Thursday, December 27, 2012

“Born Weird”

By Andrew Kaufman
ISBN No. 978-0-307-35764-9

How’s this for pitch perfect for a pitch meeting in a publisher’s marketing department?
When they were born Grandmother Weird blessed each of her five grandchildren with a special power. Not “The Fantastic Four” or “X-Men” kind of power – but a weird, innate, appreciative ability, like always knowing the way home or being eternally hopeful. (Hey, I said they weren’t X-Men powers.) Over the years, however, each blessing has become a curse (“blursings” the grandkids call them). Predicting the date, hour and minute of her death in her Winnipeg nursing home, Grandma Weird instructs granddaughter Angie (blursed with the power to forgive, no matter who slights her) to collect the others so she can collectively lift the blessing/curses from them before she dies. 
What follows is a hunting and gathering of siblings that takes us from that Winnipeg nursing home to the island kingdom of Upliffta and then to a decaying mansion in Toronto. And with each new reunion comes an airing of grievances, disappointments, and an illustration of how some children – unable (or too able) to break away from a family legacy – are doomed from the start. “There was a moment when it could have gone either way,” the narrator says. “If just one of the Weirds had been able to see the absurdity in this tragedy…But none of the Weird siblings were…strong enough to be as outrageous as the circumstances they found themselves in.” Will all of the Weird kids agree to go back home? Will they make it to Grandma Weird’s deathbed in time to have their blursings lifted? Will removing them make any difference to their blursed and broken lives? 
As far as novels about family dysfunction go, “Born Weird” has a lot going for it, especially since the blursed grandkids are reminiscent of the family of boys appropriated by J.M. Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan.” Barrie told those five siblings that he created Peter Pan “by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame.” And like Barrie’s boys – most of whom met tragic ends - the Weirds can’t seem to get a break. 
That doesn’t make the book any less funny or readable – just kind of familiar if you’ve watched a lot of TV shows about the misadventures of unlucky characters. 
This makes sense because author Kaufman (“All Of My Friends Are Superheroes”, “The Waterproof Bible”) shares both the same name as the late, oddball comedian of TV’s “Taxi” and the same birthplace as Alice Munro (Wingham, Ontario) which, according to press notes, makes him “the second-best writer from a town of 3000” people. But Kaufman also calls himself a screenwriter and his book is an easy, engrossing read and practically ready-made for the movies in the same way that Alice Hoffman’s “Practical Magic” read like the novelization of the movie it was about to become. By the time Grandma Weird wields telekinetic powers at her nursing home and Angie’s breath-catching crying jag is spelled out in scripted detail (“Everything’s…so…e…motional…right…now.”) you’ll be picturing Emily Blunt as Angie and Shirley MacLaine as Grandma Weird for the movie version. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Pyro"

By Monique Polak
Orca Book Publishers
ISBN No. 978-1-4598-0228-5
Franklin, the pre-teen “Pyro” of this book’s title likes fire. Recalling the “ah-ha” moment when his father set fire to some balled-up newspapers in the family fireplace, he’d “never seen anything more beautiful” than that first “giant blue-and-orange flame.”
Of course, the fires in “Pyro” have as much to do with the -mania of the title as they do with the destructive dynamics of a broken family. Franklin’s parents are separated and his father and he are on opposite sides of arson: Franklin commits it, while his mayor father reassures the public that they’re doing everything to catch him. 
“Fire’s a powerful thing,” Franklin’s father tells him. “It creates, but it destroys too.” 
But mostly fire creates some indelible images – whether they’re in book, film or news form. “Fahrenheit 451”, “Wild at Heart”, “The Day of the Locust”, “The Towering Inferno”, TV’s “Rescue Me”, the fireballs of 9-11; there’s fewer images more filmic or powerful than fire. In most cases and genres the arsonist is beyond redemption. Most works of art don’t even try to explain the firestarter’s motivations.
“Pyro” is frank enough with Franklin to make him an unlikeable and dangerous character; a daring move when dealing with one of the few remaining untamable manias of our over-analyzed and over-medicated times. And, in turn, Franklin makes “Pyro” a conversation piece of a book. Certainly, the story’s moral lesson is obvious, and its conclusion tidy (we are talking about young readers, after all), but the overall effect is something that can be appreciated by all age groups (especially adults looking for an unusual and challenging read).

