BOOK REVIEW | The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler

3/5 stars

I’ve finally started on Lars Kepler’s famous Joona Linna series, and I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed the first installment. I’d heard terrible things about this book, but it’s my understanding that earlier translations were not well done (Lars Kepler is a pseudonym for a Swedish husband and wife writing team), rendering the story nonsense. I’m happy to report that these new editions read very well.

This plot is complex, but here are the basics. 10 years ago Erik Maria Bark worked as a professional hypnotist, helping people to move through their past traumas. After a patient incident, he has promised never to hypnotize anyone again. Meanwhile, detective Joona Linna is investigating a complex case which leaves nearly an entire family killed. It’s clear that, regardless of his vow never to practice hypnotism again, Erik is required to hypnotize Josef, the teenage survivor and lone witness of this crime, to unlock details that could lead solving the case. The chain of events that follows leaves Erik and his wife Simone in desperate need of Joona’s help as well.

This was an easy story to move through, but it did feel a little disjointed – as though I was reading two separate stories in one. Both of the stories were good, but there was no connection between them. By the end of the book we are in a totally different place than we started. The story really is Erik’s, not Josef’s, as we initially believe.

This would be a great book for someone interested in Nordic Noir. Overall, a very engaging read and I’m looking forward to continuing with the series!

BOOK REVIEW | Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

4/5 stars

Son of a Trickster has been on my radar for a while now, and I’m so grateful to Canada Reads 2020 for selecting it for the shortlist. I loved this book!

Eden Robinson can tell a story – this book and all of its characters are so vivid and alive. Right off of the bat, the language is foul and hilarious: I knew I was in for a wild ride. This is in many ways a coming of age story for Jared, a 16 year old First Nations boy. Jared’s parents are busy dealing with their own addictions to drugs and alcohol, leaving Jared to take care of both them and himself. Jared bakes and sells marijuana cookies to get by, goes to parties, and occasionally helps complete chores for his aging neighbours.

That’s the tip of the iceberg here. Jared’s grandmother spent time in a residential school, and the effects of multi-generational trauma are very much at the centre of the narrative. Along with addiction, Jared has endured abuse and absentee parents. While these are heavy topics, and as dysfunctional as Jared’s life is, Robinson has crafted a story centered around the love and strength of family. Jared’s mother, for all her faults, loves him deeply. Oh, and there’s magic too.

If you’re familiar with Indigenous storytelling, you’re probably familiar with the Trickster. The Trickster can take many forms, but is a mischievous mythical creature present in traditional stories. In this case it’s called the Wee’git, and Jared’s maternal grandmother thinks that he’s it. Jared sometimes notices strange things happening around him, but passes them off as bad drug trips. We dive into the world of magic in the last third of the book, and I wanted to better understand and this section. It was totally entertaining, but I can’t help but feel as though I missed an important detail. The good news is this is the first in a trilogy, so I can continue to enjoy Robinson’s fantastic word.

BOOK REVIEW | We Have Always Been Here – A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib

4/5 stars

Book #2 for Canada Reads 2020!

We Have Always Been Here is a powerful story of one woman’s journey of self-discovery and re-inventing her faith after immigrating to Canada from Pakistan, escaping an arraigned marriage, and estrangement from her parents.

Samra Habib spent the early years of her childhood in Pakistan, her family a part of a small sect of Ahmadi Muslims. Under the threat of violence from Islamic extremists, Habib’s family made the decision to flee to Canada. Their arrival in Toronto provided freedom from physical violence, but started a new chapter of pain in Habib’s life. Like many immigrant children, she had to grow up quickly. She was bullied and felt lost among her Canadian peers. Before long, her much older male cousin came to live with her family. She soon discovers she is arranged to be married to him when she is of age.

… despite having grand dreams of becoming a writer and traveling the world, my future consisted of being a good Pakistani wife. I was destined for a life of servitude …

At age 16, Habib becomes a child bride. She begins to discover herself and knows this isn’t the life she is meant to be living. Her journey of self-healing is filled with relationships, books, art, music, fashion, travel, and mentors – each of which brings her closer to her true identity. She begins to identify as queer, a taboo that can be deadly for some in the Muslim faith. In her adult life, she as grown into her queer identity, but is missing the comfort and familiarity that Islam once brought her.

The most beautiful parts of Habib’s story were in her discovery of Unity Mosque. Almost like a secret club, she finds a Mosque that welcomes queer Muslims without judgement and with open arms. Re-discovering her faith was critical to her wholeness as a person, but more significantly was her openness to re-inventing what being Muslim means.

As I sat cross-legged on the prayer mat and started out the window, I could hardly believe I was coming back to my faith in the same neighbourhood where I attended my first drag show…I was meeting myself again in my thirties.

Habib’s passion for connecting with queer Muslims was the drive behind her photography project, Just Me and Allah. Traveling the globe, she meets with queer Muslims to take their portraits and hear their diverse stories. Through these connections they find a community, and a safe space to share their truth.

