Saturday, October 23, 2010

Deniro's Game - Rawi Hage

This is the story of two best friends: Bassam and George who are growing up during wartimes. "War is for thugs. Motorcycles are also for thugs, and for longhaired teenagers like us, with guns under our bellies and stolen gas in our tanks, and no particular place to go." p. 13 Life in Beruit seems chaotic, lawless and purposeless. Bombs rain down, people are killed -- whatever -- same old, same old. This seems to be the attitude of Bassam, the narrator of Deniro's Game.

George decides to find purpose for his life. He joins the neighbourhood militia and becomes a thug. This choice places a great strain on their friendship.

Although this novel was good and well written, I have no desire to read it again and little has stayed with me.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

the Darren Effect - Libby Creelman

This is a wonderful novel -- Not only are the characters complex and realistic but the plot as well.

Heather Welbourne is social worker who counsels people who are going through difficult times. She is also "the other woman" having an affair with Isabella's husband and Cooper's father, Benny Martin.

Benny is sick with cancer and dies. Those who have loved him: Heather, Isabella and Cooper, all deal with their grief in different ways.

Even before the cancer was diagnosed, Benny and Heather's relationship was taking its last breaths. Benny was unwilling to leave his family. Heather, deeply in love, wanted more. After the relationship finally ends, Heather discovers she is pregnant. Grieving the loss of the relationship as well as the loss of her lover, she is ambivalent about the child she is carrying.

While Benny is in the hospital, Isabella decides to move. While packing up Benny's things, she discovers pictures of him with another woman. This woman is not Heather but yet another of his dalliances. She is furious, feels betrayed, yet knows she cannot confront her dying husband. She too must deal with the loss of what she believed was their relationship as well as the loss of her husband.

Cooper (who in my opinion should have been a more rounded character) struggles in his own way with his father's death. Uprooted from his childhood home and adrift with an absent mother, he begins to act out.

So who is Darren? He is a man who loves birds. He gathers broken and dead birds from nearby beaches and takes care of them. He also interacts with Heather, Isabella and Cooper.

Libby Creeman is the author of an anthology of short stories, Walking in Paradise. The Darren Effect is her first novel and was published in 2008.

I look forward to seeing more from this novelist.

There is a really excellent analysis of this novel on the Canadian Notes and Queries website.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley

I didn't really expect to like this book.
I don't particularly like crime novels.
I didn't like the length of the title.
I thought the name of the protagonist was contrived.
I figured a Canadian male writer would be unable to generate the voice of an eleven year old British girl.

Good thing I didn't listen to myself and leave this book on the library shelf.

In fact, I will most likely pick up his other even longer titled novel, The String that Ties the Hangman's Bag another Flavia de Luce crime novel.

Why you might ask? Am I back for a second helping of Corey Redekop's Critical Monkey Contest? -- NOT.

I actually liked this book. I liked Flavia and her hated her sisters. I found the story complex and intriguing. It was fun to watch Flavia sort out all the intricacies of this mystery.

The Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway

The Cellist of Sarajevo will rip your heart right out of your chest.

It is brutal.

It seems every page echos the melancholic voice of a cello.

Following a mortar attack that killed his neighbours, a cellist makes a courageous decision. " four o'clock in the afternoon, twenty-four hours after the mortar fell on his friends and neighbours while they waited to buy bread, he will bend down and pick up his bow. He will carry his cello and stool down the narrow flight of stairs to the empty street. The war will go on around him as he sits in the small crater left at the mortar's point of impact. He'll play Albinoni's Adagio. He'll do this every day for twenty-two days, a day for each person killed. Or at least he'll try. He won't be sure he will survive. He won't be sure he has enough Adagio's left." p. 5

His labour of love becomes inspiration to many who treasure the beauty that his art can bring to their hellish existence during the war. As such, he becomes the target of the "men on the hills with guns and bombs" p. 33.

This novel is not a philosophical discussion about the morality of war. It is about trying to survive: physically -- to find food and water, and spiritually -- to find hope and beauty while dodging bullets and bombs.

