Native, by Kaitlyn Curtice

Kaitlyn Curtice’s Native is a thoughtful reflection on what it means to be a person of mixed white and indigenous heritage in the United States, a Christian raised in American evangelicalism who is discovering her Potawatomi spirituality. The book is partly memoir, but mostly a collection of almost poetic short essays about faith and identity. Curtice writes about her own struggle to reclaim her identity as a Potawatomi woman, and to re-examine her Christian faith in the light not only of what she now knows about her indigenous heritage, but what she knows about how Christians have mistreated and abused indigenous people in the Americas. She’s honest about the fact that, as someone who was once a worship leader in evangelical churches, she now finds the title of “Christian” resting uneasily with the person she is becoming, even as she continues to love God as revealed in both her spiritual traditions.

There’s a lot here for white Christians like me to reflect on in how we make (or don’t make) space for indigenous people, Black people, and other people of colour in our communities, and how we try to “decolonize” our thinking, which is so deeply steeped in white supremacy we often don’t even realize it. This is a thoughtful and important book, and was beautifully read by the author on the audiobook version I listened to.

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Filed under Audiobook, Nonfiction -- general, Nonfiction -- memoir

Some People’s Children, by Bridget Canning

I devoured this book in a couple of days: while it’s a coming of age story that’s more episodic than plot-driven, the writing was just so great and the characters so believable that I found it hard to put down, especially late at night when I fell into the “just one more chapter” trap.

Imogene Tubbs is growing up in a small Newfoundland outport in the late 1980s/early 1990s. She’s being raised by her Nan; her mom, Maggie, who was just fifteen when Imogene was born, lives on the mainland with her new boyfriend and promises to visit more often than she actually does. The community Imogene lives in, the fictional St. Felix’s, is close-knit in all the best and worst ways of a small town: there’s a support network of family and friends, but they’re also part of that tightly woven net of nosy neighbours who all know and have opinions about each others’ business. And in Imogene’s case, that includes the business of who her father was, a question to which her mother’s official answer has never been fully satisfying.

The mystery of her paternity deepens through Imogene’s teenage years as she grows up and her relationships with those around her become more complicated. The novel spans the years from the beginning of high school to the midpoint of Imogene’s university years, so it’s a perfect coming-of-age arc. Though unravelling the mystery of who her father is is only part of what propels the reader forward, that storyline — and related storyline of Imogene’s relationship with Maggie — comes to a satisfactory resolution by the end of the novel. Not all the loose ends are tied up by any means, but we have enough information to believe that Imogene is capable of tying her own loose ends if she needs to.

This is, first and foremost, a perfectly-crafted coming-of-age story with the best qualities of that genre: it’s absolutely specific in its detail as to the time, place and experiences of its main character, yet somehow relatable to anyone who is or has been a teenager (so, like, all of us) no matter how different our experiences may have been from Imogene’s.

That specificity of detail is what makes Some People’s Children such a delight to read. There are a lot of differences between my life experiences and Imogene’s: she is ten years younger than I am, so the cultural things she experiences as a teenager are things I remember from my 20s; she grows up in rural Newfoundland while I’m a townie. And yet there were moments in this book where the vivid details of Newfoundland life in that era were so relatable I either laughed out loud or choked back a sob. Moments like this:

Nan volunteers Imogene to help pass out the cold-plate suppers for the cadets and Legion members. The Styrofoam plates contain scoops of potato salad, beet salad, a piece of iceberg lettuce, mustard pickles, and a slide of processed ham rolled up like a diploma. From a distance, the scoops of potato and beet salad look like vanilla and strawberry ice cream, then you get close and disappointed.

When a writer can capture that exact cold-plate dinner we’ve all eaten or served so many times in a few vivid words – and also recreate the horror of being picked on by high-school bullies so viscerally it almost gave me flashbacks to my own school years — that’s some brilliant writing right there. Go along with Imogene on her journey — you will not be disappointed.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author, Young Adult

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson

This highly acclaimed historical novel weaves together two little-known stories from Kentucky history: the “blue people” of that region (descendents of a family who all carried a gene for a disorder that turns the skin blue, obviously not well understood in that place and time), and the history of the Pack Horse Library, a 1930s program where mostly women librarians carried books to patrons in remote mountain regions. The marriage of these two stories is achieved by the fictional device of making one of the librarians, the novel’s heroine Cussy Mary Carter, a blue-skinned woman.

