Monday, March 31, 2008

Check out this Pop Up book!

I love the start of a new selling season, when samples of the new books start arriving on my desk. It's particularly exciting to get the children's materials, as I never tire of the thrill of discovering (now favourite) books like Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems or Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel months ahead of anyone else!

I just received a sample of a wonderful pop-up book- ABC3D by Marion Bataille- which is coming out in October from Roaring Brook Press. Normally, pop-up books are a format that doesn't really lend itself to the educational market, but I think an exception should be made for this book. It's got a lenticular cover and an eye-catching three-colour interior and takes you through every letter of the alphabet in a completely unique way. Pop-up books are hard to describe in writing, so to see what I mean, check out the Utube Video made for the book. It's a great video, and it has become somewhat of a phenomenon itself, having already been viewed almost 290, 000-odd times (as of a few minutes ago).

I can definitely see teachers (and parents) using this book with children to help make learning the alphabet a painless experience. Now, I'm going to have to learn that piece of music so that I can hum it while I show the books to buyers...

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Retail Therapy - now and then

I had a delightful retail experience this weekend, (there's a book recommendation coming, just wait for it). Out for dinner with another Dewey on Friday evening, I passed a clothing shop on my way home that was closed for the night, but had enticing sale signs posted on some beautiful clothes in the front window. Popped in on Saturday morning and bought this little dress/top which I'm absolutely crazy about - not least because it packs without wrinkles (essential as I look ahead to an upcoming two week stint on the road). The store has an interesting name, The Embellishment Room, (2025 Yonge St. between Eglinton and Davisville). They sell only imported clothes from Europe and curiously enough, they only carry one size - medium.

Now, I'm usually a medium anyways, but the proprietor urged me to try on everything as a French medium is different from an Italian medium etc. And she was absolutely right. Several of the tops I tried on were too small; others too large. This was just right, so obviously it had my name on it. And the prices are pretty good as well. The dress also "embellishes" the colour scheme of my newly decorated bathroom. Not that I feel the need to colour co-ordinate my wardrobe with my towels, but I'm just craving anything these days that has that fresh, apple-green look of spring - such a happy colour.
It was inevitable that I'd be buying clothes this weekend. In the midst of reading a pile of fall manuscripts for our upcoming sales conference, I've had to take a break and catch up on some extra-curricular reading. Emile Zola's The Ladies' Paradise is set in a large department store in Paris and proves that fervent consumerism is nothing new; this novel was published in 1883. I'm only a third of the way through but am really enjoying it so far. Octave Mouret is the owner of the Ladies' Paradise, one of the prototypes of the department store we know today, and he's full of ideas for expanding, dreaming that eventually his store will take over an entire city block. His business philosophy is to make up in volume what he loses by selling his goods very cheaply - even taking a loss in some cases - in order to put all his competitors - the small, family-run specialty stores - out of business. Sound familiar? Denise is the naive, small-town girl who comes to Paris to support her brothers and goes to work for him as a sales clerk in his ladies wear department.

There are some very interesting gender issues that arise in this novel - again, not so distant from stereotypes found in any shopping chicklit novel of today. It's all about consumer seduction - in this case of bored Parisian society women who need to keep up appearances:
"Get the women," [Mouret] whispered to the Baron, laughing impudently as he did so, "and you'll sell the world."

But there is also a sinister motif of dead and decapitated women that runs through the story. Mouret's department store owes its origins to his wife's money - the same wife who was killed in an accident on the construction site. And check out this description of one of the shop windows:

"Against this chapel-like background, the coats were bursting with energy; the great velvet overcoat trimmed with silver fox suggested the curved outline of a headless woman, running through the downpour to some festivity in the mysterious Parisian night."

There is the repeated promise that Woman will get her revenge. I wait with delicious anticipation.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Journeying into the Past

One of the books I'm most excited about reading this fall (yes, all book reps are now in a fall mindset as sales conferences loom), is Paul Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: 28,000 Miles in Search of the Railway Bazaar, in which he retraces the journey he took over thirty years ago and recounted in his bestselling book The Great Railway Bazaar - one of the great travel books. Can't wait. But in the meantime, you can read this piece by Theroux in The Guardian, in which he writes about how that first book came about, gives a nod to his favourite travel writers, happily enthuses about the joys of train travel, and outlines his travelling and travel-writing philosophies:

The travel book was a bore. It annoyed me that a traveller hid his or her moments of desperation or fear or lust. Or the time he or she screamed at the taxi driver, or mocked the folk dancers. And what did they eat, what books did they read to kill time, and what were the toilets like? I had done enough travelling to know that half of travel was delay or nuisance - buses breaking down, hotel clerks being rude, market peddlers being rapacious. The truth of travel was interesting and off-key, and few people ever wrote about it.

Theroux's new book will partly explore the vast changes that have taken place in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and China since that first trip, which reminds me of another travel book I've been dipping into and which Theroux fans would also enjoy. Dutch journalist Geert Mak spent 1999 travelling around Europe, visiting in particular those places that had huge historical importance in the 20th century. His resulting book In Europe, is part travelogue and part reflection on how those historical events have shaped and changed contemporary Europe. Essential reading for anyone like myself who loves to travel in Europe - especially by train.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Truly, Talented Mr. Mingella

It was the first full weekend of spring and the long weekend to boot, and perfect weather for my annual rituals - taking long walks in the beautiful sunshine that is slowly melting all the snow, dutifully doing an Easter reading of favourite passages from Watership Down, the best bunny book ever, indulging in some subsequent chocolate rabbit munching, taking a trip to IKEA, and doing a lot of couch cheering at the world Figure Skating Championships - three medals for CANADA! - it was so exciting.

But in tribute to the recent passing of Anthony Mingella, I also spent some time reading a few of his plays and watching my favourite movie of his - Truly, Madly, Deeply, which, if you haven't seen, I highly recommend you rent. Make sure you check out the director's commentary on the DVD which really illustrates how fiercely intelligent, generous, and engaging a person Mingella was and how he relished and was passionate about not just film, but music, dance, theater and just ordinary people. It's all in Truly, Madly, Deeply, which is one of the most uplifting and funny movies about grief and loss that's ever been made. And it's such a well-acted, well-written film. Mingella died far too young; I'll miss all the movies he should have had the time to make.
Mingella's last project was a film adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith's phenomenally successful No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. It airs in the U.K. tonight and should make its way to North America shortly. McCall Smith talks about Mingella and his adapation here and if you click on the right hand side, you can see a clip from the movie.
Before becoming a director, Mingella was a playwright. Two volumes of his work has been published, Plays 1 and Plays 2 - I recommend Made in Bangkok in the former; the latter includes the script for Truly, Madly, Deeply.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

2008 Orange Prize longlist out. . .

The longlist for the 2008 Orange Prize is out. I always look forward to this list because it usually features a lovely mix of established writers and new debuts, with a good international representation. Plus Canadian writers usually do quite well by it and every year that I've been following the prize, I inevitably am introduced to a fantastic new writer. This year, I'm intrigued by The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenberg. Nice to see some former and current Dewey picks on the list as well. Thrilled also to see The Outcast by Sadie Jones - a real emotional rollarcoaster of a read, but an incredibly written first novel. My money is on this book to win! The shortlist will be announced on April 15th, and the winner on June 4th.

You can read more about the prize here. And here's the longlist:

Anita Amirrezvani, The Blood of Flowers
Stella Duffy, The Room of Lost Things
Jennifer Egan, The Keep
Anne Enright, The Gathering
Linda Grant, The Clothes on Their Backs
Tessa Hadley, The Master Bedroom
Nancy Huston, Fault Lines
Gail Jones, Sorry
Sadie Jones, The Outcast
Lauren Liebenberg, The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam
Charlotte Mendelson, When We Were Bad
Deborah Moggach, In The Dark
Anita Nair, Mistress
Elif Shafak, The Bastard of Istanbul
Dalia Sofer, The Septembers of Shiraz
Scarlett Thomas, The End of Mr Y
Carol Topolski, Monster Love
Rose Tremain, The Road Home
Patricia Wood, Lottery

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

In honour of St. Patrick's Day and all things Irish, I thought I'd pass on a few recommendations of great books set in Ireland, featuring Irish characters, or by Irish authors.

For Children 5+: Across A Dark and Wild Sea by Don Brown. This beautifully illustrated picture book tells the story of the Irish monk Columcille (Columbia) whose passion for books caused a war. Guilty about his role in the bloodshed he founded a monastery on the Scottish Island of Iona where he and his followers copied early manuscripts and sent the books, "like small boats on a dark and wild sea, to places where reading and writing had been forgotten or ignored."
For Middle Grade Readers: the Artemis Fowl series by Irish author Eoin Colfer. Besides being really fun, action-packed adventures, these books also draw much from Irish legends- leprechauns, fairies, etc.

