Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Run Charlie Run by John Wiber

Charlie Mahon is an a-hole. When not getting smashed (as in completely, utterly, mind-boggling drunk), he treats his girlfriend Natasha like garbage, abuses drugs, and is selfish beyond belief.

He is also a student at the University of Ottawa, which to this Carleton University graduate may be the worst trait of all.

But I digress.

Horrible, horrible Charlie is the anti-hero in the new, self-published debut E-novel Run Charlie Run by Ottawa writer John Wiber (see Kobo and Amazon links).  A recent English graduate from the University of Ottawa, Wiber’s book explores the dark side of Canada's national capital, while painting an unflattering portrait of the book’s protagonist.

At present, the book is available electronically for about $1, which is less than most cups of coffee, although Wiber does plan to release an audio version on iTunes by the end of the year.

The book’s plot focuses on a crime ring that operates in a run-down (some would say evil) house on Percy Street. Wiber’s creepy description of this operation is so realistic, I don’t think I will ever be able to stroll down Percy again without thinking of this novel.

Readers who find the terrible crimes portrayed to be unrealistic, only have to skim the recent coverage of criminal trials in the city to see that horrible crimes do occur in Ottawa.

With that in mind, I found the story to be quite captivating overall, even if the writing is uneven at times.  Furthermore, if I were to level one criticism, it is that the story takes too long to get to the main plot that is pretty good, albeit quite disturbing. In my view, too many chapters are spent focusing on Charlie’s imbecile behaviour, before turning to the meat of the story which, if you enjoy horror or dark fiction, is a page turner.

Looking forward, Wiber tells me that he is currently working on two novels that he hopes to publish, one of which is a sequel to Run Charlie Run. Based on what I read in the first book, I look forward to reviewing his second literary release.

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Shooting the Bruce by Clive Doucet

Shooting the Bruce tells the story of Tom Travis, a Canadian soldier who served as a peacekeeper in several countries.  When he is stationed in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the brutal war that took place there in the 1990s he has a mental breakdown. After witnessing the most violent war in Europe since World War Two, he wakes up one day and can no longer recognize himself in the mirror.

Suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, Travis leaves the army for a civilian life. Unfortunately, his mental struggles continue to haunt him and he breaks up with his fiance. Alone, unemployed and unsure where to live, he eventually settles in the fictitious small town of Wemje, Ontario, in Bruce County, where he establishes a wildlife photography business and begins the process of psychological healing.

The ensuing novel focuses on how people reinvent themselves. In regard to Travis, this can be seen in the play on the verb “to shoot,” where he goes from a world where he routinely fires guns, to a tranquil rural setting where he shoots photographs of wildlife.

He is not the only character, however, who is changing or searching for meaning. There is Hannah Eaglesmith, the reporter for the local newspaper the Wemje Advocate, who is moving on from a failed marriage, while doing everything she can to teach her children about their aboriginal roots.

Then there is the young son of the owner of the Wemje Advocate, who first meets Travis while sports shooting, but then starts changing his views on nature after accompanying Travis on awe inspiring trips to photograph eagles. In fact, this questioning of hunters who kill animals for pure sport is a recurring theme in the book, as Travis, the former soldier who is traumatized by war, criticizes rural sportsmen who kill for pleasure.

Overall, this is a very well-written book that recounts a beautiful story about healing and rediscovery.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Poisoned Pawn by Peggy Blair

The Poisoned Pawn, which was released this past February, is the sequel to Peggy Blair's excellent debut novel The Beggar's Opera.

The sequel continues the highly complex plot from the first book, which encompasses Canada-Cuba relations, an international criminal ring with links to the Vatican, and difficult images from the streets of Ottawa that local residents often ignore.

While continuing with the wonderful characters from the first book, notably  Inspector Ramirez and the brilliant pathologist Hector Apiro, who suffers from dwarfism, the sequel introduces a new set of characters, such as Charlie Pike, an aboriginal police officer who started as a beat cop on the streets of Winnipeg and who escorts Ramirez during his trip to Canada. (The first book takes place in Havana, the second in Ottawa). 

