Tag Archives: war

Book Review: The Age by Nancy Lee

03.20.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

the age

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Category: Contemporary Fiction

Author: Nancy Lee

Format: Trade Paperback,  281 pages

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart

ISBN: 978-0-7710-5252-1

Pub Date: March 11, 2014

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Summary from Publisher:

Set in Vancouver in 1984 as Soviet warships swarm the Atlantic, The Age tells the story of Gerry, a troubled teenager whose life is suddenly and strangely catapulted into adulthood.

Confronted by her mother’s newest relationship, confusion about her father’s abandonment, and anxieties about a looming nuclear incident, Gerry finds a kind of belonging with a group of misfits planning a subversive protest at the city’s upcoming peace march, but her fascination with their leader and her struggle with sexual identity create a rift between Gerry and her best friend, Ian. Bolstered by her grandfather, an eccentric news anchor in the throes of a bitter divorce, Gerry tries to put herself at the centre of the group’s violent plot. As the days leading up to the rally accelerate, Gerry finds herself escaping into a post-nuclear dystopia of her own creation.  Her real life and fantasy life alternate until a collision of events and consequences forces her towards life or death decisions in both worlds.

At the heart of the novel is Gerry’s combative yet tender relationship with the older Ian, as she both yearns for and rejects his protectiveness towards her until it’s too late. Stubborn, tough, and unaware of her vulnerability until tragedy occurs, Gerry navigates a razor’s edge of emotion and events.

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

The Age by Nancy Lee is a gritty storytelling of hardened angst and the impending doom of the apocalypse. The both combined is a harsh, but vivid awakening to the grief and anger that simmers not only in our teenagers, but in a world suffocating from the ongoing battle against political and social injustice in its fervor and fight toward some form of equilibrium.

This is a story about Geraldine, referred to as Gerry, an angry and fiercely troubled teenager, an adrogynous-looking girl who de-feminizes her physicality to look and act more like a boy, a kid roughened up perhaps to subconsciously toughen herself up against the pain of her upbringing—or rather in this case, her lack of one—the physical and emotional abandonment of her father.

In response, Gerry attaches herself to an older and exclusive group, one that is more than a bunch of misfits, but a group whose ideology is both dangerous and highly politicized—activists whose plans to participate in a Peace March is more than succumbing to spectatorship, but rather a direct involvement in misguided terrorism.

But, amidst the extremity of the book is a saving grace in a few of the unexpected characters, from Gerry’s grandfather, Henry, a news reporter whose divorce to his third wife plummets him into emotional and financial bankruptcy, yet a reserved kindness to a granddaughter whose life has hardened her to attachment and kindness itself.

Then there is Ian, Gerry’s long-time friend whose poor history has not hindered him from taking on the disguised role of parent and provocator, their relationship magnetic, yet openly combative and antagonistic. For all his social failings, his concern for her welfare reveals itself in his passionate arguments and ultimately, his self-sacrifice.

Randy, her mother’s unkempt boyfriend, while resented by Gerry because he isn’t her father, but the next man in the string of failed relationships her mother has readily entertained, is unexpectedly decent, frustrated as an outsider, ungroomed in his social breeding, but sincere in his quasi-parental efforts and loyal in his attempt to care.

And Clem, a veteran to political angst and an ex-con for crimes that has scarred him into mental degradation, reverts to a child-like demeanor unable to function on his own without the help and care of his daughter, Megan, the leader of Gerry’s misfit “friends,” whose subtlety in manipulation, control, and rage against authority and the mythology of war, instigates paranoia and action during the city’s Peace March.

While the narrative and plot is shockingly gritty, hard, and absolute in its angst and devastation, there is also a parallel narrative that is beautifully lyrical, dreamlike in its apocalyptic imagining between a young man and an older woman in the midst of society that regresses into the terror of savagery because of environmental and societal cruelty and darkness.

The anger, pain, and fear in this book is wonderfully palpable, graphically vivid, and grotesque—and difficult to read because of the strong emotions it evokes. I cried—and not a few mystical afterthoughts of a tear or two, but rather a cry so deep from the bowls of empathy and terror. I was moved.

The teenage recklessness and pain of this novel is indicative of the rumbling fears we hold toward the future, the collective and growing mistrust and angst against a world system spiralling out of control, and the heavy burden of terrorism we sometimes choose to internalize from the devastation of our own minds and lives.

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Characters: 4 stars

Pacing: 4 stars

Cover Design: 3.5 stars

Plot: 4.5 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of McClelland & Stewart for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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About the Author:

nancy lee
From inside jacket. (c) Anthony Hatley / Millenium Images, UK.

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Author of the critically acclaimed Dead Girls, Nancy Lee is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia Creative Writing Program. She lives in Vancouver B.C., with her husband, writer John Vigna.

– From inside jacket

Links:

Find information on Nancy Lee on Wikipedia.

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The Apocalypse in our minds can take many forms. What is your greatest fear for the future?

How far would you go in a call to action against war? If you read the book, do you think Gerry goes too far in her emotional response to the tragedies in her life?

If you read the book, who is your favourite character in the novel?

Who do you think has the most hope in redemption in the book—or are all the characters so devastated that nothing is left for them except angst, fear, and pain for the future?

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Book Review: All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

02.06.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

All the Broken Things

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Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

Format: Trade Paperback, 342 pages

Publisher: Random House of Canada

ISBN: 978-0-345-81352-7

Pub Date: January 14, 2014

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Summary from Publisher:

September, 1983. Fourteen-year-old Bo, a boat person from Vietnam, lives in a small house in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto with his mother, Thao, and his four-year-old sister, who was born severely disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange. Named Orange, she is the family secret; Thao keeps her hidden away, and when Bo’s not at school or getting into fights on the street, he cares for her.

One day a carnival worker and bear trainer, Gerry, sees Bo in a street fight, and recruits him for the bear wrestling circuit, eventually giving him his own cub to train. This opens up a new world for Bo–but then Gerry’s boss, Max, begins pursuing Thao with an eye on Orange for his travelling freak show. When Bo wakes up one night to find the house empty, he knows he and his cub, Bear, are truly alone. Together they set off on an extraordinary journey through the streets of Toronto and High Park. Awake at night, boy and bear form a unique and powerful bond. When Bo emerges from the park to search for his sister, he discovers a new way of seeing Orange, himself and the world around them.

 All the Broken Things is a spellbinding novel, at once melancholy and hopeful, about the peculiarities that divide us and bring us together, and the human capacity for love and acceptance.

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara from The Bibliotaphe Closet

All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is a devastatingly marvellous book, a story that focuses on the unfortunate sufferings of its main character, 14-year-old Bo, a young refugee from Vietnam who lives with his highly pessimistic mother, Rose, and his violent four-year-old sister who is severely disfigured from the affects of Agent Orange.

While Bo is burdened with school and taking care of his disabled sister, the responsibilities deferred to him by his incompetent and devastated mother, he is also haunted by the defiant memory of the untimely death of his father, and what it means to be a cultural outsider.

Though he does have some people rooting for him, his happiness, and success, in the form of his teacher, Miss Lily, and mature classmate and friend, Emily, the only way he can cope with his turbulent anger and frustration is by fighting with a schoolyard bully named Ernie.

An outlet for his pent-up rage, he fights Ernie on a daily basis until he is discovered and recruited by a carnival worker and bear trainer, Gerry, who not only befriends him, but eventually gives him his own bear cub to raise, who he names, for lack of a better word, Bear.

While he must fend off the interest of carnival owner, Max, from discovering the uniqueness of his sister, Orange, and deter and manage the depression of his mother, Rose, who is unable to hold a job, or look at, or look after the daughter who incites in her the pain of guilt and memory, Bo, takes solace from secretly training and raising Bear in the confines of his small backyard until they both become nomads in the wilderness of High Park.

The magnificent power of the book is in its quality in both plot and characterization. The plot moves readily from scene to scene, revealing the depth of its characters:

Thao Rose suffers a private anguish and shame at birthing a disfigured child, feels helpless and incompetent to care for her, and feels worthless as a refugee who tries to escape the haunt of dark and old memories—the desperate compulsion to flee her home country because of her visions of war and the imposed victimization to the deadly war toxin, Agent Orange.

Orange Blossom suffers a personal and private imprisonment both by the restriction of her physical body, her lack of verbal language, and the constraints imposed on her by her disgusted and ashamed mother who wishes to keep her hidden from the world, to keep her indoors at all times, to keep her a deep and dark secret from outsiders. Orange retaliates through violence, acting out by hitting and pummeling her brother, or throwing herself against walls and doors. She remains muted for most of the novel, a person described as hideous, and yet, most beloved by her brother, Bo.

Bo, the center of the book, is heartachingly good, a young boy who is forced to survive tragedy and left to fend for himself through the confusion of unfortunate and difficult circumstances and events in his life. Though a young boy, he is burdened with responsibility from a place of neglect, a victim of his poverty, as well as his foreignness. Rather than a child who is taken care of, he is a child who must bear the responsibility of money for his family’s livelihood, his mother’s well-being, his sister’s day-to-day needs, and then eventually Bear’s care and training.