For Young Adults (14 up): The Chronicles of Faeries series, The Druid's Tune and The Singing Stone by Irish Canadian O. R. Melling. I devoured these books as a teen!
The books are all fantasies featuring teens caught up in fantastical adventures with Druids, faeries and other characters from Irish myth and legend.

Adult Mystery Readers:
If you like historical mysteries, you'll love My Lady Judge, the first book in a new series by Cora Harrison set in the 16th century in the remote region of Ireland called The Burren. Fans of Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma series will enjoy these books. The second book in the series, The Michaelmas Tribute is coming out in May in Canada. Aside from being entertaining mysteries, the books incorporate a lot of period detail, including excerpts from Irish lawbooks written in the 15oo's. Literary mystery readers might want to pick up Benjamin Black's Christine Falls and the recently released The Silver Swan. Benjamin Black is the pen name for John Banville, and the books feature the investigations of Dublin pathologist Quirke. If you like the books of Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, or other Police Procedurals, you'll want to pick up the book Borderlands by Brian McGilloway. I've blogged about this one before, so I won't go into the plot aside from saying that it's the first in the series featuring Inspector Benedict Devlin set in the border area between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. I've just finished the advance reading copy of the second book in the series (coming in April) called Gallow's Lane. It's just as good, if not better than the first book. If you like your mysteries on the dark/noirish side- you can't miss the Jack Taylor series by Ken Bruen. The series features a troubled ex-Garda officer turned PI and has been nominated for many, many awards. The series starts with The Guards, then follows with The Killing of the Tinkers, The Madgalen Martyrs, The Dramatist, Priest and most recently Cross.
Adult Fiction Readers: If you like reading the books of James Herriot or enjoy the TV show Ballykissangel, you'll love Patrick Taylor's books, An Irish Country Doctor and An Irish Country Village. The books follow the trials and tribulations of young Belfast native Doctor Barry Laverty as he trains under the crusty Dr. O'Reilley in the remote Irish village of Ballybucklebo in the 1960's. Full of humour & warmth.

Adult Nonfiction Readers: A highly enjoyable armchair travel book, Round Ireland With A Fridge by Tony Hawk is a must read for anyone whose ever made a drunken wager and lived to regret it. Englishman Tony Hawk was bet one hundred pounds that he couldn't hitchhike around the circumference of Ireland with a refrigerator in one month. This book recounts his adventure as he tries to do just that. It's funny and a great way to discover more about the Emerald Isle!

Happy Reading!

A spot of Irish drama

When's the last time you read a play? School assignment maybe? I think drama is a sadly neglected genre when it comes to daily reading, which is odd given our crazy time-strapped lifestyles. I'm a huge theatre buff and lucky enough to live in a city that constantly offers a wide variety of challenging and talented productions, but I also have two bookcases devoted entirely to plays, theatre memoirs and drama criticism. And on those nights when I don't have a lot of time but want to read something "complete", there's nothing better than turning to a play. If well written, you'll have a fully realized, engaging story- all in two hours or so.

Some of my favourite playwrights are Irish - the beauty of their language, their wit, and the engagement with their fractious, violent and sometimes heartbreaking history - all ensure a terrific read. So in honour of St. Patrick's Day, here are a couple of recommendations of wonderful Irish plays, if James Joyce's Ulysses isn't really your mug of Guinness.
For some historical perspective, you can dip into the canon of early twentieth century Irish Drama - Yeats, J.M. Synge, and the wonderful Sean O'Casey (Juno & the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars are his best known, but for my money, The Silver Tassie is my favourite and one of the most electric plays ever written about WWI - another of my obsessions).
Or you can sample more contemporary playwrights like Brian Friel whose Dancing at Lughnasa, I dare you to read without crying. This story of five sisters trying to deal with the industrialization of rural Ireland (among other challenges) is so beautifully written. I also love Friel's Translations that explores Ireland's fraught history with colonialism, and Freedom of the City, set during the Northern Ireland civil rights movement. Then there is Frank McGuinness, whose play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme also poignantly deals with WWI. Tom Murphy explores family dynamics and violence in Whistle in the Dark. And Martin McDonagh writes about a mother-daughter relationship that will have you squirming uncomfortably in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Also give Marina Carr (her By the Bog of Cats is a fascinating retelling of the Medea story) and Anne Devlin a try (particularly for a look at contempory Irish women's lives - Devlin's play Ourselves Alone would make a good pairing with Dancing at Lughnasa).
As for me, tonight I'm off to see one of the most famous Irish plays of all. More info here.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Two little gems take some big awards. . .

