Summer Reading

Beach Blanket Bonanza

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 21 1999
Summer Reading

Beach Blanket Bonanza

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 21 1999

Beach Blanket Bonanza

Summer Reading

Those keen to measure the differences between author Kathy Reichs and her fictional alter ego, Temperance Brennan, will find there aren’t many. Behind the often-terrifying Montreal-based thrillers Déjà Dead and Death du Jour starring Brennan, there is an attractive, sometimes impatient, fortysomething American woman who is a forensic anthropologist—a discipline that draws some astonishingly specific information from the remains of dead bodies. Because there are only about 50 such professionals in North America, Reichs divides her time—like Brennan—between North Carolina and Quebec, under contract to both governments. “It may not be a life that appeals to everyone,” she allows with a slight smile. “But it keeps me challenged— and content.”

Death du Jour and Hannibal head the list of novelistic great escapes

It also inspires books popular with millions of readers worldwide. Reichs’s debut novel,

1997’s Déjà Dead, ranks as one of the suspense writing sensations of the decade. It was her first attempt at fiction, and she knocked it off in her spare time over three years, writing in early morning, on weekends and other breaks in a crammed schedule. She sent it to publishers “figuring I could stand about 50 rejections before I gave up”— and received a $ 1.7-million two-book contract from New York City-based Scribner. The harrowing story of Brennan’s hunt for a serial killer, it won wide praise and awards, and was translated into 22 languages as it hit best-seller charts worldwide.

Death du Jour seems certain to equal or eclipse those achievements. Beginning with Reichs’s trademark graphic descriptions of a corpse—this one the exhumed body of a 19th-century nun who is a potential saint—it shuffles between Quebec and North Carolina. Along the way, Brennan finds bodies in strange places, personal danger and romance. Although some readers will find the complex plot relies too heavily on improbable coincidences, it is all delivered with the fluid writing and often-sarcastic, rapid-fire dialogue that

made her first book stand out.

Reichs seems startled by the widespread praise of her writing. “I work at it,” she says matter-of-factly, “but it doesn’t cause me any great agony.”

Few things intimidate her.

Always fascinated by archeology, she turned to forensic anthropology because it was “a similar field, but more immediate.” Although her work calls for her to deal regularly with bloated, dismembered bodies, Reichs never feels revulsion: “a body is a body, alive or dead.” Even as a child, she recalls, “gore never bothered me.” On the other hand, she faced trepidation when she wrote a short but descriptive love scene in the new book. While her lawyer husband had “nothing to say,” her three children, all in university, “were mortified.”

Reichs’s easy familiarity with Montreal life makes the city a central character in each book: colourful, flawed and always compelling. She has successfully put the lie to a long-standing belief that suspense novels set in Canada cannot sell south of the border. That, Reichs says, “never made sense. You’ve got this cosmopolitan city, part North American and part European, and far too interesting for Americans to ignore.”

Now, Reichs has a new contract for three more Brennan books. The next centres on Montreal’s biker wars, and discussions are under way with an undisclosed producer for a television series. In a concession to time, she has taken leave from a teaching job at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to write, but will keep other work advising the FBI and RCMP. “That,” says Reichs, “keeps my writing fresh and accurate.” Millions of readers will shudder in agreement.

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Whether it is on a cottage dock or a city deck, one of summer’s more leisurely pleasures is sitting down with a good novel—everything from a big blockbuster to more literary fiction. A sampling of the season’s best by Macleans writers and editors:

What Star Wars: Episode One—The Phantom Menace is to the film industry—one of the most hyped movies of all time—Hannibal is to book publishing. In fact, the sequel to Thomas Harris’s 1988 best-selling thriller The Silence of the Lambs received the sort of attention usually accorded only to movies. On May 7, it was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and even before its release, its publishers doubled the print run to one million copies from 500,000. By the time Hannibal (Delacorte Press, $39.95) reached bookstores last week, lineups had formed in many cities and it subsequently debuted on Macleans best-seller list in the No. 2 position. Such hoopla raises the same question it did for the Star Wars prequel: can it possibly live up to the advance billing?

The answer: it depends. Readers intrigued, rather than utterly repulsed, by Dr. Hannibal Lecter in two earlier novels or in the hit 1991 movie starring Anthony Hopkins, will find him resplendent in his evil. For a madman who eats people,

Lecter has a lot of charm: his penetrating intellect, courtly manners and appreciation for the finer things in life make him an otherwise compelling companion. And he usually only kills people who deserve punishment of some sort. But those who have no taste for reading about cannibalism, guttings or the intricacies of torture—especially for 484 pages—should just ignore Hannibal.

The novel picks up seven years after The Silence of the Lambs, which ended with Lecter’s escape from a maximum security hospital for the criminally insane. He is living in Florence, posing as a Renaissance scholar, and the search § for him has grown cold. Clarice 1 Starling, the rookie FBI agent I who probed his brilliant-ifs twisted mind for insights on how to catch another serial killer, has not fared so well. After her initial success, her career has fladined. She is put on Lecter’s trail when wealthy Mason Verger, who has posted a reward for Hannibal’s capture, gives authorities a tip about his whereabouts. But it is only a ruse: Verger, one of Lecter’s early victims, wants revenge (he has specially bred carnivorous pigs) and he needs additional help in tracking down his torturer. What makes Harris’s book truly twisted is that by the time he is done, Verger and the sexist bureaucrat who maliciously stalled Starling’s career seem far more evil than Hannibal the Cannibal.

Another of the summer’s big books—at least if the publicity surrounding it is any indication—is The Drowning People (Doubleday, $29.95) by British author Richard Mason. He has enough enviable attributes—he’s a handsome, 20-year-old Oxford student with a best-selling first novel— that it seems almost unfair that his work is actually very good. Mason’s fast-paced tale of love, sin and judgment opens smartly. In the mid-21st century, 70-year-old narrator James Farrell confesses that he has just killed his aristocratic wife of 45 years, and successfully passed off her death as a suicide. The rest of the novel is Farrell’s intricate account, beginning with his youth in the 1990s, of how and why he came to murder his spouse. With an emphasis on water metaphors and the imagery of isolation—the couple spend much of their time on a tiny island off the English coast—Mason turns

Farrell s belated self-analysis into a passionate, engrossing story.

Small town Ontario, two missing teenagers, pilfered evidence and a reviled defence counsel: sound familiar? Torontonian Andrew Pyper, whose first book, the short story collection Kiss Me, was critically acclaimed in 1996, has written a dark psychological thriller that borrows from the Bernardo murder case and Pyper s own background in law and English literature. Lost Girls (HarperCollins, $27) has already received wide attention, including the notice of foreign publishers who signed Pyper up for two six-figure contracts for future novels before the novel was even published in May. The plot is simple enough. Criminal lawyer Bartholomew Crane, the associate in the aptly named Toronto firm of Lyle, Gederov & Associate, (known among lawyers as Lie, Get ‘Em Off & Associate) arrives in the down-at-heels cottage country community of Murdoch to defend a half-crazed English teacher accused of murdering two of his students. A coke-sniffing, nightmare-plagued bachelor for whom truth is mostly an inconvenience, Crane finds himself drawn into a moral crisis that is both personal and public. What sets Lost Girls apart is its brilliant evocation of place and mood. Pyper uses an almost cinematic wealth of description: fall streets are “littered in brown and yellow layers of wet death,” a madmans face is

The season’s fiction serves up plenty of thrills, chills and deep introspection

a “plastic bag with holes for speech and breath and sight.” Those who like their whodunit’s straight up may become impatient with Pyper’s penchant for set decoration, but for readers who relish metaphor with their narrative meat, Lost Girls is a rich meal.

Being known as Spain’s Robert Ludlum may not be an honour in some readers’ eyes, but Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s three previous novels in translation have brought him a North American cult following. As intricately plotted as its predecessors, The Fencing Master (Harcourt Brace, $36) is set in Madrid more than a century ago amid the intrigues of a vanished age. The fencing master, Don Jaime Astarloa in the twilight of his life, is drawn into a murder investigation after a close friend and high-ranking government official is killed by a peculiar fencing stroke invented by the master. As ever, Pérez-Reverte provides classic male escapism in an exotic setting without the assault rifles and plastic explosives that dominate the genre.

East of the Mountains (Harcourt Brace, $36) is David Guterson’s follow-up to his 1994 best-selling debut, Snow Falling On Cedars. The new novel is set in the rich Columbia Basin in central Washington where protagonist Ben Givens, who, like Guterson, is a Seatde native and devoted outdoorsman, fond of hiking and bird-hunting. A retired 73-year-old heart surgeon and a widower still in mourning, Givens has just been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. He heads to the region where he was born with two dogs, a shotgun and the intent to stage a convenient hunting accident. Plans go

awry, however, when a car accident sends him on a trying journey, liberally laced with mystical allusions, philosophizing drifters, wolfhounds and good Samaritans. The journey leads to his spiritual regeneration, as Givens takes stock of life and death through a series of emotion-drenched flashbacks, including a defining moment at a field hospital in Italy during the Second World War. It was there that Givens discovered his profession—and the core values he now recovers. The story moves slowly, at times threatening to sink into a morass of geographical details. But Guterson’s fans will not be disappointed with this poignant tale of a journey that goes deep into life’s—and death’s—complexities.

Paul and Elaine are a middle-class, middle-aged couple with two young sons, and a nice house in a nice neighbourhood. A. M. Homes s Musicfor Torching (William Morrow, $38) begins with the two of them impulsively trying to burn down their house. It’s not a very successful arson—which is just as well, since they’ve shocked themselves sober with the attempt and spend the rest of this bleak comedy of manners trying to cover up the crime. The failed arson is a metaphor for their lives: Paul and Elaine hover between the urge to escape and the urge to conform, and they can’t even commit to destruction. Homes draws their crisis deftly, horrifically, and often hilariously. Her prose is a thrill to read in the same nauseating way a roller-coaster is a thrill to ride: after a while you wish you could get off, but you can’t.

Award-winning Toronto poet Dionne Brand begins her second novel, At the Full and Change of the Moon (Knoph, $32.93), with a mass suicide of a group of rebel Trinidadian slaves in 1824. But before the revolt’s organizer, Marie Ursule, is murdered by the slave owners, she ensures the safety of her daughter, Bola, by hiding her on a deserted part of the island. As an adult, Bola bears 14 children who are haunted by the tales of Marie Ursule and the life of slavery from which they were spared. The novel follows six generations of descendants, most of whom leave Trinidad and wander Europe, the United States and Canada as troubled souls.

While Brand’s poetry is loud, that of an activist, her fiction is silently hypnotic. Beautiful and sweeping, the language of the novel conveys the inherent sadness in the characters’ lives.

Memories, travels and the tragedy of war

Fiction, escapist or otherwise, is not everyone’s summer favourite. Exceptional new nonfiction for those who prefer real people and places:

Beyond the Sky and the Earth (Doubleday, $29.95). Jamie Zeppa’s memoir of her two years as a teacher in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is rich in detail, humour and adventure. Raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Zeppa is at first lost in an alien culture, but she eventually finds her footing, and sees her ties to Canada start to unravel as she falls in love with a student.

A Positively Final Appearance

(Penguin, $32.99). Acerbic and witty as ever—he’s now 85— Alec Guinness’s 1996to-1998 journals include the acclaimed actor’s response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Tony Blair’s election as prime minister.

The Pity of War (HarperCollins, $43.50). English historian Niall Ferguson offers a sweeping, revisionist account of the causes and conduct of the First World War. The four-year-long conflict, “the greatest error in modern history,” was primarily Britain’s fault, he insists, and one reason it went on so long was the soldiers’ enjoyment of it all.

Bruce Chatwin (Jonathan Cape, $50).

Nicholas Shakespeare followed Chatwin’s trail across five continents to complete his exhaustive authorized biography. The result is the definitive study of one of the century’s greatest travel writers, who died of AIDS at age 48 in 1989.

Encore Provence (Random House, $35) and Bella Tuscany (Broadway, $35.95).

English novelist Peter Mayle sings (again) the praises of southern France, while California poet Frances Mayes finds joy in central Italy— readers can succumb to the charms of both.

But the deeply introspective portraits also provide an uplifting sense of resistance and strength, passed through this family’s strong maternal line.

Toronto novelist Sarah Sheard recently became a psychotherapist, and her newest book draws directly on an insider’s view of the world of therapy. The Hypnotist (Doubleday, $29.95) is the story of Signe, and her relationship with William, a psychiatrist who uses hypnosis to “help” young anorexic women. Initially repulsed by William’s “fluttery lashes, rodent mouth and small bones,” the divorced photographer is eventually brought under his spell by flattery and persistence. At times, it is irritating to witness her willingness to put up with the cold and mercurial psychiatrist—especially after she learns that he has a history of pursuing vulnerable women patients. But Sheard’s spare and graceful prose—especially vivid in her descriptions of Signes efforts to take photographs in the half-light she prefers—provides an affecting portrayal of the sacrifices and endless justifications some women will make for love.

In The City of Yes, (McClelland & Stewart, $21.99) Calgary author Peter Oliva weaves the experiences of a modern-day English language teacher with the mystical and sometimes whimsical stories of historical Japan. While teaching in the remote city of Saitama, the narrator finds himself longing for his home in Canada and awkwardly attempting to understand the nuances of Japanese custom. His melancholy is lifted by a comical cast of characters, including Kobashi, a Shinto priest, who fills the text with stories of Japan’s ghosts and river dwellers. Most memorable, however, is Hideo Endo, a fellow teacher who tells him about Ranald MacDonald, a 19th-century Canadian adventurer who was one of Japan’s first English teachers. The City of Yes was inspired by some of Oliva’s own experiences travelling through Japan.

Kingston, Ont., writer Merilyn Simonds also draws on personal experience to create an unlikely literary hybrid. The Lion in the Room Next Door (McClelland & Stewart, $29.99) might be a series of linked short stories, or a novel, or an autobiography or a social history of Canada in the postwar period. The 49-yearold Simonds uses the major events of her own life as a framework for the exploration of memory: her story, beginning around age 8, is set out in 11 self-contained chapters divided into three sections—Saudades (Yearnings), Lipes (Sorrows), Milagros (Miracles). The Portugese names reflect childhood years spent in Brazil, where her Canadian father worked as a factory manager, and some of the most haunting images in the book come from that period: a child’s story of a lion on a leash in a hotel, and her mother’s dismissive reaction, captures the devastating effect of an adult’s failure to nurture the rich visionary life of a child.

Other lush locations—Greece, Mexico, Hawaii—provide a changing backdrop for Simonds insightful reflections on her first failed marriage, her love of nature, and the agony of a child’s death. In a lesser writer’s hands, Lion might have degenerated into a selfindulgent exercise in diary writing, but Simonds, whose 1994 book The Convict Lover was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award, is a skilful practitioner whose sparing, direct prose reaffirms what a materialistic society has mostly forgotten: the accumulation of memories, not things, are what makes a life. ED