As a resident of Ottawa, I thoroughly enjoyed reading a mystery set in my home city.  Truth be told, however, I would have loved this book regardless of where I lived, for this novel will appeal to mystery fans around the world.  So if you are not familiar with Blair's work, do yourself a favour and go out and read her two books.

4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Beggar's Opera by Peggy Blair

Ricardo Ramirez, the police inspector in charge of the Havana Major Crimes Unit, sees dead people. Yet again, his ability to interact with the ghosts of murdered victims may be a mental disease, perhaps even the same one that killed his grandmother.

A Canadian police officer from Ottawa, meanwhile, is arrested for the rape and murder of a young boy while vacationing in Havana. From this captivating beginning, Peggy Blair opens her debut novel The Beggar’s Opera, which tells the story of arguably Cuba’s greatest fictional police inspector.

The idea for the books stem from a trip that Blair took to Havana in December 2006 with her daughter. Having just left a 30-year legal career, which included working in the heart wrenching residential school process, she was in a period of transition. After her daughter encouraged her to do something active she started to write.

Moved by her daughter’s words, as well as her trip to Old Havana in Christmas of 2006, Blair came up with the idea of writing a mystery set in Cuba. The result is a wonderful literary efforts with unforgettable characters. There is Inspector Ramirez, a first-class detective who sees the ghosts of murdered people. In addition to solving crimes, he has to deal with the shortages facing Cuba, such as the lack of fuel for police vehicles.

Then there is Hector Apiro, a brilliant pathologist and one of Cuba’s top plastic surgeons who suffers from dwarfism. His small physical stature hides his genius mind and deep compassion. All in all this is wonderful mystery novel that is well worth the read.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Ru by Kim Thúy

It’s fashionable in some circles to argue that the novel is a dying art form.  According to this group – which includes, ironically, published fiction writers – novels no longer have the power to move society, nor do they offer much space for new forms of artistic creativity.

In her remarkable debut novel Ru, Saigon born but now Montreal-based writer Kim Thúy clearly demonstrates that the reports on the death of the novel have been greatly exaggerated.

In a beautifully written, poetic story, she tells the tale of a Vietnamese woman who grows up in a rich household, before fleeing Vietnam following the Communist victory in the mid-1970s in her country’s long civil war. First landing in a Malaysian refugee camp and then moving to Quebec, the woman’s story is a moving account full of love and horror, beauty and pain, which manages to constantly celebrate the wonder of life.

Besides the touching narrative, what is truly remarkable about Ru is its format. Rather than using a conventional prose style, the story is told in a serious of poetic vignettes, which are akin to skimming through a literary album of photographs.

The best way I can describe this novel is to compare it to pointillism, the painting technique that uses distinct dots to create images. Thúy’s observations are contained in short passages of one to three pages long, (literary “dots” so to speak), which when combined produce a remarkably fluid tale.

Originally published in French in 2010, Ru won the 2010 Governor General’s Award for French language fiction, in addition to other international prizes. Translated into English in 2012, the book was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. While it is a quick read, (I finished it in about three hours), the book’s 141 pages contain a lot of emotion, insight and characters. A remarkable work which shows that the novel can still be a brilliant art form.

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 31, 2013

Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician by Daniel Wallace

This novel left me deflated.  The build up was fantastic, (the first 80 per cent of the book is brilliant), but when the end came I shrugged my shoulders and said, "that's it?"  It was as if author Daniel Wallace run out of steam and was not able to provide the appropriate punchline to this otherwise excellent story.

The novel tells the tale of Henry Walker, a magician who used to be famous around the world, but who is now reduced to joining the B-list Musgrove's Chinese Circus as a bumbling Negro Magician. One night in Mississippi in 1954 he disappears after three white teenagers carry him off.  He is never seen again.

The narrative style is intriguing, as the narration switches from character to character.  This technique, which I enjoyed very much, gave the impression that we were discovering a truth that was not known to any single person, but which collectively could be deduced.

