BOOK REVIEW | Corregidora by Gayl Jones

5/5 stars

Corregidora meets its readers at the intersection of racial and sexual trauma. This powerful book, first published in 1975, tells the story of Ursa Corregdira as she reckons with both her violent family history and her experience as a woman navigating her own intimate relationships.

Ursa is a talented blues singer, making her living performing in bars. After a violent encounter with her husband leaves her unable to have children, she becomes consumed with the generations that came before her, and the generations that she can no longer produce. Told though conversations, inner-dialogue, and memory, we piece together a painful family history passed down from Corregidora’s grandmother and mother.

There’s so much packed into this short book, from a woman’s right to sexual autonomy, to the psychological impact of the male gaze, to the lingering effects of intergenerational trauma. What struck me the most was the sense of loneliness. Ursa is desired for her talent as a singer and for her body, but rarely for who she is – the intersectionality of black womanhood that is still relevant today. She contends with her inability to “make generations”, which highlights the question of what society values in a woman.

The language in this book is extremely raw and visceral with an transparency unlike anything I’ve read before. The prose is colloquial and accessible which allows you to feel deeply for and with Ursa. Corregiadora is the most honest portrayal of womanhood I’ve encountered, and I am so incredibly glad to have discovered Gayl Jones.

BOOK REVIEW | Beloved by Toni Morrison

5/5 stars

What can I say about Beloved that hasn’t been said before? It’s a truly remarkable work.

This is the raw and powerful story of Sethe, a woman who escaped slavery, but not before committing a horrific act as a way of keeping her children from becoming slaves as well. Eighteen years later, Sethe is haunted by her past. Morrison examines both the lasting effects of slavery, as well as the mental health of the enslaved.

Morrison is otherworldly in her prose; poetic, intimate, explicit – I caught my breath more than once while reading certain passages. The first was early on in the book when Sethe tells her lover, Paul D, that she has a tree on her back. Paul looks at her tree post-coitus and instead sees the gnarled scars left behind after a brutal whipping. It’s a sad, graphic moment, and when I first understood the power of Morrison’s craft.

A heavy, dense story that commands your attention, but it’s worth every bit of the effort. A book to be read over and over again.

BOOK REVIEW | Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

4/5 stars

I finished Radicalized a few days ago, but have had trouble concentrating long enough to write my review. Like so many others, I’m feeling overwhelmed. This was a great collection though, so hopefully this quick rundown of the stories will do it justice.

“Unauthorized Bread” seems silly initially: Salima, an immigrant, jailbreaks her toaster so she can toast “unauthorized bread”, rather than the manufacturer approved bread for her model. This leads to her eventually jailbreaking her dishwasher, and so on. It seems outlandish, but really, when you think about it, how is this any different than using a propriety cord to charge a device? Or your printer faulting because you purchased aftermarket toner? The story goes deeper, straddling the ways in which the rich can benefit from these constraints while the less privelaged, immigrants in this case, are left to suffer. Salima eventually moves into apartment housing where the appliances are subsidized and monitored, and elevators work on a hierarchy: non immigrant ride first. Naturally, Salima wants to find workarounds. Funny and smart, I loved this story.

“Model Minority” is a superhero story that takes on race, police brutality, systemic oppression, and even the culture of armchair saviors. This was probably my least favourite story of the book, but I appreciate Doctorow’s commentary on these relevant injustices.

“Radicalized” is about health care and one man’s descent into the dark web. As insurance companies systematically deny critically ill patients the care that they need to survive, an online forum provides an outlet for their frustrated loved ones to express their anger. This anger soon evolves into a hotbed of violent ideologies, and it’s not long before someone decides to act on his destructive fantasy.

“The Masque of Red Death” is about a pandemic. I didn’t know that there was a pandemic story in this book, it was just an unfriendly coincidence. This was hard to read given the current state of global emergency. The story follows a survivalist and those with him at his compound. Difficult decisions are made, food and medication must be rationed – I think we all know how this one ends. I would have enjoyed reading this a lot more if it was a different time. I’ve heard some say that they don’t see how this story fits in with the first 3, but the first 3 issues are all, in some way, represented in this final story. Survival, classism, and health.

I really enjoyed these novellas from Cory Doctorow; they’re profound, astute satires about very real social issues. A book that I probably wouldn’t have picked up if not for Canada Reads, which is why I love the competition.

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 | Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

5/5 stars

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with this advanced copy. Miracle Creek is available now.

