By Barry Healey
Reviewed by Jon Muldoon
The Sex Life of the Amoeba, the debut novel from TV and film writer Barry Healey, despite its title, is not so much about sex as it is about one character trying to figure out who she’s attracted to, and another trying to convince everyone else that adding sex to a serious movie is vital.
Amoeba is narrated by Sarah Fielding, associate producer at Felicity Films, run by the Hungarian László, the producer of a number of sleazy but profitable films. Though I can’t recall László ever being given a family name in the book, he is the larger-than-life type of character who would likely be referred to in the real world by only a single name anyway.
Sarah is put in charge of finding a quality story to produce, and chooses The Smoke Pickers, a CanLit novel about a migrant tobacco picker finding love in the arms of a married woman in southern Ontario.
The story makes for a great novel, but not necessarily an exciting movie. So the story is moved to South America, migrants become rebels, and farmers become American consuls. And that’s all before the actors start improvising.
The author puts his years working as a writer in the television and film industry to good use, describing the movie-making process with ease. His portrait of a multicultural Toronto film crew pulling together and ignoring the quirks of the imported talent rings true, as does his portrayal of the business side of the movie business.
Healey’s characters, while occasionally lapsing into stereotypes, are highly entertaining and likeable, even László, who continually expresses his desire that the movie is in dire need of showing “connubial relations” in order to illustrate the passion the characters have for each other.
His paranoid Hollywood star Martin Gage is so over the top as to be almost too crazy to not be believable, and the story unfolds while simultaneously revealing the depth of the big name talent’s delusions.
Director Vlad Pudovkin, a Russian émigré, provides dry wit and one-liners (Sarah: “If you like Hollywood so much,” I asked him, “Why didn’t you settle there?” Vlad: “When you are not lead sled dog,” he said, “view is always same.”), while attempting to create a masterpiece despite his producer’s worst intentions.
Stars Carey, a gracefully aging former TV star, and Nathan, a young unknown – but highly talented – theatre actor add to both the narrative and romantic tension, helping propel Amoeba’s action through to the conclusion of the novel.
While Healey has been writing for TV and film for decades, The Sex Life of the Amoeba is impressively cohesive for a first novel, keeping the reader engaged and entertained in equal measure.
Anyone looking for a fun read and an intelligent but loving skewering of the Canadian film industry would do well to pick up a copy.
By Brenda Dow
Reviewed by Andrew Hudson
A newborn is hurriedly baptized as heavy guns pound a defence at the Spanish fortress of Badajoz in 1812, too late for the child’s father, a Major who lies dying after a battle in the Peninsular War.
Years later, in England, retired judge Samson Garrett is called out to Mousehold Heath to protect a Roma man from a vendetta – a man who once saved the life of his darling Ruth Bowen, a Quaker widow who excels at solving mysteries.
But the man doesn’t show. Meanwhile, a newspaper reports that a child and nurse have died in an arson.
That is how Beach author Brenda Dow winds up the twisted plot of Friends and Enemies, her third book in a trilogy of Ruth Bowen murder mysteries.
Set in 1818 London, the story unfolds at a time when even well-heeled types lived at close quarters with cutthroats and cutpurses. The City’s first professional police – the Bow Street Runners – are just finding their legs, and it will be decades before Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes have their chance encounter at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, leaving all the clues there for Ruth Bowen.
Besides a caper that winds through the high and low places of Regency Era London, Friends and Enemies entertains with an equally broad cast of characters, from a would-be parliamentarian to the barmaid at the Cat and Weasel “where honest men did not dare to venture.”
Running through the whole cast is a spoken English language from a time when “balderdash” was still a common cry, not a board game, when men measured beer in tankards and driving a car might involve an ox or two. Next time they stub a toe, readers of Friends and Enemies can reach for “Gorblimy!” instead of its family-unfriendly equivalents in modern swears.
Driving the story is Ruth Bowen, the watchmaker’s widow, who is spurred to solve the murders at the heart of the book as much by her raw curiosity as by moral concern. As she and Garrett spar over how to deal with the offenders, they encounter some of the liberal ideas that Europeans living under royals were still trying to square with the French Revolution.