Monday, July 30, 2012

"Natural Order"

By Brian Francis
Anchor Canada
ISBN No. 978-0-385-67155-2

Most books, once separated by genre, can then be further separated by how they relate to the other books within that genre. In fiction this second separation can sound like a recipe. And so it is with this new novel.
Using ingredients/formats/premises culled from other, recent and popular titles, the first third of a cup of “Natural Order” sounds an awful lot like “Water for Elephants” (the nursing home, the flashback, the sale of a family home), the second full cup sparks worries that “We Need To Talk About Kevin” (a son with secrets, a mother’s iron-clad maternal instinct). And the final teaspoon, well, it’s actually a surprise that I didn’t see coming. The result is a novel that’s quite satisfying – and that’s saying something these days.
No ‘spoiler alert’ here; just a lot of nuance to appreciate: the poignancy of an old Mother’s Day card, the leisurely grind of daily life that turns disappointments into golden-hued memories by virtue of time, and an uncomfortably spot-on illustration of the often difficult mother-son tug-and-push. In the bigger scheme of things “Natural Order” impresses more than the recent titles by such heavyweights as John Irving and Edmund White. Both of those “name” writers boasted their novels were about the whole arc of a person’s life – but their books ended up being a lot like everything they’ve written before (I’m starting to think Irving and White are writing about their own “arcs of life”). Certainly fiction is in a slump and only the rarest of writers can “re-invent the wheel” when it comes to combining the ingredients/formats/premises of popular fiction in a new and novel way. Given that recipe “Natural Order” is an original.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

“In One Person”

By John Irving
ISBN No. 978-0-307-36178-3

I’m no fan of John Irving and have been consistently disappointed with each and every book of his that I’ve read. Promising storylines devolve into anatomical punchlines; profundities are the cast-iron kind; leitmotifs, leitmotifs, leitmotifs… Still, I always start reading an Irving book in the hope that this one will finally deliver on the promise that each of them suggests: that it’ll finally be a great novel in the Charles Dickens tradition. “In One Person” is a great novel – a great John Irving novel. Expanding on an aside he floated in his first book (“The World According to Garp”) of a “sexual suspect,” his new novel chronicles 50 years in a life of a bisexual man. This alone makes “In One Person” a talking point; Irving rarely writes about bisexuality and rarely in the first person, as he does here. Still, it’s that mention of THE Charles Dickens in the book’s first paragraph that raises expectations. The result – depending on what you think of Irving as a writer – is either an epic, socio-political examination of the libido, or a litany of the conceits Irving refuses to retire: dirty words, competitive wrestling, manufactured melodrama. Those are the same complaints people had about “The World According to Garp” when it was published way in 1978 (with different, coloured covers for its paperback edition). But “Garp” also won a National Book Award and Irving has spent his last 12 novels sorting through these mixed messages trying to prove the prize wasn’t an accident. The only difference now is that Twitter, texting and reality TV, have produced books by people like Snooki and that girl from “The Hills.” Thus, a novel like “In One Person” with its black-and-white cover and brief allusions to the classics becomes literature simply by default. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

“No Sailing Waits and Other Ferry Tales”

By Adrian Raeside
ISBN No. 978-1-55017-596-7

The first thing you should know about Adrian Raeside is that he’s lived on Salt Spring Island and Vancouver Island so he draws what he knows: terrible ferry service. Departure delays, high ticket prices, and bad cafeteria food are just some of his nitpicks about a system so broken that it’s beyond political repair. In this collection of 30 years of ferry-themed comic strips, goofy ferry officials, stunned patrons, and inept politicians make regular appearances. Unless you’re an employee of B.C. Ferries it’s hard not to appreciate the humour. Raeside’s trademark, of course, is his lumpy, misshapen characters who convey their level of gullibility by being either chin-less or borderline obese. Few cartoonists do “wide-eyed” characters better.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

“Looking Blackward”

By Arthur Black
ISBN No. 978-1-55017-590-5
www.harbourpublishing.com

Yes, yes, the title is a groaner – but then the author has a lot to groan about: bad tattoos, frivolous lawsuits, and crimes of fashion. That he’s basically complaining about the bad habits of the big cities from the safe distance of Salt Spring Island is probably the most hilarious thing about the book.
If you enjoyed Black on CBC’s “Basic Black” then you know what to expect with “Looking Blackward”: a bit of history, a bit of humour, an affectionate hair tousle of all the stupid Canadians and ex-pats who inspired such chapters as “Internet: You Get What You Pay For”, “The Hundred-Mile Diet. Not” and “Spread Your Tiny Wings” (in which Black says he’s “sexually intimidated by Newfoundland – it’s on page 71 for anyone reading this on a mobile device in a Chapters bookstore). Some of the book is very funny (the first chapter is about using newspapers as gardening tarp); other parts a strrrretch of context (Black compares the business suit to a cockroach. Oo-kay…). It’s an enjoyable book: witty, smart, thoughtful. Still, how you actually ENJOY the book may depend on HOW you read it. If you read it quickly its observations and indictments feel like manic stand-up comedy. Let your eyes take in each and every word and its gentle confessions and clever insights sound just like listening to late night CBC Radio.

“Benevolence”

By Cynthia Holz
ISBN No. 978-0-307-39890-1
www.randomhouse.ca

Attention all writers of fish-out-of-water, courage-under-fire, romantic-vampire-fiction: See how easy it is to write an original story?
“Benevolence” is an original – of sorts. It’s tempered by enough smarts (in character, motivation, plot) to compensate for its clich├ęs (much of the book reads like script direction). The result is a book that feels oddly fresh and inventive.
We are audience to a childless marriage between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. The former assesses candidates for organ transplants; the latter is currently treating a phobic woman who lost her husband in a train crash. This pair of doctors might have been happy at one time but the daily grind of all things academic, highbrow and just plain petty have turned their marital bliss into blitz.
When they take in a boarder (and his secrets) as a kind of child substitute this dyad of a family takes on a whole new dynamic – one better left for the reader to explore at their own pace. Yes, the set-up might ring bells with those partial to stories about people building their own families of “chosen” relatives but the real pleasure of the book is its many illustrations of how people try, fail or succeed to connect with other human beings in a world full of cultural junk food.

Monday, March 26, 2012

"Pulse"

By Julian Barnes
ISBN No. 978-0-307-35961-2
www.randomhouse.ca
www.julianbarnes.com

Fans of the long form in fiction who were outraged (outraged, I tell you!) that Julian Barnes won big prizes for the surprisingly slim “The Sense of an Ending” might want to sit down when they read this: his new (and eagerly awaited follow-up) “Pulse” is more of the same - many times over.
It’s a collection of short stories.
Certainly stories that span a mere dozen pages are easier to write. At that length the author can make sure characters and metaphors stay where they’re supposed to; that intent and execution are equally obvious – to both writer and reader. These days who in their right mind wants to bend and twist a sprawling 300+ page narrative into something meaningful for an Everyman whose attention span lasts as long as the latest viral video?
In “Pulse” metaphors and story arcs are kept in check, and serious readers of serious fiction will be hard pressed to find any disappointments – or errors. (Indeed, in “East Wind” I had an “A-ha!” moment when Barnes switched from second to third person – until I realized it was a conceit of the story’s narrator, not a mistake of the author.) Instead, we’re lucky enough to be in the company of a master storyteller. “At Phil & Joanna’s 1: 60/40” is all painfully cajoling dialogue. In “Gardeners’ World” the complacent commitment of a marriage is compared with the construction of a backyard garden. And so it goes. Each story is quite, and quietly, remarkable, if only because these days the public has to wade through so much to get to so little that’s meaningful – in their lives, at the workplace, in culture. Barnes has written a book that’s both indicative and anecdotal for our internet age: a collection of one-offs, a book of small miracles of writing.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

“Riot Act”

