Oh, those Russians…

 

HELLO THERE. Long time no see. Did you guys know it was 2016? Yeah, me neither. Anyway, I hope this capricious new year is treating you right a month and a fortnight in. Me? Oh, the flimsy foundations of my life are crumbling to dust around me as I type this, faithful internet friends, but I soldier on, because BOOKS.

So. First actual book review of 2016. Pathetic, I know. I’ll make it up to you by giving you good one. It’s The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra and it unmade me and remade me a dozen times in the span of 352 pages of glorious, astonishing, transcendent prose. WITH RUSSIANS! (+1 Russians)

*heart-eyes emoji*

So. It’s been a while. *Cracks knuckles, brushes dirt off shoulder, backflips.*

Let’s do this.

The Deal (stolen, as always, from the jacket copy): This stunning, exquisitely written collection introduces a cast of remarkable characters whose lives intersect in ways both life-affirming and heartbreaking. A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts. In stunning prose, with rich character portraits and a sense of history reverberating into the present, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a captivating work from one of our greatest new talents.

Robyn says: I read the title and that was all it took. Because that is some title. A++. And that cover – love love LOVE. Seriously, before we get into the deeply insightful intellectual discourse you expect to find here at 96 Euston Road (ahem), let’s take a minute to soak in the epic cover-porn of this beauty. And it’s relevant to the book, so it’s pretty AND clever (like me hahahaHA shut up). Because this is a collection of short stories, which is really just a prose narrative mix-tape, right? (See, Mom? That English literature degree is worth something after all!)

Now, onto the book. By Rasputin’s undead head (too soon?), this book was AH-MAAAH-ZING. The writing is stunning – there were times that I had to put aside the book and repeat the last sentence I’d read aloud to myself, just savouring the masterful way Marra uses language. I started to write down my favourite sentences and passages but eventually gave up because there were simply too many. When I buy a copy of this book (eventually), I intend to re-read it slowly and annotate the hell out of it.

As for the stories themselves… I don’t think I’ve reviewed a short story collection on the blog before, have I? If this were any other collection, I’d probably have to rate each story individually, but I won’t do that now. There’s no need, because all of the stories are marvellous, and also I returned the book to the library already and didn’t think to write down all the individual story titles. I loved them all. There were a few I loved even more than the others, but I’d be hard-pressed to choose a favourite. Actually, no, that’s a lie, my favourite was the fourth story, “A Prisoner of the Caucasus.” Another Kolya to add to my list of book boyfriends (it’s weird how many of my book-boyfriends are named Kolya, right?).

What’s really great about The Tsar of Love and Techno, and why I think everyone should read it even if they think they loathe short story collections, is that all of the stories are connected. Ostensibly, it’s the appearance of or oblique reference to a fictional painting by a real-life Russian artist that connects the stories, but there are other things that link the stories, too. The most obvious is the setting – if you hadn’t guessed from the title, the stories all take place in Russia (okay, some take place in Chechnya, but we’ll get to that). The characters are also connected, though sometimes this isn’t immediately obvious. Guys, you would not believe the number of times I realized who the characters of one story were in relation to those of another and actually shrieked in delighted OMG surprise.

The Soviet era and the Chechen War (and, I’d argue, by extension, the damage wrought by two different forms of Russian government) loom over the collection as a whole. As you can imagine, there is a definite grimness to most, if not all, of the stories, but Marra is also very funny. It’s a dark kind of humour–very Russian, and very fitting–and an essential component to the success of the collection.

God, I really loved this book. I feel like I’m gushing, but it’s so hard to talk about something you completely adored without sounding a bit like a teenager swooning over a crush in her pink polka-dot diary.

my mad fat diary

What didn’t I like? Ooh, this is hard. Um… one story felt like it dragged, and I still can’t tell if I thought the last story of the collection was amazing or awful or both and therefore perfect… but I kind of like that, too. It wasn’t simple or easy, and I think that was exactly how the collection needed to end.

What I liked most of all was the connectivity of the collection. I’ve read reviews that said the links were a little too perfect at times, but I think that’s a bit of a churlish critique, and really indicative of how you view the world in general. As Mel Gibson wisely said in the movie Signs, “I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes I saw the sign.” Wait, that’s not right. Oh yeah, here it is:

(Listen, I never thought I’d be quoting Mel Gibson in an M. Night Shyamalan movie either, guys, but this is happening, THIS IS WHO I AM NOW.)

Verdict: DUH. Read this book. Or as they say in Russia according to google translate, читать эту книгу.

