Sunday, August 29, 2010

ROOM by Emma Donoghue (uncorrected proof)

ROOM is an astonishing accomplishment by veteran novelist Emma Donoghue. It is narrated in a pitch-perfect voice of 5-year-old Jack, who has spent all of his life with his mom in a space that is 11ft X 11ft--the singular room of the title. Jack's fanciful way of perceiving his world is revealed by the opening paragraph:

"Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. 'Was I minus numbers?'"

Jack personifies objects that become imagined friends to him like Eggsnake under Bed and Door that "beep beeps and the air changes." They have a small TV where he watches conventional age-appropriate kids shows like DORA THE EXPLORER and SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS but also observes that on TV, "Women aren't real like Ma is, and girls and boys not either. Men aren't real except Old Nick, and I'm not actually sure that he's real for real. Maybe half? He brings groceries and Sundaytreat and disappears the trash, but he's not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats. I think Ma doesn't like to talk about him in case he gets realer."

Old Nick is the villain of the novel, a sociopath who kidnaps then rapes Jack's Ma and she gives birth not once, but twice, in the cell that they share--the cell in which Jack was born, his "eyes wide open." Jack's Ma (only 26 herself), while fighting her adult demons, manages to provide a vibrant and creative world where Jack thrives exclusively in her company.

The novel is divided into five sections: Presents, Unlying, Dying, After, Living--all titles that Jack would plausibly give to each stage of his 5-year-old life.

Not only is Jack's voice believable, but the painful and tentative way in which he and Ma are reintegrated into society after his supremely brave escape rings true as well. And, the ending, well, it is as it should be where Jack looks back "one more time" and observes that Room is "like a crater, a hole where something happened."

ROOM is on the Booker Dozen long list and I expect to see it make the leap to the short list in September. Get a copy and find out for yourself why it is one of the finest novels of the 2010 publishing season.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

MOAB IS MY WASHPOT by Stephen Fry (1997)

My friend Jennifer gave me this memoir insisting that I read it and pass it along to someone else. I first became aware of Stephen Fry as an actor when he played the titular role in the film "Peter's Friends" (featuring his still best friend Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Brannagh and Imelda Staunton, the tony Oxbridge-educated theatrical set)and later becoming Oscar in the biopic "Wilde." From there I discovered his smart-arsy and clever novels with characters I would be happy to befriend in THE LIAR, THE HIPPOPOTAMUS, MAKING HISTORY and THE STARS'TENNIS BALLS.

MOAB IS MY WASHPOT opens smack dab in the middle of a train ride out of Paddington Station to boarding school when Stephen is Fry-the-Younger (to his older brother Roger) at the age of eight when he tries to comfort a new boy called Samuelanthonyfarlowebunce, who is a mess of 7-yr-old tears and good manners. What follows are Fry's vividly reconstructed days as a student first at Stouts Hill and then at Uppington, where he falls madly in love for the first time.

Too smart for his own good, Fry finds himself also in prison for credit card theft where he teaches an illiterate inmate how to read and is told by another that "a person like you shouldn't be in a place like this," a strong echo of what Oscar Wilde recorded in De Profundis when he was told by a fellow prisoner 100 years before, "I feel sorry for you: it's harder for the likes of you than it is for the likes of us."

Feeling he deserved the time in prison, Fry emerges with a year's probation and applies himself to his high school exams at the government-funded city school and finds himself offered a scholarship to Queen's College, Cambridge where he'll meet Hugh Laurie and begin a fruitful creative partnership that endures today.

By the end of this memoir, you'll have seen Fry "at [his] washpot scrubbing at the grime of years," and "feeling slightly less dirty about the first twenty years of [his] life. The second twenty, now that is another story."

Written with humility, candour and self-deprecating good humour MOAB IS MY WASHPOT is a compelling read.

JOYNER'S DREAM by Sylvia Tyson (from the manuscript) forthcoming 2011

Iconic folk musician Sylvia Tyson has penned her first novel and boy is it worth your time.

JOYNER'S DREAM is framed by the present-day narrative of Leslie Fitzhelm, the middle-aged son who has unexpectedly inherited a legacy of secrets and stories when he is reunited with his estranged father in the weeks before his father's death. The conceit is that there is a journal passed down from generation to generation that fills in the details about the contents of "Old Nick's" casket--he's a revered fiddle, if you're wondering.

