Book Review: The Amateurs by Liz Harmer

06.05.2018

By Zara D. Garcia / @ZaraAlexis / @la.vida.zara

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Category: Contemporary Fiction / Dystopia / Sci-Fi
Author: Liz Harmer
Format: Hardcover, 330 pages
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Canada
ISBN: 978-0-3458-1124-0
Pub Date: March 21, 2018

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Summary from Publisher:

In the style of Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, andThe Walking DeadThe Amateurs is a post-apocalyptic examination of nostalgia, loss and the possibility of starting over.

PINA, the largest tech company in the world, introduces a product called port. These ports offer space-time travel powered by nostalgia and desire. Want to go back to when your relationship was blossoming? To when your kids were small, or when your parents met? To Elizabethan England? To 1990s Seattle? Easy. Step inside the port with a destination in mind, and you will be transported. But there is a catch: it’s possible that you cannot come back. And the ports are incredibly seductive, drawing in those with weaker wills…

Nearly everyone buys the ports, and soon, nearly everyone is gone. Those who are left attempt to sort out how to survive in this world nearly devoid of humans. Animals are increasing in numbers, roads are degrading, the Internet is down, and gasoline is running out. The survivors are also left with numerous unguarded ports, which are as mysterious as they are threatening.

In this world we follow a motley crew camped out in the abandoned mansions and stately church of a former steel-town that has seen its own share of collapse and growth. The group of about thirty adults and children are looting and surviving on what food they can find. But the harsh winter is fast approaching–do they make the choice to head south as a group, or wait to see if their loved ones will return through the ports?

The Amateurs focuses on a thirty-something artist and shopkeeper, Marie. She has never gotten over her ex-husband, Jason, and stubbornly hopes he’ll return to her from his new marriage and from the world beyond the port. Meanwhile, in California, life at PINA is breaking down. Brandon, the former head of PR and right-hand man to Albrecht Doors, the mad genius who invented the ports, decides to get out while he still can. He steals a solar-powered car and drives north-east, where he hopes to find his missing mother, and start a new life, maybe a family. And there he meets Marie.

The Amateurs is a story of rapture and romance. It’s an astoundingly powerful debut about the end of technological optimism and the beginning of real optimism.

  • From Goodreads

Book Review:

The Amateurs by Liz Harmer is a fantastic, dystopian debut, which could very well describe a realistic and prophetic future of unbridled, ambitious technological advancement—and ultimately, society’s own demise.

With the production of an ambiguous product called Port, which offers to its owners the opportunity for alleged, instant space-time travel powered by personal nostalgia and desire, the new advancement in tech-toy entertainment in an unknown future, explodes rapidly into a buy-out craze, a manic hysteria of potential, instant travel, which results in an unknowing, dwindling population that simply eradicates itself by disappearing with no significant signs of return.

While one end of the spectrum speaks to the population, which is seduced by the imaginative possibilities that the product Port promises, the other end of the spectrum leaves a begrudged population whose mistrust of PINA products strands them into a solitary struggle of survival and nomadic living.

And at its pinnacle narcissism is the creator of Port, an emboldened and manic Albrecht Doors, whose CEO title, diabolical wealth and power, and smooth-talking, sales-pitching art of what often seems like a magician’s manipulation, quickly catapults him into an obsessive, crowned leader of the PINA headquarters, which evolves into a cultist stronghold that overrides common sense, logic, reason, and the independence of free thinking.

The characters in the novel are fitted to their roles: Maria, whose tenacity to hope and nostalgia keeps her weary of the Port and emotionally distant from the group of survivors left behind; and Brandon, whose optimism and complacency leaves Albrecht Doors’ power and influence relatively unchecked.

The novel’s narrative is easily readable, while the dialogue is true to its characters’ thought processes and demise. And the pacing of the book is quick enough to deem itself unnoticeable. Readers spend more time engrossed in the story rather than plodding through its pages wondering when the story will finally come to its end. The cover design depicts a pineapple, though if you haven’t read the book yet, this choice of illustration won’t incite any significance though it makes sense that it speaks to the PINA corporation, which is at the heart of this novel’s conflict.

What earns this novel’s winning stars is its plot-driven style. Liz Harmer’s imagination of an apocalyptic world that encompasses a plausible, technological advancement is not only only creative, but could easily become true—or at least, she’s written it well enough to become believable.

