book review: fifteen dogs

The idea behind André Alexis’ novel Fifteen Dogs is that Apollo and Hermes lay a bet on whether it would be possible for a dog to die happy if given human consciousness. To settle the bet they grant fifteen dogs in a Toronto veterinary office consciousness and see what happens, and that’s what the novel is about.

For some reason going in I’d assumed there would be one chapter for each of the dogs, but that’s not how it worked out. Some of the dogs came to a bad end right away, and then a pack was formed and eventually dissolved.

It was a story about language and about the purpose of consciousness and about finding a place in a world that wants beings to fit a certain mould. It was a good book.

I really liked it but it shouldn’t have won Canada Reads this year. The question the program asked was “what book do Canadians need to read right now?” or along those lines. As soon as you’re introducing Canada you’re making this a political question and the political inhabitants of the nation state of Canada with its history *need* to read something like The Break.

book review: the break

The Break by Katherena Vermette is a multithreaded novel about a crime that takes place in Winnipeg. A young Native woman is attacked in the February night. There’s a witness who calls the police. So it’s a story about a crime, but it’s definitely not a procedural.

We get to know the family around the incident through a number of different viewpoints, including a couple of outsiders (a girl who’s escaped detention and a police officer). The story mostly takes place over less than a week, but is filled with flashbacks that give it a lot more depth than that.

It was a great book.

I often talk about how for me, the practical reason for reading fiction is to build empathy. If you get into the heads of people who are different from you, you help expand what your world can be, and it makes you better at understanding and helping people with different experiences from you. The Break is totally going to be my go-to example for that. Vermette gets us into heads really deftly and her descriptions were incisive and made me shudder. We feel for the weaknesses and we feel the strengths everyone shows.

It’s great. You should read it.

book review: company town

Madeline Ashby’s scifi novel Company Town is on the shortlist for Canada Reads 2017. Though it’s very specifically Canadian, it doesn’t feel like CanLit, and I am interested in how it will be championed.

Company Town is set on a futuristic city-sized oil-rig of the coast of Newfoundland. The protagonist, Hwa, is a bodyguard working for the sex-workers’ union when she gets hired by the new owners of the city/rig to bodyguard the young heir. She takes the new job and then her friends start getting murdered and disappeared, so she’s trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.

A couple of the Canadian bits include there are comments about universal healthcare (and how that doesn’t cover Hwa’s chronic health issues), and when the first sex-worker is found dead they mention the authorities immediately implementing the standard Missing Murdered Disappeared protocol, and Hwa’s Newfoundland accent coming out in times of stress.

Otherwise it was a good techno thrillery kind of thing, with a mostly genetically enhanced population (who still have to work in the resource extraction industry, go Canada) and an outsider protagonist that dealt with things like post-traumatic stress pretty well. I noted while reading that it felt a bit like Charles Stross’ books (most notably Halting State in my mind) and then Stross was in the acknowledgements for getting the manuscript to an editor.

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book review: the right to be cold

I get to do some collection development in my new job and my main area I’m dealing with is Adult NonFiction ebooks. It’s kind of fun to do that slightly more traditional library role (most collection development at my old library was outsourced to the company LibraryBound, who decided what users like ours wanted and then sold the materials to us). Now I get to actually scour lists and say “this would be something good for our community!” And then because of that I’m caring a bit more about things like awards and buzz and Canada Reads. This year I’m planning to read most of the Canada Reads shortlist and started with Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet (which our library already owned in ebook format so I didn’t get to heroically buy it for our users).

Sadly, I didn’t really like this book. It has interesting content, and talks about how southerners tend to care more about the animals that live in northern Canada than the people. Watt-Cloutier’s stories of growing up Inuk were great. Her discussion of how climate change makes this region unpredictable, which has deadly results was great and changes the way I’m thinking about icepack.

The problem was that much of the latter part of the book was written like a retirement speech. “I tried to do this. There was this obstacle. This person helped and said this nice thing about me.” I feel bad complaining about the aesthetics of a book that had important content, but it made it a chore, like reading a very boring corporate report.

So I don’t know if I would recommend the book, simply because reading it felt so much like an “eat your vegetables” kind of task.