely and Daphne aka Daffy) as she tries to solve the mystery involving two corpses on the grounds.

The first is a bird with its spike-of-a-beak impaling a postage stamp and the second is a stranger who expires as Flavia finds him in among the cucumber patch, but not before he mysteriously utters "Vale."

What follows is a terrific romp where we learn about her father, the Colonel's, adolescent past from other local townsfolk and where through Flavia's wit and common sense the mysteries are solved right to the satisfying end when Flavia receives a remarkable handwritten letter of thanks from His Majesty (George VI) himself.

It is no wonder that Bradley was awarded the Debut Dagger Award for this first in a series featuring the intrepid Flavia.

Monday, July 13, 2009

AMERICAN WIFE by Curtis Sittenfeld (2008)

Alice Blackwell is the First Lady of the United States when her husband Charlie occupies the commander-in-chief's seat from 2000-2008. In this novel, loosely based on the life of former First Lady Laura Bush, Sittenfield explores how an ordinary happy childhood in the midwest, transformed by adolescent grief and followed by stable adulthood can have the surprising trajectory that lands in the Oval Office.

Alice Lindgren Blackwell is a sympathetic character from the outset when she is a bookish only child, raised by adoring parents and an eccentric grandmother who has a longterm lesbian romance with a medical doctor in Chicago. One night when she is seventeen changes Alice forever as she realizes the fragility of life.

When she is wooed frenetically more than a decade later by the charismatic and playful Charles Blackwell, Alice cannot quite believe her good fortune, until that is tempered by meeting Charlie's controlling mother, nicknamed "Maj" by all of her sons (short for Her Majesty), who imposes her will and apparently racist attitudes more often than not.

The privilege into which Alice marries means she no longer works as a children's librarian, yet her story continues to be infused with the great children's books of the 20th century: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Giving Tree, Mike Mulligan and His Steamshovel, and on and on...all books I remember either reading or having read to me by my grade school librarian, Mrs. Malcolm--the coolest teacher in the school because she drove a yellow corvette.

Sittenfield knows how to tell a compelling story with interwoven plotlines and she creates a most believable character in Alice Blackwell. Now I'm going to not only pick up her other novels but also look for the biographies of Laura Bush.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

DEATH'S OWN DOOR by Andrew Taylor (2001)

Set in 1953 in Lydmouth, DEATH'S OWN DOOR opens with the discovery of an apparent suicide. Rufus Moorcroft buried his wife many years previous, so it is unusual according to Detective Inspector Richard Thornhill that he would resolve to kill himself so much later.

Unlike the other Lydmouth mysteries, this one focuses on Thornhill's wife Edith and her past connection to the deceased. At the funeral, Edith remeets acquaintances from the pre-war years and has flashbacks to what she had once believed was an idyllic time in her life. Then she was convinced by the charismatic Hugh (Oxford-educated, playwrighting son) to star alongside him in a local production. Edith believed she'd been in love with Hugh and was devastated by his accidental death. He had gone to meet his father at the train and was instead crushed on the tracks. When his father saw the bits and pieces of what was clearly his only son, he had a heart attack and died en route to hospital.

Rufus's nephew Jack Graig, a former friend of Edith's, resurfaces and it's through him that she discovers the truths about the past and the present and is able to help her philandering husband to solve the crime.

The Thornhill children are conveniently away for most of the story, so Edith is free to indulge in her whims and to figure out whether or not to believe the town rumours about her husband's affair with the bright and beautiful journalist Jill Francis.

DEATH AND RESTORATION by Iain Pears (1996)

Another Jonathan Argyll Art Mystery, DEATH AND RESTORATION chronicles the work of a restoration expert, Dan Menzies, who is working on a disputed Caravaggio canvas in a monastery in San Giovanni. While Menzies is trying to clean and restore the dark masterpiece, a smaller painting, a curious icon of the BVM said to have potent powers over her people, goes missing, but not before an elderly monk has his head paritally bashed in and is left bleeding on the cold stone floor.

While the icon is lost in transit--a caper including a French art dealer and an infamous thief and a bag of money left in a railway station--there is also a corpse floating in the Tiber.

It takes the wiles of both Flavia di Stefano of Rome's Art Theft Squad and her fiance, art dealer Jonathan Argyll, a few missteps, conversations with a crazy priest and many documents in Latin and Greek to discover what has really happened and why.

BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin (2009)

Eilis Lacey comes of age in post-WWII small town Ireland where opportunities to live an independent life are slim to none. When a New York priest who knows her family offers her a job there in a clothing store, she jumps at the chance to begin a new life abroad.

