BETWEEN THE COVERS

Booking a summer passage

Many berths are available on the Fiction Express

June 22 1998
BETWEEN THE COVERS

Booking a summer passage

Many berths are available on the Fiction Express

June 22 1998

Booking a summer passage

BETWEEN THE COVERS

Many berths are available on the Fiction Express

Summer reading means different things to different people. Heatstruck and dazed, some can manage only the fluffiest mind candy. This year, they might choose schlock mistress Danielle Steel, who offers a new version ofherstrong-femaletriumphs-over-tragedy formula in The Long Road Home. Or, for those with a penchant for the macabre, there’s gothic queen Anne Rice, who expands her vampire world in Pandora For others, summer is a chance to catch up on the big novels they missed earlier in the year—such as Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter, Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and Toni Morrison’s Paradise. Maclean’s staffers pick from recent fiction releases combining rivetting stories with writerly grace:

From riots in a Gaza Strip refugee camp to a smoky Tel Aviv jazz club to the heart of Jerusalem’s holiest sites, Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate (Thomas Allen, $35) careens through an elaborate mystery and a cautious love story. The American novelist uses a half-Jewish, halfCatholic New York journalist to tell the story of Jewish extremists planning to blow up Jerusalem’s great mosque. Caught up in the plot are the misfit sufferers of “Jerusalem Syndrome,” visitors so moved by the city that they develop a messianic complex. A vast cast of characters and a complex setting are beautifully rendered. The story is satiating, almost exhausting— the kind of book that makes you call

in sick to finish those last 50 pages.

Toronto does not fare nearly so well in Russell Smith’s Noise (Porcupine’s Quill, $18.95), a poisonously funny portrait of the city’s so-hip-it-hurts fashion, food and bar scene. Struggling freelance writer James Willing writes ridiculously snobby reviews (the “amusingly proletarian tempura onions”) while suffering grotty living quarters and horribly loud neighbors. His biggest secret is that he was once a violinist and still harbors a passion for classical music. The two women he pursues—an avant-garde photographer and a former musician from his home town—reflect his inner split. Skewering performance poets and bohemian poseurs, Noise trumpets Smith’s energetic talent.

The novels of Pulitzer Prize-winner

Anne Tyler often describe how small changes radically alter the lives other eccentric but ways engaging characters. A Patchwork Planet (Penguin, $32) features Barnaby Gaitlin, a divorced ne’er-do-well from a rich family who is just beginning to realize that he may be the author of his own troubles. Nearly 30, he has been working steadily at odd jobs for elderly clients while trying halfheartedly to be a weekend dad to his young daughter. Fate intervenes in the form of Sophia, who develops a romantic interest in him. Told from Barnaby’s skewed point of view, the story shot through with humor and insight, right up to its surprising, satisfying end.

Lynn Coady is a Nova Scotian now based in Vancouver. But her fictional territory remains her native Cape Breton, a place that may be the source of her novel’s title, Strange Heaven (Goose Lane, $17.95). The details seem grim: 17-year-old Bridget has

given up a baby for adoption and is recovering from depression in a Halifax psychiatric ward. At home, her parents cope with Bridget’s senile grandmother and mentally handicapped uncle. Her friends drink crazily. But Coady, with a Roddy Doyle-ish gift for punchy dialogue, gives Bridget a voice to remember—unsentimental, able to squeeze hilarity from despair. A coming-of-age story with bite, Strange Heaven shows that growing up is always a little hellish.

In Depth Rapture (Cormorant, $19.95), another East Coast writer, Carol Bruneau, chronicles the life of a young woman from childhood through university to marriage and motherhood. In these linked short stories— set variously in small-town Nova Scotia, Vancouver and southwestern England—the point of view shifts from the main character, Barbara, to that of her family, friends and, eventually, her husband and daughter. The technique gives the book a rich texture, as the characters experience love, loneliness and luck. Bruneau captures the mundane rhythms and poetic edges of existence, pulling readers along a familiar path while allowing them to see it freshly.

Did she do it? In Freedom’s Just Another Word (HarperCollins, $26), by Vancouver’s Dakota Hamilton, Maggie swears she did not kill her depressed biker husband, Mongrel, even though the police found her mopping up the blood and wiping off the gun. Her story: he shot himself, and she was just going through one of her cleanaholic stages. But as her tale unravels—and it does with every flip of the Tarot card and every new character who forces her to re-examine

her past—it becomes possible that Maggie did kill him. This is not a whodunit but a road book, a Thelma and Louise story for the late ’90s, complete with madcap jailbreak, lonesome highways and healing rituals.

The question, ‘Did she do it?’ also applies to Richard Price’s Freedomland (Bantam, $35), a sprawling novel set in the racially tense, fictional city of Dempsy, N.J. An injured white woman stumbles into a hospital emergency room, claiming that a black man has stolen her car—and driven off with her four-year-old son in the back seat. As the media din escalates and hostility grows between black and white, policeman Lorenzo Council searches for the child and grapples with his doubts about the child’s mother. Meanwhile, Jesse Haus, a dogged reporter, tries to advance her career by befriending the mother. There are echoes of Tom Wolfe in Price’s writing—from the minute descriptions of verbal tics to the larger portrait of the workings of the city’s political levers. An engrossing, if overly long, read destined for the big screen.

