My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

“Horror’s not a symptom, it’s a love affair.”

My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a magnificently chaotic ode to slasher, one that demonstrates an unparalleled knowledge of the genre, its logic & tropes. I saw quite a lot of reviews describing this as a slow burner, and sì, in some ways Stephen Graham Jones withholds a lot of the chaos & gore for the finale however, Jade’s antics and internal monologue are very much adrenaline-fueled, so much so that I struggled to keep with up with her. Jade’s awareness of and excitement at being in a slasher gives the narrative a strong meta angle, one that results in a surprisingly playful tone, one that belies the gruesome nature of these killings.

Jade Daniels, a teenage girl of Blackfoot descent who lives in Proofrock, Idaho, is in her senior year of high school but has no real plans or aspirations besides obsessing over slashers. She’s the town’s resident loner goth, who lives with her dad, an abusive alcoholic. Jade is angry: at her ne’er-do-well dad, at his friend(s), for being creeps, at authority figures, who don’t really listen to her, at her mum, for bailing on her, and almost everyone & everything Proofrock-related. The only things keeping her going are slashers, and she dedicates her every waking moment to them, to the point that her recollections of their plots, characters, and tropes, become an inextricable part of who she is. Jade has no friends to speak of and is regarded by most of the townspeople as being a bit of a joke and a total ‘weirdo’. The only people who keep an eye out for her are her history teacher, Mr Holmes, and Sheriff Hardy. Jade spends most of her time lurking in the shadows, dying her hair emo colours, creeping around Indian Lake and Camp Blood, the town’s local haunts.

When some magnates from out of town begin developing a piece of land across the lake, Jade senses a change and is proven correct when a body count begins…what’s more, the daughter of one of these uber-wealthy developers, would make the perfect final girl. Jade knows that a slasher cycle is about to begin. Rather than being alarmed by the realization that her reality is now that of a slasher, Jade is freaking excited. She has no plans to stop the slasher but wants to see the story unfold, so she does a lot more lurking about, hoping to figure out the identity of the slasher and witness the slasher cycle from up close. Her obsession with Letha does lead her to reach out to her, but her ‘you are a final girl’ prep talk doesn’t go down well. As I said, Jade’s exhilarated inner monologue is hard to keep up with, however, I was also so taken by her that I was more than happy to follow in her chaotic steps. Jade makes full use of her encyclopaedic knowledge of the slasher (sub)genre, and provides a myriad of references and asides that link what is happening in her town to existing slasher flicks, comparing the slasher’s modus operandi, speculating about their identity and their next victims. Meanwhile Mr Holmes, Sheriff Hardy, and Letha are quite concerned about her and despite the brutal deaths that are happening don’t believe Jade’s slasher theory. Things of course escalate, and Jade finds herself in the middle of a blood bath…

The plot is very much heavy on Jade’s internal, and often inchoate, musings and ramblings about slashers. Having spent most of her life venerating slashers, and hating everything and everyone around her, she’s positively thrilled by the prospect of a slasher going on a killing spree in Proofrock. Sure, her eagerness at other people’s violent and bloody deaths certainly raises a few questions, and people like Letha & co believe that her obsession with slashers and her conviction that a slasher is responsible for the deaths and freaky occurrences that are happening in Proofrock is just a deflection…while they are not wrong Jade isn’t ready to go there, throwing herself into her analysis of ‘her’ slasher.

There were so many elements that I loved in this novel. Despite my almost perpetual confusion at Jade’s references (I went through a horror movie phase aeons ago but have grown out of it since and never really delved into the slasher subgenre) and the breakneck speed of her internal monologue, I was utterly engrossed by her voice. Sure, she’s not what I would call a good or likeable person, however, her penchant for morbidity and her unrelenting slasher enthusiasm made for an endearingly offbeat character. She very much makes the novel. This is how you execute the Not Like Other Girls trope. Readers are made aware of Jade’s striving to be different: her botched hair-dyeing, her trying-hard-to-be-edgy-but-is-actually-just-grubby look, her commitment to playing the town’s goth girl, her sometimes willful and sometimes unintentional disregard of social niceties and norms…Jade really seems to make an effort to be perceived this way, to be seen as the slasher-obsessed girl and a ‘weirdo’. The end result is that Jade is different, not better than others, just different. Now, for all her self-dramatizing we can also clearly see that Jade’s edgy girl persona has become an inextricable aspect of who she is. Whether she became this way due to trauma, or whether her commitment to the role was such that she eventually became that person, it’s up to the readers’ interpretation. I for one read Jade as being a mix of those things. She grew up in a very unstable environment, with no support system to speak of, one of her parental figures is an abusive drunkard, the other was not only complicit in said abuse but eventually left Jade to fend for herself. Understandably, given her lack of control in her life, the violent logic that operates in slashers would appeal to her. However, similarly to Shirley Jackson’s alienated and alienating (anti)-heroines I wonder whether different circumstances would really have made a difference for Jade…
Anyway, her very presence in the story is fantastic for a number of reasons. She knows that her ‘existing’ in this slasher is an ‘aberration’: not only does she know too much about slashers but people like her do not usually feature in these movies. She flits between wanting to see sh*t hit the fan and wanting the slasher to well…slash her. One way or another, she’s hyped for it and not quite the screaming and scared side character that usually gets killed off in these films. Also, Jade’s intensity and morbidity reminded me of Merricat and Wednesday Addams, and similarly to them, she finds that other people are put out by what they perceive to be her strange behaviour and demeanour. When Jade begins talking or thinking about slashers and revisiting local horror lore, she seems wholly unaware of other people and the world around her. Yet, the other characters react in a very realistic wtf is her deal way that results in many surprisingly funny scenes. Jade’s zealousness over slashers also brought to mind, I kid you not, Patrick Bateman, specifically that scene with the card (where his overreaction is so extreme that he begins to sweat) and his music monologues. The conversational tone of the narrative adds a level of immediacy to the story and really work in capturing Jade’s wry voice. There were elements of absurdism that brought to mind The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher.

