Friday, September 25, 2015

A Little More Free

A Little More Free / John McFetridge
Toronto: ECW Press, c2015.

256 p.

Labour Day, 1972, Montreal. Eddie Dougherty, a half-French, half-Irish patrolman in a mostly French police force, is angling for a promotion to Detective.

Fortunately for him, but not so much for the victims, he is called to an emergency: a nightclub fire. After it’s all over, there are 37 dead. His level-headed presence at the scene is noted, and he’s asked to take on undercover work relating to a robbery at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. And then he gets assigned to a case investigating the murder of a young American, who turns out to be a Vietnam War deserter.

There is a lot of content about the social conditions at this time, and it is mostly woven in smoothly, though once in a while the detail becomes a bit heavy. But 1970s Montreal is a fascinating time, with political upheaval and the cultural divide shaping daily life, with Expo 67 just over and the Olympics on the way. McFetridge uses Montreal as a character in itself, naming streets and restaurants, bus routes and neighbourhoods. Along with politics, he also weaves in student protest culture, urban development, the mafia, geography, and of course, hockey.

The book takes place during the entire length of the famous 1972 USSR-Canada hockey series, capped off with the legendary Henderson goal — with all kinds of people watching and discussing the Russians’ surprising play. It’s a useful metaphor for something McFetridge is commenting on throughout this whole book: the ways in which we don’t really know those whom we consider our enemies.

Eddie is a great character, full of realistic self-doubts and flaws. But he’s also committed to policing and to helping others. The inclusion of both his family and romantic relationships rounds out his character. He is someone you want to keep reading about – which is great as this is the second book in a series. This title can definitely stand alone, without your having read the first book, though. Both the character and his setting are very strong, and I think anyone who knows Montreal will be especially interested in following Eddie's exploits.

This is a crime novel that explores our past, and shows that people remain much the same no matter where or when we live. The characters are a lively combination of male and female, French and English, police -- and those suspicious of the police. It’s a quick, eventful read, but also explores the inner workings of many of these characters. If you haven’t yet met up with patrolman Eddie Dougherty, pick up this novel and walk the streets of Montreal with him.

(read the first chapter here!) 


Further Reading:

For more Montreal mystery, try John Farrow's Detective Emile Cinq-Mars series, which strongly evokes Montreal's history, or perhaps even Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan books, which are partly set in Montreal and follow a forensic anthropologist's work. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Two books, a Foodie, and a Fish

photo © Pawel Pacholec
I just finished kicking my feet up in the last of the summer sunshine, and reading two new books back to back on the weekend. It was uncanny how similar they were in tone and style. And also structurally. I guess these young guys are hitting the zeitgeist of new fiction in the same way.

To tell you how similar they were, in voice and characterization, let me give you an example: in Fishbowl, a young woman named Katie is one of the main characters we follow from the start. The conclusion of her part in the story leaves her future open.... and then, near the end of Kitchens of the Great Midwest, we meet one of its characters from one of the early chapters, with a new wife named Katie in tow. I thought to myself, oh, so that's what happened to her! Yes, the character from the other book. I had them piled up together on my bookstack for the day, perhaps she jumped ship to find herself a better ending!

23398625Anyhow, on to a few comments about each of these books separately.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest / J. Ryan Stradal
New York: Viking, c2015.
310 p.

This book is getting all sorts of buzz. I would probably have liked it more if it hadn't... it's a good book, but I didn't find it a great one. It's centred on Eva, a woman with extreme food skills, from a very young age. Her father was a chef, and it's apparently been passed down in her genes. She turns into a beautiful, cryptic, hipster chef running a fabulously popular "pop-up" restaurant scheme.

Each chapter follows her into a new era in her life, and each one has new characters who then turn up again later in the book. There are all these strands of people who know Eva who don't know they are all connected. It's a charming conceit, but one that is perhaps just a little overdone. I did not feel like Eva was more than a central focus for all of the other stories that Stradal was telling; she didn't seem like a real person once she had grown out of her childhood. And her mother's story was interesting but not investigated thoroughly. Anyhow, if you are a foodie you will adore this book. Even if you're aren't,  you may enjoy this modern story of  "hipsters meet the midwest."


Fishbowl / Bradley Somer
New York: St Martin, c2015
304 p.

This fishy tale is told in the same tone as the above mentioned book, though strangely I haven't heard the same hype around it. It's centred around a fish, not a chef: Ian the goldfish has escaped from his fishbowl, which unfortunately for him, was perched on the balcony of the 27th floor of the Seville on Roxy.

Ian falls with increasing velocity, and as he does he gets a glimpse of lives inside the windows he is passing. We get a longer glimpse, as all the characters mentioned get some back story and all begin to bump into each other and interact.

There is quirkiness galore, with a wry tone and asides that speak to the reader in the way that the narrators in shows like Pushing Daisies do -- with an overarching storyteller effect. There are young people fighting over their love affairs (ie: Katie, mentioned above, who jumped books in my reading process) and there are agoraphobic, pregnant, and homeschooled tenants as well (not all the same person!) There's a charming element in the overworked, gentle superintendent who is trying to fix the elevator for much of the book; and in the construction worker who is hurrying home with his clandestine package, which isn't what we might expect.

Another charming touch is that in the margins, if we flip the pages like an old-fashioned flipbook, we watch Ian falling, falling.....but don't flip until the end or you may be hit with a spoiler.  Both of these books feature mostly young, mostly urban characters and they both have the same effect with their deliberately constructed storytelling. They are a bit mannered and, well, both easily pictured as art movies of the Amelie sort. Not to say that they aren't enjoyable. This style may not be my most favoured kind of book, but I read them both, one after another, and had a good time doing so.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

Fifteen Dogs / Andre Alexis
Toronto: Coach House, c2015.
160 p.

This book has a unique set-up; the gods Hermes and Apollo are drinking in a Toronto pub when they get into an argument that leads to a bet. Apollo thinks that animals, given human intelligence, will end up as miserable as human are, while Hermes says they won't.

So they give human consciousness to fifteen dogs who are overnight boarders at a nearby vet clinic. They bet one year's servitude on the chance that even one of the dogs will die happier than they would have otherwise. And the tale begins...

Each of the dogs has a name and personality, and each of them takes to this new understanding differently. Some of them want to cling to "dog's ways" and live in a pack, while others want to make the most of their new human consciousness. Prince, for example, loves his new linguistic flexibility and becomes a poet. Majnoun develops human relationships and emotional depths, as well as learning to speak some English.

But this ability to think in a human way does not always lead to happiness. Dog life has a dark streak, and the doggish violence and animal nature that blends with the human leads to many tough moments. The dogs still remain dogs, exploring smells and running and finding food sources where they can. They are dependent on humans, who are ignorant of any new consciousness -- despite these dogs having human awareness, the two-way communication is still lacking (something also quite human).

It's thoughtful, poetic, gritty, and very moving at times. Alexis tells the story from the dogs' perspective and it is enthralling. He explores our world, and our perception of it, from a new angle.

I love this sentence from the publisher's write-up -- it captures the essence of this read.

André Alexis's contemporary take on the apologue offers an utterly compelling and affecting look at the beauty and perils of human consciousness. By turns meditative and devastating, charming and strange, Fifteen Dogs shows you can teach an old genre new tricks.


Further Reading:

For more tale telling from a dog's perspective, though one with less whimsy in its set-up, try Phoebe's Way by Pamela Ditchoff. It follows a therapy dog as she works in a senior's home, and explores memory and what makes us human in the end.

If instead, you're intrigued by what happens when bored gods make wagers with one another, try Jo Walton's The Just City, a story that begins when Athena and Apollo decide to recreate Plato's Republic with human time-travellers. Knowing that there is something different about being human, Apollo also agrees to live a mortal lifetime in this ideal city. Of course, things don't go exactly as planned. Humans are like that.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Connie Gault's Beauty

20342579A Beauty / Connie Gault
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, c2015.
336 p.

This novel immediately appealed to me; set on the Canadian prairies, centred on one woman's journey, a bit of eccentricity and some unexpected occurrences -- sounds like my kind of story!

And it was good. Gault tells a story of Depression-era Saskatchewan that manages to be light and entertaining and quirky even while also being serious, exploring loneliness and sadness.

Elena Huhtela is a Finnish girl, living with her father in Trevna, a small village in the south of Saskatchewan which is primarily Swedish. Now, to those of us on the outside, the distinction might seem minor, but it matters to those who live there. Elena is also motherless, and as the story begins her father has disappeared as well. It's assumed that the pressure of the drought has got to him, and the pity people feel for Elena increases.

Elena, though, doesn't want pity. She wants escape. So at the next community dance, when a city stranger appears, she takes advantage of the situation and skips town with him. The story then ranges through many towns, hotels, and grain fields as Elena finds ways to survive and to decide how to get where she wants to go. While she does so, she touches and influences many other lives, even if she is unaware of her role. There is a particularly strong connection between Elena and a young girl named Ruth, who picks up the story later on, once Elena has mostly vanished from its pages.

This book strongly reminds me of Dianne Warren's Cool Water -- a tale of intertwining prairie lives, told with a long view. But it's a different kind of prairie novel, focusing on Swedish and Finnish immigrants. While Elena is the "beauty" of the title, the girl who is envied because of her ability to get away, she's also a cipher to those she grew up among. And she remains pretty inscrutable even to the reader -- she makes no effort to explain her actions or give any reason for her longings. The ending of the novel is touch unsatisfactory because, even as we meet up with an older Elena, there is no big resolution with Elena spilling all her secrets. She remains as she always was, silent and self-contained. While this can be a bit frustrating when you just want to know what drove her to do the things she had done, it is also very, very realistic, reminding me of other older prairie women I have known. They just don't chatter or share their inner lives with anyone.

Anyhow, a long review which can be encapsulated by saying -- great characters, wonderful writing, and a memorable hot and dry Saskatchewan setting. I liked it. This Globe & Mail review seems to share the same view of the novel as I do, and in much better depth too.


Further Reading:

Cool Water by Dianne Warren, as I've mentioned, is another Saskatchewan novel that circles around itself and reveals glimpses of the inner lives of a wide cast of characters based in Juliet, Saskatchewan. It is told in the same kind of lovely, descriptive prose too. And it's one of my own favourite books.

In some ways I was also reminded of Marina Endicott's The Little Shadows -- while it's about 3 sisters in vaudeville, it is also focused on a prairie setting, and women escaping some of the expectations on them in a pre-WWI timeframe. It looks at a number of characters, with stories intermingling, in the same poetic style.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Desperate Fortune with Susanna Kearsley

A Desperate Fortune / Susanna Kearsley
New York: Touchstone, c2015.
498 p.

I really enjoy Susanna Kearsley's romantic fiction. I like her style, her characters, and how she imbues her stories with history.

This latest book features amateur codebreaker Sara Thomas, who has been hired to try to break the code that a 300 year old journal is written in. The journal belonged to Mary Dundas, an exiled Jacobite who, as it turns out, was heavily involved in intrigue on the continent.

As usual with Kearsley's books, the story jumps back and forth between the present day and the historical past. In this book I much preferred the past. Mary was a young but intrepid woman, clever, curious, and loyal. Her love story was slow-moving but satisfying and thoroughly convincing. Plus all the history about the Jacobites was interesting, though perhaps a little heavy on the telling. I hope the next will move away from the Jacobite background, as it has been a major part of a few books now.

The present day story didn't really grab me. Sara is an unusual main character; she has Asperger's and has found that there are certain conditions she prefers that help her to manage her work life, such as working alone. Her preferences are certainly in opposition to most expectations of being 'political' and networky in your work life, and I found her determination to do things her way quite refreshing. That said, I also found her love story rather dull and unconvincing; her love interest is a bit flat to me, and she herself never really caught me in the same way that some of Kearsley's earlier heroines have.

The major difference between this book and many of the earlier Kearsley novels is the lack of any paranormal, timeslip elements. It's a straight ahead back-and-forth between past and present, mediated by Mary's journal. I think I missed that element, and discovered that what I really love about her books is in fact the mysteriousness of the psychic, ghostly, or timey-wimey bits.

Still, even if I didn't love this one in the same way as, say, The Shadowy Horses or The Rose Garden, I still enjoyed it and look forward to the next book with just as much anticipation as always.


Further Reading:

If you like the idea of Jacobites and Scottish intrigues, mixed in with a little romance and lot of historical fact, you could always try the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. While it's longer, and more time-travellish, it does share some elements of this story.

If the modern day story in this book is what you love, check out Katherine Neville's The Eight. It's far more mystical than this book, but it features lots of codes, ciphers and politics mixed in with multiple narratives past and present, in France as well...and has a fabulous heroine.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Two Fashionable Reads in One

I've read a few books in recent weeks that deal with fashion or dresses in some way. Not a surprise, really -- I've been really focused on my sewing lately and it's colouring my reading choices too! Here are a couple of the novels that I picked up.

The Knockoff / Lucy Sykes & Jo Piazza
New York: Doubleday, c2015.
352 p.

This book had a fun premise -- recalling the likes of The Devil Wears Prada -- Glossy magazine editor Imogen Tate returns from a leave, only to find that her fashion mag is being changed to an app.

To make matters worse, all of her reliable older staff have been sidelined, some sent off to offices in former closets, or even fired. Meanwhile, a bright young thing, Eve Morton (actually Imogen's former assistant) is now in charge.

There was a lot of potential for breezy fun in this book. And there were some bits that I genuinely enjoyed. However, even as a light summer read I found there were numerous 'cons' to the novel.

Firstly, the characters = caricatures. Only Imogen feels like a real person, with interior thoughts and actual human feelings and motivations. Eve is a frighteningly nasty person; there is no nuance to her at all. She's a selfish, cruel, boorish woman who has somehow morphed from a so-so assistant to a self-absorbed, cartoonish monster. The awfulness of Eve becomes almost ridiculously so, ie: she ends up by online bullying Imogen's young daughter, which isn't really a spoiler as it is immediately obvious to the reader that this is another of Eve's horrible acts. One of the points against her, in Imogen's mind, aside from all these blatant problems, is that Imogen was nice to her when Eve worked for her and now Eve is just so ungrateful...

Also, the concept that Imogen is just SO OLD that she's completely out of touch with technology and has to learn to keep up with these scheming youngsters by getting current with Twitter and Instagram and the whole idea of apps...well. Imogen is 42. And an editor-in-chief of a major magazine. She'd know all of this already. Perhaps I was particularly surprised by this since Imogen and I are about the same age...and I'd like to think that both myself and all of my similarly old lady friends are quite hip to this whole online thing.

So, while there are fun bits, I found that the tone of the book was pretty mean-spirited, especially in its portrayal of Eve. While you're supposed to despise her, I ended up wishing that someone would stage an intervention and get her the help she needed. It's an interesting read for the fashion world setting -- and certainly put me off the idea of working in surroundings like those!

Dress Shop of Dreams / Meena van Pragh
New York: Ballantine, c2014.
326 p.

Dresses. Books. Science. All in one.

This is another story about a magical vintage dress shop (similar to A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff or The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean).

It's cute, sweet, a little predictable and not altogether believable -- but still entertaining and charming.

Cora Sparks is a focused realist, a scientist whose parents died mysteriously when she was quite young. She was raised by her wonderful grandmother, the owner of said dress shop. When women try on dresses there, Etta stitches in a magical little star that brings women their dreams. Mixed in with this story is Cora's search for the truth of her parents' tragic deaths, a conspiracy with long-reaching effects. And there is also a secondhand bookseller just down the street, one who bakes a mean cherry pie. And is the velvet voice of a late night radio show. Walt has been Cora's friend since they were 5 yrs old, but she doesn't see how he adores her. Until Etta throws a little magical influence into the mix...

There are many lines in the story that cross and influence one another, just like Etta's little thread stars. If you let yourself go with the flow, you'll probably enjoy this sweet read. In some bookish ways it reminded me of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (the good parts) or maybe even the slightly loopy magical bits from stories by Sarah Addison Allen.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Happy Canada Day -- with another Canadian Book Challenge!

Happy Canada Day!

What better way to celebrate Canada Day than to sign up for the 9th annual Canadian Book Challenge? John Mutford at The BookMineSet is once again the gracious host, and this year the theme is 'music'. By which I mean that the successive levels of reading are named after the top 13 Canadian albums.

This is always a fun and easy challenge -- the goal is to read 13 Canadian books between July 1 this year and next. You can set yourself a theme or personal challenge, or just read random Canadian books. The only requirement is that you share a review somewhere online for each title you are counting toward this challenge.

There are tons of suggestions at John's blog from previous challenges -- 6523 reviews, to be exact. So join in and have fun reading and celebrating our own Canadian literary heritage!