BOOK REVIEW | Canada Reads 2017 #1 – Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

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4.5/5

From the publisher:
– I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.

– I’ll wager a year’s servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.

And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old ‘dog’ ways, and those whoembrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.

My thoughts:
Fifteen Dogs blew me away. This was probably the Canada Reads selection that I was least looking forward to, and it may very well end up as my front runner.

Gods Hermes and Apollo are hanging out at the local tavern, waxing philosophical over drinks. The discussion turns to human happiness, and a bet is made: Apollo wagers a year’s servitude that any animal, if bestowed with human intelligence and consciousness, would be even more unhappy than humans. Hermes takes him up on the bet, with the caveat that if any one animal is happy at its death, he wins. After leaving the tavern they end up near a veterinary clinic and in the back are fifteen dogs. With that, they decide to test their theory on dogs, and they grant the animals with human language and intelligence. From here, the story unfolds. We follow the fifteen dogs as they begin to understand their new intelligence, through their lives and struggles, and ultimately to their deaths. The story is insightful, bleak, brutal, and heartbreaking – I absolutely loved it.

The dogs ask poignant questions and contemplate timeless philosophies – to understand love, the fight for personal sovereignty, the need for a sense of family or community, dominance vs. submission, and of course the struggle to find meaning and joy in life. Alexis skillfully weaves in and out of their stories, and brings it all home with a touching denouement. In the note on the text, Alexis reveals something pretty amazing about the short poems in the book – I promise you’ll be turning back to read them all over again.

Alexis packed so much into this short book: there’s action, quiet contemplation, humor, joy, and sadness. Every page has meaning and has been carefully crafted; this is not a book to be skimmed through. While this is a book about fifteen dogs, you do not need to be a dog lover to enjoy this, though there are some great moments for those of of who are! This book is profoundly human, and one that I can see myself returning to again and again.

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BOOK REVIEW | All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

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3.5/5 stars

*I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

From the publisher:
You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks, and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed . . . because it wasn’t necessary.

Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.

But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career, and—maybe, just maybe—his soul mate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents, and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future—our future—is supposed to be.

My thoughts:
Is it possible to think outside of the box of your ideology? Or is ideology the box and you just have to work at opening it?

In Tom Barren’s 2016, all of the technological advances predicted in the 1950’s have come to light. In 1965, a scientist named Lionel Goettreider discoverd a new form of energy, unleashing the power of automation and nano-targeting into the world. Need a haircut, a meal, or a new outfit? The touch of a button gets the job done, and the results are perfectly tailored to your needs. If you’re heading to work, take your flying car. Life is easy with technology at the forefront, but Tom isn’t happy. Tom’s father, a leader in the field of time travel, is openly disappointed in his son but reluctantly brings him aboard his company. Tom was not meant to be the first to test his father’s time machine, but through a mishap, that’s exactly what he becomes. Tom ends up in another 2016 – our 2016 – where a haircut requires a skilled, scissor yielding, professional.

While this book is categorized as sci-fi, I found it surprisingly rooted in humanity. Tom’s struggles are relatable, and I found myself highlighting many poignant passages. Mastai creatively addresses fate and destiny, the power that a single decision can have on the course of one’s life, and finding contentment and human connection in a world overrun with technology. Though I didn’t fully connect with Tom I still wanted the best for him – I wanted him to find his way home, and for him to have peace with wherever that was.

I often struggle with books primarily narrated in the first person, but found that the story was engaging enough that I didn’t notice it here, a testament to Mastai’s writing. He does use the word “like” conversationally quite a bit, and I could have done without that. I understand the intent, people do talk like this, but I found it distracting. Mastai’s insights are meaningful and this story was really fun to read!

BOOK REVIEW | The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In the latest masterpiece by Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.

Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels–a tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.

My thoughts:
How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized – as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock.

This book is fantastic! Admittedly, I went into this with fairly low expectations, but it blew those out of the water. It’s atmospheric and slow burning, mysterious and infuriating.