The stories of Arrow, Kenan and Dragan remind us of just how great life is in our fortunate country that has never experienced war up close and personal.

The Ape House - Sara Gruen

Having loved Water for Elephants, I expected to like this book even after reading a being moderately disappointed by Riding Lessons, Sara Gruen's debut novel.
I thought that this would be about apes -- and in a way it was.

Surprisingly, it was also about relationships and what defines family -- mutual respect, caring, fidelity -- not blood ties nor even commonality of species. Also, unexpectedly this novel was also about exploitation and human moral bankruptcy.

Gruen is a master craftsman. In order to communicate the idea that apes are sentient beings she draws parallels between Isabel and the apes and John and Amanda. As Isabel is separated from the apes, John is separated from Amanda. Although their relationships with each other were good, the separation teaches them to value each other more, to treasure each other for their unique qualities.

Gruen also touches on the theme of reality television. Amanda would like to write scripts but is unable to earn a living because reality television costs much less to produce. It exploits the participants. "Networks used to produce a dozen dramas or comedies, hoping one might take. Now they produce a couple and fill up the rest of the time slots with stupid shows about stupid people apparently trying to find true love by having sex in a hot tub with a different person every night while the cameras roll." p. 32 Once again Gruen draws parallels with the apes who end up living in a house equipped with cameras recording and broadcasting their natural sexual promiscuity rather than highlighting their ability to communicate and make cognisant decisions.

Finally, Gruen addresses the use of animals in research. Isabel becomes a victim of extremists who denounce experiments on apes and mistakenly bomb her research facility. Sounds like Gruen is saying that animal research is fine. Wrong. She distinguishes between cruel experimentation and sensitive scientific inquiry.

In this novel, humans are morally inferior to apes. We undervalue our relationships, exploit each other's stupidity and take advantage of those who cannot defend themselves. Yeah us!

I Still have a Suitcase in Berlin - Stephens Gerard Malone

I absolutely loved this book!

At the beginning of the novel, we travel with the protagonist to Germany just before the start of WWII. Although Michael Renner doesn't want to comply with his father's demand that he go to Berlin to ensure that his grandmother is not being exploited by her neighbour, he complies.

Michael is young. He doesn't really know much about life nor about himself. It is his first time traveling and while seriously seasick on the ship, he is forced to quickly learn how to deal with strangers and new situations. He is also ignorant of his German heritage. He knows nothing of Berlin nor of his extended family living there. Further, he also doesn't seem to know what is happening around him in Germany. He unwittingly is politically blind, unaware of the discrimination against the Jews, the homosexuals, and all deemed "deviant" or "enemies" of the State.

What I really really liked about this book is its fresh approach.

This is not a typical Holocaust novel. It is somewhat reminiscent of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak in that the protagonist is simply living his own life and minding his own business while the world around him is changing. He seems blissfully unconcerned by the plight of the less fortunate. Thanks to his grandmother, he has enough money, is meeting friends, partying, discovering his sexuality, simply living. Eventually the realities of his situation catch up with him. He is forced to endure unimaginable brutalities and to cope in ways he never thought possible. Although I am not homosexual, I could easily relate to Michael. He is very naive. He simply wants to live and be loved. He is human. He makes mistakes. He is flawed.

Another thing I liked about this novel is the realistic description of Berlin just before WWII. Although I am not a big fan of gratuitous descriptive passages, there is just the right amount of fine relevant historical detail that the pages came alive as I read. Simply amazing!

Would I recommend this book? Most definitely!

Friday, October 8, 2010

End of Days - Max Turner

This novel is a lot of fun!

It is the sequel to Night Runner, which was an OLA Red Maple Award Honour Book and Shortlisted for the Sunburst Award.

