Friday, July 29, 2011

THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL by Lawrence Block (2004) Harper Collins, 294 pages

Go ahead. Add Bernie Rhodenbarr, Manhattan Antiquarian bookseller by day and burglar by night, to the pantheon of favourite criminals. He's one of those guys you are willing to forgive their occasional felonies because they are so appealing and only marginally morally questionable.

Block hooked me in THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL with the opening word nerd exchange between Bernie and his friend Marty Gilmartin:

"The man is an absolute...a utter and total... Words fail me."

"Apparently, nouns, anyway. Adjectives seem to be supporting you well enough, but nouns--"

"Help me out, Bernard. Who is more qualified to supply le mot juste? Words, after all, are your m├ętier."

The man in question is Crandall Rountree Mapes, "a worm, a rat...a bounder, a cad... a rotter... a thoroughgoing shitheel," who has just happened to woo Marty's mistress Marisol away from him and into Mapes' perfectly manicured surgical hands. Of course, it's personal. And, of course, Mapes deserves to be taken down a peg or two and Rhodenbarr is just the man for the job that involves cracking into a personal safe hidden behind a painting in Mapes' bedroom, a passable painting of "your basic generic sailing ship." It's a "neat, uncomplicated bit of vengeful larceny that will reap a tidy profit," an offer that Rhodenbarr cannot refuse, especially for a friend.

While waiting to burgle Mapes' upscale abode on a night that he is sure to be out with his wife at Lincoln Center, Rhodenbarr gets restless and to assuage his spilkes he goes out on the prowl, a decision that he begins to regret when it lands him smack dab in the middle of several murders for which he is not responsible, but to which he is irresistibly drawn because of unlikely coincidence. And, Bernie, is never one to let sleeping dogs lie.

With trademark wit, playfulness and respect for the game that successful suspense requires, Block delivers the goods in THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL. And, isn't it fun that well-mannered Bernie gets the girl, even if it's only for now.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick deWitt (2011) House of Anansi Press, 325 pages

THE SISTERS BROTHERS is one of three titles published by House of Anansi Press that made it to the storied Man Booker Prize longlist this week, a prize that rewards the best book of fiction published in the Commonwealth. Canadian novelist Michael Helm (one of my favourite contemporary writers) has this to say about DeWitt's book:

"In perfect measures of light, darkness and firelit reflections, THE SISTERS BROTHERS engagingly renews the comic novel in a spirit by turns lawless and corrective. This ever-surprising story is dead serious fun."

Narrated by Eli Sisters, this picaresque meets the Wild West tale is all that Helm gestures to and more. There's a hit out on the life of Hermann Kermit Warm, ordered by the enigmatic and threatening Commodore who has hired Eli and Charlie Sisters for the task. They are on their way to San Francisco, where the Commodore's scout, "a dandy named Henry Morris," has gone ahead to gather information about Warm who "pays for his whiskey with raw gold dust that he keeps in a leather pouch worn on a long string, hidden in the folds of his many-layered clothing." Charlie is heartened by the news and tells his brother, "It's a good place to kill someone, I have heard. When they are not busily burning the entire town down, they are distracted by its endless rebuilding."

And, so begins their cross country journey in the company of their horses, Nimble and Tub, a journey that is complicated by toothaches and tempers and temporary fits of loneliness throughout which you'll meet eccentric hoteliers, doctors, hookers and ordinary folk trying to get by. All the while, you will wonder, like Eli "about the difficulties of family, how crazy and crooked the stories of a bloodline can be." And, you will continually redefine your notions about good and evil as the tale unwinds to its unexpectedly moving conclusion.

Find out what the fuss is about and pick up THE SISTERS BROTHERS, marveling at DeWitt's muscular prose and respect for delivering a tale well told.

SHELTER by Harlan Coben (from the ARC, due September 2011) from Penguin Canada, 304 pages

You may be familiar with Harlan Coben’s protagonist Myron Bolitar, the Manhattan-based sports agent turned exquisite bad-guy ass-kicker, in his crime fiction series. In SHELTER (Coben’s YA debut) Myron acts in loco parentis for his estranged teenaged nephew Mickey, who is trying to accommodate the very different losses of his parents in his life: one to accidental death, the other to addiction.

For a while it seems as though Mickey’s complicated life is improving, until his new girlfriend Ashley goes missing and he is drawn into a nefarious circle to try to find her, a seedy underworld where it is uncertain if he will be able to escape. When he sees the legendary Bat Lady for the first time, he is creeped out by two facts: she calls him by name and tells him that his father “is very much alive.” But, standing there, bearing witness, Mickey knows that “what she was telling me wasn’t true. Because I had seen my father die.”

