Monthly Archives: February 2011

A book tweeting milestone, a literacy commitment and a challenge

I recently mused on the importance of literacy, and asked for input and insights from the Twitter booklovers community on organizations promoting literacy. With that valuable feedback, I committed to expressing my gratitude for my own literacy and this community by aiming to make a donation to a literacy organization once my own Twitter presence arrived at and exceeded 1,000 followers. That has happened (woo hoo and thanks!), and I’ve made my donation, as follows:

Children's Book Bank

The Children’s Book Bank is a charitable organization designed to support children’s literacy by providing free books and literacy support to children in lower income neighbourhoods. Based in Toronto, the organization offers a range of gently used and new books secured through donation, school and community book drives. Staffed by volunteers and working within the community, The Children’s Book Bank focuses on the literacy needs of children aged 2-12 and works to support and develop each child’s interest in and success with reading. In addition to providing books, The Children’s Book Bank offers literacy support and programming. Learn more at

Much more important than numbers of followers or Klout scores or whatever is that we are in this social milieu reading and writing and talking … about books and literature and print and digital formats and bookstores and libraries and the vital reading experience in all its forms. I value those who follow me, those that I follow and those that I come across in this vibrant tweeting, retweeting, chattering, enthusiastic and engaged environment … not the number of them, but the quality of the discourse and the spirit, dealing with vital and fundamental issues, not to mention delights.

Numbers are just numbers. But then again, we can use those numbers in creative ways to challenge ourselves to remember, to recognize, to give back. Through this exercise, I’ve learned about other organizations and institutions supporting literacy and books that I’d like to recognize in future, so I’m going to set a goal to do just that whenever I hit one of those “number” milestones. I challenge other book tweeters and bloggers to do the same.

An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin

An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin

Francoise Gilot was lover and muse of Pablo Picasso in the 1940s and 50s, and mother of two of his children. She was a gifted painter herself. Her insights into both the artistic process and behind-the-scenes with the personalities in the art world are absorbing and authentic. Look up her memoirs and other books for works of both technical and emotional accuracy about the art realm. (1)

Steve Martin is no Francoise Gilot. The eclectic modern Renaissance man Steve Martin doesn’t exactly need my defence or support of his take on the art world. The preternaturally accomplished actor, comedian, writer, playwright, art collector, musician (and who knows what else he’ll master on a seeming whim, like his facility with Twitter via @SteveMartinToGo) likely won’t be stymied and in fact would be rather existentially amused by any of his works provoking vitriol. Inexplicably, his novel An Object of Beauty seems to have excited criticism in some quarters (2) that his story is not technically and historically accurate. This reader respectfully contends that is neither the point nor an impediment to an elegant and enjoyable read here.

The protagonist of An Object of Beauty is Lacey Yeager. She is an up-and-coming young art dealer making her way in the late 1990s world of the high-end art trade in New York City through a combination of rapidly acquired knowledge and experience, craftiness, chutzpah and fairly carefully wielded personal charms.

“Lacey’s uptown moves, high-style reserve with a playful edge, had been perfected, but she hadn’t used her downtown moves – fearless sexuality with a flapping fringe of pluck and wit – in a long time.”

She balances the personal and professional with clear-eyed calculation, skewing decidedly towards the professional. Her machinations and survivor’s instincts are the most intriguing aspects of this story. Lacey’s premeditation paints her (pun intended) as essentially amoral, while paradoxically quite warm-blooded in other respects. Interestingly, Martin accentuates Lacey’s rather flat affect by not directly using her voice, but having art journalist Daniel Franks, an ex-lover of Lacey’s, tell the tale. While obviously still enamoured of this intrepid if slightly off-putting heroine, Daniel is less Nick Carraway to Lacey’s Gatsby than he is the authorial voice of Thackeray to the self-reliant and cunning Becky Sharp. Martin holds his heroine considerably less in awe than either of the narrators of The Great Gatsby and Vanity Fair, but certainly An Object of Beauty invites valid if less profound comparisons to the complicated and nuanced social strata of both of those classics.

Martin’s airy, but not unintelligent, rather emotionless touch neither bogs down nor condescends to the reader, either about the rarified milieu in which the story is set or about the thoughts and feelings of the players in that milieu. (And no, the inclusion of small reproductions of works mentioned in the story are not Modern Art 101 condescension, either. They are helpful and elegant additions to the reading experience.) However, does the narrative distancing make the story bloodless, and therefore does the reader feel no connection to either story or characters? Apart from some wistful regret for Daniel and art collector Patrice Claire, both who seem to genuinely care for Lacey … indeed, the story is rather emotionally disconnected from its characters. That said, it is still an informative exploration of a particular world at a particular time, digestible and sufficiently absorbing perhaps because it travels light.

In An Object of Beauty, it seems that the strongest feelings are not between people, but for the art, even if that fascination is not always the most fully articulated:

“Well, the water, to me, represents the earth and all the things that happen on the earth, reality. And the moonlight represents our dreams and our minds.”
“And …”
“And the reflection … well, I guess the reflection represents art. It’s what lies between our dreams and reality.”

This light, elegant book will still entertain and even edify without much more in-depth reflection than that.


1. Francoise Gilot’s Matisse and Picasso – A Friendship in Art (1990) is splendid:

2. Chelsea Girl, review of An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin, by Andrew Butterfield
The New Republic, December, 22, 2010


The Water Rat of Wanchai, by Ian Hamilton

The Water Rat of Wanchai, by Ian Hamilton

Forensic accounting meets Kill Bill in the form of compelling heroine Ava Lee

Ready for a breathtaking rush starting with multi-million dollar purchase orders and dodgy accounting practices (um … ho hum?), segueing to financial transactions of varying legitimacy and 24/7 international banking activities bouncing from Toronto to Seattle to Hong Kong to the British Virgin Islands (hmm, OK …), sharply punctuated with more than a dash of Kill Bill (what …???) You’re in for a singular and suspenseful globetrotting ride with Ava Lee, one-of-a-kind forensic accountant and collections expert employing unique accounts receivable practices. Ava is the compelling heroine of The Water Rat of Wanchai, the first in an eagerly anticipated crime fiction series from Ian Hamilton.

Ava Lee is a young Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant who specializes in recovering large debts. She works closely with a Hong Kong-based “uncle” who is extensively connected, possibly with the Chinese criminal underworld. In The Water Rat of Wanchai, Ava takes on an assignment to retrieve money swindled from a business financing substantial purchase orders for a seafood distribution company supplying a major US retailer. A fairly straightforward case necessitating perhaps some minor negotiating and intimidation swiftly becomes complicated and possibly deadly when Ava runs up against and struggles to hold her own against a Caribbean-based crime kingpin who is seemingly business-like and even charming, but also amoral and menacing.

The Water Rat of Wanchai is a brisk, entertaining read. There is sufficient detail to capture the essence of every global stop in Ava’s journey, from Toronto to the British Virgin Islands. The storyline touches just the right amount on but is never too heavily freighted with the technicalities of the transactions along the way. The action is explosive whenever it occurs, is never couched in a fashion too unsettling for even the mildly squeamish, but is still offered up in suitably brutal and authentic form. The suspense is well concocted and genuine.

Hamilton obviously adores his intelligent and refreshingly self-aware heroine, and she quickly captivates the reader. Her resourcefulness, aplomb and, where necessary, outright sangfroid has brilliant flashes of other singular and often cinematic heroines, from Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick to Uma Thurman’s unforgettable Beatrix Kiddo. Still, Ava Lee is ultimately her own unique being, and Hamilton leaves the reader wanting more of her and wanting to learn more about this enigmatic and forceful young woman.

How wonderful then to know that Hamilton and House of Anansi Press has astutely set the Ava Lee story in motion with four books queued up. A second book will appear this summer, and two more are slated for 2012. The Ava Lee series is the first offering of a new House of Anansi Press crime fiction imprint called Spiderline, and things are clearly off to a strong start.

Hamilton has left numerous doors enticingly ajar to further explore Ava’s family and personal life, get to know more of her professional associates and perhaps contend with repeat engagements with those with whom she’s tangled in this first installment. For example, Ava’s work associate Derek remains largely offstage in this book, but it would be intriguing to see him onstage in future installments. At any rate, readers captivated by this first encounter with Ava Lee won’t have long to wait.

Thank you to House of Anansi Press for providing a review copy of The Water Rat of Wanchai, by Ian Hamilton.