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: green grass, running water

Casting about for something to read while my eink device was charging (remember that most of my physical books are still in boxes) I grabbed my iPad and discovered I’d begun Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water months ago but never gotten very far. So I remedied that.

It’s really good. It’s very fragmented and I needed to get into the proper headspace to bounce around between all the different characters (and mythological versions of the story no one will let Coyote tell), but once I found that rhythm I really really liked it.

There’s a dam on an Alberta reserve that is being kept nonfunctional by a dude living in his mother’s cabin (and a court injunction). There’s a not-quite-love triangle between a woman named Alberta and a pair of cousins, neither of whom she wants to marry. The Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe and Hawkeye (not the Matt Fraction-written version) are on the run from an asylum trying to fix the world.

Yeah. I really really liked it, and my buddy Patrick with whom I used to bookfight on the radio should read it as a better version of the Tom Robbins books he likes to dislike.

book review: days of destruction, days of revolt

Some days, most days really, I want to be a journalist. Not the kind that writes press releases, but the kind that goes out into the world, sees something and tells everyone else what it looks like. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is exactly that kind of book, created by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. It’s about the United States and the people who are at the bottom of a destructive economic system designed to enrich only the already rich. It culminates in Zuccotti Park with a chapter on Occupy, but it gets there via coal-mining, land claims, agricultural work and for-profit urban decay.

It’s not a scholarly book, but it has data to go with its interviews. Sacco illustrates the whole thing, which contributes to the personal feeling of it all. I loved the Sacco bits where he went into the full on comics as oral history treatment, drawing the stories the person was telling them.

This was an unabashedly political and very good book about 21st-century recession-era America. Highly recommended.

books review: dead mothers, the gravel in your guts, high lonesome (scalped vols. 3,4,5)

Last week I found three volumes (Dead Mothers, The Gravel in your Guts, & High Lonesome) of Jason Aaron’s Scalped on the library shelf and delved into them for a few hours. They’re the middle of the story so you’d want to start with Indian Country to make any sense of what’s going on.

The rest of this is less about these books and about how conflicted I am in liking them. So Scalped is a contemporary crime story set on a South Dakota First Nations Reserve. It’s brutal and violent and I’m a little wary of really loving it because there’s a lot of potential for it being totally racist. Or if not racist, at least unhelpful.

A few months ago at a local writers festival we had a first nations poet talk about her work and one of the things she talked about was that first nations people should tell first nations stories. That’s not something for white people to do. In the larger cultural milieu, Spike Lee took Quentin Tarantino to task for Django Unchained, because slavery wasn’t Tarantino’s history to talk about (Jesse Williams has a great essay about the problems with Django, which you should totally read).

At our writers festival people in the audience were disgruntled that this woman would be telling us that there are some stories we cannot tell. I completely get that disgruntlement. I have long held the idea that freedom of expression means that I can write about whatever the hell I want and deal with the consequences, and fuck anyone who tells me what is and isn’t appropriate for me to do. But I’ve been coming around to see how privileged a point of view that is, and how voices from the dominant culture telling those stories crowds out the voices telling it from the inside. You really don’t want people to be learning their American history from Django Unchained.

The thing is that I really like Scalped. I love the small-scale politics and the way people with scraps of power interact with the immovable force of the US government, and how Dashiell Bad Horse is tearing himself apart to do this job between two worlds. It’s a great story. Just one that makes me feel guilty for liking it, because I haven’t sought out neo-noir stories written by first nations people themselves. Scalped is easy because it’s published by DC Comics, and I haven’t gone beyond that easy corporate mass-media approach.

Anyway, if you like crime stories, and all of my hand-wringing hasn’t put you off, Scalped is definitely worth your time.

book review: gun machine

Gun Machine is the new book by Warren Ellis and it is great. It’s less weird than Crooked Little Vein, but is a tight little police story you can tell is from the same guy who wrote Fell.

John Tallow is a New York City cop who accidentally finds an apartment full of guns. Not just a few shelves of them, but guns arrayed on the walls and floor like a shrine. Once they start getting analyzed it becomes clear that this isn’t just a gun nut’s shack; each weapon has been used in an unsolved NYC murder. Investigation ensues.

