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.