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”

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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

So THAT’S why life on earth sucks: A review of There Is No Dog, by Meg Rosoff

This book is, overall, a delight to read. Rosoff pulls of the surreal with grace and ease. Our God, Bob, is an eternal teenager who sleeps late, mixes up Africa and America and then blames the subsequent droughts and floods on his non-existent dyslexia.

 

 

“In the old days, he snapped his fingers and things happened. He hates the way things are now. It is so unfair. Eck tilts his head and gently licks Bob’s ear with his long sticky tongue. It is his special way of expressing sympathy and it is not effective.”

So, it turns out that an excellent reason exists for the state of the world, for its suffering and contradictions and occasional wondrousness. But the philosophers who have spent their lives searching for the answer aren’t going to like it. God, you see, supreme and almighty creator, happens to be a shiftless, emo teenager who was handed the job by his mother after she won it in a cosmic game of poker. And his name is Bob.

This is the glorious, zany, and often dark conceit of There Is No Dog, by Meg Rosoff.  A British YA title (which is far more adult in certain aspects than a lot of North American YA), this book is at once light and dark, hilarious and serious (well, a little serious, anyway). Our God, Bob, is an eternal teenager who sleeps late, mixes up Africa and America and then blames the subsequent droughts and floods on his non-existent dyslexia, and tends to fall in love with beautiful human girls, generally with disastrous results. Bob is taken care of by his majordomo, the mild-mannered and long-suffering Mr. B, who does his best to sort out the prayers, the catastrophes, and the suffering of the humans, whales (how Mr. B loves his whales), and everyone else on this mixed-up little planet. Continue reading “So THAT’S why life on earth sucks: A review of There Is No Dog, by Meg Rosoff”

book review, short stories

Lost in the old world and the new: a review of Copernicus Avenue by Andrew J. Borkowski

By addressing moments in time through short stories, Borkowski is instead sharing pieces of these lives with us, conferring an intimacy upon the reader that might be missing from a larger, more sweeping narrative.

“The front pews are filled with the old women who always come to early mass to claim good seats for the funeral mass that follows this one. These babci are ageless. Smelling of wet wool in their scarves and galoshes, they could be the same women who jostled for the best places when St. Voytek’s opened its doors forty years ago.”

The Poland of Andrew J. Borkowski’s Copernicus Avenue is a land of shifting borders but eternal meaning, shaping and shadowing everything that happens in each character’s life. A set of linked short stories, the book’s setting shuttles between Poland and the Polish Canadian neighbourhood of west Toronto, on the fictional Copernicus Avenue. Spanning many decades, the book tells the overarching story of the Mienkiewicz family, from Great uncle Stefan in wartime Poland to sweet, lost Blaise, the sometimes-narrator of the overall story, in present-day Canada. Along the way we are introduced to Blaise’s family and a host of other characters—and I do mean characters—and given precious glimpses into the minds and hearts of a war-torn and often adrift group of people who are just trying to find a new foothold.

I picked the book up at a recent short story reading. Borkowski stole the show with his animated, accented “Twelve Versions of Lech,” which is one of the book’s showstoppers, transporting a modernist Polish artist from the motherland to Canada. Lech is unlike anything the Polish immigrants and their Canadian-born children of 1980s Copernicus Avenue have ever encountered, and he represents a Poland that is distinct from the memories the older generation cherish and protect. Continue reading “Lost in the old world and the new: a review of Copernicus Avenue by Andrew J. Borkowski”