Unfortunately, I found that the story run out of steam at the end.  What had been an excellent book for the most part, became a tale that appeared to scramble as it searched for an ending.  This is too bad, because this could have been a wonderful novel.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

I was disappointed by this novel.  Prior to reading to this book I came across positive reviews.  I was therefore really looking forward to reading it; unfortunately, the book did not live up to its billing.

The story focuses on a middle-aged man named David Lamb who is dealing with a divorce and his father's death.  During this difficult time, he befriends an 11-year-old girl named Tommie.  After concluding that he can save her from an empty life, they take a road trip from Chicago to the Rockies without Tommie's family knowing.

The story tackles various issues, including whether an adult and child can treat each other as equal friends.  On paper this is an intriguing concept. The fact that author Bonnie Nadzan can write is also encouraging.  For instance, consider this passage:
Let's say there were none of those truss towers of galvanized steel lining the highway this next day. No telephone poles. No wires. Say that Lamb's truck and the highway were the only relics of the actual world. The road was overcome with native grasses and aromatic flowers, with wild onion and pussytoes. Soft gaping mouths of beardtongue, and mountain lover, and buckbush and drowsy purpose heads of virgin's bower. Say it was like this that they crossed the Midwestern line beyond which the sky spreads itself open -- suddenly boundless, suddenly an awful blue.
At its best this novel contains beautiful prose.  Unfortunately, Nadzam comes across as an author who has a great idea for a book and can't wait to implement her plot, even if it means sacrificing the story's pace,  tone and settings.  This eagerness also results in wooden characters and scenes that serve as mere plot robots.  Tommie could have been an interesting character, but instead she comes across as an afterthought, whose only purpose is to raise the question, "can an adult and child be friends?"  Ditto for David Lamb.

My overall impression of this novel is that the author sacrificed many elements of the book for the sake of a plot line. This is too bad, because this story is a great idea that would have been excellent if accompanied by interesting characters.

2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

Nancy Richler is a fantastic writer and is a joy to read.  Her latest novel The Imposter Bride is a beautifully written story that focuses on a heartbreaking mother and daughter relationship (or better put, lack thereof).  The story begins with a mysterious European woman who arrives in Montreal from Palestine just after World War Two.  Set to marry Sol, a man who she has never met, she is told on arrival by her husband-to-be that he no longer wishes to marry her.  Amidst this rejection, it becomes clear that the enigmatic woman is not who she says she is, and that she has stolen the identity of a dead woman back in Europe.

Despite this, Sol’s brother Nathan asks the enigmatic woman if she would be his wife, and after she says yes the couple gets married. They soon have a girl named Ruth, and settle into a domestic life in Montreal.  The woman’s painful past, however, is something that she cannot escape.  One day she disappears, leaving her baby girl with her father and family.  The reader is left with only questions.  Who is this woman?  Where did she go?  Why did she steal the identity of a dead woman?  And most importantly, at least for Ruth who is now a little girl, why did her mother abandoned her, only to suddenly start sending her strange rocks from different regions in Canada?

Richler’s writing is excellent.  To give you a sense of her skill, consider the following passage in Ruth’s voice as she observed a teacher at school:

I was twelve before I saw an adult cry. I’d seen adult eyes fill with tears before then, the time Elka was wearing a brand-new black dress when Sol came home from work, for example, and he looked at her and said, ‘What’s that?’ But if Elka’s tears spilled over into crying when she fled the kitchen that day (Sol hot on her heels, apologizing) I didn’t see that. Nor did I see anything but moistness in my father’s eyes when Old Yeller died or when the dreaded doctor’s call came for Bella and the news turned out to be good. When the adults in my life cried they did it behind closed doors. Until Mr. C, my sixth grade teacher, who handed out a quiz one November afternoon, then stood by the window with tears running down his cheeks.

