Monday, May 23, 2005

It's a glorious day in THE CITIES OF WEATHER

The Toronto Star raves about Matthew Fox's debut collection in what surely will be the ultimate review of the book:
Emotional forecasts inform fine story debut
A Montreal culture watcher charts life's highs and lows


Although every story in Cities of Weather includes a detailed and often beautiful description of the weather, this book is not a plodding CanLit equivalent of a landscape painting. In fact, when a protagonist named Mark leaves Montreal for New York, it's to get away from all the snow, trees and other limiting wilderness stereotypes.

"I'll show them," Mark says, vowing to write a great, perception-changing work about Canada as a "glut of characters huddled in a horizontal line along the 49th parallel, all deep and conflicted and interesting — a country of Salinger-level dysfunction and beauty and profundity."

As if fulfilling his own character's vow, Montreal's Matthew Fox mischievously plays with the popular linked story convention and our perceptions of weather. He points out that for Canadians and New Yorkers alike, the weather is one of the most changeable aspects of our lives and we like it that way: "Blazing sunshine beating down uninterrupted on a city becomes boring for them. They expect seasons, expect things to happen quickly, change quickly and the weather is not exempt."

Cities of Weather
is a powerful debut. Fox is an associate editor at Maisonneuve, a Montreal-based cultural magazine of "eclectic curiosity," so perhaps it's no coincidence that his tone, points of view and moods swing as often, as, well, the weather. Stories take place in different cities and towns, from urban Toronto, Montreal and New York to small towns and cottage country. His characters come in a wide assortment of orientations, ages and genders.

Fox underscores the randomness of the world, not only with his descriptions of powerful, unpredictable meteorological patterns — forces that are simultaneously magical, foreboding and destructive — but also through such characters as the ill, unnamed protagonist in "Prove That You're Infected."

In one spark plug passage, he tries to get his lover to flee with him: "Run with me is all I ask," the character exhorts. "Let's gobble up the black space in front of us and listen to mix tapes and blow smoke out the windows." He keeps thundering without pause, "Let's speed towards Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street, through greasy spoons with horrible fast food, past speed traps and weather-beaten New England homes."

Fox reinforces the importance of spontaneity when a chic boyfriend is dumped for being a dullard. He reminds us of the unsettling power of unexpected news when two young men find out their roommates are dead after a car accident. In this swirl of change, Fox's weather passages are the eye of the storm, familiar yet never innocuous.

Fox's terrain of tumult blends families, lovers and change, achieving the effect of what cultural commentator Bert Archer forecast in his 1999 book The End of Gay — the demise of the limiting gay/straight dichotomy and a burgeoning era of greater sexual liberation. As in recent Canadian novels such as Anna Camilleri's I Am a Red Dress and Suzette Mayr's Venous Hum, old sexual labels and stereotypes don't necessarily apply.

Fox makes gay sex ordinary. Identity politics are diffused when acceptance is proffered by unlikely characters. A middle-aged hotel owner is surprised when her husband rents a cottage to a gay couple with a pet snake: "The cheque was good," the husband says. "When all is said and done, they could bugger the snake if they wanted."

Writing about acceptance also enables Fox to subvert the stereotypical gay "coming out" story in "Limb from Limb." When a Montreal hipster visits his family in his "charming backwater" hometown, his family is hit by a scandal much more dramatic and important than the character's news, allowing Fox to erase any melodrama about being gay.

Many of Fox's stories are more about characters' self-expression than who they're sleeping with. The title story is about an office worker who becomes obsessed with creating sculptures of hands after her boyfriend leaves her. "Ordinary Time" maps a male protagonist's spiritual revelations on the path to adulthood, from childhood Catholic prayer to teenage drug epiphany, and from juvenile shyness to the language of casual sex. "Afterward, he bolted. Like most boys, he had his own post-coital scurry plan." The protagonist finally learns to express himself in poetry he shares with friends and family.

Like the one-night-stand poet, Fox has found an effective voice, producing a connected series of emotional forecasts. "They all expect beauty, expect me to pull it out of my sleeve like a bouquet of cloth flowers," the poet notes, and like Fox, he delivers. "I open my mouth and the words fall out measured, sing-song, the way I've prepared them. Even in my small voice they sound mysterious, divine."
Congrats, Matthew!

