Friday, August 29, 2008

Canuck Book 4 - The Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper

Andrew Pyper writes thrillers. He lives in Toronto.

He is also one hell of a writer with the chops to write serious literary fiction if he so desires.

For better or worse, he doesn't seem to desire this. Which leaves him in a bit of a strange place. In contrast to someone like Margaret Atwood - who nimbly jumps from genre to literary and back like a skilled hopscotch player - he remains an unproven quantity in so called serious writing. From what I've been reading, this is causing some concern amongst the book critics. Now Magazine, for instance, basically spent their review of The Killing Circle urging Mr. Pyper to quit slumming.

Me? I don't really care. I love his writing, literary or not. Lost Girls, his first novel, was a revelation to me. Finally, here was a guilty pleasure that I didn't feel guilty about. A book that was smart and fun and a joy to read. It made me a fan.

I've stayed a fan. While I wasn't as blown away by the next two novels - The Trade Mission and The Wildfire Season - I liked them a lot.

As for The Killing Circle, I've been waiting anxiously for this one for a long time. A novel set in Toronto revolving around a writing circle where the members start turning up dead, I just knew it would be good.

It is. The details are great and the plot works well. There are ample twists and turns which I will not spoil for you. More than that, it's a thriller for book lovers and book geeks. The joys and perils (mostly perils - this is a thriller after all) of the written word come through on every page.

There is also some very pointed satire here as the writing circle rings all too true. Pyper does a great job of showing a city that seems to be more in love with writing than reading. Add to this the fact that the protagonist's career has slipped from book reviewing to tv show reviewing and you can see that, even in the midst of a dark plot, there are some great moments of humour.

What's left to say? Not much. This book is a winner, a break from the serious stuff (we like to say we read) that doesn't feel like a compromise.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cheap(ish) Books

I don't know what you think about McSweeney's. Me, I've sort of rode the fence. Sometimes I've found the work of that set to be a little too coy, too affected. It's kind of like the band with the virtuoso guitar player - sure he's great, but is every song really made better by epic solos and fretboard acrobatics? Sometimes, it just seems like oh so much wanking.

On the other hand, I love that these are people dedicated to the written word. And, in spite of my reservations, I also love their inventiveness. This is especially true of the McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. I love to just check out the layout of each issue when I'm in the bookstore. Every issue offers up a new look, a new style and even a new format (witness the pack of mail issue).

Anyways, I was checking out their website and noticed they are having a sale of back issues of the quarterly concern for 5 bucks apiece. That's about 20 bucks less than cover price. The sale runs until tomorrow (Friday).

Now, for any fellow Canucks out there, let me warn you that the shipping isn't cheap. It seemed no matter what I ordered, the USPS rate was $32.95. The courier option was even worse - totally ridiculous, actually - coming in at well over $100. I guess this is what happens when you've been spoiled for so long with amazon's and chindigo's free shipping option.

At 5 bucks a copy, though, it still works out to a decent price if there are a bunch of issues you're interested in.

In other news, I'm finished with Andrew Pyper's latest, The Killing Circle. My review will be coming in a day or two but let me say that you have to read this book. It's his best since Lost Girls.

I'm going through a serious belle and sebastian phase right now, so everything is sounding coy and poppy and oh so scottish, but that's okay. I needed a break from the rest of the discs I've been listening to this summer (mostly Steve Earle's Austin City Limits disc, Bonnie Prince Billy's 'I See A Darkness' and 'Lie Down in the Light' and the last two weakerthans discs). It's funny how things change. I remember grade 9 and 10 and making monster mixed tapes to take to the beach or for bike rides. Back then, it was a lot of metal mixed with classic rock and some embarrassing pop I won't get into at this point. It seems this year that my choices were made in spite of the season. I guess that's because, with no vacation this year, I've really only experienced summer on the odd weekends when it hasn't rained.

While my Canadian reading selections keep backing up - everything from The Cellist of Sarejevo to Atwood's Life Before Man is sitting patiently beside my bed - I'm thinking of pursuing a mini-theme for my next few books. For some reason - maybe it's the impending fall - I have a hankering to read a few novels set in universities. I'm planning on starting with David Lodge's Changing Places. After that, I'll likely tackle Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim and reread Richard Russo's Straight Man. From there, who knows where I'll wind up.

Well, I've spent enough time in front of the screen. It's time to get ready for work.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Canuck Book 3 - Fast Forward and Other Stories by Delia De Santis

A disclaimer - if it wasn't already clear that I am a reviewer that revels in his biases and fancies, then let me make it clear that this review is going to be heavily heavily biased. That said, I still honestly believe everyone should read this book. . .

Delia De Santis is the mother of one of my oldest friends. In fact, the artwork of said oldest friend graces the cover of this book. As such, I feel almost obligated to at least like this book. Furthermore, Delia (I still have a hard time not calling her Mrs. De Santis) is a really nice person that I've enjoyed knowing for all these years.

What's the catch, you might ask? Is there something wrong with the book? Is the reviewer going to suppress all of his critical faculties and just write nice things about a book written by a nice person?

Turns out I don't have to confront these issues. Fast Forward is a really great collection of stories. Packing 24 stories into 150 pages, this is a collection that quickly grasps the heart of pain and longing and regret.

It's funny. When I read a poetry collection, I am always jamming little pieces of paper into the spines so I can come back later to the poems that really grabbed me. With this collection, I wound up doing the same thing. With this as a guide, my favourite stories from this collection are: "Snow on the Roofs", "A Little Visiting", "Faces in the Window" and "Visions". Thumbing through the collection again, though, I notice there are probably more stories that deserve their own scrap but that's ok. I'm sure my favourites will change on re-reading.

There seems to be a sense of melancholy that weaves its way through these stories. Aging, regret and loss weigh heavily upon these tales. The characters are almost entirely Italian or Italian-Canadian (Delia immigrated to Canada when she was a teenager) and while the stories aren't necessarily about a culture clash, there is plenty of friction as old ways meld with new. Of course, like the best stories, these are not just immigrant tales. These are stories of people with problems and they resonate just as well with people of all backgrounds.

What amazed me while reading this collection was how short many of the stories really are. Sometimes, they are little more than a page, page and a half. And yet, the tales are deep and fulfilling. I found myself chewing over the details of even the shortest stories long after I had put the book down.

If you're looking for a copy of this book, it can be ordered from chapters.

Canuck Book 2 - The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

I've always been proud of the fact that I come from a family of readers. While out tastes vary - from romances to nonfiction to literature - we all spend a fair portion of our spare time flipping pages. When we get together - at the cottage, say - and all the card playing and talking is done, we all retire to our favourite spots for a bit of reading before bed. It's a comforting feeling being surrounded by people immersed in books.

While we all generally stick to our own interests, a book occasionally comes along that we just have to share with others. The book then gets passed from person to person until everyone has shared it's joys (or heartaches, as the case may be). The best example of this is Alistair Macleod's No Great Mischief, a book that criss-crossed the province from sibling to parent to sibling.

The latest book to make the rounds was Douglas Coupland's The Gum Thief. Don't worry. I'm not comparing Coupland to Macleod. Instead, I'm looking at the experience, that "you have to read this" excitement that took hold earlier this month when we all took our turns with this book.

The Gum Thief is a strange little tale that deals with the lives of some employees of an office supply superstore. The story is told through letters, journal entries and the rough draft of a questionably written novel. The conceits - the book within a book, the notes and multiple voices - work really well, combining to weave a thoroughly enjoyable tale. I had a lot of fun reading this book.

Like most of Coupland's best work, The Gum Thief is tight and fun and smart. Is it great capital L literature? I'm not sure. I think Coupland is a very good writer, but I don't think he ranks among the greats. Truth be told, that's beside the point. I've loved Coupland's books for years because they are both smart and entertaining. Every year or so, he comes out with a new book and, for the length of time it takes to read it, you are entertained by a skilled storyteller.

Sometimes, like on a cool night at the cottage, that's all I ask for.