Last year I reviewed Night Runner and said, "I like this novel because it has twists and turns, great characters and wry humour. While the protagonist is a vampire, this novel deals more with secrets and life choices than it does with vampire angst. More than just a page turner, you will be drawn to the lovable, realistic, multifaceted characters and their weird, humorous reflections as they deal with life's challenges. "

If you have read this far you are probably thinking, OMG another vampire book for teenage girls. You would be wrong. While this is yet another vampire book, it wasn't inspired by the Twilight craze but rather by the desire to whet the appetite of young male readers. Although I am not the target demographic, this novel captured my interest mostly because it is not a star-crossed romance. This is the story of a young boy who, through no fault of his own, is forced to adapt -- to accept his body for what it is, to solve mysteries, cryptic prophecies, deal with dangerous creatures and navigate the tangled and messy interpersonal relationships that are integral to adolescence. This novel appeals directly to all young people and specifically to boys who face similar challenges (-- body image, mysteries of life, confusing female communication, dealing with dangerous creatures of the opposite sex, and learning to handle new relationships). The End of Days begins with,

"I'm told vampires are popular in books these days. I'm not surprised. The perks of infection are pretty sick. Awesome physical power. Highly tuned senses. The ability to recover from almost any injury. Good dental hygiene. A simple diet. And that immortality thing -- very impressive on a resume." p.1

This is clearly a male voice -- it does not deal with affairs of the heart rather with the physical aspects of being a vampire and all the challenges associated with that destiny. Zach, the protagonist, wonders,

"My head was full of questions. 'Am I that messiah?'...'So what do I do? Who can I trust? This thing, this Beast, it seems unstoppable. And the Coven wants me dead, me and my friends. They've already sent one vampire. Mr. Entwistle thinks they'll send an army of them once they stop fighting one another.'" p. 132-133.

In addition to being a exciting fast-paced page-turner End of Days is also a clever, humorous and insightful novel. Here is an excerpt of a pursuit of a hairy wolf like creature.

"The door frame buckled under Mr. Entwistle's boot. Pieces of cinder block scattered as the housing for the deadbolt tore loose from the wall.

'Well, there goes the element of surprise,' Charlie muttered.

The old vampire laughed. 'The way you two breathe, he could hear you through six feet of concrete.' He stuck his head in the doorway. 'Honey, I'm home...' His voice was remarkably steady....

'Well, let's see what Old Yeller was up to.' Mr. Entwistle moved carefully into the room". p. 228

While details draw the reader into the chase, the pervasive humour remains just as entertaining. As well, all the characters and especially Zack take things in stride with a realistic and pragmatic approach. At the beginning of the next chapter, he reflects,

"Hope is a funny thing. It can be totally unreasonable-- bone dumb, in fact -- and a part of it still clings to your brain. I remember as a kid hoping to find a lightsaber in my Christmas stocking, and after reading my first Marvel Tales comic, hoping that I might get bitten by a radioactive bug and receive the full range of superpowers you'd expect from such a miracle. You can bet all that hope came to nothing. But other times hope is dead on. Like when you hope the winter will soon be over and it's already late April. That's the kind of hope you want to have. It's less disappointing." p. 234

Peppered with thoughtful introspection, this novel invites the reader to relate to its characters, to believe that all of today's challenges can be overcome with determination and sense of humour.

Just another vampire novel? Not really -- more like a novel about hope, about growing up, about bravely meeting challenges face on and winning.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Riding Lessons - Sara Gruen

This is the story of Annemarie Zimmer. At 18 years of age, she was a world class rider, who suffered a very serious fall from her much loved horse, Harry. This was no ordinary horse. It was a rare white striped gelding. Unfortunately, as a result of this tragic accident, Harry must be destroyed and Annemarie refuses to return to riding.

The novel begins twenty years after this incident. She has returned to her childhood home, a horse farm which is on the brink of bankruptcy. She has lost her job, her father is gravely ill, and her daughter is going through teenage growing pains. Sara Gruen is a masterful writer. She takes what could on the surface appear to be soap-operatic and weaves a realistic and touching story. She seems to have a natural ability to create images which are tightly tied to character.

