Category Archives: Fiction — general

Son of a Trickster, by Eden Robinson

This is a highly-acclaimed Canadian novel that my daughter read a few years ago and has recommended to me several times since. Now that it’s on the list for this year’s Canada Reads, at a time when I’m also looking for more books by indigenous writers to add to my collection of books for the classroom, I thought it would be a good time to read it.

Son of a Trickster is the story of Jared, an indigenous teenager from BC who lives with his single mom and her current boyfriend. Most of the story is just the highly realistic trials and tribulations of Jared growing up as a bit of an outsider with a drug-using though loving mom, her string of sometimes-violent boyfriends, the dad who Jared ends up supporting rather than the other way around, and the network of relationships with teenage friends and enemies in school and around the community. But there’s another thread running through here, of magic realism rooted in First Nations mythology. Jared’s maternal grandmother calls him “son of a trickster” (hence the title) and the other world that Jared sometimes sees and hears calling to him — a world of talking ravens and vindictive otters, of people that appear human and aren’t, of magical fireflies that surround the girl next door — becomes dominant as the story goes on. Son of a Trickster (first of a trilogy) is both realistic coming-of-age story and also myth, and intriguing on both levels.

I should add a content warning: although I said that my daughter read it as a teen, it has a teenage protagonist, and I’m going to have copies in my (adult ed) classroom, there is definitely very adult content here — lots of swearing, some slightly graphic sex and a more graphic violence, domestic abuse, and lots and lots of drug and alcohol content. Jared’s world isn’t a pretty or sanitized one, but it feels real, and he’s an absolutely appealing kid caught in circumstances a kid shouldn’t have to deal with. Not always an easy read, but an interesting one, and very well-written.

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Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese

I read this book in a day, and it happened to be Canada Day, when I was at the cabin thinking about the complexities of “celebrating” the birth of a nation my ancestors built by committing violence and genocide against the nations that were already on this land. From this perspective, it was a good day to read Indian Horse, a short and powerful novel by the late Richard Wagamese.

Indian Horse is the story of Saul Indian Horse, an Ojibwa boy from northern Ontario growing up in the 1960s. As so many First Nations children were in that era, Saul is taken to a residential school, a brutal boarding school run by Roman Catholic clergy with a clear mandate (in the words of the Canadian government and many other bad actors in this tragedy) to “kill the Indian and save the child.” Except there was very little child-saving going on amid the brutality, abuse, and cultural genocide happening in those schools (the last of which did not close until the 1990s).

I knew the horrific story of the residential schools, of course, but this novel makes the abuse and suffering personal and poignant through the eyes of Saul, a physically small kid who has an amazing talent for hockey. The game provides him with an escape out of the school and the narrow confines of his life, with an opportunity for bigger dreams and a better life — but it also delivers him into a world of white Canadian hockey players and fans who, as a mentor tells Saul, “believe it’s their game.”

I think I may teach this novel in my level 2 English class next semester; it lends itself well to a quick read and a deceptively easy introduction to some of the darkest chapters in Canadian history. Highly recommended.

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We All Will Be Received, by Leslie Vryenhoek

This new book from my fellow Breakwater Books author Leslie Vryenhoek traces the story of Dawn, a young woman who, on a turbulent in 1977, witnesses a crime and commits another, running away from a terrible boyfriend to start a new life under a new identity. This was easier to do back in the late 70s, of course, before the internet. Dawn hitchhikes all the way to a small hotel in Newfoundland and reinvents herself complete with a new name and a very minimal backstory.

Interspersed between the chapters of Dawn’s story are chapters about other, apparently unrelated characters in the early 21st century, and we’re a nice ways into the book before we begin to see how these storylines will converge and Dawn’s past will finally catch up with her.

I found this a quick, engaging read with some interesting reflections on how our level of connection and connectivity has changed over the last 40 years.

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The Luminous Sea, by Melissa Barbeau

This is a lovely novel that I had the privilege of defending in this year’s NL Reads competition (it didn’t win, but it should have!). Melissa Barbeau’s novel of contemporary outport Newfoundland begins with Vivienne, a student working on a marine biology research project, nets something that is not quite a fish — a mysterious sea-creature no-one has ever seen the like of before. Her supervisor, Colleen, is anxious to keep the discovery a secret until it can be revealed in the way and at the time that will do the most good to Colleen’s own career. But Vivienne finds herself drawn to the creature less as a research subject and more as a fellow-creature, coming to empathize with the trapped specimen, anthropomorphizing it as “she,” and pushing back against Colleen’s avid desire to use “her” as a stepping-stone to career advancement.

This is a nice, tight little story with well-drawn characters and a very believable setting as a backdrop for an unbelievable discovery. It reflects on deeper themes about how we as humans relate to the natural world and its creatures — highly relevant themes in the age of climate change. It has received a lot of acclaim, being shortlisted for the Winterset Award and longlisted for the Dublin Literary Awards — and the acclaim is richly deserved. The writing is as luminous as the sea of the title, as rich and beautiful as the cover design, and it’s a pleasure to read.

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Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid

My project of reading through some of the many black authors on my to-read list during Black History Month had to include Kiley Reid’s new and highly-acclaimed novel Such a Fun Age — to the point that I gave up on the six-month wait at the library and just broke down and bought it. I did not regret it.

Such a Fun Age is, in many ways, a light and fun contemporary novel — especially in comparison to some of what I had been reading this month, from fantasy epics where the fate of an entire world hangs on a character’s choices, to searing exposes of racism in the (real) contemporary world. Against the backdrop of those books, Such a Fun Age was an easy and fun read, but it does deal with deep issues around race and class.

The main character, Emira, is a young African-American woman who babysits part-time for the daughter of a white woman, Alix. Emira’s main problem is that she doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life, other than part-time babysitting (a job she only enjoys because she really likes Alix’s daughter, who is one of the best and most realistically-depicted preschoolers I’ve ever read in fiction) and part-time secretarial work. But with her twenty-sixth birthday fast approaching, she feels the pressure to get a full-time job so she can get her own health insurance when she’s kicked off her parents’ insurance (yes, this is an American book, so the need to have basic health care is a motivating factor for a character’s career decisions).

Alix has problems too: she has created a successful life for herself as a social-media influencer, but her present life is papered over a troubled past that she is at pains to conceal. Things become complicated when Emira, while caring for Alix’s daughter, is the victim of racist profiling in a neighbourhood grocery store — an interaction which is filmed by a white bystander. Alix feels guilty, and her guilt leads her to overcompensate in her desire not just to be friends with Emira, but to “fix” her life. Add in an unexpected connection between Alix’s past life and Emira’s present, and the stage is set for a book that is funny, thoughful, insightful and incisive about race and class in the US today, and also about how women represent and recreate themselves and their lives.

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I Do Not Come to You by Chance, by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

As you may be able to tell from the last few book reviews, I had the idea that because February is Black History Month, I was going to read through some of the books on my to-read list by black authors. This one was not on my list — I’d never heard of it, until an online book club I’m in suggested it for their February book. Since it fit with my February theme and I’m always eager to read books that give me a glimpse into another culture, I was happy to pick this one up.

I Do Not Come to You By Chance is the story of those all-too-familiar Nigerian email scams, from the other side of the computer. Specifically, it’s the story of a young Nigerian man named Kingsley, a bright fellow with an engineering degree who, despite his talent, can’t find a good job that will help him carry out his obligations as eldest son in his family and help him prepare to marry the girl of his dreams. When things get desperate and the family turns to him for help, he, in turn, is forced to seek help from their only wealthy relative, his uncle “Cash Daddy,” who is fabulously rich but also despised by the rest of their very respectable family because he’s made his money in email scams. Kingsley is, of course, drawn into Cash Daddy’s world, and the resulting story is both funny, poignant, and incisively insightful. If you’ve ever wondered what might lead someone to perpetrate a scam — or to fall for one — or you just want a good novel about contemporary Nigeria by a Nigerian authors — seek out I Do Not Come to You By Chance.

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Mrs. Everything, by Jennifer Weiner

After a few fairly “heavy” books, I always like to have Jennifer Weiner’s latest lined up, and it’s not necessarily because her books are that might “lighter” in subject matter — they often deal with really intense stuff. But her writing style is very reader-friendly, draws me in quickly and keeps the pages turning so it’s hard to put the book down. This was the case with Mrs. Everything, a novel about two sisters growing up in 1950s suburban America. I read it in a day (again, during the snowstorm and subsequent of State of Emergency) and was completely immersed in it.

Jo and Beth (yes, just like two of the four Little Women sisters, but there are only two here) are the daughters of a moderately successful, hard-working Jewish-American family who, as the novel opens, have just moved from the city to the Michigan suburbs in pursuit of the American dream. While Beth is her mother’s ideal daughter — pretty, ladylike, eager to please — Jo is tomboyish, difficult, and prone to questioning social norms, like the fact that her mother won’t allow her to play with the daughter of their African-American maid.

The girls’ lives seem set on a predictable pattern: Beth will grow up to become a model housewife like her mother, while Jo, who wants to be a writer, will pursue a lonelier and harder path. This seems especially likely after it becomes clear that adolescent Jo is far more attracted to her best friend Lynette than to any of the boys she tries half-heartedly to date. But when a family tragedy strikes and then the 1960s counter-culture makes it to small-town Michigan, the girls’ apparently predictable tragectories get turned upside-down. By the time both sisters are in their late 20s, their lives are very different from what anyone might expect — and ten years later, they’re different again. Life keeps throwing unexpected curve balls, and both Jo and Beth defy easy categorization.

Through it all, their bond remains strong, even though there are resentments and regrets simmering under the surface (and sometimes bubbling to the surface). What I loved about this book was how neither woman’s life turned out in the way the reader would expect it to — and also, neither woman’s life has ever really “turned out.” Things keep changing, and both women change and move with the times.

After I devoured this book, I read several reviews on Goodreads that pointed out numerous anachronisms in this tour through American life from the 1950s to the 2000s, and I realized that indeed, those were anachronisms and in some cases sloppy research and editing. However, none of these diminished my enjoyment of the book while I was reading it, so I’d definitely still recommend it.

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Brother, by David Chariandry

This was a short but powerful book about a young man living in the shadow of his dead brother and the act of violence that killed him. Years after Frances’s death, Michael and his mother still live in suspended animation in their lower-income Toronto neighbourhood, unable to move forward from the tragedy that shattered their lives. Michael’s mother and his absent father were immigrants from Trinidad, and the novel is a vividly-written and uncompromising look at people who are not “the model immigrant,” whose story of coming to North America is not a rags-to-riches success but rather a story of staying mired in public-housing developments and dead-end jobs. One girl from Michael’s high school, Aisha, managed to achieve the sought-after goal of getting away and making a better life — and it’s her return home, after her father’s death, that kicks off this novel, and Michael’s exploration of his brother’s life and memory. A short novel that left a big impact on me as a reader.

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Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline

This was the first book I read during the infamous “Stormageddon 2020″/State of Emergency that paralyzed St. John’s from January 17-25. This, by the way, is the beauty of e-reading: you never need to worry that you’re going to get trapped in your house for eight days with nothing to read but the 1000 books already in the house. (I guess if the power had gone out, I’d be singing the praises of those 1000 paper books instead).

Empire of Wild is the story of Joan, whose beloved husband Victor vanished without a trace a year ago. Then Joan sees him again — under a different name, living a different life, with no apparent memory of her. But she’s determined this is Victor and she’s going to get him back.

Then, from this apparently realistic narrative, we veer into the world of magic realism, as Joan is instructed by her mentor, an older woman named Ajean, into the mythology of the rogarou. A rogarou is like a Metis version of the werewolf myth, and Joan begins to believe that Victor is not just missing and possibly suffering from amnesia, but has been possessed by an evil wolf-spirit. So she takes her twelve-year-old nephew Zeus and goes to try to find him and set him free.

It’s a love story, and a road trip story, and a mythic story, and also a story about exploitation of indigenous people and indigenous land in Canada. It’s beautifully written, and weird, and powerful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Five Wives, by Joan Thomas

Years ago, when I was teaching at our Seventh-day Adventist school, I had a student who was not SDA, but belonged to an even more conservative Christian group, who was a huge fan of Elisabeth Elliot’s books. Until I met this girl, I’d never heard of Elisabeth Elliot, her husband Jim Elliot, or the ill-fated mission to an isolated Ecuadoran tribe that led to the violent deaths of Jim Elliot and several other American missionaries in the 1950s. Elisabeth Elliot went on to become a celebrated author and speaker who devoted herself to keeping the memory of her husband, his fellow missionaries, and (what she and many others portrayed as) their martyrdom, alive.

At the time, I was not that interested in the story of how or why Jim Elliot and the others died; I was mostly intrigued that this woman writer, Elisabeth Elliot, was one of those conservative Christian women who saw no irony in writing and speaking widely about her faith while also promoting a traditionalist view of men’s and women’s roles within Christianity and within marriage. This apparent contradiction of women who don’t believe women should lead, but are willing to be leaders themselves (and clearly don’t “keep silent” in church) fascinated me then and now, but I didn’t think much more about it until I picked up Joan Thomas’s Five Wives, the 2019 Governor General’s Award winner for English Canadian fiction.

I found this book utterly engrossing, and I have so much to say about it. First, I’ll point out that the title is misleading, presumably for the sake of making a good title: while the five men who died did indeed leave behind five wives, only three of these wives are major characters in the novel, and several of the major viewpoint characters are not the wives but are people connected in other ways to the tragedy. That’s a nitpick, but one I want to get out of the way up front.

The author makes an interesting choice in fictionalizing a not only real, but relatively recent story. It’s tricky business writing fiction about real people, especially when either they or their children are still alive to read and have opinions about what you’ve written. Thomas keeps the names and identities of all the people involved in the original story intact, though she treats them as fictional characters by freely giving them thoughts and motivations the real people may not have had. But for their children and grandchildren, who are still living, she creates entirely fictional people who are not analogues of the real descendants of the missionaries, which gives her even more freedom to play around with and explore how this tragedy resonated through generations of these families.

Five Wives is one of those books that I’m always looking for and rarely find — a book that writes about a religious subculture, particularly that of evangelical Christianity, from a perspective both within and outside that subculture. That is, the writer’s perspective is much broader than that of her characters: we see what they could not or would not see — that their incursion into the world of the people they called the Auca (actually the Huaroni) was akin to an invasion, and their complicity with American oil companies in “opening up” these indigenous people’s territories was a cultural genocide. But she also portrays, realistically and believably, how completely the missionaries themselves — most of them anyway — believed in the truth of their mission, and believed they were truly called by God.

It’s rare to find a writer who writes about religion in way that so completely “gets” the subculture — this book is easy to compare to The Poisonwood Bible, which is also an excellent and brilliantly written book about missionaries and cultural imperialism, but Kingsolver, I would argue, does not understand evangelical Christianity from the inside the way Thomas obviously does.

I found this a thought-provoking and fascinating novel. If I have one criticism, it’s that so many characters are introduced that some perspectives and storylines don’t have time to be fleshed out as completely as I might have wished. But that’s about what I want as a reader, not what the writer was trying to accomplish. What Joan Thomas set out to do in this novel, she did brilliantly — so this is one of the years in which I agree wholeheartedly with the choice of the GG judges (I’m sure they’re hugely relieved to have my stamp of approval!)

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