There’s a lot to love about this book. Tallow is a detective who is very believable in his “just going through the motions” before he starts working the case. Ellis writes likable foul-mouthed weirdos as Tallow’s sort-of assigned partners. The story (and the case) moves quickly, but it works. I bought that this didn’t need to be five seasons of a TV series (though The Wire made me right at home with the police politics on display in the story). There are a few coincidences at work that might make your eyebrow raise but Ellis is playing fair with you. It all works.

My least favourite part is the Native American history that gets bandied about, and that was mostly because I know Warren Ellis is an Englishman and this stuff is easy to get wrong. But anything here is way less problematic from my point of view than Johnny Depp as Tonto.

Though Pappa Warren writes great violence — “From his vantage, three steps back and to the right, Tallow could see Rosato’s eye a good five inches outside Rosato’s head and still attached to his eye socket by a mess of red worms.” — I think my favourite bit of pure wordsmithery was a cooking scene late in the book. There are all these details that work into Tallow’s mental state and the realization he has works so well with them, I wanted to applaud.

It’s a pretty quick read so if you’re not a huge Warren Ellis fan, you might want to go for an ebook edition, but the jacket design is great. There’s also a website with some interesting supplemental materials.

book review: dark inside

Dark Inside is Jeyn Roberts’ multi-perspective YA novel about a kind of apocalyptic event that happens after a huge earthquake hits North America’s west coast. Cities are destroyed, yes, but a kind of evil is unleashed, not just at the earthquake site but in everyone’s souls. The book follows a scattered bunch of teenagers as they try to deal with the end of the world.

The book feels like a zombie book, since everyone aside from our protagonists has changed into bloodthirsty terrible murderers, but they haven’t gone brainless, just embraced their inner evil. This evil inside everyone is left pretty nebulous, as is the reason why the characters we’re following are spared it. The people who have turned (so most of the population) are terrible and terrifying, and some of the scenes are pretty intense. It would make for the kind of movie I couldn’t really watch, myself.

The teens are all eventually converging on Vancouver for various reasons (looking for a lost brother, keeping a promise to someone met on the road from Saskatoon, that kind of thing) and there are plenty of good scenes on the way. People feel survivor guilt and show survival skills and all in all it’s pretty good. And props to the book having interesting First Nations characters who didn’t feel like stereotypes. They weren’t the main characters but they were there, doing stuff like the rest of the kids with their own specific problems and issues.

book review: shadows cast by stars

Shadows Cast By Stars is Catherine Knutsson’s first novel about Cassandra Mercredi, a young Metis woman, in a future where plague is decimating the population and for some reason the blood of first nations people holds the only cure. Does that sound grim? Well, it is. Natives who live in the Corridor are tracked and will be captured for processing by the authorities if they deem it necessary. This is the book’s setup and we don’t actually see much of the repressive regime because almost right away Cassandra, her brother and father have to flee to the island, where there’s a boundary protecting the people who live there from Searcher ships and they can live their old ways in relative peace.

Then it becomes a story of Cassandra and her family trying to find places for themselves in the culture of the Band. Because she has some facility with healing and the spiritual world (she sees totems of people) Cassandra is recruited as the apprentice to the medicine woman. Her twin brother, who sees visions, doesn’t find a role so quickly.

The story has first kisses and explorations of a person’s own strength along with the spiritual dimensions of wild women of the woods and Raven and Sea Wolves. Where it feels very different from something like The Hunger Games is that instead of being pulled away from a home to fight on her own, Cassandra is pulled from a place of isolation and thrust into community and has to do all this stuff not just for herself but be able to help the people around her too. Knutsson’s done a good job with that kind of power dynamic which really resembles the ways we try to fit our lives together here in the present.

My main problem with the book is that it is written as the first volume of a series, so things are not resolved by the end. Future books look like they will explore the regime of the outside world. I hope it’s as well-imagined as what you find in this book.