Although terribly homesick at first, Eilis soon adapts to life in the women's boarding house and writes letters to her widowed mother and charismatic sister Rose about life in NYC (working on the floor of the department store and studying to be a bookkeeper at night through the kindness of a parishioner) and how she is becoming familiar with its rhythms.

At an Irish-organized dance hall event, Eilis meets Tony, an Italian from a closeknit family of boys. Tony woos Eilis and convinces her to marry him secretly before she is called back to Ireland due to a family tragedy. Back in Ireland her life becomes constricted and Eilis yearns to return to her new life in New York.

Toibin writes so quietly and deftly that it is hard to believe that Eilis's story is not entirely true.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED by Wally Lamb (2008)

This novel is a doorstop at 700 pages, but it is worth every ounce of its heft in storytelling. In the traditions of Charles Dickens, Robertson Davies and John Irving, Wally Lamb constructs a complicated tale that is grounded in humanity and its immense capacity for good and evil, secrecy and forgiveness.

The narrator is 47-year-old Caelum Quirk, a high school English teacher who has moved to Littleton, Colorado with his nurse wife Maureen. In April 1999 when Caelum is called away to his hometown in Connecticut to bear witness to his Aunt Lolly's final exit, his wife finds herself taking shelter in the library of Columbine High School where now infamously two teenaged boys mowed down several classmates before turning their guns on themselves.

Maureen suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and becomes addicted to prescription meds. In order to attempt to put at least some geographic distance between themselves and the massacre, the Quirks move back to Three Rivers and into the farmhouse where Caelum grew up. There, with the help of tenants from New Orleans, on their own redemptive quest post-Hurricane Katrina and its physical and psychological devastation, Caelum begins to understand and meet his own grief and fear and anger about his past and about his future which, in the short term, is without Maureen since she is serving time for manslaughter--having killed a bright and beautiful young man while she was stoned and behind the wheel of her car.

There is pain on every page of this book, yet it is bearable, because Lamb manages to lift its veil and reveal the true beauty that sometimes follows.


These two are Jonathan Argyll art mysteries involving detective Flavia di Stefano of Rome's Art Theft Squad.

In the first, a letter turns up offering details about one of "Giotto's" (the nicknamed thief, not the esteemed painter) earliest heists and dispatches di Stefano to Florence without delay to investigate. While Flavia is there interviewing an ailing old woman, her boyfriend, art dealer Jonathan Argyll uncovers possible leads of his own in England. When he discovers his lead, dead at the bottom of the stone stairs in his rented cottage, Argyll rightly suspects foul play, especially in this little English town where the townsfolks' mouths are tighter than drumskins. What both Argyll and di Stefano discover as the truth is a little surprising and ultimately satisfying, including a lovely tiny, overlooked da Vinci sketch that sets the world right again.

In the second, Flavia spends time in Venice investigating the Titian Committee--a political body of art specialists responsible for cataloguing and identifying the master's work. To be on the committee is a plum career appointment, so when one and then two of its members is found dead, di Stefano knows there's more to these academics than meets the eye.

Friday, June 12, 2009

THE GIRL OF HIS DREAMS by Donna Leon (2008)

The title of this Guido Brunetti mystery is misleading, but don't let that dissuade you from dipping into Leon's series set in Venice. There are two storylines that weave in and out, one about a potentially corrupt priest who may be "fleecing his flock" for all the euros he can muster, and the other involving a dead girl (a gypsy from the fringes of society) whose corpse surfaces in one of the calles near the home of a wealthy family.

What strikes me most about Leon's books is the compassion with which she suffuses Commissario Brunetti and his genuine gratitude for the loving family that supports him.

Monday, June 08, 2009

ABOUT FACE by Donna Leon (2009)

Donna Leon's most recent Inspector Brunetti mystery aptly plays on the double entendre of the title which not only hints at the fact of cosmetic surgery of one of the main characters, but also at the change of attitude that follows discovering the truth about assumptions.

The woman at the centre of this mystery is Franca Marinello, La Superliftata, a long time friend to Contessa Falier, Brunetti's rich and powerful mother-in-law. She seems a cliche with her much older husband and a face disfigured by excessive plastic surgery. However, there is, of course, more to Marinello than meets the eye. She reads classics, including Ovid, and Brunetti finds himself unusually drawn to her.

With a subplot involving Marinello's husband and illegal dumping, Leon begins a treatise on environmental responsibility--a religion for Brunetti's adolescent daughter Chiara.

Smart, engaging and utterly human, ABOUT FACE is worth your time.

DEVIL BONES by Kathy Reichs (2008)

The eleventh in the Temperance Brennan series, DEVIL BONES has the North Carolina forensic pathologist working on interlocking cases that include human remains found in a cauldron with relics from a religious ceremony, a headless corpse on the shore of a nearby lake and the unexpected death of an innocent Wicca member.

There are graphic descriptions of autopsies that are visceral and not for the weak-stomached in the crowd.

The plot twists push the plot forward, though the romantic subplot of potential suitors is tiresome.

Monday, June 01, 2009

THE WHOLE TRUTH by David Baldacci (2008)

This breakneck speed-paced thriller is the first of Baldacci's that I've read, simply by accident as it was one in a mound of books loaned to me by my friend Pat--one of the most discerning and voracious readers I know.

Anyone familiar with the premise of the movie WAG THE DOG will understand the temptation that governments might have to fabricate war for financial gain.

In THE WHOLE TRUTH, billionaire Nick Creel decides he's going to do just that. Manufacture the idea of war, with self-made martyrs, that will jump start his arms dealing with the Chinese and Russian governments. While you're following Creel's sinister plans (which are tempered by bursts of philanthropy to make him feel less guilty), you also follow Shaw, a freelancer of sorts, who sorts out the baddest of the bad through independent contracting with a nefarious underbelly.

Shaw has little regard for the value of his own life until he falls in love with an intelligent and stunning German-born beauty named Anna who works for a think tank in London. Once he proposes to Anna and she accepts, his professional life begins to unravel and he finds himself in terrifying situations with the scum of Europe and the Middle East, barely escaping each time, and never without the help of his controlling boss Frank. Of course there are dirty agents as well as the unexpected kindness of strangers to propel Shaw's story forward to a satisfying end.

Baldacci has me hooked. He has also co-founded a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting literacy across the USA. Check out his foundation at:

2 more by Andrew Taylor

Books Two and Three of Taylor's Roth trilogy (THE JUDGEMENT OF STRANGERS and THE OFFICE OF THE DEAD) can be read independently, but when read in the light of the first in the series, THE FOUR LAST THINGS, enrich the understanding of the characters whose lives intertwine over the decades and you begin to understand the psychopathology a little better.

Book Two begins in 1970 when David Byfield, a widowed parish priest, brings home a new wife, a publisher who becomes obsessed with the papers of dead poet Francis Youlgreave. Byfield neglects his adolescent daughter Rosemary who is home for the summer from boarding school and finds himself having to face terrifying truths about his past and his future.

Book Three flashes back to the idyllic 1950s when Byfield is happily married to his wife Janet. It is told from her friend Wendy Appleyard's perspective. And, it is this distance that allows you to put together the jigsaw of their lives and to begin to comprehend the seeds of what triggers sociopathic behaviour even among the most innocent.

STET by Diana Athill (2000)

I found my way to this memoir after reading Athill's SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END--my newest favourite book to give to friends.

STET is the term used by editors to recorrect corrections, meaning, "let it stand." And, this memoir published by then- octogenarian Athill lets stand for the public record her work life first at the BBC (after halcyon days spent reading at Oxford) and later in publishing with Andre Deutsch and the house that bears his name.

The second half of the book chronicles Athill's relationships with some of her famous literary charges: Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V.S. Naipal and Molly Keane. With each she is fair and discerning, yet almost always loving.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


This series of personal reflections about adolescence and early adulthood reveals an uber-senstive Franzen at his squirmy best, "a small and fundamentally ridiculous person."

You will find yourself identifying with his unflinching honesty about his awkward teenhood every page of the way.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

TRIGGER CITY by Sean Chercover (2008)

This thriller was recommended by a CBC book panel.

Sean Chercover is a former P.I. in Chicago and New Orleans and his insider's perspective of that milieu contributes an authenticity and frenetic pace to this novel.

As I approach my mid-forties I obviously agree with the opening gambit that "forty-four is too young for a woman to die." Joan Richmond is the corpse upon which the premise depends. Her father, Isaac, a retired Army Colonel approaches Det. Dudgeon to work exclusively on uncovering the "truth" about his daughter's murder.

What follows is Dudgeon revealing layer upon layer of corruption that implicates the US government and its acronym organizations including the FBI and the CIA at its core and threatening Dudgeon's own life because of his meddling.

