Monday, June 21, 2010

Canuck Book 13 - Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall

I finished my troika of Toronto novels with this Zoe Whittall book. Whittall is a writer I've known of for a while. I almost bought her first novel (Bottle Rocket Hearts) on a number of occasions but never quite got around to it. After reading Holding Still, I realize I will have to pick up her first book soon.

The story revolves around a group of friends and lovers who live around Parkdale, the slowly gentrifying neighbourhood near the west end of Queen Street. Billy - a one-time teen pop starlet - has split with her longtime girlfriend Maria. She is trying to go to school but suffers from severe panic attacks. Josh is a transgendered paramedic who is starting to grow apart from his girlfriend Amy (who is a filmmaker). There are a few other friends that come and go but these are the main three.

I'll be honest. The book took a while to grow on me. Each section starts with interludes describing an emergency that paramedics are attending to. There's a very detached feeling to these that had me guessing, trying to figure out why they were there. There was no need to question anything, though. Whittall knows what she's doing. The more I read, the more I realized how well she put this story together.

Stringing the last three books in the Canada Reads challenge together like I did was an interesting experience. I witnessed three different takes on Toronto (four if you count Consolation's split narrative) that had surprisingly little overlap. I wonder how many other Canadian cities this can can be said of? Montreal, for sure. Vancouver? Probably. Any others?

Canuck Book 12 - Consolation by Michael Redhill

After reading Girl Crazy, I thought I'd stick with the Toronto novel theme. I'd been meaning to read Consolation for a long time. I was a big fan of his earlier novel, Martin Sloane, so I knew I would likely love this book. Of course, other books kept popping up so Consolation just never reached the top of the pile by my bed.

I'm glad I finally got around to it. Consolation tells two stories. The first involves a family coming to terms with the patriarch's death in late-90s Toronto. The father was a "forensic geologist" who spent his career sifting through the layers of garbage and debris on which the city stands, looking for clues to the past. Stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease, he left behind clues for a potentially crucial find on the site where the city is building it's new hockey arena.

The other story follows the life of a young chemist who moved to Toronto from England in the 1850's to run a store he bought sight unseen. As his main business fails, he gradually moves into the new field of photography.

The strange thing about this book is that, as much as I loved it - and I did love it - I couldn't help wishing the author would have focussed on one of the stories instead of splitting the book between the two narratives. Of course, as the book progresses, you do see why the author has set the book up this way. Quite frankly, this is one of the best Toronto novels I've read in a long time. It's a book that sticks with you and makes you look at the city and its myriad construction sites in a very different light.

Canuck Book 11 - Girl Crazy by Russell Smith

I have a weakness for Russell Smith novels. It's funny because, in a lot of ways, Mr. Smith writes books I feel I shouldn't like. They are always full of characters who are big on flaws but short on redeeming qualities. Add to this the fact that Smith sometime writes like a caricature of the knowing hipster - the one who knows all the right bars and all the right people and all the reasons why most people don't measure up to some invisible yardstick of the trendy - and you have a writer who should be avoided.

Only it doesn't work out that way. I buy his books as soon as they come out and tear through them. While I rarely wind up liking the characters, the stories pull me in and the details, those precious details, begin to ring true. What I like most about his work is that he is a Toronto writer through and through. It's hard to imagine his stories and characters without Toronto looming in the background. Each book offers me a chance to look at the city in a way that is both completely valid and yet totally different from what I normally see.

That's why I picked up Girl Crazy as soon as I saw it in a bookstore.

Basically, the story goes like this - Guy falls for girl. Girl comes from wrong side of tracks (if that's possible anymore). Guy becomes obsessed. Sex. Drugs. Some danger. Some confusion. Some bad decisions. That's about it.

Oh yeah. The guy isn't just obsessed with the girl. He seems to be obsessed with women in general, hence the book title. Don't worry. It's not as creepy as it sounds.

Of course, it's the details that make the story and Smith scores big. I really don't want to give you more information than that loose outline because I wouldn't want to ruin any part of what is a very good book. There were times when I thought he might have gone too far with things, might have slipped from character to caricature, but he manages to walk the tightrope yet again.