Friday, February 27, 2015

Dead Politician Society by Robin Spano

The premise of this book is deliciously intriguing - the mayor has been killed, and a secret society at U of T has taken credit through an obituary sent to the paper. More politicians start dying, and the cops send an undercover officer to the school to infiltrate the society while the newspaper editor tries to figure out the connection between the victims.

The main character is supposedly Clare, the undercover cop who enrolls in the political science class where the society is rumoured to have started. But in reality each chapter follows a different character, so we don't get to see a lot of Clare - which is for the best in my opinion, as I found her story arc to be somewhat anemic.

In fact, there are perhaps two too many POV characters in the story, leaving each arc overcrowded and rushed. It also eliminated too many likely suspects, I think, making the killer so obvious that when I guessed them about a third of the way through the book, I thought I must be wrong and had identified a red herring. But no, I guessed correctly, and even got the motive too. So I think if the author wants to continue writing mysteries, that's something to work on - a fair play whodunnit is tricky because you do want the reader to have all the clues they need to figure it out, but you don't want it to be boring.

This book was a bit boring. Not getting enough time to immerse myself in a character before it jumped to the next one made it hard to invest in them. The professor character was especially difficult for me: I knew I didn't sympathize with his politics or the way he treated women, but then I felt like there was a shift at some point and the reader was supposed to sympathize with him? And there was no exploration of anyone's relationship, any reason why anyone was attracted to anyone else.

The worst was the way the society was handled. I read the whole damn book and I'm still not clear on what the society's mandate was or what they even did. They are called "Society for Political Utopia" but as far as I could tell, the characters in it had widely varied political stances, and the society never actually did anything except meet (once, in the novel) and churn out killers, apparently. It definitely could have been developed a bit more. I also think that the police would probably immediately question the professor about it (since it was perfectly obvious to everyone that he had started it) and subpoena his records - but they never did that, because they are the most useless cops I've maybe ever read about. They also apparently never put the pieces together in terms of connecting the victims, something the newspaper editor and the mayor's ex-wife did in one night of looking through the archives.

I think maybe the worst, most contrived scene in the story though was without a doubt the scene where the killer is finally arrested, in the middle of class, and asks to stand in front of the class and explain why they did it. It was so awkwardly bad and unrealistic, and made doubly so because I had figured out both about 100 pages earlier.

The one good thing about the book was how much of Toronto they used - I really enjoyed that. It felt like it was actually happening here, in a very smooth and seamless way.

Unfortunately I cannot recommend the book on the strength of being set successfully in Toronto. I give this one two CN Towers out of five.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Year She Left by Kerry Kelly

One challenge I have found in reading more recently published books (like in the last 10-15 years or so) is that a lot of the ones that feature young-ish characters and deal with relationships can be kind of...fluffy, for lack of a better term. They tend to fall under the unfortunate label of "chick lit". So it is always a lovely surprise when that doesn't happen.

Another issue - and this is a #champagneproblem - is for someone who has been in a happy relationship for over a decade, it is sometimes a struggle to relate to characters who are absorbed by dating drama and the woes of single life.

This novel is good. It avoids these pitfalls nicely with well-drawn, flawed but likable characters and a realistic but not too dull plot. The author manages to artfully capture the challenge of modern adulthood without becoming maudlin or falling into romcom traps. It is, above all, believable and real.

The story follows two people in their early 30s who have just left long-term relationships: Kate, who asks her boyfriend to leave after coming to the slow realization that things aren't working; and Stuart, whose fiancee writes him a Dear John letter and then hides in the shadows to watch him read it. At the start, these two characters don't know each other, and the book is divided between them as they both struggle to cope with the consequences of the break ups - Kate tries to find something to occupy her time, and Stuart basically becomes a hot mess.

Eventually the two do meet, but that is not what the book is about. Honestly I'm not sure I could tell you what this book is about. I will say I was pleasantly surprised by how the author twice sidesteps our expectations based on the title and the trajectory of the narrative. It is clear that she has nothing but contempt for familiar romantic tropes, and I love it. The characters are buoyed by a ragtag support network of interesting but not too silly friends and relatives.

The city does not play a huge part in the story but there are some Toronto spots that are name-checked, most notably the Local. There is also an air of Canadian-ness to it; it's a Manhattan story but softer somehow.

I found a couple parts to be a bit on the nose: any long monologue where a character explains what happiness is or what life is about is hard to handle, and I believe there are three in this book. But otherwise it is a quick, pleasant, and surprisingly emotional read from a very promising author.

Four CN Towers out of five.