book review

Riding herself back together: a review of Gold by Chris Cleave

The discussion of the sport is fascinating, even if you have no interest in cycling. The intensity of the competition between Kate and Zoe drives the plot. Cleave excels at the human, the everyday, and this is where the book is at its strongest. Sophie and Tom are the brightest spots in Gold.

“After [the crash] there was an inquiry and they asked Zoe why she hadn’t stopped riding. She told them she must have been in shock. Really, she didn’t want anyone to see her face. She wanted to keep her helmet on, because its visor hid her eyes, and she needed to ride herself back together. If she could have kept on riding flat out, forever, then she would have.”

– Chris Cleave, Gold

Competition is happening on several different levels in Chris Cleave’s latest work, Gold, and it’s all intense. Determining which is the most important race to win might just require a photo finish. Gold is the story of Zoe and Kate, the top two female cyclists in Britain, and everything they share and fight for and fight over: Kate’s cyclist husband Jack, their daughter Sophie, coach Tom Voss, and dreams of winning gold in London 2012—their last Olympics, because of their age.

Cleave, who became a superstar upon publication of Little Bee, a sweeping story of a Nigerian refugee and the deep ties she shares with a British journalist, narrows his dramatic focus here: in the main plot, Kate and Zoe are competing for the single available spot to represent Britain in the Olympics. Kate is the more naturally gifted of the two but is also the more empathetic, more willing to give up what she wants for the good of everyone else. Zoe is driven by demons and is willing to do anything to win, including some fairly dirty off-track tactics to psych out her opponents.

The other central storyline revolves around Kate and Jack’s young daughter, Sophie. Eight years old, Sophie’s unwittingly been the cause of Kate’s lack of Olympic triumph. Continue reading “Riding herself back together: a review of Gold by Chris Cleave”

book review

The packaging shines, but can the story keep up? A review of Puppy Love by Frauke Scheunemann

Though the cover is adorable and the concept is cute, Puppy love by Frauke Scheunemann suffers from a clunky translation and muddled plot.lo“I lay my head on her lap. Of course I’ll stay with you, Caroline! Even though right now my sensitive dachshund nose is suffering quite a bit from your pungent smell. I hope it goes away.
– Puppy Love, by Frauke Scheunemann

Let’s get this right out of the way: the English cover of Frauke Scheunemann’s Puppy Love is the cutest freaking thing you will ever see. Featuring a tiny puppy staring out with the most soulful “I’m sorry I ate your favourite pair of shoes but you still love me, right?” expression, with a tagline proclaiming “Hercules is a dachshund…,” I could not help but pre-order myself a copy. This, coupled with House of Anansi’s “vote for your favourite puppy” contest on their blog, sealed the deal. Well done, Art and PR departments! Absolutely adorable.

The story is a straightforward chick-lit style romance about a woman named Caroline and her rotten boyfriend Thomas. The hook is that the first person narrative is from her brand new puppy’s perspective. Hercules, nee Carl-Leopold von Escherbach (and damned proud of it), was cast out of his castle because his purebred dachshund mom had a bit of a tumble with an unknown dog and the resulting litter can’t be certified purebred. Hercules has a mighty high opinion of himself, and no amount of threats from the other dogs in the pound, nor human amusement at his haughty demeanour, can bring him down a peg.

Continue reading “The packaging shines, but can the story keep up? A review of Puppy Love by Frauke Scheunemann”

book review

The smell of chai and sadness: a review of Everything was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran

The writing is lush and elegant. Basran really is “one to watch,” as she was proclaimed by the Vancouver Sun. Her characterization is superb, and her descriptions of smells are particularly evocative.

 “If only. Those two words have gathered like ghosts. If only my father hadn’t died, if only my mother had had sons, if only Harj had stayed, if only I hadn’t met Liam, if only he could have loved me…Once, when I was lamenting Harj’s departure, my mother told me that ‘if only’ was the beginning of new dreams made of old things and that only God could reincarnate our hopes into such a reality.”

 Everything was Good-bye, Gurjinder Basran 

I first heard about Everything Was Good-bye through an invitation to join Penguin Canada and the Chatelaine Book Club for an evening with author Gurjinder Basran. Having a chance to hang out in the Penguin offices, sipping wine, chatting with other bloggers, and listening to Gurjinder read from the book and then answer questions was a not-to-be-missed experience, and I suggest you read the great recaps on Nicole About Town’s  and Just a Lil Lost’s blogs.