Best lines: “You remain the hero of your story even when you become the villain of someone else’s.” (p. 9)

Rating: Canadian rating: 5 out of 5 heroic Soviet cosmonauts circling this pale blue dot we call home. Soviet Russian rating: in Soviet Russia, BOOKS RATE YOU.

JERRY’S ROBYN’S FINAL THOUGHT: What does a girl have to do to get a square-jawed Russian lover named Kolya?

Now, please enjoy the most Russian thing I could find on the internet:

Over to Book Cat:

Book Cat: “Well, well, so you finally managed to write a review, you slothful Philistine. Tut tut. I suppose you can share this portrait of me and my beautiful Russian friends, since it is in keeping with your theme. These lovely ladies and I were just discussing whether it is possible to fully appreciate the genius and beauty of that titan of Russian literature, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, if one was not born speaking Russian as one’s mother tongue. Alas, I think not, for surely the clumsy alchemy of translation cannot capture every breath-taking nuance, every monumental innovation of a tour de force like Eugene Onegin. We speakers of English must settle for inferior shadows of the masterpiece, and try not to dwell on what unimaginable wonders were, as the saying goes, lost in translation.”

Er, yes. Yes to all of that.

… Anyways.

Das vedanya, comrades!

 

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Suck it, Resolutions

WELL WELL WELL. Look who’s starting 2015 right. Yup, it’s THIS GUY. Suck it resolutions, I AM ACHIEVEING YOU.

anigif_optimized-4694-1419359747-6

Did you miss me, darlings? Don’t try to deny it, I know you did. I’m sure 2014 was barren and joyless without me and Book Cat to warm your cold hearts and empty lives. No, no, let’s not get at all mushy. We didn’t miss you at all. Seriously, stop weeping, you’re embarrassing yourselves.

ANYWAY. I’m going to do what I always do, and forget anything and everything unpleasant until it suits me to take bloody revenge on who- or whatever has crossed me (that’s right, sleep with one eye open, 2014, you bastard). So we’ll just pretend last year’s “hiatus” never happened and jump right in.

The first book I’m reviewing this year is the last book I read last year: Bird Box by Josh Malerman.

bird box

The Deal: (Taken from the book jacket, because there’s no way in hell to explain this briefly without spoiling everything, which reminds me, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS…, er, later): Most people ignored the outrageous reports on the news. But they became too frequent, they became too real. And soon, they began happening down the street. Then the Internet died. The television and radio went silent. The phones stopped ringing. And we couldn’t look outside anymore. Malorie raises the children the only way she can; indoors. The house is quiet. The doors are locked, the curtains are closed, mattresses are nailed over the windows. They are out there. She might let them in. The children sleep in the bedroom across the hall. Soon she will have to wake them. Soon she will have to blindfold them. Today they must leave the house. Today they will risk everything

OOH, SPOOKY.

Robyn says: Damn. This was a really great read, one of those books that just sinks its claws into your gut and yanks you right into the world inside its pages. I read this the day before New Year’s Eve and I can honestly say, in my best Gandalf voice, I have no memory of that day.

What’s so great about it? Well, it’s a brilliant, creative idea, and something I haven’t encountered before – the idea that seeing the monster is what will lead to your death. It’s terrifying and intriguing. It speaks to something very primitive and childlike, like the part of me that still thinks a blanket over my head will keep me safe when I hear something moving around in the dark corners of my bedroom. Because I totally believe that, and you’re a liar if you say you don’t, too. But which of us can say we don’t eventually pull back the corner of that blanket-armour and crack one eyelid open, casting a slivered gaze into the darkness, breath held, desperate to see what scares us? Humans are visual animals. Sight is our greatest asset to survival, after our big ol’ brains. In Bird Box, sight is Malorie’s greatest weakness – sight, and her own mind, full of fear and uncertainty. Oh, and other people, too, of course. Because this is an apocalyptic horror novel, and by now I think we all know it’s other people you have to look out for, even when invisible, madness-inducing ‘creatures’ are trying to get you to look at them. (Side-note: I kind of feel bad for the creatures. Maybe they are just really needy, insecure dudes looking for validation. Imagine if every time you asked someone how you looked, they went crazy and killed everyone around them before finding a creative and gruesome way to commit suicide… Time for a new look, lol)

The story is exceptionally well-paced, so suspenseful that there was never a lull. The setting shifts from the early days of the crisis to the present, four years later, a single day in which Malorie decides to venture out of the safety of her house with the two young children in her care. I thought this worked really well. It allowed the author to provide exposition without the dreaded infodump, and also heightened the almost unbearable level of suspense. *Cartman voice* Seriously, you guys. I was totally on edge the entire time I was reading. Ooooh, you know what the word is? TAUT. I never get to use that word. IT WAS TAUT.

Some of the not so great things? Well, I really liked this book, so it’s difficult to find many flaws. I did think the characters sometimes fell a little flat. Malorie felt underdeveloped, which is probably odd for a POV character. The supporting characters were blurry (with the exception of Tom, who I wish we had gotten to know a little better). The kids were more like pets, for all that we are told about them.

Something else: for a horror novel, it was a little… family friendly. PG-13. Tame. Antiseptic. Ok, fine, I’ll just say it. MORE BLOOD, PLEASE. Yes, the psychological terror was awesome and effective and made me sleep with my nightlight on. Okay, with an extra nightlight on (SHUT UP). Still. I felt the story would have been improved a little by seeing something. It was like you’re waiting, waiting, waiting to finally see what we (and Malorie) aren’t supposed to see… and then you don’t.

Yeah. But maybe… sequel?

Verdict: Loved it. Read it. Totally worth the night of sleep you will inevitably forfeit to find out what happens next.

Best lines: A lot of great lines in this one, but I didn’t write any of them down because I was so engrossed in the story. Everyone else seems to love this one – thank Odin someone tore their eyeballs away from the page long enough to make a note of it. “It’s better to face madness with a plan than to sit still and let it take you in pieces.” Totally agree, dude.

Rating: Four out of five black shadow-monsters lurking in your bedroom closet tonight, waiting for the moment when you let your little head peak out from under the magic blanket and they ATTACK. Try getting to sleep now MWAHAHAHAHA.

Book Cat? Anything to add? How was 2014 for you?

titus bird box

My year, Librarian? It was infinite and infinitesimal, it was wonder and despair, it was magnificence and triviality. I am all things and all things are me, for I am Cat… Oh, read your books, puny-brained human. Write your words. I speak without speaking and my silence is a symphony. How I love you, simple creature.

Oh, Titus.

Until next time…

anigif_enhanced-27506-1417377366-7 Mwah!

You’re Terrible (Muriel)

July is over, long live August, and pity yourselves, readers, that you have chosen to follow the blog of a fickle lay-about whose creative outbursts occur as frequently as a long period comet.

If you did not get the reference in this post’s title, number 1, I feel a little bit bad for you that you have not yet been exposed to the glorious eccentricity that is Muriel’s Wedding, and number 2, let me enlighten you (you can thank me later):

Yes, I realize that is not the first time I have posted that video, but doesn’t that just serve to underscore its relevance to a plethora of life’s little trials and tragedies? We are all Muriel, my friends. And we are all Terrible.

Okay, so maybe I’m not making much sense. Don’t blame me, blame Stacia Kane for being the kind of amazing and super-awesome author who can make you love a character you already love more than most of the real people in your life EVEN MORE and who can also make you stay up waaaaay past beddie-byes in your desperation to finish her latest Downside story. Hence the rambling and dubiously philosophical bent of the post. You all know how I feel about Kane’s Downside books. There were gifs.

Today, I’m obviously talking about Wrong Ways Down by Stacia Kane.

wwd

Lovely cover art, no?

The Deal: As an enforcer for one of Downside’s most ruthless criminal bosses, Terrible is used to being the one who frightens, who injures, the one who kills. But when someone starts murdering dealers and attacking prostitutes, Terrible must use his talent for violence to protect the rest of Bump’s ragged flock. This time, though, he’ll be forced to keep his wits as sharp as his knife, and use a few of the sleuthing skills he’s learned from Chess, if he hopes to find those responsible for the attacks.

Robyn says:  I may fancy myself a writer, and the gods know when it comes to putting pen to paper there’s no one more prolific than me (er, we will not mention the quality of this output)… but there are times when words fail me. And in such situations, only a gif will suffice:

swooning

Swooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooon.

A Downside story, told from Terrible’s point of view, written in Kane’s delightfully inventive “Downside speech” – was there a chance that this book would NOT rock the casbah? No, there was not. I warn you, Terrible fans, you will adore him more than you ever thought possible. You heart will break a thousand times, reading about his insecurities and his past and his love for Chess. You will realize yet again that fictional men are infinitely more entertaining than any so-called ‘real men’ you have yet encountered. You will probably consider changing your cat’s name to Terrible, because YOLO. You will close the book (metaphorically, because it’s an ebook) feeling that distinctive, bittersweet mix of perfect joy, regret, and hunger for more that one always feels upon finishing a wonderful story. And if you had the lack of foresight to begin reading at 5:00 in the evening, you will wake from a very brief slumber with eyes as red as Bump’s living room.