Miracle Creek is being touted as a courtroom drama, but to label it as such is doing this book a huge disservice. This story is layered, deep, and incredibly smart. Angie Kim blew this book out of the water; it’s hard to believe it’s her debut novel. The promise of a gripping court story is appealing, but the nuanced, complex characters will keep readers engaged.

The story revolves the “Miracle Submarine”, a Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) tank run by Pak in the town of Miracle Creek. HBOT is said to help improve symptoms in children with autism, and the allure of this unique treatment proves hope for many parents. Elizabeth and her son Henry are among those who come for regular treatments, or “dives”.

During a routine dive, a fire breaks out resulting in an explosion. The outcome is tragic, sparking an investigation into how the fire started. It becomes quickly apparent that this was arson, but who would set a fire to an oxygenated structure knowing that kids are inside? Would the exhausted, overworked parent of an autistic child commit such an atrocious crime? Or perhaps Pak, the owner of the Miracle Submarine, in an insurance fraud scandal?

Interposed between snapshots of the trial, are beautifully fleshed out stories. We learn about Pak, his wife Young, and daughter Mary, and the challenges they face after immigrating from Seoul, Korea. Mary struggles the most with this significant change, as any teenager would. We gain insight into Elizabeth’s life and struggles as a mother to an autistic child, and the lengths she goes to to help him with his symptoms. From meticulously planned out meals, to a variety of therapies, Elizabeth’s world revolves around Henry and his care. She’s exhausted, but any parent can relate to her story – to want to give your child every possibly opportunity to thrive.

Kim delivers family drama, intrigue, and poignant insights with Miracle Creek. This was a fantastic read for me, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for a moving story to get lost in.

BOOK REVIEW | The Outsider by Stephen King

4/5 stars

The first half of this book was such a blast, and one of the best thriller / mystery / police procedurals I’ve read in a long time. I was powering through at a pretty quick pace, until about the half way mark when the story takes a severe left turn. I like to go into books pretty blind, so I wasn’t aware that there would be a connection to the Bill Hodges trilogy. King loves connecting his stories together, but unfortunately I found this took away from an otherwise stellar narrative.

The premise: a young boy is violently killed but the prime suspect, coach Terry Maitland, has an indisputable alibi. Multiple eye witnesses claim to have seen Terry near the scene of the crime and with the victim, but there is no way he can be responsible – a man can’t be in two places at once. Due to the horrific nature of the crime police are looking to make an arrest ASAP to ensure the public feels safe, and when the DNA comes back as a match they arrest Terry publicly, leaving tragedy behind for his family. As the story progressive it becomes more and more apparent that Terry can’t be responsible, but DNA doesn’t lie…

If you haven’t read the Bill Hodges trilogy and would like to, do not read The Outsider first. It’s a stand-alone book, but will spoil the series for those who haven’t read it. When the mystery seems impossible to solve, King brings back Holly Gibney from his trilogy (which I loved) – the anxious, quiet, yet shockingly astute partner who played a pivotal role in those books. This is also the point in the book that dives into the supernatural, which can go either way for me. I generally don’t like supernatural stories, but King often does it extremely well. It was good here, just not as good as the first half of the story.

I love Stephen King, and this was so close to being a home run! My review sounds a bit negative but I really enjoyed the book, even though it felt a bit disjointed. Fans of King will appreciate his dedication to continuing to surprise, even with so many stories under his belt.

BOOK REVIEW | The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

5/5 stars

I’ve loved The Talented Mr. Ripley since the movie was released in 1999, and have been meaning to read the book ever since. I finally picked it up, and what a reading experience it was! I absolutely adored this book from the first page to the last, and can’t wait to watch the movie again to compare the two.

Tom Ripley is a fraudster – he tricks people into sending him cheques rather than the bank, and is genuinely proud of himself whenever he pulls off a deception. There is a sense of longing for more: bigger stunts and riskier plans are on the horizon. When an opportunity arises for Tom to go to Italy to convince playboy Dickie Greenleaf to come home to America, all expenses paid by Dickie’s concerned father, he jumps at the opportunity.

Once in Mongibello, the small Italian town where Dickie has been living, he intentionally bumps into Dickie and his girlfriend Marge, convincing them that he is an old friend. Dickie and Marge invite Tom into their home, and Tom soon realizes that he quite likes the life Dickie is leading – maybe he’d like to live this way too. A chance to make an easy dollar soon turns into a frightening obsession, and eventually to murder. What follows is a complex and expertly plotted tale of escape in plain sight. Tom Ripley is a sick genius, able to manipulate any narrative to suit his own.