The emotion that best describes this book is beautiful sadness.  While filled with loss and heartache, this chronicle of a young girl’s search for her mother is told in a very moving way. It is therefore no surprise that the book was a shortlisted nominee for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.  Equally, I nodded my head in agreement when I learned that her first novel Throwaway Angels was shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, while her second book Your Mouth Is Lovely won the 2003 Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction and the 2004 Adei Wizo Award.  After being very impressed with her most recent book I plan to read her first two works.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, March 2, 2013

In High Places by Harry Turtledove

This is the third book in the six-volume Crosstime Traffic science-fiction series for young adults.  Set in the late 21st century, the series revolves around a company called Crosstime Traffic, which has discovered the ability to travel to alternate earth's that have experienced different histories.  For instance, in some alternate timelines Germany has won World War I, the United States never came to be, the Soviet Union triumphed in the Cold War or the Roman Empire never existed.  The role of Crosstime Traffic employees is to travel to these alternate worlds to engage in trade, while pretending to be from the world that they are visiting.

Each novel in the series is a standalone story with unique characters and plot lines.  It is therefore not necessary to read the series sequentially, as the books only share the general context that lies behind each story.  As such, I did not read this collection in order, but rather jumped around from book to book (see previous reviews here, here, here and here).  Overall, I found the series to be mixed, with some books being good and others so-so.

Fortunately, this novel is the best of the five books that I have read to date. The story takes place in an alternate world where 80 per cent of Europe's population was killed by the Black Death, the industrial revolution never took place, slavery is widely accepted, and Spain and southern France are occupied by Muslims.  It also has a different form of Christianity, in which a second son of God named Henri who came after Jesus is worshipped.

The books sets up an intriguing story when a Crosstime Traffic employee is captured by bandits and then sold into slavery.  To her surprise, her new masters turn out to be rogue Crosstime employees who are running an illegal slave operation in another alternate world, and who are unaware that one of their slaves works for Crosstime.  This clever story captured my imagination, as did the book's intelligent discussion on the relationship between Christianity, Islam and Judaism.  In short, an excellent  book that is worth reading.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

This book disappointed me. The potential for this literary work was so immense, the writing of such high quality, and the explored themes so profound, that this novel could have been a masterpiece. Unfortunately, due to a major, major screw up, what should have been a brilliant work turned out to be a significant disappointment.

The story revolves around Paul Rayment, a sixty-something man originally from France who lives in Adelaide, Australia. An avid cyclist, the book opens with an accident in which a car crashes into Rayment's bicycle, resulting in the amputation of one of his legs. Depressed by his new found handicap, he hires a serious of nurses, none of which he likes. On the verge of giving up hope, he hires a  Croatian expatriate named Marijana Jokic, who is married and has three children.

Rayment soon falls in love with his new nurse, and begins to get involved with her children in an attempt to get closer to her. If the book had stuck with this plot, and had had the discipline to develop a storyline from this pretty impressive foundation, this novel would have been excellent. The relationship between Rayment and his nurse is sufficient to touch on big themes: the trauma of losing a limb and dealing with old age; the common immigrant experience; the moral dilemmas of falling in love with a married woman; and the morality of interfering with her children. In addition to this great material, the book contains absolutely fantastic writing. In fact, after reading this book, it become clear to me why Coatzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Unfortunately -- and I cannot stress this enough -- the novel suffers from a huge flaw. About a third of the way, a character named Elizabeth Costello barges onto the scene. An ageing Australian writer, Ms. Costello simply appears on Rayment's doorstep, full of knowledge of the lives of the various characters, and overflowing with advice. The appearance of this personality comes completely out of the blue, is never fully explained, and is incredibly jarring. What was up to then a very realistic and moving story, is suddenly turned on its head by a fantastic persona. This completely random character ruined the book for me. It was as if one was watching an intelligent documentary on the Second World War, when all of a sudden a pink unicorn flashed onto the screen.

It is obvious that Coatzee is a superb writer and I plan to read his other books. That being said, the introduction of this confusing character ruined what was otherwise a brilliant novel. If one is kind one can say that this faux pas was simply a poor choice in literary judgement; if one is feeling a bit harsher, one can say that Coatzee took the easy way out in his attempt to resolve the plot lines that he originally set up.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

This novel for young adults is a wonderful and highly original story. Set in the seaport village of Kinvara, Ireland, it revolves around the Liddy family who have been musicians for generations.  Fifteen-year-old J.J. is no different from the other members of his family, as his impressive fiddle skill make him a integral part of the family's regular ceili, i.e. musical gatherings and dances.

