Saturday, December 22, 2012

2012 Reading Round-up

Inspired by novelist Elliott Holt's list of titles in the order in which she read them throughout the year, here's mine. I've put in bold my favourite reads of the 75 I finished, the books that made my life richer in both real time and in my imagination. 

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen 
 A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny 
 Then Again by Diane Keaton 
 Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean 
 The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach 
Beastly Things by Donna Leon
 The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin  
Blue Nights by Joan Didion (the rhythm and pacing of each perfect sentence) 
Vertical by Rex Pickett (a deeper, darker, more redemptive journey for Miles and Jack) 
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley 
Sideways by Rex Pickett  
Puppy Love by Frauke Scheunemann 
The Wild Beasts of Wuhan by Ian Hamilton 
Why Men Lie by Linden MacIntyre 
All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman 
The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones 
Live Wire by Harlan Coben 
Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live by Ray Robertson 
The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer 
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (her affection for Shakespeare matches my own) 
 This is How by Augusten Burroughs 
Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (harrowing, heartbreaking, healing) 
Unquenchable by Nathalie Maclean 
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier 
 The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy
The Key by Simon Toyne 
The Things We Fear Most by Gloria Vanderbilt 
Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann 
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead 
 Inside by Alix Ohlin 
 Famous Builder by Paul Lisicky 
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger 
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
A Wanted Man by Lee Child 
Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck 
 Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub 
The Red Pole of Macau by Ian Hamilton
Arcadia by Lauren Groff 
The Lola Quartet by Emily Mandel (inheritor of Chandler, which is why I adore all of her writing)
The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner 
 A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (re-read) 
The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald (re-read) (stunning, make your heart skip-a-beat prose
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (re-read) 
 The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (the noir-master's best--Banville's Marlowe cannot possibly measure up) 
Book of Souls by Glenn Cooper 
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (the book I gifted more than any other 2012 title) 
Canada by Richard Ford (master craftsman provides such a rich interior life--and the chapter about loneliness snagged my breath) 
Gold by Chris Cleave 
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay 
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green 
The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (his love for his wife Cissy Pascal is enviable) 
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (these exquisite essays make me miss a man I never knew) 
The Emperor of Paris by C.S. Richardson 
The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny 
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee (Albee's finest play--such a brilliant study in character)
The Bat by Jo Nesbo 
Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky 
The Lay Of The Land by Richard Ford (my favourite of the Bascombe books in which I felt as if Frank were speaking directly to me)
Dear Life by Alice Munro (these stories are the Grande Dame of short fiction's most personal to date) 
Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin (Rebus is back!)
Malarky by Anakana Schofield
In One Person by John Irving  
One Good Hustle by Billie Livingston (true, dark, redemptive narrative voice)
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (reminded me of Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse)
The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam 
Faithful Place by Tana French 
Drawing Conclusions by Donna Leon 
Here is New York by E.B. White (a brilliant billet-doux to NYC)
Until the Night by Giles Blunt 
Stay Close by Harlan Coben 
 Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Fowler (a richly imagined, finely detailed perspective that will have you yearning for 1920s NYC and Paris due April 2013 from St. Martin’s Press)
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper (smart, taut, terrifying thriller featuring a Milton scholar due March 2013 from Simon and Schuster) 
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (due March 2013 from McClelland & Stewart and A.A. Knopf--I fully expect this unflinching, harrowing, stunning memoir to win the National Book Award)


Currently reading The Richard Burton Diaries, Cathy Marie Buchanan's The Painted Girls and the ARC of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (due April 2013 from Bond Street Books)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

WHIRL AWAY by Russell Wangersky (2012) Thomas Allen Publishers, 207 pages



Wangersky's WHIRL AWAY is dark, taut, masterful. Shortlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize, these stories explore our frangible humanity and the ordinary complications of daily lives. Wangersky is unflinching in each narrative. And, every word matters. He has followed Hemingway's dictum to "write the truest sentence that you know" time and time again. These carefully crafted stories make me think of Richard Ford's suggestion that "literature is good for taking you back to life with an enhanced sense of life's possibility and importance."

It will be interesting to see if this year's Giller Prize jury of Roddy Doyle, Anna Porter and Gary Schteyngart will anoint this gritty collection on Tuesday evening.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

THE BAT by Jo Nesbo, trans. Don Bartlett (2012) Random House Canada, 374 pages


Norwegian crime fiction darling Jo Nesbo first published THE BAT in 1997 and Detective Harry Hole was an instant hit. It's appearing in English for the first time, translated by Don Bartlett.

In Australia a beautiful Norwegian girl taking a gap year has been murdered and Harry has been sent on behalf of the embassy to assist in any way he can. He soon discovers that Inger Holter's rape and strangulation may be connected to others, where all of the victims have been young blondes. Partnered with an affable indigenous cop with a heroin addiction, Andrew Kensington, Harry finds himself befriending hookers, thugs, a cross-dresser whose day job is as a clown in a demented circus, and a pimp as he inches closer to the truth.

Rife with aboriginal lore that gives the novel its title, backstory that reveals Harry's emotional vulnerability, the potential love of a good woman, and a cast of intriguing supporting characters who contribute to the adrenaline rush and misdirection of a whip-smart plot, Nesbo's debut novel will hook you. There's no doubt about it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

THE EMPEROR OF PARIS by C.S. Richardson (2012) Doubleday Canada, 276 pages


Book designer Scott Richardson set tongues a-wagging about his writing talent with his stunning debut novel THE END OF THE ALPHABET, which won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book. This second one proves that he's not merely a "one-hit wonder."

THE EMPEROR OF PARIS is a gorgeous billet-doux to Paris, to baking, to books, to art, to the tenacity of love. Richardson's great gift in storytelling is his exquisite ability to place you directly in the moment, peering over each character's shoulder. His prose style is filmic, creating a visual intimacy with time and place. Consider, for example, this description of a fire that devastates a Parisian bakery:

"Smouldering flakes begin to blossom in the heavy air, sliding over slumped shoulders, resting for a moment on shoe tops, dying tiny shrivelled deaths in the street. There are glimpses, here and there: a sentence, a phrase, a doomed word drifts by. Among the singed white bits are shards of red leathers and blue cloths, the curled and blackened edges of marbled papers, melted strands of silk ribbon, everything spinning slowly to the ground."

Flip to any page in the story and you will find a sentence so perfectly formed that it will snag your heart. As a prose stylist Richardson seems to me to be a direct inheritor of Scott Fitzgerald, where the beauty of a phrase makes it stand equally alone and apart as it is integral to the narrative.

I'm pleased that this year's triumvirate of Giller Prize judges--all celebrated writers themselves--(Roddy Doyle, Anna Porter and Gary Shteyngart) has named THE EMPEROR OF PARIS to the 2012 long list and hope to see it make the leap to the short listed titles on October 1st.



Wednesday, August 29, 2012

MORTALITY by Christopher Hitchens (2012) McClelland & Stewart, 104 pages


This new collection of Hitchens's personal essays from his year of "living dyingly" is a perfect wee tome, rife with his legendary candour and fierce intelligence. It was on my doorstep when I arrived home from work yesterday and I sat down immediately to thumb through it and couldn't stop.

Several of the pieces were familiar to me as previously published in Vanity Fair where he was a contributing columnist for years. Its managing editor Graydon Carter provides the foreword in which he notes, "Christopher was one of life's singular characters--a wit, a charmer, a trouble-maker, and a dear and devoted friend. He was a man of insatiable appetites--for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing, and, above all, for conversation. That he had an output to equal what he took in was the miracle in the man."

Mortality includes seven full essays, an eighth instalment of a selection of final scribblings and an incredibly moving afterword by Hitchens's widow Carol Blue, the directness of which had me weeping for her great lost love. What an extraordinary love theirs was. It puts me in mind of Chandler's remarkable affection for his wife Cissy Pascal, who "for thirty years, ten months and four days," he claimed, "was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything else I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at."

Read Hitchens again in his own voice. It is good and true and as familiar as the rhythm of your own heart.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

THE SELECTED LETTERS OF RAYMOND CHANDLER, Edited by Frank MacShane (1981) Columbia University Press, 483 pages


Reading these Chandler letters has been one of the great delights of my Lit Nerd life. His correspondence is candid, revealing, witty and beautiful in equal measure. Even as he was writing them, he was aware that that particular insomniac's coping strategy--carrying on a conversation in his head with the "other"--was already outdated, replaced then by the telephone. Albeit, for him, those missives were essential.

The correspondence ranges between 1937 and the year of his death 1959 and he writes to friends, agents, editors, fellow novelists, publishers and Hollywood moguls with passion and aplomb. Because I am teaching his noir masterpiece THE LONG GOODBYE this semester, I was especially interested in the letters referring to its evolution and Chandler's writing process. How he struggled with that book. Rewrote and rewrote until he got it right. And, boy, did he get it right.

What moved me most was his gorgeous affection for his wife Cissy Pascal and how devastated he was by her death:

"She was the beat of my heart for thirty years. She was the music heard faintly at the edge of sound. It was my great and now useless regret that I never wrote anything worth her attention, no book that I could dedicate to her. I planned it. I thought of it, but I never wrote it....Saying goodbye to your loved one in your mind is not the same thing as closing her eyes and knowing they will never open again....For thirty years, ten months and four days, she was the light of my life, my whole ambition. Anything else I did was just the fire for her to warm her hands at....All us tough guys are sentimentalists at heart."

To have lived a love like theirs must have been something.

When I turned the final page in the collection I found myself wishing I'd been lucky enough to have known Chandler and to have been engaged in an ongoing, stimulating, life-affirming correspondence with him. He was a generous spirit.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green (2012) Dutton Books, 303 pages


"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." ~Shakespeare, JULIUS CAESAR

Spending my workdays talking about literature in the exclusive company of teenaged boys, I am always looking for new titles that will engage even the most reluctant adolescent reader and woo them with beguiling characters and narrative drive. That THE FAULT IN OUR STARS has both and also opens the opportunity to rattle on about Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot and the book that changed your life makes it an undeniable fit for my @TeenBoyLitCrit classroom.

Rife with sarcasm and dark humour that is essential to the way teens communicate with each other, Green's novel reminds me of David Mitchell's brilliant coming of age story BLACK SWAN GREEN, a similar tale involving believable dialogue and totally engrossing characters.

All I will tell you about what happens in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is that Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters meet in a Cancer Support Group in "the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church" where they "all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross...where the heart of Jesus would have been" and their leader Patrick tells them over and over again how "cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life." Each week all of the current cancer survivors follow his testimony with what 17-year-old Hazel calls "the circle jerk of support: everyone talking about fighting and battling and winning and shrinking and scanning." At his inaugural meeting August tells Hazel that she looks just like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta and if that isn't an open sesame for a nod to Mae West's come up and see me some time, I don't know what is.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is mordantly funny, tender and true. Pick it up. Go along for the journey that will leave you feeling moved and lucky to spend your reading hours in the company of such real characters.

Today I'm giving a copy to friends whose own fiery-spirited daughter Cassie died from cancer in her teens. They will see so much of her in Hazel Grace and Augustus. John Green has such a gift.


Thursday, August 09, 2012

TRUST YOUR EYES by Linwood Barclay, forthcoming September 2012 from Doubleday Canada, 498 pages



I've been a longtime fan of Linwood Barclay's thrillers including THE ACCIDENT, NEVER LOOK AWAY, FEAR THE WORST, TOO CLOSE TO HOME and NO TIME FOR GOODBYE. In each he creates characters that seem so real and situations that are terrifying yet plausible that you believe what befalls his fictional folk could very well happen to you or to people you know just down the street or only a block away.

In his forthcoming novel TRUST YOUR EYES, Barclay is a storyteller at the height of his powers. The set up feels like a heady cross between RAIN MAN and Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW. The Kilbride brothers--men in their mid-thirties--have just lost their father to a sudden accident. One of them, Thomas, is a schizophrenic who seems to also be an agoraphobic, rarely leaving the security of his bedroom in the home in which he was raised. He's got important work, as he sees it: memorizing the maps of the world, city by city, street by street, so that one day when the CIA needs him because the online world implodes, those patterns will have been imprinted in his remarkable brain. And, he will be their essential resource. Thomas spends his days and nights on a website, Whirl360 (Google maps, anyone?), where he witnesses what he thinks might be a murder of a woman in a New York City apartment. Hitch is nobody believes him. Not even his brother Ray, an illustrator, and his caretaker. It takes a woman from their shared past, a local journalist who has always treated Thomas kindly, to help convince Ray that there is definitely something rotten that has been accidentally captured and posted online for the entire world to see.

Ray's journey leads him not only to the scene of the crime but also unwittingly among political spin masters who will stop at nothing to protect their candidate.

Barclay had my heart thumping with suspense and gasping with unexpected tenderness. If you haven't yet found your way to his books, TRUST YOUR EYES is a heady place to begin.


Monday, July 30, 2012

GOLD by Chris Cleave (2012) Bond Street Books, 321 pages



Random House of Canada's Scott Richardson (a novelist himself who writes as C.S. Richardson--read his THE END OF THE ALPHABET, for starters) designed this gorgeous cover for Chris Cleave's extraordinary novel about competition, compassion, love and loss.

With the London 2012 Games having begun on the weekend (with that hilarious parody during the Opening Ceremony of James Bond, starring Daniel Craig and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her corgis), my timing to read GOLD couldn't have been more perfect. In it two British women cyclists, Kate Argall and Zoe Castle, are training for their places on Great Britain's cycling team for these very games.

Kate and Zoe met when they both made the cut for the national cycling team when they were just nineteen years old. There, one of their teammates, Jack--handsome, swaggering Jack--falls for each of them, one a passion in passing, the other lifelong. Twelve years later, Zoe is the face of Perrier and living a wild single life, while Jack and Kate, now married, are focused on their daughter Sophie, who is a tomboyish eight, obsessed with Star Wars, and has leukaemia--a reality the little family has been dealing with for a couple of years.

All three adults are in the top condition of their sporting lives, each hoping for a seat on the GB cycling team for London 2012.

There are conflicts aplenty and secrets kept then shared that risk everything. And, it's clear that Cleave understands what it must feel like to train so obsessively, through ongoing physical and emotional pain. He knows, as he shows through Tom, the aging coach and former Olympian, that our bodies are bound to betray us: through illness, through injury, over time.

Cleave is a stunning prose stylist. I found myself turning down the corners of pages to return to contemplate the beauty of the thought and the weight of the sentence. Consider this passage where Kate is watching a televised race where she should have been competing: "Her leg muscles twitched and her awareness sharpened, dilating every second. Kate hated the way her body still readied itself to race like this, hopelessly, the way a widow's exhausted heart must still leap at a photo of her dead lover." Or this one where Zoe contemplates a life other than the one she's living: "Just beyond your sight, life might be moving in ways that were moments away from being revealed to you. It was a mistake to take disappointments at face value. You were only a tap at the door and a dozen fresh-cut blooms away from happy."

And, the denouement is perfect. What a read. What a ride.

I cannot wait to give a copy of GOLD to my friend Helen, a former GB Olympian who competed in '72 & '76 Summer Games in Munich and Montreal as a diver, who is currently a physician at a children's hospital here in Toronto. She will certainly feel as if Cleave's story were written especially for her.

GOLD is not only model Sports Lit, but also a story that will feed your heart and mind. Treat yourself to a copy. Soon.

Follow @chriscleave on Twitter, or drop by his website to see if he's doing an event near you http://www.chriscleave.com/.


Friday, July 27, 2012

CANADA by Richard Ford (2012) Harper Collins Canada, 418 pages


Two years ago when I co-chaired the PEN Canada event that opened Toronto's International Festival of Authors I had the surreal pleasure of speaking with Richard Ford directly. In addition to his well-known Southern charm, what left an indelible mark was his comment: "Literature made me believe in a better place."

Every sentence in CANADA is written with care. The title, itself, he admits "makes a commotion in my chest when I say it." He's a writer who respects the sound and rhythm of words. Part of his process includes reading the manuscript aloud, a step that essentially contributes to the final copy in your hands.

Although Del Parsons, the narrator, did not resonate with me the way Ford's Frank Bascombe continues to, his thoughts made me consider Ford not only one of the finest social satirists writing today, but also someone verging on philosopher king. Consider these two passages, both of which are so exquisitely expressed that reading them in isolation would be enough to lure me to read the book:

"Loneliness, I've read, is like being in a long line, waiting to reach the front where it's promised something good will happen. Only the line never moves, and other people are always coming in ahead of you, and the front, the place where you want to be, is always farther and farther away, until you no longer believe it has anything to offer you."


"What I know is, you have a better chance in life--of surviving it--if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate, as Ruskin implied, to keep in proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find. We try. All of us. We try."

Literature makes me believe in a better place. It does. It will.


(Richard Ford, Eleanor Wachtel, and Mark Kingwell in Fleck Dance Theatre green room, October 2010, before PEN Canada's benefit, THE LAY OF THE LAND, opening night IFOA)




Tuesday, July 24, 2012

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter (2012) HarperCollins Canada, 338 pages


In a recent interview (which I encourage you to listen to at Other People: http://otherpeoplepod.com/archives/970 ) Jess Walter said, "I think all of my books are about a wistful longing for connection." And, if "reading fiction is immersive, then writing fiction is even moreso." He knows.

An epigraph to the novel, attributed to Louis Menand's "Talk Story" in The New Yorker, explains "Cavett's four great interviews with Richard Burton were done in 1980.... Burton, fifty-four at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, was mesmerizing." Trust Menand. And watch for yourself. Burton was all that and more--about to embark on a revival tour of Camelot, playing King Arthur, opposite Christine Ebersole's Guinevere, a performance I happened to see at Toronto's O'Keefe Centre, where he'd previously christened the house with Julie Andrews in 1960.

A sleepy Italian fishing village circa 1962, smart satire of contemporary Hollywood, a drug-addicted musician, and the charismatic Richard Burton on and off the set of Cleopatra are the defining elements of Walter's beguiling novel that for me will remain THE read of Summer 2012.

Consider the entrancing opening paragraph set in April 1962, Porto Vergogna, Italy:

"The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly--in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier. She wavered a moment in the boat's stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing; with the other she pressed a wide-brimmed hat against her head. All around her, shards of sunlight broke on flickering  waves."

Gorgeous, right?

Walter masterfully moves from that 1960s microcosm where the lives of local Pasquale Tursi, visiting American actress Dee Moray, hopeful novelist Alvis Bender and the inimitable Richard Burton temporarily intertwine to the studio lots and pitch rooms of contemporary Hollywood which he brilliantly satirizes through Claire Silver and her producer boss Michael Deane. Deane, author of the "memoir/self-help classic, The Deane's Way" makes outrageous statements like, "Ideas are sphincters. Every asshole has one. Your take is what counts. I could walk into Fox today and sell a movie about a restaurant that serves baked monkey balls, if I had the right take." Deane's cynicism may be worthy of your scorn, but it also feels right on the money.

There are sentences in this novel that made me catch my breath as well as moments so perfectly imagined that I knew I was in the care of a master craftsman who knows how it feels to be human and fallible. Here's one, early on, where past and present collide during a visit Pasquale makes as an old man to California, following up on an offer made fifty years before:

"Claire feels a tug in her chest, some deeper shift, a cracking of her hard-earned cynicism, of this anxious tension she's been fighting. The actress's name means nothing to her, but the old guy seems utterly changed by saying it aloud, as if he hasn't said the name in years. Something about the name affects her, too--a crush of romantic recognition, those words, moment and forever--as if she can feel fifty years of longing in that one name, fifty years of an ache that lies dormant in her, too, maybe lies dormant in everyone until it's cracked open like this--and so weighted is this moment she has to look at the ground or else feel the tears burn her own eyes...the name hanging in the air...and then floating to the floor like a falling leaf, the Italian watching it settle..."

Over and over again, I felt connected to Walter's characters in a visceral way. And, he is a sophisticated storyteller who layers narrative upon narrative--from the omniscient third person narrator to Bender's stab at his post-war novel to Deane's rejected draft of his memoir to a pitch for a cannibal film to a scene from another character's play.

Immerse yourself in this world of BEAUTIFUL RUINS. You will be richly rewarded.



Monday, July 23, 2012

THE LOLA QUARTET by Emily St. John Mandel (2012) Unbridled Books, 279 pages


It pleases me perversely that I'm posting this review of THE LOLA QUARTET on Raymond Chandler's birthday. (Born July 23, 1888) 

In a noir style reminiscent of Chandler's THE LONG GOODBYE, Mandel unfurls her engrossing tale of journalist Gavin Sasaki with adept skill and a keen reverence for the genre in which she places her protagonist, who, clad in a trench coat and a fedora, doesn't "want to work at a newspaper per se," as his NYC copy editor chides but rather "to work in 1925." Gavin, whose favourite films are "all older than he was" and has seen Polanski's CHINATOWN "a dozen times," does not disagree. He'd like to be Philip Marlowe, sleuthing his way through other people's problems. Well, who wouldn't? Soon enough Gavin gets his wish. Sort of.

Set during the recent economic collapse when companies in all sectors had to downsize, Gavin loses his job, because he gets caught fabricating attributions for his articles. When asked about his choice, he readily admits, "Yeah, I lied. I made up people who gave me quotes because real people are so goddamned disappointing...they're pitiful." Fate takes control and Gavin ends up moving back home to Florida to live with his sister Eilo whose real estate foreclosure business is burgeoning. There, a chance encounter with a familiar-looking child leads to some complicated truths in Gavin's life.

Moving masterfully back and forth in time between the halcyon final days of high school, when Gavin played in a jazz quartet with his friends Daniel, Jack and Sasha named "after a German film they'd all liked with Lola in the title," and the present of 2009, Mandel is unafraid to plumb each time's darkness and attendant vulnerability for each of the players.

Toss in an unintended connection to the drug trade that requires payment in full, the threat of Burmese pythons in the Florida swamps, "seven-foot-long two-hundred-pound Nile monitors with eerily intelligent eyes...perfectly capable of eating a small dog," an ex-girlfriend on the lam, a gambling addict, and a guitar player as fine as Django Reinhardt, and you've got layer upon narrative layer that will keep your head spinning and your heart pumping right on through to the story's resolution.

Like Chandler-- perhaps the acknowledged master of the genre before her-- Mandel knows as her protagonist Gavin reveals as he heads "toward the north star and morning" that, "to say goodbye is to die a little." 

Monday, July 16, 2012

THE RED POLE OF MACAU by Ian Hamilton (from the ARC, forthcoming Sept 2012) House of Anansi Press, 304 pages



Ian Hamilton's Ava Lee novel series is fast becoming a favourite of mine in the crime fiction genre. Ava Lee is a contemporary heroine. She's a forensic accountant who happens to be trained in bak mei, a sophisticated, violent martial art, typically taught one-on-one, a mentor passing on its secrets to his student. She is also a private school-educated, stunning lesbian, as comfortable in her bespoke blouses, pencil skirts, stilettos, chic chignon and Chanel lipstick as she is in her running gear.

Although you can read any of these books in isolation, Hamilton threads the series together by referring back to the previous one in the opening pages of the newest one. So, you will know that Ava has recently (only a few days ago) completed a job with her Hong Kong business partner Uncle for the "most powerful business team in Wuhan City," Changxing and May Ling Wong. The deal involved pursuing "people who had foisted more than a dozen forged Fauvist paintings on them, paintings with a value of close to $80 million." How Ava managed to find the perpetrators and persuade them to return the money they had stolen is the heart of The Wild Beasts of Wuhan. And, although the fee Ava and Uncle receive is a generous 30% of what they recover, she seems unaffected by her burgeoning bank account.

In The Red Pole of Macau, the stakes are raised for Ava when her half brother Michael calls her and pleads for her help. It seems he and his Millennium Food partner Simon To have gotten themselves in a real fix with corrupt investors at Ma Shing Realty Corporation, and their bank has come calling, threatening to destroy everything they have worked so diligently to build. Soon, it becomes clear to Ava that negotiating with members of a triad is going to be more difficult than she had expected. So, she enlists Uncle's help as well as her steadfast muscle support in Sonny, Carlo and Andy, clever men she can trust with her life. May Ling Wong in her selfish need to broker a personal Taoist peace with Ava also becomes involved and her connections prove essential.

In addition to being a smart, entertaining, fast-paced read, each book is also part travelogue of an intimate section of south-east Asia. Go along for the ride. Cheer for feisty, fabulous, ass-kicking Ava Lee as she unloads perfectly timed bak mei on the bad guys. You'll be glad you did.

Follow Ian Hamilton on Twitter @avaleebooks. And, check out his website for upcoming appearances and forthcoming novels: http://ianhamiltonbooks.com/  The fifth in the series will be out in February 2013. Watch for Ava Lee in The Scottish Banker of Surabaya then. I know I will.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

FAMOUS BUILDER by Paul Lisicky (2002) Graywolf Press, 274 pages



With a clean, clear prose style that evokes both Mary Karr's unflinching memoir THE LIAR'S CLUB and August Kleinzahler's encomium to his elusive gangster brother CUTTY, ONE ROCK, Paul Lisicky's series of personal essays collected in FAMOUS BUILDER made me catch my breath in wonder and envy.

Like Karr, Lisicky is direct and unselfconscious in his portrayal of his relatives and himself. Consider this haunting description of his father from "New World":

My father is a storm. His presence charges the air with abstract particles: guilt, duty, fear of failure, fear of death. If he were a painting, he'd be a Jackson Pollock, all splash and squiggle, no open spaces, no room to breathe. If he were a piece of music, he'd be a Shoshtakovich symphony, brash, shot through with bursts of timpani and horns.

Great, right?

What about this matter-of-fact exchange between young Paul and his unflappable mother from "Luck Be A Lady:"

"What's a whooore?" I say later. I stand with my mother in the tiny kitchen, high on my tiptoes, and stir chicken Rice-A-Roni while she empties a brick of frozen peas into a saucepan.
"Whore," my mother says, correcting me.
"Whore."
"A woman who sells dances," she says without missing a beat.
I cock my head. Selling dances: I cannot think of anything more delightful.


Later, as a young man, making his way in Provincetown, Lisicky contemplates the idea of a loving relationship in "Same Situation:"

I wake up in the morning, groggy, a bar of sunlight blinding my eyes. I feel hope--what will happen today?--before the melancholy settles: dust beaten from a mop. If only someone's face were on the pillow next to mine. If only to watch another man sleeping, his mouth twitching as he dreams.

Who hasn't thought those very thoughts?

I gulped Lisicky's personal essays down in a day and plan to seek out his other work, too: LAWNBOY, THE BURNING HOUSE and UNBUILT PROJECTS. Follow him on Twitter @paul_lisicky.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

SEATING ARRANGEMENTS by Maggie Shipstead (2012) AA Knopf, 299 pages


Maggie Shipstead's debut novel is one of those books that reads as if it were fully formed in some ethereal stylistic heaven, waiting for the proper storyteller to be the medium to transcribe it.

Over the course of three days that lead up to the marriage of the winsomely pregnant Daphne Van Meter and the affable east coast scion Greyson Duff, you'll meet and get to know intimately father-of-the-bride Winn and his wife Biddy, weekend hosts to a gaggle of nubile bridesmaids and an interloping oft-married sister-in-law on their New England island. Hormones unhinge just about everyone and there is merely a veneer of propriety as several of the characters are swept along into an irresistible swirling vortex of lust. Past and present secrets are revealed, tempers flare and folks are damaged. In the end, by exposing the dangers fraught with living an inauthentic life, each of those flawed and deeply human characters inches their way to redemption.

Maggie Shipstead has emerged out of the social satire tradition of Philip Roth, Richard Ford and Lorrie Moore. I hope the uncompromising, smart and searing SEATING ARRANGEMENTS is the first of many novels to come from this marvellous new voice in contemporary American letters.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

INSIDE by Alix Ohlin (2012) House of Anansi Press, 258 pages


Ohlin's engrossing novel effortlessly shifts between time and place and character to reveal through four distinct narrative threads vulnerable lives that intertwine in unexpected ways. Grace, Tug, Annie and Mitch's stories will lure you, each a hook catching your heart, tearing it a little as it finds purchase.

Spanning over a decade that begins chronologically on the front lines in Kigali during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 where "Aid workers" like Tug "were romantics who pretended not to be, their personalities swinging like pendulums between idealism and pragmatism," Inside follows these four flawed, deeply human characters as they struggle to make meaning in their lives.

Both Grace and Mitch are therapists accustomed to probing the inner lives of their clients, though less-inclined to face their own troubles until their hands and hearts are forced to the task. Troubled teen Annie, raised in privilege in Montreal, begins to find herself when she abandons everything she knows and tries to make a career as an actress while inviting a desperate stranger inside her tiny, bare New York apartment. When John "Tug" Tugwell's attempt to kill himself fails one winter's day in Montreal, it is the kindness of a stranger that sets him upon an unexpected path toward redemption.

Like me, you will follow these complex characters on their fraught journeys, as Ohlin masterfully explores through each of them the risk of making oneself emotionally available and responsible for those closest to us.

Inside is poignant. It is also harrowing, and ultimately healing.

Friday, June 22, 2012

THE THINGS WE FEAR MOST by Gloria Vanderbilt (2012) Exile Editions, 139 pages


When Gloria Vanderbilt was in Toronto earlier this month to present the Carter Cooper Prize for Short Fiction to an emerging Canadian writer and an established Canadian writer at the tony Turf Lounge, I was seated at her table by her publisher Barry Callaghan, a long-time friend of mine who figured I was a sure bet for unabashed, lively conversation. Sweet of him, really.

I sat across from Ms. Vanderbilt--who at 88 is proof positive that age is just a number--and one of the winners, the equally lovely Sean Virgo, and beside one of her travelling companions, her long-time friend Marti Stevens, a theatre actress who stood up for Elaine Stritch at her marriage to John Bay at the Savoy in London when they were both in a touring production of Company. Well...what unfurled that evening was a series of extraordinary anecdotes about the creative life, including ones about John Gielgud, Noel Coward and Stephen Sondheim, each of whom Marti mimicked brilliantly.

Two nights later I went to the Brigantine Room to hear Gloria read from her most recent book The Things We Fear Most, a collection of flash fiction narratives and short stories that seize upon a situation, moments rife with the static of quotidian disaster. Her prose is spare, measured, beautifully calibrated. She is grounded. Unspoiled. Honest. And, I don't say this lightly, but her presence is a balm. Consider her opening comment: "I was born into a sense of loss," or the equally philosophical, "I have many dark moments, but they pass. And, here we are. I always think that the best is yet to come." What an attitude.

Each of the narratives in The Things We Fear Most is a polished gem. She knows about tone and audience and how to make the weight of every word matter. That night she read "The Gold Dust Twins," a story about close childhood friends Daisy Balfour and Sally Wentworth who "although they had recently avoided one another for years, when they ran into each other by chance on Madison Avenue, there were cries and hugs, which is how they find themselves at the Carlyle, talking about old times and getting poodled." Doesn't that sound like an irresistible way to spend an afternoon? I plan to do just that when I'm next in New York.

Find your way to these stories, written by someone who prefers the slow intimacy of pen to paper and fusses over each draft until each punctuation mark earns its place. Gloria Vanderbilt is a marvel, trust me.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

THE KEY by Simon Toyne (2012) HarperCollins Canada, 433 pages



Simon Toyne caught my attention with his richly-imagined, page-turning debut thriller SANCTUS, a book that went on to be published in dozens of countries and become an international bestseller. A loyal fan, I was delighted to receive a cherished ARC of its sequel THE KEY, now widely available in the UK and North America.

As THE KEY opens American journalist Liv Adamsen wakes in hospital in Ruin, having only a vague memory of trespassing inside the closeted Citadel religious community to try to solve the mystery of her brother-the-monk's unexpected and very public death. As the tag line on the novel's cover ominously suggests, "the fate of man lies in the hands of one woman." Liz is that woman. She has intimations of her haunting power and it takes the belief and understanding of charity worker Gabriel Mann to not only honour that potential and figure out what it means, but also to keep her safe from the factions invested in destroying her. 

Since Liz escaped from the Citadel, a terrifying, contagious disease has plagued the secretive brotherhood tucked within its centuries' old walls. And, those in charge--with connections to the mafia and the highest echelons of the Catholic Church--are determined to facilitate her return therein to provide the healing they believe only she possesses. To complicate matters there's a shadowy figure who prowls the desert, a mercenary known as The Ghost, a man who knows that Liv could very well be the key to unlocking a potent, long-kept secret he has helped to protect.

Written with intelligence, and a talent for revealing mind-bending plot twists at breakneck speed, Simon Toyne's THE KEY will have you gasping, your heart thumping a tattoo, hoping beyond hope that Liv will fulfil the prophecy with which she unwittingly became entangled when her investigative instincts put her in peril.

Read the tantalizing opening pages for yourself. You will be hooked.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D. by Nichole Bernier (2012) Crown Publishing, 305 pages


For discerning readers who yearn for character-driven stories rife with verisimilitude, look no further than Nichole Bernier's luminous and tender debut novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D.  As New York Times bestselling author J. Courtney Sullivan remarks, it is "a compelling mystery and a wise meditation...in an age of great anxiety."

Protagonist Kate Spenser has been both gifted and burdened with her friend Elizabeth's journals after Elizabeth's sudden death in an August plane crash, a "confluence of bad things--bad wind, bad rudder, a bad call by the pilot...quickly overshadowed by all that came in September." It is the spectre of that particular September 2001 that hides like a watermark beneath Kate's anxieties as she thumbs through the decades of Elizabeth's life confided between the pages of her trunkful of well-worn diaries.

Since Elizabeth leaves behind her widowed husband and three small children, including a toddler who surely won't remember her, it is not surprising that Kate, a happily married wife to Chris and mother to James and Piper, projects her imagined loss on them. And, it is in these imaginings that you see Bernier's emotional strength as a novelist who writes about real characters: "Loss would hang on James and Piper like poorly fitting clothes as they moved through town, people touching their hair and saying hello more attentively than they ever had, some even offering small gifts, which would cause the children to confuse death with a holiday. The kids would walk to school with their father, his vacant eyes an open door to a corridor of endless tomorrows." She's in John Irving terrain here, holding up the mirror to our greatest human fears.

Bernier builds tension masterfully throughout the novel. An obvious source is between Kate and Elizabeth's husband Dave, both trying to come to terms with why Elizabeth would bequeath the journals to a friend she's known for only a time instead of to her family as part of her legacy. There are secrets, of course. Indeed, ones that will catch your breath as you read them over Kate's shoulder. Consider the truth in this heartbreaking observation about the relationships between women: "A sister...best understood the crucible in which you were formed. One of the few capable of completing you, and if lost, of cleaving you cleanly in half."

Wisdom and emotional truth teem from these pages. And, you will surely feel as I did that you have spent the restorative seven weeks on Great Rock Island in the company of Kate and Chris and their children, unravelling thread by thread the great mystery of what it is to be human through love and loss and the redemptive power of both.

Friday, June 01, 2012

UNQUENCHABLE by Natalie MacLean (2011) Doubleday Canada, 333 pages

With a structural nod to fellow oenophile Rex Pickett's Pinot-centric SIDEWAYS, Natalie MacLean maps out her tours of vineyards around the world through the days of a week. She is an engaging guide from Sunday through Sunday from Australia to Germany to the nascent Niagara region in Ontario to South Africa to the south of France.

What amused me most about the book--in addition to her palpable wine geek joy on her journey--were her portraits of the industry people she meets. Wolf Blass, for one, the gregarious German-born, Australian transplant whose name and brand are indistinguishable and who sells seventy million bottles/year, relying on marketing "driven toward women." Unsurprisingly, he calls his Red Label Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon affectionately "the leg opener." He'd know, with four wives behind him, all "smashing crackers." Canadian literature icon Timothy Findley was partial to Wolf Blass Yellow Label, a hearty red that his protagonist in SPADEWORK relished so much that Wolf Blass sent him cases of the nectar for such munificent product placement.

One of my favourite anecdotes comes with a visit to Penfolds, a winery originally established by a medical doctor in 1844 who recommended the "wine cure" for his patients. There, in 1948, Helen Keller visited and was so fascinated by the girth and texture of one of the vats that "someone told her its height and she took less than a minute to correctly calculate that it held 10,774 gallons of wine."

Another character you'll spend time with is Cape Town, South Africa's Charles Back, "a winemaker who loves to butt heads with French authorities." His labels Goats do Roam and Goat-Rotie are "puns on France's famous wine regions, Côtes-du-Rhône and Côte-Rôtie."

What entrances me about MacLean's book is the way that she makes every person and place come to life with verisimilitude. Each winemaker's passion is clear and with such varied backgrounds in journalism, medicine and real estate, you can see how their reverence for the grape has become a vocation. On the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, Marco de Grazia speaks for all of them when he suggests, "people will recognize these wines the way they recognize the sentences of certain writers. This is what me mean by terroir." Jose Alberto echoes this sentiment in Argentina: "Terroir is as much about people as soil. Making wine isn't just farming with fancy adjectives; it's about the deep connection between people and vines."

Although MacLean obviously knows her territory as a consumer and critic, it's her ability to tell a story that kept me reading UNQUENCHABLE. Sip your way through. You'll be glad of her warm company and wit.


Thursday, May 31, 2012

THIS IS HOW by Augusten Burroughs, St Martin's Press (2012), 230 pages



Last night I was among the ebullient crowd of hundreds assembled in the Brigantine Room at Harbourfront Centre to hear Augusten Burroughs in conversation with Toronto's Bert Archer about his most recent memoir THIS IS HOW. Already predisposed to like his style, having read RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, DRY and MAGICAL THINKING and already having some sense of Burroughs's accomplished self-deprecating humour, I was not quite prepared for the grace and candour with which he presented himself. As I said to him during while he was signing the copies I acquired as book prizes for my @TeenBoyLitCrit students, spending that ninety minutes in his munificent, frank company was better than therapy.

The full title of the book is as entertainingly rambling as Burroughs's stream-of-consciousness both on stage and on the page: THIS IS HOW: HELP FOR THE SELF: PROVEN AID IN OVERCOMING SHYNESS, MOLESTATION, FATNESS, SPINSTERHOOD, GRIEF, DISEASE, LUSHERY, DECREPITUDE & MORE FOR YOUNG AND OLD ALIKE. Unsurprisingly, he waxes eloquently and frankly on all of these subjects, from his unique survivor's perspective.

The two epigraphs couldn't be more apt. First, there's George Orwell's suggestion that "To see what is in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle." And next, there's Galileo's wisdom: "All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them." Becoming yourself requires work.

You can dip in to any chapter of THIS IS HOW and lift a gem, like, "The truth is humbling, terrifying and often exhilarating. It blows the doors off the hinges and fills the world with fresh air." (HOW TO RIDE AN ELEVATOR) Or, what about this welcome slap upside the head: "The truth behind the truth is this: even if you are a victim, you must never be a victim. Even if you deserve to be one. Because while you wait for somebody to come along and set things right, life has moved forward without you." (HOW TO FEEL SORRY FOR YOURSELF) On every page you'll find a thought or phrase that you may have begun to form in your own head, that Burroughs has so beautifully articulated.

When addressing his past alcoholism from the stage last night, Burroughs said, "I liked writing more than I liked drinking. It was a raft to sobriety." That raft saved his life and by extension through his books might just save someone else's. What is indelible is this caveat: "The truth is expensive. But all of the best things are."


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

THE WEIRD SISTERS by Eleanor Brown (2011) Penguin, 318 pages



Even before I began thumbing through the pages of this sparkling debut novel, I knew I would be smitten, having made the assumption that Brown would rely on the Bard's plots, characters and memorable lines since she references MACBETH'S witches in her title. And, for those of you who know me, all references to Shakespeare, whose prose rides the beat of my anxious heart, make my Litnerd heart swell. Though I do not pretend to have any prophetic powers like those weird sisters in the Scottish play, I do know what it feels like to fail, over and over again, just as our protagonists Rose, Bean and Cordy do as they navigate their way to belonging.

When your father is a professor of Shakespeare at a local college, and you and your sisters are named for female characters in birth order (Rosalind aka Rose 1st born from AS YOU LIKE IT; Bianca aka Bean 2nd born from THE TAMING OF THE SHREW; Cordelia aka Cordy 3rd born from KING LEAR), it is not terribly surprising that he tells you of your mother's cancer through a page copied from The Riverside Shakespeare: "Come, let us go; and pray to all the gods/For our beloved mother in her pains." Or that your oldest sister announces her intent to marry by quoting lines from ROMEO AND JULIET.

What matters, however, is that you all flock home. And, that your not-so-weird secrets of self-worth, theft, and pregnancy will be aired in good time.

There are worlds in Eleanor Brown's words and each of them entranced me.

THE TEN-YEAR NAP by Meg Wolitzer (2008) Riverhead Books, 383 pages



I tumbled headlong into Meg Wolitzer's keen-eyed universe with her most recent satiric novel THE UNCOUPLING and am determined to thumb my way leisurely through her backlist, beginning here with THE TEN-YEAR NAP.

For the group of women friends who gather at Golden Horn to catch up on their lives over a leisurely breakfast, the past decade has been rather a blur of wifely duty and stay-at-home-motherhood, not the future they had been told would be so different from the one their own mothers embraced.

Like Richard Ford or Philip Roth before her, Wolitzer creates characters who breathe, argue and occasionally apologize for their all-too-human fallibility. I am hooked on her lived-in fictional folk who make me believe every word.

Monday, March 26, 2012

WHY NOT? FIFTEEN REASONS TO LIVE by Ray Robertson (2011) Biblioasis, 177 pages



This collection of personal essays was short-listed for the Hilary Weston Writer's Trust of Canada Prize for Nonfiction in 2011.

I've long been a fan of Robertson's clean, visceral prose in his novels MOODY FOOD, GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM and WHAT HAPPENED LATER (a brilliant dual narrative featuring a fictional seventeen-year-old Ray discovering Jack Kerouac and a middle aged Kerouac making the journey to his Quebec roots in the novel he always intended to pen after ON THE ROAD).

In WHY NOT? Robertson lays himself bare, revealing a longtime struggle with OCD and depression by creating a rosary of essays based on issues that matter and motivate him to not only choose but embrace life. Each piece is a worry bead with philosophic grace notes that touched me deeply. From "Work" to "Art" to "Humour" to "Friendship" to "Solitude" to "Duty" to "Death," Robertson held me in his thrall, with prose so direct and resonant that I found myself needing to scribble down his phrasing to return to later.

I especially enjoyed Robertson's munificent reference to poetry throughout the collection, including perfectly placed gems by Baudelaire, William Blake, Raymond Carver, Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, John Updike, W.B. Yeats and this tanka contemplating love by an unknown Japanese poet: "If from your mouth/there hung a hundred-year old tongue/and you would babble/I still would not cease to care/but indeed my love would grow."

The essay that broke me was "Friendship" and the unexpected (though I ought to have expected it) encomium to the canine companions that have shared Ray's life. Like him I have known how it feels to "work side by side for hours without the slightest sense of self-consciousness or unease," and to have one so "unfailingly affirmative, enthusiastic, and energetic" to stand by me. Anyone who doesn't consider the unquestioned love from a dog, the devotion faithfully until his/her end, lacks not only "an understanding of canines, but of friendship. It's not the number of legs that makes a friend."

Take your time with these essays. Your emotional life will be all the richer for it.

LIVE WIRE by Harlan Coben, (2011) Penguin, 421 pages



Chatting with my colleague this morning who introduced me to Myron Bolitar a year ago has me all fired up again about the thriller I read on a recent trip to NYC, a perfect place, in fact, to be immersed in the landscape of a Coben novel. I had just strolled along Central Park West to enter the park across from The Dakota, where not only Yoko Ono shared her life with John Lennon, but also where Bolitar's best friend Windsor Horne Lockwood has a tony pied a terre in which Bolitar flops on nights he's too tired to make the commute home to New Jersey.

In addition to the moral satisfaction of witnessing the bad guys and dolls be suitably punished by tale's end, what especially keeps me hooked to Coben's books are his fully formed eccentric characters and the popular culture references that make me feel like one of the cool kids, albeit one who came of age with showtunes and bad '80s hair.

In LIVE WIRE, Bolitar's clients--former tennis star Suzze T and her rock star husband Lex--receive an anonymous Facebook post questioning the paternity of their unborn child and Lex disappears. In his search for Lex, Myron also unexpectedly finds his long-estranged sister-in-law Kitty who seems tied to a nefarious underworld that she is unable to escape. Supporting Myron on his quest to set things right are his best friend Win, his business partner (and former wrestler) Esperanza and their dutiful office assistant, Big Cyndi, whose predilection for outrageous makeup lands "somewhere between nineties goth and seventies KISS."

"The ugliest truth, a friend once told Myron, is better than the prettiest of lies." That aphorism and opening gambit is the moral crucible that Myron faces over and over again in LIVE WIRE as he puzzles out the ugly truths he is forced to face about his clients, his family and himself.

If you haven't yet found your way to Harlan Coben's smart, sassy, and satisfying thrillers, well, what are you waiting for?

Monday, March 12, 2012

THE UNINVITED GUESTS by Sadie Jones (from the ARC, forthcoming April 2012) Knopf Canada, 260 pages



Consider this forthcoming novel from Sadie Jones a delectable hybrid of DOWNTON ABBEY meets SUPER 8 set in provincial England in the early years of the 20th Century at Sterne, a dilapidated manor house owned by Charlotte Torrington by way of her dead husband Horace. Charlotte has three children, Emerald, Clovis and Smudge, all of whom are emotionally attached to the place, especially now that their mother has remarried the doting, one-armed Edward Shift, and their paternal legacy is seemingly up for grabs.

On the occasion of Emerald's birthday, a terrible train wreck nearby propels an undesirable group of strangers to Sterne for temporary succor and with outrageous consequences as the household is thrown into complete disarray. Add to the uninvited guests a shady figure from Charlotte's past, Charlie Traversham-Beechers, determined to join in Emerald's birthday revels, who turns everything topsy turvy with his insane and irresistible challenges and there is an evening that no one will soon forget.

Although THE UNINVITED GUESTS begins like a traditional 19th Century novel, the journey Jones takes you on is anything but conventional. Be prepared to be surprised at each plot twist and to enjoy the ride just as much as Smudge's beloved pony Lady.

ALL MY FRIENDS ARE SUPERHEROES by Andrew Kaufman (2011) Coach House Books, 106 pages



Kaufman's satiric romp is like THE INCREDIBLES for sardonic grownups.

Protagonist Tom is the only one of his friends who is not a superhero. He even married one: the Perfectionist, whom he affectionately calls, "Perf." Problem is that on their wedding day her previous paramour Hypno (who had, during their courtship, hypnotized her into believing "that sex with him would be the best of her life") out of spite or jealousy hypnotized the Perfectionist again insuring that her new husband would be invisible in her eyes.

The trick works and the novel opens with the Perfectionist onboard a flight from Toronto to Vancouver, six months after her nuptials, believing Tom has left her, when, really, he is sitting in the seat beside. Tom has the duration of the flight to convince "Perf" that he exists. Can he do it?

Pick up ALL MY FRIENDS ARE SUPERHEROES and find out.

Friday, February 10, 2012

PUPPY LOVE by Frauke Scheunemann (2012) ARC from House of Anansi Press, 296 pages



Carl-Leopold von Eschersbach is a 6-month-old dachshund mix ("the product of Mummy's affair with a very dashing terrier") who finds himself at the local animal shelter with a bunch of other curs where he is luckily adopted by a human who smells "like a beautiful summer's day...Very much like flowers, a bit like strawberries, with a hint of peppermint." This gorgeous-scented woman is Caroline, a violin-maker, who will turn out to need the puppy she calls Hercules more than he needs her.

After meeting Caroline's current boyfriend Thomas, Hercules wonders, "Could a love of animals be something that raises the value of a human male?" And, he begins to plot with his feline friend, Mr. Beck, a way to bring a more desirable mate into Caroline's life. When all of their matchmaking plans seem futile, Hercules begins to see the light about the only real option for Caroline, and he couldn't be more delighted for it to work out, but he needs to let the fates find their way.

Frauke Scheunemann has added another adorable voice to the growing pantheon of canine narrators that includes Virginia Woolf's FLUSH and Garth Stein's Enzo in THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS by Alan Bradley (2011) Doubleday Canada, 271 pages



Intrepid, precocious pre-adolescent chemist and sleuth Flavia de Luce returns in this caper set on her crumbling family estate, Buckshaw. In this title lifted from Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott," Bradley places his protagonist in the shadows of her own home when her father rents out the property to a film crew intent on shooting "another one of those blasted country house things" in order to make ends meet for the next patch.

Peopled with familiar characters from previous books including Dogger, Col. de Luce's faithful batman from the war, and Mrs. Mullett, the cook who can't really cook, the amiable Vicar and the spectre of Flavia's mother, Harriet, slipping between the pages of the next Alan Bradley mystery feels like a visit home for the holidays, spent in the company of folks who know you the best and love you in spite of your flaws.

When the crew from Ilium Films arrives with its star Phyllis Wyvern in tow, "her complexion like cream in a summer kitchen," Flavia's older sisters Daffy and Feely are gobsmacked to be in the presence of such a luminous film idol.

When the jack-of-all-tradesman Mr. McNulty is injured on site, the production begins to unravel. A snowstorm means unexpected guests are forced to batten down at Buckshaw and tempers flare. "Bun" Keats, Phyllis Wyvern's personal assistant, takes to bed from the stress of it all, migraine-bound, and Ms. Wyvern herself keeps others awake through the night as she watches over and over again one of her hit films, until, of course, she no longer can. Flavia discovers their famous guest, dead as a doornail, choked with a swath of celluloid tied around her neck in a decorous bow from the very film that continues to "Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap!...like a black bullwhip, flapping round and round."

Who killed Phyllis Wyvern and why becomes the delicious mystery that Flavia helps the inspector to solve this time.

Bradley's affection for his protagonist is clear. Only once or twice did Flavia's precocity make my smacking hand itch, but it certainly didn't deter me from enjoying the ride alongside her.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

VERTICAL by Rex Pickett (2010) Loose Gravel Press, 403 pages



Irrepressible rapscallions Jack and Miles reunite seven years later in this sequel to SIDEWAYS, Pickett's beloved debut novel that found its way adapted to the screen by Alexander Payne and the recipient of 350 awards.

