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Archive for November, 2012

Continuing the holiday reads recommendations, here are five of my favourite short reads of the year – two short story collections and three novellas. All deal with rather dark subject matter and are fantastic reads.

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Marcel Aymé – The Man Who Walked Through Walls (Pushkin Press): This collection of stories is absolutely brilliant. It belongs alongside the works of Borges, Kafka, Gogol, and Cortázar. The stories combine surrealism and biting social satire. Among the denizens you will find in these pages: a man who discovers he suddenly has the ability to walk through walls, a woman who can replicate herself infinitely, young boys dreaming of seven league boots, governments that can legislate leaps forward and backward in time.

Lucy Wood – Diving Belles (Mariner Books): These contemporary tales are drenched in Cornish folklore, and range from the charming to the downright unsettling. Most of the stories are wonderfully dark and incredibly original. For a debut collection of stories, this is rather masterful. If you’re a fan of Panos Karnezis or Karen Russell, these stories will be right up your street. They skillfully blend the fantastic with gritty realism, and are incredibly evocative of place – the wilds of Cornwall and the salt-sea air of its coastline.

Denis Johnson – Train Dreams (Picador): Denis Johnson’s latest novella is entirely deserving of all the praise heaped upon it, and in all honesty, should have taken the Pulitzer this year. Concentrated, evocative, and moving, the novella contains all of the mythology of the American northwest in its slim binding and at its core stands Robert Grainier, the hero figure – hardworking, taciturn, and touched by tragedy. Johnson weaves incredibly intense episodes from Grainier’s life into a tapestry of the history of the American West. Wonderful single-sitting read.

Chico Buarque – Spilt Milk (Grove Press): Eulálio Montenegro d’Assumpção – descendant of Portuguese nobility, former weapons dealer, great-great-grandfather of a Brazilian drug dealer – lies in a hospital bed in his one-hundredth year of life and remembers. In his old age and infirmity, his stories blend and blur, weaving together past and present through images, emotions, and associations in a rich tapestry of national and family history. The short novel was awarded two of Brazil’s leading literary prizes when it was originally published in Portuguese in 2009. Buarque is well-known as a musician in Brazil, and his prose has a rhythmic, musical quality to it that carries the reader forward effortlessly.

Max Frisch – Man in the Holocene (Dalkey Archive Press): This was my first experience reading Max Frisch, and it definitely won’t be the last. The narrative is interspersed with notes and clippings from the books in the widower Geiser’s house in a Swiss valley. Outside, an epic rainstorm threatens to undermine the very solidity of the landscape with landslides and rockfalls. Inside, Geiser’s mind is undermined by his inability to recollect things he once knew, and he obsessively writes down facts on slips of paper or clips paragraphs out of his books and fastens them to the walls of his house. The narrative is claustrophobic and perfectly suited to its subject matter: an isolated man suffering the indignities of age and senility and trying to find meaning.

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This post was originally going to be a “top 5 books” I had the most fun reading this year. Clearly, I too much of a good time, because there were so many fun books I was loathe to exclude that the post is now a top 10 in two parts. If I was still working at the bookshop, these are the titles I would handsell dozens of. Like a boss.

Nick Harkaway – Angelmaker (Alfred A. Knopf): This book was an absolute blast! It is raucous and original. Mild-mannered clockworker with gangster heritage, octogenarian former super-spy with ugly pug sidekick, super-villain with creepy minions, elegant doomsday machine with… bees. What more could you ask for? The writing is snappy and funny, and the book is chock-a-block with great characters. If you’re looking for a bit of clever fun, look no further. The book is so good that months later, I am still thinking about it and chuckling about some of the best bits. Seriously. Just buy it. It’s fantastic.

Dan Rhodes – Little Hands Clapping  (Canongate): By turns macabre, hilarious, moving, and disturbing, this is the perfect novel for those people on your shopping list who are a bit dark and twisted. Set primarily in a German suicide museum, the story weaves together the tales of the museum’s caretaker, its patrons, its visitors/victims, and a local doctor. Two of the main characters are rather sinister and conspire in disturbing ways, breaking taboos that some readers might have a tough time stomaching. But, there is also a very charming love story and several fascinating characters. The story can be gruesome, but it is also enchanting and funny. It is a rather macabre fairy tale and a refreshingly original read.

Missy Marston – The Love Monster (Vehicule Press): This darkly hilarious tale of Margaret H. Atwood (not to be confused with the writer) is wonderfully lively and honest about the miseries of our quotidian existence. It is an excellent character study of Margaret (separated, psoriasis-riddled, bad job, bad attitude, and observed by aliens) and the people in her orbit, as well as an astute catalogue of many types of love (good and bad, romantic, platonic, familial, etc.). The conclusion was a bit “Hollywood happy-ending”, brought about by a deus ex machina (or more properly, an alien ex ufo), but it works because the bulk of the story isn’t sickly sweet. By the end, the reader is really rooting for Margaret, foibles and all. The story is incredibly well written – snappy and funny and poignant – and is a pleasant change from usually dour Canadian fiction. One of my favourite CanLit reads of the year.

Susan Hill – The Small Hand (Profile Books): Okay, this is “fun” in the way that having the bejesus scared out of you can be fun. Hill is a master of the ghost story novella, as evinced by The Woman in Black. However, the story here is more masterful than the Gothic exercise that her first ghost story was. Still here though, are the tropes of the isolated, dilapidated house, the tragic death of a child, and the questionable psychological state of the protagonist. Woven into this conventional tapestry are threads of memory, guilt, and dread. This is a first rate ghost story, tense and well-wrought, and suitable for gobbling up in a single sitting on a cold, dark, winter’s night.

Jasper Fforde – The Eyre Affair (Penguin): Again (as with The Book Thief in the previous post), I’m way behind on this one. I’ve had it on my shelf for years, and just never got around to it, as is often the case with books I’m quite certain I will enjoy. I’m sure there’s a word for that particular syndrome, and if there isn’t, there should be. In any case, this was great fun to read. It’s the action-packed story of Thursday Next, a Special Operative in literary detection, who gets caught up trying to solve case involving the kidnappings of literary characters from the pages of their books, particularly one Jane Eyre. It’s funny, surreal, and full of literary jokes. What’s not to like? If you are already on the Jasper Fforde bandwagon, the seventh book in the Thursday Next series, The Woman Who Died A Lot, is available now.

 

 

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I know, I know! It’s too early to talk about the holiday season. But the decorative lights are going up, and here in the Canadian hinterland there’s already plenty of snow on the ground. Actually, the primary reason I want to get this post out so early, is so that you have a chance to seek these books out at your local independent bookshop, and if they don’t have them in stock, you’ll still have plenty of time to order them in before the orgy of greed begins.

I’m going to stick to books I’ve read in the last 12 months, so some of these titles will be brand new, and some will be older books I’m just getting around to reading. I’m going to start with Young Adult fiction because it is the smallest and most manageable list. Disclaimer: I don’t read a lot of children’s books or young adult fiction, so I can’t give much insight into age appropriateness or reading levels. Ask your independent bookseller for help on that score. These books are reviewed from an adult reader’s point of view.

Markus Zusak – The Book Thief (Knopf Books for Young Readers): Okay, I know I’m late to the party on this one, but as I said, I don’t read a lot of YA, so the ones folks recommend to me will often sit on the shelf for months or years before they are picked up on a whim. I read this while traveling in Romania, and was so affected by it that as I finished it on the plane to my next destination, I was silently, unapologetically weeping. The story is narrated by Death and follows Liesel Meminger, a foster child living outside Munich, through the Second World War. As should be evident from the title, a key theme is the importance of books and stories as nourishment for our souls. All of the characters have tremendous depth, and the story is very moving.

Avi – The Seer of Shadows (HarperCollins Canada): In spite of the fact that Avi writes books marketed for children, his language is more sophisticated than that of most contemporary adult fiction writers. This was my first exposure to Avi, and I was originally drawn to the book by the fascinating subject matter, early photography and the spirit photography hoaxes of the late 19th Century. Horace, a rational young man apprenticing to a society photographer, and Pegg, an African American servant girl in the wealthy Von Macht household, join forces when the spirit of the Von Macht’s dead daughter Eleanora begins appearing in photographs intent on exacting vengeance upon those who abused her. The story is vivid and full of wonderful imagery and detail about the magic of photography. Avi writes vividly about a fascinating historical period full of sweeping technological and social change, and tells a rather frightening ghost story as well.

John Green – The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton Juvenile): This novel will make you laugh and break your heart, often at the same time. In a wonderful narrative voice, Green tells the story of Hazel, a 16-year-old girl battling terminal cancer, trying to live some semblance of a life, and crushing on a boy. The story is honest, funny, and wrenching. The reactions of Hazel, her family, and her friends to the limitations and frustrations of illness (especially terminal illness) ring true and take the novel far beyond the realm of schlocky, sentimental teen cancer stories into the realm of insight and empathy. Given the subject matter, you can expect this story to be a weeper, but oftentimes the weeping is accompanied with laughter at the cleverness, making this a perfect and cathartic good read.

Patrick Ness – A Monster Calls (Candlewick): Having lost my father to cancer when I was 14 years old, I found this story particularly wrenching. Also, you must buy this in print (not digital) because Jim Kay’s illustrations are stunning and evocative. Conor O’Malley’s mother is dying of cancer, and after her treatments begin the nightmares start. An ancient yew tree monster visits Conor every night at the same time. Ness approaches the subject matter with tremendous clarity, especially those things one feels they should never think, or thinks they should never feel, in such situations. The story is complex and moving.

Victor Lavalle – Lucretia and the Kroons (Random House Digital): This was one of the first titles I read entirely in digital format (and that is currently the only format it is available in). I found this story readable and compelling. The young protagonists deal the monstrous in everyday life (terminal illness, urban decay, seeking a sense of belonging, etc). Lucretia is a brave and determined urban heroine who risks a horrifying urban netherworld of mutilated crack-heads in an attempt to save her terminally ill best friend. The nightmare world that LaValle creates can be read as a sort of urban spiritual limbo, which will certainly resonate with a metropolitan audience.  I did find the writing to be a bit lacking stylistically, especially compared to the richness of the writing in the previous four titles on this list, but this is definitely an interesting read, especially for those who enjoy urban dystopian fantasy.

The next batch of capsule reviews will focus on my favorite adult reads of the year. The biggest problem with that project will be whittling the list down to something manageable!

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