The novel is rich in detail about the place and time, and the language reflects that — I loved the echoes of the mountain dialect in the writing, even though I sometimes found the descriptions and comparisons a little overwrought. So little seems to be known about the blue people even today that I had no way to know whether the prejudice Cussy faces in the novel was realistic (people in her community of Troublesome Creek lump the blue people, of whom she and her father are among the last, together with the Black residents as “colored” and deny them access to all-white spaces). Also, the author takes a liberty with history greater than I personally as a writer would be comfortable with (she does admit to it in the afterword) by having the blue-skinned condition identified, studied, and treated by a doctor thirty years before this actually happened in real life. This does add some tension to the plot, but I couldn’t help feeling it was a bit of a cheat. However, this novel is a great read nonetheless and a glimpse into a couple of unexplored corners of history.

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A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour, by Hank Green

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour is Hank Green’s sequel (and conclusion) to last year’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, a novel about a young graphic designer who finds a mysterious sculpture on a New York street, and quickly finds herself not only a viral internet sensation but the focal point for a possible alien invasion of Earth.

The new book picks up right where the old one left off, but, for reasons that will be obvious if you read AART, the narrative voice is no longer just April’s first-person story. Now the storytelling perspective is split between several narrators: April herself, her friends Andy and Miranda, her ex-girlfriend Maya, and even (in a few short chapters), “Carl,” the alien intelligence behind the mysterious statues.

This is a wide-ranging bit of sci-fi that asks some compelling and interesting questions about social media, virtual worlds, the power we grant corporations over our lives, and, of course, aliens. As the sequel to a book that set up a lot of intriguing situations without resolving then, ABFE obviously has many questions to answer — what, exactly, were the Carls? What was their purpose and was it achieved? Why did some of the weird stuff (the Carl hands, the Wikipedia page, etc) in the first book unfold the way it did? And, of course, what does it all mean???

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour does a good job with many of those questions, especially the last — we see the events of the previous book, and the follow-up in this book, in the context of a bigger picture involving aliens with an interest in humanity’s ultimate fate. Some of the smaller puzzles are not tied up as neatly as I would have liked, but that’s a minor quibble in a book that I found highly engaging, compulsively readable (A Compulsively Readable Novel?), and a satisfying conclusion to this short series.

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Filed under Fiction - SciFi

Untamed, by Glennon Doyle

I had mixed feelings about this book, which I listened to as an audiobook, very well read by the author. I very much enjoyed Doyle’s first book, Carry On, Warrior, and her blog “Momastery” from that era. I did not read her next book, Love Warrior, because I had the general feeling that writing a book about how you stayed strong and kept your marriage together after your husband’s infidelity was unlikely to age well — and, indeed, it did not, as Glennon and her husband were separated by the tie the book tour started, divorced soon afterwards. Glennon fell in love with her now-wife, American soccer player Abby Wambach, and their love story is a key part of Untamed.

The main thesis of Untamed is that most women spend their lives “taming” themselves, caging themselves in various ways to meet the expectations of society, family, marriage, etc., but that we need to be untamed and be true to who we really are, even if some relationships and expectations get broken along the way.

There’s truth in this, of course, and it’s an important and liberating message for many people. My quibble was that I often felt Untamed was answering questions I’ve never asked (I’ve never felt particularly caged or tamed, so in that sense I may not be the book’s target audience) and not answering some memoir-type questions I was curious about. There’s good stuff here about trusting your intuition about situations, though as always, I do think trusting your gut has to be balanced with rationality, and some of the woo-woo language around intuition just rubs me the wrong way. If I ever sat in a meeting where (as Glennon says happens in meetings of the charity she founded) a woman said, “I’ve sat with this decision for awhile, and this option feels warm to me,” I would have to quickly leave the room so I could burst out laughing in the hallway — but again, that’s just me. Laughing at people who use woo-woo language feels warm to me.

I also feel this whole “Untamed” philosophy is lacking in concern for others — that is, the feelings of others are always portrayed from the perspective of something that might hold you back from being your true self, rather than as the valuable expressions of their true selves. Aren’t there times we do have to curb our own desires and impulses in order to care for others, or at least not ride roughshod directly over them? I think there are and I don’t think this balance is addressed in the book — but again, as I said, she is answering different questions from the ones I’m asking.

As I said, there’s a lot of good here, and a lot of it will be great for many readers, especially those who can identify more closely with Glennon’s life experiences than I can. I liked the part about anger especially, about paying attention to our own anger and what it’s trying to teach us. My favourite Glennon Doyle statement will always be the one I gave my friend on a Momastery mug when we were both in the thick of raising teenagers: We Can Do Hard Things.

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Filed under Audiobook, Nonfiction -- general, Nonfiction -- memoir

The Empire of Gold, by S.A. Chakraborty

I have already raved about the first and second volumes of this trilogy so I’m not going to say much here except that this was a very satisfying ending to the best new fantasy series I’ve read in years. All the characters, even the “bad guys,” were treated with respect and given complex, fully-fleshed out stories with satisfying endings (and a few small plot threads left dangling in case the author wants to return to this world later, I would assume). The resolution to the romance plot (which sometimes seemed like a typical love triangle, but really was not) is very well done. The overarching resolution to the conflict was far more satisfying than the usual fantasy trope of just replacing “evil ruler” with the “Chosen One” — things were far more complicated and interesting, and there were some great surprise twists and turns. I really love this series and highly recommend it to lovers of epic fantasy, especially those who want to read fantasy set in something other than a pseud0-medieval-European world.

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Filed under Fiction -- fantasy

The End of Policing, by Alex S. Vitale

Amid all the calls to defund or abolish police in the recent Black Lives Matter protests, I’ve become interested in what that might actually look like, and several people recommended this book to me. It is a detailed and convincing exploration of why policing as it currently works (particularly in the US context, as that’s where the author situates his argument, but there’s much here that’s relevant in other countries too). He shows how, historically, police forces were usually created, and have often been used, to quash dissent, put down workers’ movements, and police racial minorities, and gives many examples of how police authority is being abused and misused today — against schoolchildren, people with mental illness, the homeless, racial minorities, etc.

The only weakness in this very interesting and informative book, for me, was a lack of roadmaps on what “the end of policing” might actually look like. The problems and abuses of policing as it currently exists occupied most of the book, which suggestions for change confined to an Afterword at the end. My biggest concern, as a middle-class white person who has only recently begun to think through these issues, is that most of the suggests I’ve seen for what a world with defunded or abolished policing might look like rely on big, structural changes that would take a long time to implement. I’d like to know if there are smaller, more achievable changes that would get us there while working on the larger systemic issues, and if so, do we have examples of where and how these smaller changes have worked? If there’s a book, or podcast, that explores that, I would love a recommendation!

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The Jamestown Brides, by Jennifer Potter

This book is very relevant to my current interest in researching English women in early 17th century colonies, but it was also just a really fascinating read (or listen, as I actually had the audiobook). Potter painstakingly seeks out all the information known about the named women who travelled from England to Virginia around 1620, their passage sponsored by the Virginia company in hopes that they would marry some of the male colonists. What little is known about these specific women is thoroughly fleshed out with social history about England and Virginia at the time, to give the reader a sense of the kind of lives these women may have been leaving behind, and what they could expect at the end of their journey. It was a very useful book for my research but also just a really interesting piece of history for those of us interested in the unrecorded (or barely-recorded) stories of women’s experiences.

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The Land Beyond the Sea, by Sharon Kay Penman

While historical fiction is, as we all know, my favourite genre, one of the drawbacks, especially with historical fiction about kings, queens, and other famous folk, is that you always know how it’s going to turn out. I can read a good novel about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and be caught up in the drama and intrigue, but there’s no way I go into it thinking, “Maybe she’ll have a son and Henry will be happy and they’ll live happily ever after.” The ending, having already happened, is foreordained.

That’s why it’s so nice, sometimes, to read a historical novel about real, famous people, set in a time and place I know nothing about. This is the case with Sharon Kay Penman’s latest novel, The Land Beyond the Sea, set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 1100s. As my dad said (we were both reading it at about the same time), I knew about the Crusades, but you always kind of get the impression that the Crusaders went over to the Middle East, fought a bit, and went back home. You’d have to be a bit of a devotee of that period to know that several generations of European noblemen, mostly of French descent (the people of the region called them “Franks”) established fiefdoms and kingdoms, lived and ruled and fought against the “Saracens” (the Muslim rulers whose people actually inhabited these lands).

So we find ourselves at the beginning of this novel in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, where the king’s son is an otherwise healthy, happy eleven-year-old boy who has just a few weird symptoms that might, just possibly, add up to the dreaded disease of leprosy. Is Baldwin actually a leper? If so, will he become and king and how (and how long) will he reign? If he dies young and there’s a power struggle, who will emerge victorious? How do his sisters and their husbands, his mother and stepmother and their husbands, play into this power struggle? Will the Kingdom of Jerusalem continue to exist under attack from the Saracen leader Saladin? All these and more were questions that I absolutely did not know the answers to and decided not to Google while reading, so that I could experience the genuine suspense that is so rare in fact-based historical novels.

Penman immerses herself deeply in the worldview of her characters, so the mainly Frankish characters in the novel (there are a few scenes from the perspective of Saracen characters as well) never question their belief that they have a God-given right to rule over this land so far from home, lived in by people of a different culture and religion from their own. They were, in fact, European colonizers before European colonialism was a thing, and that tension is definitely present throughout the novel, although (as would be historically accurate) even the “good guy” Franks never question their right to be in their Holy Land or rule it.

The culture clashes here are fascinating — not merely between Franks and Saracens, but between the Franks who have been settled in the land they call Outremer (the titular “land beyond the sea”) for generations, and the Crusader knights who have come fresh from Europe full of fighting zeal and are shocked by how the  Franks have assimilated, in at least some ways, to the local culture. And although all the point-of-view characters in this novel are wealthy, powerful nobility, there are plenty of reminders — particularly as Jerusalem is under siege near the end of the book — that the weight of war falls most heavily not on kings, queens, knights and ladies, but on ordinary poor people simply trying to live their lives.

All in all this was a fascinating and well-written piece of historical fiction.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney

I absolutely devoured this book, and there’s no doubt that the setting in which I read it — listening to the audiobook while walking the dog or doing chores around my house during the middle weeks of a 14-week period of COVID-19 lockdown — contributed to that. Under normal circumstances, I might have found a detailed historical, sociological, and scientific examination of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic interesting: while the world is paralyzed by the current pandemic, it was fascinating.

This is an incredibly detailed and thorough analysis of the “Spanish flu” (not Spanish) on many levels, and I definitely skimmed over some of the more scientific bits about how it started and how it may have been transmitted, but the history and sociology of it was so intriguing, especially in the parallels to what we see happening all around us today.

So much of what happened in 1918 — protests against mask-wearing, debates over whether the harm caused by closing schools outweighed the risk of infection, churches holding services in defiance of orders on the grounds of “religious freedom” — is happening again today, underlining the fact that while our scientific knowledge has improved in a century, human behavior in the face of a global threat hasn’t really changed all that much. While the book’s predictions of what might happen during the next pandemic focus on the possibility of another influenza outbreak rather than a coronavirus respiratory disease like we’re facing today, most everything else about this book (published in 2018 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the flu pandemic, so entirely unaware of COVID-19) is eerily relevant to the present moment. I found it completely fascinating.

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Filed under Audiobook, Nonfiction -- general