Friday, July 20, 2012

The Placebo Effect by David Rotenberg

You may remember I reviewed a book by this author's brother, Robert Rotenberg. I must say, if there's only going to be one writer in the family, I vote for Robert.

That's not to say that D. Rotenberg isn't any good; this is a great read for those who enjoy thrillers in the sub-genre of "books that should have been movies". You know what I mean? The book in itself isn't bad, it's just that while I read it I couldn't help thinking how much more suitable the story would be for film. It's hard to write a good thriller; pacing is so difficult, and the special attention a novelist wants to pay to characterization has to sometimes be sacrificed to keep things moving.

The Placebo Effect follows Decker Roberts, an acting teacher/coach and screenwriter who makes a little money on the side by exploiting a peculiar talent he has for being able to spot when someone is telling the truth. He is hired by shadowy figures working for large corporations and law firms, vetted through his friend Eddie, a technology whiz and fellow synaesthete (folks with...let's just say special talents). The NSA wants to use Decker for national security purposes, and the CEO of a pharmaceutical company wants to exploit the talents of another synaesthete, Mike, who can tell the perfect ratio of anything. Decker gets mixed up in a lot of stuff all at once, and spends most of the novel on the run while trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

It's complicated to describe, but it's not too hard to follow once you're reading it. Decker lives in the Junction, so that's the Toronto connection, but most of his time in the story is spent hopping around between Toronto, Cincinnati, and various other cities. There are some quality Toronto shout-outs though, notably to Squirly's and Swan Diner (both on Queen West), and a lot of in-depth exposition re: the history of the Junction. Apparently this is book one of the author's "Junction chronicles", although whether the following books will follow characters from this novel or simply start new stories in the Junction remains to be seen.

There were a few moments I hated about this book. Rotenberg seems hung up on references - literary and pop culture - and needlessly drops them willy-nilly throughout the story; not as subtle homages or even wink-y tributes, but just by straight up mentioning things. His female NSA agent character, Yslan Hicks, makes multiple references to her resemblance to Clarice Starling (from the Hannibal Lector novels). I mean, why call attention to it? And early on there is a mean-spirited swipe at Alec Baldwin that is so strangely spiteful it took me right out of the story. And the most annoying part (for me, because I am irrational at times) was that Decker at one point asks for a specific brand of bottled water - for no reason. Is this book sponsored by Evian? It was weird. Maybe it was supposed to say something about his character, but if so, it went right over my head.

This is another one of those books that it may be impossible for me to review fairly, as I simply do not care much for the genre in general. Honestly it's a book that I put in a category I like to think of as "Dad books"; anything that has federal agents chasing some dude around doesn't appeal to me, but I think it would be a good gift for somebody's dad. Perhaps it is fitting that it was recommended (and loaned) to me by my own future father-in-law. It is a book I would not hesitate to recommend to him if he hadn't already read it.

Yes I realize this review has been profoundly unhelpful.

If I were rating this book for that purpose (ie. as a recommendation to someone who enjoys the genre), I would probably give it four towers. For myself, I didn't enjoy it that much, and would probably give it two. So, three towers it is:


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Kelley Armstrong at the TPL

Kelley Armstrong, author of Bitten (as well as many other books!!) will be at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library on Wednesday, July 18 at 7pm. Check it out if you're interested!

Event details here.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Where We Have to Go by Lauren Kirshner

No critic or reviewer can be objective; it stands to reason that every story and experience affects us differently depending on a multitude of factors that encompass who we are and where we come from. But I find some books are harder than others to give a fair review, or at least a review that will help people who are not me decide if they want to read it.

This book is one of those, because I identified so strongly with the protagonist, Lucy Bloom. She is two years older than me, and the story is her growing up in the nineties, dealing with body image issues, longing to be popular, aching to understand the adult world (and then, the more she understands it, longing to be rid of it). The friend that she makes halfway through the book, Erin, is like a composite of the three or four friends I had in junior high and high school who saved me by being so smart and strange. A lot of what happens to Lucy didn't happen to me, but she is such a perfect encapsulation of being a girl of that age, in that time, that it's like reading my own diary.

So that's why I'm not sure how much this review will apply to those who don't fall in the category of "girl born in the early eighties and raised in middle-class (to lower-middle class) Western society", but I imagine you will still like the book. It is absolutely wonderfully written, and as remarkable for the stories left out than those included.

Lucy is eleven when we first meet her. Her parents' relationship is falling apart; her father is a travel agent who has never been anywhere, and is a little too friendly with a woman at his AA meetings, and her mother is a thrift-store shopping, just a little too embarrassingly foreign woman with the classic "Jewish mom" concerns of getting Lucy fed and fixing her up with a nice boy. Lucy takes refuge in watching Alf reruns (remember Alf?) and nurtures compulsions that, if her parents paid attention, are clear early warning signs of the eating disorder she later develops.

The book follows Lucy through about eight years of her life. I loved how major stories that could have taken up the whole book - her parents' divorce, her eating disorder, her relationship with her grandfather - are presented as important, but just one piece each of a whole life. This is not a story about eating disorders or family relationships or death. It is a story about growing up as a girl. It is in some ways painfully 90s, but in other ways perfectly timeless.

I read that Kirshner was mentored by Margaret Atwood, which makes sense to me - this book is like the spiritual successor to Cat's Eye. However, while Kirshner touches on many of Atwood's pet themes - particularly women and girls, and how they act towards and around each other - she has her own very distinct style. The tone is not as dark as in Atwood's work; throughout the story, I always had hope for Lucy, a hope I never have for Atwood's characters. Kirshner is masterful with light humour that doesn't intrude on the momentum of even the sad parts of the story. She is absolutely a gifted writer; I would read more of her work in a heartbeat.

Four CN Towers out of five.