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

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BOOK REVIEW | Canada Reads #3 – Nostalgia by M.G. Vassanji

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3/5 stars

From the publisher:
In the indeterminate future in an unnamed western city, physical impediments to immortality have been overcome. As society approaches the prospect of eternal life, a new problem must be confronted: with the threat of the brain’s storage capacity being overwhelmed, people want to move forward into the future free from redundant, unwanted and interfering memories. Rejuvenated bodies require rejuvenated identities–all traces of a person’s past are erased and new, complete fictions are implanted in their stead. On occasion, though, cracks emerge, and reminders of discarded lives seep through. Those afflicted suffer from Leaked Memory Syndrome, or Nostalgia, whereby thoughts from a previous existence burrow in the conscious mind threatening to pull sufferers into an internal abyss.

Doctor Frank Sina specializes in sealing these memory leaks. He is satisfied in his profession, more or less secure in the life he shares with his much younger lover, content with his own fiction–a happy childhood in the Yukon, an adulthood marked by the influence of a mathematician father and poet mother. But one day, Presley Smith arrives in Frank’s office. Persistent thoughts are torturing Presley, recurring images of another time and place. As he tries to save Presley from the onslaught of memory, Frank finds clues that suggest Presley’s past may be located in war-torn, nuclear-ravaged Maskinia, a territory located in the southern hemisphere, isolated from the north by fiercely guarded borders and policy barriers. Frank’s suspicions are only intensified when the Department of Internal Security takes an interest in Presley. They describe him as one of their own, meaning his new life was one they created for him, and they want him back. Who was Presley before the Department remade him, what secrets are buried in the memories that are encroaching upon him?

As Frank tries to save Presley from both internal and external threats, cracks emerge in his own fiction, and the thoughts that sneak through suggest a connection with the mysterious Presley that goes well beyond a doctor and his patient.

My thoughts:
Another Canada Reads selection complete! 2 more to go!

M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia takes place in a future that doesn’t feel too far off. In his world, human bodies don’t die but, rather, are rejuvenated. Old memories are wiped away and replaced with new, exclusively happy, ones, and the body is refreshed. When life gets difficult and the baggage is too much, you can simply request that your new life begin.

Dr. Frank Sina specializes in Leaked Memory Syndrome (LMS), commonly known as Nostalgia. Sufferers of LMS will describe the emergence of past memories, fragments of their old lives seeping into their new ones; Dr. Sina helps to seal these memory leaks. When Presley Smith seeks Dr. Sina’s care for his LMS, Frank is unusually drawn to him, but is unsure why he feels so strongly about helping Presley recover.

Naturally, not everyone is happy about these advances in human technology. There are a group of protestors who take a stand daily, with the threat of self-emolation, saying that people are meant to die. Further, people on their first lives, BabyGens, are frustrated by the people who have lived many lives, the GNs. How can the BabyGens find jobs and live fully when no one ever dies? Is a future like this really sustainable?

Meanwhile, in a place called Maskinia, residents are suffering through war and nuclear destruction. The border is protected, and immigrants often turn to dangerous methods to try to get across to safety. As Dr. Sina works to seal Presley’s memory leaks, he starts to discover that he may have a connection to Maskinia from his earlier life. What is that connection, and why is Dr. Sina so invested in Presley’s history?

There’s a lot going on with this book, and it does get a bit convoluted at times. However, many of the questions it asks are extremely relevant, making it a thought provoking and compelling read.

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

BOOK REVIEW | Canada Reads #2 – Company Town by Madeline Ashby

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2/5 stars

From the publisher:
Meet Hwa. One of the few in her community to forego bio-engineered enhancements, she’s the last truly organic person left on the rig. But she’s an expert in the arts of self-defence, and she’s been charged with training the Family’s youngest, who has been receiving death threats – seemingly from another timeline.

Meanwhile, a series of interconnected murders threatens the city’s stability – serial killer? Or something much, much worse…?

My thoughts:
I’m going to be honest – I struggle with science fiction and YA, and this book is rooted in both. If this was not a Canada Reads contender, I don’t think I would have powered through to the finish line. Though I didn’t love the book’s execution, Ashby is a creative talent with some great ideas, and I enjoyed many elements of the book.

Hwa is a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada in a place called New Arcadia, and accompanies the girls to their appointments. Hwa is a a badass – she’s a tough, mixed-race woman, and one of the few fully organic people left in New Arcadia; all other residents have been scientifically “augmented” in some way. Hwa has Sturge-Weber Syndrome, which has left her with a facial birthmark and susceptibility to seizures – she figures since she isn’t beautiful, her parents didn’t bother investing in any augmentations. When New Arcadia is acquired my the Zachariah Lynch, he employs her to train and protect his son, Joel, who has been receiving threats. Coinciding with her change in career, her old friends, all sex-workers, are turning up murdered, and Hwa sets out to find answers.

Hwa is great: she’s a a fierce, a fighter, insecure, bold, flawed, and completely likeable. This maybe a stretch, but I felt like Ashby was making a commentary on Canada’s troubling history of missing and murdered women – I don’t know if this was her intent, but I imagine that it must have crossed her mind when writing a story about the murder of women in the sex-trade.

This book seemed to suffer from an identity crisis, and that is part of my low rating. This felt like a YA book that just happened to be about adult content. All of the dialogue and many of the scenarios read like YA, making it very disconcerting to read about “sex-workers” and murder. It simply lacked a clear direction – I understand and respect the story Ashby wanted to tell, but wasn’t impressed with its execution.

With that, my front-runner for Canada Reads is still Fifteen Dogs!

 

 

BOOK REVIEW | Never Let You Go by Chevy Stevens

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4.5/5 stars

Release Date: March 14, 2017

*I received a digital advanced review copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

From the publisher:
The author of Still Missing targets her readership with a novel that hits all the notes they come to expect from her—and ratchets up the stakes even more. Lindsey Nash has left an abusive relationship and her ex-husband was sent to jail. She has started over with a new life, her own business, and a teenage daughter who needs her more than ever. When her husband is finally released, Lindsey believes she has cut all ties. There is no way he can ever find her and her daughter again. But she gets the sense that someone is watching her, tracking her every move. Her new boyfriend is threatened. Her home is invaded. Even her daughter is shadowed. Lindsey is convinced it’s her ex-husband, even though he claims he is a different person and doesn’t want to do her any harm. But can he really change? Is the one who wants her dead even closer to home than she thought?

My thoughts:
Chevy Stevens took my breath away more than once with her upcoming book, Never Let You Go. Focused around a physically abusive and controlling relationship, Stevens places the reader directly in the center of the storm. Reading an abusive relationship was intense, and I felt my heart pounding during most of part one. I have never been in this situation, but Stevens opened my eyes to just how terrifying it is for the victim of abuse, and how it can feel impossible to get out of the relationship. In this book, Lindsey Nash knows she must take a bold risk to remove her and her daughter, Sophie, from the grip that her husband, Andrew, has over their lives.

Lindsey and Andrew meet at a young age and fell deeply in love. They married and settled into their new home together, enjoying the early days of their romance. As Lindsey learns more about Andrew, she decides to surprise him with a thoughtful Christmas present – she knows he is going to be so touched. As it turns out, the gift triggered painful parts of his past, which revealed a rage that she didn’t see coming. Lindsey feels terrible, but works to repair the damage. Over time, she notices that Andrew’s drinking is increasing, and he becomes more verbally abusive and controlling. She slowly dissolves her friendships and hopes for a career, her world centering around Andrew. Sophie is born and years later the situation has escalated – Lindsey has no freedom and Andrew’s drinking is out of control. She has to escape this to protect Sophie and take back her life, but how? The events that follow lead to Andrew’s arrest, and a chance for Lindsey to start over.

Fast forward eleven years: Lindsey has built a new life for herself and Sophie is now 17 years old. Lindsey makes her living cleaning houses, and has worked hard to develop her business. Sophie is a talented artist, though, like many teenagers, a little lost. Sophie longs for a relationship with her father, the missing piece in her life. Lindsey has been dating, and has two reliable men in her life – Marcus, a great friend who teaches self-defense at her support group, and Greg, her boyfriend. Lindey’s world is shaken when she discovers that Andrew has been released from prison, but she feels confident that he will not be able to find her and Sophie. When strange events begin to occur, Lindsey is convinced that Andrew is back and looking for revenge. Her home is invaded, both her dog and boyfriend are attacked – she knows this is Andrew’s work, but with no tangible evidence, the police can’t do much to protect her.

This story is told in multiple timelines and is narrated from both Sophie and Lindsey’s perspectives. I have read a ton of books lately that feature this narrative style, and this one really stands out. I loved hearing Sophie’s take on the situation, and Stevens wrote a teenager so well! This book isn’t extremely violent, but the emotional toll it takes, especially in part one, is so heavy. I was so horrified and disgusted by Andrew’s actions, but more than that I was terrified for Lindsey and sad for Sophie. This book was so close to being a 5 star read for me! I had to dock it a little due to two shortcomings: the first is the story behind Sophie’s boyfriend, Jared. He is a major player in the story, and there are some questions about him that are left unanswered. I am still thinking about this kid – I want to know more! The second reason is that I didn’t love the final thoughts regarding Andrew. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling the story! That said, this is one of the best psychological thrillers I have read in a while – it’s fast-paced, completely gripping, and had me at the edge of my seat.