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.