#14 – Dante’s War, by Sandra Sabatini

I wanted to like this novel, I really did. I even tried to like it. Sabatini’s first book, a collection of linked short stories called The One With the News, was this amazingly nuanced examination of emotional complexity in a time of family trauma, and might be one of the best things ever published by The Porcupine’s Quill (ugly cover and all—though really, it wouldn’t be a PQ book be without a cover so ugly it could scare small children). Her second collection, The Dolphins at Sainte-Marie, was equally well-crafted, solidifying Sabatini as a disciple of Alice Munro. I learned several years ago, when Sabatini came to do a reading in Sudbury (not the first time we’d met), that she was planning to write a novel based very loosely on her grandfather’s experiences during the Second World War. Though I have no clue how much of her grandfather’s life remains… Continue Reading

#13 – The Steve Machine, by Mike Hoolboom

This book had been giving me the eye in my local store for a couple months before I broke down and bought it. The premise of the novel as reported by the back cover struck me as fifty percent intriguing and fifty percent off-putting. The intriguing: Auden, Hoolboom’s narrator/protagonist hears a voice in his head, a voice other than his own. When he moves from Sudbury to Toronto after discovering he’s HIV-positive, he meets video artist Steve Reinke, only to discover that it is Steve’s voice he hears inside his head. (Reinke, according to the notes, is a video artist out here in the real world too, though unlike his fictional counterpart, he is not HIV-positive. Some of his work is available to watch online.) Steve and Auden become… well, friends is the wrong word, I think, but they become close, anyway, and Steve helps Auden begin writing a book… Continue Reading

#12 – Wandering Time, by Luis Alberto Urrea

Wandering Time was a gift from a friend of mine, and it couldn’t have arrived at a more necessary time. I’m not generally known as a nature loving sort of guy. Quite the opposite, actually. I’m known as a nature hating kind of guy. That’s not strictly true, it’s just the reputation I’ve acquired over the years by doing things like not wanting to go camping, preferring to do indoor things like read books and watch films, and leaving my rural logging town for the big scary city of Toronto. The truth is, I love nature in small doses. When I lived in Waterloo I’d go to the park to watch the ducks when I wanted to relax, and here in Toronto I go out and watch the squirrels as they frolic. They’re very calming. During the winter months, I was going through a personal crisis that was particularly bitter… Continue Reading

#11 – The Pets, by Bragi Ólafsson

Bragi Ólafsson’s Pets, published by Open Letter Books and translated by Janice Balfour is really fucking good. It’s the best book I’ve read in at least eight months, possibly longer. Bragi Ólafsson is probably best known to Canadians as the bass player for the Sugarcubes, the band Björk was in before going solo and becoming the coolest weird chick on Earth. If you’re anything like me, the first thing you thought upon learning this fact was: “a novel written by a celebrity? When was the last time you read one of those that didn’t suck?” It turns out that Ólafsson is a pretty big deal in Iceland’s literary scene. He’s a respected author who’s won a bunch of prizes and runs his own publishing house. And no wonder, really. The Pets is goddamn brilliant. Here’s the rundown: Emil Halldorsson is a bit of an asshole, but he’s a likable asshole,… Continue Reading

#10 – The Taker and Other Stories, by Rubem Fonseca

The Taker and Other Stories, published by Open Letter Books and translated by Clifford E. Landers is the first of Rubem Fonseca’s works to appear in English, though I understand he’s been quite influential in Brazil for most of his career. He was a cop—commissioner of police, in fact—before picking up a pen. I didn’t know that before reading the book, but it fascinates me now that it’s come to my attention. These stories are dark, violent, and terrifying in some ways; many of the characters are so unapologetically apathetic about their behaviour and circumstances they border on the sociopathological. That’s the sort of thing that really gives me the heebie-jeebies (that’s the medical term, right?). “Night Drive” is the perfect opener for the book, and if The Taker is representative of Fonseca’s other work, then it’s a perfect introduction to his writing. The story is simple, semi-anonymous, and shockingly… Continue Reading

#9 – Sword Song, by Bernard Cornwell

We’ve reached the end of my current foray into historical adventure fiction, though that box my father sent me contained more than just four books, so no doubt I will make further sallies as the year progresses. Sword Song is the fourth and as of this writing last book in The Saxon Stories, a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell that explores the rise of King Alfred the Great and the making of the nation we now think of as England. Cornwell has chosen to write about the period using the adventure mode (quite fitting, really; all that fighting is a lot less fun when writing in other modes), using Uhtred, the displaced Lord of Bebbanburg as his narrator. All that maturing Uhtred did while he was a slave aboard a Danish trading vessel in The Lords of the North comes in handy in Sword Song, as Alfred gives him… Continue Reading

#8 – The Lords of the North, by Bernard Cornwell

This third book in The Saxon Stories takes rather an unexpected turn. Uhtred (our hero, such as he is), completes a period of service with King Alfred, whom he doesn’t much like, and then returns to Northumbria in order to take the first step in regaining his lost lands, killing Kjarten, the man who killed his adopted father. Things don’t go according to plan for Uhtred, as he is more or less immediately captured and sold into slavery. He serves two years aboard a Danish trading vessel before he’s rescued and returned to Alfred’s service. Well, a bit more happens than that, but you get the idea. In the real ninth century, being sold into slavery to the Danes probably would have killed Uhtred, hardy warrior though he was, and The Saxon Stories would have come to a rather swift and inglorious conclusion. But this is historical adventure fiction, so… Continue Reading

#7 – The Pale Horseman, by Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell was already a veteran when he wrote The Last Kingdom, so there was no real danger of The Pale Horseman displaying any trace of a freshman slump. I’m pleased to say that he did not disappoint. Uhtred is again the narrator, but instead of focusing on his life with the Danes, The Pale Horseman shifts back to England and introduces Alfred and his political maneuverings in a more serious way. (Also his stomach problems, most likely colitis, a condition that I’m well aware is difficult to cope with nowadays, never mind in the ninth century.) It’s often easy to fall into the trap of thinking that people in the distant past, due to their lack of technological advancement or their ideas about the natural and social orders, were somehow less intelligent, less sophisticated than we are today. This idea is sadly reinforced by a lot of popular media, particularly… Continue Reading

#6 – The Last Kingdom, by Bernard Cornwell

No doubt we’ve all had moments in our lives when we think “wow, I really should have listened to my father on that one.” As far as books are concerned, my biggest such moment was when I finally sat down to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I had been putting them off for years despite my father pushing them at me, and as a result I spent a long time in the dark when I could have been reading perhaps the best historical fiction ever written. My father didn’t raise any fools, though, so having learned my lesson about Patrick O’Brian, when he (my father) sent me a box full of Bernard Cornwell’s novels a while back, I put them in my stack, in the special spot I reserve for books that will allow me to blow off a little steam and have some fun. My father’s taste in historical… Continue Reading

#5 – Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl

When I was in high school I worked in the kitchen of a fast food restaurant. I was happier at that job than at any other job I’ve ever had. I worked with some of my best friends, and we had fun. It wasn’t a hugely demanding job, but it was more challenging than it looks. They weren’t the kind of challenges that I’d look for in a job today, but at the time they were enough. I was happy there, but not fulfilled. The job wasn’t what brought meaning to my life. Happiness, as Frankl correctly asserts, is not everything. It’s not even the most important thing. That’s not something we like to hear in this day and age, but I have no doubt that it’s true, and many of us need to hear it. I’ve been putting off writing this for a long time. I finished reading Man’s… Continue Reading