Friday, December 19, 2014

Blind Crescent by Michelle Berry

I may have put this on my list in error, as - if I recall correctly - there was no indication in the narrative that it was set in Toronto. Certainly it's Canadian, and the author is based in the Toronto-ish area somewhere (Peterborough I think). Regardless, all of the action takes place on one street - the titular Blind Crescent - and one of the overarching themes is the generic character of suburbs everywhere, so it works. Let's just say it's in Toronto.

The novel is about the six houses on Blind Crescent and their occupants. It starts with a mysterious squatter moving in to the deserted house where the previous owner, Roger Smith, took his own life. Roger's suicide seems to have been a turning point in the lives of everyone on the street, and the story follows them over the summer as they struggle to reconcile with the after effects of that incident in relation to their own problems.

There is Jackson, a man approaching middle age who lives with his elderly parents, waiting on them hand and foot and suffering through increasingly debilitating headaches. He also helps out Mr. Walcott, an obese widower with an unusual form of synesthesia that gives everything he sees a flavour. Then there is Holly, a single mother of two, whose ex is sending strange postcards. Oliver Rafferty is rich, married (unhappily), alcoholic, and suffering a mid-life crisis involving lusting after a teenage girl. And the teenage girl in question, Grace, and her brother are struggling to figure out where they belong in the world as their father dates a woman 15 years his junior.

All of these people are connected with each other in various ways, and their relationships develop and unfold throughout the course of the book. Always in the background is the developing news story of a sniper who is picking people off on the highway, seemingly at random. Throughout the book you will think it is several different people, but don't expect it to be a mystery that is wrapped up neatly. This isn't Agatha Christie. The story is about the people, not the puzzle.

I liked the book. I like character and dialogue-driven writing, which this is, although I felt that some of the characters could have been rounded out a bit more (Oliver's household was particularly flat, character-wise). I found it to be quite funny at times, and more than a little dark. What I enjoyed the most was that it didn't all work out for everyone - there were no easy answers.

My critique is that I wanted more. I wanted to know more about the characters, I wanted more to happen. I felt like there was a lot of great potential here that wasn't always met. The ending was, I felt, somewhat anti-climatic.

Overall I would recommend this book but my hope for the author is that she keeps getting better. Three CN towers out of five.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Barking Dog by Cordelia Strube

This novel tells the story of Greer Pentland, a middle-aged woman with breast cancer who lives with her son - a teenager on trial for brutally killing an older couple while he was sleepwalking - and her 87-year-old aunt who frequently blacks out because of her heart troubles but refuses to get a pacemaker. Greer is divorced from a man who is screwing a younger woman. Greer's sister is being physically and financially abused by her husband. If this book sounds depressing to you, is.

To begin with, the book is beautifully written and the author does truly have a gift. I don't think I could have struggled through all 400+ pages by someone not as good. However, it is a struggle still; I was so relieved to finish it, because it was really starting to affect my mood. I think if any writing could be defined as wallowing, this is it - it feels disturbingly voyeuristic to continue to read about Greer's ongoing tribulations.

The title refers to a constantly barking dog that can be heard through Greer's bedroom window; nothing ever happens with the dog except that its barking is occasionally mentioned. I'm sure it's a very clever literary device, a metaphor of some kind, but for what? The cancer, perhaps. Please be prepared to read a lot of medical stuff that you may find disturbing if you read this book.

Toronto as a setting is incidental to the novel. It could be set anywhere, which just adds to my feeling of futility for having made it all the way through the book. I don't know what else to say about it - I can't stress enough the talent of the writer, but the book itself is borderline nihilist. It was like having a weight on my shoulders, to keep working my way through it. The infrequent and too-dim hope spots are just made worse by their complete lack of payoff in this grim story.

Perhaps if you are less emotionally vulnerable than me, you will enjoy this book. In that case I will give it a middling grade because I don't want to encourage folks NOT to read something they might really be into, that is, after all, very well written.

Three CN Towers out of five.

Friday, November 21, 2014

All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

This book is just truly lovely, and I adored it. It is not the kind of thing that is right for everyone, certainly, but I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish, and it would easily make the list of books I have read for this blog that I would recommend, without question.

The story is a perfect blend of heartfelt and whimsical. It opens with Tom, our narrator, about to board a plane with his superhero wife, The Perfectionist. Tom is invisible to The Perfectionist, and has been since their wedding, when The Perfectionist was hypnotized by a jealous ex-boyfriend into believing that he (Tom) was invisible. Tom has until the wheels of the plane touch down in Vancouver to convince The Perfectionist that she can see him - if he can't, then she will start a new life and leave him behind forever.

The story is told mainly in flashbacks, around the development of Tom and The Perfectionist's relationship, their first date, first kiss, and how Tom found himself with exclusively superhero friends. The superheroes in this book have the kinds of superpowers that are just things some people do - The Perfectionist, for example, is just a perfectionist. Her jealous ex, Hypno, is actually just a very handsome and charismatic person who can only make people do things they are willing to do anyway. Many of the superpowers are just symptoms of common mental illnesses.

The interpretation I went with was that Tom does not think of himself as particularly distinctive or special, and the way he identifies others is through one defining characteristic. Who hasn't described their partner's friend as "the one who is always projecting" or "the one with the hypnotic eyes" etc. Throughout the book other superheroes are described, and they are all interesting and strange (but also strangely normal). None of the superheroes consider themselves to be villains, but many of them consider someone else to be one.

I loved this slightly strange, magical way of looking at people. I think it works particularly well on the level of Tom coming into a group of friends through his partner. The story's underlying message is, I believe, about relationships - and particularly about what love is to a perfectionist; love that is often messy and never perfect, but which is often the missing ingredient in a perfect day, or life. The last page of what had been, to that point, a light and whimsical read, had me unexpectedly choked up on the streetcar. The story may be disguised in layers of whimsy and magical realism, but it does have something very powerful to say about love and relationships.\

I loved this book. It was a quick, engaging, funny, and unexpectedly moving read. I highly recommend it.

Five CN Towers out of five.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Waiting for Ricky Tantrum by Jules Lewis

Rarely do I read a book that feels too short, but this book is one. The story is about Jim, our all-but-silent narrator, a boy growing up in Toronto and tagging along with his much more assertive friends Oleg, Charlie, and Melvyn. At 175 pages it is a quick read, and woefully short.

Jim doesn't say much - mostly "What?" and "Oh." As the first person narrator he is a perfect observer, almost completely objective for the purposes of the story, as we don't really get any insight into his thoughts. Just what he says and does, which isn't much.

The novel is a collection of barely-strung-together incidents in Jim's life, mostly dominated by his larger-than-life friend Charlie, who plays video strip poker at the arcade, talks constantly about girls and sex, mouths off to adults, and is just the kind of shit that other twelve-year-old boys would find awesome. Oleg, Jim's best friend for many years, is less compelling but still has interesting moments, such as when he attempts to beat up his older brother Yuri. Reading the book as an adult, it is clear that both of these boys are terrible, terrible influences on Jim. However, no one in Jim's household seems to take an interest.

Toronto is not overly prominent but provides a recognizable backdrop for some of the scenes, in a comforting sort of way. And like most Toronto fiction, the narrative is heavily populated with immigrants and their stories.

I liked the book. The characters especially are boldly drawn and just hilarious - especially Uncle Nicky, who runs the restaurant where the boys hang out, and dispenses some really odd life lessons, and Jim's older sister Amanda, who just took a trip to Europe and fancies herself soooooo worldly. I think the author has a genuine talent for creating compelling and amusing characters, and I would read more of his work in a heartbeat.

However, I'm not sure I can really recommend this novel - I wanted more from it, more development, more growth, more story. It doesn't stop abruptly per se, but there could have been about 100 more pages in the middle somewhere. It's not that nothing happens in the book, it's just that nothing really changes - there is no central conflict, and certainly no resolution. If it was a little shorter it could be a pretty effective short story - but I would rather see it expanded into a meatier novel. Regardless, I look forward to seeing more of Lewis's work.

Three CN Towers out of five.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Baldwin Street by Alvin Rakoff

Toronto stories are immigrant stories. I am always surprised when I start reading a book set in Toronto and it's not about immigrants. I think one of the biggest things I'm getting from doing this blog is more insight into the immigrant experience, and the complex depth of national and cultural identity across generations.

This novel is about life on Baldwin Street in Kensington Market in the late 1930s. I loved reading such a well-drawn slice of the history of the market, which is very different today but has managed to maintain a sense of self-containment and other-ness within Toronto. This book was so, so much better than Courage My Love, which is the other Kensington-specific Toronto book I have encountered so far. During that time (the 1930s), the market was very Jewish - almost entirely so - and the neighbourhood culture was largely informed by Jewish custom. I think this novel would be a great companion to The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke, which also features Jewish immigrants to Toronto and takes place just a few years before, in the time leading up to the Christie Pits riot - an event referred to multiple times in Baldwin Street.

I must say I do prefer pre-war Jewish history in fiction (see the above-mentioned Lucio Burke, as well as Cabbagetown) to the slew of Holocaust-survivor fiction set in Toronto that I have read. I think I just find the buildup to the Holocaust much more interesting - and worthy of contemplation - than the aftermath.

The story follows many different characters in the neighbourhood through big moments in their lives during the buildup to the second world war. The characters are all linked in some vague way to Leonard Abelson, who is the implied (third-person) narrator. The first story is Leonard losing his virginity. Each chapter can be read as a standalone story, but you do get a grander sense of the setting and characters when reading the novel as a whole. There are a few pretty funny moments (such as some of the young men riding a horse-drawn cart to the university) but mostly the stories are gritty, or sweet, or heartbreaking (and usually all three).

The author does a great job of creating a sense of the community spirit in the neighbourhood, and delves into a lot of the detail of day-to-day operations without making it boring or monotonous. I wasn't a big fan of the writing style, however; the short, staccato sentences often didn't do justice to scenes that should have had more flow and poetry. I think if the book had been much longer I would have had a hard time with the style.

As it was, the stories took me by surprise with their emotional impact. This is a quiet but very moving novel, and if you read closely, it has some powerful things to say about life and about purpose.

Four CN Towers out of five.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask by Jim Munroe

In some ways I felt like this book was aimed a little outside the demographic to which I belong. It would be a perfect book for a young man in his late teens/early twenties coming to terms with the blossoming emotional maturity suddenly complicating his raging hormones. Nevertheless I found it fairly enjoyable.

Our protagonist - the title Flyboy - is Ryan, a young man studying at U of T, who can turn into a fly at will. When he finally catches the eye of Cassandra, the waitress he's been crushing on, he finds out she can make things disappear. They decide to team up - both romantically and as a superhero duo.

It is a fun, silly premise, but the book does deal with some surprisingly heavy-hitting emotional issues. I was delighted that Ryan and Cassandra decided to put an anti-oppression spin on their world-saving efforts, calling themselves Superheroes for Social Justice and taking on cops, big business (including the Toronto Sun - called out by name!), and unjust laws. Cassandra is a queer feminist and Ryan is a hesitant but sincere ally - and yet the politics are not overdone or preachy. It is above all a book about being human, and being young, and just not knowing how the hell to deal with the world or with yourself and your overwhelming potential.

I found the characters to be honest portrayals of that young demographic - plugged in but detached, idealistic but self-involved - although their constant irony was a bit distracting.

Toronto wasn't a huge part of the novel but there were nice little touches, specific laundromats and libraries that folks might recognize.

Overall I enjoyed the novel - it struck a good balance between light and funny, and dark and angst-y. Sometimes the writing style got on my nerves but it seems like the author could eventually evolve beyond that. I think if you liked the Scott Pilgrim series you will probably like this.

Four CN Towers out of five.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Sweet Edge by Alison Pick

In my quest for books set in Toronto I often come across those set only partially in the city, which can sometimes make it hard to capture the vibe of this place. Pick's novel, which is set half in Toronto and half in the wilderness of the Northwest Territories, actually manages to be more imbued with the essence of the city in the latter half, through its absence.

The story follows two halves of an imploding couple - Adam, a classic bro-gressive type who moved to Toronto for university and is itching to find himself slash get out of uncomfortable personal situations he's created through his selfishness (my interpretation!), and Ellen, a beautiful, financially stable young woman who lacks purpose, and who follows Adam to Toronto and is now floundering in the city without him. The relationship is falling apart when Adam decides to go on a two month canoe trip in the north. On the first day, he writes Ellen a letter saying things are over between them. At the halfway point, he writes her another one to say that he has reconsidered.

Meanwhile Ellen spends a sticky hot summer working in a small gallery, of which there are about eleven million in my neighbourhood alone, so this definitely rings true. She is devastated and lost without Adam, but eventually meets some older queer women who take her in and begin to try to encourage her to claim some independence and fall in love with the city. Part of this consists of meditation classes (meetings?), where Ellen slowly prepares herself to face true emptiness. As she does, Adam is also beginning to understand emptiness - the question is will this understanding bring them back together, or provide the closure they need to move apart?

The conclusion is less important, I think, than the journey. I wasn't thrilled with how it ended but I did love how it got there, and the characters certainly rang true. As an exploration of a breakup, the novel felt very honest, and the theme that really emerged for me was that there existed more than just Ellen's truth and Adam's truth, that the real story had many facets. That said, I still found Adam to be an unconscionable douche. However, I never found Ellen's feelings for him unbelievable, so that's something.

As I said, I found Toronto had more presence in Adam's story than in Ellen's, just from its absence. The story wasn't totally my cup of tea, but Pick is a beautiful writer and I would definitely read her work again.

Three CN Towers out of five.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Murder on the Run by Medora Sale

I think that there is something to be said for switching perspectives in a novel, but it is a choice that can be screwed up when one is not a good writer, and I think that was part of the problem with this book. Medora Sale seems to be a technically competent writer but could have constructed a much more compelling story by sticking with one protagonist throughout.

The story is a forgettable tale of a series of rapes and murders of female joggers in various parks and ravines around Toronto, with one murder mixed in that doesn't quite fit the pattern. John Sanders is the police detective investigating the murders, who stumbles into some much bigger questions once the teacher, Jane Conway, is killed and it doesn't look to be the work of the park rapist.

As John and his partner Dubinsky investigate, we also get a little peek into the world of Eleanor, a real-estate agent who is John's love interest; the girls' school where the teacher worked; the strange world of Jane Conway that seems to consist of a lot of drugs and partying; and the disturbing mind of the actual park rapist. The author is clearly trying to only give us a little bit of information in each of these pockets of the story, so that the whole thing will unravel slowly, but there is nothing compelling about the mystery, honestly. At no point did I feel really worried that anyone important was in danger, or curious about who killed Jane.

I'm not sure what it is about this book that makes it so dull compared to other mysteries. It is a police procedural, a genre which generally holds some interest for me, but it sort of plods along in a somewhat predictable way and there really never feels like there is any risk involved.

I also had a hard time with how little background the reader is given for the Eleanor/John relationship. I felt like perhaps there was an earlier book in the John Sanders series that I would have to read to understand what was going on here, which is sloppy - a quick paragraph explaining where we're at in this relationship is not hard to include and would really help the reader to be emotionally involved with the characters. As it was I could take or leave that whole plotline.

The use of Toronto was good, and I liked the ongoing placement of where we actually were in the city at that point in the story.

Overall I wouldn't be compelled to read this author again and I'm pretty sure I will soon forget this book, so I'm giving it two CN Towers out of five.

Friday, August 29, 2014

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

Lately I've been at my wit's end with novels wherein the protagonist/narrator is a writer. I think it's such a boring, unimaginative choice; I know they say write what you know, but surely you can take a small leap outside of your own person for a moment? Well this book is at the extreme end of that scale; it's catalogued as fiction, but not only is the protagonist a writer, she IS the writer. AND she spends all her time with her friends who are actual people, notably the painter Margaux Williamson. And I'm pretty sure some of the transcribed conversations are actual conversations.

Some have described the book as part memoir, but I would have to say this is a pretty weak memoir. When I was younger (around 17 or 18) I bought a cheap dictaphone and would record conversations at parties, or ask people specific weird questions and record their answers. I should have kept the tapes and used them to write a book, because it probably would have been more interesting - certainly less juvenile and narcissistic -  than this one.

I can't describe the plot to you because there isn't one. Ostensibly it is the story of Sheila trying to find out how a person should be, but if she finds an answer I must have missed it. She spends the book having pointless conversations with her friends about art; not writing a play she has been commissioned to write; moping about; and sleeping with the slimiest man I can imagine. Oh and jetting off to Miami and New York, which I guess she can afford on a part-time hairdresser's salary? On the plus side, there is a lot of Toronto, and a very specific Toronto culture is reflected here.

I'm sure this book would appeal to some people; perhaps members of the culture mentioned above. For me, it is much too twee, to artsy, too navel-gazing, too much forced stream-of-consciousness drivel. It is quintessentially hipster. It makes me want to run back to Where We Have to Go to remind myself that there are writers of this generation who are making substantial and meaningful work. I don't think a book has to be heavy to mean something (Kirshner is delightfully light, in fact), but it can't be made of fluff. Heti's writing is good but the book is air, it is completely fluffy and forgettable. All I got from it that was good was a sense that Heti has great potential to write something wonderful, if she can get her head out of her ass. Perhaps her plays are better.

Two CN Towers out of five

Friday, August 15, 2014

Seduction by Catherine Gildiner

The long-suffering people in my book club could tell you that there are a few things that I hate in fiction: time travel is the big one for me, but another one that comes up often is the use of real, historical people as characters in fiction. I feel it is unfair not only to the memory of the person in question (and certainly to any surviving relatives), but also more often than not it denotes lazy writing; a writer who could not invent a character of their own, or build a world populated with anyone other than the folks we've already heard of.

It was for this reason that I was wary going into this novel, which features a picture of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna on the cover, and hosts a preface by the author in which she describes her extensive study of Freud and Charles Darwin.

The premise of the book is that our hero, Kate Fitzgerald, is in prison for killing her husband (a crime to which she freely admits). She has been there for nine years when her psychiatrist, the thoroughly slimy and incompetent Dr. Gardonne, proposes a temporary absence for her to take on a paid job from him. Kate is an expert in Freud, and a man named Dr. Konzac has been making waves in the psychoanalytic community by announcing that he has some damaging information about Freud that he is soon to release. Gardonne wants Kate to find out what the information is.

Of course she is teamed up with an ex-con-cum-private-investigator named Jackie, and of course they are warned not to become romantically involved, and so of course there's buttloads of chemistry. For the first 100 pages it wasn't this that annoyed me so much as the info-dump style of conversation these two were having. Neither asked questions, they just said everything they knew about Freud in paragraphs-long monologues. It was necessary information for the reader to understand the plot, but regardless, it was distractingly shitty writing.

Things pick up around the middle of the book, and some murders happen, and Jackie and Kate have to turn their attention to solving the murders so as to prevent themselves from being assumed the guilty parties. This being a Freudian mystery, there is much introspection on mothers and fathers and the titular seduction theory. At first the author (and the protagonist) seems to be a big Freud fan, but throughout the course of the book Freudian theory takes a pretty solid beating.

Toronto has a pretty backseat presence in the novel, which is mostly set in various European cities, but there are a few scenes in Kate's lakefront condo.

The characters (outside of Kate) aren't super well drawn, but it is an exciting mystery in parts and I was willing to give this book a fair-to-middling grade, but then it turns out the murderer is [SORT OF SPOILER] an actual person who actually lived. Who then kills themself. WTF is this. Call me uptight, but I just don't feel like it's fair play as a writer to not only make a real historical person into a character in your book, but then to make them murder two people and commit suicide - WHEN THAT DIDN'T HAPPEN IN REAL LIFE - is a really shitty thing to do. You may as well go take a piss on their grave, although this is maybe worse since the author is making money from it.

 On the off chance that there are folks not as offended by this as I am, I give this novel a reluctant two CN Towers out of five.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Stunt by Claudia Dey

This is a weird one. I have a hard time with books that are just poetry disguised as novels, and this book at first seemed to fit into that category. Everything is weird and magical and strange, and the sentences are written as if the craziest shit is actually real stuff that happens. It is poetry, and it's quite beautiful, but it's not the sort of storytelling that most of us are used to.

That said, I liked it, because despite the weirdness, there is a linear story here - which is usually what I'm looking for, at least. It is the story of Eugenia, a young woman whose father, Sheb, leaves to "save the world" - leaving a note that mentions, by name, his wife Mink and daughter Immaculata, but not Eugenia. Eugenia takes this as a sign that Sheb is coming back for her, or expects her to follow him. Shortly after the family holds a mock funeral for Sheb, Mink takes off as well. The two girls age to 18 overnight (real? imagined? a metaphor?) and leave to, as the fairy tales would put it, seek their fortune.

Eugenia believes that the key to finding her father is finding her grandfather, a man named I. I. Finbar Me the Three, whom she has discovered in a book about his tightrope walking feats. Along the way she has some strange adventures, of course, and I guess it's a sort of coming of age story.

What I like about the book is that it does have the surrealist blur of childhood. I think we can look back sometimes and it does seem that we grew and aged from nine to eighteen overnight, or that other things happen that seem unrealistic when described like this, but make sense in that blurry recollection of a much younger mind. It's a bizarre, poetic approach to coming of age, but I like that it's a little different while still telling a follow-able story.

What I didn't like was that for a coming of age story, there really wasn't much to grab on to in terms of relatability. I don't know about you, but my experience growing up as a girl didn't hold many parallels to this story. I think the underlying theme of neglect/abandonment is poignant, certainly, but the rest is just too surreal to grab on to. The reason I wasn't so excited to get back to this book each day was the detachment I felt from the characters; they weren't human enough, they floated through the space of the book like dust bunnies and never really grabbed me. I also at times found it to be a bit TOO whimsical, even the darker parts. It's like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl's journal.

There is, surprisingly, a lot of Toronto in the book, including some weird local colour.

I think that, all in all the book wasn't really for me, but I would recommend it to folks who like poetry (or poetic writing) and are otherwise given to this type of story.

Three CN Towers out of five.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Drive-By Saviours by Chris Benjamin

Like many of the novels set in Toronto that I've read for this blog, this is an immigrant's tale; it is also what some would call a "ripping good yarn". I think a lot of novels, particularly first novels, try so hard to be serious and impactful and struggle with grand ideas, that they lose the ability to be just a straight up good story. This book is a good story.

There are two protagonists in the book, whose stories we follow in alternating chapters. The first is Bumi, an Indonesian man from a small island called Rilaka, who is taken away to the mainland for school and must learn to suppress his intellectual curiousity in order to escape notice, and begins to develop a severe case of OCD. When his irrational guilt over a crime he didn't commit collides with his neighbours' suspicion of his strange obsessive habits, he has to escape to Canada to save his own life.

It is in Toronto that Bumi meets Mark, the second protagonist. Mark's chapters are told from a first person perspective, which helps lend a little sympathy; Mark is kind of a dick and he needs all the help he can get. He is a social worker, bored with the job and with his relationship and longing for his old ideals and desire to save the world.

When Mark and Bumi meet, a considerable way through the novel, Bumi starts to see a source of warmth in a culture that has been very cold to him; Mark sees a purpose, someone he can 'save'. Both men's expectations and how they diverge from the reality of what happens is what is compelling about the story; there are no easy answers here, no pat morality tale about globalization or a yes/no answer on being a white saviour.

The book delves into a Toronto hidden from many; the world of the undocumented immigrant. Bumi works 10-14 hour shifts at an Indonesian restaurant every day for a decade to pay off his debt to the human traffickers who brought him to Canada. Every cent goes to paying off his debt, and more is deducted for small crimes such as using too much water in his obsessive hand washing rituals. Bumi's struggle is portrayed in a straightforward way that contrasts well with Mark's privileged ennui. There is no maudlin sentimentality or white guilt implicit in the writing; it is what it is.

I thought this was a fantastically well written novel; I had a hard time believing it was the author's first, and I would definitely read his work again. The story gave me a lot to think about, and there were nice touches of sweetness among the horror; I didn't come out of it wanting to die, even though as a whole the story is pretty depressing. I would have liked to see more of Toronto, but I did enjoy the parts set in Indonesia and I thought there were some interesting insights into the culture during Suharto's reign.

I recommend this book. Four CN Towers out of five.