By Diane Tullson
ISBN No. 978-1-4598-0139-4
www.orcabook.com

“Riot Act” is basically “The Crucible” for the iPhone age. Remember when the Reverend has to choose between admitting his affair with the girl who’s accusing his wife of witchcraft, or deny it and save himself? No? Couldn’t sit through the whole thing? Don’t feel bad, I couldn’t either. So thank the deity of your choice for Diane Tullson’s “Riot Act”. Will seventeen-year-old Daniel, a hero for preventing a business from going up in flames during a post-game riot, save a friend who’s been YouTubed as a rioter? He better! Because as anyone following the outting of Vancouverites who rioted after the losing Stanley Cup game knows, the rioters can either come forward or the police can come and get them. Still, there’s lots to enjoy about the book than just taking a stroll down a memory lane of mayhem. It’s got a good moral quandary, a decent set of characters, and is written with the tween energy of getting caught up in the moment (a kid picks up a bottle, “Someone from the crowd shouts, ‘Throw it!’ Others take up the call and it becomes a chant. ‘Throw it! Throw it!’” A few pages later “the car bursts into flames.” A little later the denials start: “Other people were doing so much more.”). This is one readable riot act.

“When I Kill You”

By Michelle Wan
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-990-2
www.orcabook.com

“When I Kill You” is basically one half of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train”, and while it’s got enough blackmail, suspense and intrigue to keep even my aunt reading, the one thing it’s missing is the thing I wanted to read most: what it’s like to work at the post office. Listen, I can believe the heroine of the story was an abused wife, that she stood to profit from the death of her husband, that one of his exes comes out of the woodwork with some incriminating cell phone footage, and, yes, that she even wrestles in mud (but not the Spa-grade kind - nice touch) on the weekends. But what I cannot believe, what I cannot accept, what I find practically science-fiction – especially in the current economy – is that she’d actually QUIT the post office. No one quits the post office – EVER. That twist in the story is perhaps its most daring, and highlights a larger irony of contemporary fiction: In movies, TV shows and novels, characters talk about dreams, big business and blackmail. In real life, people probably talk about movies, TV shows, novels – and getting on at the post office.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Peer Pressure Cooker

“Hold the Pickles”
By Vicki Grant
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-920-9

“Maxed Out”
By Daphne Greer
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-981-0

Both available at www.orcabook.com

In “Hold the Pickles”; an embarrassed Dan dresses as a hot dog at the fair to earn money to hire a personal trainer to pump up his physique and self-esteem. In “Maxed Out”, the Max of the title is all things to the needy people in his life: a responsible son and brother (his dad recently died and his brother has special needs), and a promising hockey player who’s stoked about the requisite “big game.” You’d think by now – with the evolution of peer pressure into social networking - that the Dans and Maxes of the world wouldn’t need any more lectures (that everybody has an agenda, crime doesn’t pay, out of the frying pan and into the fire) but there’s always room for one more, told a little differently by different people – at least in the world of YouthLit. Namely that everybody has an agenda; crime doesn’t pay; out of the frying pan and into the fire. The Dan and Max of these two stories learn all those lessons, and while it should read like an old person wagging a finger at you, these books still work on a dramatic and emotional level (“Hold the Pickles” has nuance fit for a film script; “Maxed Out” asks if someone is going to be the “puck getter”). And the larger lesson of these two books? That even the familiar can seem fresh and inventive when it’s done with sincere interest in the reader.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

“High: Confessions of a Pot Smuggler”

By Brian O’Dea
ISBN No. 978-0-679-31279-6
www.brianodea.com
www.randomhouse.com

The pitch, as they say in the book business, must have sounded great: real-life golden boy from well-to-do Newfoundland family is abused by priest, gets addicted to drugs, becomes a major marijuana trafficker, goes to prison for a decade, gets released, takes out a snarky job-wanted ad in a daily newspaper, and ends up mentoring other entrepreneurial convicts on a TV show. How great is that?
As dramatic arcs go, “High” has a lot going for it, it’s raw, rude, and relevant, especially with the on-going public debate about legalizing weed. It’s also a very funny book. In denial about reporting to prison, O’Dea waits until the day before his sentence starts to call the district attorney and tell him he’s, you know, just not ready – could he have another month to get his stuff in order? (Yes, apparently.) When he tells his creditors where he’s going for ten years only the phone company won’t let him off the hook, asking him, “Will you pay us when you get out?”
Thirty years ago budding criminals were “Scared Straight” by hardened convicts. Today, hardened criminals have CEO aspirations. Which came first – or are they the same thing? Is this progressive – or Kardashian - of our society? Given the sorry history of white collar crime (Enron, Bernie Madoff), headhunting in prison makes sense: this is where the captains of industry start out, end up, or start out again.