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 | From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

5/5 stars.

Jesse Thistle shares his powerful story in his memoir, From the Ashes. From a child struggling to get by with his brothers, to a young man on the streets, it’s amazing that Thistle is here today to tell us about his life. They say you have to hit rock bottom to break free from addiction, and Thislte most certainly did.

Thistle and his brothers are left behind first by their mother, and eventually their father. When a child grows up without parents there’s a piece of their identity, a sense of home, missing. This lack of self becomes the catalyst for many of the decisions Thislte will make in his young life.

Thistle and his brothers are taken in by his paternal grandparents but, as is often the case, he starts to fall into bad habits. Before long, his life has spiraled out of control. Following in his father’s footsteps, Thistle finds himself homeless and trapped in the throes of addiction. It’s heartbreaking to follow Thistle down this road, to see him sink deeper and deeper into his illness, becoming increasingly isolated. Sick and badly injured, it’s unbelievable that he was able to find his way out of his circumstances. It wasn’t luck: he worked incredibly hard to grow further away from his addictions.

There’s much to glean from Thistle’s life, but what was especially profound for me was his journey to self identity. He shares that he grew up ashamed of his Métis heritage, even though he didn’t know much about it. The absence of his parents in his life left a void that took many years and many mistakes to begin to fill. I imagine this is a lifelong process. Much of Thistle’s recovery was supported by his wife, Lucie, who he discusses with so much love. It’s clear that she’s a remarkable woman – not afraid to push him to fulfill his potential.

Thistle’s writing is lush, even when deeply painful, and evocative; reading this was very visual, I could see each moment like a movie. I don’t gravitate towards memoirs, but Thistle’s story was both worth the time, and incredibly inspirational. I’d highly recommend this to readers interested in intergenerational trauma or addiction, or to those who are struggling in life and feel there’s no way out.

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 | Starlight by Richard Wagamese

4/5 stars

It’s not in our imagined wholeness that we become art, it’s in the celebration of our cracks.
-Richard Wagamese

Starlight may be the first incomplete, posthumous, story that I’ve read. Richard Wagamese passed away before completing his first draft of Starlight, but with his estate’s blessing, this story came to be published. It’s a follow up to Medicine Walk, a story that is on my bookshelf but I have yet to read.

Franklin Starlight is grieving the loss of the man who raised him, living a quiet life on his farm with his friend and farmhand, Roth. Starlight also happens to be a talented photographer, his respectful approach to wildlife giving him the unique ability to capture animals in intimate moments.

Meanwhile, a story of survival and escape is taking place: Emmy, a woman in an abusive relationship, manages to escape with her daughter and the pair set out on the run. With no money and no plan, the only goal is to create distance between themselves and Emmy’s abuser. When Emmy finds herself in trouble, a unique suggestion from a social worker brings Starlight and Emmy together. As Emmy enters life on the farm, a tender relationship with Starlight develops. Wile the threat of Emmy’s abuser tracking them down looms, the connection between Emmy and Starlight is a powerful force and one can only root for their happiness and safety.

This story reads like a first draft, but that’s exactly what it is: some grammatical cleanup was done, and some very light editing. I enjoyed reading something is such pure form, and can envision what Wagamese’s final vision may have been. I commend the way that the ending of this story was handled – it cuts off abruptly, ending where Wagamese had. I appreciate that no attempt to finish the story was made but found significant value in the insights regarding how the story may have ended, provided by those close to Wagamese. This is ultimately a story of recovery from trauma and the power of human connection.

BOOK REVIEW | Find You in the Dark by Nathan Ripley

3/5 stars

Look, this book isn’t going to win any awards for its quality of writing, but Find You in the Dark shines in plot. After reading countless thrillers that feel all too similar, it was refreshing to read one that had an entirely unique premise. This was a really fun read!

Martin Reese retired young after his tech company exploded, leaving him with both ample financial resources and plenty of time on his hands. He is a devoted husband and father, who happens to have a bit of a twisted obsession: he seeks out the bodies of murder victims from unsolved cases, uncovering them for the police to find. To carry out his compulsion he tells his wife, Ellen, that he’s going camping and uses his alone time to uncover bodies. Martin’s focus is on the victims of a long captured serial killer, Jason Shurn, and he gets his intel from a cop who sells him case files on the sly.

