Friday, February 28, 2014

History Lessons by Cary Fagan

In general I try not to read short story collections for this blog, just because generally not every story is going to be set in Toronto (and sometimes only one in a whole book is). But then I pick up books and I don't know until I start reading them that it's a short story collection. So whatever, here it is.

History Lessons was a very quick read - I think there are only five or six stories/novellas and they all seemed to zoom by. The main theme I found was, as the title suggests, history, and the effect that our past - whether immediate or inherited - can have on our lives. The author does some impressive work writing from very diverse points of view, through first and third person narration and protagonists of different genders and ages. All of the protagonists were extremely well constructed and realistic, and it was easy to become immersed in each story.

The stand out story for me was "Happy Birthday to Me," about a woman planning a surprise party for her husband, and the guests becoming increasingly agitated as the husband is late coming home from work. The author uses a neat trick where we get quick glimpses of what various characters are thinking; if it were a film, it would involve a camera roving around from person to person with quick voiceover narration changes a la Scrubs. It was a bonus that definitely added a lot to the story and made it very relatable.

I enjoyed all of the stories, although each one ramped up to a potentially dramatic conclusion and then left itself dangling a little, which was frustrating. My preferred genre of short story is the twist ending - don't go looking for that here. None of the stories was predictable per se, but neither were they shocking at all. They are just well crafted vignettes.

A couple of the stories were not set in Toronto but the majority were, I believe. Toronto has a very "any big city" feel in them so there's not a lot of specifically Toronto flavour, but certainly they are worth reading to at least get a sense of Toronto literature, since the author is noticabely of here.

Over all if you like this kind of short story I would highly recommend the book - a quick but engaging read.

Four CN Towers out of five.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Blood and Groom by Jill Edmondson

Y'all know I like a good mystery, but I have to say perhaps my least favourite type of mystery is the Private Eye genre. I will eat up a police procedural, or a little-old-lady-investigates, or a "consulting detective" like Sherlock Holmes or Poirot, but some person with a dingy office and an ad in the paper investigating a murder for a mysterious stranger who has something to hide...for some reason, I just can't get into them.

I do try though, and I wanted to give this novel a fair shake, but the opening paragraph involves the protagonist describing another woman as a "Manolo-shod Chihuahua" which really left a bad taste in my mouth. There is a lot of femininity-policing happening in this book. And racism, too; there is a scene in which the main character encounters a Hispanic janitor and wishes she had tequila to bribe him with instead of wine; later she refers to him as "El Janitoro" - classy.

The plot is thus: Sasha Jackson, our protagonist, is a "rocker chick" (I will be happy to never read that phrase again) turned P.I. who usually looks into boring P.I. stuff, but an uptight socialite comes to her to ask that Jackson clear her name in the murder of her ex-fiancee. The socialite, Christine, has not been charged with Gordon's murder, but all their friends think she did it, and she wants to prove them wrong. So Sasha investigates, and of course uncovers all kinds of sketchy things about Christine and her friends in the process.

Honestly the writing is good and I would probably read more from this author, just nothing in this particular series, as it was Sasha who really annoyed me. Not just her inner monologue/narration, but the stupid choices she makes. There's a point where she figures out a connection between the murder and some other murders - a fairly solid connection that points her straight to the murderer - and she doesn't go to the police. In fact, even when she does discover who she believes the murderer is, instead of going to the police, she breaks into that person's office.  I'm like, lady, once you go to the cops with this fairly clear theory, they can investigate and find evidence the old-fashioned way.

I also had a hard time with the wishy-washy (and ultimately unresolved) romantic tension, first between Sasha and Ted, one of the suspects, and later between Sasha and Mick, her ex-boyfriend. I guess it's hard to root for someone who you don't really care about. And that's the thing, I didn't really care about Sasha - and I think that is essential for enjoying the P.I. genre. Aside from being set in Toronto, there was nothing that really set this mystery apart, so not liking the protagonist really hampered my enjoyment of the book.

That said, it was well-written and there is potential. I would try this author again.

Two CN Towers out of five.