A lot has happened in 2017, I took a short break from blogging which turned into a long break so I could focus on my job and non-profit activities. I don’t regret my choice really but every now and again I’ll be riding the subway or walking down the street and I would think of a nice idea for a blog and feel a pang of regret. Then some terribly kind person will mention “hey, whatever happened to your blog?” and I would worry about my poor orphaned Hot Pepper Latte for the rest of the day. I really do intend to come back to blogging but it likely won’t be consistent for the next little while.
Although I haven’t been blogging, I certainly haven’t stopped reading! so I’m happy to share a full year of reviews with you now. Maybe you need something to read as you set your 2018 goals, or you want to something to read as you hide from the freezing winds this week, either way, enjoy these lost mini-reviews from June to December of this year.
Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson
Shortlisted for the Giller Prize, Eden Robinson’s new book blends indigenous mysticism, difficult family dynamics, and a coming-of-age novel all into one. There are also cannibalistic otters.
Jared is a sixteen-year-old boy living in a small Canadian town where most of the jobs have disappeared and many of the adults and friends in his life spend their time getting wasted. Jared definitely smokes and drinks too much, but he is ultimately a responsible and thoughtful kid trying to keep his family together by managing his mom’s violent temper and his dad’s finances in secret. Then, strange things begin to happen: Ravens talk to him, he begins to see monsters in the faces of old ladies, and he begins to really question why his maternal grandmother never liked him and called him the son of a trickster. I read Son of a Trickster on a series of bus rides to and from Waterloo across two days, and following Jared’s exploits was like watching a car crash in slow motion. I would have maybe preferred to spread it across several days, each chapter like its own episode of a TV drama, packed with enough action in it to last you a week. It’s also the first book in what will be a trilogy if you are looking for a new series to start. I know that I will definitely be looking forward to the sequel in 2018.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
Since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay have become a modern American classic with such claims to fame as being one of the essential items of the Seth Cohen Starter Pack.
Starting in 1939 and running to the 1960s, this epic follows the exploits of Josef Kavalier and his cousin Sammy Klayman as they try to make a name for themselves in the golden age of comics while struggling with the politics of their time. Josef is a refugee fleeing Nazi-occupied Prague and trying to make enough cash to pay for his parents and brother to join him. Sammy is trying to live the American dream and free himself from the bonds of poverty and the pain of legs permanently damaged by polio while discovering his sexual identity. Their creation, The Escapist, goes on to become one of the most successful superheroes in the American canon but not without many trials and tribulations for both boys. This book was gifted to me by a friend and I had lost it on my bookshelves for a while before finding it again this year. Michael Chabon is a snappy writer, famous for his character duos of the strong, silent type and the wise-cracking scrawny guy. I enjoyed the plot points of this novel, although they are often quite entangled with small side characters who I forgot as the 600-page novel went on. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is definitely a book that gives more, as you reread it. Fans of comics and American art will enjoy the references to greats such as Salvador Dali, Stan Lee, and Orson Welles, and many, many actual comic book artists.
The Devil’s Revolver by V.S. McGrath
This new novel from V.S. McGrath (also known by her romance fiction pen name, Vicki Essex) is a Wild West story where magic and the supernatural are a normal part of a life and a young woman has to make a deal with the devil to save her family and herself.
I met V.S. McGrath in person at the Chapters at Yonge and Eglinton as part of their in-store author visits. Westerns have never been a favoured genre of mine, but when she described the story I decided to give it a shot. Hettie Alabama is a seventeen-year-old farm girl turned renegade on the hunt to save her younger sister from the gang who murdered their parents. Magic is a part of everyday life in Hettie’s world and she becomes bonded with the Devil’s Revolver which can kill only at the price of taking one year of her life in order to save her little sister. If you are looking for prose this is not the novel for you, but it is a fun adventure story for those who want to see a strong female protagonist and while there is some romance the focus is on sisterly love. I’m not a fan of the Wild West, but McGrath’s world with more women and diversity than your average Western hit the right notes and I missed my subway stop because I wanted to know what would happen next. It’s also part of a series so there is definitely more action to come, and time for Hettie to grow up some as her decisions while great for driving the plot, aren’t always the smartest.