The year is 1859, shortly after the Crimean war and Lib, an English nurse, is called to Ireland to take watch over a young girl named Anna who claims she no longer needs food to live. In a time of religious fervor, the people of the town believe that Anna is a living wonder, chosen by God. Lib is convinced that Anna is playing an elaborate prank on everyone, sneaking food on the sly, and watches her every move closely in an attempt to figure out how she’s doing it. Anna’s explanation is that for the last four months, she has lived on manna from heaven – this confounds Lib, who is determined to understand what the girl means. No one can sustain themselves for this long without some nourishment, this she knows to be true.

The story unfolds slowly, leading up to startling confessions and disturbing realizations. Lib knows she must take immediate, drastic action to save Anna, who has deteriorated physically.

The Wonder asks the reader to consider questions about religious conviction, loyalty, and parenthood. It will keep you flipping the pages as you race to discover the truth.

BOOK REVIEW | Sweetland by Michael Crummey

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
For twelve generations, when the fish were plentiful and when they all-but disappeared, the inhabitants of this remote island in Newfoundland have lived and died together. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, they are facing resettlement, and each has been offered a generous compensation package to leave. But the money is offered with a proviso: everyone has to go; the government won’t be responsible for one crazy coot who chooses to stay alone on an island.

     That coot is Moses Sweetland. Motivated in part by a sense of history and belonging, haunted by memories of the short and lonely time he spent away from his home as a younger man, and concerned that his somewhat eccentric great-nephew will wilt on the mainland, Moses refuses to leave. But in the face of determined, sometimes violent, opposition from his family and his friends, Sweetland is eventually swayed to sign on to the government’s plan. Then a tragic accident prompts him to fake his own death and stay on the deserted island. As he manages a desperately diminishing food supply, and battles against the ravages of weather, Sweetland finds himself in the company of the vibrant ghosts of the former islanders, whose porch lights still seem to turn on at night.

My thoughts:

Life is beautiful…And we love it because it ends. And we fight for it because it ends. – Michael Crummey

This quote, taken from an interview at The Star with Michael Crummey, makes me want to weep. How beautiful is it to realize that we have to fight for the life we desire? We have to fight because it will be over so quickly.

Sweetland is my second novel by a Newfoundlander in 2016 – the first being Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio – and I absolutely love reading about the way of life and landscape of seaside towns. This is an area of Canada that I would love to explore, and books like these paint the region so beautifully. In Sweetland, Michael Crummey explores a dying way of life as well as mortality, aging, history, and mental illness.

Moses Sweetland, a lifelong inhabitant of his town that bears the same name, is set in his ways and is not interested in the government relocation effort that is taking over the town – despite being offered a generous sum of $100,000. There is one other person who resists relocation as well, but soon enough Moses is the sole resistor. To receive their compensation all residents must agree to relocate; as a result of his resistance,  Moses becomes the recipient of threatening messages. Moses eventually agrees to the government’s plan, but a tragic accident causes him to fake his own death and return to the island. The second part of the book begins here, with Moses alone on the island, struggling to survive.

You may be thinking that a book with a single character in it for 150+ pages would be boring or not worth the read but, for me, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. I adored how quiet this book was, how Crummey painted a vivid portrait of the town that allowed us to better understand Moses and his history. I felt so connected to Moses, this curmudgeonly man who slowly descends into a poor mental state, and rooted for him the whole way through. The final chapter is so heartbreaking and beautiful that I immediately read it a second time. This is a  work of quiet beauty that had me from the first page to the last.

BOOK REVIEW | Wenjack by Josheph Boyden

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
An Ojibwe boy runs away from a North Ontario Indian School. Too late, he realizes just how far away home is. Along the way he’s followed by Manitous, spirits of the forest who comment on his plight, cajoling, taunting, and ultimately offering him a type of comfort on his difficult journey back to the place he was so brutally removed from.

