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 | Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor (The Chronicles of St. Mary’s #1)

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2/5 stars

From the publisher:
Behind the seemingly innocuous façade of St Mary’s, a different kind of historical research is taking place. They don’t do ‘time-travel’ – they ‘investigate major historical events in contemporary time’. Maintaining the appearance of harmless eccentrics is not always within their power – especially given their propensity for causing loud explosions when things get too quiet.

Meet the disaster-magnets of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around History. Their aim is to observe and document – to try and find the answers to many of History’s unanswered questions…and not to die in the process. But one wrong move and History will fight back – to the death. And, as they soon discover – it’s not just History they’re fighting.

Follow the catastrophe curve from 11th-century London to World War I, and from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria. For wherever Historians go, chaos is sure to follow in their wake….

My thoughts:
This was a book club selection and way outside of my normal realm of reading – which I guess is the point of participating in a book club, right? Unfortunately, partially due to my own shortcomings, this book didn’t work for me.

I will be the first to admit that I struggle with any sort of fantasy or science fiction – it takes a lot to sell me on plots of this nature. I find it difficult to suspend reality, and as a result am unable to become invested in the story or the characters. That said, I understand why so many people love this series: there’s romance, passion, a strong and independent female lead, action, adventure, and a ton of fun. I guess I’m just a boring old biddy who likes her books more on the introspective side.

This is the story of St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research and the historians that work there. These historians, however, take their research to the next level through breakthrough technology – they can travel through time to investigate the historical events they are so enamoured with. Naturally, messing about with time travel and diving into time periods such as the Cretaceous can only lead to troubling results. The story revolves around Maxwell, described early on as a disaster magnet, and it’s no surprise that she finds herself in a wild array of dangerous situations. The cliffhanger at the crux hints at another wild ride for those who continue on to book #2.

I found the writing underwhelming – I crave great writing even when reading something that is just for fun. Additionally, I found some of the plot points to be choppy and there was a bit of jumping around which I found jarring. I think if the writing was tightened up I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. That said, I don’t regret this read at all – it introduced me to a new genre of book and definitely piqued my interest in this category! I’ve heard of a few other series’ with similar time traveling plot lines that I am curious to look into now.

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 | Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

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3.75/5 stars

From the publisher:
Capturing the distinct rhythms of Jamaican life and dialect, Nicole Dennis- Benn pens a tender hymn to a world hidden among pristine beaches and the wide expanse of turquoise seas. At an opulent resort in Montego Bay, Margot hustles to send her younger sister, Thandi, to school. Taught as a girl to trade her sexuality for survival, Margot is ruthlessly determined to shield Thandi from the same fate. When plans for a new hotel threaten their village, Margot sees not only an opportunity for her own financial independence but also perhaps a chance to admit a shocking secret: her forbidden love for another woman. As they face the impending destruction of their community, each woman—fighting to balance the burdens she shoulders with the freedom she craves—must confront long-hidden scars. From a much-heralded new writer, Here Comes the Sun offers a dramatic glimpse into a vibrant, passionate world most outsiders see simply as paradise.

My thoughts:
‘Membah dis, nobody love a black girl. Not even harself.

Don’t let the beautiful bright cover fool you, this book is bleak. This is the story of a family, the secrets they keep, and the fight for a better life.

Despite living in a part of town that is less than prosperous, Margot has a prestigious job at a tourist’s resort hotel. She endured an unspeakable tragedy at the hands of her mother as a child, and is now determined to do anything that it takes to keep her younger sister, Thandi, from following her dark path. Because of her mother, Margot engages in prostitution to make ends meet and keep up with Thandi’s expensive schooling. While the family expects Thandi to become a lawyer or doctor, she is occupied with a boy from a bad neighborhood, lightening her skin, and dreams of becoming an artist. Margot and Thandie, along with their mother Dolores, harbor damaging and painful secrets which are exasperated by the confines of their culture.

Nicole Dennis-Benn has crafted an engaging story that had me moving quickly through the pages. I cared about these characters and was deeply invested in their fates. This book touches on LGBTQ issues, and issues that people of colour face with raw power. I’m half Jamaican, and I absolutely love reading Jamaican authors – recommendations please! I will be anxiously awaiting Dennis-Benn’s next work.

 

BOOK REVIEW | The Road by Cormac Mccarthy

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
A father and his young son walk alone through burned America, heading slowly for the coast. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. They have nothing but a pistol to defend themselves against the men who stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food–and each other.

My thoughts:
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could me with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.

This is a sentiment that every parent is familiar with – the relentless fear of your child’s mortality. I can’t think of anything more terrifying than the struggle to keep your child alive, other than trying to continue with life after the loss of a child. McCarthy imagines this fear in a post-apocalyptic world, as a man and his son journey together towards a hope they aren’t sure exists.

I felt this book so deeply, I could imagine being in this experience with one of my kids. McCarthy’s prose is biting and elegant, and his dialogue is simple and realistic. I finished the final pages with tears streaming down my face. This is one of the most beautiful and haunting books I’ve read in a long time.