Hunger by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay’s newest series of essays about food and the body touches all sorts of communities being named one of the best books of 2017 by NPR, Time, Elle, and People to name a few.
“What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood,” asks Gay. In Hunger, she is as boldly honest and poignant as ever, with her collection dedicated to the body, specifically her body, and the ways in which she hungers for food, belonging, an ideal shape, and love. She demonstrates how her role as a woman of colour and immigrant intersects with her lived experiences and has brought her to super morbid obesity. It is a harrowing, heartbreaking story, which Gay unpacks with vigour leaving herself vulnerable to the reader’s scrutiny. She pushes you to question what does it mean to be considered fat and why do we even care whether a person is or isn’t. It is an emotionally heavy read, and if you have a difficult time stomaching violence of graphic descriptions of medical procedures you may not want to read the whole thing through, but don’t skip this book. Hunger is not just about a sad story for its own sake but about understanding how words and even the way our reality is built through clothing and chairs impact the physical and mental health of women all over the world.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
This international bestseller is being made into a star-studded movie set to release in August 2018. It took me months to get it from the hold list but only a few days to devour it and its two sequels.
Crazy Rich Asians is the Asian answer to Princess Diaries which I have been hoping for my entire life. The first book in a series, it follows a young economist and professor, Rachel Chu, and her boyfriend Nick Young, who is actually from a secretive, old money family in Singapore. When the couple decides to go on vacation in Asia, the jig is up as Nick has no choice but to tell his family he is dating Rachel and introduces her. Nick Young’s family is not wealthy high-earners, but the kind of rich that involves a dynasty of three major families marrying cousins in order to draw a circle around their socio-political influence and assets. His cousin Astrid, an international style icon who always avoids the press, plays a second major character through the books (and frankly, a more interesting one than Rachel) as you follow her own struggles for love and her family’s expectations of her. What I love the most about this book is that is surprisingly realistic about how this big secret between Rachel and Nick is handled, something which Rom Com’s often don’t do a great job of. What is often a Rom Com plot hole takes on a different tone with cultural context: many children of Asian parents have to hide who they are dating because of familial expectations for marriage. It’s also refreshing to see Asian characters not only the protagonists and love interests of the story, but wealthy, powerful ones to boot. If you love drama and flights of fancy, Kevin Kwan’s series is the one for you. I breezed through all three of his books this year, and will certainly be writing more about them once the movie drops.
The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron
The latest novel from the Canadian author of The Bear, travel back in time to the roots of humanity with this tale of Girl, the oldest daughter of a neanderthal family, and the archaeologist who discovers her body thousands of years later.
Girl’s family is on the brink of extinction. A long, hard winter and disease have left their numbers low but they are determined to make it to the annual meeting place so that she can secure a mate. Meanwhile, thousands of years in the future, Rosamund Gale is making the archaeological discovery of a lifetime, she just needs to keep her competitors at bay and finish the dig before her baby is due. The Last Neanderthal was part of a Novel Editions subscription box I received and an excellent choice of modern CanLit. Time moves in an interesting way through this book, there are often several chapters dedicated to Girl before one chapter about Rose reappears. The result is a focus on the action, and, frankly, I didn’t mind it all. I would try to skim through the chapters about Rose as quickly as possible to get back to Girl, often left in a precarious situation. Rose’s chapters get better as it goes on. She is fanatical in her dig—the spark of curiosity born from finding the two skulls side by side is powerful. But you begin to detect more of how she is reverting to nature, neglecting herself and her child to chase her find. It’s a tough look at post-partum and the career choices women are forced to make. The lifestyle of the Neanderthals is fixed by the season and what work needs to be done to survive, on top of that they can’t really converse which makes for interesting writing that shows way more than it tells. Girl’s story is told in the action and choices she makes, but her thoughts and feelings shine through and I found myself empathizing and wondering about our pre-historical life more than ever before.
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul
From the Buzzfeed writer and Twitter personality, Scaachi Koul, comes this debut series of essays about growing up as the child of Indian immigrants in Canada, “a land of ice and casual racism.”
