#24 – Tempest-Tost, by Robertson Davies

I could write ten thousand words and still not convey the complexity of the position Robertson Davies’ work holds in my life. I somehow managed to make it through high school without reading any of his work, but his name was tossed around with great reverence, though not so great that he was beyond critique. There were a few battered copies of The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks floating around the classroom, and these were used as evidence of Davies’ obsolete sense of humour and the special quality he had of being “more British than the British.” It was not meant to be complimentary. No doubt Fifth Business was available somewhere in the school library, but I never encountered it. Still, he loomed large, the Grand Old Man of Canadian letters alongside Margaret Laurence, the Grand Old Dame. I went through a period of discovery when I first entered university. The… Continue Reading

#23 – The Sapphire Rose, by David Eddings

By now you’ll have realized that I make even less of an effort to review these books by Eddings than even my normal sloppy ramblings would suggest. I think there’s only so many ways you can say “this book was light and fun, and that’s all I wanted from it in the first place.” Things just don’t go much deeper than that between me and Eddings. But right now I’d like to talk about the concept of race in fantasy and science fiction. It pisses me off. When a science fiction or fantasy author uses the word race, they almost never mean it in the way it’s used in contemporary society. It doesn’t refer to the artificial classifications we make based on things like skin colour, but is more a curious intersection of ethnicity, nationality, and species. I’m not entirely convinced that it’s an Americanism, but it seems to show… Continue Reading

#22 – The Ruby Knight, by David Eddings

In the Belgariad, Eddings’ system of magic was a kind of profoundly American entrepreneurial system, dependent entirely upon the an individual’s strength of will. Education had a certain impact, but largely what mattered was the individual’s ability to impose their own desires on the shape of the world. Magic in the Elenium, by contrast requires that a person not only have a great deal of education, but also that they humble themselves before a power greater than themselves, that they ask permission to borrow some of that power for themselves. I think this is tied to the greater political complexity of the world Eddings has created. In the Belgariad, the political system was a simple, two-sided affair of might against might, good against evil. Even political power in that world was a matter of leaders on one side or the other exercising their will. In the world of the Elenium,… Continue Reading

#21 – The Diamond Throne, by David Eddings

We’re all familiar with the concept of comfort foods, things we eat when we’re feeling anxious or depressed. Familiar things that help us feel better in the short term. True Scotsmen, er, I mean, hardcore readers are also familiar with comfort books. They aren’t brought out just to lift our spirits in times of depression, but they can do that too. I may have mentioned this before, but David Eddings’ books are comfort books for me. I’ve loved them since I was a kid, though now that I’m older they’re just adventurey sort of fun. Now I’m sure I’ve told this story before. Eddings was pretty clear that he wrote for money, and there’s no literary pretensions anywhere in his work. Still and all, if his books were even half as much fun to write as they are to read, he had one hell of a good time making that… Continue Reading

#20 – True Cross, by T.R. Pearson

Like Polar, True Cross features one of the main characters from the earlier Pearson novel, Blue Ridge. This time it’s Ray Tatum’s big-city cousin Paul, who also serves as narrator. Like his cousin Ray, Paul is generally a bit smarter and more sensible than the people around him, or at least he thinks he is, but unlike his cousin, he’s a bit of an asshole. He’s involved in an unfulfilling relationship with a woman he quite clearly loathes, and he abandons his dog on the big city streets because they fail to make an emotional connection. Paul’s greatest skill, both in life and as a narrator, lies in justifying the often selfish and hurtful things he does. Blue Ridge, the novel Paul first appeared in, is Pearson’s own version of a detective novel, but unlike in Polar, the earlier follow-up/sequel, Pearson doesn’t even make token gestures toward the mystery/crime/detective/whatever genre.… Continue Reading

#19 – Polar, by T.R. Pearson

Last year I read a really excellent book called Blue Ridge that featured the kind of slow burn lore and quasi-biblical rhythms of the best Southern literature blended with a dash of down-homey humour and hung on a couple of murder mysteries. I felt like I’d found, in T.R. Pearson, a writer who could merge genres and temper the serious with the comic to avoid the sombre. As it happens, I was only partly right. Blue Ridge did indeed show that Pearson is capable of all those things, but I’ve since learned that it was the exception rather than the rule. Pearson, it seems, leans more in the direction of the yokelisms than the Southern gothic or the murder mystery, and Polar featured far more of that sort of thing than I was in the market for. It does feature Ray Tatum, my favourite character from Blue Ridge and still… Continue Reading

#18 – The High Window, by Raymond Chandler

This review will be rather quick and dirty, I’m afraid. Like with Farewell, My Lovely, I tore through this book in a single sitting. Given that Chandler is considered (to the best of my knowledge, anyway) to be one of the founders of the modern detective story, a genre known to laypersons like myself for sometimes elaborate but always tightly organized, clockwork-like plots, The High Window has a very organic, almost lop-sided plot. There were times when I had trouble following this book, despite Chandler projecting some pretty clear signals about which things were important and which things weren’t. In noir films, the women are always some manner of gorgeous, be they smoldering or flouncy or girl next door-ish, but not so in Chandler’s novels, and it was only while reading The High Window that I actually noticed. The women aren’t usually described as unattractive (and they’re usually far more… Continue Reading

#17 – Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler

There were two things that brought me to Raymond Chandler. The first was reading the lyrics to Robyn Hitchcock’s “A Raymond Chandler Evening” in James O’Barr’s graphic novel The Crow when I was in high school. I still haven’t hear the song, but the lyrics are smooth and hypnotic, yet evoking a dark, very physical world with the threat of violence lingering just outside one’s field of vision. It’s the kind of teasing introduction that you’d think an author would have a hard time living up to. (You’d think.) The second thing is when I read an essay or interview or something by an author (and I have this horrible, guilty suspicion that it was Margaret Atwood, though it seems unlikely that she would stoop to reading genre fiction) in which she went on and on about how Chandler wrote about furniture with exceptional ability. That’s more a writerly comment… Continue Reading

#16 – Thought You Were Dead, by Terry Griggs

Regular readers, if I have any left after my ridiculously long hiatus, will remember that at the beginning of June I attended the Toronto launch of Terry Griggs’ Thought You Were Dead. I began reading it on the subway home that evening, though I admit that Grigg’s dense prose was difficult to concentrate on against the noise and crowd of the train. Griggs’ novel has been called both a detective story and a satire of a detective story, though strictly speaking, I don’t think it’s either. It follows a path similar to the standard detective novel, in which the natural/social order is violently disrupted, and a character who is an outcast or otherwise on the fringes of society must solve puzzles and overcome other obstacles to reassert that order. In most of the detective fiction I’ve read, this path is ususally a tragic one, but Griggs doesn’t seem built that… Continue Reading

#15 – Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill

A co-worker saw me reading Bad Behavior during my downtime at work, and asked what it was like. My response to that question is still the most apt summation of this book that I can think of: delightfully fucked up. I found Gaitskill by way of Mr. Beattie‘s series of posts on short fiction last summer. I don’t remember a thing about what he wrote, or even what story it was (something out of Because They Wanted To maybe), but I do remember being intrigued. And when I found out that Gaitskill had written the short story that was the basis for Secretary, one of my favourite films, that clinched things for me. I’m now the proud owner three Gaitskill books, and I chose this one to start with because it has “Secretary” in it. I’ve since come across this interview from The Believer in which Sheila Heti (one of… Continue Reading