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”

book review

Hell is what you make of it: A review of Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

If you’re a Chuck fan, you’ve probably already read Damned. If you haven’t read any Palahniuk before, I can’t recommend this one. While Hell itself is a great landscape and an interesting concept here, the story is dated and unfocused.


“My parents meant well, but the road to Hell is paved with publicity stunts.”
Damned, Chuck Palahniuk

Damned is an entertaining mess of a book. Told in the first person voice of thirteen-year-old Madison Spencer, daughter of a superstar actress and a Hollywood mogul, Chuck Palahniuk’s contemporary twist on Dante’s Inferno had me snickering in some places, rolling my eyes in irritation at others. I’m not a fan of Palahniuk’s—not that I don’t like him, but that I haven’t read anything other than Fight Club and Damned, so I’m not bringing the kind of author love to the table that a lot of readers are bringing (unlike, say, if I were reviewing a Neil Gaiman book).

Each chapter is introduced with a “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison” as Maddy Spencer chronicles her new existence in Hell, looks back at her brief tenure on earth, and mocks we readers for thinking that we will live forever, that our bran muffins and exercise regimens will save us from her fate. It’s a strong start and it challenges the reader to remember our own mortality rather uncomfortably. Palahniuk also nails the voice of his overly intelligent thirteen-year-old protagonist. She’s self-conscious of her body weight and her intelligence—though also sort of proud of how smart she is. She often uses big words and then defends herself for it: “Yes, I know the word convey,”… “Yes, I know the word absentia.” Her repeated use of slurs like “Miss Whorey Vanderwhore” and “Miss Slutty McSlutski” gets irritating fast but keeps her voice true. Maddy has deep self-esteem issues, and she’s a difficult-to-like protagonist, which is often interesting. Her parents’ total obliviousness about her social life (or lack thereof), her profound crush on her newly adopted brother Goran, and even their cluelessness in sending a child to “eco-camp” on a newly refurbished private jet adds to the story immensely. Their tragic sadness over her death juxtaposes well with the way her mother, when Maddy was alive, insisted her daughter was 8, not 13, so she herself wouldn’t look old.

Hell itself is a great landscape and an interesting concept here. Continue reading “Hell is what you make of it: A review of Damned by Chuck Palahniuk”

book review

The Ashes That Are Left Behind: A review of Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch is part documentary, part high-seas adventure, and part book of horrors. Inspired by the historical figure Charles Jamrach and by real events, Birch crafts an exploration of 19th-century England, the workings of a whaling ship, and the very question of what humanity is.

“Three years and come back a man, come back changed. See the strange places I itch to see. See the sea. Could you ever get sick of the sight of the sea?”

Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch is part documentary, part high-seas adventure, and part book of horrors. Inspired by the historical figure Charles Jamrach, who was an exotic animals dealer in the 19th century, and by real events (the escape of a Bengal tiger who picked up a small boy and carried him in its mouth; the wreck of the whaleship Essex and the crew’s subsequent descent into cannibalism as a means of survival), Birch crafts an exploration of 19th-century England, the workings of a whaling ship, and the very question of what humanity is.

depiction of the real life meeting of the boy and Jamrach's bengal tiger. Photo from

Told by Jaffy Brown as he looks back at the events that shaped his life, the tale begins in the filth of Bermondsey, England. The narrator as a small, fatherless child roams the sewers in search of pennies, living with the stench and the gnawing hunger of deep poverty. At age 8, relocated to Ratcliffe Highway in London, Jaffy comes face to face with the first major event that will change him: an encounter with a runaway tiger from the exotic animal menagerie run by Mr. Jamrach. Fearless, and with a deeply intuitive and calm relationship with animals, Jaffy walks right up to the tiger, who is “like the Sun himself came down and walked on earth,” (p. 10) and pets the creature’s nose. He is utterly guileless and not particularly aware of any danger he is in from this large, wild cat, who knocks Jaffy over and carries him in his mouth down the Highway. He is rescued by Jamrach, who is amazed at Jaffy’s fearlessness and manner around animals and gives him a job as a yard-boy in his menagerie. Continue reading “The Ashes That Are Left Behind: A review of Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch”

book review

Murder, Mayhem, and Father Christmas: A review of I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley

We always get a wonderful cast in every Flavia book, be they murderous philatelists, puppeteers, gypsies, or, as is the case here, ciné folk. In Shadows, Buckshaw is being rented out by a film crew, including a famous director, actors, and their coterie.


“I had half a mind to march upstairs to my laboratory, fetch down the jar of cyanide, seize this boob’s nose, tilt his head back, pour the stuff down his throat, and hang the consequences.

Fortunately, good breeding kept me from doing so.”

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley

Even if you haven’t read them, you’ve probably heard about the Flavia de Luce mysteries, which all started with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Set in the rural English town of Bishop’s Lacey in the 1950s, Alan Bradley’s world is a wonderfully charming place to sink into. And his protagonist, the eleven-year-old Flavia, is one of the best amateur detectives in recent literature. Young Flavia is a chemistry nut—with a special interest in poisons—and when she’s not contemplating the delightful properties of cyanide or lacing her older sister’s lipstick with an extract made from poison ivy, she’s zipping around Bishop’s Lacy on her trusty bicycle (whose name, incidentally, is Gladys) and finding her way into the hearts of murder investigations.

A review of a Flavia book really has to be about two things: the self-contained story within the book, and its place in the overall series, specifically how it forwards the overarching stories and mysteries of the de Luce household. Continue reading “Murder, Mayhem, and Father Christmas: A review of I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley”

book review

The End of the World as We Know It: Review of A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarök

Ragnarök offers a chance to peek into the author’s mind.

“There are two ways, in stories, of winning battles—to be supremely strong, or to be a gallant, forlorn hope. The Ases were neither. They were brave and tarnished.”

Ragnarök: The End of the Gods, A.S. Byatt

This is not exactly a novel. Not exactly fiction, not exactly autobiography, not exactly allegory. Ragnarök: The End of the Gods, A.S. Byatt’s reweaving of the Norse cycle of myths is, for such a short book, epic. Ragnarök is part of the Canongate Myth Series, which since 1999 has published retellings of famous myths by accomplished authors the world over (you might recognize Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad or Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ from the list of Canongate titles).

Ragnarök loosely tells the story of the thin child, an otherwise unnamed waif who is a loose representation of Byatt in her childhood, sent to the English countryside during World War II. She finds herself surrounded by flora and fauna that differs greatly from her city world, and she finds a book about the Norse gods, written by a meticulous German scholar, that opens up her imaginative playground and, indeed, her world view. We follow her as she traipses, book-bag in one hand and gas-mask in the other, through fields of flowers and dreamscapes of great Norse battles, puzzling out what she believes to be true about the world around her. Continue reading “The End of the World as We Know It: Review of A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarök”