Toronto Reads

Finn the Half-Great graphic

Cut to the Chase

Joan Boswell
Novel, 2009
RendezVous Crime,
trade paperback $16.95


Little Book of Rob Ford graphic

Where We Have to Go

Lauren Kirshner
Novel, 2009
McClelland & Stewart,
trade paperback $22.95


Finn the Half-Great graphic

Finn the Half-Great

Theo Caldwell
Novel, 2009
Tundra Book,
hardcover $24.99

December 2009

Cutting crime series losing its edge

Toronto writer Joan Boswell continues to cut a swath through (fictional) Toronto crime with her latest Hollis Grant whodunit, Cut to the Chase. The third novel in the series, however, shows signs of fatigue after the promising Cut Off His Tale and the delivering Cut to the Quick.

Not exactly sure why the latest Boswell disappoints though. Perhaps because it's starting to seem a stretch that artist Grant is once again involved in the murder of someone she's associated with. (A regular Jessica Fletcher she's becoming.)

Or perhaps because it's a further stretch that once again she's involved in a case being handled by detective Rhona Simpson. They'd previously tangled both when Simpson was on the Ottawa force and when she worked homicide in Toronto. The poor police officer just can't get away from the meddling painter.

And Grant is starting to seem a meddler—investigating on her own, keeping information from the police and, naturally, putting herself and her friends in harm's way at the hands of the murderer when she gets too close to a solution. I know the talented amateur showing up the police force has long been a staple of sleuthing fiction, but this one may be wearing out her welcome.

Or perhaps it is just the writing that makes it so. One is tempted to take an editor's pencil to some of the more elaborate dialogue, needless exposition, and non-signifying details of the characters' lives.

Yet, Boswell does present a diverting mystery with lots of clever twists to keep you guessing and reading.

And, as a Torontonian, you've got to love the novel's call-outs to local hangouts, like the train shop on Mt. Pleasant, and other midtown or downtown landmarks. It's nice to imagine a cozy murder mystery right in our midst.

Those bits I wouldn't cut.


Coming-of-age 'sass' more like whining

Lauren Kirshner's first novel received a fair bit of attention when it came out last year, possibly because the former U of T Masters student was considered a prot—g— of Margaret Atwood.

Or possibly because reviewers seemed to be genuinely impressed by this story about an adolescent girl coming of age in a dysfunctional family.

Of course, as soon as one hears it described like that, one thinks "typical first novel: my childhood, how I grew up, my crappy parents, everything's unfair...." Which is accurate in this case, but can still make for a good read.

If one also likes self-indulgent whining from a teenage narrator who has only the normal things to complain about in life, or girlish angst over body image, or anguish about slights from the other kids at school, then one won't be disappointed with Where We Have to Go.

And, actually there's nothing really wrong with that. It's a certain experience of modern life, some version of which many readers have gone through and can probably identify with.

While Lucy Bloom grows from a dreamy eleven-year-old kid to a jaded young woman, she watches her parents argue, split up and eventually reconcile, both of them drawing her into their intrigues and private lives. Meanwhile she tries to create her own social network—mainly with loser boyfriends and spiteful girlfriends who look down on her—usually with disastrous, embarrassing results.

Kirshner does have an observant eye for the small significant events of modern living and the ironic tone in which to deliver them lightly (shades of Atwood). And she does pull off several pathetic scenes. But the long story arcs never seem to climax, each dribbling with recriminations into the beginning of the next one.

Except for one discovery Lucy makes about her father's life, about three-quarters through, that really is unexpected.

Where We Have to Go is also supposed to be humorous in a wise way. "Luminous and sassy", to be exact, according to the cover blurb.

But illumination is rare in this novel and the sass is really just bitching. Really, do we have to go there?


Lighthearted Celtic mythology not half-bad

It's listed as juvenile fiction, but take that in the same way that Tolkien's tales of hobbits might also be. Theo Caldwell's easy-going epic of giants, elves, Cyclopes, dragons, sea creatures, humans and other monsters who once ruled Albion (the British isles) has an appeal for all ages.

First, the title keeps cracking me up. Pythonesque. Next we'll have tales of Peter the Passable and Hank the Has-His-Moments.

But Finn the Half-Great is called such for physical reasons: he's a giant compared to most of us, but not a really big Jack-and-the-Beanstock-style giant. Only about half that big really. So when he leaves his home on Eire to fight real giants and other legendary creatures—usually in what we now call Scotland and England—he has to use his wits. Oh, yeah, and a magic thumb. Long story how he got this power, but sucking on his thumb gives this small giant some big ideas and tall courage. He becomes quite the trickster in bringing down fearsome adversaries.

And at crucial moments when he is completely outmatched, his even more clever wife Oonagh comes up with successful stratagems.

Celtic mythology really does feature a large figure variably named Find McCuhuill, Fionn mac Cumail, or Finn McCool (to us English bowdlerizers) who fought demons, was saved by his wife's wits, and built a stepping-stone causeway from Ireland to Scotland, as Caldwell's semi-giant does.

But this re-imagining of the fairy tales presents a story much more human (if I may use that word) than that found in any translation of old texts. Finn and his friends are quite delightful and occasionally touching in their simple beliefs and drives that get them through the rollicking adventures in Finn the Half-Great.

The writing is simple but not dumb, charming without being sweet. Stories into which we can read deeper meanings but don't have to.

Still it's a dangerous title for an author's first novel—tempts one to title a review "only half-good".

But no such fears here. It's all good fun.

— Eric McMillan

Cut to the Chase graphic
Cut to the Chase
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See also:

Canadian Literature

Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin

Stephen Leacock

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

Where We graphic
Where We Have to Go
Get at Amazon: Can

Finn the Half-Great graphic
Finn the Half-Great
Get at Amazon: Can

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Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

The Blind Assassin