When a friend says that J.J.'s great-grandfather killed a local priest years ago, however, he begins to wonder what the true story of his family's history. To complicate matters farther, time seems to be moving at an every faster pace, causing the entire village to wonder what is going on. This dual search for the truth behind his ancestor, as well as to discover why time is moving faster, leads J.J. to Tir na n'Og, the land of eternal youth where fairies and leprechauns live. It is here where he finds the true story of his family, what this causing time to speed up in his village and the rest of the world, and also who the new policeman on the local force is, whose true identity is only revealed at the end of the book.

This charming novel won the Whitbreak Children's Book Award, the Guardian's Children's Fiction Prize, and the inaugural Irish BA Award for Children's Book. The awards are well-deserved, as author Kate Thompson has written a great story that immerses the reader in the beautiful world of Irish folk music. A fiddle player herself, Thompson includes a different piece of sheet music for an Irish folk tune at the send of each section. The result is that music is literally flowing from within the pages of this joyful story.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver

This is the first book in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, which takes place 6,000 years ago in the woods of pre-agricultural Europe. The story revolves around a 12-year-old boy named Torak, who grew up in the forest with his father, isolated from the various clans. Unbeknown to the young boy, he is a special child, as demonstrated by his ability to communicate with wolves.

At the beginning of the novel Torak's father is attacked by a bear possessed by a demon. Following a vicious fight, the mortally wounded father makes his young son swear that he will find the Mountain of the World Spirit, and ask it to kill the bear before it destroys all life in the forest. The subsequent death of his dad sets in motion an adventure that takes Torak through the forest and towards the magical mountain. In the process, he befriends a wolf who accompanies him on his journey, discovers the secret of who he is, comes into contact with other tribes, learns about an ancient prophecy and fights the demon bear.

This is an enjoyable adventure that will capture the imagination of children and adult alike. To properly describe the feeling of living in the woods during the Neolithic era, author Michelle Paver travelled in the forests of Finland, as well as going to a wolf reserve. This research is clearly evident in the interactions between Torak and his wolf "brother", as the scenes comes across as very realistic. While this book is not among the best children's novels that I have read, it is still quite good, and I plan to read the other volumes in the series.

3 1/2 stars out of 5

Friday, February 8, 2013

Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

This book is the first volume of the WWW trilogy by the excellent Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer. (Note: If you are like me and sometimes read a book series out of order, then you can link here for my review of Wonder, which is the final installment in this series).

Like in his previous novels, this book is based on a fascinating set of ideas. At its core, this story asks the following question, "How does consciousness arise, and is it possible that such an awakening could occur within the World Wide Web?" To answer this question, the novel focuses on Caitlin Decter, a blind teenage girl who is originally from Austin, Texas, but whose family moves to Waterloo, Ontario after her father receives a job offer at the Perimeter Institute. After being contacted by a Japanese scientific researcher who wants to see if he can cure her blindness, she travels to Japan where she undergoes an experimental operation in which a signal processing device is inserted behind her left eyeball. This device, dubbed an "eyePod" by Caitlin, sends visual data back to a computer, which then reprocesses the images and transmits it back to the signalling device.

At first, the operation seems to have failed, until Caitlin is able to "see" images of the World Wide Web as a result of the interaction between her "eyePod" and the computer back in the Japanese lab. Following this breakthrough, she slowly gains her sight and begins to see the real world. This sense of awakening is a metaphor that is discussed in different ways throughout the book. Among the ideas that are mentioned are:

  • The groundbreaking book by Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which postulates that human consciousness changed about 3,000 years ago. In the this lengthy tome, Jaynes argues that the minds of ancient humans were split in two, i.e. a bicameral mind, that was divided into a speaking part and a listening part. This book theorizes that the bicameral mind disappeared about 1,000 B.C. when the two parts of the human mind merged, i.e. the breakdown of the bicameral mind. 
  • The story of Helen Keller (1880-1968), a deaf-and-blind person who learned to communicate, eventually earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. Sawyer user her story to draw a contrast between the "phantom" Keller, i.e. the unconscious entity that existed before she was aware of the outside world and could communicate, and the awakened woman who became conscious of the world. This metaphor is used to describe the awakening of a conscious entity from within the world wide web.
  • A chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid called Hobo, which is a character in the book and which begins to draw art and become self-aware.