At its core, though, Friends and Enemies is a quick-plotted mystery with an unlikely heroine – a plain-dressed Quaker – and a finale with as many deep, dark secrets as the Regent’s Canal.
By Heather Anne Hunter
Reviewed by Jon Muldoon
Ravi’s Revenge is not what one might typically expect of a book intended for teens. There are no romantic vampires, no wizards, no post-apocalyptic teens battling for survival in a televised contest.
What there is in Hunter’s novel is an unflinching look at the possible consequences of substance abuse and depression in teens who lack support from the authority figures in their lives.
The book opens with 17 year-old Ravinder Singh waking up hung over and late for school again. His late arrival quickly establishes his place in the school’s social pecking order, as he faces taunts and mockery from classmates.
Several caring but ultimately misguided teachers do their best to intervene and help Ravi deal with his problems, but the peace he finds at a treatment centre quickly dissipates as events spiral around him upon his return to school.
Hunter, who is a teacher herself, writes about the cruel vagaries of life as a teenager with a painfully honest approach, sparing no sympathy for teachers, be they “good” or “bad.” It’s rare to see such realistically portrayed moral ambiguity in a novel, much less one meant for teens, and it’s a far cry from Hunter’s previous work.
Hunter’s mother, Bernice Thurman Hunter, wrote a number of youth books, including the popular ‘Booky’ and ‘Margaret’ series. Hunter finished her mother’s last two books posthumously, to good reviews, before focusing her efforts on the darker stories she believes need to be told.
Ravi’s tale is certainly a dark one, and readers looking for a happy ending are not likely to find satisfaction here. But for those looking for a brutally realistic look at the darkest sides of teen life, and how easily a life can spiral out of control, Ravi’s Revenge offers some insight into how bad things can happen, even to kids who are truly good at heart.
By Adam Nayman
Reviewed by Andrew Hudson
When local film critic Adam Nayman stood up to give a brave retake on Showgirls at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this spring, the programmer responsible for actually showing it innocently asked how many people in the sold-out crowd had actually seen it before?
His eyebrows shot up with the hands — most knew the 1995 Vegas sleaze epic by reputation alone. Showgirls won a record seven Razzies the year it opened, including the awards for Worst Picture, Worst Director, and Worst Actress for its deeply unfortunate star, Elizabeth Berkley.
At the time, Washington Post critic Rita Kempley called Showgirls “an overcoat movie for men who don’t want to be seen going into a porno theatre” and yoked director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas with the same Las Vegas pimps, rapists, and thieves they were ostensibly out to satirize.
So nearly 20 years later, it’s a good question — why are people buying tickets for what is widely known as one of Hollywood’s worst movies?
In It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, Nayman offers a sincere and well considered weighing of possibilities.
The popular answer is that Showgirls is camp — a movie so bad it’s good. As Nayman points out, MGM Studios took this approach to its $35 million flop starting in the mid-2000s, when it hired drag queens to talk over midnight screenings of the film à la Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Rena Riffel, who played second fiddle to Berkley’s character in the original, got in on the action with her 2011 spoof-sequel Showgirls 2: Penny’s from Heaven, funded by a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign.
But as Nayman and the many other critics doing U-turns on Showgirls have found, Verhoeven leaves plenty of evidence that the film is purposely bad — it’s a mirror to the vulgarity of American showbiz.
With hindsight, it’s easier to see how the director of RoboCop and Starship Troopers was trying to send-up American sex the way he had so successfully done with American violence.
The trouble, Nayman writes, is that Showgirls and Starship Troopers “fully inhabit” and “mercilessly satirize” the things they are trying to make fun of. “Merciless” is also a good word for the Showgirls sex scene that doesn’t get much talked about – the non-consensual one – a scene so unsettling that Nayman wonders why it belongs in the movie.
Trash or masterpiece, Nayman’s careful review of Verhoeven’s film and its changing reception raises compelling, often uncomfortable questions about why we laugh at Showgirls and who is laughing at who.