Friday, May 20, 2005


YA and kids' books king-maker, Richie of Richie's Picks, has told his readers that Laura Whitcomb's novel A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT should be crowned:
Alternating between sensual, gritty, dark, delightful, and frightening; between atmospheric fantasy and down-and dirty contemporary YA realism, A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT is absolutely awash in literary quality and an award winner waiting to happen.
Thanks, Richie! And congrats, Laura!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Raves all over for C. J. Box's OUT OF RANGE

First, there was Jane Dickinson in the Rocky Mountain News, giving the OUT OF RANGE, the latest Joe Pickett book, an "A":
It's an image as big as the West itself, and almost as old - the lone lawman maintaining order and fighting the good fight in a vast and rugged territory. C.J. Box updates this American classic in his novels featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, novels that deserve to be on any list of top American mysteries.

The latest, Out of Range, may be his best yet. Box has always spoken in a sure voice, with an unusual ability to tackle difficult issues with balance and intelligence. But the plot of Out of Range hangs together especially well, avoiding black helicopters and menacing federal agents, for the most part, while taking a thoughtful look at the land and the issues it raises. Oh, and there's a heckuva page-turner in there, too.

Game Warden Joe Pickett leaves his home in Saddlestring (read Sheridan) on a temporary assignment to cover the territory around Jackson Hole after the suicide of a friend, a highly regarded game warden. A world apart from the sleepy Big Horn Mountains Joe loves, Jackson's the richest county per capita in the richest country in the world, Box writes, set in a wilderness where grizzlies and mountain lions still roam.

Box, subtle as always, handles Jackson and the inroads of resort culture there (an easy target if there ever was one) with the lightest of touches. He explores the tensions between hunting and fishing, game management, human encroachments on animal habitat, and the use and abuse of animals for food. As usual, he turns an unsparing gaze on bureaucrats and political operators of all stripes, as Joe faces off with outfitters, a big-time developer, animal-rights activists and, briefly, the vice president.

Joe investigates his friend's suicide despite opposition from the sheriff, hunts down a wounded grizzly and winds up in a gunfight with an outfitter, the only man in the county he really likes and understands.

Separated from his wife and daughters for the duration, Joe also grapples with difficulties in his marriage, and the proximity of a fascinating woman who's interested in him. Box manages these tribulations with the same deft touch he applies to writing about the West. There's a lot to like in this book, so if you haven't yet discovered C. J. Box, don't wait.
Then the Wall Street Journal joined in the cheers--with a review teased from the front page:
OUT OF RANGE, with its stunning scenery and modern malevolence, combines the rural pleasures of the classic Western (close encounters with bears, an old-fashioned gunfight) with the sleuthing and forensics of the police-procedural. And Joe Pickett, with a little help from some old and new friends, proves more than a match for an era's foe.
Congrats, Chuck!

Monday, May 09, 2005

C. J. Box is a star

Booklist gave C. J. Box's newest, OUT OF RANGE, a star! Here's the full text:
When a fellow game warden kills himself, Joe Pickett is transferred to Jackson Hole – “Wyoming’s very own California” – where the new and old Wests collide head-on. Pickett investigates the suicide, meanwhile angering both a hotheaded developer and an irascible outfitter – and attracting the developer’s beautiful wife. (Back home in Saddlestring, Joe’s wife, Marybeth, calls family friend Nate Romanowski for help with threatening phone calls and finds herself tempted, too.) Contemporary issues are always integral to Box’s books, and here he examines the modern quest for authenticity through something called the “Good Meat Movement.” In the fifth installment of any series, even one this good, one might reasonably expect a creeping sense of routine. But, if anything, Box is getting better. Incorporating his own natural curiosity into his characters’ opinions, he strides a Teton-sharp line between the hard-boiled ethos, where concepts or right and wrong are almost meaningless given the world’s ways, and a western sensibility, where a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do—Joe eventually delivers the line: “I just killed the only man in Jackson Hole I really understood.” But although Pickett is a laconic western archetype, there’s no mythmaking here. He’s a family man, likeably flawed, and evolving every year. Recommended for practically everybody. – Keir Graff

