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.

BOOK REVIEW | Nothing Important Happened Today by Will Carver

3/5 stars

CW: Graphic depictions of suicide.

Ok. Wow. Where to start?

Part existential crisis, part completely disturbed. This is a crime novel about a cult and it’s victims, but unlike anything you’ve read before. 9 people stand atop the Chelsea bridge, wait for the passing train to stop within its view, and jump in unison…this is one of many similar events across the UK, with the numbers of casualties rising. Each victim is called to their end when they receive a letter in the mail containing 4 simple words: “nothing important happened today”.

Told in the 3rd person, we learn about the victims. They are referred to as nobodies, or “the People of Choice”. In reality, they are a doctor, teacher, poet, parents, an au pair, a young girl grieving the loss of her mother…not nobodies. Who is behind these tragic events? How does a group of strangers unite to perform this final act together? Detective Pace finds himself compelled to the case, even though it’s not his assignment – he’s off on leave and undergoing therapy.

This book is extremely, and I can’t stress this enough, violent and graphic. I was very uncomfortable during quite a few sections, and was close to putting it down many times. Will Carver is a fantastic writer and that’s what kept me reading. The final section of this book is excellent. Detective Pace starts to connect the dots, and as a reader you are compelled to see how it comes together. I wanted more of the book to be like this, but then I guess they would make it an average crime read. Average this is not.

This is a really tough book to review. Those who contemplate the meaning of life, society, and the point of anything – you may find some value here. Crime fiction readers looking for something completely different may enjoy this too. That said, I can’t say I’d recommend this to anyone else.

BOOK REVIEW | Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey

3/5 stars

*I received a digital review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Unspeakable Things is available now.

Unspeakable Things follows Cassie, coming of age in the 1980’s, and her older sister Sephie as they navigate both a troubled home life as well as rumors of children being taken in the town of Lilydale, a small community in Minnesota.

This is a slow burn mystery, with multiple red herrings at play – tension is building up to something sinister, and it seems that almost any of the adults in town could be implicated. Most of the action, and the best parts of the story, take place in the final chapters of the book. Unfortunately, the final reveal does not come as a surprise.

I really enjoyed parts of this book, and found others to be wholly unnecessary. Without giving too much away, there are elements at play which do nothing to move the story forward, but I suppose are rather to establish a dysfunctional home life for the sisters. But, we already know that some of the people closest to them are unreliable, so there are things I could do without.

Strangely, the incredibly important epilogue was left out of the book. To read this final section, readers must head to Jess Lourey’s website to see where the central characters end up. To me, the epilogue was critical to my full understanding and resolution of the story, so it seems an odd choice to leave it out.

Note that this book does have descriptions of abuse towards children, as well as implied assault by a parent. It’s not extensive, but this could certainly be a troubling read for some. Overall, it was ok. I liked Cassie and rooted for her, and found myself moving very quickly through the book at the end.