Some of the questions posed here are:

With society’s need to constantly be entertained, how far is far enough when it comes to creating evolving technological advancements?

Is artificial intelligence a help or a potential hazard to society? What policies and procedures can be put into place to ensure society is kept safe?

How far is someone willing to go to deceitfully endanger lives in order to sustain power and profitability?

What kinds of skills does society risk losing in the name of its growing dependency and addiction to technological devices?

How has technological advancements already affected the social dynamic of our culture and way of living?

And how can we ensure our culture does not lose its integral way of connecting with one another in the face of ever-evolving tech services?

In any case, The Amateurs by Liz Harmer is a creatively written plot that offers fair warning of the potential hazard humankind can unknowingly and ambitiously create against itself if left unchecked.

***

Characters:  3 stars
Plot:  4 stars
Language/Narrative:  3.5 stars
Dialogue:  3 stars
Pacing: 4 stars
Cover Design:  3 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Penguin Random House Canada on behalf of Alfred A. Knopf for providing me with a copy of The Amateurs by Liz Harmer in exchange for an honest and timely review.

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About the Author:

author - liz harmer

Liz Harmer is working on a second novel and a story collection. Her stories, reviews, and essays have been published widely in Hazlitt, Literary Hub, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, The Globe and Mail, and elsewhere. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. Raised in and around Hamilton, Ontario, she currently lives with her husband and three daughters in Southern California.

  • From The Amateurs

Links:

You can connect with the author, Liz Harmer, on her official website, Twitterand Goodreads.

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Book Review: The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

03.26.2018

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis / @la.vida.zara

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Category: Biography / Memoir
Author: Dave Eggers
Format: Hardcover, 334 pages
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-0-735207449-5
Pub Date: January 30, 2018

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Summary from Publisher:

Mokhtar Alkhanshali grew up in San Francisco, one of seven siblings brought up by Yemeni immigrants in a tiny apartment. At age twenty-four, unable to pay for college, he works as a doorman, until a chance encounter awakens his interest in coffee and its rich history in Yemen. Reinventing himself, he sets out to learn about coffee cultivation, roasting and importing. He travels to Yemen and visits farms in every corner of the country, collecting samples, eager to improve cultivation methods and help Yemeni farmers bring their coffee back to its former glory. And he is on the verge of success when civil war engulfs Yemen in 2015. The U.S. embassy closes, Saudi bombs begin to rain down on the country and Mokhtar is trapped in Yemen. This is a heart-pounding true story that weaves together the history of coffee, the struggles of everyday Yemenis living through civil war and the courageous journey of a young man–a Muslim and a U.S. citizen–following the most American of dreams.

  • From Goodreads

Book Review:

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers is a chronological memoir about a young man whose gift for gab and knack for survival renders him on an unbelievable journey towards self-discovery and financial independence.

And while it is as much a story about the life and career of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a restless boy with little privilege who must work his way out of trouble through his sheer talent of diplomacy and negotiation, and who later grows into a young man that lands a position as an amicable and diligent doorman at a luxurious condominium that houses the rich and affluent—it is also a story about Mokhtar’s serendipitous discovery of the history of coffee and its connection to him and his cultural, Yemeni heritage.

Dave Eggers, best known for his clear writing, writes with clarity and objectivity about Mokhtar’s ambitious and serendipitous climb towards success. And while his journey is almost unbelievable in its scope from its humble beginnings as a boy with no aspirations or plans except towards unexpected trouble, to the magnitude of a what a man must overcome in making his dream a reality, Eggers writes Mokhtar Alkanshali’s story without lyrical fanfare.

The story, too, is not only a story about Mokhtar and his passion for philanthropy and business; it is also a story about coffee—its origins, its proper cultivation, its varietals, the process of its tasting, its graded quality—and a way in which it could be made into a valued commodity for Yemeni farmers without the interference of ignorance in its proper cultivation, or the presence of loan sharks and distributors who take advantage through unfair profiteering in a war-torn country.

It is, in essence, a story about a man’s passionate resilience to make a dream come true, not only for himself, but an entire nation—a righteous quest to bring underrated, Yemeni coffee to the forefront of top-quality production and sales worldwide.