VERTICAL is a smart, sassy unconventional picaresque romp from California, through Oregon (where Miles has been invited to be the Emcee at a Pinot Noir bacchanal) to Wisconsin. The first-person Russian nesting doll meta-narrative of Martin inside Miles inside Rex makes my litnerd head spin. In a good way.

Lady luck has been kind to Miles in the interim. He has written a novel that was made into a wildly successful movie called SHAMELESS, while Jack is divorced from his socialite wife, has a kid he adores, but is out of work, his paw outstretched for handouts from Miles. And, though women have been hurling themselves and their potty mouths at Miles because of his celebrity on the wine circuit, Miles yearns for a relationship that delves beyond the surface, one grounded in love and respect. Jack, however, has other ideas for both of them.

Enter Phyllis, Miles's mom. She's had a stroke, is wheelchair bound, and is inching a little closer to death in the assisted living facility they jokingly call Las Villas de Muerte, where she poignantly notes, "I don't feel human anymore." Miles is determined to honor his mother's wish to see her siblings, so decides to do just that with the support of Joy--one of her caretakers--and Jack as his co-pilot of the Rampvan, sharing driving duties and drinks along the way.

The unlikely foursome is joined by a fifth, Phyllis's impetuous Yorkshire terrier who has been living with Miles' ex-girlfriend. And, though there are capers a-plenty including a dognapping, al fresco dalliances and a perfectly conceived bathetic moment in a dunk tank--all rife with Miles and Jack's trademark repartee--it is the heart at the centre of the narrative that delivers its humanity straight up. Sometimes the most difficult moments to face are the ones that will change your life for the better.

Find your way to VERTICAL. Sip your way through. Savour it like a glass of perfectly-aged Richebourg. And, discover what true friendship is all over again.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

RIN TIN TIN: THE LIFE AND THE LEGEND by Susan Orlean (2011) Simon & Schuster, 317 pages



In a year of beguiling canine appearances on celluloid that include a Buster Keatonish Uggy in THE ARTIST, Skeletor in 50/50 (with those eyes like sucked caramels), and Cosmo as the existentialist Arthur in BEGINNERS, the timing is more than right for the release of Susan Orlean's exhaustive and entrancing biography of perhaps the most legendary dog of all, Rin Tin Tin.

"Rin Tin Tin was born on a battlefield in eastern France in September 1918. The exact date isn't certain, because no one who was present during the birth ever reported on it, but when Lee found the puppies on September 15, 1918, they were blind and bald and still nursing." So begins the narrative that traces the remarkable trajectory of a German shepherd and his devoted master from the Front during the Great War to the height of stardom that Hollywood could muster in the 1920s to a life on the tired circuit of promotion to stave off near bankruptcy.

And, as much as I was beguiled by Rin Tin Tin and Lee Duncan's story--a tale of two orphans--and discovered so much about dogs in service during war time, it was the beauty and strength of Orlean's prose that held me in its thrall.

Consider this, for example:

"What lasts? What lingers? What is snagged by the brambles of time, and what slips through and disappears? What leaves only a little dent in the world, the soft sunken green grave, the scribble on a scrap of paper, the memory that is bleached by time and then vanishes bit by bit each day?"

Isn't it heart-thumpingly gorgeous?

You could turn to any page in RIN TIN TIN:THE LIFE AND THE LEGEND and find passages equally moving. Do just that. Find your way to this fascinating, big-hearted gem.

Monday, January 09, 2012

THEN AGAIN by Diane Keaton (2011) Random House, 256 pages



In a book that is a genuine collaboration between Keaton and her mother Dorothy Hall in both spirit and word, THEN AGAIN will hook you from its opening gambit:

"Mom loved adages, quotes, slogans. There were always little reminders pasted on the kitchen wall. For example, the word THINK. I found THINK thumbtacked on a bulletin board in her darkroom. I saw it Scotch-taped on a pencil box she'd collaged. I even found a pamphlet titled THINK on her bedside table... Mom liked to THINK about life, especially the experience of being a woman. She liked to write about it too."

And, write about it, she did. In 85 journals. Literally thousands of pages, excerpts of which are included here along with photographs of those worn pages and personal collages. Just as Dorothy Hall tried to navigate her way through marriage and motherhood and what it meant to be a woman searching for a satisfying creative outlet, so does her famous actress daughter through frank, funny and fearless examination of her own life and relationships.

Woody Allen, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino play supporting roles in Keaton's narrative, though what remains of Pacino is reduced to a list of fragments. Both Allen and Beatty seem genuine friends. I am certainly envious of the billet-doux she shares where Allen writes,"You remain a flower--too, too delicate for this harsh world... And I remain a weed." Or Beatty's encouragement for her to make her own film: "Stop messing around and do it. You'd do it better than anybody. You know more than anybody. Its rough edges would be fascinating....From someone who admired you at a distance last night. Who would like to get to know you better. "

Of course I delighted in the behind-the-scenes perspective of working on ANNIE HALL, THE GODFATHER and REDS, but what intrigued me most about Keaton's journey was her mindful decision to become a single parent to two children, Dexter and Duke, in her fifties. And, the book finishes with them in an open letter to her Mom about how she wishes she were standing side by side, watching her daughter and son "fly down the water slide, laughing all the way." Then again, maybe she is. They are.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

A TRICK OF THE LIGHT by Louise Penny (2011) Minotaur Books



Sitting down with a Louise Penny Inspector Gamache novel is as fine as meeting your closest friends at your favourite bistro, hands wrapped around warming bowls of cafe au lait, leaning in to listen to each others' intimacies. It feels right.

For as long as Penny has been writing her mysteries, I have been reading them. All of them. Over and over again. I am as familiar with the inhabitants of sleepy Three Pines (not on any map, except in your imagination) as I am with the people in my life. I fret about Clara and Peter's marriage, cheer Ruth's every expletive, wish Gabri and Olivier were my gay BFFs and Myrna my off-the-clock shrink. All of them are familiar with heartbreak, and its accompanying room for hope. The light that sneaks in through hairline fractures and widening gaps. And, there is also the Surete du Quebec's head of homicide, the beguiling Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who reminds me of Atticus Finch in his fairmindedness and respect for others, especially outsiders.

At the beginning of A TRICK OF THE LIGHT, Clara is about to enter the vernissage for her one-woman show at the Musee in Montreal, but she's worried that her art won't measure up to the critics and has a panic attack. Heureusement, her dear friend Olivier coaxes her, "on your knees or on your feet, you're going through that door." For those familiar with Penny's books, it's a succulent treat to see the new plot threading back through previous narratives, as shown in Clara's painting The Three Graces that she was working on in DEAD COLD. It's the one that reminds me of the Leonard Cohen lyrics "there is a crack, a crack in every thing. That's how the light gets in." Penny uses the piece to navigate through to the chiaroscuro motif that gives the new novel its title.

After schmoozing with gallery owners and agents at the vernissage, Clara hosts a party back home in Three Pines to celebrate her official launch into the art world. The morning after as she impatiently waits for Peter to bring the papers with the critical reviews, something more upsetting turns her world upside down. It seems a stranger has been murdered and dropped in her garden, her bloom a little more than off the rose. Chief Inspector Gamache and his intrepid team including Jean Guy Beauvoir and Isabelle Lacoste investigate, turning over coins, clumps of earth and fraught pasts in their wake.

I kept changing my mind about the suspect. You will too once you immerse yourself in Louise Penny's beautifully crafted, emotionally satisfying book.