While he succumbs to violence to dull his emotional pain, the conflict in the book is thick and raw with misfortune after misfortune, which leads him to a travelling carnival and finally to center ring. He learns quickly how to put his fighting skills into action, unafraid to face Loralei, the fighting bear, an act he also quickly learns to manipulate and manage. While this earns him some money, it also earns him an opportunity to raise his own cub, which becomes a cathartic friendship, bound by trust, as much as it is by contract and elusive tricks.

With a backdrop between a sullen and secretive home, the turbulence and oddity of a freak show in circus, and the dingy freedom of homelessness in High Park, Bo must come to terms with the disappearance of both his mother and his sister as much as the loss of his home, his homeland, and his father, a victim of Agent Orange.

The plot will unravel the cruelty of the world in its ignorance and biases, its opportunistic abuse of those in need, and the surprising outcome of the absurd.

But, the narrative is both realistic as it is personal. The reader will do more than empathize for Bo, Orange, Bear, and their circumstances, but weep for them also. The book is well-paced and will satiate the reader’s interest long enough to have him or her put the book down in order to rest from its emotional intensity.

It cries out injustice as it does education on issues such as the Vietnam war, the production of Agent Orange, and the horrific results of its exposure to victims of war. It also looks at foreignness, oddity, and the fine line between morality and entertainment in spectacle. But, it hones in on the absolute power of love, friendship, and the meaning of family and beauty.

This is an exquisite and tender novel about the need do more than survive, but to be seen and be loved—as Bo, Orange, Thao, Bear, and Gerry are in themselves—imperfect, beautiful, and even broken.

***

Characters: 5 stars

Pacing: 5 stars

Cover Design: 3.5 stars

Plot: 4.5 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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About the Author:

kathryn kuitenbrouwer

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To learn more about Kathryn, you can visit her bio here.

Links:

You can visit Kathryn on her Official Webpage.

You can follow Kathryn on Twitter.

You can be her fan on Goodreads.

You can like her on Facebook.

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Have you ever heard of Agent Orange before?

What do you think is the most difficult thing about being a foreigner?

How does society’s view on beauty affect those who are severely disfigured? How can we change this?

Do you agree with carnivals or circuses having “Freak Shows?” Why or why not?

How do you think Bo and Bear are alike?

If you have read, “All Things Are Broken,” what did you enjoy most about the book?

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Book Review: A Consellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

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Book Review:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

06.17.2013

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

constellation of vital phenomena

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Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Anthony Marra

Format: Trade Paperback, 388 pages

Publisher: Random House of Canada

ISBN: 978-0-307-36262-9

Pub Date: May 7, 2013

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Summary from publisher:

A novel of unflinching honesty, gutting humanity, haunting detail, and beautiful, raw hope dangling like a bare bright light in a basement.

A haunting novel set in a nearly abandoned hospital in war-torn Chechnya that is both intimate and ambitious in scope. Eight-year-old Havaa, Akhmed, the neighbour who rescues her after her father’s disappearance, and Sonia, the doctor who shelters her over 5 dramatic days in December 2004, must all reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal and forgiveness which unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate.

In his bold debut, Anthony Marra proves that sometimes fiction can tell us the truth of the world far better, and far more powerfully, than any news story. You will not forget the world he creates–A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and its characters will haunt you long after you turn the final page.

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Book review by Zara from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is deceptively a debut novel, which reads with the maturity and mastery of an eloquent and superbly gifted writer.

The plot, while sometimes serendipitous, lasts no more than five days, while the breadth of the story spans a rich history of seven people, even within the deplorable and harsh cruelties of the civil war that occurred in Chechnya, Russia during the 1990s.

While the result of the brutality of war is ever prevalent and graphic in the novel, the voice and tone of the book is reverently sombre, tender in its recollection, and intimate and graceful in its description and metaphor. It’s poetic prose without the self-consciousness of literary narcissism.

Marra creates detail and writes language with perfect precision and an ease that the fundamental ingredients of a beautifully told story is not only natural without being abrasive, it is also brilliantly evocative in its lyrical cadence and infuses the characters and their story with great feeling and depth.

But, make no mistake in underestimating Marra’s novel by restricting its merit to stylistic eloquence and literary genius alone. Even in its eloquent and dramatic title, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and the mystery and lucidity found in the elusive fog of its cover design, both cannot deny the validity of the truth in which the book is grounded.