Before long, a past family tragedy takes centre stage, reaching a breaking point when his daughter disappears. Shurn may not have acted alone, and Martin has enraged someone by uncovering victims from the past. Martin will have to succumb to an internal darkness to save his family and get his daughter back.

I’ve heard this book compared to Dexter, but I have a hard time seeing that. Unlike Dexter Martin isn’t a killer. He’s simply a man who has taken an interest in true crime to the next level, albeit a twisted one. The book is a little long and though it drags a little, I was compelled to keep reading. Side note – Nathan Ripley is a pseudonym for Naben Ruthnum, an Indian writer from Canada. He’s said he used the new monicker because of the expectations that come with having an ethnic sounding name. I must say, I wish he used his real name! Shatter the expectations! OK, back to business – 3 stars, because it was hard to put down.

BOOK REVIEW | I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Ian Reid

5/5 stars

I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry, but I’m Thinking of Ending Things painted with every color in my reader’s palette. I finished this mere minutes ago, reread certain sections backwards as per Ian Reid’s subtle guidance, and am totally blown away. And I’m sad. This is a profoundly sad book. This is the sort of book that causes book hangover – this story will live with me for a while, and all other books will not stack up. The ending didn’t matter to me as the journey was so enthralling. But the ending, wow.

An unnamed female narrator is on a road trip with her boyfriend Jake. They are heading to the small farm where he grew up so she can meet his parents, but she has one thing on her mind: ending things. She has been thinking about ending things with Jake for a while, but decides to go through with the trip, thinking that meeting his parents might change her mind about the relationship.

Along the way they ask each other many philosophical questions, often alluding to the nature of relationships, how you can never truly know someone else, how your thoughts are the only thing that is real, and whether we can get through life without meaningful relationships. What ensues is, hands down, one of the most chilling and atmospheric stories I have ever read.

This book is touted as psychological horror, but it’s so much more than that. Yes, Reid has painted an incredibly eerie portrait of the old farmhouse, as well as a rural school where our characters end up, but everything going on below the surface is heavy and black once pieced together. Towards the end of the book, it’s suggested that the story is read again, backwards. Each chapter is prefaced by an italicized vignette – a conversation that is taking place about an even that occurred. I read these sections backwards, and was blown away by Reid’s process.

I’ve read many reviews that suggest this book made no sense, and I can see that if it was picked up as a typical horror read. This is not classic horror (though it can be read as such), this is pure psychological horror, dealing with a heavy topic. I don’t want to spoil this for potential readers, but go into this book knowing that everything is not as it seems, and if you enjoy books that deal with the metaphysical or mental health you’ll find a connection here.

BOOK REVIEW | Canada Reads #4 – The Break by Katherena Vermette

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break — a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house — she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.

In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim — police, family, and friends — tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre. Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.

My thoughts:
Wow. It’s not enough, but it’s almost all I can say after reading Katherena Vermette’s The Break. This book is heavy and dark, but it’s also so incredibly important. It was necessary for me, as a Canadian, to read a story about my country from a perspective that is different than my own. I love the Canada Reads competition so much, because it brings stories like this to a greater audience. I actually picked this book up ages ago after Margaret Atwood recommend it on Reco, and I am so glad I finally got around to reading it.

The story opens with Stella, shaken and afraid, providing two police officers with the details of a very violent crime that she saw take place through her window in the middle of the night. The officers have different opinions on the information they get from Stella – the older assuming it’s just gang violence, and the younger sensing that something more vicious has taken place. What follows is a perfectly crafted account of not only the crime, but everything that surrounds it. Vermette dives into social issues, gang violence, police apathy, racism, alcoholism, spousal abuse, and what it means to live life in a broken system. It’s gritty, it’s bleak, it’s real.

The book is broken up into four sections, each containing a chapter narrated from the perspective of a different family member, as well as one of the police officers involved in the story. There are many characters to keep track of, but the family tree at the beginning of the book keeps everyone and their lineage clear. This could have become convoluted, but the opposite happened for me – as I discovered the familial connections I began to feel personally intertwined in their lives, almost a part of the family.

The Break should be compulsory reading for Canadians. If anything I mentioned in this review speaks to you, please go and get this book. While the book is  heartbreaking and raw, Vermette keeps the focus on the healing power of family and tradition. An absolutely stunning debut from a writer I will be watching.

Read my review of Fifteen Dogs
Read my review of Nostalgia
Read my review of Company Town