SAIL by James Patterson

At breakneck speed, Patterson's thriller about the Family Dunne weaves through twists and turns and resolves in a completely satisfying way.

Dr. Katherine Dunne is trying to repair the strained rapport with her children, following their father's accidental death in a diving mishap and her subsequent marriage to the top criminal lawyer in New York, a man whom the children loathe at best.

What begins as a tension-filled family disaster waiting to happen, turns into a true horror when their luxury boat blows up and leaves them floating in its wake in the ocean near the Bahamas. They manage to survive the wreck, dodge a shark afraid of flares, kill a snake that is squeezing their injured mother to death and get rescued, but not before almost being offed by someone all too close to them.

None of the story is plausible, but that didn't stop me from flipping through the 3-4 page-long chapters in one sitting.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

RUNAWAY by Alice Munro (2004)

Some of the stories in this collection are linked by a character, others stand brilliantly on their own, revealing a storyteller at the peak of her powers.

The titular tale is being adapted for the screen by Australian filmmaker Jane Campion (The Piano).

Alice Munro is one of the essential authors not only for our time, but for all time. (Thank you Ben Jonson.)

THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE by David Wrobelewski (2008)

Based on the structure of Shakespeare's Hamlet, this first novel is a revelation.

Edgar is a mute whose family breeds a special kind of dog that has been refined over generations and bred for temperment and intelligence. Edgar's earliest memory, indeed, is meeting Almondine, his first canine companion, as she licks his hand and does a little dance of joy outside his crib.

When Edgar's father dies unexpectedly when Edgar is approaching adolescence, the appearance of Edgar's Uncle Claude (his father's long lost brother) complicates life on the farm. Edgar receives guidance from his father's ghostly presence in scenes that are both wonderous and terrifying.

David Wrobelewski is not only a storyteller for our time, but like the bard himself, for all time.

SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END (2008) by Diana Athill

Winner of the 2008 Costa Biography Award, this series of personal essays by UK literary giant Diana Athill is at once witty, contemplative and unflinchingly honest about love and aging.

Athill worked as an editor of high profile writers including Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood and V.S. Naipal until she retired at 75. Since then she has turned to her own writing and produced several memoirs including this most recent one and she's now 91! Her voice belies her age and you will feel yourself one of her intimates in reading this frank account.

In one of my favourite passages where Athill contemplates what her own death might look like, she recalls with envy the death of one of her cousins, who "flop! fell off his horse stone dead in the middle of a laugh" at the age of eighty-two.

I barreled through this book in sheer delight, but will be returning to it to read it slowly, savouring every well-placed word.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

REMAINDER by Tom McCarthy (2005)

One of the boys at school told me this was the best book he's read this year, and he offered to loan it to me. He's a fairly discerning reader, so I thought I'd give it a try.

REMAINDER opens with the narrator explaining that he has survived an accident which involved "something falling from the sky." His lawyer has negotiated a large settlement whereby his client (always unnamed) will receive over 8 million pounds, if he agrees to never take legal action against the culpable parties.

Friends have suggestions for how to spend this windfall--including buying coke and more coke, hiring hookers off which to snort coke, setting up a foundation to provide humanitarian aid. However, the survivor is not terrible interested. Instead he decides to hire someone to completely recreate one of the distinct memories he has--of living in a run-down building where a pianist stumbles over the same part of a concerto and a frumpy middle-aged woman cooks liver every day.

By hiring actors and set designers to fulfill this re-enactment fantasy, our man hopes to reboot his lost memories. What happens instead is rather sinister. He takes on the persona of a god in charge of his world and moves beyond controlling his apartment complex to re-enacting neighborhood crimes including murders of drug lords.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

BESIDE STILL WATERS by Barry Callaghan (2009)

This is Callaghan's rewrite of his novel THE WAY THE ANGEL SPREADS HER WINGS--copping on to the right established by James Joyce when he "wrote" PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, making the Stephen Daedalus tale all the more accessible to readers.

Callaghan has done the same here.

His protagonist finds his way to an African leper colony, rediscovering his true love en route. The diction is poetic and as such rife with rhythm and rhyme that allows you to creep inside the son-of-a-blues musician's head, a place Callaghan is clearly comfortable inhabiting.

THE PRIVATE PATIENT by P.D. James (2008)

This mystery was recommended by a panel discussion on CBC radio around Christmas time as one of the best books of its kind in 2008.