Highsmith masterfully delves into the mind of a psychopath; early in the book she details a moment in which Tom rubs his hands together while laughing quietly to himself after pulling off fraud, and it’s so deliciously creepy that I knew I was in for a good ride. Throughout the story, it’s easy to both sympathize with and be disgusted by Tom; Tom’s is able to convince himself so thoroughly of his version of events that it’s easy to forget what really happened. My only critique is that it ends so abruptly – I guess I’ll have to pick up Ripley Underground soon!

BOOK REVIEW | Live Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

5/5 stars

“Name?” The desk clerk said to me politely… “Age?” She asked…”Occupation?”

“Writer,” I said.

“Housewife,” she said.

“Writer,” I said.

“I’ll just put down housewife, she said.

“Husband’s name?” She said…”Occupation?”

“Just put down housewife,” I said.

My first delve into Shirley Jackson’s non-fiction was beyond satisfying. I’ve read her horror, as well as Ruth Ware’s fantastic biography, and now, her humour. Life Among the Savages is a sort of memoir, Jackson reflecting on the mundanity of domestic life as well as raising her children – first two, then three, and by the end of the book, four.

It’s comforting to know that this book, first published in 1953, still rings true today. As a mom to two young boys, I often feel like I’m living among savages! Jackson’s characteristic dry wit turns moments of utter chaos into something many parents will relate to. Parenting is ruthless, absurd, challenging, rewarding, and the hardest work I’ve ever done – but I wouldn’t change anything about it. I only wish Jackson went a little deeper into the challenges of being a working mother, all while fulfilling the expected wifely duties; it’s bubbling there beneath the surface, but she never goes all the way in.

Those without kids can still enjoy this book – Jackson’s storytelling is as perfect here is it is in her fiction. These stories may be true or may be embellished, we’ll never know. Either way, this is a worthy read for any Jackson fan and I can’t wait to dig into Raising Demons, this book’s successor.

BOOK REVIEW | Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

5/5 stars

Prentiss is ambitious with her first novel, crafting a complex, deeply interwoven narrative. The book spans countries and storylines, all the while offering a glimpse into the art scene in New York in 1980.

The story is built around a cast of fantastic supporting characters and 3 central characters: James, a synaesthetic and slightly eccentric art critic, Lucy, a small town girl who recently moved to New York, and Raul, a talented painter. These three characters will ultimately clash, a confluence of art and family. The story is so engaging that I never found myself seeking out the connections ahead of time, but rather enjoyed the progression of plot without expectation.

Prentiss’ prose is the sort that I soak up; witty, bold, and confident. Her characters are well drawn, each suffering a loss of great magnitude before ultimately finding new purpose. The character development is a driving force, moving the plot along effortlessly.

There’s a lot going on in this story, which is really its only downfall – I wasn’t ready to close the book on certain characters. I rarely say this, but this book could have been 100 pages longer and I’d be no less engrossed.

BOOK REVIEW | Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

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5/5 stars

My thoughts:
I often tell my students that fiction is about desire in one way or another. The older I get, the more I understand that life is generally the pursuit of desires. We want and want and oh how we want. We hunger.

An honest take on what it means to be a woman who takes up space in the world, Roxane Gay broke my heart. Gay is brutally transparent as she examines the violence she experienced as a child, and how it shaped, and continues to shape, her journey through life. She discusses her parents, and what it means to be the child of Haitian immigrants in America. Expectations for her and her siblings were high, both academically and physically. Though her parent’s always came from a place of love, their focus on Gay’s weight became a point of contention and rebellion during critical, formative years.

This book felt like a release, therapy – she lays so much bare. What struck me the most is that this isn’t your typical memoir that wraps up with a happy ending, or profound lessons learned. Gay lets you know from page one that this is simply her experience. Many readers will identify with Gay’s discomfort with her own skin – I think being comfortable in your own body, regardless of size, is a lifelong process for many. Gay breaks down many of the struggles of being of size – chairs with arms, places to shop, and walks with friends to name a few.

From the first page I knew I was about to read something special, and cannot wait to dig into Gay’s fiction. While this is the story of her body, there is a universality to the memoir that will resonate with readers. I can only thank Gay for bearing her soul and her pain to create something so heartbreaking, honest, perfect.