Thursday, November 24, 2011

Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall

When I got around to reading Catcher in the Rye, I was already 23-ish, and I kind of hated it. But really I had the sense that I was reading it too late in life; that you can get a lot more out of it if you read it as a teenager. All those feelings of rage and isolation are so much more relateable.

I say this because while I enjoyed Holding Still, I feel like I might have enjoyed it a lot more had I read it about five years ago; and I would be hesitant to recommend it to anyone who is not in their early twenties. It captures so perfectly the feelings of those years, at least for a specific set of twenty-somethings: the drama, the sexual exploration, the sometimes self-imposed poverty, the longing to connect to something bigger than oneself.

The characters in Whittall's novel live in the neighbourhoods my friends and I live in; the downtown Toronto neighbourhoods that consist of gorgeous old buildings divided into apartments, secret gems in areas that are rapidly turning into condo forests. Gentrification is an ever-present background character in this story.

The story itself is more like a bunch of stuff that happens in the lives of some people. It's interesting and engaging, but not totally traditionally story-shaped. People get together, break up, hang out, think about going to class or work or back home to visit their parents. All the characters seem to have a very fluid sexuality, which is really cool; gender identity does not appear to be a barrier to any of their relationships. They communicate through text messages and hang out at odd hours of the night. They probably don't think that they are hipsters. Every one of them seems like someone I know.

What I really liked was how Whittall dealt with her trans character; it came up at the beginning that he was trans, and then it was not mentioned again. He had a regular life like every other character. This is positive representation: when it's not such a big fucking deal. I liked it very, very much.

The city was used well as a backdrop to the story, and I always really like reading scenes set in places that I know. The Drake came up, and the Beaver Cafe (super cool since I know a guy who works there). One pivotal scene takes place at an intersection about two blocks from my place. One character who is a paramedic works out of Toronto Western Hospital. Very very cool.

I did like the book a lot; I just found it hard to get emotionally invested in characters with problems that I already probably spent too much time and energy on in my own life just a few years ago. I do highly recommend it for people in the 19-24 age range, especially those looking to read about non-hetero people who have regular person problems and aren't tokens or designated sidekicks.

I give it three out of five CN towers.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg

I picked this book from my list because it is a murder mystery, and I love mysteries. Upon reading I found that it was actually more of a police procedural - but that's ok, because I love those too! It does have a lot of revelations and cliffhangers and so on thrown in, so there's something for everyone.

The story starts with a famous (fictional) talk radio host, Kevin Brace, opening his door to his newspaper delivery person and saying "I killed her.". His lover's body is in the bathtub, stabbed to death. Sounds pretty open-and-shut, right? Well that would be a pretty short novel, wouldn't it?

Rotenberg tells the story through a number of different characters trying to solve the case: the first police officer on the scene, the detective, the Crown attorney, the defense attorney, and a handful of other characters with varying levels of involvement. There are a lot of twists and turns as information is uncovered or, more often, as characters remember a key detail or read a significant piece of paper, etc. The book conforms pretty solidly to the murder mystery beat, and that is not a bad thing.

One critique I had was that there were a few too many cliffhanger chapter endings. Because Rotenberg is looking through the eyes of many different characters, he can end a chapter on a cliffhanger and then start the next one with another character, so you don't know what that startling revelation or sudden realization was until later. Come to think of it, I can think of two that were never actually explained (although perhaps I am a less than careful reader). Anyway, I was starting to lose interest after a while.

Something I loved about the book was how bold it was about being set in Toronto. You know how you see so many movies shot in Toronto that are supposed to take place somewhere else, and then you see one actually set in Toronto and it's like, wow, that's a refreshing change! This was the book version of that. Besides the title building, the book name checks Front Street many times, the St. Lawrence Market, the Toronto Islands, and even some spots in my neighbourhood like Clinton Street, Cafe Diplomatico, etc. Even the Maple Leafs get some love, as a constant backdrop to the main story.

I think it's a very good book. Rotenberg, a lawyer by trade, obviously knows what the hell he's talking about, and he makes it compelling and accessible for the non-lawyers in the crowd. He clearly loves Toronto dearly, and makes creative use of the layout of the city. He is a master of non-overbearing symbolism, which is trickier to pull off than you might think. And he is frank and upfront about the uneasy multiculturalism of this city.

I gotta say you guys, I loved Old City Hall and I highly recommend it. Four CN Towers out of five.