Koul’s essays capture her experiences growing up as an Indian woman in Calgary and moving to Toronto. How her identity is perceived by others and by herself on the street, in the classroom, at home, and on the internet is told throughout different chapters of her observations. Capturing the everyday moments like shaving her knuckles, shopping for a skirt, and being attacked by Twitter trolls, O.D.W.A.B.D.A.N.O.T.W.M. (as the book is called) is a collection of hilarious stories which take a serious bite out of racial and cultural dynamics. There are some sad and thoughtful moments especially with regards to Koul’s parents but overall there is a hopeful tone. One of my favourite elements of the book is the fact that words in the title are crossed out on the cover to declare: One Day This Will Matter. As I read this book, there were too many lines I wrote down because they verbalized exactly what I had been feeling. Koul’s remarks on the life of first generation Canadians are the kind you can nod along to like: “My friends had white names—Jennifer, Kayla, Kelloe, Molly, Kirster—names my parents made fun of because what do those names even mean?” Some of her transitions aren’t transitions at all. When done well it reflects how your own mind thinks cyclically, but when it’s not done well it feels a touch ranty. If you aren’t in the mood for something dense but like to think about what it means to be a young woman today, this book is for you.
Nostalgia by M.G. Vassanji
A work of speculative fiction from two-time Giller Prize winner Moyez G. Vassanji. I really didn’t like this book much at all, but if you’re more interested in philosophy than plot it may just be for you.
In an unknown time in the future, human immortality has been made possible by science but in order to live peacefully in a rejuvenated body all traces of a person’s past memories must be erased and new, ideal memories put in their place. Every now and again old memories may leak through into a person’s conscious, called leaked memory syndrome or Nostalgia, and can put these individuals into immense pain, thankfully Doctor Frank Sina is a successful memory doctor who can help. Until one day, Doctor Sina encounters a patient, Presley Smith, who causes him to experience memories he never had before. The book follows the doctor as he tries to investigate what is happening to him secretly as the government suddenly takes a keen interest in him. Like Waiting for the Barbarians, but with a post-apocalyptic feel, Vassanji uses different perspectives and snippets of diary entries and newscasts to tell the story of Frank and Presley Smith and their past lives which they are trying to escape, or at least think they want to. I enjoyed most of the first half of the novel but found the second half not as strong with an ending that was ultimately more about closing plot holes. However, the idea of what it would mean if we could live forever and erase our old memories is an interesting one, and there were many riveting moments throughout the book that explore this on a moral basis. I’ve never been one for speculative fiction but I’m looking forward to reading some of Vassanji’s other works.
The Conjoined by Jen Sookfong Lee
A new Canadian thriller from one of CBC Radio One’s most popular personalities, Jen Sookfong Lee weaves a slow-burning story about what happens when someone you’ve known to be good your whole life turns out to have literal skeletons in their freezer.
Jessica Campbell is a social worker and the loving daughter of a woman named Donna, who fostered children for years. After her mother passes away, Jessica and her father grieve by cleaning out Donna’s many scrapbooks, plants, and bottles of nut oils and flax seeds. Jessica goes to clean out the chest freezers her mother kept in the basement for all assortment of homemade vegan delicacies only to discover two dead bodies at the bottom of it. The police are called and Jessica immediately thinks of two foster children in particular: Casey and Jamie Cheng, troubled and beautiful twins who had always scared her. Unable to reconcile the image of her sweet mother with a killer of children, Jessica investigates the twins going back to their old caseworker and their family to uncover how this could have happened. Lee’s latest novel is a captivating look at social heroism in Canada and how fractured families can be under the surface. The novel flips back and forth through time to capture the nuances of Jessica and her recently departed mother, each interesting takes on how supposedly “good people” are complex individuals who are far from perfect. If you like thrillers but are afraid of the fast-paced and often violent novels already out there, The Conjoined presents a great alternative look backward to unpack the relationships between characters and society.
Read the rest of 2017 reviews:
- No Place Strange by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden
- The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King
- Monoceros by Suzette Mayr
- No-No Boy by John Okada
- Tales from The Moth
- Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
- The Pain Tree by Olive Senior
- The Witches of New York by Ami McKay
- Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien