Friday, December 21, 2012

More by Austin Clarke

This is a dark one. Not totally depressing, of course - there are hopeful and even light moments - but it's not a novel that's going to make you feel great about the world. But I'll tell you what it is: amazing.

More is the story of a woman named Idora who basically shuts herself in her apartment for four days and struggles with the reality of her son's choices, which are leading him on a path to jail and/or an early death. The whole novel is just what is going on in her head during this time.

This is the kind of concept that takes a lot of confidence to pull off. It reminded me a bit of Castaway, which could have been a terrible (or terribly boring) movie were it not for the skills of the people involved, but mostly the strength of the acting - the audience really needed to care about the guy on the island. More is like that - you really have to care about Idora. And I did, desperately, because Austin Clarke is a masterful writer; I would not hesitate to use the term "literary genius". This guy is fucking good, you guys.

Idora lives in a rough neighbourhood called Moss Park, which is a real place but not one that I have any familiarity with beyond a vague sense of where it is located. She is from Barbados, but has lived in Toronto for many years, having moved with her husband who then deserted her to find work in America. Her teenaged son, BJ, is getting involved with a rough crowd, but this thread is not as simplistic as all that. The book skirts around the edge of what BJ is actually involved in, but clearly a lot of it consists of his struggle with his identity as a black son of a single mother in a country/world that doesn't give a shit about black people. He is developing a personal and cultural identity that mirrors Idora's as he wrestles with the myriad difficulties of being a black man in this world.

Idora has a job at the university and a best friend who is white, and constantly juggles the two different worlds she inhabits. I want to talk about all of it - her resentment of her friend's experience of Kensington Market as a white woman; her aching for BJ to belong; her sharp-edged pride at being a citizen of a country that hates her; the complex intersection of race, religion, gender and sexuality behind every line - but you really should experience it for yourself.

Seriously, I can't write any more about it - just do yourself a favour and read this book.

Five CN Towers out of five.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The City Man by Howard Akler

This is a book with a very distinct style, but unlike some other stories with a similar cadence, it is immensely readable. Set in 1934, The City Man is the story of a pickpocket named Mona who becomes an anonymous source on a series of Star articles about the pickpocketing racket (or "the whiz") in Toronto. She becomes romantically entangled with the reporter, Eli Morenz, which leads to lots of trouble for both of them.

At around 150 sparsely populated pages, this is a super quick and easy read, but somehow Akler manages to stuff it full of evocative description and emotional depth. It's not even worth trying to understand the slang, which whizzes by at a mile a minute. I picked up on the meaning of what they were saying most of the time. I love the jazzy underworld talk from that time - I am personally trying to bring "what's the rumpus?" back into play.

I liked how the novel was littered with Eli's newspaper articles, which are short and somewhat quaint. The action is set into motion by the city's centenary celebrations, where the police band and bystanders are hit by the pickpockets in force, leading to the formation of a special "whiz squad" on the police force to catch the "Centenary Mob". The descriptions of Toronto are sparse but excellent; lots of recognizable streets and landmarks are sprinkled through the text.

It was especially cool to read about the role of female pickpockets - Mona does not do the actual picking of the pocket, but she has a more difficult job: framing the mark. She basically uses her body to very gently, very subtly move the mark into position and cause a slight distraction by her touch so that her partner can grab the cash more easily. Pretty sneaky.

This is the sort of book that takes a "less is more" approach to feelings, but it works. Morenz's editor tells him a heartbreaking story about his first scoop, and you never read Morenz's reaction, and the story is never brought up again, but you can imagine how it affected Morenz and you certainly feel it affecting you. There are so many little snippets of things that the characters are never shown struggling with, but it opens up those ideas for you to reflect on after closing the book. It is very effective writing.

I really enjoyed this book - it's a quick read but a deep one, and it will stay with you.

Four CN Towers out of five.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Scott Pilgrim Series by Bryan Lee O'Malley: Vol. 3

See previous reviews for Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

Volume 3: Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness

This is the book wherein Scott starts to become more sympathetic. I knew we'd get there! Everyone goes to check out Envy Adams' band, The Clash at Demonhead, and then are invited backstage to chat with them - and Scott faces the third ex, Todd, who is now with Envy. Small (dating) world, right?

This is the strongest book yet. There are some great flashback sequences in which we get some of the history of Scott and Envy/Natalie's relationship, and get to know a little background on the rest of the gang. It's fun to read a series of books again - I love looking forward to the next installment, and it allows you time to get to know the characters and really get engaged with their arcs. Knives Chau was well-drawn in this one; I like how her story is about learning that age makes so little difference, and dudes can be jerks no matter how old they are. And she accepts that some people are not compatible even though they have crazy chemistry. And mostly she starts to figure out how to be her own badass self - I hope to see lots more of her in future volumes!

The battle with the ex is more drawn out and thoughtful, which is great. I love the strong dig at self-righteous vegans, and the surprising complexity of Todd's personality.

Most of all, I REALLY enjoyed the challenge Scott and Todd compete in - getting through Honest Ed's alive. I loved the artwork in this one; the chaos of that place is captured so perfectly! I found it to be a very funny sequence that was purely Toronto; another one I wish had been left in the film.

So yeah, I loved this one. I hope they continue at this caliber. My only complaint: not enough Wallace!

Five CN Towers out of five.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Unlikely Victims by Alvin Abram

You must know by now that I have a soft spot for mysteries. A classic whodunnit - most easily captured in a short story - is my very favourite, but I also enjoy a more methodical police procedural. In this book Abram puts a little bit of an odd couple/buddy cop flavour into the mix as well.

The Unlikely Victims is actually a series of mysteries, in chronological order, investigated by our narrator, Detective Gabe Garshowitz, and his partner Detective Iris Forester. It's not quite one cohesive story, but neither is it a series of short stories - it's sort of a novel divided into small vignettes. Gabe is an old cop, close to retirement, who has a lot of personal demons. He believes overwork and neglect on his part drove his wife to suicide, which in turn caused a big rift between him and his daughter. He is lonely, has bad knees, and gets into conflicts with some asshole he works with. Then he gets assigned to partner with/mentor Iris, who is a younger woman just getting started as a detective.

I liked Iris because she doesn't take any shit, and she has the kind of attitude I would imagine you would have to develop as a female cop. The two work well together as main characters and I liked their dynamic.

Each mystery leads to a little bit more development of the bond between them, and of self-discovery for Gabe, until the last one which effects him very personally and draws the book full circle.

Toronto is more of a vibe than a setting, and Jewish Toronto is well represented, which is a nice change of pace. The book is well written and well paced; I liked some of the choices Abram made, like starting each case with a partial description of events so that the reader knows a little more than the detectives, but not everything. There were a lot of typographical errors though, and some really baffling changes in viewpoint, sometimes mid-paragraph.

All in all I liked it. It was pretty good and kept me reading. I'm not sure if I would go back to this author as there is certainly better mystery fiction out there, but it was a good diversion and I do recommend it.

Three CN Towers out of five.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

Now this one is cheating a bit, because it's not actually set in Toronto. There are a couple chapters that happen in the city, to be sure, but if you're looking for novels that capture the essence of Toronto, keep walking. This is not that book. So why review it here? Well, I read it thinking it was going to be set in Toronto (I found it on a list of books that are), so why waste the opportunity to recommend a good book?

And it was good. Truly lovely. There are two stories being told, each with a first person narration. The first is the story of Will, a Cree bush pilot from Moose Factory who spends the story in a coma in a hospital bed. His story is about how he got to that point. The second is Annie, Will's niece, who visits him every day, sitting by his bedside and telling him her story, how she got to where she is. The stories intertwine repeatedly - if not always in the events they describe, then certainly in theme - and revolve around Suzanne, Annie's younger sister who has disappeared "down south" with a troubled boy. The chapters alternate between the two narratives.

Will's story deals mainly with loss. Through his alcoholism and indiscretions Will has lost a lot of things, and a lot of people. He develops a strange friendship with an aging bear. He struggles with the aftermath of Suzanne's disappearance, the implication of biker involvement, and Marius Netmaker - Suzanne's boyfriend's brother - and his accusations that Will is a police informant.

Annie's story follows her to Toronto, where she searches for Suzanne and meets Gordon, a mute man and her protector. I liked that she meets him at Queen and Bathurst - anyone familiar with that corner will find this scene plays out clearly. Annie's search takes her to Montreal, and then New York, and a brief career as a catalogue model, before she returns home with Gordon to Moose Factory.

I can't even explain how evocative the writing is. The sounds of the geese, the snowmobiles, the crackling fire - you will hear them as you read. The vast, empty expanses of land and water fill this book. I've never been up north but I can imagine clearly the James Bay, hunting on Akimiski Island, shopping at the Northern Store. It is beautiful writing that pulls you utterly into that world.

There are a lot of strong themes in the novel: isolation, loyalty, what it means to make your way through the world as a good person. What I took from the book was the message that people are the same all over. Annie tells a story of her grandfather showing her the stars, and saying "They are the same stars you see anywhere you go in the world[...]My own auntie told me that, but I didn't lean it until I travelled far away." I believe some people - like Annie - know that people are the same all over, but they just have to go see it for themselves.

All in all this was a beautiful story. I highly recommend it - even though it's not set in Toronto.

Four CN Towers out of five

Friday, October 12, 2012

Up Up Up by Julie Booker

You will probably not see a lot of reviews for short stories on this blog, because I have not (yet) found many collections of short stories whose central theme (or at least link) is Toronto. Even this collection is not totally set in Toronto, but most of the protagonists seem to have some connection to the city.

This is not an uplifting group of stories - at least I didn't find it so - but it is not actively depressing, like Katherine Govier's Brunswick Avenue collection. I would say the central theme of Up Up Up seems to be disappointment. The opening story is about two fat women - friends or lovers I am not sure - who travel to Alaska for a camping/kayaking trip. The main character is underwhelmed, and scared, of the glaciers, wanting to steer clear of the falling pieces while her friend/partner longs to get closer and is delighted to see them fall away. Many of the stories deal with women's feelings of inadequacy, sometimes directly expressed through disordered eating/body image issues, and often through unhealthy or questionable friendships.

Each story seems as though it could be a chapter in a much bigger tale. Quite a few of them made me wish it was a book I was reading, and not a story, so that I wouldn't have to leave that character or that situation so soon. I hope Booker will make the leap into full length novels, because I believe she could do it.

I'm not sure if it is a good thing or not that I was so frustrated by these stories. I liked the themes and I found her characters compelling and realistic; this is a writer who knows people. But at the end of each story I just felt like...why not a book? Why do we have only this small window into this character's life?

I think I can recommend this collection though. The stories are great, the themes are not too subtle but do demand some reflection, and there is some humour and hopefulness to the stories sometimes. It was a quick read and I would definitely read this author again; I do hope she writes a novel because I would be all over it.

Three CN Towers out of five.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa

This is one of the books I was most excited to read for this project, as it is set in Portugal Village, which is where I live. I was disappointed, then, when the majority of the book didn't take place in Toronto at all - but still it gave it a certain heightened realism to finish reading it as I rode the streetcar home through streets of excited, flag-clad Portugese folks watched the Euro Cup. 

The story mentions a few Toronto landmarks - St. Michael's Hospital figures prominently - but mostly it is a Toronto story; it is set within the spirit of the city. The more Toronto literature I read, the more I find immigrant stories pervade the genre, and why not? This is a city of immigrants in a country of immigrants. So much of Toronto's struggle for a distinct identity is wrapped up in that delicate and uneasy tension of multiculturalism. 

The story follows three characters: first Manuel, a young Portugese man who longs to escape his stifling small town, his overbearing mother, and a very painful and tortured history with the Church. He takes a job on a fishing boat and finds a new home in Canada, first washing ashore in Newfoundland and eventually travelling across the whole country as a railroad worker, before settling in Toronto. Secondly, there is a brief interlude where we hear the story of Georgina, Manuel's wife, who married him despite the (literally) violent objections of his mother, who thought she could keep her favourite son in Portugal by having him marry a girl she chose. And then the latter part of the novel follows Antonio, Manuel's son, who grows up a delicate soul in Toronto, torn between the love and the resentment he feels for his father.

For a short book, there are a lot of heavy themes: sexual abuse, alcoholism, racism, domestic violence, and the constant intergenerational struggle between parents and children that is only exacerbated by the perceived need to adhere to cultural traditions in a new world. However, it is gentle and light at times, and the story is kept afloat by the determination and persistence of the characters surrounding Manuel - his strong and uncompromising wife and daughter, and his sensitive and intelligent son. The characters are compelling although they did sometimes delve into stereotypes (particularly Manuel's mother), but I imagine this is a function of the author attempting to create composites of people and types of people he has probably encountered in his own life in the Portugese community.

This is a story of real life and dreams and how they so often get in each other's way. I enjoyed reading it a great deal, and it's beautifully and evocatively written; the story from which the title is derived left me with mental images I will not forget. It reads very quickly. I highly recommend it as a summer read - light and hopeful but with some substance, and a vague, bittersweet ending. 

Four CN Towers out of five.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Cities of Refuge by Michael Helm

This novel was a new one for me in terms of this project, because of the way it used Toronto as a setting not by name-checking buildings or intersections, or tapping into the general vibe of the city, but by setting the story in Toronto by virtue of it being the home of so many refugees, undocumented people, and desperate outsiders. The main theme is taking refuge from one's past, claiming a safe space to avoid facing judgement and punishment for crimes of varying - and arguable - severity.

The title comes from the Bible, where the cities of refuge were places where killers could claim asylum. The novel's protagonist, Kim, volunteers at an organization called GROUND that helps refugees with more desperate cases who were refused by government agencies. Some of these people have violent backgrounds, complicated by the political situations of their countries of origin. Some of them are dangerous people, although Kim clearly believes passionately in the work and doesn't see it as a dangerous place for her to be.

The novel starts with a violent attack; Kim is followed, attacked, and nearly killed. She is understandably haunted by the incident, and takes refuge (!) from the world while the people around her struggle to deal with the implications of the attack. Her estranged father believes that it was one of her clients at GROUND, someone who they could not help and who decided to take revenge; or perhaps who was just a dangerous person who missed the taste of blood. Kim reads xenophobia and paranoia into her father's theory, but as it turns out, (somewhat spoiler alert!) this book is really about Harold (the father), and the crime in his past from which he is seeking asylum.

The thing about the cities of refuge is that their protection can only ever be temporary, and the attack serves as a trigger for Kim to begin to unravel her father's past, while he struggles desperately to find her attacker, I guess to redeem himself? Or possibly protect himself? It's...complicated.

First of all, the story here is great. I love this underused and gritty way of looking at Toronto. I really loved the characters, particularly Kim, Harold, and Kim's mother Marian - they are all complicated, flawed and introspective people and we spend a lot of time inside their heads. The plot is clever and uses all those wonderful literary conventions to great effect. But.

Holy shit is it flowery. The language is like poetry - it's lovely, but page after page with just abstract interpretations and nearly incomprehensible philosophical tangents really wears you down. I would have adored this book if it was just the story, written well. And Helm is a good writer. I just feel like - if you want to write poetry, write poetry. This is a novel. Not a poem.

