Review | The Maladjusted, Derek Hayes

I12859621n the title story, a man is so terrified of leaving his apartment that he lowers a basket with cash from his fourth floor fire escape landing to pay the pizza delivery guy. “I have a mental illness,” he explains whenever people give him strange looks.

Such characters form the stories in Derek Hayes’ compelling collection The Maladjusted. These individuals go beyond awkwardness — some are painfully shy, others deeply insecure — and many seem acutely aware of the confidence with which others approach the world.

In the book blurb, Martin Amis calls Hayes “a talented new writer from Canada worth keeping an eye on,” and it’s easy to see why. Hayes’ stories are snappy and engaging, yet full of compassion. One of the first rules taught in writing classes is to show, not tell, and Hayes’ stories prove why this rule works. His prose is straightforward, yet restrained. His stories give the impression of presenting everything the narrator sees and thinks, while still holding back on so much more going on.

In “That’s Very Observant of You,” probably my favourite story, a woman regularly orders takeout Chinese from a restaurant with an attractive waiter.

“No, I’m not eating here. I always get takeout.” She smiled nervously and said, “My friend is waiting for me outside.” [p. 39]

Except she goes straight home, and when invited by a neighbour to a party, pretends she has evening plans with her sister. Truth is, she eats the meal while watching a video, the volume turned down low so her neighbours don’t realize the truth. “Her fingers rubbed grease into the folds of her flabby belly and legs” and she wishes her sister, the “only person in the world who loved her” was with her [p. 41].

In the hands of a lesser writer, this woman could have been a pathetic, maudlin mess. In the hands of a different type of writer, the story could have been a caustic take on the social pressure to conform, or perhaps on this odd woman who refuses to admit she’s alone. Instead, with Hayes, we get a figure so real, we can almost picture her in front of her TV. We get a character depicted with such vivid detail that she inspires compassion while having too much dignity to deserve pity.

The smallest detail means a lot, and the smallest shift in character behaviour implies so much more. The characters are on the fringes of society, or otherwise so screwed up that they’re unlikable, and yet Hayes manages to make them all feel real, and in making us feel something for them. I absolutely loved this short story collection, quick reads suited for the subway, with characters that will resonate long after you’ve arrived home.

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Thank you to the author for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | An Echo Through the Snow, Andrea Thalasinos

13122120Last spring seemed to be my season of dog books. I read and reviewed both Puppy Love and A Dog’s Journey, both novels that, like The Art of Racing in the Rainspeak about the bond between a dog owner and their pet. Andrea Thalasinos’ An Echo Through the Snow depicts a different kind of human/dog relationship by exploring the world of competitive dogsled racing.

Rosalie is stuck in dead end jobs and a horrible life until she meets Smokey, an abused guard dog she takes under her protection. Being placed in a position of responsibility over someone else forces Rosalie to mature, and more importantly, leads her to discover a sense of purpose and a job helping a local couple train dogsled teams.

The bond between Rosalie and Smokey is touching, but it’s interesting to see the difference in dynamic with human characters and the dogsled team. Despite the clear affection, the dogs are primarily there to be trained, and to work as a team, rather than to provide companionship to their owners. As such, there is less anthropomorphizing in this book, as well as more focus on the human characters’ stories. I found myself caught up in Rosalie’s story — painfully shy, troubled, and dealing with an abusive husband, Rosalie is a sympathetic figure, one who grows and develops through her experiences with the dogsled team. Apart from an unnecessary (in my opinion) plot twist, this storyline is well done, and one I think Thalasinos should have spent more time developing.

Less successful, in my view, is the parallel storyline, of a Chukchi woman named Jeaantaa, Keeper of the Guardians (Siberian huskies), who lives around the time Stalin’s Red Army is about to invade her land and displace her people. This storyline had promise and a compelling beginning — Jeaantaa is dealing with the death of her childhood sweetheart and so devotes herself to her role as Keeper to her community’s dogs. The future security of these dogs, however, is placed in jeopardy, and she then has to fight to protect them.

A promising beginning, but one that unfortunately failed to maintain the momentum. It may be because of the constant switching between story lines without any sense of real connection, such that it felt like I was reading two separate books put together in a rather slapdash fashion. Or perhaps I just found Rosalie’s storyline more interesting. Jeaantaa’s story just seemed disjointed, and less interesting than I’d hoped. I wish Thalasinos had developed the storyline in more depth and revealed more about the Chukchi people and how the community felt about the impending threat to their way of life. This could have been a rich, evocative historical piece, but as it is now, I just wish Thalasinos had done away with this storyline and focused completely on Rosalie instead.

An Echo Through the Snow is a different kind of dog book, one that keeps the focus wider than the bond between a human and her dog. The Jeaantaa story line could have been more interesting, and the Rosalie story line definitely did not need that plot twist, but overall, an interesting read for dog lovers.

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | I Hunt Killers, Barry Lyga

7766027As the teenage son of Billy Dent, the most notorious serial killer of the 21st century, Jazz feels constantly under scrutiny. It’s only a matter of time, he imagines people thinking, before Jazz turns out just like his father. It doesn’t help that before Billy was imprisoned, he trained Jazz to join him in killing. As Jazz observes, “For Dear Old Dad, Take Your Son to Work Day was year-round.” [p.11] Jazz likes to believe that even if his father hadn’t been imprisoned, he would have been able to shake off his father’s influence anyway, but a part of him can’t help but notice how easy it would be to knock a cop unconscious. A part of him understands that a killer had removed his victim’s fingers not just for trophies, but to symbolically give the finger to the police. Despite his best efforts, Jazz had indeed absorbed his father’s lessons, and would make a great serial killer.

Barry Lyga’s I Hunt Killers has an incredibly audacious premise. As a mystery and thriller aficionado, I’ve read quite a few serial killer stories, and the Dexter Morgan character is utterly compelling. But to explore the potential of a teenage boy to be a serial killer — and more importantly, to have that boy not be a psychopath, but rather someone who is fighting desperately to avoid what he fears is his destiny.

In his quest not to be his father, Jazz is determined to use his father’s training to hunt down a serial killer currently terrorizing his neighbourhood. In doing so, he is faced with how much he really has learned about being a successful serial killer. This is dark and twisty territory, the kind that in an Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride or Val McDermid novel would probably have the hero drinking or doping heavily. Lyga keeps it PG-13, with Jazz being more like a tortured superhero than a truly broken man, but kudos to the author for not shrinking back from the darkness in Jazz’s psyche. The mystery itself is puzzling enough, but Jazz’s relationship with his father is just as complex and frightening as you might imagine it would be in real life. At times, Jazz seems much more mature than a teenager, but then with a childhood like his, it’s certainly understandable.

I Hunt Killers is a daring, complex, disturbing novel. Lyga pulls it off with well-paced plotting, fascinating characterization and pure guts. The ending felt a bit too superhero serial, dialling back a notch on the disturbing possibilities with a fairly standard promise of a new adventure. Still, after the rest of the story, I have no doubt Lyga will pull it off again with the next books in the series.

Finally, the hardcover edition has probably one of my favourite book designs from last year. Kudos to jacket and book designer Alison Impey. The experience of opening the dust jacket to realize what lay beneath is an apt introduction to the impact of the novel itself. Striking, horrific and memorable, with the rather audacious, almost defiant title I Hunt Killers, this book draws you in even before you turn the page, and it simply refuses to let go.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.