Anna Quindlen’s Black and Blue (Random House, $29.95) casts a novelist’s eye on the issue of wife battery. Quindien, a Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist, elevates the tale from mere sociology by creating a compelling character in Fran Benedetto. She delivers a matter-of-fact account of her abuse—bruises, broken bones and paralyzing fear. Quindlen’s portrait is psychologically acute: when Fran finally leaves her husband, taking her young son with her, she can only warily embrace her new freedom under an assumed identity. A

sense of foreboding pervades the novel, culminating in a startling and sad ending.

After the traumas of murder, drowning and abuse explored in her two mega-sellers, The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World, Jane Hamilton’s latest work is a relatively placid tale. The Short History of a Prince (Random House, $32) follows Walter McCloud, failed dancer, ex-dollhouse salesman and gay man, as he moves from New York City to Wisconsin to become a high-school teacher. The narrative alternates between the adult Walter—witty, eccentric and emotionally adrift—to an adolescent Walter who is passionate about ballet and desperately in love with a male classmate. Looming large is the memory of Walter’s older brother, who died of Hodgkin’s disease at 18. While the novel lacks the momentum of her earlier books, Hamilton’s consummate skill makes Walter affecting and memorable.

Growing up differently also figures in Joanna Trollope’s Other People’s Children (Fenn,

$29.95). Here, the British author explores the tensions and difficulties in merging families. Trollope focuses on three women: Nadine, the natural mother, Josie, the stepmother, and Elizabeth, the wouldbe stepmother. While the three women all want to make their children comfortable in a blended family, each has her own agenda in this new order. Perceptive and wise, Trollope writes absorbingly about domestic relationships in a shifting world.

A sultry breeze of eroticism wafts through Mary Gordon’s Spending (Distican, $33) an in-

telligent, having-it-all fairy tale about a 50ish Manhattan painter struggling to make ends meet. While giving a talk at a gallery, Monica Szabo jokingly asks where the male muses are, the men who will model, cook and provide for artists like herself while stoking their sexual and creative fires. Whereupon a wealthy broker stands up and announces: “Right here.” What follows is a graphic romp through their affair, with engaging digressions into art and parenthood. Subtitled A Utopian Divertimento, the book has enough realistic turns and wry touches to keep disbelief at bay. A perfect read for independent-minded

women—and the men who love them.

Men of a very different sort populate Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain (Knopf, $33.50), which completes his Border Trilogy. Like his best-selling All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, the new novel serves as a eulogy for the passing of the modern cowboy. Set in the 1950s, this is vintage McCarthy: beautifully crafted language bringing to life a harsh existence. McCarthy’s characters refuse to accept de| feat. When one is asked what he would 2 choose if he could be anything other than a

1 cowboy, he replies, “I wouldnt be nothin

2 else [sic].” This bittersweet lament offers a § lyrical, melancholy ride into the sunset.

“ Clive Barker is best known for some of the s most perverse horror stories ever written (his 1984-1985 collection, Books of Blood, made Stephen King’s tales read like Peter Rabbit). So Barker’s latest, Galilee (HarperCollins, $34.95), comes as something of a surprise. Billed as a romance, the novel explores two powerful families: a Kennedy-ish clan called Geary, and the Barbarossas, a collection of half-immortals whose alliance with the Gearys leads to nefarious activities. But Barker has not left horror behind: the narrative is founded as much in the goings-on of demon-gods and deranged souls as in bodice-ripping romance conventions. The result is episodic, sexual and highly entertaining. Sounds like summer reading. □

Who's reading whatand why

4 fter finishing Ann-Marie MacDonald’s /% Fall on Your Knees, Calgary singer ƒ 11 Jann Arden plans to spend the summer exploring the poetry of JL JLEmily Dickinson. “This is a woman who lived by herself, and she writes all these beautiful poems about yearning for love and what love is. And she goes on about death, which suits me quite fine.”

Saskatoon novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe just finished Childhood by André Alexis (“stunning for a first novel"), fellow Saskatchewan writer Terry Jordan’s Beneath that Starry Place (“very impressive”) and the short-fiction collection Olympia by Dennis Bock (“I liked that an awful lot, too”). Vanderhaeghe reads constantly. “Possibly a little less in the summer. The winter is so long and the summer so short that I tend to spend more time outside in the summer. I read fiction all the time and once in a while take a plunge into biographies or historical writing. I’m not one who’s big on beach books.” Toronto-based Royal Bank chairman and CEO John Cleghorn just finished Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler. He’s now reading John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. Next on his list is The Hungry Spirit: Beyond Capitalism—

A Quest for Purpose in the Modem Wood by British management guru Charles Handy, “During the summer, : /vili be digging into North American history and will have a welcome break from management books.”

With Parliament’s summer recess, Finance Minister Paul Martin will head to his farm in Quebec’s Eastern Townships: “What I do is pile up books and either read them at Christmas or in the summer. My favorite spot is on the back porch.” He plans to read Laurier LaPierre’s biography of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and What It Takes: The Way to the White House, Richard Ben Cramer’s take on modern U.S. campaigning.

Halifax-based comic Cathy Jones just finished David Adams Richards’s Nights Below Station Street [“He kills me—I think he’s a great writer”). And this summer she hopes to get more reading done. “But I have a two-year-old and I’m supposed to be writing a book, so I’m not reading as much as I should be." On her bedside table are: Fresh Vegetable and Fruit Juices, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Do-It-Yourself Astrology and So You Want to Write a Novel—“because I’m trying to write one.”