I don't have an issue with poetic writing - see my review of the amazing Consolation - but there's a line that needs to be drawn, and reading this book made me feel exhausted. I just wanted to put it down and scream "Just say what you mean!!". I know some people will enjoy the writing style and to them I highly recommend it. But I don't think I can read another book of his, which for me is the deciding factor: would I look for this author's work again?

Unfortunately, I would not. This is another one of those "good book, not my thing" situations, so I'm going to give it three CN Towers out of five.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Glenwood Treasure by Kim Moritsugu

I have found that sometimes authors set their stories in Toronto but use a fictional neighbourhood (as for example Phyllis Brett Young did in The Torontonians), which can work very well, especially when it is surrounded by real Toronto landmarks and particularly that real Toronto vibe.

Unfortunately this novel, The Glenwood Treasure, did not really achieve this effect. The story is set in the fictional neighbourhood of Rose Park, an upscale east-end suburb-type area most reminiscent of Rosedale. Aside from the occasional mention of running errands "downtown", the rest of Toronto is never mentioned, and thus the feel of the city is left to be reflected in the author's depiction of Rose Park. Now, I haven't spent a lot of time in Rosedale or any of the affluent mini-suburbs that surround the downtown, so perhaps her depiction was entirely accurate, but it did not leave me with a feeling that this story took place in Toronto. It could have been anywhere, and actually probably should have been set in a smaller city or town; characters are constantly running into each other in this universe.

That was probably my biggest beef with this book, but I had others; it was not my favourite by any stretch. The story follows Blithe Morrison, a Rose Park-raised woman who has moved to California, and at the start of the novel has just been divorced and is coming back home. She moves into her parents' coach house for the summer and has plans to just putter around, but then a neighbour enlists her to help with research on a book about Rose Park, and Blithe starts to find a renewed interest in the Glenwood treasure - a legendary treasure buried over a century ago in Rose Park.

Blithe is surrounded by people from her old life - apparently she's the only person who ever left Rose Park - including her fussy, upper-class parents; Patrick the baker and love interest; Hannah, her childhood best friend; and eventually Noel, her brother, who also left Rose Park but comes back to torment her. The story is really about Blithe's relationship with Noel, her struggle with his effortless life and casual cruelty.

This is a strange novel. In some parts it seems like it is trying to be young adult fiction, but then the themes and content just seem a bit too explicit, or alternately too boring, for young adults. However it is a quick and simple read, and it's about buried treasure. So it's hard to say.

I thought it was well written in general, and it held my interest. However, there were a couple issues I had with it. First, I didn't find the protagonist very sympathetic; I found the main romantic plot to be almost completely lacking in chemistry; I thought the precocious eleven-year-old, Alexandra, to be sadly underused, particularly during the Nancy Drew-style treasure hunting; and I have to say, it is hard to care if your protagonist finds a half million dollar treasure when she seems to be doing ok, money-wise. Like really, I just didn't care whether or not she found it. Luckily that was not the main theme of the novel, but it really would have been harder to put down if she actually needed the money.

That was mainly what I found about this book: it was a quick and interesting read, but there was nothing that really held me to it or compelled me to keep picking it up. I would try Moritsugu again but I wouldn't recommend this particular novel.

Two CN Towers out of five

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Scott Pilgrim Series by Bryan Lee O'Malley: Vol. 2

Volume 2: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

This second installment is a little meatier than the first. We get some history on Scott and how he started playing music, and how he met Kim back in high school. Some of the characters start to take a clearer shape.

The plot of volume 2 is that Scott has to break up with Knives now that things seem to be in a kind of dating-type arrangement with Ramona. Scott is still a bit greasy and definitely spineless, running all around as if he could prevent the various people in his life from knowing about each other or about his relationships. Knives takes the breakup pretty hard. When she sees that Scott is dating Ramona, she kind of flips out, cuts and dyes her hair, gets a cool scarf, and battles Ramona in the Toronto Reference Library (a scene I desperately wish had not been left out of the film).

Scott also has to fight evil ex-boyfriend number two, Lucas Lee. And he gets a phone call from his ex, Envy Adams, asking him to come open for her much more famous and awesome band.

Every crappy thing that happens to Scott is pretty reasonable karma in my opinion. But despite having a not-totally-likeable protagonist, I really like this series so far. I continue to be delighted by the attention to detail in the backgrounds, not just because of the wonderfully accurate Toronto scenes but also because there's funny stuff that you might not notice unless you look for it. I am not really a comic/graphic novel person, so I'm not sure what's normal or whatever, but I really like O'Malley's quirky style. I recommend this series (so far!).

Four CN Towers out of five.

See my review of volume 1 here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Toronto Writers Drinking Coffee

Check out BlogTO's latest post on where Toronto writers go to get inspired. Mostly the standard hipster coffee shops that you would expect, but it's a great rundown of contemporary Toronto writers, many of whom are/will be featured here.

Zoe Whittall drinks coffee in my neighbourhood, you guys!

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Girl in the Box by Sheila Dalton

This novel was a first for me; the author, Sheila Dalton, contacted me directly to let me know she liked my blog, and offering to send me a copy of her book to review. Obviously I said yes, and I was excited that actual authors were reading!

The Girl in the Box is pretty heavy. It reads quickly and in a way it's kind of a whodunnit, but there are a lot of deep issues touched explored, and it's not a book that will leave you with a spring in your step.

The story - told in a mix of flashbacks and from a few different viewpoints - follows a psychotherapist named Jerry who is travelling in Guatemala and encounters a Mayan couple who beg him to help their child. Her name is Inez, and she is a non-verbal, possibly autistic and almost certainly traumatised teenager who is kept locked up in a small shed. Jerry takes Inez back to Canada with him, where he and his partner Caitlin and live-in nurse Margaret start to try to rehabilitate her.

Their efforts are pretty seriously complicated when Inez kills Jerry. The book is really about Caitlin coming to terms with what was going on, and trying to figure out what actually happened that would make the normally gentle Inez lash out. Inez is sent to a facility for folks found not guilt by reason of insanity, and Caitlin has to get through her own paranoia and suspicions in order to figure out how to help Inez.

It's complicated. The story is not like anything I've ever read, and it's certainly an interesting exploration of the challenges of dealing with violent death. There were issues that I wish were dealt with further, like the actual impact of taking a traumatized indigenous person out of their home and bringing them to Canada; the feminist implications of Inez's brutal rape(s?) at the hands of soldiers; really all the racial/cultural problems that would be front and centre if this really happened.

I liked it though. It's rare to read a book where four of the six main characters are women, and it's not "chick lit" or fluffy in any way. Sad but true. I found Caitlin especially to be very well-drawn and complex, and I was glad that Jerry was not portrayed as some kind of sexless saint. I felt that Inez could have had a little less of that "exotic/ethereal beauty" quality that is kind of insulting in this context to both people of colour and autistic people. But overall the characters were compelling and were really what kept me reading.

One major disappointment for me was the sideswipes the author took at the feminist movement through Caitlin. There is no exploration at all about the overt feminist implications of anything that happens, and then the author manages to slip in a couple really juvenile feminist stereotypes to insult. There is actually, literally a woman at Inez's trial with a lesbian haircut and a "fish needs a bicycle" t-shirt talking about how all men are rapists. I am a feminist and not averse to criticism - we all know the movement has some pretty big faults - but that shit is just sloppy. It took me right out of the story, and it's just stupid.

Besides that, it was a pretty good read and one I would probably recommend, although not to everyone, as it is heavy, like I said. Toronto is unfortunately not heavily featured at all - it really could be set in any Canadian city - but that's how it goes with books that are less about setting and more about feelings.

Three CN Towers out of five.