P.D. James is inching towards 90 years old and she continues to write stories that are intelligent and compelling. In THE PRIVATE PATIENT, investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn makes an appointment to have a facial scar removed at an exclusive clinic in Dorset where she will be guaranteed her privacy. She's had the scar since she was a child and her drunk father sliced her cheek open with a beer bottle shard. Her mother kept her home from school for a few days and they've always insisted that the reason for the scar was that Rhoda mistakenly walked into a kitchen cupboard. Her father's recent death prompts her to make the appointment with the revered plastic surgeon George Chandler-Powell. (Why is it that so many British characters have hyphenated last names?)

Rhoda's surgery is by all accounts successful, but it doesn't matter a whit since she's found strangled to death in her room two days later. Commander Adam Dalgliesh is called by 10 Downing Street to investigate because another patient at the time awaiting her own surgery is the wife of an influential politician. While Dalgliesh and his team scour Cheverell Manor for clues, there are two other unusual deaths.

It is the humanity of Dalgliesh the resonates through the book and we are rewarded with his wedding to a worthy woman in the end.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Redfern's Victorian Detective novel featuring Owen Endersby is engaging and rife with the messy life of London's underclasses. When theatre entrepreneur Samuel Cake is gruesomely beaten to death in his own home, it takes all of Endersby's patience, compassion and puzzling to figure out who the murderer is.

Flipping through these pages you will feel the life on the dirty streets and on the boards of the Old Drury theatre where some hopes are raised and others are squashed. Under Redfern's pen, that time is vividly created with especial attention to the difficult moral decisions that the disenfranchised face daily in order to survive.

Monday, April 13, 2009

NETHERLAND by Joseph O'Neill (2008)

I only became aware of O'Neill's writing through his review of the Beckett Letters in the Sunday New York Times a couple of weeks ago. His kicker involved a hand scribbled note from his fellow Irish expat--a cherished private possession. So, I picked up O'Neill's novel NETHERLAND, posing as one of the "Best bets" at my local TPL branch in the Beach.

The cover claims that the story is "stunning with echoes of THE GREAT GATSBY," and I agree. O'Neill's narrator Hans, a Dutch-born, London-based investment banker, begins to unravel his tale in a modulated voice that is reminiscent of tone and style of Fitgerald's Nick Carraway.

In the late 90s Hans and his British-born wife Rachel move to NYC as their professional lives rocket to the top and find themselves both bewitched by the city that never sleeps and altered by being first-hand witnesses to 9/11 as they are forced to evacuate their chic loft and move into the Chelsea Hotel with their infant son Jake. Rachel decides she cannot raise Jake with the ghost of 9/11 terror looming, and moves back to London while Hans remains in New York.

Free to roam the city at all hours of the day and night, Hans finds himself rekindling a love for cricket which thrives under the watchful eye of Trinidadian born idealist/operator Chuck Ramkissoon, the Gatsby figure whose corpse mysteriously washes up in the river at the beginning of the novel, and whose presence in both Hans's life and ours by extension is the reason Hans is compelled to tell this story.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Three of these books are in the series set in Lydmouth, a sleepy English village, post WWII involving Detective Richard Thornhill, his ambitious underling Brian Kirby and other locals including Thornhill's on again off again mistress Jill Francis, a journalist, and their friends Philip and Charlotte Wemyss-Brown.

On the surface Thornhill is an affable man who is driven to mete out justice. Yet, as we discover, he has a complicated professional past when he was seconded to serve in Palestine and used as a patsy by his commanding officer. The horrors of that time resurface and push him towards a breakdown and a temporary leave of absence when he is forced to confront the truth that his young daughter's abduction is his fault.

THE LAST FOUR THINGS is a departure from the Lydmouth series and moves to London where Lucy Appleyard, the only child of a police officer and a controversial female priest in the Anglican church, is snatched from her babysitter. What is atypical in this book is Taylor provides the psychopath's point-of-view and manages to create sympathy for someone who certainly doesn't deserve it. There are predictable plot twists, but also a few that I didn't see coming, and one gruesome event that in its credible horror made me dissolve into the story and miss my bus stop. The ending sets up the second book in the Roth Trilogy which promises to be equally gripping, albeit upsetting, since "man's inhumanity to man" will surely be the fare.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

FALL by Colin McAdam (2009)

A friend recommended McAdam's first novel SOME GREAT THING--about a plasterer in Ottawa and his son (sounds boring but it was a fantastic read)--so when I saw his name on the list at Harbourfront, I decided to go and hear him read from his second book which launches the Hamish Hamilton imprint at Penguin Canada.