Navigating the social hierarchy of a new high school is another challenge that Mickey faces, and he ends up making genuine friends with a goth girl called Ema and a geek he nicknames Spoon, “outcasts who… had been sitting alone for so many years that it wasn’t so much cruelty as habit.” Because Spoon’s dad is a janitor at the school, he has access to keys that will enable them to snoop for clues that might lead them to uncovering the secrets behind Ashley’s enigmatic disappearance.

The title gestures to missing pieces: The Abeona Shelter in Africa, an NGO from which Mickey’s dad Brad resigns in order to provide Mickey a chance to call “one place home” and “pursue his passions, especially basketball;” and, Mickey’s predisposition to protect the disenfranchised. As a tattoo artist tells him, “You, like Ema, have a pure spirit. You have blessed energy centers and true balance. You are a protector. You look out for others. You are their shelter.”

If you know a reticent teenaged reader, then SHELTER is the book you need to thrust into their hands. Coben’s authentic depiction of high school foibles, rife with recognizable bullies and jockeying for social status, will have them feeling right at home and the breakneck twists and turns of the narrative will have them flipping pages right through to its satisfying end.

In this first of a YA series, Coben will hook a new generation of readers with his trademark wry humour and masterful plotting as they cheer on courageous 15-year-old Mickey Bolitar.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVORS by Michele Young-Stone (2010) Crown Publishing, 372 pages

Becca Burke and Buckley Pitank live worlds apart in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Mont Blanc, Arkansas. Raised in the 60s and 70s on different sides of the country both are drawn together through their common experience of lightning strikes. When Becca was eight she was struck down in her driveway and when Buckley was a young teen he witnessed his mother's death as she was seared by a bolt on a family excursion.

Becca's Mom Mary is a drunk. A beautiful drunk. Her father Rowan is a philandering chemistry professor who looks like Cary Grant. Buckley's Mom Abigail is his best friend and he loves everything about her "from the strawberry bumps on her legs where she dry-shaved with her Gillette to the way her black hair knotted at the nape of her neck." He never met his father.

In parallel narrative arcs we follow Becca and Buckley from their childhoods through adolescence and well into their adult lives. Buckley has an especially challenging time as he deals with his odious grandmother Winter (a character who would be at home among Dickensian villains) and his mother's predatory husband, the Reverend John Whitehouse, whose congregation is dwindling so much that he turns to selling Amway as the way of truth and light. While Becca's parents adore her, she senses her own mother's issues with her father, not only senses but feels viscerally the abuse her mother suffered when she, herself, was growing up.

Buckley may be not only one of the most resilient characters you'll meet in contemporary fiction but also one of the kindest and Becca's pluck and determination to hone her craft as a visual artist will convince you that the creative impulse is a balm. And, when they meet through a mutual friend at a gallery vernissage in New York, you will be as relieved as I was that they come face-to-face with someone who entirely understands who they are and doesn't pass judgment.

THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVORS heralds a savvy new voice in American letters. Keep your eyes peeled for the work of Michele Young-Stone.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

HIT AND RUN by Lawrence Block (2008) Harper Collins, 280 pages

What is not to like about Block’s hired killer Keller, a devoted philatelist who takes “so many precautions” in his paid job that he trips over them? Just imagine what might happen to him if he weren’t the adorable paranoid that he is. And, as he insists to his colleague Dot, this one is definitely the last job (paid up front, of course) he’s going to do before getting out of toxic waste disposal racket.

Keller is in Des Moines, Iowa, awaiting the go-ahead from his client, minding his own business at a stamp shop where he can’t resist adding to his burgeoning collection a few Scandinavian “official reprints. Mint, decent centering, and lightly hinged” that he bargains down to $600 cash. When the background music on the radio is interrupted by a news bulletin with the announcement that the visiting charismatic Governor of Ohio has been gunned down, Keller understands immediately that he’s going to be made the patsy, even though he has an airtight alibi in the shopkeeper.

Like the characters in The Wire who understand “the game is the game,” Keller plays it cool for a while, puzzling out how he’s going to be able to make it back home to New York safely. Dot insists that Keller, “lay low as long as you have to, if you’re sure you’re in a safe place. Don’t even think about doing the job for Al, not as long as there’s the slightest chance that this might be a setup.” Soon enough Keller sees his face plastered on CNN with the caption, “THE FACE OF A KILLER.” And, then, he receives a computer-generated voicemail message, “completely uninflected and straight out of a science-fiction movie” that “pronounced a series of words one at a time: ‘Ditch. The. Phone. Repeat. Ditch. The. Damn. Phone.’” And, just like that, Keller’s on his own.

There are many obstacles that get in Keller’s way as he tries to remain under the radar on his way back to his New York apartment. There is the matter of his appearance, of course, that he only temporarily hides under the peak of a Homer Simpson ball cap; also, the fact that he can’t risk using credit or debit cards whereby his cross-country progress would surely be traced and he’s getting low on cash. If only he hadn’t bought those precious stamps! When Keller comes face-to-face with two great losses in his life, “that filled him with pain and regret,” he realizes that eventually, “you didn’t have to forget things, not really. You just relaxed your grip on them and they floated off all by themselves.