I especially enjoyed the musical references and the way that the narrative seems to connect seamlessly from generation to generation. Set in Toronto's tony Rosedale neighborhood and in mostly rural England in the 18th-19th-20th centuries, Tyson uses regional dialect sparingly--only to maintain secrecy about Beth's true relationship to Lady Blackwood, her birth mother.

There are reassuring themes that family is who loves you and that stories matter as our way of defining ourselves, providing a legacy and connecting to the wider world.

I got a kick out of the books that the characters read--a decidedly literary set (Jonathan Swift, Thomas Hardy, Sinclair Lewis, and James Joyce), and hope that the end papers will include a hand drawn copy of the composition that gives the book its title when it is published in 2011.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

THE SUMMER WE READ GATSBY by Danielle Ganeck (2010)

When half sisters Cassie and Peck unexpectedly inherit their beloved Aunt Lydia's summer place in the Hamptons, they spend a month together under the same roof for the first time in their lives.

The ramshackle Fool's House is full of separate memories for the girls but shared items that remind them of Lydia's big personality, including an abstract painting initialed to Lydia from J.P. (that might just turn out to be from the paintbrush of Jackson Pollock), and her hardcover edition of The Great Gatsby, her favourite novel by her very favourite writer, an obsession that enables Cassie to crack the code for the safe.

Supported by gregarious characters including a gay next-door neighbour, a quirky artist-in-residence (a Fool himself), fashionina friends of Peck, a rich former beau with vulgar and outlandish taste and a handsome and attentive architect, THE SUMMER WE READ GATSBY will make you feel a part of the eccentric coterie and make you yearn for more of their company.

If you're looking for a fresh voice and a fast-paced engaging read that will have you also flipping the pages of Fitzgerald's American masterpiece, you really must get yourself a copy of THE SUMMER WE READ GATSBY.

Monday, August 23, 2010


This eagerly-anticipated novel follows on the heels of Gibb's best-selling, Trillium Award-winning SWEETNESS IN THE BELLY, a book of rare intelligence and emotional truth. THE BEAUTY OF HUMANITY MOVEMENT is in every way as profound and affecting as SWEETNESS IN THE BELLY.

Set in contemporary Vietnam, it features a memorable cast of hardworking locals including Tu, a guide for English-speaking tourists, his father Binh, and the iconic Old Man Hung, a travelling pho seller whose connection to the past unites them and Maggie Ly, a Vietnamese-born, American-educated Art Historian who is curating the Metropole Hotel's contemporary art collection for very personal reasons.

Through a masterfully crafted third-person perspective, each of the characters becomes the reader's intimate and Gibb presents the gritty heart of Vietnam--rife with sights and smells and sounds--so convincingly written that it feels as though you've made the journey there alongside Hung, "wondering whether this is the afterlife or the present life."

Read THE BEAUTY OF HUMANITY MOVEMENT, especially if you care about freedom of expression, the lasting importance of art, and the value of true friendship.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

SEVEN YEAR SWITCH by Claire Cook (2010)

This confection of a novel is perfect fodder for a screen adaptation by Nancy Meyers (think It's Complicated for the 40-something set) with leads played by Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Garner, Gwyneth Paltrow and Greg Kinnear.

At the outset Jill Murray has finally discovered how to manage raising her 10-yr-old daughter Anastasia on her own, while her ex-husband gallivants in Africa nurturing his social conscience but ignoring his family responsibilities. Jill teaches cross-cultural cooking classes at the local community centre where her senior clients show their weekly appreciation for her talents and she freelances as a consultant for Great Girlfriend Getaways, a travel company that caters exclusively to women.

When Jill meets a potential independent client named Billy Sanders who plans to hire her to help finesse a business opportunity in Japan, she discovers that she just might have more than professional feelings for him. And, those feelings become complicated when her ex-husband Seth decides to breeze back into her life, arriving with fresh flowers and take-out Thai to smooth the way.

Jill's boss convinces her to do something finally for herself and it is on this Costa Rican Great Girlfriends Getaway excursion that Jill figures out how she'll move forward with Billy and Seth.

As we head into the final week of summer, it seems to me that reading Claire Cook is a perfect way to lighten your heart as you find yourself cheering for her always-plucky protagonists.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Finding a new James Lee Burke title is like finding your way home again to your own chosen dysfunctional family. Dave, Molly and Alafair Robicheaux and Clete Purcel and Helen Soileau are always reassuring in their stubborn, steadfast and supremely human ways.

