Friday, January 30, 2015

Murder at Osgoode Hall by Jeffrey Miller

When I first picked this book up I thought from the cover art that it was for children or young adults - I'm not sure why they decided to go with this illustration, which, combined with the slightly larger paperback size and the fact that the story is narrated by a cat, certainly seems to aim it at a younger demographic. Certainly young people, even teens, could enjoy it, but I don't think it's aimed at them - the story is heavy on law talk and allusions that I don't think I would have picked up as a teen.

That said, the story is narrated by a cat, which is delightful. In fact it is the burst of life this otherwise sometimes plodding mystery needs. Amicus, the cat, is found with a bird in his mouth by Justice Mariner outside his office at Osgoode Hall (the stately institution at Queen and University where you will often observe folks having wedding pictures taken). A plea for mercy is made by the Hall librarians, and Amicus comes to live there full time in an old chip box.

The mystery is the murder of a "bencher," a governor of the law society. The victim was an anti-Establishment "do-gooder" trying to rein in the spending of the other benchers, so obviously he had lots of enemies. Perhaps also obviously, he wasn't as good as he seemed and had a couple little schemes on the go.

The first half of the book was enjoyable. After being initially turned off by Amicus's pretentious narration, I started to get used to it and especially enjoyed asides about the history of various legalities. The second half, however, is basically entirely set in the courtroom and may as well have been written in third person, or just by an ordinary person and not a cat - it's as if Amicus suddenly disappears from the story, leaving us with a somewhat uninspired courtroom mystery that for me - unlearned in the law - raised a lot of questions about conflict of interest.

I kind of thought the cat would be more involved in actually solving the mystery, sniffing out clues, or at least landing on relevant passages of law in aid of the defence (or the prosecution). There was one interlude that started out promising - Amicus ends up escaping into the water and nearly drowning - but it seems, perplexingly, to have had no bearing on anything else in the story. I had no particular attachment to any of the human characters so I really missed the cat's input in the second half.

It was a great take on Toronto, coming from behind the windows of such a central building that so few Torontonians ever have cause to visit. I really enjoyed reading a story set in Osgoode Hall. My general enjoyment of the book overall was uneven, so I will award it three CN Towers out of five.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

All the Libraries

If you're into the Toronto Public Library the way I am (that is, super super into it) you might enjoy this project by Toronto artist Daniel Rotsztain called All the Libraries. He has visited and drawn every branch of the TPL in Toronto, and is posting them regularly (so far there are 39 posted).

The first branch I ever visited, the impressive Lillian H. Smith, is up and it's lovely and I might get a print. But I am holding my breath for my true love, Danforth/Coxwell.

Check it out!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Love Ruins Everything by Karen X. Tulchinsky

You know it's a Toronto novel if there's queer people or Jewish families, and this novel has both. Set in the early to mid 1990s and revolving around the AIDS crisis, it covers a lot of the territory of The Toronto You Are Leaving, but with more lesbian viewpoints (always welcome!). 

I kind of hated the book at first. The beginning chapters of the novel deal with our protagonist, Nomi, having her heart broken and moving out of her girlfriend's San Francisco apartment to crash on her best friend's couch and do pretty much nothing. It is angsty queer lit to the extreme. Luckily, the plot picks up when Nomi's mother's second wedding brings her (Nomi) back to her hometown of Toronto.

In Toronto, Nomi reconnects with her hilarious Jewish family, and runs into an old crush who wants to get something started. She also meets up with her cousin Henry - the family's other queer - who has just been gay bashed.

Halfway through the book we switch to Henry's perspective, which is much more interesting (although neither character is particularly developed). Henry has connected with an American queer scholar who has a radical theory about the origin of AIDS, and together they are trying to get the press to pick it up before they both get killed. 

I am reluctant to take a side on this book. I liked the Henry chapters, and that storyline was pretty interesting and face-paced. On the other hand, a lot of Nomi's story was maudlin and irritating. The sex scenes were embarrassingly over the top (is it possible to write a good sex scene?). But then again, I liked the Toronto colour, and I liked Nomi and Henry's extended family and their shenanigans. 

The larger theme of love's disruptive place in one's life is not fully explored, which is too bad. It kind of gets shunted aside by the government conspiracy angle - which also doesn't get its due. It's sort of like there's actually two different books here, or at least the two storylines needed to be more deftly woven together. Just when things started to turn around for Nomi, we lose track of her to follow Henry's story.

The ending felt rushed and not everything was resolved. But the story was interesting, and I think it could be a good first step for folks looking to get into queer fiction. I will give it an ambivalent three CN Towers out of five.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Uproar by Jack Macleod

Have you ever started reading a book, and it starts out with a lot of "setting the scene" sort of stuff - introducing characters, situating the story, etc. - and then you get about a third of the way through and realize that it's no longer setup, it's just the story? Anyway that was kind of the situation here. Not much really happens - most of the story is just 'this is what this one guy's life is like, and here's some stuff that happened'.

The stuff that does happen is at least interesting, although that's about all I can say for it. The novel follows J.T., an economics professor whose wife has just left him, and who is spending his time drinking and 'guarding the hearth' in the vain hope that she might come back. His colleagues and friends worry about him to the extent that they make snarky comments about his alcoholism and, on one occasion, come over to his house and yell at him about what a failure he is making of his life. His good friend Zinger comes to Toronto to do some kind of fellowship at the (fictional) university where J.T. works, and zany madcap adventures ensue, except they don't. I was hoping for some Robbinsesque hijinks with a character named Zinger, but he falls rather flat.

Woven through this plot (and I use the term generously) is a great smattering of jerking off information about Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis and their insights on media. It's like a condescending lecture disguised as an even more condescending novel. In truly remarkably unsubtle fashion, J.T.'s ex-wife and his lover face off about McLuhan in a television interview near the climax. It's like middle-aged male professor fan fiction - I wouldn't be surprised if the author wrote the entire book just to be able to put that scene in print.

The women in this book are terribly written, and exist solely to either persecute poor J.T., or to inexplicably love him with the patience of Job - that would be the love interest, Pepper, who fulfills that last role. The middle of the book is taken up with a search committee on which J.T. and Pepper both sit, trying to find a president for the college. They are hesitant about nominating a perfect candidate because he is gay (this was published in 2009! What is happening??) and of course J.T. is the good guy who earns the gay professors adoring gratitude for being less openly homophobic than the university president. The committee also includes a straw feminist who reports J.T. to the ethics committee, rightfully so (but we're not supposed to think so, I gather) for being racist and sexist. Which he is.

This whole book is like ridiculous wish fulfillment fantasy for a particular subset of humanity - the kind that still use the phrase "light in the loafers" and think their critique of television is cutting edge. Listen, my dad is a middle-aged white male professor, I know what I'm talking about - you don't have to be like this, J.T.

All told I think it was a sad stab at being the next Mordecai Richler - unfortunately for the author, that particular kind of Toronto novel has jumped the shark (in this reviewer's opinion). Even the name-checking of Toronto landmarks, which I usually find delightful, grew a bit tiring and pretentious. Would not read again.

One CN Tower out of five.