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A litblog dedicated to book reviews/recommendations, as well as literary and publishing news. Now enhanced with knitting designs.

BOOK REVIEW: Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage


Firmin begins life at a disadvantage. Born the runt of the litter to an alcholic mother sheltering in the basement of an independent bookstore, Firmin begins to eat pages of books in order to survive. When Firmin realizes the books he’s digested have given him the ability to read, his love affair with literature is born. Existing through a daily diet of nourishing classics, Firmin quickly becomes an outsider existing in a no-mans land between what he is (a rat) and what he wishes to be (human). Sam Savage’s Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife can be read as a quirky little tale about the book-loving rat in all of us, or as a philosophical look at life. It is a witty novella and a powerful homage to a life lived through and around books and the enduring influence of great writers.

Firmin’s initial consumption is rather indiscriminate, one book tasting much like any other. Soon however, Firmin notices subtle flavour differences between works and as his understanding of literature develops, his need for literal consumption diminishes. Firmin reads and “lets the books center my dreams, and sometimes I dreamed myself back into the books.” Any true booklover has often wished to disappear into a book; the weak becomes strong, the housebound travels and the voiceless thunders speeches to the masses. Firmin finds relief from his outsider status by becoming the characters, “I must constantly remind myself, sometimes by means of a rap on the head, that Eisenhower is real while Oliver Twist is not.”

The name Firmin comes from the Latin Firminus meaning “firm” and is the name of several early saints, but Firmin the rat is anything but firm or saintly. He worships at and is torn between two temples; Pembroke Books and the Rialto movie theatre; knowledge and lust; sages and his “lovelies” (the ethereal actresses that parade nude through the late night movies at the Rialto).

Savage positions before the reader these two elemental aspects of humanity; the earthy nature of the body and the spiritual realm of the mind. By casting this dichotomy into the body of a conscious rat, he is able to mock our delusions and perceptions. Holding a mirror up to our souls in the character of Firmin, we question our essential selves and our understanding of reality. Should our perceptions be taken as true or, like Firmin, do we delude ourselves into believing we are other than what we are?

Both of Firmin’s temples offer an escape from reality and the pull from both is strong. By casting the theatre into the role of seducer, Savage resurrects the worry that movies will destroy books. While today it is clear that books have survived the assault of movies and television, the concern for the relevance of the great works of literature in modern society continues.

Savage holds a doctoral degree in Philosophy from Yale University so it should come as no surprise that this slim volume is full of more questions than answers. Whether Firmin, capable of consciousness and immersion into the great works of fiction, is a better mirror for humanity’s frailities because he is a rat is difficult to state. What is apparent is that Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife merits repeated readings for Savage has filled its pages with much food for thought. This gem of a book should be a treasured addition to any bibliophile’s bookshelf.

See the review posted at ReadySteadyBooks – Firmin.

BOOK REVIEW: After Helen by Paul Cavanagh


In 2004 the London International Book Fair held its inaugural “Lit Idol” contest modeled on the popular “Pop Idol” television show. Submitted as a 10,000-word manuscript, with accompanying two-page story outline, Paul Cavanagh’s After Helen was selected as winner out of a field of 1,500 competitors. Cavanagh’s completed novel (substantially more than 10,000-words) was picked up by HarperCollins Canada and released with a relative lack of fanfare when compared to the publicity surrounding his “Lit Idol” win.

After Helen is the story of the relationship between Irving Cruickshank and his daughter Severn, as they deal with the death of Helen. Irving, still reeling from the loss of his wife, has no idea how to deal with a teenage daughter. Severn, walled up inside herself with grief and anger, is quickly spinning out of control.

The match thrown into this powder keg is the reappearance of famous author Jack Livingston, Helen’s old lover. He is in town to promote his new novel – a tale of a young girl’s search for the truth about her bloodline, and a mother who has left her, set against the backdrop of Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition. After meeting Jack at a book signing, Severn disappears and Irving’s memories of Helen come brilliantly to life as he chases the daughter he fears lost to him forever.

The question critics and readers will ask is this – does this “Lit Idol” winning, debut novel measure up to the bar set by its early promise?