At the outset of this compelling story, Det. Dave Robicheaux is driven to figure out who brutally murdered seven young women in neighboring Jefferson Davis Parish. One suspect, Herman Stanga(a generally despised pimp and crack dealer)turns up dead soon after Clete typically takes the law into his own hands and beats Stanga in front of many witnesses.

Stakes are raised when Dave's daughter Alafair, on leave from Stanford Law to finish her first novel, cozies up to known Louisiana toady Kermit Abelard and finds herself in the creepy company of ex-con turned bestselling novelist Robert Weingart and is conveniently placed within his toxic reach.

THE GLASS RAINBOW is as much a story of the contemporary American South and its ingrained attitudes regarding race, wealth and history as it is a smart, stomach-churning thriller that secures James Lee Burke's reputation as a master of the genre.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

ADVICE FOR ITALIAN BOYS by Anne Giardini (2009)

Reading this novel has made me think about the genetic predisposition for talent. Giardini is the lawyer daughter of esteemed Canadian novelist Carol Shields, who won the Pulitzer Prize for THE STONE DIARIES. Both women write with such grace about the wonder in the ordinariness of our daily lives.

Nicolo Pavone is the protagonist of this finely wrought portrait of a close-knit Italian Catholic family that includes 40-something parents who dance the waltz, foxtrot and quick step as a method of birth control, a brother who marries his high-school girlfriend because it's the right thing to do when she finds herself pregnant at 18 like many of her sisters, and Nonna, the paternal grandmother who provides the proverbial advice to anyone who will listen.

Some of the delectable aphorisms Nonna recites include, "Priests and kicks in the backside, blessed is he who has neither one; "something that is born a circle can't die a square; and "tears for the dead are wasted."

Anne Giardini has certainly followed in her own mother's literary footsteps. ADVICE FOR ITALIAN BOYS is as cunning and sweet and tenderhearted a novel as any one Carol Shields ever penned.

Monday, August 16, 2010

THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger ( 2003 unabridged audio)

This edition of the best-selling novel is beautifully read and acted by William Hope and Laurel Lefkow who play Henry and Clare and a supporting cast of characters including each others' parents, a Korean housekeeper, best friends Gomez and Cherisse and their time-traveling daughter Alba.

Clare meets Henry when she's six and he is 36 when he appears naked in the field by her family mansion outside of Chicago in 1977. A curious girl with a robust imagination, Clare accepts Henry's account of time traveling when he confides in her and trusts that he will reappear in her life on the dates he has provided.

Because Henry not only knows the future, but has been there, he's able to tell Clare that they will marry, though as with most slips involving their shared future, he refuses to tell her when. Henry uses his future experience to protect Clare and their closest friends from knowing tragedy before it happens, because, as he insists, knowing that immense sadness is in store does not prevent it from occurring.

Even once Clare and Henry start to build a life together as adults and she embraces her life as an artist and he works in the special collections at the infamous Newberry Library in Chicago, Henry's disappearances continue to be unpredictable and last any where from a handful of time to several weeks and Clare must learn to take these at times harrowing and amusing journeys in stride.

Desperate to carve out what they can of normal life by pursuing familiar middle-class goals like rewarding jobs and good friends, Henry and Clare cannot control what is destined to happen. In spite of the time-traveling conceit which I am willing to suspend my disbelief and believe (as in Jasper Fforde's novels THE EYRE AFFAIR and LOST IN A GOOD BOOK), Clare and Henry's love story remains unforgettable.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

BLOOD RED by Quintin Jardine (2009)

Primavera Blackstone is an attractive widow in her early forties who has abandoned Scotland for the bucolic Catalan coast of Spain where she is raising her 8-year-old son Tom in a village called St. Marti d'Empuries. There, Primavera and Tom have carved out a pleasant life with other UK expats and locals, including Fr. Gerard, the village priest and next-door neighbour.

Having been married to a famous movie star, Primavera is happy to have found a quieter, gentler place to single-parent her only child, himself a gregarious and sweetnatured boy who is happy to please just about any adult who asks.