After driving away from New York with no particular plan, Keller finds himself in post-Katrina New Orleans where strolling one evening he ends up acting out a Tennessee Williams kindness-of-strangers turn and saving a life. And, the fates, for once, find their way and smile kindly upon him in return. There he is able to begin again, hired on by an enterprising contractor, to renovate those devastated spaces and in the process to find out the kind of man he truly is.

Smart, witty and unabashedly take charge, Lawrence Block’s Keller is my newest crime-fiction crush.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

THAT SUMMER IN PARIS by Morley Callaghan (2006) Exile Editions, 217 pages

Originally published in 1963, Callaghan's memoir of 1920s Paris was republished in 2006 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Exile Editions. Callaghan’s memoir of his heady time in 1929 Paris in the select company of Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Robert McAlmon is a succulent treat for a literary nerd like me who has always considered that particular expat community the most desirable one with which to ingratiate oneself. It is why I have so adored Woody Allen’s recent cinematic confection MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, too—the impossible imagined delight of being party to that particular passionate coterie.

Due to circumstances that are still a little beyond my ken, I was at Morley Callaghan’s 86th birthday fete in Toronto, so it is more-than-a-tad amusing for me to reconcile the gentleman I met that night in 1989 (who, after we sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” insisted, from his perch at the top of the stairs, his false teeth clacking about in his mouth, “I have never ever been. A. Jolly. Good. Fellow.”) with the nascent novelist so certain of his own place among the greatest writers of the 20th century.

In the early Twenties, Callaghan and Hemingway met in Toronto while they were both working for the Toronto Daily Star. The Hemingways were in Canada for Hadley to give birth to their son because they had heard the health care was excellent, and Callaghan was trying his hand at journalism before finishing his law degree at U of T. When Hemingway determined that young Morley had tried his hand at fiction, he offered to read his stories in exchange for a look at the proofs of IN OUR TIME which Callaghan referred to as “a series of long paragraphs, little vignettes… so polished they were like epigrams, each so vivid, clean and intense that the scene he was depicting seemed to dance before my eyes.” Hemingway offered Callaghan this gift: “You’re a real writer. You write big-time stuff. All you have to do is keep on writing… Whatever you do, don’t let anyone around here tell you anything.”

When he was only 22, Callaghan had a story (thanks to Hemingway’s kind introduction), “A Girl With Ambition,” published in the 2nd edition of THIS QUARTER in Paris and his fellow contributors included James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, all of their names in bold black on its cover. That became a charm and the confidence boost he needed to keep writing. Soon enough Scribner’s in New York signed Callaghan on for a novel and a collection of stories to be edited by Maxwell Perkins, who also was responsible for Hemingway and Fitzgerald, so his literary pedigree was established early.

Once in Paris that summer of 1929, it feels as though you are the third that walks beside Morley and his wife Loretto along those Left Bank streets, sitting in the cafes or at Les Deux Magots, waiting for Scott or Ernest to poke their heads in and scooch beside you to warn you of the dangers of Pernod. You’ll meet Joyce and his Nora, Sylvia Beach (his great protector and publisher at Shakespeare and Company), Scott and Zelda, Ford Maddox Ford, Robert McAlmon, the painter Miro and other luminaries of the Quartier at that time. And, you will be charmed by them all, even when they are badly behaved and irascible or insecure and easily bruised, egos wounded by reviews or a lucky punch in the boxing ring.

One of the sweetest moments for me was when Fitzgerald offered Callaghan his wallet, insisting, “Here, Morley, keep this wallet. I’d like you to have something of mine.” Callaghan accepts: “All right. Write your name in it then.” But neither one of them had a pen. So, Fitzgerald (then struggling his way through the manuscript of TENDER IS THE NIGHT), “put the wallet against a lamppost, and taking out his knife he scratched his name on the leather.”

What a keepsake from “those dreams” Callaghan had of Paris as “the lighted place” where he got to know “Hemingway in his prime…perhaps the nicest man I had ever met.” And, he could “say the same for Fitzgerald.

Having spent that long ago evening in Callaghan’s company, I feel a little closer to them all after reading THAT SUMMER IN PARIS.

FAITH by Jennifer Haigh (2011) Harper Collins Canada, 318 pages

If you read and adored Linden MacIntyre's Giller Prize-winning THE BISHOP'S MAN, then you are definitely going to want to pick up a copy of Jennifer Haigh's most recent novel FAITH.

All families tell stories about themselves, stories that become mythic in the re-telling, but there are other tales that remain secrets until someone, intentionally or not, provides the great reveal. For me one of those long-kept truths was offered to me on my first trip to Ireland. There, my cousin Billy took me to a family plot and pointed out not only his parents' graves and that of his brother Eric who died at three, but also the grave of "Aunt Peg's baby." I was gobsmacked. When I returned to Toronto and asked my grandfather (Peg's older brother) about that baby, his first response was an angry, "who the hell told you about that?" With further probing he went on to unravel the shame the family had felt when Peg, unmarried, got pregnant during WWII. Although a nurse who ought to have known better, Peg tried to hide the fact of her growing womb by wrapping it tightly in bandages. The result: a stillborn child and permanent damage that meant she would never be able to get pregnant again. Underneath my grandfather's anger was a profound sadness for what might have been for his little sister.

In FAITH, narrator Sheila McCann returns to Boston when her older half-brother Art, a long-serving parish priest, finds himself at the centre of a scandal that rocks the foundation of their family, not to mention the extended Roman Catholic community. Their mother remains in denial, while Sheila's brother Mike has already convicted Art in his heart and Art himself refuses to defend himself against the perplexing charges.

What is extraordinary in Haigh's unravelling of Art's tale is the insider intimacy with which she writes about the monkish existence of RC clergy. Throughout Sheila doubts her brother's decision to choose a life with such "elaborate privations." His incredible response: "It helps to be a child with little understanding of what he is forfeiting." Sheila confides that it is her "penance to tell this ragged truth as completely" as she knows it--an antidote to the "canon of approved stories" that "are told in the manner of repertory theatre: hang around long enough and you'll hear them all." With such an invitation to the reader to sit a little closer to listen to the likely prurient and certainly upsetting details, Haigh grabs you by the hand and insists that you bear witness to all that has occupied Sheila since her brother's public disgrace a few years' previous.

Father Arthur Breen's story is a complicated one, made all the more difficult by long-protected secrets that have been the source of his own personal shame. By all accounts he is a devout priest and a kind man to whom "even a single life seemed a towering accomplishment." When presented with the opportunity to serve as a father figure to his housekeeper's grandson Aidan, Art takes on that responsibility in earnest, ensuring that Aidan have a place in the second grade at Sacred Heart while his reformed drug addiction mother Kath tries to get her grownup act together.

Like Sheila and her brother Mike, I found myself vacillating between being convinced that Art was guilty of the oblique crime of which he is accused and just as firmly believing that he could not possibly have made such a transgression and that was why he never defended himself against that very accusation. And, when an unintentional and initially enigmatic slip of the tongue clarifies the villain of the tale, you will be outraged. As Sheila confesses, "although they may not forgive me for it, I write for my mother and Mike. If they don't wish to know certain truths about themselves and each other, they should at least know" what we have lost. She writes Art's story "to open the curtains, and let in the sun."

Isn't that what all good fiction does?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A GOOD HARD LOOK by Ann Napolitano (2011) Penguin Press, 326 pages

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” ~Flannery O’Connor

So begins this gorgeous novel that through the interior lives of vibrant and memorable characters shows how we might live our lives to the fullest.

There are three sections: Good, Hard, Look. And, with those simple and declarative monosyllabics, Napolitano neatly parses the experiences of Cookie Himmel, Melvin Whiteson, Lona Waters, Miss Mary Treadle and Flannery O’Connor through 1963-64 in NYC and Milledgeville, Georgia.

The narrative opens on a hot summer’s evening as “the peacocks tilted their heads back and bellowed and hollered their desires into the night… They didn’t care that there was a wedding tomorrow, or that the groom who had just arrived from New York City, was lying beneath a lace canopy at his in-laws’ house, paralyzed with fear.” And, while the rest of Milledgeville startled awake, the peacocks (like their spirited, uncompromising owner) “were out to do what they liked, when they liked.

Southern writer Flannery O’Connor (“Good Country People,” Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away) is both muse and character and the pulse at the centre of the narrative. She is connected to Cookie through their shared past, to Miss Mary as a neighbour, to Lona as a client and to Melvin as a friend on equal footing, unabashed about offering candid truths. It is her address delivered as an honoured guest at Cookie’s high school graduation that gives the novel its title and both the characters and the reader the challenge: “Take a good hard look at who you are and what you have, and then use it.” Sage advice for all time, don't you think?

Diagnosed at 25 with lupus, Flannery is now 37 and focused on her writing as she tries to keep her constant pain and attending exhaustion at bay. One of the many aspects that I love about this book is how Napolitano so convincingly inhabits O’Connor and offers insight into her writing process: “Flannery gripped the pen in her lap like a baseball she wanted to throw. The two main characters in her novel…stood in the centre of her mind. One was made of flesh and blood, the other was two-dimensional…Rayber, wouldn’t come alive and no matter how hard Flannery pounded the letters on her typewriter, she couldn’t make him so.