All of these ideas set the stage for the main plot, which revolves around an entity that emerges within the world wide web, and whose interactions with Caitlin make it self-aware, eventually leading to consciousness.

Like other Sawyer books this novel is overfilling with ideas. While the writing is OK, (the ideas are much more important than narrative flow), the characters and pace were interesting enough to grab my attention through the entire novel. While Sawyer sometimes focuses his energy on the science part of science fiction, while paying less attention to the fiction part, this book is a good one from a literary perspective.

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Carnival by Rawi Hage

This is a difficult book to review. If you are a reader who enjoys experimental literature, then this novel will likely appeal to you, if not seem right-down brilliant. For those who don't have patience for unconventional prose, however, and who are not impressed when an author foregoes a structured story, then chances are that you will find this work a waste of time. To use an analogy, this book is like abstract expressionism, i.e. fans can make a valid case for why it's high art, while detractors can make an equally strong case for why monkeys could make better art.

This novel does not have a plot per se, but rather a context with recurring characters. Set in an unspecified city in the Americas that has a carnival, the book revolves around a taxi driver named Fly.  Raised in a circus, (his mother was a trapeze artist and his father a "man from the East" whose piloted a flying carpet), Fly was raised by a bearded woman after his dad disappeared and his mother subsequently hung herself. After leaving the circus, he travelled to the Americas where he ended up working as a taxi driver, while reading a mountain of books during his spare time.

Fly drives around the city observing and interacting with an eclectic set of characters: Linda the prostitute and her tragic son Tammer; the attractive Zainab; the revolutionary Otto; the drug dealer Zee. Certain passages in the book are beautiful, with a masterful mix of poetry and first-rate prose. In fact, at its best, this novel produces a hypnotic, even hallucinatory feel that is captivating. Unfortunately, this literary "high" cannot be sustained throughout the entire book. In my view, too many parts of the novel seem forced, as if the author were striving to produce the perfect sentence and paragraph, but instead created pretentious passages. That said, as someone who likes experimental novels, I found that the positives far outweighed the negatives.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

It's 1946 and the United Kingdom is recovering from the Second World War. While living in London, writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a man in Guernsey, an island in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy, which was captured by the Nazis during the war.

This letter sparks a series of written exchanges that reveal to Juliet a remarkable literary society that was formed on the small British dependency during the war. As she begins to receive letters from the inhabitants of Guernsey, she begins to learn the remarkable story of a rural, seaside community that would gather to discuss books, as they suffered through the horror of the German occupation. This discovery eventually leads her to travel to the small island where her life will be changed forever.

From a stylistic point of view this novel is truly remarkable. Rather than using a traditional literary narrative, the story is structured through a series of letters and occasional telegrams, by or to Juliet. Despite my initial doubts, this innovative writing technique did not negatively impact the narrative flow in any way. In fact, even though the entire story is written through letters and telegrams, the pace and character development flowed just as well as in the best novels.

The plot is also very original. Many people may not know (myself included before reading this book) that the Nazis occupied part of the English channel. Strictly speaking, Guernsey was a piece of England that was captured during the war. Recounting this history, while blending it with a story that celebrates literature, is a true joy to read.

That being said, one critique that I do have is the ending. While I found the plot, literary style and narrative flow to be outstanding, I got the sense by the end of the book that the co-authors had run out of ideas and were scrambling to finish the story. The unfortunate result is a Hollywood-like ending that feels forced and disjointed. This disappointed me, because overall I thought this was an extraordinary book, and I would have liked to have read an ending that was more worthy of its potential.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, January 25, 2013

Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine

This delightful novel for young adults was a pleasure to read. Based on a highly original plot, the book revolves around a teenage boy named Lucas Swain, whose father has been missing for several years. Late one night while in a taxi shop waiting for a cab to take him home, he notices an urn inside the shop. Curious about this peculiar object, he soon discovers that it contains the ashes of an elderly woman called Violet Park.