It is clear, a laborious amount of time was taken to research the historical setting and events that surrounded the Chechen conflict, which not only support the believability of the story in its graphic and creative detail, but also induces a passionate response from its reader, which transforms him from simple voyeur to fully engaged participant who is able to experience the emotional landscape that the book’s realism authentically reinforces especially through its acts of war, torture, and betrayal.

The characters, too, are vivid personalities—ones that you will harbour affection for, others you will abhor and be bewildered by. The dislike of one character does not equate the dislike of a book. It is indifference to characters that turn me away from reading, but in this novel, its character-driven intimacies are the life spark of my connection and passionate response to the complexity of the characters’ horror and the significance of the novel’s story.

I was moved by each one:

Khassan’s dedication to history, his second love to his secret desire, and his accrued disappointment and loneliness that moved him to eventually converse with a pack of dogs.

Dokka’s optimism and generosity of self, in faith toward nomadic refugees, and his equal power and precision with a chess piece as with a plum.

Havaa’s intelligence and precocious thoughtfulness, as well as the secrets kept in her blue, emergency suitcase.

Akhmed’s capacity for goodness in times of disparity and the fluid ease in which he draws portraits to commemorate the lost, the dead, the haunted.

Ramzan’s blind and fearless need for self-preservation, yet his maddening desperation for a father’s love.

Natasha’s absence both in her own life as well as in others, yet her perseverance to survive the most difficult trauma.

And Sonja’s stubborn resilience at the cost of her softer humanity in order to survive the exhaustion and terror of the evidence of casualties of war, and the all-encompassing obsession with the disappearance of her sister.

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The fluidity in which Marra writes is effortless and melodic. So many sentences in his work transform from the simplicity of description into stark, poetic revelation—and it’s in these lines that the depth of the story is not only intensified, but also made more beautiful.

Here are some of my favourite lines from the novel:

 

He was losing her incrementally. It might be a few stray brown hairs listless on the pillow, or the crescents of bitten fingernails tossed behind the headboard, or a dark shape dissolving in soap. As a web is no more than holes woven together, they were bonded by what was no longer there. – p.63

The things in his life that caused him the most sorrow were the things he’d lived with the longest, and now that everything was falling they became pillars that held him; – p.81

Despite the shock of walking into an empty flat, the absence isn’t immediate, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched now runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it. – p.120

When finished, she opened the doors to he new closet and bureau and felt pleased with her ingenuity. This is how you will survive, she told herself. You will turn the holes in your life into storage space. – p.182

They undressed by degree, a button here, shirtsleeve there, making a show of their shortcomings, their bodies androgynous with deprivation. It was remarkable to trust someone enough to be silly like this. She lay back. It was dark. Her lips found his. – p.321

So much of his marriage was a disappointment—childlessness, ailing health—but they were blessings, now, in the end, when he had to let go. Yet he’d grown to depend on the act of longing….knowing that doubt, like longing, could sustain him. – p.329

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And while I’m an avid reader who has enjoyed the taste of a sampling of good books, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, moved me to awe by its grace and sensitivity, and by the end of the novel, I wept. Its raw intensity and devastation will make you cry out and render you deeply anguished, while its fragility and fight for redemption will convince you to hope.

While I know I am not the first, the second, nor even the third person to read this novel—I am certainly one of a long line of people who have come to believe in its remarkable power to conjure a constellation of its own—and its story is as vital as it is transformative.

Thank you, Mr. Marra. This novel was a privilege to read.

 ***
Characters:  5 stars

Pacing: 5 stars

Cover Design: 5 stars

Plot: 5 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.

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About the Author:

Anthony-Marra-credit-Smeeta-Mahanti-250x375
From Anthony Marra’s Official Website. Photo credit: Smeeta Mahanti. http://anthonymarra.net/about/

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Anthony Marra was born in Washington, D.C. He has won The Atlantic’s Student Writing Contest, the Narrative Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and his work has been anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading. In 2012, he received the Whiting Writers’ Award. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University, where he will begin teaching as a Jones Lecturer in Fiction this fall. He has studied and resided in Eastern Europe, traveled through Chechnya, and now lives in Oakland, CA. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, his first novel, will be published in fifteen countries.

– From Anthony Marra’s Official Website

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Links:

Anthony Marra’s Official Website

Add Anthony as a friend on Facebook

Follow Anthony on Twitter

Follow Anthony on Goodreads

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Have you read “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by Anthony Marra yet? If so, what did you think of it?

What’s most important to you in a book? The plot? Its characters? The style in which it’s written? Its conflict?

If you haven’t yet read the book, what do you think the title means? What do you think “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is?

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