“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.


 “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 suggest: that it 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 novel (“The World According to Garp”) of a “sexual suspect,” his new book 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 – if I remember correctly – rarely in the first person as he does here. Still, the mention of THE Charles Dickens in the book’s first paragraph sets the tone for what’s to come and expectations are raised. 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. Ironically, the latter are the same complaints people had about “The World According to Garp” when it was published in 1978. Then again, those are the same complaints about ALL of John Irving’s novels. The only difference now is that Twitter, texting and reality TV, have produced books by people like Snooki. A book like “In One Person” with even the briefest allusions to the classics becomes actual literature simply by default.



By Cynthia Holz

ISBN No. 978-0-307-39890-1

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 clichés (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.



By Julian Barnes

ISBN No. 978-0-307-35961-2

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.

"The Guardians"

By Andrew Pyper

ISBN No. 978-0-385-66371-7


Trivia quiz: Remember “Sleepers”? The 1996 best seller about four men who conspire to kill a guard who molested them when they were juvenile delinquents? It was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. Remember the 2003 best seller “Mystic River”? It was about the abduction of a boy, his return, and a murder and made into a movie starring Sean Penn. And what about “The Secret History”? Do you remember that book? It was about cookie-cutter college kids who try to commit the perfect murder and hasn’t been made into a movie yet. No problem if you missed them. This year’s version of “Sleepers”, “Mystic River” and “The Secret History” is called “The Guardians” and I’m thinking Russell Crowe would make a great lead as a Parkinsons patient returning to the scene of a crime he and three boyhood friends committed decades ago. Unfortunately, given the depressing state of movies today the part will likely go to one of the “Gossip Girl” guys.

This time the scene of the crime is a grisly town aptly named Grimshaw. The guys are reunited when one of them commits suicide and the remaining three realize that three people really can keep a secret – if two of them are dead. “I know now that you can do terrible things without an idea,” one of them writes in his Memory Diary. “You can do them without feeling it’s really you doing them.” And in that one sentence Pyper sums up the thoughtless crimes of youth; his book becomes a “Crime and Punishment” x 4. But “The Guardians” is also a character study about WHY kids do awful things and then say they don’t know why they did what they did. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about just watch a few episodes of “Judge Judy” when she grills a stupid teen about his/her DUI.) Giving his lead character Parkinsons is a nice touch (literally; doorknobs feel like a “ball of ice”) even if it reminds you of the pulpy vulnerabilities Stephen King favours for his own characters (it seems like someone in every King novel has asthma). Pyper is a better writer, though (no nasty e-mails, please). There’s something epic about “The Guardians” – and not in a populist, corny way. The ground it covers should feel well-tread and obvious and yet it instead feels fresh, inventive and engaging. For instance, a Grimshaw restaurant is underlit not for ambience “but to hide whatever crunches underfoot on the carpet.” “The Guardians” is a psychological thriller with actual idiosyncratic smarts.


“New York”

By Edward Rutherfurd

ISBN No. 978-0-385-66427-1

Readers of a certain age can be forgiven for getting a sense of déjà vu when they read the jacket copy of this brick of a book. The last time I read “a rich, engrossing saga, weaving together tales of families rich and poor, native-born and immigrant – a cast of fictional and true characters whose fates rise and fall and rise again with the city’s fortunes,” it was the late 1970’s, the story was set in New York, and the book was E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime.” Well, we’re still in New York, but given the demands of the Internet generation and an audience of Twi-hards and Potter-heads used to 800-page sequels, the canvas of the contemporary novel now demands a certain length and breadth to satisfy the easily dissatisfied. Often, this results in writing that needn’t be written at all; most of these new books are just run-on descriptions of the same places described in the previous installment of the series (always a series, it seems) dressed up as new episodes. Rutherfurd has the length part down. His “New York” doesn’t just cover an era in the city; it encompasses an almost biblically long eon of time. From New York’s start as a tiny fishing village right up to 9-11, the novel is worth reading if only to admire its mechanics. It’s frankly amazing how far the author can take you in only a dozen pages. Story-wise, it’s an epic, all right. Rutherfurd wisely invests his tale with enough novel twists and clichéd plot points to keep the eye dancing and the brain clicking. The only thing that suffers – as it does with all epics – is the writing, which has to be understated, stately, proper and functional and get you to where you need to go with minimal flourish and description. But as luck would have it, that impersonality gives “New York” a real and suspenseful poignancy. Michael Cunningham (“The Hours”) has publicly expressed a desire to write a novel about the history of a place, the people who gathered there; essentially the dichotomy of the concrete of the structure and the impermanence of the people who built it. Until Cunningham writes it, “New York” is that book.