FALL is not only the name of the beautiful and smart girlfriend to Julius, the protagonist, but also the leitmotif of the novel. Several of the players fall from grace in this privileged boarding school based on the tony Ashbury College in Ottawa, where McAdam was once a student as the son of a diplomat.

Although the meanness and hijinks of the boarders is typical for that milieu, Julius's roommate Noel takes cruelty to a new level and it is from his point of view that we get the insider's perspective as he looks back at his final year from the remove of his adult life.

What impressed me most about McAdam's book is his dialogue which is quintessentially teenish in its rhythm and content.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Continuing my current obsession with crime fiction, I picked up one of Andrew Taylor's books, which does not feature a detective.

James is well established in his career and firmly grounded in his relationship to his wife Nicky until his past rears its ugly head and bites him in the ass in the form of a telephone call from Lily Murthington who is dying of cancer in a local hospice.

The novel shifts from present to past and we fill in the sordid details about Jamie's adolescence at boarding school and in the company of his classmate Charles/Carlo Murthington and his family--father Hugo, sister Felicity and stepmother Lily. There is a dark secret that Taylor manages to withhold until the final 100 pages and it is this secret that is Jamie's undoing in addition to the idea that he may have fathered a daughter with Lily, a young woman named Kate who was raised as Carlo's half-sister and who is in a spot of trouble herself thinking she will be blamed for an accidental death.

It seems a little soap opera-ish from the outset, but Taylor manages to make you care for Jamie and his unfortunate circumstances and wish for him to be able to set things right.


In a field outside of Venice, the partially decayed corpse of a young man is discovered in a makeshift shallow grave. What identifies him is his family ring--he is of noble lineage and has been "missing" for over a year. Detective Brunetti finds himself telling the deceased parents about their son's unfortunate end and then is stuck in a web of lies as he tries to discover what circumstances led to the boy's death.

There was a very public story of kidnapping, but Brunetti doesn't believe it. There is more to the Lorenzoni family and its business dealings than meets the eye. With the help of his connected father-in-law, the Count, Brunetti manages to uncover unsettling truths about the ties that bind.

Monday, March 16, 2009


I found the title misleading of this DI Charlie Priest crime novel. Though, I liked the way the narratives wove together--the disgraced police officer who has obviously been framed; the headmistress who had hoped for a romantic tryst who ends up being driven off the road; the married MP caught in an extra-curricular passionate clinch who decides to end it once and for all; the fabulous four who plot different ways to play the game that they have devised and to which they are so deviously and deviantly committed.

Pawson certainly knows how to spin a good yarn peopled with characters you love to loathe and a detective you will continually root for.


Gabriele's reading at Harbourfront convinced me to pick up a copy of her new novel, the story of two sisters who couldn't possibly lead more disparate lives: Beth Ann and Georgia "Peachy" Archer. Beth is a fashionable, skinny bitch New Yorker who has abandoned her farm girl upbringing and embraced the shallowness of a frenetic professional life while Peachy abandoned her dream of becoming a social worker, when she got knocked up at nineteen and married Beth's high school sweetheart.

On one of Beth's occasional fly by night visits to her family in rural southern Ontario, she makes an unforgivable decision and that decision pushes the plot forward and has the sisters exchanging lives, if only for a few days.

What kept me reading THE ALMOST ARCHER SISTERS was a need to witness Peachy exact her fumbling revenge in one of my favourite cities, where even the pavement hums with expectation.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

REMEMBER ME? by Sophie Kinsella (2008)

As a leader of the pack of chicklit, British-born, New York Times bestseller Sophie Kinsella knows how to wend a tale of a not-so-enviable life of privilege. Her protagonist, 28 yr. old Lexi Smart wakes up in a London hospital after a car crash, believing that it is the day of her father's funeral 3 years previous. Trouble is she doesn't remember the three years in between where she managed to lose a load of weight, have her teeth done, scrabble up the business ladder, alienate her friends and marry the rich man of her dreams.

Kinsella manages to let the reader in on the loathsome truth about Lexi's less-than-ideal husband and her coterie of spoiled "friends" while Lexi herself gives it the old college try to rebuild the marriage that she can't remember ever existed. Her supporting cast including her grifting little sister Amy, her Whippet-obsessed mother and her husband's right hand man Jon help, intentionally or not, to put Lexi on her proper path of redemption and self-discovery, but not before she faces the enigmatic Mont Blanc"--not the pen--and resolves for herself to set herself straight.