The ensuing story focuses on Lucas' search to find out more about Ms. Park. As he begins to unravel the mystery of this accomplished woman, he discovers hidden truths about his parents, as well as his paternal grandparents. In the process, he interacts with his older sister Mercy and younger brother Jed, which allows him to see how his family is filling the devastating hole that was created by his father's disappearance.

This book combines a captivating plot with fairly profound insights by the teenage Lucas. I was so engrossed by this story that I read it nonstop, cover-to-cover, in a roughly four-hour period. I was therefore not surprised to find out that this work won the 2007 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, as well as being considered for the Carnegie Medal in Literature, the Branford Boase Award and the Manchester Book Award.

I recently decided that I am going to build a library of children's and young adult books for my baby daughter, which she can read when she is older. As a a result, I have recently read several books aimed at a younger audience, with the aim of finding the best books to buy. This novel will certainly be on my list of novels to purchase for this collection.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Being by Kevin Brooks

Robert Smith, 16, was scheduled for a routine endoscopy at a local hospital. When doctors inserted the tube into his mouth, however, and lowered it into his gastrointestinal tract, they couldn't believe what they saw. This shock discovery sparks a mind-boggling series of events in which Robert escapes from the hospital, is falsely accused of murder, befriends a counterfeit artist, and in the process constantly asks himself if he is human at all.

This book has an intriguing premise and started with a lot of potential. While clearly meant for young adults, (large parts of the book are written in a style that is specifically geared towards teenagers), I was caught up in the story and was very intrigued during the first two-thirds.

Unfortunately, in the final-third of the novel, the story loses focus and the ending was a complete cop out. It's possible to imagine Kevin Brooks defending the end of the book by saying it's an unconventional finish to an unconventional novel. I would disagree. My take is that this book started with a great idea, but then lost its ability to work it out. Which is too bad, because I was quite excited about the book until the last 80-pages or so. My impression is that Brooks is a solid author who simply crashed into a creative wall while looking to finish this novel.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Trash by Andy Mulligan

Doomed to a life of crushing poverty, the "Trash" children climb through mountains of garbage in a city dump. Members of a lowly underclass, they scrounge through sickening waste as their friends, relatives and neighbours live in shacks that are scattered among the discarded refuse. Resigned to a miserable existence, the scavengers are convinced that they will never find anything important.

But when 14-year-old Raphael Fernandez makes a remarkable discovery, he unleashes a series of events that forever changes the lives of him and his two friends, Gardo and Rat. From the lowest caste in society, this heartbreaking trio embark on an adventure that will reveal political corruption at the highest level, and reveal to them heroic men who are trying to improve their country.

I discovered this book by chance while at the library. It was displayed in a prominent location near the entrance and on a whim I took it. I am very glad that I did. This teenage novel describes the tragic reality of countless thousands (or it is millions?) of people around the world who are so poor that they have to scrounge their lives lives through trash dumps. While revealing this injustice, however, the novel also provides a first-rate mystery tale that is very well written. It is therefore not a surprise that there are plans to turn this book into a movie.

English writer Andy Mulligan worked as a theatre director for many years before teaching English and drama in Britain, India, Brazil and the Philippines. His idea of writing a novel about a shanty town in the middle of a garbage dump was based on experiences he had in the Philippines. This experience has produced a very realistic portrayal of poverty, while his impressive storytelling skills make this book a page turner. A wonderful novel that contains tears, smiles and adventure, but most important hope.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Is it obligatory for a reader to praise literary brilliance? This peculiar question arose in my mind after reading Saturday by renowned English novelist Ian McEwan. The book is set in London and takes place on a single day, Saturday, February 15, 2003, on the date of a massive anti-war demonstration against the planned 2003 invasion of Iraq. The novel follows Henry Perowne, a 48-year-old neurosurgeon, as he goes through his day. We see Henry watch a fiery plane in the sky through a home window as it makes an emergency landing at the airport; observe the massive anti-war protest after leaving his house; get into an argument with a troubled man following a car accident; play squash with a colleague; perform surgery; and prepare dinner for a family gathering with his two adult children, wife and father-in-law.