When a local town councillor dies suddenly, fingers are pointed at Primavera, who had had a public disagreement with the misanthrop in the days before his death. In fact, she'd even agreed to his demand for extortion (because she could well afford it and because she knew such an agreement would knock him off balance) in order to help her friend Ben with his plans for a wine fair in the public square. Then, the mayor's mother is found bound and strangled in Primavera's garage. It's clear that somebody is trying to frame her, but who? And why?

Fr. Gerard insists that Primavera disappear while the police continue to bungle their investigation and he arranges for her to stay at his home in Granada, where his equally handsome pilot brother agrees to watch over her to keep her safe.

However, Primavera isn't content to sit still for long and reaches out to a long-time friend for support, a security specialist who has more than one trick up his sleeve. When circumstances surrounding a cold case present themselves, Primavera realizes that more than her own life is at stake.

In a fast-paced narrative with both likable and loathesome characters, Jardine has penned yet another engaging novel for his fans who happily "queue around the block to buy his latest book."

Thursday, August 12, 2010


These stories and one Inspector Banks novella take you to the streets of Paris, California, Yorkshire and Robinson's own neighborhood in Toronto's east end: The Beach. Not only are the geographic locations diverse, but so are the time periods: 19th century north of England, post-WWII Yorkshire, 1968 Paris (surrounding the infamous student rebellion) and contemporary Toronto.

I especially enjoyed "The Two Ladies of Rose Cottage" and its essential reference to Thomas Hardy and his legacy, the story that won the Mystery Readers International Award and Going Back, the Banks novella that explores how difficult it can be to visit one's aging parents.

If you're looking to wade into Robinson's waters, look no further than this engaging collection that offers models of the crime and suspense genre of which he is a notable master.

THE ASPERN PAPERS by Henry James (1888)

I came across this novella by Henry James while I was reading John Berendt's book about Venice, CITY OF FALLING ANGELS, because one of Ezra Pound's relatives gifted him a first edition of THE ASPERN PAPERS, insisting that the story therein was being played out in present day Venice through the life of Olga Rudge, Pound's longtime mistress and aging guardian of his letters and poems.

James published THE ASPERN PAPERS first in the Atlantic Monthly and then in book form at the age I am now. It is a Jamesian tale insofaras the protagonist is an American trying to insinuate his way into a European community under false pretense.

Our unnamed narrator (who has assumed a fake nom de plume complete with engraved calling cards)is on the hunt for the correspondence between esteemed poet Jefferey Aspern and his one-time love Juliana Bordereau, an aging crone living in a palazzio on an out of the way calle in Venice. He is an editor and critic and above all sycophantic admirer of Aspern's poetry. He devises a plan to pose as a writer and to rent out rooms from the Misses Bordereau, the aforementioned elderly spinster and her middle-aged niece Tina who is both in charge of her care and in her care.

Through a convenient cash agreement for leasing the space to do his work with the avaracious hope of gaining access to the private papers he so covets, this quintessentially Jamesian figure wheedles his way into the confidence of the niece, believing his gentlemanly charm will suffice. And, of course, it is simply not enough to secure the deal he desires.

It seems to me that THE ASPERN PAPERS is a story for all time. Where there is greed and opportunity, people simply can't seem to help themselves.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

AUGUST HEAT: AN INSPECTOR MONTALBANO MYSTERY by Andrea Camilleri, trans. Stephen Sarterelli (2009)

When a colleague decides to extend his vacation, Chief Inspector Salvo Montalbano is forced to remain in Vigata, Sicily and endure the crazy-making August heat. Friends decide to join him and his long-suffering paramour and their young son Bruno disappears into a narrow shaft hidden at the base of the beach rental property. With Bruno recovered safely,thanks to a devoted companionable cat named Ruggero, Montalbano makes a grisly discovery in the false basement. And, that discovery leads him to unravel ugly truths about a cold case.

A couple of things irritated me about this book. One, Montalbano's girlfriend and her summer friends disappeared from the narrative as soon as the corpse was discovered, and two, one of the characters working in the police department and Montalbano's housekeeper spoke broken English as if out of Hollywood Central casting for stereotypes--or for those of you who watched The Flintstones in your formative years, as Fred sounded when he assumed the persona of Goggles Pisano. I like to think that the irksome dialect was something simply lost in translation.


Anne Enright's Booker-Prize winning novel THE GATHERING is one of the most beautiful and haunting books I've read in recent years, so I was excited to find this earlier one on the shelves of my local TPL branch.