My thoughts:
Wenjack is the most important book that I have read in 2016. As a Canadian, I’ve heard about the horrors of Residential Schools, but they weren’t in the school curriculum and always felt like something distant. Wenjack helped to open my eyes to the terrible injustices suffered by so many First Nations children from the 19th C to 1996. Canada is known for being peaceful, and it can be hard to fathom the true evil that is a part of it’s history. From physical, emotional, and sexual abuse to eugenics, Canada’s history is wrought with pain.

Boyden takes us on a beautiful journey as he tells us the true story of Chanie, a young boy who ran away from a Residential School only to die in the elements on his journey home. This story is creatively told from the perspective of both Chanie and the creatures of the woods he is walking through. Chanie will stay with me forever – if he were alive to day he would be just a little older than my parents.

Wenjack ties in with Gord Downie’s project, The Secret Path. I watched the film when it aired on CBC, and plan to pick up the graphic novel soon as well. I’m thankful to both Boyden and Downie for bringing this story to light in popular culture. Now, reconciliation.

BOOK REVIEW | The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whithall | Scotiabank Giller Prize Shortlist

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3.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
What if someone you trusted was accused of the unthinkable?

George Woodbury, an affable teacher and beloved husband and father, is arrested for sexual impropriety at a prestigious prep school. His wife, Joan, vaults between denial and rage as the community she loved turns on her. Their daughter, Sadie, a popular over-achieving high school senior, becomes a social pariah. Their son, Andrew, assists in his father’s defense, while wrestling with his own unhappy memories of his teen years. A local author tries to exploit their story, while an unlikely men’s rights activist attempts to get Sadie onside their cause. With George locked up, how do the members of his family pick up the pieces and keep living their lives? How do they defend someone they love while wrestling with the possibility of his guilt?

With exquisite emotional precision, award-winning author Zoe Whittall explores issues of loyalty, truth, and the meaning of happiness through the lens of an all-American family on the brink of collapse.

My thoughts:
This is a difficult book to review, given its subject matter. I wish I could say that I loved it, but I found a few elements distracting. The topic covered is so important, and I don’t want this review to take away from that.

The Best Kind of People tells the story of the Woodbury’s, a well off and well respected family. Things change dramatically for the family, however, when patriarch George is accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour with some of the young girls at the school where he teaches. This is a look at how a family is impacted by a loved one’s crimes, and I absolutely loved this concept. We follow George’s wife, Joan, and children, Sadie and Andrew, as they walk through a very uncertain path. When something this tragic happens, how are the remaining family members affected?

Whithall is a Canadian writer, and there is something about this book that feels distinctly Canadian to me, even though it is not set here. Little things that make it feel like this happened close to home. In particular, the character Anna Lansing, a woman Joan met at a support group, and her husband Richard reflected upon a very famous and disturbing case that non-Canadian readers may not have known about. A couple of years ago Colonel Russell Williams was arrested for crimes almost exactly as described in this excerpt:

Two years ago, the high commander in the US Army has been tried and convicted for two murders and dozens more sexual assaults, as well as a string of break-ins and robberies of women’s garments.

Williams’ crimes went further and were incredibly disturbing. I won’t leave a link to the story, but a quick google search will fill in the blanks if you’re interested. I recall how people questioned what, if anything, his wife knew of his crimes. This is a huge element to Whithall’s narrative – is it really possible for a wife to be unaware of her husband’s crimes?

I found the first 1/3 of this book to be riveting; I was pulled in quickly and deeply invested in the story. Then, something waned – the writing started to feel sloppy, and I didn’t enjoy the facts and statistics that were thrown in as part of the dialogue. The message was getting crammed down my throat. We know that victims are often put through terrible scrutiny after coming forward, and this is so valuable to explore. I would love to read a well-drawn book that explores this injustice, please leave a recommendation below if you have one. This book touches on this topic, but it never really goes anywhere. Ultimately, the ending and the result of George’s trial does absolutely nothing to satisfy the reader – but I suppose that is the point? The ending was incredibly frustrating and rushed, but again, this could have been intentional.

I am really interested in Whithall as a writer, and will likely check out her next work. I think she has some awesome ideas and a skill set I’d like to see grow and develop. This is an important book that would have valued from some more aggressive editing.