After Melvin reads “Good Country People,” he asks Flannery, “ I wondered what it says about you, that there are no happy endings…All of your characters are left in some kind of pain.” Her response is brilliant: “Maybe I left them on their way to a happy ending…I’m sure you didn’t consider this, but it’s possible that the characters are closer to grace at the end of the stories. Grace changes a person, you know. And change is painful.” Later, when he reads Wise Blood, Melvin thinks, “each sentence felt like a balled-up fist, intent on knocking him out.” Flannery “trapped tiny disappointments, tiny hopes, tiny frustrations, and pinned them down with sentences.” Flannery, herself, knows how to be patient with a scene, “waiting for the violence to start.” She discovered that “she had to go a little mad herself, in order to get the story right, in order to pin him down like a butterfly.” And, in the heart of this tumult, she was tempted to push away from her desk: “a life was coming to a brutal end beneath her chattering fingertips and she wanted to be anywhere but where she was. She wanted to be anyone but who she was.” That total disappearance of self that Flannery strives for in her writing, all of the other characters yearn for as they make meaning of their lives.

The tragedy that closes the first section and transitions to “Hard” cleaves all of the main players, and even though you may see it coming, it is no less awful when it happens. It is through the aftermath of that event that the surviving characters puzzle out not only what it means to live their lives as fully as possible but also how that might happen now that “all has changed, changed utterly,” to reference Yeats.

There’s much I have not revealed about this book, because I want to be mindful of letting Napolitano’s accomplished storytelling wash over you, when you find yourself in her richly evoked world-- a world where the peacocks mirror the uncompromising spirit of their mistress, Flannery O’Connor, and, in the end rise up, feathers spreading, “sea green, inky sapphire, specks of yellow…shimmering.”

Ann Napolitano's literary star is rising. Get yourself a copy of the luminous A GOOD HARD LOOK and prepare to be startled.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Guest post: PETER BEHRENS (author of THE O'BRIENS) on the editing process

The editing process

To write fiction I need a kick-start, and that usually means letting myself write raw, unedited first drafts in pencil. This is when my subconscious turns loose (I hope!) imagery and scenes my conscious mind has not processed yet. I will spew out a first draft with pencil and paper, and it is messy and ridiculous. I try to do as little self-editing at this stage as possible. But I usually do have a sense of the direction I want to go, a sense of the emotional/tonal/dramatic place that I want the scene/chapter to reach — a place I need that scene/chapter to get to.

When I have that raw and ugly first draft of a scene or chapter down — even if it is unfinished and open-ended, trailing all kinds of loose threads, I usually stroll out of my office feeling exhausted, with a sense of accomplishment. I'm also wondering at the strangeness , ridiculousness, and inefficiency of my process. I leave the raw draft alone for a night. I need some distance from it. It's like it's too hot to handle.

I go back to it in the morning, read over what I've written, and begin seeing how I might make it clearer, better, sharper. From that point on I want to unpack the raw draft, follow all the hints my subconscious has left for me. And eventually I want to be as clear and simple as possible. I try to make my prose glass so you can see through it. I want the reader to feel the roundness of scenes and characters, though literary “realism” is an illusion, of course. The “reality” I'm creating is as structured, composed, and unreal as any other sort of fiction — but I still want the reader to feel they know these characters, I want readers to inhabit their houses and rooms and know the smells, and the quality of the sunlight outside . . . I want to persuade readers to inhabit the characters and their worlds as wholly as possible.

Editing becomes almost endless. It feels endless. Takes months, years. Near the end of it I'm just putting in and taking out commas. Of course it's never really over. When I read the book as a physical book, for the first time, I catch knots in the syntax and grammar that I've missed . . . I see how structure could be improved . . . but it's too late! Time to move on to the next book.

I learned about being edited as a screenwriter where I was paid to sit in a room and listen carefully while people told me everything I had done wrong in my screenplays. One important thing a screenwriter must learn is to LISTEN. You may disagree, and shelve the criticism, but if it's coming from a source you respect, LISTEN TO IT FIRST. Think it through. Don't get defensive; listen. Then, later, make up your own mind whether it makes any sense. Good editors can point out clearly when something is not working, then they leave the fixes to the writer.

THE O'BRIENS by Peter Behrens (2011) House of Anansi Press, 548 pages

In this sprawling Irish family saga that spans six decades from 1900-1960 you will meet a symphony of voices from the ambitious and resourceful patriarch Joe O'Brien to his philanthropically-minded photographer wife Iseult to Joe's brothers Grattan (an ace pilot) and Tom (a priest) to Joe and Iseult's passionate children Mike, Margo and Frankie and you will feel party to their dark secrets, private agonies and dreams.

The epigraph, a poem by established Irish poet Nuala NiDhomhnaill, is Joe's emotional touchstone:

The storm came
blew with force,
I heard your voice
calling me through thunder.

From the time Joe assumes the role of man of the house when he's only thirteen to the time he navigates himself safely to the Cape Breton shoreline through the calls of his granddaughter Madeleine, he relies on the people he loves best to moor him through storms literal and figurative and there are plenty of both.