THE PLEASURE OF ELIZA LYNCH is Enright's take on the Irish-whore-turned-Eva-Peron-of-Paraguay who became the most powerful woman there in the 19th century as the consort to President Lopez.

With the vibrant muscular prose and directness that I've come to expect from Enright, Eliza's story is unravelled skein by skein, moment to moment through her perspectives on love, sex, war and death.

If you haven't found your way to Anne Enright's books, it's time that you did.

Monday, August 09, 2010

INSATIABLE by Meg Cabot (2010)

Cabot has famously penned the Young Adult THE PRINCESS DIARIES series, but she also writes contemporary adult fiction like INSATIABLE (her new novel), which I requested from The Toronto Public Library once I began following Cabot on Twitter (@megcabot, if you're interested).

Publishers Weekly calls Cabot "the master of her genre," and I have to say that if that praise means her plucky protagonist Meena Harper would outvamp, outsmart and outdress the Twilight-series vampire-obsessed Bella, then that is enough for me.

Had my closest friends suggested that I read a book set in NYC, rife with social satire,featuring a psychic protagonist who writes dialogue for a soap opera, has a mutt named Jack Bauer and just happens to fall for the prince of darkness, a real vampire, centuries dead, I might well have scoffed at the idea.

However, Cabot's breezy narrative voice and ability to make me want to believe that Lucien Antonescu has more than a self-serving impulse for do-gooding while he's feasting on Meena or metamorphosing into a dragon, kept me flipping pages even as I found myself held captive in the heart of a real storm. For pyrotechnic entertainment and for everything you ever imagined vampires capable of (eventhough you're half-sick of the vampire craze), you just can't beat this rolicking read.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

BUTTERFLY LOVERS by Charles Foran (1996)

David LeClair is a thirty-something ex-husband to Carole and a doting father to 6 year old Natalie. Having been raised by a socialist-activist Adele in Montreal, David speaks both English and French with equal aplomb. For years David has been in denial about his petit mal epileptic seizures, the primary cause of the rift between him and his ex-wife.

David is about to journey to Beijing where he is taking up a year-long teaching post in the English Department at the university in the tense and heady months following the June 1989 TienAnMen Square massacre. Before he leaves Montreal, however, he ends up at odds with everyone he cares about including his best friend Ivan who is dying of AIDS.

In China, David finds himself through his rapport with his Mandarin teacher's wife, the foreign affairs officer at the university and his relationship with one of the disaffected faculty who hides out in David's tiny apartment swilling cheap beer and smoking cigarettes like an existentialist.

The novel's title comes from a banned piece of music during the Cultural Revolution, one with both eastern and western influence that many people hum to themselves secretly to lift their spirits. Finally, in Beijing, David is able to reconcile himself to the truths about his past, his present and what he hopes will be his future.

The narrative moves effortlessly between Montreal and Beijing, places clearly familiar to Foran. In BUTTERFLY LOVERS you will discover David Le Clair's true self and maybe a little about yourself as well.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

THE HIPPOPOTAMUS by Stephen Fry (1994)

Since I've become a rather sycophantic follower of Mister Fry's on twitter (where you can follow him as well @stephenfry), I've been reminded of his books and found this one at my local Toronto Public Library branch in The Beach before heading up to the cottage for the long weekend.

Protagonist Ted Wallace is a middle-aged British poet who has just been sacked from his day job as a theatre critic because he dared to write the truth. Ted also speaks the truth with a proper dose of snark, wit and self-deprecation. Consider, "What kind of self-conscious and insufferably twee bellelettriste ponce keeps notebooks," or "The gentle, spiteful art of croquet, however, is more suited to my low centre of gravity and high sense of malice," for example.

After a happenstance meeting with his god-daughter Jane who reveals that her leukemia is in remission, Ted follows Jane's insistance that he spend more time with his other god-child, her adolescent cousin David, at the family estate. There Ted snoops about, playing at embedded investigative reporter to uncover the truth behind the mysterious healing that seems to take place.

There were moments throughout this novel that I laughed out loud and found myself wishing that Ted Wallace were a friend I could ring for real advice, since he so unabashedly deals it out to anyone who will listen. I haven't read Fry's memoir MOAB IS MY WASHPOT, yet, but I am keen to do just that.