I’ve since read Everything was Good-bye, and my reading was informed by Basran’s discussion of how she came to write the book and her own life experiences—almost like reading the book club guide and then reading the novel. Set in the 1990s, Everything Was Good-bye is the story of Meena, a first-generation Punjabi-Canadian struggling to find her place within her family, her cultural community, and Canadian society in general. While it grew out of a journalling project and was inspired by Basran’s life in many ways, the book is a work of fiction (one that was an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award finalist and that won Mother Tongue Publishing’s Search for the Great BC Novel Contest).

As a teenager and the youngest of six daughters, Meena’s life is overshadowed by the choices her older sisters have made. She’s something of an outcast, more interested in wearing jeans than salwar suits, in lining up to get a Simple Minds record autographed than going to yet another friend of a friend’s wedding party. And yet she’s also an outsider at school because she looks “different” and adheres to a different set of family and social customs. It angers her family that she spends time with Liam, a white boy and outsider in his own right, an artistic kid from a difficult home who feels just as lost as Meena does.

Spanning the time from Meena’s broken but beautiful romance with Liam in her late teens to her heartbreaking marriage in her thirties, the book offers gracefully drawn sketches of Meena’s life, moments of tragedy and sadness that are inescapable because of her upbringing. Continue reading “The smell of chai and sadness: a review of Everything was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran”

book review

Kicking Ass and Accounting for Cash: a review of The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton

Ava herself is one of my favourite new characters. She’s just got it together, and I love that she can by turns break noses and charm foreign diplomats, that if she needs to promise hundreds of thousands of dollars or blackmail sleazeballs, she doesn’t balk.

“I need to locate Seto. You know where he is, or at the very least how I can contact him. You have two options. You tell me what I want to know, or I’m going to make a hundred copies of that photo…and send them to your wife, your kids, your Atlanta neighbours, your parents, any siblings you have, your in-laws, and anyone you’re doing or have ever done business with.”

– The Water Rat of Wanchai, Ian Hamilton

I first caught wind of the mysterious Ava Lee on a subway poster advertising her adventures in the book The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, by Ian Hamilton. Ava is fearless, sexy, and lethal, the poster proclaimed, not to mention her profession: she’s a forensic accountant. Yay?

That was enough to pique my interest. Wuhan is the third book in Hamilton’s Ava Lee series, which are currently being published two a year. I picked up last year’s debut of the series The Water Rat of Wanchai to see what all the fuss was about. With an ass-kicking main character, an intriguing conundrum to solve, and a setting that encompasses Toronto, Seattle, Hong Kong, Thailand, Guyana, and the British Virgin Islands, Water Rat is off to a good start.

Ava is no ordinary accountant. Born in China to a successful businessman’s second wife (he has three families, each on a different continent) and brought up in a rich Chinese-Canadian community just north of Toronto, Ava Lee is extraordinary right from the start. Educated at a posh girls’ school, a disciple of bak mei, a traditional, exclusive, and highly lethal form of kung fu, fashionable and label-obsessed, gay, globe trotting, and bored with traditional accounting, Ava defies categorization. She and an older family friend, whom she respectfully refers to as “Uncle,” run a forensic accounting business: they will recover huge amounts of appropriated money for a modest one third of what they recover. And they’ll do it by any means necessary. Continue reading “Kicking Ass and Accounting for Cash: a review of The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton”

book review, short stories

Endless heartbreaks: a review of Drifting House by Krys Lee

Drifting House by Krys Lee is a spare, lyrical, heartbreaking collection of short stories about the Korean and Korean diaspora experience. The book presents a mosaic, each tile a sad portrait of unique characters and a different set of difficulties.

“At home it is impossible to see Hana in her mother’s fat folds of flesh that smother with each hug. There are only the skirts of her mother’s stiff silk hanbok scraping against her cheeks. She says, My little genius! You’re as good as any of our boys.
“Mrs. Song’s professions of love echo as loud as threats.”
Drifting House, by Krys Lee

Drifting House by Krys Lee is a spare, lyrical, heartbreaking collection of short stories about the Korean and Korean diaspora experience. The book presents a mosaic, each tile a sad portrait of unique characters and a different set of difficulties.

Lee’s stories use the political upheaval of North and South Korea and the personal upheaval of leaving your home country behind you and going somewhere new as a backdrop for heartbreak, threading ideas of ritual and tradition throughout to give her characters’ lives structure. The first story, “A Temporary Marriage,” sets the tone for the collection: Mrs. Shin saves up money for three years in order to leave Seoul and go to California, chasing after her abusive husband, who has used his money and power to abscond with their small daughter and his mistress. The story focuses not just on the difficulties Mrs. Shin has in getting the American police to take her seriously, but also on the length of time it took to gather the resources to leave South Korea, the arrangements with Mr. Rhee to create a fake marriage in order to stay in the US, and the affair she settles into with her strange false husband. The story ends with pain, heartache, and no real resolution, as messy as real life.

