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.