As his day progresses, Henry thinks about the impending war (he believes Saddam Hussein is a monster and is not convinced that the war would be a bad thing); reflects on the relationship with his children and wife; wonders how human consciousness arises out of the brain; questions the validity of literature; and asks difficult questions about forgiveness. The writing is ridiculously good (one could even use the word "genius"), the themes fascinating, and the narrative structure highly original.

So why did I shrug my shoulders when I finished the book? Probably for the same reason that I shrug when I hear opera. If you go to the opera, you can't help be appreciate the incredible skill required for each performance, the theatrical presentations, and the wide range of themes that can be presented. At times, I must confess that I have been swept away by certain operatic pieces, and moved by some storylines. However, when I look at opera in general, I can't help but conclude that this is a pompous artform that takes itself way to seriously. Is this a gauche opinion? Perhaps, but it's what I think.

I had a similar feeling with this book. During several passages, I was left with the sense that I was an audience member hearing a speech by a highly intelligent man, who had done meticulous research. As the speech progressed, however, I had the sense that the "orator" was more interested in making clear how smart they were, rather than  engaging with the crowd. My favourite books are those in which the author and reader form a partnership in the telling of a story. This novel, in contrast, seemed more like a lecture than a common journey through a fictional world.

I am sure that a lot of people would disagree with this point of view. For instance, a review in the English daily The Times stated that McEwan was potentially the best novelist in Britain. It is also true that an army of English PhD students could find countless things to analyze and discuss about this book. That is why it is unsurprising that this novel, in both hardcover and paperback format, sold hundred of thousands of copies. That being said, this book did not captivate me. So to answer the question at the beginning of this review, no, it's not mandatory to fall in love with literary brilliance. Just as there is nothing wrong with disliking opera, one can shrug their shoulders when reading high-class literature. As well, for what it's worth, I would recommend a novel like Everyman by Philip Roth, rather than Saturday, if you wanted to read a meditation on the human condition.

3 out of 5 stars (if you don't like "opera")
4 1/2 of 5 stars (if you are an "opera" lover)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

When Jacob Portman was a little boy, his grandfather would tell him incredible stories about a magical orphanage on an island in Wales. Among the peculiar residents was a girl who could levitate, an invisible boy, and a child who was so powerful he could lift a boulder. When Jacob cast doubt on the truth of these tales, his grandfather produced a series of old photographs to prove that he lived there as an orphan.

However, after getting teased at school after retelling these stories, Jacob told his grandfather that he no longer believed him. In response, his granddad stopped recounting the tales of when he lived in the Welsh orphanage. Years later, when Jacob was 16, he received a panicky call from his grandfather, in which he yelled that the monsters had found him. After rushing to his granddad's house, he realized to this horror that his grandfather had been savagely attacked. As he lay dying in Jacob's arms, he told his grandson to "go to the island" where he could be safe.

The death of Grandpa Abe leads to a series of events that take Jacob to a mysterious island off the coast of Wales. On the island, he discovers the remains of the old orphanage that his grandfather told him about, where he discovers that the stories he heard as a child were true. During this fantastic journey he learns a truth that he could never have imagined.

This wonderful novel spent 63 weeks on The New York Times  best sellers list for children's chapter books. Between April 29 and May 20, 2012, it was #1 on the list (see source here). While listed in the children's category, this work is aimed at adolescents, although its great writing also makes it enjoyable for adults. A highly original book, this work combines writing with a collection of fascinating pictures. In fact, this mix of words and photos result in a wonderful work of art, with the first-half of the novel being absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately, the second-half of the story descends into a regular action packed thriller, which takes away from the originality of the book. If it weren't for the ending, I would call this novel outstanding. That being said, this is still an excellent work and I would recommend reading it.

4 stars out of 5