Thursday, May 05, 2005

More praise for IMPROBABLE by Adam Fawer

IMPROBABLE got big thumbs ups in this week’s Just Books newsletter and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

From Just Books:
Improbable is one of those rare books that you sink into your bed with and welcome the early morning light as you turn the final page. Improbable is a brilliantly told mystery/thriller that just keeps you guessing the odds to the very end. Fourth-year Columbia statistics Ph.D. student David Caine is in trouble. His gambling habit has gotten him in deep with the Russian mob and due to serious health issues, he can't make himself disappear. In order to escape the burden of his debts without losing his life, Caine is under experimental drug treatment that seems to allow him to access his unconscious mind and he combines this gift with his statistical genius to play the odds in a high stakes game for his life. Fawer is gifted at keeping the finest line between the good guys and the bad guys, holding a mirror up to David Caine, so that you're never sure which image is reality, and keeping the adrenaline flowing through succinct explanations of complicated mathematical and scientific theories. Improbable is action packed, full of interesting information and for any person with a penchant for playing the odds … the perfect read.
From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
It makes an unlikely combination: Thriller and physics

Reviewed by Marc Schogol

There's a very strong probability that you'll read this book - but it's equally improbable.

We might be able to tell if we could look into your future, but which future?

Perhaps your past reading habits would give us a hint, but which past?

OK, you may be fuming, get real! Fine - which reality did you have in which mind?

And if you've got a feeling that you've heard this sort of stuff before, congratulations. But beware. Once it's discovered that you experience feelings of deja vu, a lot of nasty people may come after you.

That's what happens to David Caine, the protagonist of this very promising debut novel by Adam Fawer, who got his undergraduate and master's degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and went on to a business career before checking the odds and deciding they favored writing this combination thriller and primer on modern physics.

Caine is a gambling addict and epileptic. So was Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who wrote a novella called The Gambler about a man who couldn't stay away from the gaming tables.

It isn't improbable that Ivy Leaguer Fawer has read that book, but his book leaves Dostoyevsky's (whose name is sometimes also spelled "Dostoevsky") in some parallel universe's dust.

For all his anguished musing on morals, Dostoyevsky probably believed the books he wrote physically existed. Ha!

The premise of Improbable is that everything from existence to matter doesn't matter because it's all relative - except when it isn't.

There are people among us who can see all possible pasts, presents and futures, Fawer hypothesizes - and epilepsy, schizophrenia and similar conditions are telltale symptoms of those who have this potential ability.

When David Caine comes to realize this - and also falls deeply and hopelessly into gambling debt - mad doctors, spies, and mobsters from all over the world literally and figuratively want a piece of him, and don't care whether he's alive or dead when they get it.

In an unlikely alliance, he is aided in his flight by a beautiful (are there any other kind?) former Russian KGB agent turned CIA hit-woman turned freelance intelligence thief and hawker who messes up and - after initially chasing Caine, too - is being chased by the same crowd.

Time after time (Einstein's definition of time, of course), she and Caine seemingly miraculously (but not really miraculously, because there's an explanation for everything) escape pursuers. In the course of which, Caine increasingly comes into his mental strengths.

Also in the course of which, alas, the narrative takes long digressions as we get long, detailed lessons on Probability Theory, Quantum Physics, and other cutting-edge scientific theories and theorems on being and nothingness.

Sometimes, these tutorials come only seconds (relatively speaking) before the bad guys kick down the door. It can make some readers a tad impatient - and at one point, even one of the characters urges another delivering a lecture to please you-know-what or get off the pot.

Caine, too, can freeze up - knowing everything except his next move.

"Caine was paralyzed, unsure of what to do," Fawer writes of one such episode. "He knew he'd changed something, if he went back in, he would know what had happened/is happening/will happen... ."

Though Caine obviously has a huge advantage on us, we have one on him: Read Improbable and, with a lot less physical and psychological pain and strain, you'll know all the answers, too.