Hooray! Kate Christensen wins the PEN/Faulkner Award for best work of fiction for her novel The Great Man ( also a Dewey Diva pick last fall). This has been on my to-read pile since Lahring started book-talking it. She was also a fan of Christensen's previous novel The Epicure's Lament which belongs in the delightful grumpy-failed-male-poet-as-portrayed-by-witty-woman-writer genre. And I remember reading good reviews of her earlier novel, Jeremy Thane. Christensen's writing has been compared to Mary McCarthy and Dawn Powell - two writers I love, so I really need to start reading her.

And congratulations to my colleague C.S. Richardson, whose novel The End of the Alphabet (also a former Dewey pick), has just won the Regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Novel for Canada and the Caribbean. He'll now go up against the winners from the all the other regions for the over-all prize, announced on May 18th. To see the list of all the regional winners, click here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sometimes Less is More...

The publisher for which I work releases so many books each year ( a situation in which they're not alone, to be sure) that inevitably wonderful little books fall through the proverbial cracks or fly below my personal radar. Sometimes, through dumb luck, you encounter one of those little gems. Will Allison's novel, What You Have Left, is such a book. The story covers thirty-seven years through the points of view of three characters - all in less than two hundred pages. Initially, the plot is sad, almost depressing, but slowly the triumph of the human spirit and the Rashomon-like he said/she said (or, more accurately, he thought/she thought) alternating chapters weaves a tale of average people getting along in a harsh, uncaring world. And that's the beauty of this book - everything that happens to Holly, Wylie and Lyle could happen to any of us. How they cope and deal with what life dishes out elevates these people to a level of dignity they deserve without portraying them as anything more than "average people" who make mistakes, accept consequences, aim to make things right and keep on keeping on. This novel is sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes melancholy, sometimes frightening, sometimes regretful, sometimes awe inspiring - a lot like life, really. This little novel is always wise, if you think about it...

Murder, she set. . .

At our library shows, we always like to have a fun draw and enable a few librarians to win some books. This year at the recent OLA, we decided to showcase some of our recent and upcoming mystery novels - set around the world - and ask librarians which locale most appeals when it comes to murder. Each librarian could vote for three titles/places with the winners receiving their chosen books.

So, does place make a difference in reading tastes? Overall, no - all of the locales got multiple votes although we did have three clear frontrunners. Regardless, this would be a fun list to recommend to mystery readers looking to discover a new writer while getting in some armchair travel on the side.

The contenders (in no particular order) were the following:

Japan: Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino
Sweden: Black Path by Asa Larsson
Norway: Nemesis by Jo Nesbo
Pakistan: A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif
Russia: Special Assignments by Boris Akunin
France: A Twist of Orchids by Michelle Wan
Toronto: Buffalo Jump by Howard Shrier
England: A Killing Frost by R. D. Wingfield
Laos: Anarchy and Old Dogs by Colin Cotterill
The Future in a Land Far, Far, Away (okay, we had were having some fun with this one) Bone Song by John Meany

After hundreds of votes, the top three preferred locations were: France, England and Norway!
Thanks to all the librarians who dropped by the booth and participated, and congratulations to our three winners:
Karen Schecter: Smiths Falls Public Library
Alison Brumwell: Barrie Public Library
Karen Park: Aurora Public Library

Monday, March 10, 2008

Jacqueline Winspear Coming to Toronto!

Sometimes having to sit through a three hour sales meeting first thing on a Monday morning does have an up side! This morning I found out that Jacqueline Winspear, the author of the fabulous (and award-winning) Maisie Dobbs series is coming to Toronto this Sunday to promote the fifth book in the series, An Incomplete Revenge.

For those unfamiliar with the books, the books are historical mysteries set in England in the late 1920's and early 1930's. Maisie Dobbs is a trained psychologist and private investigator who served on the frontlines in France during WWI as an army nurse. Maisie is a very engaging character, the books are packed with period detail and the mysteries often explore the after-effects of war.

