BOOK REVIEW | Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

5/5 stars

I knew from the first page that I was going to love this book. It’s heavily stylistic but compulsively readable. Broken down into 4 sections and an epilogue, we follow the lives of 12 primarily black British women. There are mothers and daughters, friends and lovers, wealthy and working class, young and old. The stories range in time from 1905 to present day – Evaristo covers ample ground with ease.

We’re first introduced to the effervescent Amma, a successful feminist playwright. Amma is the axis which many of the other stories spin around. Everyone connects to Amma in one way or another: we learn about her business partner Dominique and daughter Yazz, and later we see certain characters as attendees at Amma’s latest play, connecting solely through her art. The interconnectedness is masterfully crafted and it was a joy to read through each of these stories, slowly piecing together a history of black British womanhood.

I felt more connected to some of the women than others, but laughed, cried, and experienced pain with all of them. I was particularly invested in Dominique, who ends up in a relationship she needs to escape from, LaTisha, who falls for men too easily, Bummi, who finds the love of her life but is fearful of what it means, Carole, who rejects her African roots to embrace a posh lifestyle, and Grace, who loses baby after baby after baby in a time when providing her husband an heir is required.

Evaristo won a Booker award for this work, and is currently a Women’s Prize finalist. The accolades are absolutely deserved! It’s a sweeping, grand, beautifully crafted work. If you’re looking for a book to get lost in, this is it.

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 | If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

5/5 stars

A beautiful, heartbreaking, and painfully relevant story. A young couple in love and newly pregnant fall victim to racism and a corrupt police force. James Baldwin has a potency to his work that is unlike any other; he’s one of the greatest writers I’ve ever read.

It’s sobering to realize how little has changed in America since it’s publication in 1974. Black people are still routinely framed and even killed by police nearly 50 years later. It’s deeply painful.

This story feels current, not just in content but also in style. Less a bit of 1970’s slang, this book could have been published today. The sweetness of the tender young love story between Fonny and Tish contrasts excruciatingly with the horrors of racism, over-policing, and an unjust prison system.

This is my third Baldwin, and I’m already itching to pick up another. I’ve finished The Fire Next Time and Giovanni’s Room in addition to Beale Street. I’m thinking of trying Another Country next, and then maybe some more of his non-fiction. When I love a writer I try not to binge their work, but Baldwin is the sort of writer your never truly finished with.

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 | 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 | Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

5/5 stars

She leaned forward and peered at the rosebush – why, there was another bud coming right behind that bloom!

Oh, Olive, where to begin? I adored this book from the first page to the last. The quote above is the simplest and most meaningful way of summing up this book – life just goes on. You live, have experiences, create human connections, and you die. And then another bud follows your bloom. This is a book about reflection – the messiness of life, the stuff in the middle.

Olive is back in this follow up to its predecessor, Olive Kitteridge. Please note that you do not have to have read the first installment to enjoy this book, but it’s a fantastic return to this character if you have. Told in Strout’s signature style, this is a series of short stories about the people and places of the fictional town of Crosby, Maine. Each story is about or ultimately connects with Olive – even the stories that she doesn’t appear in reveal connections by the end.

Olive is as cynical as ever, speaking her mind in the most hilarious and inappropriate ways. She says what everyone thinks, but would never dare to say out loud. Time passes as the stories roll on, reflections on life and human connections being the bond that ties them all together. This was a particularly poignant time in my life to read Olive – I have 3 young kids, one of them being a baby. Olive’s reflections on motherhood and her marriage reminded me that the the chaos, busyness, and work that comes with raising 3 boys and maintaining a partnership is, in fact, the stuff of life.

I loved Olive, especially as she became elderly. I loved how she processed her age, her losses, her loneliness, her relationships with her son and late husbands – all with her cantankerous flair. I don’t think we’ll be hearing from Olive again, but this was the perfect way to say goodbye.

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 Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson

4/5 stars

Craig Davidson continues to prove himself as an incredibly diverse and talented writer. I adored his non-fiction story, Precious Cargo, and I’ve enjoyed his horror while writing under pseudonym Nick Cutter. The Saturday Night Ghost Club felt like a nice bridge between those two worlds.

This book is an account of neurosurgeon Jake Breaker’s childhood, specifically a summer spent with his eclectic uncle Calvin. Calvin owns a shop of oddities, which soon sparks the formation of their ghost hunting club. Along with a couple friends, Jake and Calvin seek out parts of town suspected to be haunted.

The book flips back and forth in time, using Jake’s skills as a brain surgeon to serve as commentary on the significance, and fragility, of memory, and the power of the brain. After another Saturday night exploration, Jake’s parents disclose some heartbreaking things to Jake about Calvin’s past. While Jake’s family is far from perfect, they have protected Calvin from his own memories in the only way they knew how.

Craig Davidson has been a surprising and inventive author, and I’m really looking forward to see where he brings his readers next.

BOOK REVIEW | The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner | Man Booker Prize 2018

3/5 stars

All of them were people who suffered and along the way of their suffering they made others suffer.

In this powerful novel about women in prison, Rachel Kushner touches on both issues within the correctional system, and the cycle of poverty and addiction that often leads women there. More than once, correctional officers allude to the women’s poor choices in life that led them to an existence under lock and key, with no regard for the circumstances which may have contributed to their crimes. An added layer of depth would have been beneficial here, as I feel in many ways this book only scratched the surface on this complex topic.

The story is focused on Romy Hall and the inmates she encounters while serving two consecutive life sentences at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. We get a picture of Romy’s life before prison through recounts of her youth in San Fransisco, her drug use, and her experiences working as an erotic dancer at The Mars Room. I liked this book, and found many scenes to be especially powerful; Romy’s relationship with, and separation from, her son was the most affecting for me. Romy is not forgiven of her crime by Kushner, she murdered the man who was stalking her. Rather, we examine how Romy’s socioeconomic status may have led her to such a place.

There are many timelines and perspectives at play, which occasionally made for a disjointed read. I can only describe my relationship to Romy and the other characters as distant – there was a lack of emotional connection at work. I think focusing a little less on certain secondary characters, and honing in more on Romy’s emotional journey would have kicked this book up a notch for me. Romy seeps ennui about her life and crime, and it’s only when she realizes her son may be alone on the outside that we feel the retching pain that she must endure. An interesting addition to the Man Booker list, and a valuable read for those who have an interest in the mentioned topics.