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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Book Review: Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner


Vaclav & Lena is the love story of two Russian immigrant children who meet at a young age and are separated by events that involve Child & Family Services. Lena is taken away but never forgets Vaclav. Vaclav never forgets Lena. And on her 17th birthday Lena calls Vaclav and they reconnect.

The Russian accented English prose sets the stage for this Brooklyn family who is struggling with the hardships of leaving family in Russia and establishing themselves in America. Vaclav is a bit odd. He’s obsessed with Harry Houdini, becoming a famous magician, and making lists. He finds a perfect companion in Lena, who is another solitary figure in his ESL class.

Lena’s Aunt and Vaclav’s Mom Rasia agree on a playdate for their small children. Rasia will take them to Coney Island for the day. When Vaclav and Lena go off to play on the rides, they discover that the clowns say Lena is too small for every ride they try. They wander mistakenly into the Coney Island Sideshow to watch Fredini and Heather Holliday in her gold bikini, which is the catalyst of their secret, scheming relationship. 

1. One day being a famous magician
2. Lena being lovely assistant
3. Perseverance toward those goals in spite of any and every obstacle

Haley Tanner has written a lovely, lovely first novel. There is something about the perseverance of first novels that leads to perfection. The story isn’t just charming, it’s a balance of light and dark. The maternal watchful eye of Rasia is comforting and terrifying. The relationship between Vaclav and Lena is poignant and bewitching. I really enjoyed this novel. Big recommendation.

Vaclav & Lena
by Haley Tanner
published by Knoff Canada

Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Review: The Tiger by John Valliant

Amur tiger

There is no dispute that John Valliant is an excellent writer, and The Tiger is just another example. This nonfiction story is about a man-eating tiger on the prowl in Russia’s Far East. The main plot is about Yuri Trush, lead tracker, and his work to investigate the killing of Vladimir Markov by a tiger. It is a grizzly affair, and Markov is not the tiger’s last victim.

The background story is of Russia in the 1990s and 1980s, as well as some historical vignettes, that help readers understand Russia, the Far East, the culture of Russians in the Far East, and the poverty of this remote village and what has led many of its residents, including Markov, to become poachers and involved in the illegal trade of tigers with their Chinese neighbours across the border. 

The tiger-Markov story is by far the more interesting thread in the book, but the cultural and historical information help the reader gain perspective and a deeper understanding of the characters involved and their motivations. The story begins in December 1997, with Markov making an arduous trip through the heavy snow back to his cabin. Unbeknownst to him, and not detailed in the story until much later, a tiger is waiting for him, not just waiting, but has plotted his demise with a vengeance.

As readers learn through the tale, tigers are incredibly adaptive to their environment and highly intelligent. They have a memory, which makes them master hunters, and are able to operate in stealth mode, making themselves invisible until they pounce. The male amur tigers of this region (aka Siberian tigers) can grow to ten feet long, weighing more than five hundred pounds. They are the world’s largest cats and there’s only about 400 of them left in the wild.

Valliant has a couple lines that are imprinted on my mind. The amur tiger can leap across a residential street in a single bound. And tigers are some of the few animals whose roar is like the thundering of god. He paints an unforgettable portrait of the amur tigers, and his depiction of the native tribes who’ve worshipped tigers for centuries reinforces the tiger’s reputation as the “czar of the forest.”

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival is about a showdown between Markov and the tiger; the tiger and Yuri Trush who must destroy him, Trush and the poachers he is meant to stop in order to conserve the tiger population in this area, the poachers and the Russian government that has left them destitute, and tiger conservationists against the Chinese, whose appetite for the medicinal and spiritual uses of tiger parts is insatiable.

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
by John Valliant
published by Viking Canada

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book Review: There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff

If God was a petulant 18-year-old then his name would be Bob and he would have won rule over Earth in a botched job application process. Bob would have been the only applicant, put forward by his mother who sat on the committee. Well, he wouldn’t have been the only applicant. Mr B would have also applied but the committee would find him very sensible and boring. In this version of Earth’s beginning, a decision by committee—which always works, right?—would have seen Bob and Mr B become the co-rulers of Earth.

In six days, Bob created the heavens and the earth, the beasts in the field and the creatures of the sea (well Mr. B did the whales), and 25 million other species, including lots of pretty girls for Bob to chase.

And Bob said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Only it wasn’t very good light. Bob created fireworks, sparklers and neon tubes that circled the globe like weird tangled rainbows. He dabbled with bugs that blinked and abstract creatures whose heads lit up and cast long overlapping shadows. There were mile-high candles and mountains of fairy lights. For an hours or so, Earth was lit by enormous crystal chandeliers.
Bob thought his creations were very cool.
They were very cool but they didn’t work.
So Bob tried for an ambient glow (which proved toxic) ... And finally, when he curled up in the corner of the nothingness, tired as a child by the harebrainedness of his efforts, Mr B took the opportunity to sort things out.

Congratulations Bob. Six days. No wonder the world is a mess.

Bob is careless, self-obsessed, and rather bored. He spends a lot of time sleeping and sulking, which leaves Mr B to sort out famine, war and floods. On top of that, many of the disasters are directly related to Bob having a bit of a mood as he lusts after mortals. In this century, the apple of his eye is Lucy, a nice zookeeper who has a Renaissance look and is a charming virgin, much to her own chagrin.

Bob could appear to her as a swan, or bull, but he’s thinking this time he’ll just show up and do what mortals do, take her for dinner.

For Earth’s sake, it better work out. And if it doesn’t, I recommend building that ark.

There Is No Dog is a hilarious read. I enjoyed it immensely.

There Is No Dog
by Meg Rosoff
published by Doubleday Canada

Saturday, August 06, 2011

My Favourite Canadian Reads

Looking at my shelves this evening, I discovered that I have a number of Canadian favourites. If you’re looking for a great summer read, these are all books that I have read and kept because I liked them so much.

Amazon.ca Widgets