The event is part of the Ben McNally Brunch Series, which is being held at the King Edward Hotel at 10:00 a.m. Sunday March 16th. Four authors, food and fun- well worth the drive downtown! The other authors speaking at the event are Ariana Franklin (The Serpent's Tale), Susan Pinker (The Sexual Paradox), and Neil Shubin (Your Inner Fish).
I hope to see other Maisie Dobbs fans there! I'll be the one in the Jacqueline Winspear signing line with my complete set of dog-eared books...

Climate Change - heating up the fiction of the future. . .

Ian McEwan fans can get a sneak peek into the subject of his next novel through a recent interview he did with The Sydney Morning Herald (thanks to Bookninja for the link)
According to the article, McEwan will be tackling climate change: "The way to write about climate change is to write about a deeply flawed person", he's quoted as saying.
The plot of book is outlined thus: Michael Beard, his protagonist, is a thrice-divorced womaniser and winner of the Nobel Prize for physics, a specialist in light who has made "planetary stupidity" his business and believes solar energy can save the world.

We've had tons of recent climate change non-fiction books - now watch for it to be the new hot topic tackled by our fiction writers. It appears as a subtle theme running through Meg Rosoff's latest, What I Was, and pops up in Adam Thorpe's latest novel Between Each Breath as well. One the best and funniest takes on "planetary stupidity" I've read recently is Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods which we'll be publishing in April. It's part sci-fi, part social satire, part love story (involving robots) and very much about our relationship and responsibilities to the environment, as we follow a group of space travellers trying to colonize a new planet, when our own has been destroyed. Great storytelling, lots of fun to read, and provocative but non-preachy. Would work well for YA readers too.

Not just for the bacon. . .

I found this post on a beautiful decorating blog called Bloesem. A Rotterdam designer named Christien Meindertsma has published a book called PIG 05049 (click on the title for more information about the book and on the black pig for photos) in which she traces all the products made from a single pig, including ammunition, chewing gum, heart valves, porcelain and brakes, that are then subsequently shipped around the world. The products are all photographed as the pig is "dissected". Though a self-published art book, this strikes me as a very fascinating and topical subject for readers interested in global consumerism and manufacturing. And from what I can tell from the photos, it's a beautifully designed object too.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mid-life crisis - French style. . .

I've been nursing the sniffles all weekend and feeling both sorry for myself and yet quite happy to have an excuse not to get out of bed. I was definitely in the mood to read about someone in a more miserable state, and no one does middle age existential gloominess better than the French, so Adam Haberberg by Yasmina Reza was the perfect reading choice. Plus I love the cover. I know Reza's work mainly as a playwright; she wrote the phenomenally successful play Art which I was lucky enough to see many years ago in London, starring Albert Finney, Tom Courtney and Ken Stott. It's one of the best plays I've ever seen and subsequently read, about friendship and mid-life crisis; a topic she's evidently made something of a specialty.
In Adam Haberberg, the narrator is an unsuccessful writer in his late forties, panicking that he is going to lose his sight after being told by doctors he has thrombosis in his eye and possibly glaucoma. While moping in a Paris park, going over all the failures in his life - an unhappy marriage among them - he bumps into Marie-Thérèse, a woman he hasn't seen since high school. She invites him back to her flat for a meal and he reluctantly agrees. The encounter forces him to take a second, albeit blurry look, at his life, both past and present. That's it for plot, but the novel really explores how cynical narcissism can overshadow those ordinary moments in life that make up happiness, if only one recognizes them for what they are. Haberberg's rants are frequently funny, and sometimes quite heartbreaking but always very human.
I can't wait for Reza's next book, due out this April. Titled Dawn, Dusk or Night: A Year With Nicolas Sarkozy - it's a non-fiction account of having spent 2006 trailing Sarkozy on his campaign trail. She was given full rein to write what she wanted. At sales conference, the editors compared the writing to what would happen if Tom Stoppard trailed George W. Bush for a year. I think it will be fascinating and unlike any other political memoir.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A little Dickens or a lot. . . your choice