I hope that more conservative readers won’t pass on this book, and I encourage those readers to find the common ground. We all seek to find acceptance, our voice, and our place in the world. Many of Habib’s influences resonated with mine, and reading this felt like having a coffee with a friend. This book is compulsively easy to read – it’s hard to put down.

 

BOOK REVIEW | Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles

 

4/5 stars

My first book complete for Canada Reads 2020!

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, a book for the #metoo movement, takes place in St. John’s Newfoundland. Set over the course of one long day with a blizzard setting in, we hear from staff and acquaintances of the resturaunt “The Hazel”.

Narrated by a large cast of characters, Coles seeks to illustrate the ways in which a capitalist society sets you up for either success of failure. When you have a rich dad he can buy you a restaurant to run, nepotism at its finest. When you have drug addicted parents you may find yourself in damaging foster homes, and end up addicted to drugs yourself. This is ultimately about imbalances in power and wealth, and how this impacts the health of a community.

Coles is unrelenting, unafraid to go to the darkest depths of addiction and poverty, but the format of this book kept me at an emotional distance. The narrative style is unique – there’s not a lot of dialogue throughout the story. We mainly hear from the different characters via their inner monologues, often in a sort of stream of consciousness rumination. I felt the most engaged when we see the dynamics between the characters come alive – Iris and John, Calv and Amanda, etc. This book is heavy, depicting some really difficult scenes, but I found myself unaffected. At least not as deeply as with stories where I feel truly connected to the characters.

This is a great book and I can see why it’s doing so well here in Canada. Up for a Giller Prize, and now shortlisted for Canada Reads 2020, it’s a bold look into the some of the dark places that we often try to avoid. It you’re about to start on this book, I recommend keeping a piece of paper nearby to jot down how the characters are connected. Personally, I feel like a second reading would allow for a deeper relationship with the characters and a more impactful experience.

BOOK REVIEW | The Institute by Stephen King

4/5 stars

Reading Stephen King is always fun, even when the story is about kids being kidnapped, incarcerated, and forced to undergo brutal experiments and punishments.

It’s best to go into The Institute without knowing too much – much of the horror and tension comes comes from trying to figure out what on earth is going on. The story begins with Tim, a police officer who is starting anew after a series of events lands him in a small town where he’ll work as a “night knocker”. Gears switch to Luke Ellis, a gifted boy on the brink of starting at a school for exceptional children. On one fateful night, in under 2 minutes, Luke is kidnapped and his parents murdered. He wakes up in a room nearly identical to his own, but far from home.

At the “institute”, Luke meets other kids who are there under similar circumstances. Kalisha and Nick help him to settle into this new world, and he does the same for the kids who come after him. The kids don’t know why they are there, but they know it has something to do with their exceptional abilities. Some of the kids are TK (telekinetic), and others TP (telepathic), all with varying degrees of skill and control. The adults running the institute are brutal, often torturing the kids if they misbehave or sabotage the experiments. Eventually, kids are moved to the “back half” and never seen again. No one has ever escaped before, but Luke is determined to take action before he’s lost forever. Tim and Luke eventually collide, leading to an action packed finale.

As usual, King writes kids so well. Every once in a while he uses a phrase that sounds a little dated when it’s supposed to be said by a 12 year old, but aside from that his kids are always endearing, even (especially?) when flawed. They form special friendships at the institute, especially Luke and a younger boy named Avery. They are bound through their shared trauma.

I haven’t read Firestarter, but I’ve heard many others say that there are a lot of similarities to The Institute so I may need to read it soon! This will keep you flipping the pages as you seek to find out why these kids have been taken, and why there is such an interest in their unique abilities.

BOOK REVIEW | The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

4/5 stars

I adore this book! If you are looking for an #ownvoices alternative to American Dirt that would be perfect for group discussions or a book club, I highly recommend picking this up.

The story opens with Rivera family crossing the border into the USA where they hope to enroll their daughter in a special school. Maribel suffered an accident at her father’s work site in Mexico, resulting in a brain injury. Her parents, Alma and Arturo, are advised to get her into an American school for the best chances of recovery. Much of this story is about the fierce devotion that parents have for their children, and the sacrifices they make for them.

The Riveras are dropped off at an apartment building, ready to begin their new life in Delaware were Arturo was sponsored to work at a mushroom factory. As the days go by, we meet other residents of the building. They come from all over the Spanish speaking world – Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Panamá, Nicaragua, Paraguay – but are united by the shared experience of immigration. It’s not long before Mayor, the teenage son of a neighbour, takes notice of Maribel. Mayor sees Maribel for who she is, regardless of her brain injury, and the two form a special bond.

There’s so much more I could dig into: the challenges of employment for undocumented migrants, ignorance about how people perceive Spanish speaking immigrants (Panamanians do not eat tacos!), machismo, gun violence, the perils of assuming you know anyone’s truth, judgements that we place on others, etc. But instead I’ll just recommend giving this a read. It gets a bit sentimental at times and is occasionally a little heavy handed. The end moves very quickly and feels rushed, but that doesn’t take away from what a touching story this was. I’ll be thinking about the Rivera family for a while.