Raised in poverty in rural Quebec in the late 19th century, Joe and his siblings accept the kindness of the local parish priest, Fr. Lillis, who "knew he had to help them all, so he began inviting the whole bunch to stop at his house after school for lessons in geometry, table manners, and German... And he taught them the waltz... What he was trying to teach was courage." When news reaches Mrs. O'Brien of her absent husband's accidental death in South Africa, "Joe understood that his father had left his power behind, and that he, as eldest son, had inherited it... He would use it to protect them all." And, protect them he does, though years after he has trusted his sisters Hope and Kate to a convent where they had taken their vows as Soeur Marie-Bernadette and Soeur Marie-Emmanuelle, Joe worries that "in his greed and hurry to escape and seek his own freedom, they were the ones who had paid the price."

While Joe O'Brien is making a name for himself with railroad contracts, Iseult Wilkins is reconciling herself to a new beginning as a recent adult orphan. She decides to move to Venice Beach, California and it is there in the realty office that she meets Joe's younger brother Grattan and "felt her cheeks flushing with thoughts that weren't words, just burrs of feeling, inchoate, startling." In the little Linnie cottage that she decides to purchase with her inheritance, Iseult resolves "she might find clarity and calm, she might find her own purpose." Amid that clarity and calm appears Grattan's older brother Joe, who courts Iseult with fresh flowers and letters in a whirlwind 5-week romance that leads to their marriage about which Iseult believes is " a road, not the place where the road stopped."

In the years of the Great War, there are letters from the Front from Grattan with such vivid and unfiltered detail that it feels almost prurient to be reading them. Joe and Iseult's son Michael is born in early 1914 and he's joined by a little sister Margo, two years later. The family has settled in Montreal in a massive stone home on Pine Street from which Joe continues to oversee his burgeoning business empire and Iseult begins to involve herself in philanthropic work with poor single mothers and their children. There are some trying moments after the war, especially for Grattan, who has a difficult time readjusting to married life with his wife Elise and their daughter Virginia.

When another war appears unavoidable it is the next generation of young men who enlist, Joe's son Mike and his son-in-law Johnny, both of whom write honest, heart-breaking letters home to their families about the kill or be killed nature of life on that Front. In those years, Frankie, Iseult and Joe's youngest daughter, confesses that "doorbell dread was like a sliver of ice entering the intestinal tract." All families feared that knock on the door that portended the loss of a loved one.

Next to his younger brothers Tom and Grattan, over the years "it was as if Joe had taken the weight of his family onto his shoulders and it had shortened, thickened and bent him." Fiercely loyal, but emotionally complicated, Joe O'Brien remains enigmatic throughout the novel; yet, it is the puzzling out of his character that drives the narrative and kept me flipping through right through to its satisfying denouement, anticipated way back in the epigraph. For, in the end, Joe realizes that "All his life he'd needed their voices--outside himself, bright and alive, to take a bearing on, to find his way." In the symphony of voices that Behrens has created in THE O'BRIENS, you, too, will find your way.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

NATURAL ORDER by Brian Francis (from the ARC, on sale August 23, 2011) Doubleday Canada, 384 pages

At a launch for another author’s book earlier this year, I chatted with Brian Francis’s editor who gushed about this forthcoming novel. So, I asked her to send me an ARC once it was available. Hearing a little about its plot and themes, it sounded to me as though it would be a novel along the lines of Stewart O’Nan’s most recent triumph EMILY, ALONE--a book I adored.

NATURAL ORDER opens with an obituary for John Charles Sparks dated July 27, 1984. He was only thirty-one when he died, allegedly of cancer. And, although John’s story is at the heart of the narrative, it is told many years later through the eyes of his mother, Joyce, now an 86-year-old widow living out her remaining days in a nursing home where the buzzers keep her awake at night and she laments the problem of getting old as “time bends and shifts. Memories spring up, uprooted.”

Joyce is spunky and has a dark sense of humour, one of her pieces of emotional armour. When her snoring roommate irritates her, she dreams of hurling the Yellow Pages at her, “never at her head, though I’ve been tempted. Only at her feet.” And, when she is exasperated by one of the many health care aides, she muses, “I could have told her I was pregnant and she would have asked me if I wanted ice in my glass.” One day, a new volunteer, Timothy, drops by for a chat and Joyce is startled by his hands that remind her of her son John’s: “They’re nice. Strong… I feel my heart fold up like a piece of paper.

Over the course of seven decades, Francis has Joyce unfurl her tale, from the summer she was seventeen and working in the local ice-cream bar with her musical-loving, tap-dancing friend Freddy Pender (who channels Robert Preston as Harold Hill in The Music Man) to her early married years raising her son John to the devastating years after his unexpected death to her widowhood when she “didn’t want to face life without [her] son and husband” to her final days spent in the company of strangers where she finally finds redemption.