As things get bloodier and bloodier we do see a shift in Jade, but I appreciated that her character development ultimately remains very subtle and she remains her slasher-obsessed self. Learning more about her past and her trauma does ‘contextualize’ some of her behaviours, however, but we can’t quite reason away her slasher-mania as being the inevitable result of that trauma. Her ambiguousness made her all the more interesting to read about. While we learn all about what she thinks of slashers—its precursors & incarnations, its hits and flops, its tropes—much about her remains inaccessible to us. I didn’t understand her most of the time, and incongruently enough that made me like her even more.

The writing and atmosphere in My Heart Is a Chainsaw super solid. The writing has this snappy, energetic quality to it that not only really amplifies Jade’s slasher-obsession but it really adds to the action & otherwise murder-y sequences. The prose was also very effective when it came to pacing, as Jones’ rapid sentences really add fuel to the storyline. The atmosphere too is great. The narrative’s self-referential nature actually ends up adding to the story’s slasher ambience, as Jones’ is able to not only pay homage to slashers through his storyline (through’s jade’s non-stop references and asides about slashers to the actual implementation of the genre’s conventions) but he also makes this slasher his own, repeatedly subverting our expectations.

My Heart Is a Chainsaw was a riot. We have a gritty storyline, plenty of humour (from those ah-ah-that’s-funny moments to humor that is more on the lines of that’s-kind-of-fcked-up-so-why-am-i-laughing), and a protagonist whose flabbergasting antics I was equal parts obsessed and appalled by. Jones’ really captures Jade’s loneliness and anger, the long-lasting consequences of abuse, the complex ways trauma manifests into one’s behavior & personality…and of course, given the book’s focus on slashers and on being a slasher, Jade’s story heavily deals with revenge and violence…
I’m really looking forward to the next instalments…(am i the only one who read jade as queer-coded?)

ps the first time i tried reading this i wasn’t feeling it and dnfed it early on so i can see why the book’s overall ratings aren’t sky high…still, if you are in the mood to read extensively about slashers or don’t mind a morbid and chaotic af protagonist, i think you should definitely give this one a chance.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The Break by Katherena Vermette

The Break is a harrowing yet lucidly written intergenerational family saga that examines the repercussions of a horrific act of violence.
The book opens with Stella, a young Métis mother, witnessing a violent attack on some land near her house. Although torn, Stella doesn’t rush to the victim’s rescue and calls the police instead. When they show up the senior officer is quick to dismiss her, as there is no ‘body’, just some blood, and believes that she merely saw some ‘gang violence’. Scott, the younger officer, who is of Métis heritage, is not so sure. We eventually learn that the victim’s identity and that she happens to be related to Stella. The girl, a self-identifying ‘good’ girl who is an all-around good egg, is hospitalized and both physically and psychologically traumatized. Her mother, aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother are all deeply affected by her attack. They question who would do it and how to best help her in her recovery. Some want answers, others believe that finding the people who did this to her will not solve matters. We are also given the perspective of Scott who is hellbent on ‘solving’ this case, to the point where he disregards the magnitude of what the girl has experienced (pushing her to talk even if she shows signs of distress etc.). We learn of his struggle over his identity, from his colleague’s microaggressions to his own partner’s unfunny remarks about indigenous people. Although we are given insight into his experiences I had a hard time sympathizing with him as his voice stood out (and not in a good way) from the rest. I would have much preferred if the narrative hadn’t included his perspective and had focused on the women making up the girl’s family. There was something gimmicky about his chapters and it seemed to me that the author couldn’t’ choose between making him into a flawed yet ultimately empathetic guy or an unscrupulous ambitious dick. Another pov that felt unnecessary was Phoenix’s. She is an older teen who has severe mental health issues (from body dysmorphia and disordered eating to extreme anger and violent episodes). There were aspects of her character that struck me as gratuitous and sensationalistic. Also, having her pov didn’t really make her into a more nuanced character. While I understand that often abuse breeds abuse (so we have someone who was abused becoming an abuser) I am tired of how often this is ‘used’ in fiction as a way of not quite condoning but of making ‘sense’ of an abusive character’s actions. I also found it frustrating that her pov featured more in the story than the girl (i have forgotten her name, even though she is meant to be the figure tying all of these narratives together) who was attacked. She and her friend have a chapter now and again but I found them somewhat simplistic compared to the others. That the first time that they sneak out and ‘lie’ to their mothers ends in such a horrifying way also struck me as a wee bit much.