This, from a young man with no relevant knowledge of coffee itself, its production, its quality, nor any connections with its money-making industry.

The Monk of Mokha, tells without fanfare, the fantastical story of a young man whose sheer will, a gift of gab to encourage and convince, as well as barrels of what seems to be unbelievable good luck, can do—and does—to slowly, but miraculously become an expert in coffee quality until he becomes a certified Q Grader, to travelling to the deepest,  most remote, and dangerous places in Yemen during its war crisis to personally meet Yemeni farmers to sample their coffee seedlings, and teach them the forgotten history of Yemeni coffee, and how to best produce high-quality coffee beans, as well as inform and empower them to make better profits.

Mokhtar takes upon himself a mission to restore Yemeni coffee to its highest quality, while empowering local Yemeni farmers to become stronger and financially independent, and introducing quality Yemeni coffee to an unknowing, global community. Mokhtar Alkhanshali, is able to, through his tough and almost obsessive passion for Yemeni coffee and true love for his cultural heritage, create a Yemeni coffee empire, which would otherwise remain unknown, dormant, or non-existent.

All this, from one man.

And Dave Eggers records this with meticulous objectivity. While the book itself may not be exhilarating in its narrative, the story of a man who could have lost his life on several occasions and is able to survive on extremely slim odds amidst reckless war and violence, is a tale worth telling—and reading.

The context of coffee in the book is even more fascinating. As an enthusiastic coffee drinker and coffee lover, I was surprised by what I had not known and what I had learned about coffee, its origins, its history, and its production, and its quality until I read about it in The Monk of Mokha.

For coffee lovers alike, this book will be an uplifting surprise.

***

Characters: 3 stars
Plot: 3 stars
Language/Narrative: 3 stars
Dialogue: 3 stars
Pacing: 3 stars
Cover Design: 3 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Penguin Random House Canada on behalf of Alfred A. Knopf for providing me with a copy of The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers in exchange for an honest and timely review.

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About the Author:

dave eggers

Dave Eggers is the author of ten books, including most recently Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, The Circle and A Hologram for the King, which was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. He is the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing company based in San Francisco that produces books, a quarterly journal of new writing (McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern), and a monthly magazine, The Believer. McSweeney’s also publishes Voice of Witness, a nonprofit book series that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. Eggers is the co-founder of 826 National, a network of eight tutoring centers around the country and ScholarMatch, a nonprofit organization designed to connect students with resources, schools and donors to make college possible. He lives in Northern California with his family.

  • From Goodreads

Links:

You can connect with the author, Dave Eggers on Goodreads.

Book Review: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

02.26.2018

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis / @zaralibrary

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Category: Fiction
Author: Chloe Benjamin
Format: Hardcover, 352 pages
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
ISBN: 978-0-7352-1318-0
Pub Date: January 9, 2018

***

Summary from Publisher:

If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

  • From Goodreads

Book Review:

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, as its title suggests is about the Gold family—Jewish adolescent siblings who in their desire to seek out a well-known, gifted fortune teller, also discover in themselves a hidden drive to reach some form of immortality in pursuit of a life not directly impacted by the knowledge of the date of their pre-destined deaths.

The seed of this knowledge, which was planted in these children, what with their hope, faith—and also their fear—in magic, in religion, and in perhaps fate itself—propel each of them on individual journeys that fuel their direction of power from their internal terrain and emotional uncertainty.

There is Simon, whose role was to stay behind to care for his grieving mother is challenged on a whim to make an escape to a different kind of life by the encouragement of his sister, Klara. Together, they leave without a plan and very little money to the flamboyant drama of San Francisco’s gay district where Simon can, in his desire to be true to his sexual identity, find passion in a new, unknown vocation, and an unexpected relationship and love.

Klara, an aspiring magician, learns the secret of her maternal grandmother and takes to unravelling her own giftedness in illusion—not as a trickster—but as a gift bearer to those who need affirmation of hope and other-worldliness in otherwise a benign, harsh existence.

Daniel, the eldest of the siblings, in his pragmatism, becomes untethered by the loss of his position as an army doctor and news of his siblings’ untimely (or rather, timely) deaths as connected with the investigation of a gypsy family whose practice in fortune telling has led to con artist scams and in his personal case (and beliefs)—the death of his siblings.

