Friday, May 23, 2014

The Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper

This book had the potential to be a fairly good mystery/thriller. The premise is that a TV critic (who hates TV) and aspiring novelist, Patrick Rush, joins a writing circle, and shortly afterward a serial killer starts terrorizing Toronto using the same methods (and general vibe) as a character in one of the circle member's stories - the Sandman. Around this same time, Patrick and the other group members start to feel as if they are being watched by a shadow-y figure.

So four years later, Patrick steals the story from Angela, the circle member, and writes a best selling novel, because why not. Then the circle members start to disappear one by one, and Patrick has to figure out which of the ragtag group of weirdos is the actual Sandman before his son gets kidnapped (which we know is going to happen because it says so in the prologue).

It's a creepy enough story, and the real strength of it is in the many red herrings, reveals and unreveals. I don't feel the author ever quite achieves the "is it real or is Patrick nuts?" vibe he's going for, but there is an effective feeling of being alone and anonymous in a large city that was done well.

The big weak spot for me was Patrick as the protagonist/narrator. I am familiar with the concept of antiheroes and unlikeable protagonists/antagonists in general, but I suspect that we actually are supposed to like Patrick or at least sympathize with him, and I couldn't. He's an asshole, and a whiner to boot. From the very start I hated him, his description of how he longed to be a published novelist and envied people who were published. Totally natural feelings I guess, but it's like, dude, just write something. He even joins this writing circle and then doesn't even have a thing to workshop. What the fuck. He's also a smug dick about other peoples' writing.

Patrick also makes really stupid choices that put himself and others in danger. He steals Angela's story, which, obviously, she's going to notice, not to mention the other people in the circle are going to notice, not to mention he knows it might be real and doesn't he think it might piss off the killer? Then he doesn't tell the cops anything, even the solid stuff like someone breaking into his house, or threatening his life on the internet, because he thinks he needs to play the killer's game or some nonsense. THEN, when the killer leaves the body of one of his writing circle colleagues in his shed just to fuck with him, instead of calling the cops, he cuts the body up and disposes of it...because he thinks he'll be accused of the murder. Well you would probably stand less of a chance of being accused if you'd told the cops about all the other stuff, buddy!

I know characters make bad choices in fiction all the time, particularly in horror fiction, and it can often be excused by adrenaline or fear or already-established stupidity. But what bothered me about Patrick's choices is that they didn't make sense for him as a character - as the narrator, he never convinced me of his reasoning. It really bugged me. Also, at one point when confronting a woman he slept with once and whom he now suspects of being the killer, Patrick says - not "I hate you," not even "You fucking bitch" - but "I wish I'd fucked you in the ass."

I wish I'd fucked you in the ass.

I'm sorry, I don't care how upset your character is supposed to be, there's about a million better ways to show it than that misogynistic piece of garbage writing. I actually put the book down at that point and said out loud, "Fuck right off." I got some looks.

So, in conclusion, this book could have been so much more, but it wasn't. I can't really recommend it, but I would probably give the author another try, because he seems like a talented fellow.

Two CN Towers out of five.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Toronto Star: Toronto Public Library launches new map as a gateway to the city’s literary hotspots

There’s a new way to navigate the stacks at the Toronto Public Library — by neighbourhood.

A new map from the city’s librarians connects books, both fiction and non-fiction, with the real-world Toronto neighbourhoods they take place in.

“It does give us a sense of community, I think and it connects us better to our city. We’re hoping it encourages people to read more items that are set in their city or their particular neighbourhoods,” said Mary-Beth Cirk, one of the librarians in charge of the project.

The map features book lists for 19 Toronto neighbourhoods from Don Mills to Downtown and was the result of a year of consultation with staff members throughout the library system. It was inspired by a talk from Imagining TorontoAmy Lavender Harris, author of Imagining Toronto and an expert on Toronto’s literary landscape.

Harris praised the map as a way of not only helping people understand Toronto, but also of potentially attracting more readers to Toronto’s literature, which is heavily studied outside the country, according to Harris.

“Factually, Toronto has a huge literature — there are thousands of literary works set in Toronto and there are more being published every year,” said Harris. “Our literature is actually far better known outside of Toronto than in the city.”

The books on the library’s list are wide-ranging in genre and form. Some are graphic novels, while others, like Bad Seeds: The True Story of Toronto’s Galloway Boys by TorontoStarreporter Betsy Powell, are non-fiction. Much of the map, though, is concerned with literature set in Toronto, which Harris says often contains a common theme.

“The first thing that strikes me about Toronto literature is how we deal with culture, culture and difference,” said Harris. “I think that is the biggest thing that books about Toronto help us get into. In Toronto we can talk about hockey and the weather but we shy away from conversations about what's different between us, what makes us uncomfortable about each other.”

Harris pointed to M.G. Vassanji’s No New Land, a novel set in Thorncliffe Park and Dar es Salaam that tells the story of new immigrants coming from Africa to suburban Toronto.

“Literature helps us have conversations about culture and difference that I don’t think any other venue does,” she said.

Writing about Toronto is rooted in explorations of multiculturalism. One of the earliest fictional representations of Toronto — John Galt’s 1831 work Bogle Corbet — emphasizes the meeting of different cultures in its discussion of the city.

“Society never betters itself without new ingredients …Where emigrants of different degrees and trades mingle, they do well, and everything about them becomes promising,” wrote Galt of the city.

Some of the books tackle Toronto’s favourite symbols, like the CN Tower.

“As the structure formerly known as the world’s tallest freestanding lies in the lake waiting for news of a better day, there’s heated talk among the other buildings, a debate that rages around whether the tower can’t get up or won’t get up,” writes Darren O’Donnell in Your Secrets Sleep with Me, a surreal exploration of the city in which its beloved tower tumbles into the lake.

The map that the library created is a living thing, said Cirk, and will be updated if they receive additional suggestions.

“We’re hoping that people who live in these neighbourhoods will see the list and say ‘Oh, you missed such and such,’” she said.


Article by Tim Alamenciak for the Toronto Star

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Corner Garden by Lesley Krueger

Judging by some of the novels I am reading for this blog, post-WWII Toronto was basically full of secret Nazis. I know I'm being rather flippant, but this is definitely the fourth - possibly the fifth - book involving a character who lives in Toronto now but did some messed up shit back in the war. It is getting hard to judge them just as books, as I inevitably hold them up as part of a particular genre as well.

This one does alright. It is the story of a fifteen-year-old girl named Jessie who moves, with her mother and new stepfather, to Toronto from Kingston. There she encounters a neighbour, Martha (actually Maaike), an old Dutch lady who at first coldly rebuffs her, but slowly a bond begins to develop between them and Martha/Maaike begins to educate Jessie/Gretel (the name she has taken on) in a certain worldview - not an explicitly Nazi one, but there's a lot of Nietzsche and Goethe involved.

It is a book about pretense. Slowly we find out about Martha/Maaike's Dutch past through a series of diary entries from when she, herself, was Jessie's age during the occupation, and letters to her deceased father in the present day. What is more compelling (at least to me) than the slow reveal of what Maaike did during the war is how thoroughly she convinces herself that she is Martha, not Maaike, and the ridiculous and abusive hold her father has on her. The Martha/Maaike half of the story is a lesson in the dangers of blind nationalism - Maaike's actions have nothing to do with a hatred of the Jews or anything, she is just a 15-year-old girl who believes in her country and has never questioned that faith. When her history changes when they move to Canada - perhaps even before that, when her mother kills herself - and the nationalism shifts itself to a blind allegiance to her father.

Both of these things - the devotion to her country and to her father, right or wrong - save Maaike's life through the course of the story, but also rob her of a good life and the ability to be a whole person. She spends the entire time in Canada - 50+ years - living as Martha and basically never becoming close to anyone so as not to destroy the lie.

Obviously I found Martha/Maaike a much more compelling character than Jessie, although the novel is divided between them. Jessie is as naive as Maaike was at her own age, failing to see, as other characters do, what Martha really is until it is much too late. She also refuses to believe the story of her own conception as told to her by a cousin, even though it seems a pretty likely story. Jessie is taken with a boy named Matthew whose father is a White Supremacist, and it is unclear whether Matthew himself follows this line of thought - although Jessie is so clueless she never even wonders.

I had a hard time with Jessie because she is such an asshole, as is typical of 15-year-old girls. She doesn't seem to care about anyone but herself, and is apparently smart but never really thinks. She was definitely perfectly written but extremely hard to like, and every time it was a Jessie chapter I wished I was reading a Maaike one.

Toronto was a good backdrop for the story, and an essential one for a tale of blending in unseen (which is probably why so many of these "former Nazi" stories are set here). Jessie calls it "Amoeba City" which I quite like.

I thought this was a good book, but I definitely felt the balance of the story-telling was off; Jessie either needed to be a more compelling character or there needed to be more focus on Maaike's story.

Three CN Towers out of five.