If you live in or near the Toronto area, I highly recommend that you catch the Chichester Festival production of Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre until April. Yes, it's long - divided into two parts, the entire production runs six and a half hours - but it's a great example of terrific, energetic, ensemble acting. Twenty-seven actors play multiple roles and there's not a noticeably weak link among the lot. You certainly have to give them props for stamina. The set design and lighting were ingenious, and the end of Part I, where the Crummles Theatre Company puts on their own version of Romeo and Juliet, was nothing short of pure comic delight.
I left the theatre immediately wanting to dive into some more Dickens but if you could see the tower of fall manuscripts on my living room floor at the moment, you'd agree with me that perhaps this isn't the best time to start a 700 page Victorian novel. So instead I plucked this delightful Hesperus Press offering from my shelves. Somebody's Luggage is a collection of short stories originally published in the 1862 Christmas edition of Dickens' magazine, All The Year Round. It has a great premise: Christopher, the opinionated waiter of a London hotel, comes into possession of some luggage left under a bed by a former guest, and on examining it in detail (it contains a hat box, umbrella, a brown paper parcel, a black bag, a desk and dressing case, and a black portmanteau), he discovers the contents are crammed with pages of writing - the short stories that make up this little book. They were written not only by Dickens, but by four other regular contributors to his magazine, including Charles Allston Collins (brother of Wilkie). Dickens contributes two tales and writes the framing stories of how Christopher finds the luggage and what happens at the end when the original owner comes back to reclaim it. Or to use Christopher's voice:
Before I proceed to recount the mental sufferings of which I became the prey in consequence of the writings, and before following up that harrowing tale with a statement of the wonderful and impressive catastrophe, as thrilling in its nature as unlooked for in any other capacity, which crowned the ole and filled the cup of unexpectedness to overflowing, the writings themselves ought to stand forth to view.
It takes so little to lose onself in Dickens' imaginative world, doesn't it? The stories are quite varied. One involves a ghost, an umbrella and the leap year; others include characters as unusual as a fairy godmother, shipwrecked survivors stranded on an iceberg, and a pavement chalk artist who feels hard done by. And all are somewhat linked by the ideas of possessions - whether of people, objects, ideas or art. Great fun and definately not only for fans of Dickens.

Russia- The New Hot Setting for Crime Fiction?

Watch out Scandinavia! Judging from some of the excellent books I've been reading lately, books set in Russia are poised to become the next hot (pun intended) setting for crime novels!

First up is the FABULOUS book Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith- a 28 year old debut novelist from Britain. I literally could not put this book down! I had been invited to dinner at my sister's house and with only two chapters left to go, I called her and said I'd have to cancel unless she let me come with my book. I finished it while dinner was being prepared. Very rude of me, I know, but my sister is an avid reader as well, so she forgave me as long as I promised to leave the book behind for her to read. The book is set in Stalin-era Soviet Union, a worker's paradise where crime can not exist (according to the State) and where even the slightest suspicion of disloyalty can land you in prison. MGB (State Security) officer Leo Demidov is a former war hero and is a firm believer in both the State and its ideology. One of his duties is quelling dissident talk, a duty that puts him in a difficult position when a fellow MGB officer named Fyodor insists that his son was murdered not killed in an accident as the State claims. Leo manages to convince him to keep quiet, but Fyodor's conviction stays with him. When a jealous colleague's scheming results in Leo's transfer to a remote militia outpost,he discovers that a local child has recently been found dead, in a manner strikingly similar to Fyodor's child. Leo investigates and discovers to his horror that Fyodor's child was the forty-fourth victim of a serial killer that is preying on children along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Determined to redeem himself for not believing Fyodor, Leo continues to investigate the murders against his employer's orders. Branded an enemy of the State, his mission becomes complicated as he has to elude his former colleagues in order to bring the murderer to justice.

Child 44 is an amazing first novel and is bound to be compared to Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park. The pacing is incredible and the book is, as I've attested, very hard to put down. I loved both the characters and the history that is woven into the story, which paints a very scary and grim portrait of the era. Since I've read it, the book has received starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist. Child 44 releases at the end of April, so make sure you go to your local library site after finishing this post so you can be first on the holds list! Other interesting notes- the killer in the book is loosely based on a real serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, and the film rights have already been sold to Ridley Scott.

Also out at the end of April is Vodka Neat by Anna Blundy, a former Moscow Bureau Chief for the London Times. Vodka Neat introduces a great character, Faith Zanetti. Faith is a foreign correspondent who likes her vodka neat (and plentiful), and dislikes those who stand between her and getting a good story. Years ago, Faith was married to a Russian black marketer named Dimitri. When her boss at her newspaper find out that she speaks fluent Russian, Faith is assigned to cover the Moscow desk. She's returned to Moscow many times since she left Dimitri, so is quite surprised when she is arrested shortly after her arrival. Unbeknownst to Faith, Dimitri confessed to a brutal dual murder shortly after she left the country and is now saying that in fact it was Faith who was responsible. Faith is pretty certain she didn't kill two people with an ax, but if the truth be told, she was pretty drunk the night in question and doesn't remember much of anything. Trying to sort out the mess, she uncovers a web of lies and cover ups leading right back to her former husband. The story is told partly in flashbacks of her courtship and short marriage to Dimitri in the late 1980s, and the comparison of Moscow at the height of the Cold War and the Moscow of today is very striking. I love the character of Faith, who has many personal issues to deal with but is strong, intelligent and funny.

If you can't wait for either of these two books, then go and pick up a copy of Volk's Game by Brent Ghelfi, which was one of my Dewey picks last Spring. Set in modern-day Moscow, Volk's Game stars a dark anti-hero named Alexei Volkovoy. Volk survived a childhood spent in orphanages, fought in the Chechnyan war and now runs a black market operation dealing in ammunition, pornography and drugs under a mafia kingpin named Maxim. And unknown to anyone, he also works for the shadowy General as a covert military agent to whom he is somehow indebted. When both men ask Volk to steal a Da Vinci painting called Leda and the Swans from the catacombs under the Hermitage Museum, he faces a dilemma- which master will he turn the painting over to? But when the operation goes horribly wrong, has more pressing matters on his mind. Someone set him up and he needs to figure out who did so in order to escape with his life. Volk is a great complex character- able to kill without hesitation, but secretly supporting soldier's widows and protecting children from exploitation. Volk's lover and bodyguard, Valya, is also fantastic- fierce, cold and fragile with secrets of her own. The book has lots of twists, fast pacing and great descriptions of the city. A sequel, called Volk's Shadow, is coming out in July. I can't wait to read it as it takes Volk back to Chechnya, so I'm hoping I'll get to find out more about this character's background.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

On the road. . . in Thunder Bay

Not a work-related trip, but I flew up north last weekend to attend my brother's wedding. It was my first trip to Thunder Bay, and even though my initial reaction to a winter wedding that far north was one of horror, we actually had terrifically mild weather all weekend.
There was plenty of time for taking walks around the downtown area. This shot was taken in a small park at the top of Bay St. where you can just glimpse the Sleeping Giant in the background. I can only imagine how lovely it must look in the summer. If you go down Bay St. towards the water, you'll pass the Calico Coffee House which sells organic coffee and makes great lattes (I have a homing instinct for them) and has cozy booths and a fireplace. Just a few doors down is the Hoito Restaurant where we feasted on the famous Finnish pancakes for lunch. And a few doors down from that is Finnport full of wonderful items by Finnish designers, including of course lots of Marimekko! I bought a bag, some material to make cushions with, and a pair of these fun and happy socks! You can buy from them online. Trip Outdoors, at 29 Cumberland was having a great sale on outdoor gear and in particular Sierra Designs clothing; I think all the wedding guests popped in there.
My brother's new in-laws have a farm about half an hour out of the city where they keep bees, (we all got some home-made honey to take home) and where their neighbours catch trout (barbequed fresh just a few hours after - yum). So this urban diva got a good taste for Northern Ontario and their warm hospitality, and a good time was had by all. But after three days of houses full of guests, two active, excited dogs, and many energetic (but very cute) children under the age of five, I will admit to breathing a tiny sigh of relief after it was all over, and I was quite happy to escape to the peace and quiet of the city.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Screwball delights

The weekend Guardian had this great piece by one of my favourite writers - A.L. Kennedy (who moonlights as a stand-up comedien) reviewing a film festival in London celebrating Hollywood's screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. I love in particular this Kennedy quip:

The screwball casts were iconic. If you want to know why my adult life has been constantly tinged with disappointment, consider that I grew up believing glorious creatures along the lines of Cary Grant and Clark Gable and James Stewart were, if not commonplace, then at least occasionally available. The women? They made me believe that being a woman might turn out to be great. They were fantastic.

I couldn't agree more. If you're in London, I'm envious; these movies would be great to see on the big screen. However, many of these films are available on DVD - they'll certainly beat anything playing at your local cineplex.