Cavanagh chose to structure his novel in a discordant manner, alternating chapters told in the past and present. The reader is on a journey of discovery with Irving; however, we have only the briefest hint of current knowledge against which to position the flashes of his developing relationship with Helen. This disjointed narrative is unsettling for the reader, pushing one into feelings of anxiety and unease that invoke an immediate empathy for Severn and Irving.

Despite the deep connection the reader feels with Irving, the roller coaster of emotion brought on by the flashes between the birth of his relationship with Helen, and life after her death, quickly becomes overwhelming. Empathy turns to frustration as Irving’s tendency to function as an emotional doormat becomes more apparent. Just as the reader wants to leave the ride behind, Cavanagh pulls the book back onto the rails by having the storylines of the past and present converge.

Like the fictional author Jack Livingston, Cavanagh has taken a true-life plot and used it to cast light on modern day relationships. Whereas Livingston used Helen’s story to cast light on Franklin’s doomed expedition, Cavanagh has used the obsession of the explorer with the frozen north to look at the emotional wastelands that exist after a family member dies.

“Severn and I are no different. We’ve both become lost searching for Helen in a landscape of bitter emotions that we can barely begin to understand. It’s about our own survival now.”

Emlyn Rees, one of the “Lit Idol” judges, commented on Cavanagh’s eye for the little details that bring characters to life. It is his skill in evoking the sense of a character that distinguishes After Helen.

“I claw my way to the edge of the bed. I can’t summon the energy to sit up, so I lie on my belly and let my legs slide off the bed until I’m kneeling on the floor, my face still planted on the mattress…I feel like a little kid saying his bedtime prayers.”

Cavanagh has shaped engaging, realistic characters and, despite some irritation with Irving and Helen, After Helen is a promising debut. The little details show his developing ease with his craft, and vindicate Cavanagh’s win of the inaugural “Lit Idol”.

See the review posted at ReadySteadyBook: After Helen

BOOK REVIEW: Some Like it Haute by Julie K.L. Dam


Alex Simons is in Paris on a plum assignment, covering fashion week for London’s The Weekly. Her dreams have carried her far from her big-hair days in Texas, landing a career as a fashion correspondent on first name basis with all top fashion houses’ PR reps. A sudden cat-walk collision with this season’s It girl lands Alex in the midst of a media feeding-frenzy which has her cowering in her hotel watching reruns of the debacle on Fashion TV. When she ventures out to a promising fashion debut she meets Nick Snow, a bad boy who spurns the fashion world but sends Alex’s pulse into overdrive. Will this fashion insider get her bad boy and the scoop of the year?

This latest entry into the increasingly crowded genre of chick lit offers a breath of fresh air. Some Like it Haute has avoided many of the major minefields now infesting the genre: heroines stuck in their 20’s, overly whiny main characters and paper-thin plots. Julie Dam recognizes that the readers of chick lit have moved into their 30s and, while still concerned with fashion and romance, they also face serious worries about their careers. By moving her heroine into the next age category but leaving her single, the author has taken a courageous yet fresh approach.

Within the context of haute couture and Paris’ fashion week, Alex’s obsession with clothes and footwear makes sense. The insider’s view of this closed society is enthralling and since Alex’s clothes obsession isn’t overblown, she shows readers an insider’s view into this elite world.

One of Julie Dam’s main strengths is her ability to pen intelligent, rapid-fire banter: words delivered so fast that your head is spinning in admiration. Some Like it Haute contains some fabulous repartee between Nick and Alex, chock full of pop culture references and delivered with deadpan accuracy. Like the icons of old, the sexual tension leaps off the page as Nick and Alex play with words as easily as others toss dice.

More style than substance, this light-weight confection has readers kicking off their kitten heels and curling their toes in longing for the Manolos casually tossed around by Alex. Dam has provided a window into a world guaranteed to delight any wanna-be fashionista, a stylistic fable that marries mystery and romance and wraps it all in a glamorous world filled with killer shoes.

See the review as it appears at Armchair Interviews – Some Like it Haute.

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