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 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 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.