Friday, March 30, 2012

Victim Impact by Mel Bradshaw

Not every author can walk the fine line between story-telling and point-making. There is always the risk of being too obvious, too preachy; or on the other hand, being too subtle. Bradshaw did a brilliant job in this novel. Holy shit.

The story is about a man, Ted, who teaches Criminology at the University of Toronto and receives some information about a biker gang from an overeager student; information that leads directly to the violent death of his wife, Karin, through a botched burglary attempt. The novel follows Ted and his father-in-law attempting to deal with the loss of Karin; the detectives investigating the case; the repercussions for the killer and his family; and Ted's attempt to get revenge.

On the night his wife is killed, Ted has stepped in for a colleague to moderate a panel on how to deal with violent crime. Much of the discussion revolves around the need for revenge vs. prevention/rehabilitation, and how our feelings change when someone we love becomes a victim of crime. It's a masterful plot device, having Ted hearing this discussion while his wife is in the process of being that victim. The story is about criminology, and about how we are limited by what we can intellectually argue from a point of logic and reason; without the emotional impact of being victimized ourselves, our opinions on crime can only stretch so far. Bradshaw demonstrates within Ted an impasse: he knows logically that his opinions on prevention and rehabilitation are correct in the grand scheme of things; but the pain of his loss can only drive a desire for revenge.

I suspect that the author's sympathies are with the "softer" take; he seems to sympathize with the social science perspective even while showing a great deal of empathy for his victim characters. The killer is also an interesting study - he is [spoiler alert] a young man from a well-adjusted suburban family, who seems to have a sociopathic streak (definite shades of We Need to Talk About Kevin). So the question also becomes: could this have been prevented, anyway? Would the lenient sentences that Ted himself advocates have been the best thing for the killer?

This book raises a lot of questions about the criminal justice system, and doesn't have any answers for any of them. Ted's final act of revenge is satisfying but ultimately troubling. There are no easy sympathies here. I was thoroughly challenged by this book; there was a point where I almost stopped reading it because it was so upsetting. But it's brilliantly put together, well written, and important.

The Toronto setting is a little underused, but the actual bulk of the story takes place in the much more suburban Mississauga, which I believe is important to the plot.

Overall I think this book was very good, but not super easy or chill to read. I highly recommend it, but don't expect a relaxing read for the cottage or whatever. It's a winter book for sure.

Four towers out of five.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Ravine by Paul Quarrington

I have read one of Quarrington's books before and rather enjoyed it; sadly it was not set in Toronto (it was Home Game for those looking for a recommendation for a tragicomic novel about a baseball game between a strange religious cult and a group of circus freaks, as I so often am). While The Ravine had some of the same stylistic elements, it reminded more vividly of Ghosted; the meta writing-about-the-process-of-writing, the post-chapter ambiguous dialogues, the protagonist: in both novels, a male writer with substance abuse problems who is trying to come to terms with a past incident in which he seriously fucked up someone he cared about.

Quarrington does it better, but only slightly. The Ravine deals with a middle-aged TV writer, Phil, who decides to write a novel, which both is and isn't this one. He has pinpointed the moment when his life started to go down the tubes, and it is an incident from his childhood in which he, his brother and their childhood friend Norman went into a ravine and came out damaged. Phil has never really climbed out of the ravine in the intervening years.

(Incidentally, the Ravine and Phil's description of the Don Mills area, where he grew up, are the only indications that this book was set in Toronto - it really could have happened anywhere).

I liked a lot of things about this book. I thought it was refreshing to have a protagonist who knew he was a fuck-up, leaving it up to the reader to sympathize, or not. I liked the way it dealt with the effect of television on a certain generation, the ones who started getting it in their homes when they were already pre-pubescent, and what that did to our cultural environment. I couldn't relate directly of course, but Phil's memory of getting the television and the change it made it his life certainly brought me back to being that same age and getting the internet in our house. It makes a big difference, the time in which these changes come into your life. I also loved the theme of high art vs. low art, and whether the novel is a sacred thing that is damaged when a TV writer like Phil starts on one. 

That said, overall I didn't find the story super compelling; it's hard to I guess, when you're not sure if you even like the main character. The descriptions of the two main women in his life - Rainie and Ronnie, if you can believe it - left a lot to be desired. Milligan, the star of Phil's western-themed TV show, and Bellamy, the makeup girl Phil has an affair with, were both lazily created stereotype bundles that I didn't care about AT ALL. And the climactic conversation with Norman was a bit trite.

I think Quarrington gave himself a lot to work with here, but somehow fumbled on the payoff. I wanted to be more interested in the twists and hooks - for a character whose love of Rod Serling drives a lot of the plot, I feel like there should have been a more compelling surprise, and a better use of dramatic irony. This book wasn't everything it could have been.

Three towers out of five.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Case of You by Rick Blechta

As I've said before, I do enjoy a good mystery, and so I tend to be attracted to them when looking for Toronto books to read. I was especially excited about A Case of You because I also like Joni Mitchell, but aside from getting the song stuck in my head for a couple weeks, there wasn't really much of a connection.

A Case of You has a promising premise - a young, apparently homeless woman starts singing with a local jazz trio and is blowing the crowds away with her amazing voice. But then one day she disappears. Andy, the drummer, hires a private investigator to look into it, and starts to discover more and more strange stuff about Olivia's past - her wealthy upbringing in Manhattan, the mysterious murder of her brother, her possible escape from an upscale rehab centre - and I probably shouldn't give away any more than that.

The book follows a couple different threads. There's Andy, who mostly hangs out in Toronto, worrying. Then there's the PI, Shannon, who traces Olivia's roots to Manhattan; and Jackie, her newest recruit, who is infiltrating a rehab clinic in California. For some reason the author has chosen to write only Andy in first person POV, even though he has by far the least interesting storyline. It doesn't really hurt the story at all, but it is an odd choice.

The characters are fairly well-developed. It would have been nice to know a bit more about Olivia, besides that she was kind of strange and could sing well, but the rest of them were good. Jackie seems to have a complicated back story that I think could have either been better fleshed out or just not hinted at at all. Sometimes they used the kind of ridiculous PI talk that makes me cringe, even though a couple times the whole idea of PIs in movies and detective novels is lampshaded by various characters. It's like Blechta couldn't decide if he was being tongue-in-cheek or not.

The story is somewhat compelling, but has a disappointing - and increasingly fantastical - pay-off. Once the mystery is unraveled, the villain is predictable (it is the person everyone would immediately suspect upon hearing Olivia's back story), the scheme completely ridiculous, and the result is supposed to be kind of bittersweet, but turns out pretty cloying in the final scene between Shannon and Andy.

 I did appreciate the use of the internet in the sleuthing they do, and the mention of how much it has changed detective work, but even then it was a little archaic; would they really be printing out great piles of paper? But there were some smart touches. I liked the use of Toronto, as always - Olivia panhandling at Union station, the fictional jazz club at King and Bathurst, Andy's old home in Riverview. It was descriptive without being in your face.

Overall, however, I was disappointed with this book. I thought it had a pretty engaging premise, and good pacing, but it tried a little too hard to be exciting and forgot to be interesting. I prefer a mystery that moves more slowly and goes a little deeper - or at least has a twist or two.

Two towers out of five.