The collection includes several standout stories, all in the middle of the book. Continue reading “Endless heartbreaks: a review of Drifting House by Krys Lee”

book review

Failing on purpose: A review of The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

As an experiment in literary form, Marcus succeeds by failing. The lack of coherent plot, the deliberate masking and obscuring of story and characters, does exactly what he wants them to do. And because of that, this is very difficult book to get into, let alone enjoy.

“The lack of speech, the absence of language to build us into full people, had turned us into a kind of emotive cattle. Perhaps a raucous inner life produced shattering notes inside us, but with no extraction tool, no language to pry it free and publicize it, even if it was moronic, one sensed that the whole enterprise of consciousness had suddenly lost its way. Without a way to say it, there was no reason to even think it.”

The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus

It’s strange that a book called The Flame Alphabet left me so cold. Ben Marcus’ newest novel has a deeply intriguing premise, one that he aims his prodigious talent toward to make as inaccessible as possible.

In The Flame Alphabet, the world is beset by the most puzzling, devastating plague it’s ever known: language. Language kills. First, it seems it’s only the speech of children—and possibly only Jewish children—-but soon the speech fever spreads, making the speech of all children unbearable to adults. This killing language progresses, making adults’ speech and even written language toxic. Adults wither and die over weeks and months as they are subjected to speech, while children, who are immune, run rampant.

The first part of the book chronicles this rising plague through the eyes of the narrator Sam as he deals with a somewhat distant relationship with wife Claire and tries to comprehend their teenage daughter Esther. As the world begins to realize what is causing the illness, Sam follows an underground movement to make and test cures, all of which fail. Eventually Sam takes Claire and flees their home—and their daughter—in search of respite and a cure. The second half sees Sam in a research facility, as both the experimenter and the experimented-upon.

Language kills. People’s faces shrivel, their tongues harden from disuse. Even writing causes pain, even gesturing can hurt. Marcus puts forth frightening questions: what are we without language? What distinguishes us from animals when we cannot convey meaning to one another? What, even, is the point of meaning at all if we can’t express it, if it can’t be shared? Continue reading “Failing on purpose: A review of The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus”

book review

Got a sloth on her back: a review of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Beukes does a good job of presenting us with a world just a little bit different from our own, with vastly different consequences. No one knows for sure why, in the 1990s, animal familiars started seeking out dangerous criminals, who become known as aposymbiots, or “zoos.”

“The skyline is in crisp focus, the city graded in rusts and coppers by the sinking sun that has streaked the wispy clouds the  colour of blood. It’s the dust in the air that makes the Highveld sunsets so spectacular…the carbon-dioxide choke of the traffic. Who says bad things can’t be beautiful?”

“I settle on skinny jeans and a surprisingly tasteful black strappy top I borrow from one of the prostitutes on the third floor….when I say borrow, I mean rent. She assures me it’s clean. For thirty bucks, I’m dubious, but it passes the sniff test, so fuck it.”
– Zoo City, Lauren Beukes

In present-day Johannesburg, a new kind of segregation is taking place: regular, law-abiding citizens are kept safe from the criminals, who have all been animalled.

That’s the premise of Lauren Beukes’ brilliantly conceived Zoo City. For reasons no one quite understands, when someone commits a heinous crime (it has to involve murder, it seems), their guilt manifests in the appearance of an animal companion. The human and animal share a link, and the human also derives a special power, or shavi, from this connection. Animals can range from butterflies to tapirs, penguins to panthers. Our main character, the feisty Zinzi December, has been animalled for a few years now because of her role in the death of her beloved brother. Her animal, Sloth, hangs from ropes in her squatter’s tenement when he isn’t draped around her neck, trying to keep her out of trouble.

An ex-journalist and ex–drug addict, Zinzi is out of prison and trying to pay off her substantial debts through various not-always-legal means. For starters, she and Sloth use Zinzi’s shavi, a gift for finding lost things. Zinzi can see psychic threads that connect people to their lost objects, and for a small fee she will crawl down into sewers to retrieve lost rings. But the real money is in the job she loathes: writing scripts for e-mail 419 scams, and occasionally acting the part of the rescued Nigerian princess or savvy South African business partner when the poor suckers being scammed out of their life savings show up in Johannesburg. When Zinzi is hired by a reclusive music mogul to find the missing twin sister in his youthful pop group sensation iJusi, she finds herself thrust back into her shiny, celebrity- and drug-centred old life while she also explores the criminal underbelly of her new world, and it isn’t entirely clear which part is worse, or more dangerous. Continue reading “Got a sloth on her back: a review of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes”