Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Death's Head Chess Club by John Donoghue

ISBN: 9780374135706

It's impossible to put yourself in the shoes of a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz during the Second World War. Hopefully, one will never have to endure the hardships--struggle, starvation, watching your loved ones selected for extermination--that the survivors of the camp did and the terrible memories that they must keep with them until the end of their days. Because of their disastrous days, what they were put through, you cannot judge them for their feelings toward the German people, especially, say, 12 years after the end of the war (when half of this novel takes place.)

Emil Clement was a French Jew taken to Auschwitz. He was separated from his wife, children and mother and thrown into  a concentration camp. The one thing he was able to do was survive. 

Then, an opportunity was presented. Word had gone around the ranks that Emil--also known as a the Watchmaker because of his profession in a past life--was an excellent chess player. In order to boost morale and price the German superiority over the Jews, an officer was to play and defeat Emil. Of course, Clement won. It was then that the novel's other protagonist, SS officer Paul Meissner (a higher-up at Auschwitz) gave Emil the chance to play for his peers' lives: one game won, one Jew saved. 

The pressure was immense, but the Watchmaker was forced to comply (knowing he could save lives) and was successful. 

In 1962, Clement was taking part in an international chess tournament in Holland and a priest introduced himself: it was Meissner begging for forgiveness. 

I'm not sure how I'd handle myself in such a situation, but the author did an interesting job of wrapping it up in a neat little package. 

I liked The Death's Head Chess Club. It gave a perspective in a concentration camp that I've never seen or even thought about. 

I'd give it a read if I were you. 

As a side note, I apologize for the frequency at which I am posting. It's been a pretty busy summer but I'm doing the best I can. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

ISBN: 978-0-7710-7998-6

I've read a lot of books about the Holocaust in my life. I'm Jewish and it has been important for me to learn about what happened in Europe before, during and after World War II. The Book of Aron is a completely original take on a child living in the Warsaw ghetto and a look into the benevolence of Janusz Korczak. 

Aron, of course, is the aforementioned child. When his father gets a job in Warsaw, he decides to move his family from a small Polish town. Not long after, the Jews of Warsaw are forced to live in close quarters and their basic human rights are stripped from them. Aron, along with some friends, become a gang of smugglers, doing what they must to survive. Typhus and lice are factors, the quality of life is piss-poor. Ultimately, Aron loses his family to illness and the concentration camps and becomes an orphan. It is then when he meets Janusz Korczak--Pan Doktor: a man who had dedicated his life to the children of Warsaw. He takes care of Aron just like the rest of "his" children. His days are spent trying to get enough food to feed his orphanage, all the while not turning anyone away. His fate will be the death camp Treblinka, but only by choice--he refused to leave the sides of the children he had done his best to provide for. 

I don't think I've ever read desperation described like Shepard does in the form of Aron's actions. After being forced into some deplorable things, he regrets them but the reader never gets the idea that he didn't have to do what he did. He made his decisions based on survival, not profit. Also, he is just a friggin kid!

And Korczak...I really didn't know anything about the doctor before this novel, but I feel as though no one could have done a better job getting down to the soul of the man than the author. To call him a "good man" would be an insulting understatement--at least that is the picture that Shepard paints. 

I recommend The Book of Aron to anyone that likes to read. Jim Shepard has a reputation of doing his homework on the subjects that he writes about. If that's a fact, you, as a reader, can learn a great deal about an important humanitarian in a terrible time. I feel like I learned a lot about a topic that I already knew a great deal about. A different point of view of the same result: the worst time of your life and trying to get through it. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Heart of Hell by Alen Mattich

ISBN: 978-1-77089-437-2

I have always been interested in history and the wars that have formed and torn apart the current world. The Heart of Hell is set in Croatia in 1991--right in the thick of the Yugoslavian civil war. To be completely honest, I know very little about said war. In fact, this book may be the most detailed chronicle I have ever read (I was born in 1983 and it was never a focus in school for me, though I am now quite captivated and would like to know more.)

So the setting of the book is great. The Balkan conflict is illustrated quite well for a lay person like myself. It was definitely my favourite part of the book. 

Not that I didn't like the book. As I've stated in previous posts, the thriller genre (or more specifically in this case, political thriller) is not really something that I'm drawn to. But Mattich found a way to draw me in. The protagonist, Marko della Torre, is a former member of the Yugoslavian secret police. He is tasked by an American (presumably CIA) to find an old friend of his, Julius Strumbic, whom they believe has murdered another agent. Della Torre does not want to turn his friend in, but does want to find him and let him know. And so he dangerously embarks on a journey from Zagreb to Dubrovnik where he believes him to be. 

The story itself is a good one. The major problem I had was following, though: this book is the third in a series. As a standalone, it sort of works--there are little fill-ins that help the reader, but I feel like they work better as reminders for those who had read the previous books. I'm eventually going to find the first two novels as I would definitely appreciate The Heart of Hell more after reading them. 

As far as recommendations go, do yourselves a favour and read Zagreb Cowboy and Killing Pilgrim before reading The Heart of Hell. That way, you'll really enjoy an interesting, original series of political thrillers and you'll know more about The Montenegrin (a character that plays a crucial role in the series.)

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering by Jeffrey Rotter

ISBN: 978-1-62779-152-6

I thought that The Only Words That Are Worth remembering would be an interesting read. It is a satirical science fictiony book--which is pretty far from my comfort zone--but I like to broaden my horizons, so why not?

The book takes place in the future, after the world has pretty much fallen apart. Rowan and his family, the Van Zandts, are a rag-tag bunch who, after several run-ins with the law, are given the option to either go to prison, or be the test-subjects in a rocket launching from Cape Cannibal, Floriday (Cape Canaveral, Florida, obviously.) They choose the latter and join another family, the Reades. Rowan falls in love with Sylvia Reade, only to lose her affection to his twin brother. Heartbroken, he accepts an offer from Bill Reade (the disturbing father) to sabotage the project and send just the Reades to Europa (one of Jupiter's moons.) Then he runs, gets addicted to Fink (some kind of drug,) and travels through what has become of the US.

TOWTAWR is a strange story. It reminded me a little of A Canticle for Liebowitz--it had the same post-apocalyptic feel, albeit a little more quirky. 

I appreciated the language: a lot of the names of recognizable cities have been bastardized in the future, apparently. 

I recommend this book to those who believe that the world is falling apart and want a glimpse into the messy future.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers

ISBN: 978-0-385-52907-5

I Saw a Man is about morality, forgiveness and doing the right thing. Owen Sheers does a magnificent job in illustrating what not to do when you're in a tough spot. 

The book takes place in the year 2008, during the height of the conflict in Afghanistan. It tells the story of Michael, a fairly successful immersion journalists who meets and falls in love with Caroline: a journalist as well, but more of a risk-taker, always looking for a story in a war-torn country and always in danger's way. 

The two marry and settle in Wales. Soon after, Caroline tells Michael that an opportunity for an interview with a known terrorist. Thankfully, it would be in Pakistan, not Afghanistan and so there was much less risk (still a lot of risk.)

Caroline was killed by a drone missile strike manned from Nevada. 

Struck by grief, Michael moves to Back to London and meets Josh and Samatha, whom, with their two young daughters, Michael spends all of his time with. 

Michael is on the road to recovery when he starts receiving letters from the pilot that pulled the trigger that killed his wife. They are letters of apology and explanation written illegally against protocol in an attempt to be forgiven by Michael as Daniel's (the pilot) life is falling apart. 

Michael falls back into the emotional rut he was in, unable to forgive. Meanwhile, something terrible happens at Josh and Samantha's house (which I will not divulge.)

Owen Sheers is an award-winning poet and his way with words is showcased in I Saw a Man. The title of the book is made up of the words that are said just before Caroline is killed and ostensibly the cause of numerous people's lives being destroyed. 

It is a fantastic book, a page-turner. I was reminded of Woody Allen's film Match Point during parts (although there are no murders, premeditated or otherwise--no spoiler!)

I'd recommend I Saw a Man to pretty much anyone: the writing is great, the story is great and it's a bit of a social commentary which is, well, great. 

It will be available in early June--something to look forward to. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer

ISBN: 978-1-4767-1045-7

I haven't read something as dense as The Children's Crusade in a long time. Dense in a good way, of course, the type of pages that are filled with content and hard work. Ann Packer surely put a lot into her novel and it most definitely paid off.

The Children's Crusade is about a family over time: the Blairs. Bill, the father, is a pediatrician--an ideal father and role model to his children. If Bill has any faults whatsoever, Packer doesn't write them into her novel. His wife, Penny, on the other hand is another story. 

Penny is very focused on her artwork: that which she has given most if not all of her attention after having four children. She even goes as far as to first move from the family house to a converted shed down the hill (that she makes a studio,) and then, once her children are all grown, move away completely to Taos, where there are likeminded individuals.

Robert is the eldest. He tries his hardest to follow in his father's footsteps: he goes to his alma mater and becomes a doctor.

Rebecca, the only daughter, is the most intelligent. She becomes a psychiatrist, focusing on her work (a trait acquired from Penny,) and only settling down in her forties. 

Ryan is the compassionate one. He was his mother's favourite. His biggest fault is being too empathetic: perhaps the kindest character in any novel. 

And then there's James. 

James--the only child whose name does not start with the letter R. The wild child, the accident, for lack of a better term, the fuck-up. James, living away from the rest of his family, comes home several years after Bill's death. He has fallen in love with a married woman and needs the money from the family home to start a new life with her. Bill had written a clause into his will: if Penny had wanted to sell the house, she needed the consent of at least one of her kids. Up until this point, James would do anything to thwart his mother's wishes--it was a relationship filled with hatred and vitriol. But now, James is desperate and is forced to join "The Dark Side" as he puts it. 

The character development was thorough and it's hard to pick a favourite. Broken down, each child has their own redeeming traits although none are quite as complex as James. 

This novel is a commitment. It isn't something you can just breeze through in a couple of days (unless that's all you're doing.) I'm certain that Packer put everything she had into it and I truly appreciated it. 

It is a very good book and I recommend it to anyone that likes reading about families. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

All Monsters Must Die by Magnus Bartas & Fredrik Ekman

ISBN: 978-1-77089-880-6

Welcome to North Korea--or welcome to the parts of North Korea that regulated tourism is allowed to see, I should say. 

In All Monsters Must Die, Magnus Bartas and Fredrik Ekman ( I'm going to go with The Authors from here on in) give us a look into the oppressive regime from the inside in the year 2008. No, of course they are unable to see the rampant famine of the majority of the population. They are brought on a tour of all the "great" sights of the country: the birthplace of Kim Jong-il (a log cabin that looked to be built 20 years prior,) Mount Baekdu--which always has snow on its crest (even though as their guide was explaining this phenomenon, it was devoid of any,) the USS Pueblo (the American spy ship that was seized in 1968, the North Korean's apparent proudest moment of thwarting their imperialist enemy to date) are among the most notable.

Yes, the guides are zany. It is truly another world in North Korea. When talking about haircuts (North Koreans can choose from five,) Mr. Song (a guide) explains that hair drains the brain of essential nutrients and so the longer the hair, the bigger the detriment. This is a theory that I have never heard.

But it isn't just wackiness on the tour, there is a sense of unpredictability as well. When another tourist is prying too much for Song's liking, he basically threatens his life. Sure--why not?

The primary focus of the book is on a Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok. Madame Choi was a famous actress in South Korea; Chin, her ex-husband, was the country's greatest director. In 1978, they were kidnapped and taken to North Korea--the primary players in Kim Jong-il's plan to develop his nation's movie industry.

We all know that Kim was a movie buff, but The Authors delve much deeper into his hobby which, by the end of their explanation, seems much more calculated than quirky. The power of melodrama was instrumental during Kim Jong-il's regime (and currently, I suppose, as nothing has changed with Kim Jong-un.)

I really enjoyed All Monsters Must Die. It was acclaimed in Sweden upon its release in 2011 and I'm happy it finally made its way over here. I haven't read any other travelogues about North Korea so I don't really have anything to compare it to, but I think it was pretty thorough. I also appreciated the story of Choi and Shin, which was integral in their description of the country.

Also, the translation was fantastic (not that I speak Swedish, I just mean that I never would have known that the book was originally written in another language.) Saskia Vogel did the wonderful work.

I'd recommend All Monsters Must Die to anyone that appreciates history and wants to know a little bit more about a country that they will probably never visit.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson

ISBN: 978-0-06-230212-0

I feel incredibly fortunate today (not that I don't most days, but today is exceptional.)  It seems as though every book I request or am sent is a seminal work. I'm sure the bubble will eventually burst, but boy, am I ever happy I got my hands on a copy of Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson.

Braggsville, Georgia (population approximately 7000) is D'aron Davenport's home town. It is in the heart of the South, quite the contrast with UC Berkeley where he is going to university. It's there (Berzerkeley as it is affectionately called) that D'aron--now Daron to avoid confusion--finds three like-minded individuals to spend his time with. Candice (a Midwestern white girl,) Louis (an Asian guy who wants to become the first Lenny Bruce Lee,) Charlie (black, soft-spoken and seemingly confused,) and Daron join forces to become the 4 Little Indians: four very liberal students doing their best to invoke social change. 

And so, after Daron informs them that there are Civil War reenactments performed in Braggsville, the crew decides to take a field trip. Their plan is to interrupt the reenactment with a fake lynching. Daron's father learns of the plan and forbids his son to step anywhere near it. Charlie is clearly not comfortable and opts out. Candice and Louis follow through. They rig a harness, Louis goes blackface and the worst case scenario is the one that Geronimo Johnson writes. 

No--I am not going to tell you what happens. That would be a disservice. Welcome to Braggsville is hard-hitting and everyone should be hit. Hard. 

There is still segregation. There is still racism. And even though everyone in Daron's world did their best the shield him from it, his eyes slowly open as the novel progresses. So he comes of age in a very scary way--triggered by a very scary thing that few people have ever experienced. 

Obviously the idea of racism existing in the Deep South isn't very far fetched; most people wouldn't shake their heads and say "I just don't believe that in this day and age.." It was just extremely hard for D'aron, who grew up in its veil, to come to grips with. 

And it's everywhere! I'm from Canada. As much as we like to pretend that we are all living in harmony, there is no way that anyone can argue that white people are no more priveleged than, oh, I don't know, the First Nations.

It's not groundbreaking, it was just done well. Johnson uses interesting, contemporary language. There is slang, he doesn't necessarily stick to a script. Everything you need to know is there, though. Most people will want to read it but I am sure some folks just don't want to hear it. So be it. People have a tendency to walk around with a blindfold rather than make themselves aware of problems in their environment and push for changes. There are characters in the book that are just the same: they do not want to stir the pot. 

I liked the writing style(s), I liked the characters, the message is IMPORTANT and, to summarize, I loved the book in its entirety. 

Get out there and read a copy if you're okay with listening to a serious matter in a different voice. 

Simon and Schuster Canada...

...has sent me an ARC to review. I just wanted to say thank you. I am truly humbled by all of the publishing houses that have contributed: this blog would not exist if not for you. And obviously the books that you publish...

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Poser by Jacob Rubin

ISBN: 978-0-670-01676-1

The Poser is original, entertaining, thought-provoking and many other complimentary adjectives (what a start, right?) Jacob Rubin--a first-time novelist--came up with a refreshing story and told it brilliantly. I was enraptured from the first page and my interest was piqued until the very end. 

I guess this is going to be one of those glowing reviews, but not without merit:
Jacob Rubin nails it. 

Giovanni Bernini is an impressionist (not a painter but a master mimic.) As an early child, his uncanny ability would get him into trouble. The only support he would get was from his mother who loved him and his remarkable talent dearly. 

He stumbles upon Max, a talent agent, who takes him to the big city to maximize  his potential (profit-wise, of course.) He introduces him to Bernard, who owns a club, and Giovanni begins his career as a professional impersonator.

He meets Lucy whom he has a relationship with and is particularly taken with her as she is the only person he has met to date whom he can't really impersonate--he can't "find her thread." Lucy had been involved with Bernard in the past  and had a bit of a reputation--I'll say no more. 

He eventually finds Lucy with Bernard (ahem,) thus ending their relationship. Little did Giovanni know that it was all part of Bernard's bigger plan. That plan in brief: turn Giovanni into a movie star and then parlay his fame into a career in politics. Basically, Bernard wanted to use him to take over the world. Nothing crazy, really. 

Yes, there are hints of The Manchurian Candidate, but there is no brainwashing involved. Giovanni is a willing participant in every one of his endeavours, misguided though he may be. His issues are what drive this novel, no one else's. He is as sympathetic a character as you will find--I couldn't stop myself from pitying him.  

The book is set in a make-believe place in a non-descript time--neither are of any significance. The only real matter of importance is Giovanni and his perpetual need to mask himself in others, never really showing anyone who he is. 

The book is a comedy by definition but deals with a young man's inability to find his own identity: a topic I would describe as pretty serious. It's very relatable (in a magical sort of way.) Hasn't everyone been uncomfortable in their own skin at some point in their lives? Maybe it's just me...

Jacob Rubin has been compared to Jonathan Lethem--I can see it. I was reminded of the world and characters of Gun, With Occasional Music while reading this book (no talking baby gangsters, but still.) That is a good thing. Creativity is key for me and those brave enough to exhibit it in the writing world are alright in my books (no pun intended.)

Anyone looking for a unique read that will keep you turning pages should definitely give The Poser a shot. READ THIS BOOK. You won't be disappointed. 

My goodness, I really liked this book.

Well done, Jacob Rubin. 

And...HarperCollins Canada...

Thank you, HarperCollins Canada, for enabling this humble blogger to read and review books from every major Canadian publishing house. It is complete! I am grateful and now am equipped with all of the tools I need to make this blog work. 

Happy Easter and Passover to everyone that celebrates and observes. I'm going to take this long weekend to clean my place and, well, read, I guess. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times by Peter Kavanagh

ISBN: 978-0-345-80852-3

I'm a really big fan of memoirs. I like the organic rawness of them, the possibility that just because someone remembers something one way, it doesn't mean it necessarily happened like that. There's no real science, just memories and describing your life to the best of your abilities.

There was a lot of science in The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times, though. Not in a bad way--I'm not trying to say that didn't appreciate it. In fact, I'm not really sure that I did, but that may just be me. 

Peter Kavanagh tells his story. He was born with polio in the early 1950s during the height of the Canadian epidemic. His father worked on numerous construction sights across Canada, so his family was constantly on the move. He struggled throughout his childhood. He was bullied and so lashed out, using his mind as a weapon to become the predator. As you can imagine, it was difficult. One leg was longer than the other. He had to wear a brace. It wasn't smooth sailing. Finally, at the age of 12, he, with his family, decided to undergo hip surgery--hip displaysia being a worrisome problem caused by the polio. Unfortunately, this meant living the entire next year in a body cast. 

If you thought things were going to get easier, you were wrong. I suppose you wouldn't think that, though, given the title of the book and the fact that he hasn't learned to walk three...anyway, you get it!

Kavanagh took advantage of his longer leg. He stopped using a brace and started wearing sneakers. Bad decisions. His foot couldn't handle the pressure and so he would break it several times. 

Later on in life, Kavanagh suffered through numerous other ailments, culminating in another hip surgery. 

All through the book, the author does a wonderful job describing all the medical problems and procedures he had to endure. He is a self-proclaimed man of words and there was no shortage of them in the book. For those who like lengthy descriptions, this is wonderful: Kavanagh does a remarkable job in walking the reader through every detail in a very comprehensive manner. On the other hand, if you think--as Polonius did in Hamlet--that brevity is the soul of wit, you, my friend, may be at wits end upon concluding The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times.

So what did I think about the book? I'm still not sure. I certainly respect Kavanagh's will and ability to overcome the medical nightmares that most could only have nightmares about. I'm uncertain, though, that this is a memoir, so to speak. It's certainly genre bending, if that means anything.

So yeah, I liked it as a medical journal blended with the most pertinent parts of a life story. Not really as a memoir though.

You should probably read it to make more sense of what I'm saying.

It will be released on April 14, 2015.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon

ISBN: 978-0-374-20341-2

When I found out that Aleksandar Hemon was coming out with a new novel this year, I was thrilled. His book The Lazarus Project is one of my all time favourites. It examined a very serious issue--immigration and acceptance in America--and did a fantastic job of chronicling a part of history.

That is not what The Making of Zombie Wars is. 

Joshua Levin is an ESL teacher in Chicago with dreams of becoming a screenwriter in 2003. He throws a bunch of ideas around his workshop, but the one that sticks is about a zombie apocalypse that he calls Zombie Wars (obviously.) He has a girlfriend who is much better looking than he is named Kimmy but finds himself very attracted to a Bosnian student, Ana. Meanwhile, he finds his very crazy, Desert Storm vet landlord, Stagger, riffling through his things in his apartment. Kimmy decides that it would be a good idea for Josh to move in with her. 

At around this time, Josh learns that his father has prostate cancer and his sister's marriage is falling apart. Josh, of course, cannot resist the temptation of Ana, even with his wonderful girlfriend and her unrelenting support of him.

And so, Josh commences an affair with Ana. This is after he meets Ana's husband--an ex-military, quite probably violent Bosnian man named Esko. As can be predicted, mayhem ensues. And not just a little mayhem, I'm talking zombie apocalypse mayhem. 

There is also a side story throughout the novel: the reader gets to feast their eyes on exerpts of Levin's script. As you may think, it's pretty standard for a zombie movie--certainly nothing revolutionary. 

TMOZW is absurd and it's meant to be that way. It is extremely funny and is a very quick read. If you have never read anything by Aleksandar Hemon, you should know that English is not his first language (he left his native Bosnia during the war in 1992 and was stranded, making a new home in Chicago.) I say this because he has completely mastered in a way that would make anyone jealous. This book is no exception: as silly as it may be, it is chock full of perfectly worded metaphors and wondrous technique. Hemon is a gifted writer and I am happy to read anything that he's penned (in fact, his memoir is on my list and will be reviewed soon.)

As for recommendations go, let me get to it. If you are looking for something full of everything extreme (sex, blood, zombies,) this is the book for you. Also, if you want to admire the work of a master of the craft, give it a shot. If you're looking for something deeper, The Making of Zombie Wars may not be it. 

But you already knew that from the title, right?

I really liked the novel. Hemon pushes the boundaries of normalcy and sanity into a rock'em sock'em orgy of fun--in the life-falling-apart way, of course. It's pretty refreshing. 


Friday, March 27, 2015

Fire and Air by Erik Vlaminck

ISBN: 978-1-77089-401-3

Fire and Air is a book that grows as you read it. It doesn't seem like much will happen at the onset, but it is truly one of the saddest--I want to even say most powerful--books that I have read in some time. 

The author, Erik Vlaminck, is Flemish. The original text was written in both Flemish and Dutch and was published in 2011. This is the first translation (done by Paul Vincent) to reach Canada, which is strange considering the majority of the novel takes place in Southwest Ontario where many Dutch and Belgians emigrated after WWII.

It's a story of a very broken family and the difficulties that three generations must endure. Elly was born and raised in St Thomas, Ontario to a Belgian father named Tony and a Dutch mother, Mina. Tony seems to care much more about racing pigeons (which he keeps in a coop next to his house) and Belgian beer than he does his family, although he has a soft-spot for his daughter. Mina is a devout Roman Catholic that has grown very tired of Tony's antics: he takes trips back to Belgium without them and has heard that he spends most of his free time in the nearby town of Delhi, drinking at the Belgian bar. He is a bit (generous) of an unstable individual (evidenced by the shooting of his own birds and the poisoning of cats in the neighbourhood,) but Elly favours him to Mina nonetheless. Tony ends up leaving Canada for good one day--his wife would have to care for their daughter alone. 

Fast forward some years and we find Elly in Belgium searching for Tony. His mental health issues seem to have been passed along to his daughter: she only really feels alive when in pain, is very insecure and empathy isn't her strongpoint. She tracks down Dad only to find that he has another family in Belgium, complete with a half-brother. Tony refuses to meet with her and so she does something completely nuts (not telling what) and heads back to Canada. 

Further on down the timeline, we meet Elly's daughter, Linda. Linda does not suffer from mental illness, but that doesn't mean that she doesn't have a lot to deal with. Her mom now calls herself Martha and she is falling apart. Her grandmother is old and alone. Linda has a lot on her plate. 

I wish I was able to read Flemish and Dutch. Not that Vincent didn't do a wonderful job, I just feel like it would be impossible to capture everything written if it isn't your native tongue(s.)

It's a difficult read: not because of the language, but the content. And not difficult in a bad way either. It is Heavy (capital H intended.) I find that anything involving mental health issues takes its toll on me. That said, I highly recommend it. It's not a book that will very soon pop up on the bestsellers' list, but it is a hidden gem that I was fortunate enough to have recommended to me. 

Fire and Air is available now. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin

ISBN: 978-0-670-0632-5

Under the Visible Life was recommended to me last week. It had received a lot of praise from female readers, and my wonderful contact at Penguin, Elizabeth, thought it would be interesting to get a male take. At first I thought there wouldn't be much of a difference if the novel was a quality read: I've read books written by female authors as well as books with female protagonists--there is usually no real barrier unless the major focus on the book is femininity. 

I won't say that this is one of those cases, but the focus of the book is on strength and being a woman.  

The story told is a good one--very solid. There were no points in the novel that I felt uncomfortable, like I should really be a woman to read and love this book. I did like it very much, but I certainly think there was something lacking in my association with the characters. 

Katherine was born in Hamilton, Ontario in, I want to say, the 1940s. Her mother was white, her father Chinese. Interracial marriages were a definite no-no at this time, sadly, and her mother was arrested and institutionalized for "being incorrigible." She fought hard to get out and get her daughter back. Katherine grows up in poverty and falls in love with jazz music, becoming a very talented pianist playing in clubs underage. She goes on to marry and have three kids with T, a saxophonist who struggles with drug addiction and can't really commit to be present in Katherine and his children's lives. Katherine moves to New York with her kids to pursue her career as a jazz pianist and makes do as a single mother with very little money. 

Mahsa is a half-Afghani, half-American girl in Karachi whose parents are slain by her uncles for their family's honour. She goes on to live with her other aunt and uncle (more accepting although not the ideal family for Westerners) and learns to play the piano. She meets Kamal, loses her virginity and gets pregnant. She, being a teenager, has an abortion and never tells Kamal--who she loves--about it. She decides she wants to move to Canada--Montreal, Quebec specifically--to study (at McGill.) There, she finds a freedom she had never experienced, embraces the Jazz scene and lives a life she only dreamed of. On a visit back to Pakistan, her dreams are dashed: her passport is stolen from her and she is forced to marry Ali--a business man whom she was promised to. Ali would bring his business to Montreal and the life that Mahsa knew would be no longer. They have two children in a loveless marriage. 

Mahsa meets Katherine on a trip to New York and they become best friends. They play piano and Katherine arranges for them to record together. Ali is not happy with Mahsa's creativity and does everything he can to stifle it. He decides that Mahsa is a bad influence on her daughter, Lailani, and sends her to live with her grandparents in Pakistan. In order to get her daughter back, Mahsa agrees to comply with her husband. Of course, she doesn't really...

There is a lot of overcoming in the novel. Katherine overcomes being a woman in a male-run Jazz scene, Mahsa overcomes the constraints of her husband. The story certainly has feminist undertones--whether it is overt or not, I'm not sure. I have no problem with that, as like many males of my generation, I happen to be a feminist. 

I think Echlin's purpose was to show that the archaic views of 1940s Canada continued into the 70s and is still prevalent in some parts of the world today. It's an important message to relay, and, hopefully, it will be a very foreign one sooner than later. 

It was a good book: not great, but good. I think that anyone can read it, whether male or female. 

I do wonder, however, if I would have appreciated it more if I'd had dealt with some of the struggles of being a woman. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Thanks, Anansi!

The House of Anansi has sent over some books for review. Along with their generosity, they included a very nice note. I'm grateful for both and look forward to the new reads!

Saturday, March 21, 2015


Hello loyal readers!

I just wanted to tell you that I wouldn't hate it if you followed my blog. In fact, I'd really like it. I'm sure that at least one of you has come back here after reading a review, right? So just let me know that I'm not completely off base by following, okay?

You can also follow me on Twitter. I'm @jhytel

That's enough shameless self-promoting for the day. Enjoy the weekend!

The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday

ISBN: 9781250051684

I don't know exactly what makes a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. I'm sure if I looked into it, I could find the exact specifications, but I'm not going to do that. I'll just go on what I know and what I've read: I'm reminded of American Pastoral, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, A Visit from the Goon Squad--there are similarities and they are all winners. If Pulitzer time rolls around and The Last Flight of Poxl West is mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned new classics, I would not be surprised in the least.

The book has two narrators: the title character in the form of his best-selling memoir and his 15-year-old American "nephew," Eli.

Poxl left his native Czechoslovakia in a huff as a teenager in the 1930s after he walked in on his mother having sex with a painter (very much not her husband.) He went to Rotterdam where he fell in love with Francoise, a musician whom he later discovers to be a prostitute. WIth the inability to put Francoise's profession behind his love for her (and the unfortunate witnessing of her on the job,) Poxl leaves yet again, this time for London where has father has set him up just as Czechoslovakia is occupied by the Nazis. There Poxl takes all the nececssary steps to become a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force. He meets and falls in love with Glynnis, a nurse, only to lose her in the Blitz. Still though, he can't seem to shake his love for Francoise. She is a major focus of Poxl's narration. She and Shakespeare, that is. Poxl's love of the Bard--that Glynnis' mother instilled in him--turns into something a bit more as the novel winds down thanks to Torday's creativity.

All the while, Poxl becomes a fighter pilot--a heroic one, at that. But still, the constant worry over his lost love and whether she is even still alive after the Luftwasse bombings of Rotterdam remains the primary focus in his memoir. 

Meanwhile, Eli, who looks to Poxl like a grandfather even though there is no real relation (his actual grandfather and Poxl were good friends--meeting after the war when Poxl moves to the States,) gives the reader insight into Poxl in present (1986) times. Skylock (Poxl's memoir which Torday uses to tell his story) is critically acclaimed and becomes a bestseller. Eli idolizes his uncle and wants only to think of him and absorb is succes and adulations. He finds himself becoming more popular and his grades are improving--all thanks to Poxl, the hero and much lauded author.

I very much appreciated Daniel Torday's ability to give himself rave reviews without having anyone read his book. Of course, after reading and loving it myself, it is no surprise to me that the actual book has been met with critical acclaim.

His writing is beautiful, Poxl's story is compelling and Eli's emotional dependence on his uncle seems all to genuine. There really is so much to this novel: it's one of those books that once you have completed, you smile thinking back to parts you may not have considered while reading.

I adored The Last Flight of Poxl West in its entirety and look forward to Torday becoming a mainstay in the literary world. I'm not sure if it was Torday's intention to give the book an American aspect for Pulitzer consideration, but it would be well-deserved.

Poxl West is just the kind of book I seek out and I'm interested to see if we'll be talking about it next April.

So yes, I definitely recommend this book. No kidding.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Harmless by James Grainger

I'm not sure what the overlying theme of Harmless by fellow Canadian, James Grainger, is. I'm not one to read thrillers regularly--I read Gone Girl a few years ago and it was enough to veer me away from the genre for a while. I'm not always looking for "The Next Big Thing" in books, I'm one for subtlety. This book may have been the opposite of that.

In Harmless, a father and his teenage daughter leave Toronto for a weekend in the country to catch up with Joseph (dad's) old friends. Joseph is divorced and his relationship with his daughter Franny is not as good as he would like it to be. He seems to still be in love with his high-school sweetheart Jane, the host of the gathering. Joseph harbours some pretty overt feelings of resentment towards Jane's husband Alex. 

As would happen when most forty-somethings get together for a weekend, the group (minus Franny and the other kids) gets blind drunk and stoned.

Joseph and Jane decide to take a walk in the woods and have an extra-marital affair. Why the hell not?  It's not like they were surrounded by their friends and family or anything...

Joseph hears a twig snap nearby which brings everything to a grinding halt (no pun intended.) The two return to the house only to find out from Alex that their daughters, Franny and Rebecca, are missing.

Logically, Alex invites Joseph to go out into the woods with him to find the girls--armed, of course. They have conversations about killing abductors and taking the law into their own hands.

There are a few things in this book that I found a little bit difficult to read, but I think that's the point. No one really wants to get into topics like dead animals and there are several in this book. I may be a tad hypersensitive given my vegetarian lifestyle, but I don't think I'd be alone in thinking some of the graphic nature in the novel is a tad over-the-top.

Without question, there is a lot of violence in the book. The protagonist has a lot of penned up anger and frustration and he is given ample opportunity by the author to release it.

Even though Harmless wasn't really my thing, it is certainly a page-turner. I wanted to steamroll through it, if not only to see what wild immoral act would be perpetrated next. Let me tell you, there is plenty to go around!
As far as recommendations go, those that like violent, compelling thrillers would probably really enjoy Harmless. I wish I had more books to compare it to. As far as I can tell, it was good. It was very readable but I had absolutely zero empathy for Joseph. It's fun to root for the good (or not-so-good) guy and I didn't really care what happened to him.

I'll recommend it to some, how about that? I think that's fair.

Highly recommend to some.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Raincoast Books is in!

Raincoast Books will now be sending over ARCs to your humble book blogger (me!) 

This, of course, means more new and upcoming content to review. 

This makes me very happy and grateful. I am extremely fortunate. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

ISBN: 978-0-345-80940-7

The Buried Giant is a fantasy novel written by a novelist that doesn't usually write fantasy. Sorry for that.

So either we call this book Fantasy (which I would given all the spells and dragons and things that don't actually exist,) or we avoid harsh words from purists and call it "Fantasy Fusion." I'm okay with that one, too.

I'm not a fantasy purist. I've superficially read and enjoyed the genre (basically just A Song of Ice and Fire and Mistborn.) I was not insulted by Ishiguro's foray--in fact I was quite pleased. The only other book of his that I've read is Never Let Me Go which is quasi-science-fiction and I liked it. I will read pretty much anything  when it comes to genres: as long as there is a good story spun in the pages, I don't really care.

It follows an elderly couple--Beatrice and Axl--on their journey through medieval England to find their son who had left many years before. There is word of a "mist" that causes forgetfulness, thus explaining why the two basically cannot remember what they had for breakfast. 

And so they embark, passing through a neighbouring Saxon village where they encounter two more individuals: Wistan, a warrior, and the boy he just rescued from the throes of an ogre, Edwin. The boy is to be exiled because he has been bitten and that is unacceptable in the village; Wistan acts as his keeper and mentor and will take him with him on the mission assigned to him by his king. Fortunately, they are all going in virtually the same direction and Beatrice and Axl are more than happy to have the tag-alongs. 

Further on down the road, the motley crew comes across a knight, Gawain, nephew of Arthur--the very same Arthur that brought peace to England and ended the quarreling of the Britons and Saxons many years prior. It's about this time that we learn that Gawain and Wiston are on the same mission: slay the she-dragon Querig. Guess what: it's Querig's breath that causes the mist of forgetfulness. That makes Beatrice and Axl all too happy to see her killed so they can have their memories of each other, whether they be good or bad, back. It's pretty convenient that everyone wants the same thing.

Of course, they don't all want the same things...That would make for a pretty boring read.

