Monday, February 11, 2013

SPEAKING FROM AMONG THE BONES by Alan Bradley (2013), Doubleday Canada, 358 pages

Precocious, amusing, chemistry genius 11-year-old Flavia de Luce returns to solve yet another mystery in this most beguiling series set in 1950s rural England. Batman had Robin as his trusty sidekick, but Flavia has her bicycle who she christens Gladys “because of her happy nature” to spirit her to and from her crumbling family estate, Buckshaw. There she’s beleaguered by her girly older sisters Feely and Daffy, and finds kinship with the family’s longtime butler Dogger, who treats her like a person instead of a meddlesome little kid.

It’s the 500th anniversary of St. Tancred’s death, and the local church is planning to open its patron saint’s tomb. Nobody could be more intrigued about his remains than Flavia. What she does not expect, however, is to be faced with the fresh corpse of the current organist Mr. Collicutt, kitted out as he is in an eerie mask reminiscent of the most recent war. And, to complicate matters the precious “Heart of Lucifer” stone has gone missing.

It takes all of Flavia’s chemistry wiles, best behaviour, instinct for allegiance, and greatest acting for her to puzzle out the timely murder that has all of the tongues wagging throughout Bishop’s Lacey.

More satisfying than the realization of whodunit, however, is the delicious secret held back until the final sentence. A writerly trick Bradley filches from Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” And, it’s a secret that cracks the ongoing narrative wide and anticipates even more intrigue to follow for all of the de Luces.

Hop on Gladys’s handlebars and join Flavia for the dizzying ride.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

THE PAINTED GIRLS by Cathy Marie Buchanan (2013) Harper Collins Canada, 349 pages

Set in late 19th Century Paris, Cathy Marie Buchanan’s THE PAINTED GIRLS transports you to another time and place with such evocatively rich sensory detail that you’ll find yourself immersed in the clatter and clamour of those narrow streets, your head turning at the imagined scents wafting from the local boulangerie.

Impeccably researched, Buchanan’s narrative peels apart the darker criminal elements that were inevitable pieces of the lives of the impoverished class at the same time that Zola’s words played on Paris’s stages and les petits rats trained and performed in the corps at the Paris Opera Ballet.

If you’ve ever seen a copy of Degas’s sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, you have already met the protagonist of Buchanan’s tale: Marie van Goethem, a petit rat herself who posed as the paid model over the course of several months, under Degas’s mindful gaze. The painted girls of the title are the van Goethem sisters, Antoinette, Marie and Charlotte, who, after the early death of their father and due to the alcoholism of their mother, are required to make their way in the world, earning money in order to live.

I remember seeing a copy  of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen here in Toronto at the AGO in 2003 and marveling not only at the appropriate posture for a dancer and the open fourth position in which her feet are placed, but also at Degas’s fingerprints that remained visible after his wax maquette was alchemized into a bronze. And, how fragile and young she seemed immortalized by one of the finest sculptors of his time.

19th Century Paris was a rough place, if you weren’t wealthy. Girls especially had to make difficult choices if they were going to survive. In THE PAINTED GIRLS, Cathy Marie Buchanan focuses her unflinching eye on the struggles of the van Goethem sisters and makes you believe, through her craft, that every moment she unravels is true. True to the core.

This is a novel that will work its way into your heart and leave an indelible mark.

Monday, February 04, 2013


On a recent trip to NYC, I stopped in at the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue and picked up a copy of Ben Fountain’s BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, a title that I have been meaning to read for some time. All of the superlatives used to describe this debut novel are utterly deserving. This is the 1st in the triple crown of Iraq War novels I read in January. It's smart, funny, and moving and until Beyonce’s appearance last night at Superbowl LXVII, it would have also provided renewed enthusiasm for Destiny’s Child at a fictional half-time show.

Kevin Powers’s THE YELLOW BIRDS is the second Iraq War novel I read this year and the first by a soldier who actively served; Powers was deployed as a machine gunner in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005. I became aware of this startling debut through prize-winning novelist Chris Cleave’s twitter feed where he kvelled about it as the best book he’d read in a long time. (Follow him @chriscleave.) Because Powers is a poet, there are lines on every page that will make you gasp at their beauty. THE YELLOW BIRDS is a harrowing, heartbreaking, healing read.

FOBBIT by David Abrams ( @ImDavidAbrams) was the third jewel I found my way to in this Iraq War novel triple crown. And, Abrams, like Powers, was deployed to Iraq in 2005 where he served as part of the U.S. Army’s public affairs team. I found FOBBIT to be the novel with the most verisimilitude of the three and its fine satire to be reminiscent of early John Irving. When you finally have a copy between your hands, be prepare to be gobsmacked.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP by John Irving (1976), Random House, 609 pages

The older I get the more I read early John Irving in gob-smacked wonder. He writes such humanity in these frangible, indelible characters.

Recently I struggled with a decision to leave a job that had brought me tremendous joy in the classroom for fifteen years, because of an incident that I simply could not stomach. And, for the first time in about two decades, I returned to The World According to Garp for solace and discovered that Garp’s thoughts mirrored my own: “Not for awhile. Maybe never again. At least not for awhile.”

Irving was so young when it was published in 1976, but he already understood so much about human frailty and dignity—a quality equally vibrant throughout his most recent novel In One Person. As I read, I raged alongside Jenny Fields, cheered Roberta, and wept with Garp, heaving hiccupping sobs of recognition. The Under Toad. Jesus. Such insight. A gasping punch to my solar plexus.

As Garp insists, "Read the work. Forget the life." 

John Irving’s work matters. And, I love knowing that each of his narratives unfurls from its final sentence, which never alters once he has committed it to the page. If you’ve never read The World According to Garp, you must add it to your TBR pile, because you will recognize yourself between its pages. For, “in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.”

Saturday, February 02, 2013


Over the next few weeks I will be moving my bookish blog posts to where I'm also blogging about film and theatre. I hope you'll join me there.