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This article was published 20/11/2009 (2825 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Rats of Las Vegas
By Lisa Pasold
Enfield & Wizenty, 358 pages, $30
Toronto-based Lisa Pasold's debut novel is as enticing as the lit-up Las Vegas strip and as satisfying as a winning hand at poker.
Pasold weaves together themes of love, chance, magic and fortune to create a compelling coming-of-age story set against the gambling scene in Depression-era Vancouver and Bugsy Siegal-era Las Vegas.
Rats is charming, original, and rich in historical detail.
The novel, released by the literary imprint of Winnipeg's Great Plains Publications, opens in Vancouver in 1938, home to Millard Lacouvy, a 17-year-old poker prodigy with a head for numbers and an appetite for wealth.
Millard has been playing poker in the back room of a local bar since she was 10.
"I come to luck naturally," she says.
Despite her age and sex, she advances from playing small-time games to earning a fine living from high-stakes setups on Canadian Pacific trains.
"Can't imagine that grown men would easily agree to play with a mere girl?" Millard asks. "You have to imagine Vancouver back then, through the dirty black Thirties."
But when an incident convinces Millard that she's gotten too big for the train games, she heads south to old Las Vegas to try her luck at the Flamingo Hotel, which was then under the control of mobster Ben "Bugsy" Siegal.
Millard's one distraction from the cards is Teddy, a handsome childhood friend who's grown into a charming but somewhat inept con man.
As Millard becomes drawn deeper into the high-stakes world of fortune, vice and folly, she begins to realize that love too, is a game of chance, and that there are some gambles not worth taking.
The dynamic between Millard and Teddy is fascinating, and makes for an unusual and original type of love story.
Millard's wistfulness and sharp perception may remind readers of Canadian Sara Gruen's Water For Elephants, a coming of age story set against a Depression-era travelling circus.
Millard is an exceptionally refreshing heroine -- wonderfully independent and completely unwilling to rely on anyone else for her needs.
Millard's first-person account of her story is wonderful. Though she's celebrated for her bluffing skills during games of poker, she's thoughtful and straightforward with the reader.
However, she does at times obscure her motivations toward Teddy, which can be frustrating to the reader.
Pasold's prose is brisk and matter of fact for the most part, although at times she displays an unfortunate tendency to ramble and to lead the story off topic.
A novel that pivots on poker could easily become shallow, but Pasold avoids this by not boring her readers with technical details about the game.
Instead, she focuses on the way the games affect her characters, and lets the gambling lie in the background as a metaphor.
"The worst player can take the pot with the intervention of fortune," Millard explains at one point.
An unfortunate side-effect is that Pasold drastically overuses the poker metaphor, so that it becomes boring and less effective toward the end of the novel.
Pasold peoples her novel with fully developed secondary characters, which adds a further sense of depth to the story.
But Pasold's true triumph is the way she reinterprets the stereotypically male world of professional poker.
Millard's sharp skill for the logistics of the game is combined with a wily feminine tuition towards the game and her opponents. She frequently comments that the cards "chose" her and that they "speak to" her.
Pasold strengthens this theme by littering the story with allusions to Greek goddesses, witchcraft, and even medieval female folk medicine.
And, of course, Lady Luck.
Winnipeg writer Kathryne Kouk has never played poker.