The last sibling, Varya, whose date of death was determined to be late and so afforded her the longest life of her sister and her two brothers, did not afford her the risk of calm and serenity in living a long life, but rather isolated her in a phobic fear of illness, disease, and misfortune to the extremity of avoiding physical—and emotional—touch.

Together, these siblings stay deeply interconnected with one another through the demise of that first fortune-telling experience as children.

Each death in the family brings about a chain reaction of guilt by survival, deep loss and lack of reconciliation, to further questions about the power of will over fate; the reality of magic and mysticism; and what it really means to live a full and meaningful life as compared to a long duration of one.

The narrative of the novel is true to its complex and long-suffering characters; the tone, that of a subdued, yet passionate melancholy; and the theme, harrowing in its thought-provoking questions of faith, fate, and haunting magic.

Redemptive and sad, it’s a journey readers will care deeply about, and proof of the strength and magnitude of sibling bond and rivalry. It is in its quiet form, a love-and-loss story.

***

Characters: 4 stars
Plot: 3.5 stars
Language/Narrative: 4 stars
Dialogue: 4 stars
Pacing: 3.5 stars
Cover Design: 4.5 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Penguin Random House Canada on behalf of G.P. Putnam’s Sons for providing me with a copy of The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin in exchange for an honest and timely review.

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About the Author:

author - chloe benjamin

Chloe Benjamin is the author of THE IMMORTALISTS, a New York Times Bestseller, #1 Indie Next Pick for January 2018, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, #1 Library Reads pick, and Amazon Best Book of the Month.

Her first novel, THE ANATOMY OF DREAMS (Atria, 2014), received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was longlisted for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.

Her novels have been translated into over twenty-three languages. A graduate of Vassar College and the M.F.A. in fiction at the University of Wisconsin, Chloe lives with her husband in Madison, WI.

  • From Goodreads

Links:

You can connect with the author on her official website, Twitterand Goodreads.

Zara

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Book Review: Strangers with the Same Dream by Alison Pick

01.17.2018

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis / @zaralibrary

bk - strangers with the same dream

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Category: Literary Historical Fiction
Author: Alison Pick
Format: Hardcover, 378 pages
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-0-345-81045-8
Pub Date: August 29, 2017

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Summary from Publisher:

A brilliant, astonishing and politically timely page-turner set in 1921 Palestine, from the author of the bestselling novel Far to Go, nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

This spare, beautifully written, shocking and timely novel whisks us back to 1921 Palestine, when a band of young Jewish pioneers, many escaping violence in their homelands, set out to realize a utopian dream: the founding of a kibbutz on a patch of land that will, twenty-five years later, become part of the State of Israel. Writing with tightly controlled intensity, Alison Pick takes us inside the minds of her vastly different characters–two young unmarried women, one plain and one beautiful, escaping peril in Russia and Europe; one older man, a charismatic group leader who is married with two children; and his wife, Hannah, who understands all too well the dark side of “equality”–to show us how idealism quickly tumbles into pragmatism, and how the utopian dream is punctured by messy human entanglements.

This is also the story of the land itself (present-day Israel and Palestine), revealing with compassion and terrible irony how the pioneers chose to ignore the subtle but undeniable fact that their valley was already populated, home to a people whose lives they did not entirely understand.

Writing with extraordinary power, Pick creates unforgettably human characters who, isolated in the enclosure of their hard-won utopian dream, are haunted by ghosts, compromised by unbearable secrets, and finally, despite flashes of love and hope, worn down by hardship, human frailty, and the pull of violent confrontation. The novel’s utterly shocking but satisfying conclusion will have readers flipping back to the first page to trace patterns and wrestle with the question of what is, or is not, inevitable and knowable in the human heart.

  • From Goodreads

Book Review:

I was privileged to meet Alison Pick in person at a Penguin Random House event in Toronto, which showcased several upcoming books that retailers, librarians, and book bloggers could easily get excited about. At the end of the session, attendees were given a copy of Strangers with the Same Dream with an opportunity to hear its author speak and then personally sign the book. I had not yet read the novel—and in my ignorance, was not yet familiar with Alison Pick’s work.

PRHC fall preview - Alison Pick
(c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.
PRHC fall preview - strangers w same dream signed
(c) Photo by Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez. All rights reserved.