By Dave Cullen

ISBN No. 978-0446546928

In the 1970s Vincent Bugliosi wrote “Helter Skelter”, an exhaustive investigation of the Manson murders. The book began with a note that anyone of a certain age can paraphrase: this book will scare the hell out of you. Now, Dave Cullen has written what surely must be the definitive document on the Columbine school massacre, and given the millennial generation its own “Helter Skelter.” But what can Cullen tell us about the worst high school shooting in America that the mainstream media already hasn’t? LOTS, it turns out which is a miracle in itself. While Bugliosi had the tactile advantage of detailed coroner’s photos, police reports and court papers to sift through, Cullen had to unpack all that and a veritable internet server of information, perceptions, and false memories, to piece together exactly what happened before, during and after the shooting. Even harder, he has to correct the hyperventilating media that insisted the massacre be crunched down to a TV show plotline. That the book reads like a book at all is a testament to Cullen’s ability to turn newsprint back into flesh and blood. Along the way “Columbine” – the book - becomes something bigger than just a savvy, smart re-think. I mean it as the highest compliment that, in a cultural environment where books, movies and music no longer inspire (or you’ve already read the “Twilight” series a dozen times), a book as good as “Columbine” reads like the most touching teenage love story, the most compelling parental drama, the most devastating Greek tragedy. Most novels try and fail to tell a single story; “Columbine” tells the grand arc of several lives all at once and does so brilliantly.  “Columbine” is the first great book of the Millennium.


And Now a word from Canada's Ted Baxter... 

“A Life in the News”

By Tony Parsons

ISBN No. 978-1-55017-461-8

There’s a chapter in this funny, thoughtful memoir from the anchorman of British Columbia’s most popular news program that’s titled “A Short Chapter on a Long-Standing Gripe” that unexpectedly sums up the whole book. In it Parsons complains about on-air flubs and typos. Viewers of Vancouver’s Global news (the show he hosts) will wonder how such an incident-rich history could be such a short chapter. Parsons, apparently, wonders as well. Well, he wonders why all those Middle Eastern regimes insist on electing men with unpronounceable names. He quotes letters from annoyed viewers telling him the difference between “pursuing” charges and “perusing” charges (one of his show’s typos). Then he shares some funny on-air gaffes, like when his former co-anchor called a bone marrow donor a “boner donor.” And then there are the missed cues; moments when the camera is on and the anchor doesn’t know. And what about whe- Sigh… Weren’t the Webster awards (Global has won a few over the years) supposed to be for excellence? Rejoice, fans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show; WJM-TV is alive and well and telecasting from Burnaby B.C.!!! This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (okay, it is if you’re a serious news junkie). The public has spoken and this is what they want: to watch stories hot off the wire service read by the same kind of people they wouldn’t mind chatting with while they’re waiting for the bus: unthreatening, smiling, and admittedly human in that ‘everyone-makes-mistakes’ kind of way. A memoir by the anchorman of such a show should be a no-brainer; a behind-the-scenes look at the people behind the news. But while Mom and Pop Canada will be charmed by Parsons’ self-deprecating honesty about his bouts with drink, depression, and marriage (he’s currently on his fourth), aspiring journalists will do a lot of skimming – until they get to a couple of wow-worthy chapters where Parsons talks about covering political scandal, the future of TV news and – especially - his vivid recollection of being disciplined for criticizing his boss and co-workers publicly. Still, the book is also likely to give anyone who cares about proper English and likes their news delivered with some dignity a major mad-on about the current state of the fifth estate. Yes, Parsons says, he’s frustrated by the on-air typos. And, yes, according to the book he’s hand-delivered dictionaries and books on correct grammar to the office gremlins himself. All of which begs the question: So why do the flubs just keep coming? And why is Parsons complaining to the public when he’s the one in a position to demand it get fixed? Maybe the Global on-air crew should just ad-lib the news if reading it is such a bother. Whatever your potshot, it’s a disturbing, enlightening and bizarre situation that a book that’s supposed to celebrate an anchorman’s legacy should instead prompt the question: Why should anyone care about proper spelling and grammar if the most watched news show in B.C. doesn’t? I mean isn’t the news, as Lou Grant once told Mary Richards, something sacred? Well, apparently the rules are different at Global and the result is that everything that the Global news show touches gets tainted: the ratings system which says they’re the most watched news program in B.C. (which in itself is a sorry statement about the devolution of the Canadian voter), the news shows on other channels (in a bid to catch up to Global, ratings-wise, the formerly smart CTV newscast has adopted the former’s torturous friendly banter between cackling on-air “personalities”), and especially those “awards” for “excellence” Global’s won - despite all those on-air typos, missed-cues and mispronounced words.