The lost memories in the book reminded me a bit of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in which the two main characters were happy with each other in their ignorance and when their past becomes clear to them, problems arise. At that point it's difficult to change fate--especially when strong emotions are tied into it. Pretty deep elements and very interesting stuff, I think.

There are questions of morality and religion, whether it is possible to atone for sins committed so willingly and blatantly. Is it possible to actually be forgiven or will forgetting the act and pushing it under the rug suffice?

The book is chock full of metaphors as most fantasy novels are, I suppose. Although the book's setting and some of the players involved are thoroughly unbelievable, the underlying issues are very real. You shouldn't really expect less from Kazuo Ishiguro: he seems to have a pulse on the problems of society (at least in what I have read.)

I liked The Buried Giant a lot. The book gave me an opportunity to read fantasy without having to commit to thousands of pages. And if the purists tell him not to quit his day job, well, he hasn't: the man writes good books and doesn't need to be pigeonholed.

So I recommend the book to those of you with open-minds on either side of the Fantasy spectrum.

Side note: If you haven't seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you should really do that. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

ISBN: 978-0-670-06955-2

Where to begin...

It has been some time since, while reading a book, I have wondered: is this the best book I have ever read? It certainly has never happened with a work of non-fiction. I guess there really is a first time for everything.

H is for Hawk is a masterpiece. There, I said it. Now I can get on with it.

A passing in the family is never easy--especially when it is a parent that you looked up to. Fortunately, I haven't yet had to cope with such a loss and I'm obviously not looking forward to the day that I will. When Helen Macdonald's father died, she essentially lost a part of her. In H is for Hawk, she tries to find a way to get it back.

Macdonald's primary interest has been in falconry since she was a child. She has trained hawks before, but never a goshawk: widely known as the most erratic, blood-thirsty species. And so she buys one and names her Mabel. She puts everything aside--she becomes a bit of a recluse, she turns down a teaching job in Germany--all to commit herself entirely to training her hawk.

I had to laugh when she described the distraction of passing people on the streets. As she is trying to get Mabel to focus, people stop and stare in amazement. She wishes they would all just disappear. I have felt the exact same way when walking my puppy. Obviously a puppy and a goshawk are not the same at all. It's just very frustrating to get an animal to do what you want it to without anyone around, let alone with. The rational emotion is not anger, though, and that is the one that Macdonald and I shared. 

I don't know anything about falconry. To be completely honest, before I read this book, I didn't know it still existed. Being a vegetarian, it isn't something that I have an interest in doing--especially after reading Macdonald's description of Mabel's prey's last moments on Earth. But the training of this wild bird--the steps Macdonald has to take to ostensibly make the goshawk an extension of herself--is compelling to say the least. Mabel becomes her "spirit animal": she mentions Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials and how the children in the series have "daemons" and likens it to her own situation with Mabel.

She also finds a parralel with TH White, the author of the Arthurian epic The Once and Future King. White also became an austringer (albeit an unsuccessful one) and wrote about it in The Goshawk. White was a very sad--bordering on pathetic--character. He was gay in a time that it really wasn't accepted and was struggling to fit in. He did his best to find an "appropriate" love, but when he couldn't, embarked on the training of a goshawk. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to and ended up losing his bird, Gos. 

Macdonald did not want to have a similar fate. Although she had more experience than White, there was always the possibility that Mabel would just fly away. Being in a very sensitive state, that is not something that she thought she could handle.

Helen Macdonald is a wonderful writer: it's hard to find flaws in her prose. Her accounts of White are written in an omniscient third-person narration that read the same as a narration of a novel. It is unique. Really good stuff.

H is for Hawk is an honest account of a terrible time in someone's life and of how they pick up the pieces. The author, thankfully, gives the reader a window into her mind when she was struggling and shows how she overcame it with a predatory bird on her fist.

I'm so glad I read this book and I recommend that everyone does the same: no matter what your general interest, I'm sure you'll be able to find something in it that captivates you. There's just so much to it--I can't say enough good things. 

Must-read. So go read it.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks

ISBN: 978-0-385-68284-8

I'm a city boy. Very much so, in fact. I never went to camp when I was younger, I've never been all that fond of going camping or anything of that nature. So when I received a copy of James Rebanks'
The Shepherd's Life, I really didn't know what to expect. I've actually never thought twice about what it takes to be a shepherd. To be honest, I never really cared. Thankfully, I was taught many years ago to try everything at least once. I guess the more appropriate adage here is "Never judge a book by its cover" (especially given that it is an ARC with no cover art.)

The Shepherd's Life is unique. Rebanks explains his day-to-day routines in great detail, blood and guts sometimes included. He takes you into England's Lake District: an area that because of its natural beauty (and because of famous residents like William Wordsworth,) is swarmed by guide-wielding tourists as well as sheep on its fells.

Rebanks does a wonderful job telling the reader about not only herding, shearing, lambing, shopping, feeding and showing, but about his personal life and influences. He makes it abundantly clear that he would not be the man he is today if not for the guidance of his grandfather and the support--and sometimes tough love--of his father.

Growing up, Rebanks was not a good student. He explains that he didn't care about most of the things being taught in school. His mind was on the farm and on the subject matter he decided to focus on with the books he read (voraciously.) And so he failed his GCSEs (thus never graduating from high school.) He describes his life with his friends in the pub as being similar to the movie Good Will Hunting. He had all the tools to be a scholar but was very rough around the edges. He was a shepherd, after all! His wits did not go unnoticed, though, and in his early twenties he was persuaded to retake the GCSE and apply to university: more specifically Oxford. Any guess how that turned out? If you have seen Good Will Hunting, you already know.

This book is not about overcoming obstacles, although there are some. It's not a feel good story either. Its real purpose is just to let the reader know what it's like to live as a shepherd on a farm: something that most folks take for granted. As much as I now appreciate the difficulty, the hard work, the beauty of it all, the best part of the book to me is Rebanks' writing. There is a certain poetic feeling about it. Maybe it's in the landscape and that's what influenced Wordsworth, but it is not something you would expect coming from a farmer and I don't think it is something that can be taught--even at Oxford. Here he is explaining the end of winter:

"These are the days that winter shows it is passing: the creeping out of the daylight each day, the warmth of the sun increasing, the bite of the wind easing, the grass greening. But the ravens honking above the fells speak of carrion from worn-out ewes and the fieldfares flashing out of the hedges are reminders that winter still holds the far North. Foxes steal withered-up moles from the barbed wire where the mole-catcher has left them, telling of the hunger that once would have tested men here as well as animals. The carrion crows still lord it over the valley, cawing from the tops of thorn bushes or trees. We know that without warning winter can grab hold of the land again."

He makes something as macabre as carrion seem beautiful as only a poet could.

The Shepherd's Life is something that every city slicker should read. Take time out of your daily grind to learn what it's like on a farm from someone who can write about it introspectively and beautifully. Not that a shepherd's life isn't a daily grind: it is hard work, but you already knew that. I just know what I meant, right?

You can also follow James Rebanks on Twitter (@herdyshepherd1). He posts lovely photos of his sheep and gives you a better idea of how pretty the Lake District is.

The Shepherd's Life will be available on April 7th.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

More good news!

After hearing about Random House's great time over at this blog, Penguin Canada decided to join the party! I don't mean to sound like a fanboy or anything. After all, I will be giving unbiased reviews of the books that are sent my way.

But it's nice to have some support. For that, I am supremely grateful.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Ice-Cream War by William Boyd

ISBN: 978-0-140-06571-8

I thoroughly regret not reading anything written by William Boyd before this book. I feel as though I've deprived myself of something very good for a very long time. Of course, I have no idea if his other books are as enjoyable as this one. I know that his most popular is A Good Man in Africa and I will surely read it in the near future. Sorry for the sidebar before even getting into An Ice-Cream War, I just had to let you folks know that I've made a boo-boo.

This book is a visual, harrowing, somewhat satirical look at the First World War on its most ignored front: colonial East Africa. I can assure you, and maybe it's because my history teachers weren't great (they were--influences on my life,) that I had never even wondered about the colonies when it comes to WWI before now. When you think of The Great War, you think of France and Belgium, right? I'm sure it's not just me. There were also some pretty gruesome battles in German East Africa (now Tanzania) and British East Africa (Kenya.) The problem, though, was that the major intelligence of both sides were waging war with one another in Europe leaving this part of Africa in the hands of the B-Team (maybe even C-Team.)

The novel's primary focus is on the Cobb brothers, Felix and Gabriel: two almost polar opposites. Felix is at Oxford and has a bit of a superiority complex. Gabriel is in the military, stationed in India, at home in Kent for his wedding to Charis. Gabriel is a large man, all brawn, no brains according to Felix. War breaks out during Gabriel's honeymoon in France just as the awkwardness in his emotional and sexual relationship is subsiding. He is to report to British East Africa.

Felix, meanwhile, has no interest in the War and gets avoids it due to his poor eyesight, much to the chagrin of his father, a retired Major who is very visibly losing his mind.

Unfortunately for Gabriel, he is wounded and captured shortly after his arrival. Being the good soldier that he is, he decides to learn German and become a spy from inside the infirmary, prolonging his stay by re-infecting his wounds with dirt as they heal.

Back home in England, a distraught Felix and an even more distraught Charis begin a love affair: the captive Gabriel being the tie that binds them together. I always find it interesting when this kind of thing happens. Loss is something that can be only really remedied when you can share it with someone somehow. At least that's what I think.

The other arc in the novel involves a conflict between an American and a German who were once neighbours. Temple Smith is a prototypical capitalist: he has a sisal farm and he wants to branch out into coffee. With the help of his Decorticator (capital D,) he is on his way to making loads of money in British East Africa, just over the border.When the war breaks out, his once friendly neighbour, Erich von Bishop, takes over his farm and home with the promise that he will be able to reclaim it once the war is over. Of course, the most important thing to Smith is that Bishop or anyone else doesn't steal his Decorticator. From this, a personal vendetta is born.

I highly recommend this book. It is enthralling, somewhat gruesome and darkly funny. Boyd's characters are believable, sad and sometimes bumbling fools (you'll meet Wheech-Browning early in the novel and face palm as he pops up throughout--think stodgy British Inspector Clouseau.)

Really, really good.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Good news!

I am pleased to announce that Random House of Canada has been gracious enough to send over some Advance Reading Copies for me to review. This is a pretty big deal for me and I plan on getting started on them after tomorrow's book.

No more digging in the archives for a while! Not that I didn't enjoy finding old gems, but I'm sure we can all agree that unreleased material is pretty important to have.

Until tomorrow, all!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

ISBN: 978-0-06-168757-0

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay wowed me when I read it. It was an interesting, genuine story that I felt was worthy of winning a major prize like the Pulitzer (it did--2001.) It was my introduction to Michael Chabon. I thought I had found a writer that I could rely on. Then I read Gentlemen of the Road and was thoroughly disappointed. In my opinion, it was boring.

But, because I loved Kav+Clay so much, I decided to give Chabon the benefit of the doubt and I bought this book. Unfortunately, I moved that week and it got lost in the shuffle (this was a good 6 years ago.)

I've since read and enjoyed Telegraph Avenue so I was excited when this one popped up. How couldn't I be: those are two quality books, right? GOTR was probably just an anomaly. 

No word of lie, I could barely get through the first 10 pages of this book. I must have had to reread it 3 times before finally trudging through.

Chabon was 24-years-old when he wrote this. It really seems like he is doing his best to impress. To say he comes off as pretentious is a bit generous. But, before you write this book off completely, let me just say that it does get better. Chabon does find a groove and is able to captivate as he is wont to do. But, geez, dude, where's the humility?

The book is your classic--if not unorthodox--coming-of-age story. Art Bechstein working at a bookstore after college, going about his days. His best friend Arthur had a best friend Cleveland and soon, they all become best friends. Art's father is a disapproving mobster (aren't they all?) whom Art is embarrassed of. Phlox is an acquaintance of Arthur's whom Art begins seeing casually before he falls in love with her. Cleveland is an alcoholic employed by the mob who is actually looking for trouble because nothing else in life gives him pleasure. 

Arthur happens to be gay and, early on, forecasts Art's venture into homosexuality after a thwarted come-on.

Art struggles with his sexuality, his life's purpose and his relationship with his father. It just seems more complicated for him than it does for everyone else. Don't get me wrong, I've had my fair share of issues. I guess they didn't all come and punch me in the face at the same time, though. Love is hard and life sucks (or vice versa,) we just hope that we can get by and we usually do, but that's because we aren't necessarily innondated with difficulties as is the protagonist's misfortune. 

It really seems like Chabon had to get over some jitters to write this book. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece by any means, but in the end, I liked it. I'd recommend it to anyone willing to put work in to get through the first couple of chapters. I'm more patient than I used to be--there's a chance I wouldn't have bothered with it a few years ago. Come to think of it, maybe I started it back before I moved. Whatever. I'm glad I read it and I'm glad Chabon continued working at his craft. He's good.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

ISBN: 978-0-345-80962-9

Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors. He has the ability to take you into a scenario that he has illustrated and keep you rapt until the last page. He does follow a formula, however: one that he has perfected in the years that he has been writing. He is as descriptive as any writer--you will never feel as thoigh you missed something. In fact, you feel as though you are standing alongside the protagonist. You root for them and think everything is going their way. And then something happens. Like the Kaiser Sose moment in The Usual Suspects but not necessarily as extreme. As a faithful reader, you wait for this inevitable twist and wonder how he is going to close out his story and tie everything together into a neat little package shortly thereafter.

The Children Act is not unlike McEwan's other books. In fact, fans of the writer need not be told who penned the book: after the first few pages of highly intelligent storytelling, it is evident that it is, in fact, a McEwan. This story follows judge Fiona Maye through her days acting as a moral compass in family court and her evenings at home where her marriage is falling apart. If she did not have enough on her plate as it was, she was also a talented pianist and performed with a colleague of hers regularly.

McEwan is a liberal and lends his viewpoints to Maye. She rules over controversial cases: most notably the splitting of conjoined twins to save one's life and end the other's and the case that comes to the forefront of the novel.

Adam Henry is a Jehovah's Witness approaching his 18th birthday. He has leukemia that can be treated but only after a blood transfusion--which is prohibited in his religion. As a minor, the choice to refuse the transfusion lies in the hands of his parents who decide that if it is God's will to take their son, so be it. The hospital, knowing very well that the boy's life will be saved with the transfusion, does not accept the decision and brings the matter into Fiona Maye's court.

After hearing both sides of the story from the doctors and Adam's parents, Fiona will only make her decision after hearing from the boy himself. 

Adam is very much aware of the choice that was made for him and does not second-guess it. He is mature and intelligent but his faith carries the most weight in his life, perhaps because he has never known anything else. Maye's admiration of Adam adds to the difficulty of her decision: although she went in thinking that she would rule in favour of the transfusion, it's hard for her to force her opinion against the religious views of this very rational kid who is nearing the age of consent.

I'm not down with spoilers so that's all you're getting from me. There is a twist, obviously. It isn't the best one McEwan has given us, but it is certainly worth reading, preachiness aside.

I liked it but if you want the goods, you should definitely check out Enduring Love, Atonement or Amsterdam. Actually, read all of them--you won't be disappointed. Unless you are expecting Kaiser Sose which, after some consideration, may not be the best example of McEwan's twists.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

ISBN: 978-0-14-305330-9

I remember sitting in a college English class a LONG time ago listening to my professor talk about the first known English novel: Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. He told us that because no one had ever read any fictional account before, people thought that the book was a travelogue. I had absolutely no interest in reading that book. I knew the basic premise already: man gets shipwrecked on island, happens upon local native he names Friday, tells us about his days, blah, blah, blah. Back then, I was stubborn. I didn't want to waste my time reading about real life (or in this case, what could be perceived as real life,) I had the newspaper and all of the classes I was taking for that. Now, at the ripe old age of 31, I see things differently. I don't mind learning a little while reading books; I don't have the same escapist mentality as I once did.

About 10 years ago, I read an article in The New Yorker about a British Conservative MP named Rory Stewart. The article was a profile of Stewart, from a prominent family, educated at Oxford. Like most well-to-do Scots, Stewart decided to walk across Asia. Pretty crazy thing to embark on, right? Especially when Afghanistan, just after the Taliban is expelled, is the last stop on your trip. The article mentioned the book he wrote about Afghanistan and I was immediately intrigued. I went out and bought the book and now, 10 years later, I've read it. I procrastinate, so what? Better late than never.

Upon embarking on his trek, Stewart decides that he is going to do it alone in the same footsteps as Babur, the great  Mughal Indian emperor of the 16th century. The journey begins in Herat and is set to end in Kabul. He began in January of 2002. I don't know if you realize how fresh the Taliban was at this point. They were ousted in November of 2001. That is a span of two months! One would have to imagine that as oppressive as they were, there were still some allegiances around the country and a British foreigner would not necessarily be welcomed with open arms.

Although he wished to travel on his own, he also had to have what where ostensibly letters of permission for travel to ensure his safety. He began by meeting with the then-governor of Herat, Ismail Khan and one of his officials. They granted him permission provided he would travel with several soldiers as escorts. Not wanting to insult the authority, he begrudgingly accepted (not that refusal was an option.)

He left with Qasim, Abdul Haq and Aziz. Qasim was a know-it-all who really didn't know much, Abdul Haq was a bit of a gun-toting maniac and Aziz, Qasim's cousin, was ill and not fit for travel, especially not by foot.

Stewart took everything with a grain of salt knowing that the soldiers would not continue with him past their governance. We see glimpses of his very dry sense of humour in his writing when describing Abdul Haq: "I was learning that Abdul Haq's rifle was his favorite possession, narrowly beating his hand grenades. I had watched him use it as a comic prop, a walking stick and a source of impromptu firework displays when he was bored."

After departing with Aziz, Qasim and finally Abdul Haq, he finds a new traveling partner in a mastiff he names Babur. Babur was a fighting dog and his ears and tail had been cut off. Dogs are seen as unclean animals and are not companions in Islam. They are mostly used in battles and for sport. Stewart is actually pleased about receiving Babur and plans to take him home to Scotland to give him a better life.

He projects a very light tone throughout the book which is interesting given its subject. He passes though villages filled with people who would never leave. They are extremely poor, have no education, and would never leave. The only thing that they know is Islam. Thanks to their customs, Stewart is welcomed as a traveller. 

Babur, however, is not. Stones are hurled at him, other dogs are sicked on him, but he remains loyal, if not a little reluctant, to his new master. While Stewart struggles through bouts of diarrhea and exhaustion, the old, creaky Babur gives him the motivation to continue.

It's a good read, chock full of history about a country and tribes that you will probably never learn about. I found Stewart to be likable for the most part. There were instances that I felt a small sense of entitlement when traveling in a strange land. It is definitely worth a go. So go do it.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

ISBN: 0-553-24777-8

So the edition of the book that I read is 144 pages long. It is not dense--language is not complex. For some reason, though, it has taken me an unacceptable length of time to get through it. I can't think of any reason other than it just couldn't hold my attention. 

There are no frills and that's fine. I've read novels narrated from the perspective of a blunt third person before. Hemingway, for example, was a master of this technique and I adore most everything that he has written. I don't need sprawling prose in every story I read as long as the content given is interesting.

I guess what I'm saying is I just didn't feel it.

The title of the book tells it all. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a prisoner in a Soviet labour camp in Siberia, wrongly convicted, of course, and this is how a day goes for him. It sucks. He's feeling a tad under the weather but doesn't want to risk getting thrown in the equivalent of The Hole for feigning illness just in case his fever goes down. So he goes about his day. He has to march out to a work site in the freezing cold with tattered clothes and boots with holes. And then he has to shingle a roof. Pretty sweet, right?

The highlights of his day include scoring an extra bowl of gruel and having enough money to buy some tobacco.

Although his day didn't seem pleasant in the least and he shouldn't have had to endure any of it to begin with, it could have been much worse. Has anyone seen Oz? He could have had a really bad day...

There is a lot of truth to this fictionalized account: Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in a camp. Maybe ODITLOIDs credence contributed to its high-regard and success.

Perhaps the novel was revolutionary or groundbreaking in 1963 (its first publication,) or maybe the quality is lost in translation.

Whatever it is, I just don't get it. 

Take that, 1960s!

Friday, January 23, 2015

This Is How We Do It

So I've set up the blog, named it--albeit with a mediocre title--now all that's left to do is read and review some books, right? Wrong, silly readers, how could you even think that? First I have to outline the format of the blog. Otherwise, you would all be lost with no idea how to read the jumble of words in front of you.

I'm kidding, of course, it's just a simple blog.

Title, author, ISBN, description and my thoughts. I'll end with whether or not I think it's worth reading.

And that's how it is going to get done. I promise to have the first book up very soon. For some reason, I'm having a tough time getting through it. Good start. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

I'm Ready

This is the one. Seriously, this is the blog that I was meant to write. After several failed attempts at blog stardom, I've finally found my niche. It's not sports, it isn't self-deprecation either. It's books.

You see, I've read a lot of goddamn books in my lifetime. It's the one "hobby" I've had since childhood that has actually stuck. So, given the probability of dementia in my later stages of life (genetics, dude, what can you do?) I'm going to chronicle the books I read from this day forward. All of the words I read (in book form) from now unto eternity will be reviewed and preserved, for your benefit and mine.

I won't quit this time. I'm making this happen.