BORN STANDING UP by Steve Martin (2008)

Poet, philosopher, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, art aficianado, actor and comic: Steve Martin is all of those and more. I, for one, am grateful that he did not have the funding to purse a Ph. D. in philosophy in the early 60s, because he may have ended up an abstract-scripting fuddy duddy, holed up in a state university, hoping to discover the meaning of life.

His work ethic and determination to succeed are enviable and ought to be modelled by young men and women in 2009.

Monday, February 23, 2009

ONE FIFTH by Candace Bushnell (2008)

Bushnell catapulted to fame with her novel SEX AND THE CITY in the nineties, and followed that with another LIPSTICK JUNGLE, also purchased and developed for a t.v. series. ONE FIFTH, her latest entre into spoiled life in Manhattan, seems destined for the same trajectory. Definitely the doyenne of Chick lit, Bushnell returns to expected topics such as class, wealth and sex in an elite building with its prestigious address on Fifth Avenue.

It is difficult to find sympathy for characters who spend their days blogging and whinging about earning only 350K/year while neighbours spend a third of that on new photography. The character for whom I felt a pang of empathy ended up predictably snuffed out. And, try as I may, I couldn't feel anything for the beautiful people who were destined to be together from the opening chapter, but not before they engaged in sexual antics with unsuitable partners.

Monday, February 16, 2009

TOO CLOSE TO HOME by Linwood Barclay (2008)

Aside from Andrew Pyper's gripping and chilling THE KILLING CIRCLE, I have rarely been so disturbed by a crime fiction novel. Barclay manages to create a world that feels too close to home itself with characters who are flawed with real human instincts, so believable that I began to wonder if I were one of them.

A triple murder takes place in rural upstate New York. The folks next door, the Langleys, are shot execution style in their home, while Adam Langley's best friend Derek Cutter cowers in their basement, witnessing their deaths by the sounds above him and one of the gunmen uttering simply, "shame."

Soon enough Derek's parents, Jim and Ellen, are drawn in to the darkness that threatens to destroy them all as well as the reputation of the mayor and the college president.

I couldn't wait to finish reading this caper, but there were parts that I had to read in daylight

A CURE FOR ALL DISEASES by Reginald Hill (2008)

This is one of the books praised by CBC Radio's mystery panel over the holidays, and my copy arrived last week at my local Toronto Public Library branch. I haven't read any other novels by Hill, but the wit and dialect and playfulness of this one have piqued my curiosity and I'll be looking for back titles on the shelves.

The novel opens with Detective Andy Dalziel convalescing in a peaceful seaside rehab centre in Sandytown. Dalziel has been given a handheld digital voice recorder as part of his psychological therapy and he christens the brushed nickle machine "Mildred" and confides all to her, from his intended trysts to his observations about the locals.

Two principal landowners in the sleepy seaside town seem to have different agendas about the town's intended development and one of them ends up murdered in a gruesome way.

The complimentary plot line, like a complimentary therapy itself, is provided through emails from budding psychologist Charlotte Heywood to her sister who is nursing in Africa. Charley rattles on about the locals and then immerses herself in the case especially as the corpses begin to pile up.

I felt like I could sit down and have a pint with Dalziel and any number of the peculiar locals in a town where indeed death is the cure for all diseases.

WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS? by Kate Atkinson (2008)

Ostensibly another Jackson Brodie mystery, this Atkinson yarn links the stories of Dr. Joanna Hunter, Detective Brodie, his almost paramour Louise (now married to a widowed orthopedic surgeon), convicted killer Andrew Decker and Reggie, a young orphaned nanny getting private tutoring to complete her A-levels in Greek and Latin.

Through predictable twists and turns demanded by fans of the genre, Atkinson weaves together each narrative with no ends even frayed by the conclusion of the novel. And, it's a smart read as well with Atkinson flexing her literary chops that earned her the Whitbread prize for best first novel with BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM--another must read in her portfolio.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2007)

If there is only one book you must read in these dreary and interminable winter months of little light and loads of snow (at least here in Toronto), it is this one. I haven't felt as transported by a tale, so completely rapt by its telling since I read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD when I was thirteen.

This epistolary gem follows the life of British writer Juliet Ashton in 1946 who quite by accident receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey, who has read a book about Charles Lamb in which Juliet's name and address are inscribed in the flyleaf. That book changes Dawsey's life and Juliet's too. She becomes entranced by their correspondence and what is revealed about the German occupation of that Channel island during World War II.

This is a book for people who love to read and who understand the balm that a well-told tale provides, that literature can be a life force.

There are many wonderful surprises here, not the least of which is the proof of the kindness of strangers many times told. Don't be surprised to find yourself searching, among other treasure hunts, for a children's story about a cat named Solange.

A MERCY by Toni Morrison (2008)

This is a quiet little novel (167 pages) by the Nobel laureate and Princeton professor who has made slave narratives her fictional voice.

Set during the infancy of the slave trade (1680s) when virulent religious and class divisions became entrenched in the Americas, race hatred takes root.

A MERCY follows the stories of several women: Florens, a small slave girl received as payment for a bad debt by a good Catholic plantation owner; Lina, an older servant in the same home whose tribe was decimated by small pox; Sorrow, a strange girl who spent her early years at sea dressed as a boy; Rebekka, the white mistress of the house, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England, and Florens' mother who has to make the horrible decision to send her daughter away in order to save her.

THE BRUTAL HEART by Gail Bowen (2007)

I haven't read any of Bowen's other Joanne Kilbourn mysteries, but I will be reaching for them now on the bookshelves at my local library after this fast-paced and engaging read.

Joanne's legal eagle attorney husband Zack receives an upsetting call during the festivities of his 50th birthday fete in their backyard. It's the police with the news that a local call girl has been murdered and two of the names on her high-profile list of clients are Zack's and his friend Ned Osler's--and Zack is still reeling from Ned's recent suicide.

Zack is determined to reveal all truths, while Joanne, shocked by this revelation about Zack's sexual past, tries to muddle through by throwing herself into her work, a project on women and politics. How these two navigate hurt and negotiate a supportive and loving relationship is one of the unintended mysteries.

DOORS OPEN by Ian Rankin (2007)

This is Rankin's first non-Rebus novel and he departs from the detective as good guy here to profile an unlikely coterie of folks interested in an unusual art heist.

Mike Mackenzie is a self made man with millions to burn. When a longtime friend introduces him to a scheme to steal/replace art in a storage facility for the National Gallery, his avarice for owning a particular portrait, not likely ever to appear on the open market, gets the better of him and he agrees to participate.

Add a talented forger, hand-picked by the director of Edinburgh's art school, a lonely banker with an art-lover's passion and a known thug and you have an unlikely alliance where they are able to just about pull off the perfect crime. There's a meddlesome detective named Ransome, a Hell's angels operator named Hate and a greedy girlfriend who mess it all up.

I missed Rebus, but certainly allied myself with Mackenzie in his quest to impress the art auctioneer with the uncanny resemblance to the portrait he temporarily acquires.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Based on the screenplay by Paul Gross, the novel begins near the town of Arras where Sergeant Michael Dunne is leading his troop through a hornet's nest of Huns in the town square. He find himself thrusting a bayonet into the face of a young German soldier to kill him and to secure his own escape--it is this action that haunts Dunne for the rest of his life.

The narrative shifts to Calgary where Dunne is recovering in a military hospital from his physical and emotional wounds. There he meets volunteer nurse Sarah Mann, who is fighting her own psychological demons. When medical doctors decide Dunne has suffered shellshock, he is officially excused from serving again on the front and instead works in the recruiting office where the officer in charge encourages Dunne to ignore some of the enlisting rules in order to provide sufficient back up recruits for all of the fallen on the front.

In spite of his growing affection for Sarah, who he manages to help wean from a morphine addiction--in his greatest act of kindness--Dunne decides he must return to the front, however inappropriate that is or how broken he may be.

Back on the front near Ypres, the exhausted Canadian troops are about to participate in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The description of the trenches and the bloated corpses, human and animal, that litter them is one of the strengths of this writing. It is visceral and surreal, but absolutely convincing.


Bette Robinson quits her Manhattan banking job and finds herself happily embracing sloth and organizing her day around Oprah and her favourite soaps and walking her 4-pound Yorkie, Millington. Her fashionable, rich and gay uncle introduces Bette to Kelly (his former personal assistant) who now runs Manhattan's hottest PR firm and the city's biggest events for those rich and famous enough to see and be seen.

Bette finds herself dating an infamous British playboy and thrills her boss by appearing in all of the gossip rags, thereby providing desirable exposure to the firm. This fast life of black Amex cards and Cristal wears thin on Bette and she walks out of the Playboy fete that she was responsible for running in an attempt to reclaim her old self, which is somewhere between the values of her Hippie parents and the spoiled life to which she has become accustomed.