Atwood's Grandest Gamble

"The Year of the Flood"
By Margaret Atwood
ISBN No. 978-0-7710-0844-3

If there’s one thing writers love to write about it’s the end of the world. Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, the editors of US Weekly; all soothsayers and truthseekers, it seems, have taken a turn picturing what the next world will look like. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get a book that keeps proving itself readable and prescient (“Brave New World”). If not, we get Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” And if we’re really, really lucky we get Margaret Atwood playing Mother Nature herself.
As you’d expect from Atwood, “The Year of the Flood” is as elegantly intellectual as her previous book, the dystopian chiller, “Oryx and Crake.” And if you already know that “Oryx and Crake” is a biomedical nightmare love story set in the future, then all you need to know about “The Year of the Flood” is that it’s sort of a continuation of “Oryx and Crake.” It’s usually at this point that the reviewer goes into spoiler alert mode but I’m going to limit my synopsis to a very brief, publisher-okayed description of three characters from “The Year of the Flood”: Adam One, the meek leader of God’s Gardeners (a faith that marries science and religion), Ren, a young trapeze-dancer, locked inside a high-end sex club; and one of God’s Gardeners named Toby, who is barricaded inside a spa. That’s it. That’s all anyone who hasn’t read the book needs to know because a book this good should be read, not read about.
Great books of fiction are so few and far between these days that a reviewer gets protective when dealing with even a decent title. In an effort to not give anything important away we end up talking about what book writers’ rightly fear most: the nuance stuff, the paragraphs that set the tone and establish a set piece; the easily nitpick-able stuff. But Atwood – again working in the most overworked genre of sci-fi - does a remarkable job here of getting her story’s little asides wow-worthy spot-on. You can picture the streets, the buildings, the clothing, even the jellyfish bracelets. Sure, there are some clunky moments; a few too many generalizations about how things will “look” (yes, yes, they’re needed to make the book accessible for the fantasy- and sci-fi-challenged) but Atwood’s clunks trump most other writers’ triumphs and add to the story’s discussion value. For instance, in “Oryx and Crake” I thought she clunked big time with the description of the McNuggets of the future (you’d think animal rights would trump all by then) and then I thought she got it so perfect when a character is trapped by roaming warthogs of the future that I can still see her words in my mind.
Even better, the sense of dread in “The Year of the Flood” is delightfully, perfectly well-timed for the start of the new school year and the run-up to family holiday get-togethers with others of your gene pool. The greatest compliment I can give “The Year of the Flood” is that I wished I could have saved it to read on my off time. I wish all books could be this wondrous. “The Year of the Flood” is that rarest of fiction titles: the creation of a new myth on a biblical scale.

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