"The scene is pure bucolic perfection: the horses, fat and dappled, grazing in an expanse of pasture against a backdrop of indigo sky. A breeze rustles lightly through the surrounding maples, their leaves parted occasionally by the darting streak of birds. The sky, bright and blue and full of the noise of cicadas, crickets, sparrows, finches, and a single Carolina chickadee. I can relate to that chickadee. I, too, should have taken a left turn at Albuquerque.
It may look perfect, but I know the truth. Just beneath the surface, as tangible as the wood under my arms, is a pain as relentless as a toothache." p. 293

Although it has been over thirty years that I have crawled onto a horse's back, and although I have never lived on a farm, I loved this novel and look forward to reading Flying Changes which continues Annemarie Zimmer's story.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Annabel - Kathleen Winter

I received this book from librarything last July but allowed myself some light reading over the summer, thus creating the delay in this review.

Annabel reminded me of Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides.
"It was as the baby latched on to Jacinda's breast that Thomasina caught sight of something slight, flower-like; one testicle had not descended, but there was something else. She waited the eternal instant that women wait when a horror jumps out at them...As she adjusted the blanket she quietly moved the one little testicle and saw that the baby also had labia and a vagina...Then she said, "I'm going to ask the others to leave, if it's alright with you. We have something to talk about." p. 15,16

However, it is very different in many significant ways. First, Kathleen Winter has set her novel in Croyden Harbour on the southeast coast of Labrador. I have never been to Croyden Harbour, Labrador but imagine it to be an isolated, barren, windswept, desolate corner of Canada -- as opposite as possible from Canada's bustling metropolises of Toronto or Vancouver. A place where close knit communities are capable of survival despite Mother Nature's efforts, a place where everyone knows everyone's business, a place where the banality of life is a constant. The birth of a hermaphrodite in this community would have been a surprise -- had anyone but Thomasina and the parents known. The secrecy that surrounds Wayne/Annabel's birth implies the necessity of shame...something that needs to be hidden because it is somehow wrong.

I also found that Winters focuses her novel on the parents more than the child. After communing with nature, Treadway, the father, decides that they will name this child Wayne and raise him as a boy. The mother, Jacinta acquiesces but in her heart is unsure of this choice. She also regrets the decision to hide the child's condition. "She wished she had told all her friends, the day Wayne was born, that he had been born a hermaphrodite. She wished she had not locked the secret inside her, where it clamoured to get out. Treadway would just have to deal with it...This is my problem, Jacinta thought. I am dishonest. I never tell the truth about anything important. As a result, there is an ocean inside me of unexpressed truth. My face is a mask, and I have murdered my own daughter. p. 142 "But was there a place where she could live with truth instead of lies? Truth or Consequences was another TV show. She could relate to that title. You told the truth or you lived with consequences like these. If you held back truth you couldn't win. You swallowed truth and it went sour in your belly and poisoned you slowly." p. 151 Jacinte's life is full of regret and uncertainty. Treadway, for his part, is similarly tormented and confused. "Wayne had never been able to love the dog Treadway brought home the day he dismantled the Ponte Vecchio. He wanted to love the dog but couldn't, and he blamed his father...Wayne had a dog he could not love though he wanted to love it, and Treadway had a son he could not love though he wanted a son and he wanted to love that son. Father and son suffered from backed up, frozen love, and this ate Jacinta's heart." p. 239

Finally, I found that Winters' treatment of Wayne/Annabel's perspective was typically Canadian: nuanced and sensitive. She understates Wayne/Annabel's confusion which I believe is very realistic. I don't think that people navel-gaze as much as depicted by many authors. In the novel, Wayne/Annabel grapples with his/her sexual identity but also grapples with his day to day existence, his relationships, his future. As an infant, Wayne/Annabel had been taken to a hospital in St. Johns for treatment. Throughout his childhood, he is given pills which cause his/her body to grow into a masculine form. As a young man/woman, he must decide for himself whether or not to continue this course of treatment.

What I found most interesting is the idea that life is simpler if everyone is the same, if we don't have to make our own decisions, if we don't have to tread where no one has dared to tread, if we can simply follow the norm. If there is no norm to follow, life gets murky, certainty becomes uncertain, choices are scrutinized, often regretted and painful.

Annabel is not simply a story about a hermaphrodite growing up in Labrador. It is an examination of the sentient human condition -- where choices are consciously made and consequences are clearly felt.