Still, this book certainly packs a punch or two. Katherena Vermette doesn’t soften the brutality of what the victim experiences nor are she quick to condemn characters like Stella. Throughout these perspectives, Vermette also explores the discrimination, violence, and abuse directed at indigenous women. Some of the characters are trapped in a stark cycle of violence, addiction, and or abuse and Vermette doesn’t shy away from portraying the harsh realities that many of them live in. The story also dabbles with magical realism as there are chapters from the perspective of a character who is no longer alive. Their identity isn’t quite a mystery but I appreciated that Vermette didn’t feel the need to over-explain their presence in the overarching narrative.
I would definitely read more by this author and I would encourage readers who can tolerate graphic descriptions of violent/sexual assault(s) to give The Break a chance.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller

Dog Flowers is a relentlessly unsparing and depressing account of a dysfunctional family grappling with addiction, trauma, mental illness, and abuse. This memoir opens with Danielle Geller’s mothers’ death. Geller’s mother was homeless when she died of withdrawal from alcohol, and Geller is forced to return to Florida to sift through her mother’s possessions. Using her archivist skills she ends up reaching out to her mother’s side of the family, aside she’s been estranged from, and visits them in their home in the Navajo Nation, where she learns more about her mother’s history and her Navajo heritage.
Alongside these sections that follow Geller as an adult, there are chapters delving into her disrupted childhood, which often honed in on a particular episode.
After her parents, both addicts split up, Geller and her sister go on to stay with their father. Their father, who is white, is an alcoholic whose emotional abuse of his children goes on to become physical when he assaults Geller’s sister. Geller recounts with disturbing clarity his erratic behaviour, for example of the way he would harangue them, telling them the same tired stories from his own childhood and adulthood, fixating on the wrongdoings he’s been subjected to. Although it’s been years since I’ve shared a roof with my father, reading Dog Flowers was an uncomfortable reminder of just how overwhelming it can be to have (and live with) a parent with substance abuse issues. And boy, does Danielle Geller capture how devastating it is on a young person to be exposed to this kind of chaotic and vitriolic presence. It was distressing just how much of my father I recognised in Geller’s own one so reading these sections was by no means an easy activity. Geller and her sister eventually end up in the custody of their grandmother but things take a downward turn as Geller’s sister begins to ‘act out’.
Geller’s prose is unsentimental and matter-of-fact, even when discussing traumatic episodes. In many ways, this memoir reads like a long list of tragedies. Geller’s mother, father, and sister all struggle with addiction and mental illness. Geller is exposed from an early age to emotional, physical, and self-abuse. Neither of her parents is capable or willing to look after her and her sister, and their attempts at sobriety and lucidity are short-lived. If anything, their attempts at a ‘normal’, or at least ‘stable’, life just give Geller (and us the readers) false hopes as they inevitably fall off the wagon. Time and again Geller has to look after them, often with little choice on her part as they emotionally manipulate her into helping them out. All of this sadly hit too close to home. When I saw some reviewers expressing surprise or shock that Geller would not cut ties with her ‘toxic’ family, well, I can’t help but think that their family situation may not be as dysfunctional as Geller’s. There are people out there who are able to cut off ties with their abusive parents or siblings. But, more often than not, you are unable or unwilling to cut someone off. Especially if you start questioning whether many of their ‘vices’ stem from trauma or mental illness. And again, hope. You hope that they will get clean, get a steady job, or lead a ‘normal’ life. And, in Geller’s case, well, all of her closest relatives have struggled with addiction. Is she going to cut them all off?!
It was saddening to see that Geller’s relationship with her Navajo side of the family is far from idyllic or rosy. While her connection to her cousin struck me as moving, her relationship with her aunt was saddening indeed as she is revealed to be a woman who is full of anger and sadly seems to turn this anger towards her relatives.
There is a lot of pain in this memoir. Geller captures with gut-wrenching clarity the realities and aftermath of a childhood marred by neglect, abuse, addiction, and trauma. Geller’s forays into her own past are brutally honest and are not accompanied by ‘moral’ lessons or ‘wise’ insights into human nature. I appreciated Geller’s honest depiction of her family and, more importantly, herself.
While Dog Flowers deeply resonated with me, I did find its execution early on a bit clumsy. The author introduces too much too soon, and I wasn’t sure what had happened when. The ending too seemed a bit abrupt, and I would have appreciated more insight into Geller’s life (her friends, partners, work, etc..).
Nevertheless, I found this a powerful and piercing read. It is by no means an easy read and I did find much of what Geller recounted to be extremely distressing, then again, I was also able to relate to many of her experiences. I appreciated that she neither villainizes nor condone her parents nor her sister and that in delving into her past she tries to understand their motivations or states of mind, even if ultimately, much about their identities remains a mystery or incomprehensible to her.
Geller’s memoir is a haunting account of a family mired in pain. If you are looking for a challenging read, well, buckle up because Dog Flowers is it. Geller’s portrayal of her family disrupts the myth of the happy family and the widely held belief that parents love their children. While there is love in this memoir it is often obfuscated by years of self-destructing behaviour and or by hatred, sadness, and weakness.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

“I was Tookie, always too much Tookie. For better or worse, that’s a fact.”

I feel quite conflicted over The Sentence. Although I loved the first half of this novel I found the latter to be boring and somewhat disjointed. While I’m sure many will be able to love everything about this book I wish it hadn’t quite tried to juggle so many different themes and genres.

The Sentence follows Tookie, an ex-con who now works as a bookseller at an Indigenous bookstore in Minneapolis after falling in love with books and words during her incarceration. Tookie’s winning voice is the book’s biggest strength. Her humor, remarks, and inner-monologue were a delight to read. It is rare to come across a narrator that is so genuinely funny. Her voice drew me in from the very opening pages which give us a recap of the events that led to her imprisonment. She could be down to earth, in a gritty sort of way, but she was also a compassionate and forgiving person. While her assessment of others (especially her customers) often poked fun at them (their appearance/reading habits/mannerism), she never struck me as a judgemental person. She was the kind of character that I wish existed so I could meet in real life. Not only did I find Tookie’s unruliness amusing but her love for literature certainly won me over. Throughout the course of The Sentence, Tookie talks about books, a lot of them, many of which I’ve read. Her analysis of these books, as well as their authors, certainly kept me engaged. It just so happens that in addition to the bookstore angle the narrative includes quite a few other storylines. A regular customer of the bookstore Tookie works at die. It just so happens that Fiona, the customer in question, was an annoying white woman who tried to legitimise her ‘interest’ in Native American cultures by claiming to have indigenous heritage. While Tookie did find her irksome, she’s not happy about her passing, especially when Flora’s ghost starts haunting her bookstore. While Tookie’s partner, a former tribal police officer, is somewhat sceptical about these visitations, Tookie knows that Flora ghost is haunting her.
Now, I found this premise compelling enough, and I even appreciate the narrative’s slow-pace as I found Tookie’s voice to be engaging enough. Sadly, the story takes a swerve halfway through when the covid pandemic steals much of the ‘show’. Personally, it’s too soon for me to be reading about the pandemic, given that it’s still ongoing. It just aggravated my anxiety and unease at the current situation. I also had very little interest in reading about these relatively ‘fresh’ events in such detail. The narrative then also touches upon BLM in a not quite superficial way but not the tone of the story undergoes a jarring change. The ghost aspect of the story fades into the background. The latter half of the novel lacked direction and seemed too intent on being relevant and topical than on continuing the story it had so far worked to establish. There was just too much going on and because of this secondary plotlines and characters suffered because of it. They lacked depth, nuance, and page-time. This is a pity as I was really invested in Tookie and her story. There were certain portions of the book later on that would have been more suited to an essay or a work of nonfiction. I also found the inclusion of ‘Louise’ self-insert cringey. I’m not a fan of the whole author inserting themselves in a story following their fictional character thing. I mean, why? Because Tookie works at a bookstore? Eeh…it just rubbed me the wrong way. Towards the end we also get random povs following other characters and I found them unnecessary.

Despite my somewhat conflicting feelings over this novel, I would still recommend it. Just because I found the more topical sections to detract from the whole ghost-story setup, it may very well appeal to other readers. Tookie, as I said already, is a fantastic character and certainly worth getting to ‘know’. The dialogues rang true to life, the setting was well-established, and the dynamic between Tookie and the other characters (be it her partner, his daughter, or her colleagues & customers) was entertaining. Maybe if I were to read this when this pandemic is but a distant memory (ah!) I won’t be as critical of its 2020 setting. I appreciated the author’s discussions on literature, as well as her reflections on race, grief, fear, history, and love.

my rating: ★★★½

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Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Gut-wrenching and haunting Indian Horse depicts the horrific realities of residential schools, as well as racism and discrimination in 1960s Ontario. This is the third novel that I’ve read by Richard Wagamese and, while Medicine Walk and Ragged Company were no walks in the parks, Indian Horse’s unsparing bleakness and distressing content make those two seem like light reading material. In spite of how upsetting and chilling this story was, Wagamese never sensationalises his characters’ suffering nor does he include graphic and or painful scenes as a cheap way to ‘shock’ his readers. He writes with such empathy and compassion that I found myself unable to tear myself away from Saul’s story.

Indian Horse opens with Saul Indian Horse, who is Ojibwe, being in a treatment centre for his alcoholism. He then begins recounting his childhood, of the early years he spent with his family ‘on the lam’ back in the early 1960s in the wilderness of Northern Ontario after his siblings were taken, kidnapped really, by the so-called ‘authorities’. His parents are heartbroken and survival is difficult, but, compared to what is to come this part of his life seems like a vacation almost. Eventually, Saul is also stolen and taken to a residential school. Wagamese is unflinching in his depiction of the horrors that occur in residential schools such as the one ‘attended’ by Sault. Words like horrifying or brutal do not succeed in conveying the monstrous actions and behaviours of the people in charge of these schools (mostly nuns and priests). The corporal and psychological violence they inflict on their ‘charges’ are abhorrent, stomach-churning, horrific. Their anti-indigenous teachings see them ‘punishing’ (read: abusing) children for speaking in their native tongue, or for expressing non-Christian beliefs or for merely acknowledging their reality (that of having been forcibly taken from their families and communities).

Saul finds solace in hockey. When Father Leboutilier notices how skilled Saul is on the ice he encourages him to keep on playing, tutoring him along the way. Saul temporarily plays with a ‘midget hockey team’ but resentful white parents and their children are unwilling to see him ‘take’ the spotlight and soon enough he’s out of the team.
Eventually, Saul leaves the residential school and goes to live with the Kellys, an Ojibway foster family who wants him to join their community’s junior hockey team. Over the following years, Saul and the rest of his teammates are subjected to many forms of discrimination, from the racist slurs other teams and their fans throw their way to the everyday discriminations and ‘roughing’ up they are subjected to. Saul initially refuses to retaliate when opposing players pull dirty tricks which actually earns him the contempt of his own teammates, who view his decision not to respond to violence with violence as passive, cowardly even. Later on, Saul is scouted by the Toronto Marlboros where he’s yet again a victim of discrimination. As time passes Saul decides to abandon hockey and develops a taste for drinking.

Whereas Medicine Walk and Ragged Company were very dialogue-heavy and in many ways read like long conversations (between the characters, between humans and the natural world, between past and present), Indian Horse is a more quiet work that is far more introspective in nature. Saul’s recollection of his childhood and teenage years is permeated by a sense of sorrow and loss. From the traumatic experience of being separated from his family to the horrifying realities of residential school and the later abuse he was subjected to once he began playing hockey professionally….this is not a fun or nostalgic foray into the good olden days. Wagamese captures in painful clarity how much Saul struggled with the abuse, violence, and racism he experienced growing up. He conveys these experiences through his younger eyes, so that we too, feel as confused, hurt, and lost as he did. The loneliness he feels is truly heart-breaking and there were times that I struggled to keep on reading. But, as I said earlier on, Wagamese never makes a spectacle of his characters’ suffering. He’s matter-of-fact when it comes to recounting Saul’s difficult life, making his experiences seem all the more real.

As with Wagamese’s other novels, the narrative incorporates various Ojibway teachings, and here we see just how powerful they are in that they tether Saul to the culture he was so violently ripped away from. Much about the tone of the novel brought to mind one of my all-time-favourite novels, Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. While they do portray very different realities, prose and tone-wise the two share a similar quality. Self-forgiveness is a crucial part of both of these novels, and both authors demonstrate extreme empathy in the way they handle trauma, loss, and addiction.
If you are a fan of Wagamese, or Sáenz, and you are prepared to have your heart broken (and possibly stitched back together), you should seriously consider reading Indian Horse.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

“People were like that, though. Basically good until they thought they could get away with shit without being caught.”

A one-sentence summary for Son of a Trickster could go something like this: slacker boy spends his days getting drunk, high, and/or puking.

“The world is hard, his mom liked to say. You have to be harder.”

Having loved Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (one of the most memorable coming of ages that i’ve read in the past few years) I was expecting Son of a Trickster to be just as good. In this novel, Robinson once again showcases her ear for language, and the dialogues and conversations peppered throughout the narrative certainly rang true to life (in spite of how bizarre things get towards the end). The dialogues have this very naturalistic quality that I really enjoyed. The story however wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the one from Monkey Beach. While Monkey Beach wasn’t necessarily plot-driven, its characters and setting were incredibly compelling. Son of a Trickster instead doesn’t quite deliver on those fronts. Our protagonist, Jared, is a Native teen who doesn’t seem all that engaged with the world. He bakes weed cookies, gets high or drunk, has bad trips, and gets into scraps with the local douchebags. His deadbeat dad is largely absent from his life, his mother has some serious anger issues & is wasted a lot of the time.
The kind of scenarios Jared finds himself in would not be out of place in an episode of Shameless. Except that here the humor takes the backseat. There are some genuinely funny scenes and lines, but for the most part reading time and again about these dysfunctional characters getting drunk, high, puking, farting, being horny, enabling one another…it wasn’t all that fun. The narrative retains this fuzzy quality that makes it difficult to wholly grasp wtf is going on most of the time. Jared has a few odd encounters or experiences that he chalks up to being ‘off his head’ but as we read on we will begin to suspect that that may not be the case after all. But, by the end, most, if not all, of the odd things that occur earlier on in Jared’s story are given zero explanations.
There were also a lot of scenes and dynamics that left me feeling kind of icky. This was likely intentional but I, for one, could have done without it.
Jared’s high school ‘friends’ were grating, and some of the teenage jargon seemed a bit too self-conscious. I appreciated how messy Robinson’s characters are, there truly are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ guys here. The ‘supernatural’ element only comes in towards the end of the novel and by then I was a wee bit bored by the random vignettes that seem to comprise the majority of this narrative. Still, I found the issues Robinson touches upon during the course of the novel to be thought-provoking (abuse, generational trauma, neglect, addiction, the horrific realities and impact of residential schools).
While I’m not sure whether I will be reading the sequel to this, I am still keen to read more by Robinson (hopefully not all of her work has this much puke in it).

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

“Names have power. This is the fundamental principle of magic everywhere. Call out the name of a supernatural being, and you will have its instant and undivided attention in the same way that your lost toddler will have yours the second it calls your name.”

First published in 2000 Monkey Beach is a deeply evocative and multilayered coming of age. Monkey Beach transports its readers to Northwest British Columbia, to Kitamaat, home to the Haisla people. After her younger brother Jimmy goes missing during a fishing expedition, twenty-year-old Lisamarie Hill is overwhelmed by grief. As she makes her way to the place he was last seen, Lisa looks back to her childhood and teenage years. Lisa recollections ring incredibly true to life. The author captures the way children think and speak, celebrating moments of silliness and happiness that occur between siblings and childhood friends. While there are many moments of lightness in Lisa’s childhood, the author doesn’t shy away from portraying the many injustices and struggles experienced by indigenous people. Lisa’s relationships with her family members—in particular, her loving uncle Mick and her resilient Ma-ma-oo—are as powerful as they are moving.
As a child, Lisa is very much a ‘tomboy’. She doesn’t back down from a fight, has a bit of a temper, enjoys getting into scrapes that frequently land her into trouble. Her uncle is her biggest fan and their interactions are simply a joy to read. I also liked that although Lisa does exhibit some of those ‘Not Like Other Girls’ traits, the narrative ultimately subverts this, introducing us to multiple tough girls and by not dismissing those girls Lisa had a falling out with.
The author depicts the realities of growing up indigenous and female, emphasizing the importance of family ties, however knotty these may be, and Haisla beliefs and customs. The narrative also delves into magical realism territories as throughout her youth Lisa is visited by a strange if ominous figure. Lisa’s premonitions and her ability to see ghosts are a terrible weight as she is often unable to stop tragedies from unfolding.

This novel has easily some of the most realistic dialogues and interactions that I have ever come across in a book. The setting is as vividly rendered as the characters, and there are many stunning descriptions of the landscapes surrounding Lisa.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to lovers of plot or fast-moving narratives, Monkey Beach will definitely resonate with those readers who are looking for a nuanced family portrait. I truly appreciated that while the author manages to convey with crystal-clear clarity Lisa’s childhood, some things in her story retain a sense of ambiguity.
While the first half of this novel is brimming with more light-hearted moments, the latter half is heartbreaking and unexpectedly dark. Lisa’s voice and character arc were truly compelling and I found myself not wanting to reach the end (as that would mean saying goodbye to her).
I came across an interview in which Emily St. John Mandel says that Monkey Read is her favourite book to re-read, and I actually think that this novel would indeed appeal to fans of Mandel (the remote & atmospheric setting, the magical realism). Readers who enjoyed Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley should also consider giving Monkey Beach a shot as the two share a similar ‘feel’.
Monkey Beach was a truly absorbing read, one that I am already looking forward to reading again.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

DISCLAIMER: If you are thinking of reading this novel I recommend you check out some more positive reviews, especially ones from #ownvoices reviewers (such as Brandann Hill-Mann’s review). I didn’t hate this book it but I would be lying if I said that it didn’t really, really, really frustrate me (because it did).

I would have enjoyed this more if it hadn’t been for Daunis being the definition of Not Like Other Girls.

Nancy Drew meets Winter Counts in this YA debut. The cover (look at that BEAUTY), the premise, the overwhelmingly positive reception, all lead me to believe that I too would love this. Fifteen-year-old me probably would have (loved it that is) but I am now at a point in my life where I am tired of reading books that elevate girls who are Not Like Other Girls and shame Other Girls.

Firekeeper’s Daughter follows eighteen-year-old Daunis, the daughter to a white mother, who happens to belong to one of the most ‘powerful’ families in her town, and an Ojibwe father. Understandably Daunis has always felt like an outsider as she is not an enrolled tribal member. Daunis feels deeply invested in her Native heritage and throughout the novel, we see her observing many Ojibwe customs and beliefs. Time and again she has to reconcile herself with the knowledge that white people such as her maternal grandparents see her Ojibwe side as “a flaw or burden to overcome”. There are also those within the Sugar Island Ojibwe Tribe who view her as white, not truly part of their community.
After witnessing a murder Daunis becomes entangled in an FBI investigation. Daunis agrees to help their investigation hoping to put an end to prevent drug-related deaths. A coming-of-age tale meets a slow-burn mystery-thriller that touches upon many serious and relevant issues while also including a not so unnecessary romance subplot and Riverdale-levels of drama.

Before I move on to what I didn’t like in this novel I will mention a few of the things that did in my opinion work. Angeline Boulley does a stellar job in bringing to life both Sault Sainte Marie and Sugar Island to life. Throughout the course of the story, Boulley celebrates Native, specifically Ojibwe, practices, beliefs, and history. Daunis is clearly proud of her Ojibwe heritage and this is wonderfully reflected in her narration. There are a lot of terms and expressions in Ojibwemowin, and that made Daunis’ world all the more vivid. I also appreciated that the story doesn’t shy away from showing the ramifications of colonialism, the everyday injustices faced by indigenous individuals and communities, the consequences of substance abuse (without wholly demonising drug abusers), how harmful stereotypes about indigenous cultures and peoples are, and how disrespectful cultural appropriation is. Through the mystery-thriller storyline, the narrative also explores drug trafficking and violence against indigenous women. Additionally, the story had a nice body-positive message which is always a nice surprise. And Granny June. She was cool, probably the only character I liked.

I will take a leaf from Daunis (who is list-obsessed, because like all sciencey people she likes facts & logic) and list my various criticisms ( SPOILERS BELOW ):

1. Daunis being Not Like Other Girls. She excels at science, loves sports (BIG BOY sports like hockey, none of that girly bullshit), hates lipstick and makeup, doesn’t wear skirts (puh-lease, she isn’t one of Those Girls). Daunis is also FLAWLESS. You read that right. And please don’t @ me saying that she makes some mistakes in her investigation. She is not a bloody detective. She’s 18. No one expects her to be Hercule-bloody-Poirot. If she makes any injudicious choices these are nullified by the fact that she is ‘always’ acting from a good place. She cares TOO much (about her community, her loved ones) and wants to protect those around her. How is that a flaw? So she doesn’t trust the two undercover FBI agents and begins running her own investigation. I mean, how is not trusting the law enforcement a flaw? She’s a bit quirky but that makes her all the more special (here we have the love interest saying to her: “I love how you see the world” bleargh). Curiously enough while the story tries to show how harmful misogynistic and sexist attitudes/mentalities are we have our female lead either slut-shaming Other Girls or making incredibly judgmental comments about them. She calls Other Girls, for example, the girlfriends of hockey players ‘parasitic‘: “I won’t be a wannabe anglerfish, trying to latch on to a guy who is already taken.”. Other Girls are vain, they care about their looks, they go after guys who already have girlfriends, they have fake friendships with each other (not like Daunis and Lily), they are catty, superficial, stupid, girly, you name they are it. And at first, I genuinely thought that this would be Daunis’ ‘flaw’. The storyline would have her realise along the way that she is acting just like those men she dislikes so much…but no. Ah. As if. Daunis was right all along, time and again Other Girls are shown indeed to be horrible (we have the basic white girl with her inappropriate dreamcatcher tattoo or cruel Macy who does Daunis dirty). And why does Daunis always blame Other Girls instead of the guys who actually do the cheating? Because her dad cheated on her mum? Give me a break. The same happened to me but I am certainly not out there whining about ‘anglerfishes’. Grow up Daunis. The only person who points this out is a Bad Guy so his comment is moot. How convenient. Worst of all, for all her specialness (Daunis is sciencey and sporty and look now she is involved in an undercover case and falling in love with a handsome and mysterious stranger) she was just such a dull character.

2. The jarring dissonance between the tone of Daunis’ narration (which makes her come across as being 14 rather than 18) and the story’s content (which include murder, drug abuse and trafficking, sexual assault, kidnapping, and many other clearly YA and up things). On the one hand, we have Daunis’ referring to anything related to her role in the FBI’s investigation as Secret Squirrel (the first Secret Squirrel lesson #1 was actually funny, “I am not paranoid, but the men listening to me are”). Secret Squirrel appears 36 times in the book. One too many if you ask me. Anyway, we have this silly squirrel nonsense that seems more suited to a Middle-Grade novel and then we have a rape scene. And don’t even get me started with the Guy Lies. Bah! Sometimes juxtaposing a cutesy protagonist with a story that has mature/serious content can work (I’m thinking of Harley Quinn) but here…it just did not work for me. Daunis’ childish language brought me out of the story.

3. The thriller storyline. It is Riverdale-levels of overblown. And yet also incredibly predictable. Who would have thunk it, the golden boy is not so golden! I am shook. This is the third book I can think of that does a similar not so shocking reveal. The baddies are so cartoonish it was just plain ridiculous. They had their villainous monologues in which they gloat as they explain their scheming to our heroes. Come on. Most of the ‘twists’ were either entirely predictable (Levi) or just OTT (the coach is also involved!).

4. The romance is low-key questionable. Yeah, she’s 18 but the guy, Jamie or whatever his name is, is 22. And an FBI agent. Working on this drug trafficking case. His main quality is that he is hot. He’s got abs, which our Daunis checks him out all of the time (a tad creepy if you ask me), he has a handsome face but no wait, he has a facial scar. Wow. Doesn’t that lend him an air of mystery?! He also pinches the bridge of his nose, all of the time. Their chemistry…wasn’t there. It seemed way too quick, insta-love sort of speed. Daunis acts like she doesn’t like him or trust him but she never shuts up about him or the feelings he makes her feel (butterflies and all that). To be fair, I liked the note the author ended their romance on (Daunis calling out Jamie for ‘needing’ her when the guy clearly needs some alone time). Jamie was boring, a generic YA male love interest (✓ mysterious past ✓ hot ✓ Not Like Other Boys).

6. Daunis’ parents are very…undefined. The mother is sad and sometimes talks to herself (revealing SECRETS). And yeah, the father is dead by the start of the story but it would have been nice to know his character, really know him.

6. The dynamics between secondary characters were vague. Don’t Daunis and Levi share an auntie? Yet Levi and this auntie two never seem to mention each other or have scenes together (and if they do they certainly don’t give us an impression of their relationship).

7. The time period…why was this story set in 2004? I still don’t get it. A way out of having characters use the internet? Search me.

8. Chapters ending in cheesy cliffhangers.

9. The lists.

10. The only gay character is dead. O-k-a-y.


If you liked this novel, I’m honestly kind of jealous. I so wanted to like it. But much about it just did not work for me.

my rating: ★★½

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Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford

“My father wasn’t a wound or even a scar, not a black hole or a dry desert. He just wasn’t. Not for me anyway. Mom was my sun and my moon. I was her all, too, and that was us.”

In Crooked Hallelujah Kelli Jo Ford presents her readers with a nonlinear exploration of the lives of four generations of Cherokee women. Each chapter can be read as a self-contained story, focusing on a particular phase of a character’s life (childhood, teenage years, early adulthood, etc). The first chapter gives us a flavour of these women’s lives: in 1974 Justine lives with her mother, Lula, and her grandmother, Granny, in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Both Lula and Granny are ardent members of the Holiness Church. Justine, like the rest of her relatives, has to abide her church’s strict rules: she has to lead a pious life, dress modestly, conduct herself in a godly manner, say no to the sins of the flesh…the list goes on. Whereas Lula and Granny are passionate about their community, Justine finds herself growing restless. As teased by the novel’s summary, an ‘act of violence’ sets on her own journey, one that sees becoming entangled with layabouts, abusers, and alcoholics. Her daughter, Reney, finds herself following in her mother’s steps, ending up with men who are good-for-nothing. Some of the chapters focus on characters who don’t seem all that connected to the lives of Justine and Reney, and Granny, easily the most likeable character of the lot, doesn’t get enough page-time.
The nonlinearity of these stories was detrimental to my reading experience. Justine and Reney’s personalities blurred together, as they both seemed defined by the men they are with. Granny, on the other hand, had some discernible character traits that made into a far more rounded character. Lula remains an undeveloped character, someone who appears know and again as a woman who has been indoctrinated and blinded by her religious (in the first chapter alone she demonstrated some initiative). Justine has some sisters but they might as well not be there as are barely mentioned. The majority of the men were either despicable or incompetent. Then we have this odd chapter which focuses on a Forrest Gump sort of figure that felt really out-of-place (what did he have to do with Justine and Reney’s stories?).
I can’t say that I found Crooked Hallelujah to be a particularly memorable read. Rocky structure aside the characters and their storylines did not really leave a mark. We have snapshots from Justine and Reney lives, and these often emphasise how rootless they feel, or their questionable taste in men. I wish I’d gotten a stronger impression of the bond between Justine and Reney, or Reney and Granny (Reney tells us that Granny was her soulmate but the two shared very few moments together).
Still, I liked the author’s dialogues as she manages to convey different argots and dynamics. Her prose was for the most part okay, but, as I said above, her storyline seemed unfocused and repetitive and her characters were pretty thinly rendered. I can sort of see why so many other reviewers gave this one 3 stars. It isn’t necessarily bad but it just never seemed to reach its full potential. Zalika Reid-Benta in Frying Plantain not only implements a similar narrative structure but explores similar themes and dynamics (between mother/daughter, mother/grandmother, grandchild/grandmother) in a much more impactful and meaningful way, so I would probably recommend you pick that one up instead.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

 

“Winter counts. This was the winter of my sorrow, one I had tried to elude but which had come for me with a terrible cruelty.”

Winter Counts is a compelling debut novel. Although this book uses elements and tropes of the thriller genre, the narrative isn’t solely focused on its ‘loner vigilante vs. bad guys’ storyline (which is perhaps the novel’s weakest aspect). In fact, throughout the course of his narrative, David Heska Wanbli Weiden sheds light on America’s past and present systemic oppression of Native people.
Usually, I’m more of a character over setting kind of reader but not with Winter Counts. Weiden renders Virgil’s community, Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in a very evocative way. While Weiden doesn’t shy away from delving into the everyday injustices and/or bleak circumstances of those who are living on the reservation (alcoholism, drugs, mental illnesses, poverty), he also shows how important, and ultimately life-affirming, traditional practices and beliefs are.

When we first meet Virgil he seems to be removed from his own culture. Many on the reservation have treated poorly for being a “half-breed” and the death of his closest relatives has left him alone. Or almost alone as after the death of his sister he has become the sole carer of his nephew, Nathan. When the local council and American’s legal system let pedophiles and sex offenders go unpunished, Virgil is the one you hire.

“When the legal system broke down like this, people came to me. For a few hundred bucks they’d get some measure of revenge. My contribution to the justice system.”

His work as a vigilante has earned him a bit of a reputation and soured his relationship with his now ex, Marie. When Virgil receives an offer from Marie’s father, a tribal councilman, he’s hesitant to take the job. Someone is bringing heroin into their community and young people are overdosing. Virgil believes that this is one of the few cases that the feds will actually pursue (unlike the “sex assault cases, thefts, assault and battery” cases that the tribal court refers to them) so doesn’t see the point in involving himself…that is until heroin finds Nathan.
Virgil is forced to collaborate with the same people who have time and again failed his people, and finds himself rekindling his relationship with Marie, who is eager to help her community.
The strongest moments in this novel are the ones that are less-action—or suspense—fuelled. Those scenes in which characters are talking about Lakota customs, beliefs, and language were the more poignant and interesting moments in the narrative. Marie was perhaps the most compelling character in the novel, as her desire to improve life on the rez actually begins to break through Virgil’s more pessimistic worldview.
Part of me wishes that this book had not employed a first pov as Virgil’s narration didn’t really add any layers to his character (his conversations with others and actions give a clear impression of what kind of person he is). The first pov seemed kind of restrictive as in more than one occasion I found myself wanting to read from Nathan and Marie’s perspectives (perhaps because I felt more connected to them than Virgil). Virgil’s narration was also kind of repetitive. His inner monologue often consisted in repeating information that had been previously related through dialogue (Weiden, trust your readers!).
As I said, Weiden excels at setting. Even those scenes that take place outside the rez, were vividly depicted. Weiden takes a very straight-forward approach when discussing, depicting, or touching up on issues such as the racism and injustices, as well as the many legal and societal biases, Native people experience, the ramifications of colonialism, and generational trauma. Although there are some violent scenes at the beginning and in the final act of the novel, Weiden demonstrate extreme empathy when recounting the Wounded Knee Massacre.
I also appreciate that during the course of the story Virgil, Marie, and Nathan are struggling to do the ‘right’ thing. At times their efforts to do good are misunderstood or miss the mark. Marie in particular is placed in a particularly difficult position.
The characterisation of the main bad guy (whose identity won’t be all that surprising to readers of thrillers) leaves a lot to be desired. Some of the side characters could have benefitted from some more ‘page-time’ but they nevertheless felt more dimensional than our ‘villain’.

Overall, I think this was a very solid debut novel. While I wasn’t all that taken by the thriller storyline (which was formulaic), I did find Weiden’s portrayal of Virgil’s community, as well as his relationship with Nathan and Marie, to be extremely compelling. Thankfully the story doesn’t solely focus on action, and we get plenty of scenes in which characters discuss their circumstances, their history, and their future.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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