Monday, June 14, 2021

Sufferance

Sufferance / Thomas King
TO: HarperCollins, c2021
320 p.

This one was the perfect read for me. I found it accidentally, having somehow missed that Thomas King had a new book after Indians on Vacation -- which I'd heard about endlessly, and has even won the Leacock Award recently. 

Well, Sufferance is a different kind of book. It is a strange mix of corporate thriller, small town politics, Indigenous history, and a hit of the Dead Dog Café. But it works. 

Jeremiah Camp is a Forecaster, a person with the ability to see patterns and predict how they will play out in the future. He was much in demand by a billionaire corporation, but something went bad and now he lives alone in an old Residential school adjacent to the reserve his mother was from, hiding out from the world and trying to restore the gravestones of the children buried at the school as a memorial. 

Along with living alone, he hasn't spoken aloud in years. But he does have a bit of companionship - a nameless cat, a handful of crows, and a daily trip into town to buy a brownie from the French Canadian baker and share it with a friend who owns what used to be a café. There are a few other locals that he interacts with at the sort-of café, including relatives who still live in government issue, crappy, molding trailers on the reserve. 

But nobody can stay solitary, even if they want to. Jeremiah's past returns -- his former boss has died but his daughter has taken over the company and is just as ruthless. She wants a forecast, and she won't take no for an answer. Quite literally. 

As we learn more about Jeremiah's past and why he left his job, and why he isn't very interested in going back, we also delve into questions of extreme wealth and the inequities between Jeremiah's boss' world and that of the reserve. What is the moral cost of hoarding wealth as these billionaires do? And what can people actually do about it? The answer here, as always with Thomas King, is dark and cynical, though laced with his usual humour (jokes about certain CBC radio shows appear, for example). His character is basically in existential crisis, and while there isn't a neat and tidy ending, community seems to be both his bane and his potential salvation. 

This one moved quickly, it kept me flipping the pages, and it had some thoughtful themes to chew on. Add in some laughs and a bit of a mystery, and this was a winner in my view. 

The only flaw is the cover. This has to have the worst cover I have ever seen. Black type on a dark red background, and red type on black for the flaps = completely unreadable. From a distance you can hardly tell that there is an author name or title even on the cover, and forget about accessibility in reading the flaps - I could hardly read them without angling the book for some light to throw the text into relief. My husband suggests they were going for a "oh, is this a Stephen King book?" vibe, but I don't think Thomas King needs the help. The digital image above has had a lot of colour correction to make it clear. Please disregard the cover design, which does this great book no favours. I look forward to the release of a softcover edition with a readable and appealing cover! 

My camera insists on making this more readable than it is to the eye!



Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Beguiling

Toronto: Hamish Hamilton, c2020
275 p.

This book has an intriguing premise: it moves backwards in time, starting at the end of the story and moving back to the beginning. Not only that, the main character is in the same position; she's moving forward but the world around her is going backward. The concept is almost too clever, though. 

Lucy's cousin Zoltan is in hospital after a freak accident at a party. Before he dies he confesses a dark secret to her. Somehow she becomes a magnet for dark confessions from random strangers after that. So a lot of the book consists of these stories of other lives. It's like a collection of short stories embedded into a wider narrative. It works but it's a little confusing and took me out of the larger story. 

Also, most of the stories -- as well as Zoltan and Lucy's own lives -- are weird. Like, oddball and unexpected, hard to parse at times. 

The structure of the narrative was a clever idea, but also confusing and discombobulating. It became too difficult to play along and try to figure out what was happening now, and now, and then. I gave up and skimmed to the end. 

I wanted to like this one, and I did finish it, but I just didn't connect with it. But if you want something mind-bending and literary, strange and unsettling, this just might be it. 

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Memory Collectors

The Memory Collectors / Kim Neville
NY: Atria, c2021.
400 p.


This was an unexpected find for me, a book I picked up from the New Books shelf at the library because of the cover and the back blurb. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was also Canadian, set in B.C.! 

It's a great read, full of plot and imagination. Evelyn is a young woman who makes a living dumpster diving and selling items in Vancouver's Chinatown Night Market. She holds herself back from the world because she feels "stains" on physical objects -- the memories and emotions attached to items. And these emotions are not always pleasing. She's had experience in her past, through a terrible family tragedy, of the way these dark stains can seep into a sensitive life and destroy it. 

On the other side of town, Harriet is a old woman who also feels these sensations from objects. However, rather than avoiding objects she has become a hoarder, trying to find everything she can that holds any emotion at all. This is affecting her life, since she is about to be evicted because of the mess that overflows her apartment and disturbs the neighbours in the regular way, as well as with a wash of emotions they don't recognize but feel anyhow. 

Harriet has a secret, though -- she's very rich, and since she's being kicked out of her apartment she decides to buy an old bank building to live in, and in which to create her lifelong dream: a museum of objects imbued with positive emotion, to provide uplift to viewers. 

When she comes across Ev and her friend Owen scavenging some of her boxes in the alley where her neighbours have dumped them, their lives collide and change everything for both of them. 

With some great side characters -- Owen, Ev's self-centred sister Noemi, and a potential love interest for Ev as well, there is a lot going on, but it all fits beautifully. Ev and Noemi's family history is horrific and there's a bit too much detail there for me in parts, but it explains both of their reactions to life. 

The relationships are well drawn and believable, and there's a lot of backstory that isn't obvious in beginning. There's a slow reveal of both people's characters and their past and what has shaped them. There's also a growing explanation of the unusual talent that both Ev and Harriet hold, and both the pros and cons of such a skill. I really liked the fact that the story has internal cohesion -- the structure of this talent and its effects make sense and are consistent within the story, and the relationships ring true. 

The narrative is a mix of family dynamics, a coming of age story for Ev, and a sprinkling of magical ability. This allows the author to explore some deep issues more metaphorically (what are objects for? where do we locate our emotional memory? what's worth holding on to? and more). It's also a look at consumerism and overconsumption. Here's a quote that highlights that: 
Retail stores disturb her, rows and rows of empty objects. Products with no soul, no energy, people buying and discarding them before they have the chance to take on any kind of life, the world growing more cluttered and at the same time more barren every day.
I was drawn in to this story quickly and engaged with the concept and the characters immediately. The plot and characters really depended on one another, and the Vancouver setting was an unexpected benefit. I really feel that there was a profound meaning at the core of this novel, one that gives it a heart and makes it memorable. It will make you look at your belongings, and the way your emotional energy shows up in the world, in a new way.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

A Stitch in Time

A Stitch in Time / Kelley Armstrong
Oklahoma City: KLA Fricke, 2020
(e-book)
 

I'm not a regular reader of Kelley Armstrong's books -- I know they're really popular and well done, but I just haven't got into them. This one, however, immediately interested me. It's very different from her usual style, in fact, it's just what I like a lot; it's a time travel love story centred around a English country house. All the things I love in this kind of fiction! 

So of course I had to read it right away. It was so enjoyable, and set in England, as all great books with this premise seem to be ;) It features Canadian academic Bronwyn Dale, who has just inherited Thorne Manor from her great-aunt. She travels to England to sort her inheritance, although she's quite anxious about returning to a house she hasn't been to after a tragedy when she was 15, a haunted house that holds dark memories for her. 

It also holds memories of her childhood friend, William Thorne, a boy who she encountered regularly until the age of 15, but who nobody else believed actually existed. After being sent for psychological evaluation at age 15, she's convinced herself that everyone around her was right, until she returns, and meets a very grown up William shortly after. 

The house is both haunted in the present, and very real in the past: there is a time slip between Bronwyn and William's bedroom which only they can cross (well, and a very determined cat as well). Their relationship must be restored across time, and Bronwyn's life must be decided, between Thorne Manor or returning to her teaching job in Canada for another semester. 

It's a lovely, warm story, though there are dark, spooky ghosts who do real damage. And fear in the night when Bronwyn (and her cat) are alone in the house. There are some very dark deeds to uncover and set right, and only if Bronwyn is able to do so will anything else work out well. 

This was a delightfully escapist read that I enjoyed a great deal. William was swoony, Bronwyn determined, ghosts scary, and the setting thorough and well drawn, in both eras. I loved the side characters, and wanted Armstrong to come up with a plausible way that William and Bronwyn could bridge the centuries. 

I think she did. Recommended.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

The Midnight Bargain

 

The Midnight Bargain / C.L. Polk
NY: Erewhon Books, c2020.
375 p.

This one got a lot of attention when it was chosen as a title for Canada Reads. I was a little surprised by that -- genre fiction doesn't get a lot of attention in the CanLit world. So of course I had to read it, although by the time I realized that I was WAY down on the holds list at the library. But I did finally get my hands on it, and enjoyed it. 

It's set in an alternate world, one in which the main character lives in a country where women do not run businesses or work, they marry well -- and at that point, any inherited magic they have is controlled by donning a metal collar, putatively so that any children they may come to carry will not be possessed by spirits their magic may attract. But this dulls and destroys women's capacity for a full life, and our main character Beatrice Clayborn is having none of it. 

As the book begins, she is on display during Bargaining Season, the yearly ritual of marrying off eligible young women. She is supposed to act sweetly and snag the best catch she can, especially since her family is deeply in debt. Things do not go quite as planned. Beatrice finds it very hard to cooperate, as all she wants is to improve her magical skills, through collecting certain books that only magical women can decipher. She discovers that the sister of one of the eligible bachelors from overseas has the same goal, and rather than compete, they come to a tentative agreement to share their hidden treasures. 

But the eligible bachelor in question is threatening to overturn all of Beatrice's plans...because he's so dreamy. He's tall, dark, rich and handsome, and also of a sympathetic persuasion. Beatrice finds for the first time that the question of marriage vs. magic is a real conundrum for her. But as the season progresses, more and more happens until Beatrice is faced with an existential decision. Or is she???? 

There is some fun Jane Austenish writing here, lots of Regency inspired social norms (and clothes!) and also magic of the sorcerous kind. Women's rights and autonomy are key to Beatrice's struggle throughout the book, and it's why magic is so important to her. But there's also a good romance going on, and thankfully, she finds a happy ending in which she can get what she wants -- it's a little tricky but it works. I had a lot of fun reading this and am glad I gave it a try. C.L. Polk is a new author to me, but I'm intrigued enough now to search out some of their other works. 

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Empire of Wild

Empire of Wild / Cherie Dimaline
TO: Penguin Random House, c2019.
300 p.

I've finally got around to reading this novel, after enjoying Dimaline's first book, The Marrow Thieves, a lot. This one's quite different, but also requires a leap of imagination.

In Empire of Wild, the folk story of the Rogarou comes to all too real life. The Rogarou is a werewolf-like creature that haunts the roads and woods of Métis communities. And as this story begins, Victor, new to the community via his wife, disappears. People think he's had enough and just left Joan, but she knows that couldn't be the truth. And it isn't -- he's been taken by the Rogarou.

Then Joan stumbles across Victor -- or a man who is identical to him -- at a travelling religious show. He's preaching from the stage, and when he sees her he doesn't recognize her, and he's going by a different name, the Reverend Eugene Wolff. But she's nothing but determined, and makes it her mission to restore him. 

Alongside her 12 yr old nephew Zeus (a delightful character) she makes a plan to bring Victor home. This requires much information seeking about the Rogarou from elders, tracking of the charismatic religious sect, and some risk taking when the kidnap plan is set. There's lots of great action around the community and secret corporate development plans, around the family relationships of Joan's extended family and community, and a constant thread of the solid and powerful love between Joan and Victor. 

There was a strong lead up to the conclusion, a slow build that all explodes (literally) in the end. The shape of the story is great, except for the very last few pages. I didn't see that the final pages were necessary, unless a sequel is coming. But the event that happens in the last pages doesn't seem to fit with the rest, it kind of takes away from Joan's triumph, in my view anyhow. 

Still, a really interesting concept and strong setting and characters made this an enjoyable, energetic read. 

Monday, June 07, 2021

Return of the Trickster

 

Return of the Trickster / Eden Robinson
Toronto: Penguin Random House, c2021.
320 p.

Finally, the last book in the Trickster trilogy is out! I've been waiting for this one -- I loved book one, Son of a Trickster, and book two, Trickster Drift. And of course, in between we got the tv version of the story (which I thought was pretty good but diverged quite a lot from the books, which I still prefer).

This one concludes this story of Jared, the rather mellow teenager at the heart of the series. He's really the Son of a Trickster, and as we find out here, a trickster himself, however unwillingly. 

This volume is a bit more violent and gory than the first two, with lots more action happening. Jared is still surrounded by family and by ghosts and supernatural creatures of all kinds -- he even meets a Sasquatch in this one (who's actually a pretty chill dude). It's a bit of a strange setup, since Wade (his trickster father) is basically imprisoned and unable to help throughout the book, and his mother loses some of her invincibility as well. But Jared has to force himself to step up and basically save his entire family. 

There are some gross bits in this one that I had to skim over, much more than the first two books. But there is still the sense of humour and unexpected appearances of oddball characters who help (or hinder). It's a satisfying conclusion in most ways; we get to know Jared's full nature, and so does he. And his family does prevail over their attackers, who are dark and dangerous. But I didn't feel the same spark as the first book, the bright energy of Jared's new discoveries. Still, a great finish to this series. I'd still recommend reading this set to anyone who loves contemporary Indigenous fiction, and who has a sense of black humour. Fans of Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas will also find the feel of this series familiar - if you can take supernatural violence and lots of cussing, this one's for you.