Friday, January 31, 2014

Up and Down by Terry Fallis

The premise of this novel actually holds quite a lot of possibilities. Our protagonist, David, leaves the government life in Ottawa to be with his dying mother in Toronto, and takes a job at a PR firm. The client is NASA, and David masterminds a Citizen Astronaut contest to put two ordinary people - an American and a Canadian - into space. I can't tell you much more without a lot of spoilers, but I just want to illustrate the fact that this could have been a pretty great (and funny) book.

I feel like there's some kind of writing that Terry Fallis is good at (I've heard that his book The Best Laid Plans is pretty excellent), but this isn't it. There were funny parts - including some well set up brick jokes - but the book (and particularly the first 100 pages) is so bogged down in boring detail. Not the kind of detail that novelists sometimes get lost in, like a description of a tree or something - this was bureaucratic detail, the exact order of presentations in a pitch meeting, or the slide-by-slide description of a PowerPoint. Fallis writes well but needed a better editor, I think.

I don't think the editor can be entirely blamed, however, because even if the minutae of office life was scrapped, the book was sorely lacking in character development or even description outside of David. His two closest colleagues, Diane and Amanda, boast the defining character traits of, respectively, a penchant for wacky glasses, and being kind of a bitch but then warming up to David. That's it. I couldn't tell you any more about either of those characters. His sister is even worse; she exists to take care of his mother, the flattest one of the bunch, whose existence seems to boil down to distributing maudlin catch phrases while having cancer.

Even Landon, who is probably intended to be the heart of the story, is really too good to be true. She at least has some dimension, but as a character she doesn't really grow or learn anything. She's kind of a wisdom-dispensing robot. I could have accepted her in a novel filled with more fleshed out characters, but here she is simply another person orbiting around David.

In fairness I enjoyed the story, I thought it was imaginative and fun. There's not much of Toronto in here, although it does play up the Canada/America divide a lot, with mixed success (are we still making jokes about this?). I wish I had more positive things to say, but as someone who loves books largely based on my emotional attachment to them, I have a hard time when there's no fully-drawn characters I can love. So it was really distracting to me. I am not above trying one of his other books but unfortunately I can't recommend this one.

Two CN Towers out of five.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Deadly by Nature by Meredith Andrew

Y'all know I love a mystery, and this is a pretty good one. I did figure out the murderer about two thirds of the way through, and I was right, so I'm not sure if that should make me feel better or worse about the quality of the book. For someone who reads/watches a lot of mysteries, I'm actually terrible at figuring out whodunnit, so for me to do so makes me think the solution is pretty obvious to everyone else.

The story is about a camping trip that goes terribly wrong. Gina, a sports writer for a fictional Toronto paper, and Patrick, an environmental activist, go camping by the (fictional?) Speller River north of Toronto. The next day Patrick is found near death from poisoning and Gina is dead in a canoe - evidently from rushing to get help. It looks as though mushrooms are the culprit, but Patrick is an expert on mushrooms and insists the ones he picked were safe.

Patrick is persona non grata in the nearby community, where the work of an environmental organization that he founded was responsible for an explosion that permanently paralyzed a young man working for the local logging company. Back in Toronto, Patrick's girlfriend Liz tries to get to the bottom of things with one of Gina's colleagues at the paper.

Much of the plot of the novel takes place within the personal relationships of the people involved, which of course turn out to be key to finding the solution. In a way it reminded me of Grave Doubts, with the hint of danger in each character; you know as a reader when a character shouldn't be letting their guard down, but they don't know, and it's tense.

Toronto is not very prominent in the story, and so much of it is fictionalized that the whole thing could have taken place anywhere. I'm always glad to get to read a female-authored mystery though, and this one kept me turning the pages, so I would recommend it. I would definitely pick up more of her work.

Three CN Towers out of five.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Swinging Bridge by Ramabai Espinet

I feel a little guilty reviewing this book on here because, even though it was on my list of books set in Toronto, it isn't really. Toronto (or rather, a suburb in the north of the city) gets barely more than a passing mention, although the narrator does spend a majority of the book there.

This is another immigrant story, as so many Toronto books are. Mona, our heroine, is a Trinidadian woman of Indian descent, living in Montreal and working as a film researcher, who finds out that her brother is dying of AIDS (it's set in the early 1990s) and comes to Toronto to see him and the rest of her family, which brings back a rush of memories and ultimately sets her on the path to her own film about her great-grandmother and the other indentured women who came to Trinidad from India.

I feel like if you ever need a representation in fiction of the intersectionality of racial and gender-based oppression, this is a great novel to use. Talking about her youth as an Indian girl in Trinidad, Mona's life perfectly demonstrates how her treatment as a girl was inseparable from her treatment as an Indian, and how both oppressions have followed her through her life and affected who she loved, where she went and what she did.

The author does a great job of portraying the complex members of Mona's family and how tradition, poverty and cultural expectations dictated their choices and reactions. At one point Mona's brother tries to force Mona to forgive their father for some of his ridiculous abuse, and she tries, but she can't. And yet it's clear that she loves him. The relationships we have with our family are so often the most complicated, which is encapsulated perfectly in that chapter.

It is a good book, and well written, but there was nothing really and truly special about it - I don't believe it will stay with me for long. If you're looking for a great book that deals with the Caribbean immigrant experience in Canada I would sooner recommend The Heart Does Not Bend by Makeda Silvera or More by Austin Clarke. Still, this one has its moments and is worth a read.

Three CN Towers out of five.