While creative people have long called the Beach home, this summer seems to be a banner season for authors in this corner of the city. No matter what your taste, there’s likely a Beach author who has tackled the topic. Reviewed here are four wide-ranging offerings, from mystery to young reader fantasy to visual history.
Pinot Envy, by Edward Finstein
Reviewed by Bill MacLean
When wine expert and part-time sleuth Woodrow ‘Woody’ Robins is asked to look into the disappearance of a rare bottle of wine little does he expect that what he uncovers will almost be the death of him. Beach Metro’s own vino expert Doctor WineKnow (Edward Finstein) has written a taut, suspenseful and thoroughly enjoyable mystery novel that will keep you turning pages well into the evening, barely taking time to sip from that glass of wine that will surely be on your bedside table.
Pinot Envy is the first in a series of wine-inspired mysteries by Finstein who has created an interesting character in Robins; an independent-minded clothes horse with relationship issues who lives alone with his cat in San Francisco. His expertise in all things wine has led him in various directions (not unlike Finstein himself) – consultant to several restaurants, columnist for various publications, television and radio personality, author, and by happenstance, amateur investigator. The novel begins when Robins is called by an associate who has been asked by a wealthy vintner to look into the disappearance of a rare bottle of wine from a seemingly secure and impenetrable vault specially built to house the bottle.
James McCall is a gruff, impatient, wealthy man used to getting his own way. Looking to avoid publicity regarding the missing wine, he reluctantly invites Robins to stay at his vast estate in the Napa Valley, and gives him carte blanche to question his family and staff about the missing wine. It soon becomes obvious that he doesn’t like Robins, and the feeling is mutual. What Robins eventually uncovers will shake McCall to his very core … and cause Robins himself to rethink his concept of family.
Pinot Envy follows many of the stylistic characteristics of mystery writing. The main character, Robins, is the narrator, and his many observations are rendered in that witty, sarcastic way of a Sam Spade or a Mike Hammer: “A short somewhat stout lady somewhere between forty and death greeted me” … “Although it was only early June, it was hotter outside than Paris Hilton’s love life.”
He is a man who, while intelligent and savvy in his professional life, has commitment issues with the woman he loves and a caring side that drives his ambitions. His investigative style is haphazard but effective, and his engaging but direct ways soon have those he suspects divulging more than they may want to. When Finstein splits from convention though the reader is left as confused as the narrator. The final drawing room scene is as hilarious as it is revealing.
If there is any shortcoming to Pinot Envy it is in the lack of wine-related additions. I would have liked for the narrator to have had more instances where he could have indulged in his passion for the grape. He is, after all, staying at a vineyard estate surrounded by people who appreciate wine as much as he does. Maybe in subsequent installments.
Ed Finstein, a.k.a. The Wine Doctor, is the resident wine columnist for Beach Metro News. He is also Professor of Wine at George Brown College’s School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts, and the author of Ask The Wine Doctor. For more information visit his website winedoctor.ca. Pinot Envy is published by Bancroft Press and is available for $21.95 by visiting bancroftpress.com, amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and bookstores everywhere.
Friend At Court, by Brenda Dow
Reviewed by Carole Stimmell
Those of you who have a passing familiarity with the genre of historic fiction will have at one time or another picked up a volume of regency romance. You know the ones – they usually feature an impetuous young thing whose future (and her family’s) depends on her marrying well, but she has other plans for herself. The story line almost inevitably runs something like: a handsome young ‘buck’ with 400 pounds a year, driving a four-in-hand and with no intention of ever marrying, is suddenly drawn to a headstrong young lady wearing a bonnet, French printed muslin gown and six crinolines. They carry on a tempestuous relationship (meanwhile addressing each other as Mister and Miss or, since most are set in the upper levels of British society, Sir and Lady). Both feel a great physical attraction to each other (think clenched fists and throbbing bosoms) but only manage to exchange one or two kisses. Due to a series of shenanigans, often caused by the girl’s refusal to follow the proper mores of the day, she is led from one situation to another which puts her in danger of losing her ‘good name’. By the end of the novel (usually about 200 pages’ worth) all is well and the couple take their place in genteel society.
There are readers out there who scorn such fripperies, but (spoiler alert) I am not one of them. While most are not of Jane Austin calibre, I enjoy the exhaustive details of 19th century life and fashions, and the focus on trying to understand the lack of choice a woman faced when trying to step outside the box during this period.
Having said that, I have just completed Friend at Court, by former Beach Metro Advertising Manager Brenda Dow. Dow previously published a regency novel called Earl for a Season and when she asked me to review her new book, I was expecting something in a similar vein. I was no more than about 10 pages into the work when I realized that this book owes more to Maureen Jennings (the creator of Inspector Murdoch) that it does to Georgette Heyer.
The heroine of the novel is Ruth Bowen. A well-born Norwich woman, Bowen is disowned by her family when she marries a widowed Quaker and moves to London. After her husband dies, she returns to Norwich with her stepson, to be reconciled with her family. Almost at once she is drawn into mystery involving the servant daughter of one of her London employees. The girl, Alice, who is deaf, is accused of theft and attempted murder of her Norwich employer. Bowen tries to help prove that the girl is innocent and winds up in prison – due to a King’s Bench judge who is rumoured to be biased against the Society of Friends.
Ruth Bowen is not your typical regency romance character. She is a mature woman coping with a business and two stepsons. She has adopted her husband’s religion despite the disapproval of her family and English society’s distrust of ‘Friends’ in general. While the book’s characters dress, talk and behave as early 19th century people did, it is the insights into little known areas of regency life that are most rewarding. For example, Bowen’s forays into the court and prison system give a good idea of how the justice system operated.
I enjoyed Friend at Court very much and was pleased to see that there is a sequel coming out called Close Friends.
Friend at Court is available in the Beach at the Beach Metro News office, and online at www.trafford.com and amazon.com. The hardcover edition is about $25, while the Kindle version runs about $10.
Along the Shore: Rediscovering Toronto’s Waterfront Heritage, by M. Jane Fairburn
Reviewed by Jon Muldoon
The Beach is a place to love, to be sure, and longtime readers of Beach Metro News and regular history enthusiasts at the Beaches branch of the Toronto Public Library are likely aware of at least some of the extensive and colourful history of the Beach. However, for an informative and interesting look at how the history here compares to other waterfront communities in Toronto, Jane Fairburn’s Along The Shore – Rediscovering Toronto’s Waterfront Heritage is likely to find a home on many local bookshelves.
Fairburn’s well-researched work covers four Toronto communities: the Scarborough shore, or the bluffs, the Beach, the Toronto islands and the Lakeshore, covering the western waterfront neighbourhoods. Though each area is significantly different from the others, Fairburn posits that all four also share many common themes, especially looking at the development of each over their histories.
Each of the four sections begins with an extensive overview of the natural and aboriginal history of the area, along with an exploration of the less easily defined feel of the community.
That is followed by the story of homes built by newcomers to the area, and eventually development of former wilderness areas into full-blown settlements. Each of the areas covered then went through something of a resort era, followed by more extensive development into more village-like communities.
Inevitably, choice village-like areas of cities are pounced upon, both by residents looking for something apart from city life, and from opportunists looking to capitalize on an area’s distinct personality; ‘Destruction and Loss’ is a chapter near the end of each of the four sections in Along The Shore. Of course each of those chapters is followed by one title ‘Renewal’, so it’s not all doom and gloom (despite what some Beachers may think of the current state of development along Queen Street East).
An interesting focus is on the artistic personalities that have come out of the Beach in particular; something about the area seems to have inspired a larger than normal number of artists, authors, musicians and other creative types. Painter William Kurelek and pianist Glenn Gould are two of those featured in the pages of Along The Shore.
Throughout are not only stories garnered from research, but also personal recollections and memories of long-time residents, as well as a number of photographs either rarely or never seen by the public before. The book retains something of an emotional attachment, and Fairburn’s personal connection to Lake Ontario and Toronto’s waterfront areas remains clear.
Though there have been several books on the history of the Beach, Along The Shore is unique not only for its visual content, but also for the context provided by comparing the Beach to other neighbourhoods that have more in common with the East End than may be at first apparently obvious. And though there are a wealth of photos, paintings and archival images, it’s not simply a coffee table book, it’s a visual historical study well worth taking the time to read. After all, as Fairburn said, she didn’t spend 10 years of her life creating a coffee table book.
Along The Shore is available at Book City and Coles in the Beach, Trinity Gallery at 926 Kingston Rd., House and Garden Co. at 1660 Kingston Rd., Al Sinclair RE/MAX Hallmark at 2237 Queen St. E., and Pippins Tea Company on Queen.
Up In The Air, by Ann Marie Meyers
Reviewed by Jon Muldoon
Lest the younger literary minds in the Beach feel left out, Ann Marie Meyers’ new novel for young adults, Up In The Air, offers a great fantasy escape to another world, while also keeping its feet on the ground with messages of facing the past, trust, guilt, forgiveness and responsibility.
The novel is Meyers’ debut, though one wouldn’t realize it to read it – Meyers writes with a refreshing confidence. Though she has a daughter, Up In The Air is not based on any real-life events, at least any that happened to her family.
The book tells the story of 10-year-old Melody, a girl who lives in New York City with dreams of being able to fly. One day she leaps from a swing in a park, but instead of falling to the ground, she lands in the mystical world of Chimeroan, where she gathers with other children who are given the chance to live their dreams, whether that’s being able to fly, becoming a giant or an elf, or even being something more unpleasant, such as a witch.
Before being able to keep her wings, Melody must complete a series of tasks, with the cryptic help of a guide, who is a few years older. Along the way, she earns the chance to heal her paralyzed father, but realizes she must make a choice between doing so or keeping her wings and the ability to fly. The choice is compounded by the guild Melody feels for the car accident which left her unscathed and her father in a wheelchair.
While Up In The Air deals with some fairly serious subject matter, it does so at a level most young readers should be able to connect with. Meyers manages to keep the action moving along with the emotional conflicts, resulting in a serious page-turner. The novel should be something of a hit with young readers looking for some deeper meaning with their fantasy worlds. Although Meyers said she has no immediate plans for a sequel, the story – and the fantasy world created within it – could easily be turned into a series, should readers demand it.
Up In The Air is illustrated by Ethan Aldridge. The book is available from Chapters, Indigo and Coles, as well as from Ella Minnow in the Beach, and online, both in print and e-book editions, from amazon.ca.