But, I am now thrilled to say that has thankfully changed with my recent reading of her latest novel that serendipitously found its way into my book tote, and then later onto my night table, and eventually to my Completed Reads Bookshelf—and has become one of my favourite books of 2017.

Strangers with the Same Dream is written with an elegant narrative, a voice that renders its readers into the private world of communal living in the culture of a young, Jewish kibbutz, working the land and building a new Israel.

The intricacies and workings of this kibbutz is tenderly written with a reverent eye on its ancestors’ traditions and its new ideals, its hope for enlightenment with its connection to the land and its people, and its plans for settlement and its growing future.

And while ideals and motivated speeches urge the community to plod on in its newness and in its toil, its insecurities, and its doubts—the truths shown in frustrated plans in trying to build a new community from bare land and few resources, reveal a private and fragile innocence soiled by lust, pride, and self-centredness by a few that reverberate its consequences throughout the kibbutz, and ultimately affect the entirety of the young collective.

Within the fascinating details of what it means to be a young, Jewish person part of a collective that embarks on the challenging task of building a home and community in 1921, Israel—is the private yearning, tension, and struggle some individuals face in integrating themselves into the kibbutz they committed themselves to.

The novel is sensitively told through the perspective of key characters: Ida, whose plainness is overtaken by her reverent hope and obedience to the ideals of her ancestors and Jewish traditions; to David, the commune’s self-appointed and volatile leader whose misguided sense of control evolves into lapses of poor judgement, paranoia, and several mistakes, which lead to the book’s climatic resolve; to Hannah, whose role as wife, mother, and matriarch burden her with the loss of her personal motherhood and autonomy to the rules endorsed by the life of the commune.

Within these characters’ narratives are by no means, secondary characters, but rather other key characters who play a vital role in propelling the plot to the richness of the book’s emotional complexity and hidden deconstruction.

Strangers with the Same Dream is an extraordinarily intimate journey of what it means to conquer and reclaim not only a land of promised Jewish inheritance, but of the needs of the individual versus the needs of the communal; the tension between hope and its ever-renewing sense of idealism against the hardship of reality’s frugal cooperation, lack of resources, and sometimes disappointing and even devastating outcomes; and the ever-changing dynamic between power, provision, corruption, and equality.

I love this book. It’s written with intelligence and tenderness, and evokes a plot filled with restrained violence and passionate hope. Readers will quickly be immersed in the story as one might themselves become a member of this young, naive, yet hopeful kibbutz, and become privy to the internal struggles of its complex characters whose reign to self, battles with the higher calling to concede to the faith and livelihood of a collective and its ideals.

It’s a beautiful and necessary historical fiction, which addresses the fundamental and emotional turmoil—and deep satisfaction—the individual can face amidst a collective diligently hoping and working towards an unknown future.

***

Characters: 5 stars
Plot: 5 stars
Language/Narrative: 5 stars
Dialogue: 5 stars
Pacing: 5 stars
Cover Design: 5 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Penguin Random House Canada on behalf of Alfred A. Knopf for providing me with a copy of Strangers with the Same Dream by Alison Pick in exchange for an honest and timely review.

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About the Author:

author - alison pick.jpg

 

Alison Pick’s best-selling novel Far to Go was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and won the Canadian Jewish Book Award. It was a Top 10 Book of 2010 at NOW magazine and the Toronto Star, and was published to international acclaim. Alison was the winner of the 2002 Bronwen Wallace Award for the most promising writer in Canada under 35. Currently on Faculty at the Humber School for Writers and the Banff Centre for the Arts, she lives and writes in Toronto.
  • From Goodreads

Links:

You may connect with the author on her official website , Twitter, and Goodreads.

Zara

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Book Review: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

12.17.2017

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis / @zaralibrary

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Category: General Fiction
Author: Megan HUnter
Format: Advanced Reading Copy (ARC), 136 pages
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0-7352-3502-1
Pub Date: November 7, 2017

***

Summary from Publisher:

In the midst of a mysterious environmental crisis, as London is submerged below flood waters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, the family are forced to leave their home in search of safety. As they move from place to place, shelter to shelter, their journey traces both fear and wonder as Z’s small fists grasp at the things he sees, as he grows and stretches, thriving and content against all the odds.

This is a story of new motherhood in a terrifying setting: a familiar world made dangerous and unstable, its people forced to become refugees. Startlingly beautiful, Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From is a gripping novel that paints an imagined future as realistic as it is frightening. And yet, though the country is falling apart around them, this family’s world – of new life and new hope – sings with love.

  • From Goodreads

Book Review:

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter is a first novella by its author, a story in a dystopian setting that begins as its title suggests, at the end—the potential apocalyptic end of civilization as its known during an unknown time in the future.

Its story focuses on a young, pregnant woman who gives birth to a baby boy she and her partner name, Z. But, with his birth not only comes the emotional joy and bond of motherhood, but a time in which the world is in an environmental crisis, one which devastates land with flood and people homeless and nomadic.

The novella in its less than 140-page story, tells a narrative of scarcity, sickness, death, and for some, survival.

The narrative, too, almost becomes a stylistic comment on the theme of the book, the way it is written so sparingly, as if prose itself is stripped to its basic necessity. The narrative is more prose poem than it is detailed novel writing.

The names of characters, too, are not fully named, but are rather diminished to single letters, as if the characters themselves, like in the potential danger of the apocalyptic theme, have also diminished to a lesser identity or a figurative identity that could be everyone—or anyone—in a mass apocalypse.

What is personal in the story is the narrative of the main character, the woman who becomes mother, how this pivotal role has involuntarily helped her fall in love with her child, with motherhood, even in the direst circumstances. It gives her at the very least, a hard resolve to focus all of her energy on the survival of her son, whose blissful ignorance is both a blessing and a curse.

While the narrative can be considered lyrical in the sense that it is not traditionally prose, the scarcity in detail can and may frustrate readers who prefer not to work so hard to imagine the gaps in which the author leaves for readers to interpret or extrapolate.

And sometimes this type of narrative misses the opportunity to really depict a fuller experience of the senses in the story. But, rather leaves a stark, inexplicable setting that readers may not fully enjoy because of the lack of detail and connection.

And because of its short size, the story does only a sparse job in giving what seemed a superficial account of plot and character dimension in what could be a compelling dystopian story.

Still, if you’re not looking for a long narrative, don’t dislike poetry or a lack of detailed prose, and want a peek at what could be a catastrophic, environmental crisis, then yes, this little novella is for you.

Otherwise, it’s an interesting, yet superficial take on the instinct and hardship involved in attempting to survive in an apocalyptic world where flood, famine, and loss are at its most relevant.

***

Characters: 3 stars
Plot: 3 stars
Language/Narrative: 2.5 stars
Dialogue: 2.5 stars
Pacing: 2.5 stars
Cover Design: 2.5 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Penguin Random House Canada on behalf of Hamish Hamilton for providing me with an advanced reading copy (ARC) of The End We Start From by Megan Hunter in exchange for an honest and timely review.

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About the Author:

author - megan hunter

Megan Hunter was born in Manchester in 1984, and now lives in Cambridge with her young family. She has a BA in English Literature from Sussex University, and an MPhil in English Literature: Criticism and Culture from Jesus College, Cambridge. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and she was a finalist for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award with her short story ‘Selfing’.

Megan’s first book, The End We Start From, will be published in 2017 by Picador (UK), Grove Atlantic (USA/Canada), Gallimard (France), Beck (Germany), Hollands Diep (Holland), and Elsinore (Portugal).

  • From Goodreads

Links:

You may connect with the author on Twitter and Goodreads.

Zara

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Book Review: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

12.15.2017

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis / @zaralibrary

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Category: General Fiction
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Format: Advanced Reading Copy (ARC), 276 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Books
ISBN: 978-0-7352-1768-3
Pub Date: August 15, 2017

***

Summary from Publisher:

Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma’s worst fears are confirmed.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Son of a powerful political figure, he has his own birthright to live up to—or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Suddenly, two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined, in this searing novel that asks: What sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

  • From Goodreads

Book Review:

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie is an investigation into the political and emotional ramification of terrorism at the personal level—what it means to be directly influenced and connected to it—by history, by bloodline, by political stance.

It focuses on the Pasha family, siblings whose lives are charged with the intensity of an emotionally ever-present, yet absent father, Adil Pasha, a known jihadist by the British government who fought with jihadi groups in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990’s and then travelled to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban.

The knowledge of this crime has followed and burdened the lives of the Pasha family: Isma, the eldest daughter left to the responsibility of parenting her siblings after the absence of their father and the death of their mother; Aneeka, the passionate beauty whose deep connection with her twin, Parvaiz, compels her to tantrums and deceit; and Parvaiz, in lacking a father-figure clings to the haunting memory of his father’s extremist beliefs and believed martyrdom.

Their futures stained with the political crimes of their missing father, compel them in vastly different directions, which eventually through plot and what seems like serendipity, connect them with a powerful political figure of their past, Karamat Lone, Home Secretary of the British government and a progressive Muslim, along with his beloved son, Eammon.

The narrative of the novel reveals the internal landscape of its characters, how asserting and/or denying and/or identifying as a Muslim in modern day London and Afghanistan has with it complexities amidst the geo-political climate of the world as well as being burdened with the knowledge of a relative whose extremist values and jihadist motivations and actions have scarred his family, even years after his own death.

The plot, though deceptively tranquil at the beginning, even almost hopeful—quickly manifests into manipulative relationships where the instigator eventually coerces the victim to do things that will make him feel uncomfortable or put his life at risk. The tension in the book is in the injustice of these actions, which render its victims almost helpless to act autonomously.

The characters, though well developed and clearly depicted, have in them an emotional weakness to be easily persuaded, to act abruptly and with passion, as well as to respond in extremity, which can only lead to problematic situations.

The thematic thread in the book is obvious in its extremism—both in acts of terror, political strategy, and relationship. But, its success is in how it portrays its characters’ development—how one might move from a life of routine and social norms to the mind-altering, psychological framework of extremist beliefs and jihadist commitment and crime through a myriad of insecurities, manipulation, and time.

Regardless, the author is able to put a human face to the elusive beast of terror and share a narrative that personally empathizes with those who are directly affected by the cause and affect of its destruction, both socially, politically, and emotionally.

***

Characters: 3.5 stars
Plot: 3.5 stars
Language/Narrative: 3.5 stars
Dialogue: 4 stars
Pacing: 3.5 stars
Cover Design: 3 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Penguin Random House Canada on behalf of Riverhead Books for providing me with an advanced reading copy (ARC) of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie in exchange for an honest and timely review.

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About the Author:

author - kamila shamsie

Kamila Shamsie was born in 1973 in Karachi, where she grew up. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. While at the University of Massachusetts she wrote In The City By The Sea , published by Granta Books UK in 1998. This first novel was shortlisted for the John Llewelyn Rhys Award in the UK, and Shamsie received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature in Pakistan in 1999. Her 2000 novel Salt and Saffron led to Shamsie’s selection as one of Orange’s “21 Writers of the 21st Century.” With her third novel, Kartography , Shamsie was again shortlisted for the John Llewelyn Rhys award in the UK. Both Kartography and her next novel, Broken Verses , won the Patras Bokhari Award from the Academy of Letters in Pakistan. Burnt Shadows, Shamsie’s fifth novel, has been longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her books have been translated into a number of languages.

Shamsie is the daughter of literary critic and writer Muneeza Shamsie, the niece of celebrated Indian novelist Attia Hosain, and the granddaughter of the memoirist Begum Jahanara Habibullah. A reviewer and columnist, primarily for the Guardian, Shamsie has been a judge for several literary awards including The Orange Award for New Writing and The Guardian First Book Award. She also sits on the advisory board of the Index on Censorship.

For years Shamsie spent equal amounts of time in London and Karachi, while also occasionally teaching creative writing at Hamilton College in New York State. She now lives primarily in London.

  • From Goodreads

Links:

You may connect with the author on Twitter and Goodreads.

Zara

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Book Review: The Dead Husband Project by Sarah Meehan Sirk

10.18.2017

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis / @zaralibrary

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Category: Literary Fiction
Author: Sarah Meehan Sirk
Format: Ebook via NetGalley, 247 pages
Publisher: Anchor Canada
ISBN: 978-0-3856-8760-7
Pub Date: August 8, 2017

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Summary from Publisher:

Perfect for readers of George Saunders, Jennifer Egan and Heather O’Neill, a rich and inventive collection of exquisite short stories by a major newcomer to Canadian literature.

In this deeply felt, compulsive and edgy work, Sarah Meehan Sirk shines a distinctive light on love and death in their many incarnations, pushing against the limits of the absurd while exposing piercing emotional truths about what it means to be gloriously, maddeningly alive.

In The Dead Husband Project, an artist who has planned to make an installation out of her terminally ill husband’s dead body has to recalibrate when his diagnosis changes. In The Date, an online dating match takes an unusual turn when the man who shows up to the restaurant has no face. In Ozk, a young girl longs to connect with her socially isolated mother, a professor of mathematics who makes a radical discovery.

Uncanny, sometimes violent, achingly sad and always profound, these stories showcase a writer with skill and empathy, and draw us in with a steady, unyielding grip.

  • From Goodreads

Book Review:

With a title as intriguing as The Dead Husband Project and an equally gorgeous, floral cover, this short story collection by Sarah Meehan Sirk is deceitfully dark and foreboding—and yet the 14 stories in their entirety provide a spyglass to several broken and resentful characters who find themselves navigating within some strange, almost absurd plots.

From different contexts that deal with the exhibition of death as art; to the absence of maternal love in lieu of obsessive ambition and research; adultery with life-threatening ramifications; emotional adultery and its resignation; the death of a loved one; the inevitability of aging; the submission to betrayal in friendship; the weary disconnect in relationship; to the turmoil of grief and loneliness—while these stories share burdensome contexts, the writing itself can at times, seem heavy-handed, not striving to be succinct, but rather succumbs to unnecessary explanation, which can and often does feel cliché.

What could be a collection of complicated characters with a variety of emotional landscapes in stories of obsession, pain, loss, grief, and love; instead contextualizes a narrative, which fails this intent. Otherwise, the stories themselves hold the potential of depth and retrospection.

And while the beginning of most of the stories in the collection show promise of not only interest, but depth, their endings rely on a self-conscious narrative that feels the need to “tie up loose ends” with the explanation of circumstances and/or the end result of emotions felt by its thwarted and disappointed characters—which most of them tend to be.

But, where the narrative in the book can sometimes fail, the stories’ dialogue on the other hand, can and most often does sound true. There’s also a tenderness in some details found in such stories as Ozk or The Centre.

While most of the characters are unable to incite full likeability in its readers, one can empathize with what these characters might feel considering how absurd or surprising the plots they find themselves in.

Perhaps the plots’ themes were too large or extraneous: Cancer, coma, HIV, adultery, abandonment—relying instead on the significance of their emotional magnitude and crisis, rather than focusing on truths that can be shared in more daily, simple struggles or outcomes for those who experience such dilemmas.

If not for the design of its cover, nor the intrigue of its title, and the ambition of its poorly executed imagination—The Dead Husband Project, would remain an inert collection of stories perhaps better left on the shelf.

Yet, there’s still hope. It is only a debut novel, after all.

Should Sarah Meehan Sirk hone in her creative writing skill with less explanation or a self-conscious narrative that compels itself to obvious closure, her imaginative power may then truly explore and execute the potential profoundness of what could essentially be her work.

***

Characters: 2.5 stars
Plot: 3 stars
Language/Narrative: 2.5 stars
Dialogue: 2.5 stars
Pacing: 3 stars
Cover Design: 4 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Penguin Random House Canada on behalf of Anchor Canada for providing me with an e-book of The Dead Husband Project by Sarah Meehan Sirk through NetGalley in exchange for an honest and timely review.

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About the Author:

author - sarah meehan sirk

Sarah Meehan Sirk is a writer and radio producer. Her fiction has appeared in various journals and magazines and is anthologized in The Journey Prize Stories.

At the CBC, she’s produced for national shows including Q (now q) and Day 6, and hosted the 2015 summer series Stripped. Before that, she produced a Toronto crime show, hosted sports programs, filed human rights reports with Ghanaian journalists in West Africa, and co-produced, wrote, and hosted a short TV series on minor hockey that was nominated for what was then known as a Gemini award (it lost to the Olympics.) She has also produced a son, and a daughter.

She studied math and philosophy at the University of Toronto, and was mentored by David Adams Richards at the Humber School for Writers. She lives in Toronto with her young family. The Dead Husband Project is her first book.

  • From Goodreads

Links:

You can connect with Sarah Meehan Sirk on Twitter and Goodreads.

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Zara

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