The Vegetarian

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Occasionally, an award-winning novel has so much hype that I feel I absolutely have to read it. That’s even more the case if the general Goodreads population concurs with critics in saying it’s a transcendent work of fiction. I used to feel as if maybe I wasn’t intelligent enough to understand some of these novels, as I didn’t enjoy them at all. Was I missing something? What was the huge draw that made people heap praise upon those pages?

I found a beautiful copy of The Vegetarian at work, and was determined to find out.

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I’ve been hearing about this book for ages. I’ve seen it pop up on my Goodreads updates feed, I’ve seen it critically reviewed and praised, I’ve seen people reading it on the TTC, and it won the Man Booker International Prize last year as well. I’ve had friends and employers recommend it. So it was with equal parts apprehension and excitement that I cracked open the first page of this book.

First, the prose was undeniably beautiful. Simple, but written with turns of phrase that made it a quick and thoughtful feeling read. My praise to both Han Kang and her translator, Deborah Smith.

The narrative being divided into three parts worked well for me. I found the narrators in the first and second parts to be rather reprehensible people. I wondered as I was reading if I was enjoying myself or not. Why was I seeing events transpire from their point of view? Should I even keep reading? It was only when I came to the last part of the story that I understood the author’s decision to divide the narrative in such a way.

While I later learned that the author wrote this as an allegorical tale, I think it works very well at face value. Though I resent the use of rape as a plot device, the story (sans allegory) was a fragile and disturbing tale of falling further into a madness that has never really been apparent until events begin to escalate.

My favourite perspective was In-hye’s. Through her we learn more of Yeong-hye’s childhood, and of her sister’s similarity to her own husband. In-hye’s narrative was one that made me think the most. It was the most human to me, as she was a likeable character who struggled with her choices and responsibilities, and even resented her sister for lifting the shackles of a life that she couldn’t bring herself to abandon. She drew parallels between events and characters that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

I loved the last part of the novel. Had the entire thing been from In-hye’s perspective, this would have been a five star review. The touches of bizarre and mystical elements also worked well for me.

As it is, I walked away feeling appeased rather than truly satisfied.

Will you enjoy this book? Hard to say. But it’s under 200 pages, and well-worth checking out for the beautiful writing alone. I’ll certainly be reading more of Han Kang’s work.

Have you read The Vegetarian? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Company Town

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To my regret, it’s been a long while since I last posted. I’ve been very busy, as I now have three jobs so I’m always on the go! (Two bookstores, and a paper store. Living the dream.) Still, things have settled a bit and I’m getting into a routine so I’m back now. I’m hoping to be able to get back to more regular posts once more, so stay tuned.

After being on hold at the library for more than a month, I’ve finally received more of this year’s Canada Reads finalists. It’s with great pleasure that I bring you today’s review.

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Company Town was the Canada Reads candidate I was most eager to read this year. I love sci-fi, and especially more speculative stuff. Throw in the fact that Madeline Ashby is also a ‘strategic foresight consultant’, and I was chomping at the bit to get to this title.

I raced through this novel at lightning speed, reading whenever I could squeeze in the time.

The narrative follows Go Jung-Hwa, a young woman living and working in New Arcadia – an oil rig city off the coast of Newfoundland. As an organic human in a society where most choose to augment themselves with machines and drugs, she is a rarity. She is also ‘stained’ by a birthmark that spans an entire side of her body, due to her rare seizure disorder.

Hwa works as a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada union members at the opening of the book. That right there made me fall in love with this story.

The legalization of sex work has been a hot button issue in Canada recently, especially in light of the Bedford case (2009-2013). Hwa’s friends, students, and mother are all sex workers. It was amazing to read about sex work in this context, as it was neither vilified nor exalted. The reader does get to see the different attitudes people hold towards the profession, which gives a lot of insight into those characters.

When New Arcadia is bought by the Lynch company, Hwa is thrust into a new corporate position. As she struggles to adjust to her new routine, her friends begin to die gruesomely. With a burning need to bring the killer to justice, Hwa uses all of the resources at her disposal and risks her own safety to see it done.

Reading about such a self-made and competent woman was brilliant. She can take down scary drugged up dudes twice her size, but still isn’t a paragon of perfection. At times she lacks confidence, which is revealed to be a rather serious flaw of hers. Her relationships with others are intricate and genuine. Even shunned by her loved ones, she works her hardest to do what she believes is the right thing. Even pushing others away, she recognizes that she could be pulling them closer. The romance that builds slowly in the novel didn’t feel out of place at all, despite the murder and mayhem sandwiching it.

Though set in the future, Company Town feels like it isn’t that far off from our current state of affairs. Clean energy solutions are still a thing of dreams and prototypes. Women are still treated in ways that should make you weep – illustrated by some disturbing conversations, and more graphic threats of rape, as well as physical violence. Corporations are entities whose machinations affect many lives, often for the worse. These things really helped ground this book for me – it seemed like a plausible situation, even when the technology came into play.

Cue cybernetic enhancement, self-replicating nanobots, artificial intelligence, and crossing timelines.

Boom.

These things were so perfectly entrenched in the world that Ashby created that I totally believed them. Though it got a bit confusing near the end, there was never that moment you sometimes get in sci-fi books when you’ve read some clearly bogus pseudoscience and it catapults you out of the story before you can roll your eyes. I stayed entrenched in the book the whole way through, and after re-reading a specific section things clicked for me and I knew exactly what was going on.

This was my favourite Canada Reads book so far, and I only have two left to go now. I certainly intend to pick up a copy of Company Town, and Madeline Ashby’s other books. And I can always hope that as a Toronto native, she visits my bookstore one day so that I can tell her in person how much I loved this. Hopers gotta hope.

Have you picked up Company Town yet? Did you love it? Hate it? Let me know in the comments below!

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

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As you know if you’ve kept up with my posts for any length of time, I love reading YA. Lately, I’ve been trying to broaden my book horizons so I don’t limit my exposure to different kinds of literature. I’ve been browsing the Toronto Public Library’s Overdrive collection, and I came across this gem of a title.

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As far as memoirs go, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is certainly one of the most unusual that I’ve read. It details a young woman’s first forays into work at a crematorium and into the North American funeral industry.

Caitlin Doughty speaks in a frank and appealing way about her work and her evolving thoughts about death and the way it’s viewed in our society. The narrative is peppered with incidents that are morbid and hilarious – sometimes both at once. It’s a fascinating look into an industry that keeps civilians at a distance, often to their detriment.

The narrative is linear, and the reader follows Doughty as she goes from a rather naïve death idealist, to a realist seeking to promote a healthier understanding of death and all it entails.

She meets many interesting people, as you would expect from those who deal with the dead on a regular basis. Their insights added a lot to her evolving journey, as did the glimpses of the different ways that people dealt with their dead loved ones.

Peppered throughout the narrative were glimpses of the death rituals of various peoples all over the world, during various time periods. The reader also learns of the origins of the modern rituals we currently practice in North America. It was honestly fascinating, and I’m curious to learn more about many of the things I learned.

I loved this book.

Death is something I’ve thought about in a vague way, but Doughty encourages the reader to really examine it. She encourages you to talk to your friends and family about it, and to make plans for what will happen to your body once you’ve died.

Another great mark for this book is the bibliography in the back that lists all the sources quoted by the author within. There’s also a reading group guide in the back written by the author, along with resources for death and end-of-life choices.

I would absolutely recommend this book to everyone. We’re all going to die. We should all be able to face our own mortality with a sense of calm that few seem able to do. So read this book, think about life and death, and laugh at the ridiculous situations the author has witnessed and found herself in.

Have you read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes? What did you think? Can you recommend any other unusual memoirs? Let me know in the comments below!

Brother’s Ruin

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Sometimes I’ll search NetGalley for the names of authors I’ve read for something new and familiar at once. I recently came across Emma Newman’s new novella, Brother’s Ruin, and I decided to give it a shot.

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The last thing I read of Newman’s was Planetfall, a sci-fi that was a character focus on someone with a rather debilitating mental illness. With that experience, I was expecting this new novel, though in a different genre, to also be quite character focused.

Arguably, it was. And that was the problem.

Set in a Victorian London which prizes magic and others magic users, I was expecting stronger world-building. As it is, the reader is thrown right into the thick of it with it and I rather felt as if I had started reading at the second chapter, having missed some information. Plus, the synopsis of the book is actually quite misleading.

For a lower middle class family like the Gunns, the loss of a son can be disastrous, so when seemingly magical incidents begin cropping up at home, they fear for their Ben’s life and their own livelihoods.

But Benjamin Gunn isn’t a talented mage. His sister Charlotte is, and to prevent her brother from being imprisoned for false reporting she combines her powers with his to make him seem a better prospect.

Totally not what’s going on. I understand not wanting to spoil the events of the book, but they’ve completely manufactured motivations there that don’t exist in the text itself.

The bulk of what bothered me is that I didn’t care at all for Charlotte past the opening sequence with the baker. Considering the narrative was so focused on her, it clearly became an issue. Though this was a short read, I wasn’t compelled at all to keep reading. Charlotte is the only character that’s really fleshed out, and she makes stupid choices. She takes it upon herself to take responsibility for other people’s errors without even discussing things with them.

She does it, of course, because she cares about them.

Because going behind someone’s back to solve their problems in secret is definitely what you should do when you love someone. Also, lying to the man you want to marry is acceptable. Of course.

This was a fast-paced story that I think I would have enjoyed better had it been novel-length and had time to really explore more of the world and the side characters.

As it is, I’m keen to pass – on fluttery feelings for a stranger, side characters who make dumb decisions, and a main character that looks like she’s going to be a magical prodigy. How many tropes can you fit into less than 200 pages?

It’s not likely that I’ll give the second volume a chance, but I won’t give up on reading Newman’s other work.

Have you read Brother’s Ruin? Any of Emma Newman’s other work? Let me know what you thought in the comments below!

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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Short review today, folks.

A while ago, I mentioned going to a book tasting with my friend J, where we both picked up Giant Days.  I also managed to pick up another book that had been on my TBR list for quite a while. With even more encouragement from J (you should read that, it’s really good) I finally picked up a copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

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I’d be surprised if you’re North American and haven’t already heard of this book. I mean, it came out a decade ago. But it has also been at the center of some controversy. It’s been censored – removed from libraries, school reading lists, and rebuked for it’s depiction of violence (read: hardship) and sex (read: masturbation).

Honestly, the protagonist is a 14-year-old boy, and people need to readjust their expectations, in my opinion.

I really enjoyed this book.

All too often in books depicting Native American protagonists, they are othered quite neatly. But Junior’s voice is clear and funny, and everything I would expect to hear from a boy his age. His natural musings and good humour really put his life experiences into perspective.

Struggling with the quality of his education, and the alcoholism and deaths prevalent in his community, Junior leads a life that his friends off the reservation would struggle to understand. Still, this glimpse into his life and community was compelling – his voice was believable and I really enjoyed the little drawings peppered throughout the book.

Junior’s voice while straightforward was also very insightful. There’s a moment two chapters into this book that I knew I would like it.

“Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”

Truth.

Junior loves his community, but he also feels trapped in it. He decides to attend the all-white school off of the reservation, and with that decision comes a whole lot of difficulties. Still, he handles it with all the aplomb that a 14-year-old could be expected to. He’s a smart and sensitive kid and you root for him the entire book through. You wish for more for him, for his family, and for his community.

The depictions of side characters were excellent in this book. Junior’s family and friends were just as interesting as he was, for all that we didn’t know as much about them. His relationship with Rowdy the whole book through was especially touching and telling.

If you’re looking for a quick read, I would recommend this one. I don’t generally read contemporary literature that isn’t genre fiction, but this one is a gem.

It will give you things to think about – maybe things you hadn’t ever considered.

Have you already read this book? Did you enjoy it? Let me know in the comments below!

Spark Joy

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So here I am, back to our regularly scheduled blog posts!

For those of you who don’t know, I recently moved into a lovely new place and so I’ve been rather remiss in posting regularly these past few weeks. Well, now that I’m all settled in that will be a thing of the past.

When undertaking a move (and not hiring movers) one of the main things I consider is stuff. How many things do I own? How many do I really need to take with me? Are there methods to organize my material possessions before I move, to decrease the risk of bringing a mess into my new living space?

It turns out that a book had the answers that I needed.

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A little while ago, Spark Joy and its companion The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up were doing the rounds in every bookstore I stepped into. When a copy came to me, I was curious to see what all the fuss was about.

Marie Kondo is a professional organizer. She goes into people’s homes and works with them to create a sustainable tidying and cleaning system to suit their individual needs. The essence of Spark Joy was simple enough: hold an item in your hands. Really feel that item. Is it special to you? When you hold it, does it bring you joy? If not – well, it’s time to say goodbye.

I admit that I was skeptical.

Surely if it was that easy, I would have de-cluttered my space far sooner! But alas, I did not. And this book helped give me the kick I needed to say goodbye to things that just didn’t bring me joy anymore.

Living now in a space surrounded by only things that make me happy – clothes, books, paintings – it’s clear to me that the KonMari method is on to something.

Spark Joy is divided into multiple sections that tackle the tidying of different sorts of objects you may find in your home. Despite that, I would honestly advise that you read the whole book through rather than jumping in and out wherever seems convenient. Kondo doles out helpful and funny little insights here and there that are worth reading.

From a better folding method for your clothes, to tidying sentimental items, to the ways that tidying your things can mean tidying your life, I found that the more I read the more my skepticism vanished. I got rid of things I’ve been holding on to for far too long, and in a space surrounded by only things that bring me genuine joy I breathe easier.

Here and there, Kondo will reference some of her real-life clients, and I found those accounts fascinating. I wouldn’t mind a whole book filled with those tiny glimpses into people’s lives – but that could be because I am a very nosy person. Still, they added helpful perspectives to an otherwise straightforward instructional text.

The small and adorable illustrations that pepper the text also helped bring a light-heartedness that I don’t often see in books such as this. Though practical, they were fun enough come across while reading.

Would I recommend Spark Joy? It helped me. It might help you! So yes. Though I still have more to do on my tidying journey, I’ll definitely be applying the principles I learned from this book while I do so.

Have you found any books to help de-clutter your space, or your life? Did you find Kondo’s books helpful, or were you indifferent? Let me know in the comments below!

The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories

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Anthologies are tricky things. You may miraculously jive with all of the authors contained within, and find that their myriad of voices washes over you like a cool breeze. You may pick and choose your favourites, skimming some tales and immersing yourself deeply in others. Even still, you may find that none of the voices are ones you’d care to hear, and regret the whole experience entirely.

When I saw this title on NetGalley, I admit that I requested it solely for the story by Nnedi Okorafor. I thought that if she had a story here, then that would act as a quality barometer and I would surely love the others as well.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

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The Djinn Falls in Love is a collection of stories about – you guessed it – Djinn. More widely known to the western world as genies, most people unfamiliar with their origins associate them with Disney’s Aladdin; a rather gregarious blue entity who lives in a lamp and grants wishes.

Well, I don’t think I have to tell you that Disney often grossly misrepresents things from other cultures.

I rarely quote book summaries in my reviews, but in this case I think it really says it best.

“Imagine a world filled with fierce, fiery beings, hiding in our shadows, in our dreams, under our skins. Eavesdropping and exploring; savaging our bodies, saving our souls. They are monsters, saviours, victims, childhood friends. Some have called them genies: these are the Djinn.

And they are everywhere. On street corners, behind the wheel of a taxi, in the chorus, between the pages of books. Every language has a word for them. Every culture knows their traditions. Every religion, every history has them hiding in their dark places.”

My interest was undeniably piqued by that fantastic description of this anthology, and of the Djinn. I tucked into this book with relish, and found that I wasn’t as wowed as I expected to be. Perhaps my expectations were simply too high, considering that most of these authors were award winners.

For the most part my reaction to this collection was ‘meh’. I wasn’t able to engage with most of these stories emotionally, and that’s a huge part of enjoyment for me. Sometimes it was the characters, sometimes the writing style, and sometimes there just wasn’t a satisfying payoff by the end of the tale.

Still, there were a few stories that I really enjoyed. Those were: History (Nnedi Okorafor), The Congregation (Kamila Shamsie), Black Powder (Maria Dahvana Headley), The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice (E.J. Swift), Bring Your Own Spoon (Saad Z. Hossain), and The Spite House (Kirsty Logan).

Apart from those stories I found this book to be more of a slog than I anticipated. It got to the point where I would be reluctant to pick it up because I knew I’d have to read through many stories I wasn’t into to get to one that I would enjoy. Still, an anthology is always going to be a mixed bag, so I knew what I was getting into.

I don’t regret reading this, though had I not been required to write a review I probably would have skimmed most of this instead of reading.

I would recommend it those who already enjoy one or many of the authors contained within, or those who are supremely curious about Djinn.

Are you anticipating the release of this anthology? Let me know in the comments below!