Verdict: Um, duh? READ IT. Or if you haven’t read the rest of the Downside books, what is wrong with you, didn’t you see the gif party, then read them first, and then READ THIS. And reread it, probably, maybe a couple (dozen) times while waiting for the next book in the series.

Best lines: Can I just say all of it? No? Okay, how about… “First time a dame ever gave him a book to read. Definitely the first time a dame ever cared what he thought on a book, He wanted to get it right, especially since it was Chess asking.” (Chapter 12). I’m a sucker for romance nourished by reading.

Rating: Five out of five black 1969 Chevelles. You know why. (Or if you don’t then READ THE DAMN BOOKS!)

b212458131Robyn out!

Book review: Hold Me Closer, Necromancer

McBride, Lish. Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. Henry Holt, 2010. 343p. $19.50. ISBN 978-0-8050-9098-7

Samhain Corvus LaCroix—Sam for short—is not your average hero. College didn’t work out, and now he’s flipping burgers while he tries to figure things out. Working at Plumpy’s isn’t all bad, since his co-workers also happen to be his best friends. One night, after an unfortunate incident involving a game of break-time potato hockey in the parking lot and a damaged car, Sam meets Douglas, a local necromancer with evil intentions and a deceptively unimpressive name. Douglas isn’t pleased to inform Sam that he is also a necromancer whose power has been mysteriously dormant. When Douglas gives Sam two options—become his apprentice or die—Sam must discover the reason his necromancing has been buried and quickly unleash his powers to defeat Douglas before the week is out.

 Filled with zombies, werewolves, witches, and talking severed heads, Lish McBride’s debut novel is action-packed, funny, and innovative. Unlike many other supernatural-themed YA novels, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer uses humour to great effect, and while a budding romance occurs in an unlikely place, friendship plays a more central role in the narrative. Highly likeable and sometimes bizarre characters balance an initially uneven narrative pace. Once the back-story is taken care of, however, McBride hits her stride, and its fast pace and deft mix of gore and wry humour make this novel hard to put down. Perfect for fans of comedic horror and the supernatural in the vein of the film Shaun of the Dead, the novel has a cliff-hanger ending that promises sequels. Hold Me Closer, Necromancer is suitable for teens and young adults, but Sam’s journey from aimless, skate-boarding, fast-food employee to heroic, nascent necromancer is a classic coming-of-age story that may appeal to anyone searching for his or her place in the world.

 Highly recommended. 4Q, 4P

Book Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go

Ness, Patrick. The Knife of Never Letting Go. Candlewick Press, 2008. 479p. $21.00. 978-0-7636-3931-0

Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown, eagerly awaiting his thirteenth birthday and his entrance into manhood. Set on a planet known only as the New World, Todd is the child of settlers from a decaying Earth. Todd was orphaned as a baby when the native species called Spackles waged war on the settlers, releasing a germ that killed every female human, and left the men able to hear each and see other’s thoughts. The never-ending cacophony of the survivors’ thoughts is known as Noise. With every man privy to each other’s feelings, ideas, dreams, hopes, fear, and lies, there are no secrets and no lies. At least, that’s what Todd thinks, until he comes across something in the swamp outside of Prentisstown that he has never heard before…a patch of silence. This discovery endangers Todd’s life and sets him on a course that he could never have imagined.

 From the first droll line to the cliff-hanger ending, this first book in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking Trilogy is utterly engrossing, thanks to a likeable protagonist and a fast-paced, suspenseful, and constantly surprising plot. Todd’s first-person narration draws the reader into the story with teasing glimpses into a cleverly crafted world that both is both familiar in dystopian science fiction—an alien planet settled by humans hoping to ‘start over’—and also refreshing as an recognizable rural landscape. Todd’s idiosyncratic speech and spelling errors take some getting used to, but even readers who shy away from science fiction will be charmed and mesmerized. The story is as well-written as it is finely crafted, and inspires thoughts on privacy, truth, maturing, and courage. The importance of reading, both of texts and of people, is also prominent. This book is suitable for young adult readers, but will also appeal to adults.

 Highly recommended. 4Q, 4P