In Joyce Sparks, Brian Francis has created an authentic and memorable voice of a woman who has spent her lifetime wrestling secrets to the ground, and who finally comes to terms with the healing power of facing the truth and making amends before it’s too late. What impressed me most about this book was Francis’s keen, clear understanding of a parent’s grief at the loss of a child, where, as for Joyce and her husband Charlie, “things either happened before or after John’s death. The world was cleaved in two.” It is not the natural order to bury your child. He is meant to bury you.

By balancing Joyce’s complicated grief journey with the realities of aging, Francis offers up lessons for all time. I hope very much to see NATURAL ORDER on the important fiction long lists this Fall. It deserves to be there.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

THE DISCIPLE OF LAS VEGAS by Ian Hamilton (2011) House of Anansi Press, 340 pages

Feisty, sexy forensic accountant Ava Lee is back in the second of this entertaining series published by the Spiderline imprint at House of Anansi Press. If you missed her debut in The Water Rat of Wanchai, really you ought to get caught up. Ava is a creature of habit, working through her enigmatic assignments often clad in a black Giordano t-shirt and Adidas sweatpants, sipping on mug after mug of Starbucks VIA instant coffee, tossing a Chanel bag over her shoulder and slipping a Cartier tank watch on her wrist as she scribbles relevant details and provocative questions in a fresh Moleskin notebook.

Ava’s business partnership with a septugenarian of no relation whom she calls Uncle is a fruitful one and they frequently work for a million dollar retainer. Their clients are “typically Asian, normally desperate, and often irrational by the time they signed up with Ava and Uncle” who unabashedly take “thirty percent of everything they recovered.” This time they are hired by Tommy Ordonez, the richest man in the Phillipines (and a bully), to recover $50 million lost in a land swindle.

Ava’s research takes her to San Francisco, Vancouver, Victoria, bank accounts in Costa Rica and Cyprus and to an online gambling ring in Las Vegas that happens to be run through a First Nations server, hosted by the Cooper Island Gaming Commission and managed by the honourable Chief Ronald Francis. Thanks to her instinct and ability to ask the right questions, Ava uncovers links to infamous gambler David “the Disciple” Douglas and his business partner Jeremy Ashton, both of whom she comes to believe have cheated the online system and have hidden her client’s stolen funds.

Before Ava is able to get to the end of the money trail, she’s beaten up in a Vegas parking garage, has the psychological weight of an attempted suicide on her shoulders, and is forced to call in Uncle’s 150-pound thugs and likely sociopaths Carlos and Andy (who only speak Cantonese) to help persuade Douglas and Ashton why they ought to come clean (using a gun, a meat cleaver and stove top elements.) However, more than their reputations are at stake and what may have been a simple game of cat-and-mouse turns out to be something with high political stakes that risks a diplomatic disaster in the British Prime Minister’s Office.

Always fair-minded and never too proud to appeal to St. Jude (the patron saint of lost causes), or to use her terrifyingly precise bak mei martial arts skills, or to compromise for the sake of succeeding on her client’s behalf, Ava strategically negotiates her way through to a satisfying conclusion.

The best news, however, is that the next book in this exciting and entertaining series is already scheduled for February 2012. You can be sure that I will be eager to trail Ava Lee on her next adventure then in The Wild Beasts of Wuhan.

Monday, July 04, 2011

A Reckoning of Reading So Far in 2011

Both @FadedPaper and @bookgaga are responsible for prompting me to create this list of books I've read so far in 2011. I've listed them in the order in which I've read them. Many of the authors are vivid presences on Twitter and that is why I've reached for their books. You should too.


All of the books on this list I have blogged about here at Reading for the Joy of It with a few of the most recent posts forthcoming.

1. GONE FOR GOOD by Harlan Coben (2002) Dell
2. THE FATES WILL FIND THEIR WAY by Hannah Pittard (2011) HarperCollins Canada
3. GREAT PHILOSOPHERS WHO FAILED AT LOVE by Andrew Shaffer (2011) HarperCollins Canada
4. THE WATER RAT OF WANCHAI by Ian Hamilton (2010) House of Anansi Press
5. TETHERED by Amy MacKinnon (2008) Random House
6. THE MIDWIFE OF VENICE by Roberta Rich (2011) Random House Canada
7. TELL NO ONE by Harlan Coben (2001) Random House
8. THE GUARDIANS by Andrew Pyper (2011) Doubleday Canada
9. THE SENTIMENTALISTS by Johanna Skibsrud (2009) Gaspereau Press
10. IN HER SHOES by Jennifer Weiner (2002) Simon and Schuster
11. MORDECAI: THE LIFE & TIMES by Charles Foran (2010) Random House Canada
12. GROWING UP JUNG: COMING OF AGE AS THE SON OF TWO SHRINKS by Micah Toub (2010) Doubleday Canada
13. A COLD NIGHT FOR ALLIGATORS by Nick Crowe (2011) Knopf Canada
14. LAST NIGHT IN MONTREAL by Emily Mandel (2009) Unbridled Books
15. AS LONG AS THE RIVERS FLOW by James Bartleman (2011) Random House Canada
16. FINDING THE WORDS, ed. Jared Bland (2011) McClelland & Stewart
17. CRIME MACHINE by Giles Blunt (2010) Random House Canada
18. THE WILD WATER WALKING CLUB by Claire Cook (2009) Hyperion
19. PLAY DEAD by Harlan Coben (1990) Penguin
20. THE CANTERBURY TRAIL by Angie Abdou (2011) Brindle & Glass
21. HOLD TIGHT by Harlan Coben (2008) Penguin
22. BETTER LIVING THROUGH PLASTIC EXPLOSIVES by ZsuZsi Gartner (2011) Penguin Canada
23. COMPOSED by Rosanne Cash (2010) Viking Penguin
24. DARKEST FEAR by Harlan Coben (2000) Dell
25. THE SALT ROAD by Jane Johnson (2011) Doubleday Canada
26. THE HIGH ROAD by Edna O'Brien (1988) Farrar Strauss & Giroux
27. SANCTUS by Simon Toyne (2011) HarperCollins Canada
28. SONGS FOR THE MISSING by Stewart O'Nan (2008) Viking Penguin
29. THE BIG WHY by Michael Winter (2004) House of Anansi Press
30. ALONE IN THE CLASSROOM by Elizabeth Hay (2011) McClelland & Stewart
31. PIGEON ENGLISH by Stephen Kelman (2011) House of Anansi Press
32. THE MURDERER'S DAUGHTERS by Randy Susan Meyers (2009) St. Martin's Press
33. IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS by Robin Black (2010) Random House
34. DEAL BREAKER by Harlan Coben (1995) Random House
35. HOLDING STILL FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE by Zoe Whittall (2009) House of Anansi Press
36. CAUGHT by Harlan Coben (2010) Penguin Canada
37. TIGER, TIGER by Margaux Fragoso (2011) Douglas & McIntyre
38. THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS by Jess Walter (2009) Harper Collins Canada
39. COMBAT CAMERA by A.J. Somerset (2010) Biblioasis
40. VACLAV & LENA by Haley Tanner (2011) Random House Canada
41. THE LONG GOODBYE by Meghan O'Rourke (2011) Riverhead Books
42. EMILY, ALONE by Stewart O'Nan (2011) Viking Penguin
43. TEN THOUSAND SAINTS by Eleanor Henderson (2011) Ecco
44. RAVEN STOLE THE MOON by Garth Stein (1998) Harper Collins
45. BOSSYPANTS by Tina Fey (2011) Little, Brown and Company
46. MY DEAR I WANTED TO TELL YOU by Louisa Brown (2011) HarperCollins Canada
47. THE BIRD SISTERS by Rebecca Rasmussen (2011) Crown Publishing
48. UP UP UP: STORIES by Julie Booker (2011) House of Anansi Press
49. MR. CHARTWELL by Rebecca Hunt (2010) HarperCollins Canada
50. THE BEAUTY CHORUS by Kate Lord Brown (2011) McArthur & Company
51. STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett (2011) HarperCollins Canada
52. UNTOLD STORY by Monica Ali (2011) Simon and Schuster Canada
53. THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain (2011) Random House
54. SO MUCH PRETTY by Cara Hoffman (2011) Simon and Schuster
55. SAVING CEE CEE HONEYCUTT by Beth Hoffman (2010) Viking Penguin
56. THE SINGER'S GUN by Emily Mandel (2010) Unbridled Books
57. PICTURES OF YOU by Caroline Leavitt (2010) Algonquin Books
58. THE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick DeWitt (2011) House of Anansi Press
59. FAITH by Jennifer Haigh (2011) HarperCollins Canada
60. MAINE by J. Courtney Sullivan (2011) Knopf
61. THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ by Anne Enright (2011) McClelland & Stewart
62. THE TIGER'S WIFE by Tea Obreht (2011) Random House
63. THE BLASPHEMER by Nigel Farndale (2010) Doubleday
64. THE O'BRIENS by Peter Behrens (ARC from House of Anansi Press for blog tour)

Currently reading:

THE DISCIPLE OF LAS VEGAS by Ian Hamilton (ARC from House of Anansi Press)
THE NATURAL ORDER by Brian Francis (ARC from Random House Canada)

Re-reading for work:

THE SELECTED WORK OF T.S. SPIVET by Reif Larsen (Penguin Canada)
THE FATES WILL FIND THEIR WAY by Hannah Pittard (Ecco)
COMBAT CAMERA by AJ Somerset (Biblioasis)
ANNABEL by Kathleen Winter (House of Anansi Press)