Author: Shay Shortt

Howl’s Moving Castle

Cover image for Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jonesby Diana Wynne Jones

ISBN 9780062244512

“What an outspoken old woman you are! I’ve reached that stage in my career when I need to impress everyone with my power and wickedness. I can’t have the King thinking well of me. And last year I offended someone very powerful and I need to keep out of their way.”

All the residents of Market Chipping have heard of the terrible Wizard Howl, whose moving castle lurks over the hills and moors surrounding the town. The Wizard Howl is a terrible fiend known for stealing and eating the hearts of young girls. Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three daughters, and everyone knows that in fairy tales the eldest is doomed to meet the worst fate, while the youngest has all the adventures and marries the prince. Sophie tries to tell herself she is resigned to her fate, sewing hats in her father’s shop. But when she accidentally runs afoul of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie leaves home to seek her fate, despite being the eldest daughter. Cursed to look like an old woman, Sophie seeks out the moving castle, and strikes a bargain with Howl’s fire demon that will have far reaching consequences.

Howl’s Moving Castle is perhaps my favourite Studio Ghibli movies, so it is a bit surprising that it took me this long to get around to reading the book it was based on, which was originally published in 1986. Part of the appeal of this narrative is Sophie, a strong-willed character, but one who has been hiding her opinions and forcefulness behind the polite, timid façade expected of a young woman and dutiful eldest daughter. The witch’s curse, which transforms Sophie into an old woman, frees her from much of that expectation, allowing her character to come through more strongly. Diana Wynne Jones writes that “as a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief.” She is well-matched against the tumultuous and mercurial Howl in temperament, and her new life also frees her to discover her own magic.

One of my favourite aspects of the novel was the emphasis on the portal fantasy, including Howl’s connection to our world. As in the film, the castle has four entrances, each in a different physical location. In the book, but not the movie, the black door leads to our world, specifically to Wales, where Howl—aka Howell Jenkins—has left behind his sister, niece, and nephew. The addition of Howl’s family adds an important dimension to his character, and provides an angle of attack for the Witch of the Waste that is missing from the film. This eventually leads to a confrontation with the witch’s fire demon, the source of her power, and possibly also the cause of her wickedness. Overall, the witch’s storyline is more satisfying and coherent in the book as a result of these developments.

The book has room to flesh out characters and subplots that were cut from the film, including Sophie’s family as well as Howl’s. In the book, Sophie has two sisters, one apprenticed to a baker, the other to a sorceress, while Sophie stays at home to inherit the hat shop. Their father dies early in the story, leaving Sophie, her sisters, and stepmother to pick up the pieces. The book also develops a variety of connections between the characters, such a romance between Howl’s apprentice Michael—who is a teenager rather than a young boy as in the film—and Sophie youngest sister, Martha. Miyazaki’s film did excellent work with the source material, but the extra layers of detail and character development allowed for in the book add something to this whimsical and endearing story that is now hailed as a forerunner to modern British fantasy.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Wasted Words

Cover image for Wasted Words by Staci Hartby Staci Hart

“The rules you made? The shelves people belong on? You’ve created them yourself. You’ve built your own prison out of something imaginary, and you ended up hurt anyway.”   

Since moving from Iowa to New York City, Cam has had a series of nerdy jobs from comic book retailer to her current gig as the co-manager of Wasted Words, a bar meets book store where she hosts singles nights in addition to selling books and comics. She’s also had a series of roommates, the most recent of whom is Tyler, sent by her last roommate to take her place when she moved out. Recently dumped, Tyler had nowhere else to go, but in the year they’ve lived together Tyler and Cam have become fast friends. Cam is a book nerd while Tyler is a former football player turned sports agent, so it seems like they should have nothing in common. Cam is firm believer in sorting like with like, but Tyler will force her to challenge her assumptions about what makes a good match.

Wasted Words is fairly loosely inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma. Cam fancies herself a matchmaker, although she’s a bit better at it than Emma ever was. However, much like the original, she lets herself get carried away by her imagination, sometimes causing her friends to get hurt in the process. However, it misses out on some of my other favourite aspects of Austen’s original, particularly Emma’s relationship with her father. Cam’s family doesn’t feature at all in the story. The matchmaking aspect of Emma works well in a modern setting, but the familial dynamics and social relationships can be harder to translate.

One thing that surprised me about the book is that it wasn’t a slow burn towards getting together at the end, like you might expect if it was closely following Emma. Rather, Cam and Tyler realize their feelings for one another less than halfway through, and the second part of the book is more about reconciling their differences and facing up to their past traumas in order to be able to move forward. Tyler was dumped by his girlfriend after the injury that ended his football career, and Cam is hiding an old hurt that dates back to high school that she refuses to talk about, much less process.

Cam’s anxiety isn’t immediately evident before she and Tyler get together, though we have a few hints about a traumatizing incident from her past. So it’s a bit jarring when Cam, who seems mostly level-headed if occasionally a bit controlling, starts to spin out in the second half. Her anxiety ramps up, and before she knows it she is jinxing the best thing that has ever happened to her, all because she has certain ideas about herself and what she does or doesn’t deserve in a relationship.

In terms of romance tropes, Wasted Words solidly hits mutual pining, roommates, and friends to lovers. Throw in the Austen connection, and there is a lot to love here. The ending was a bit over the top for my tastes, but fans of the romantic comedy grand gesture will probably find it satisfying.

You might also like Austen-mania Round Up 

Rent a Boyfriend

Cover image for Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chaoby Gloria Chao

ISBN 9781534462472

“I hated myself in this house. I hated what my priorities became, what I worried about, the things I said and, more so, didn’t say.”

Chloe Wang is bringing her boyfriend home for Thanksgiving in a desperate bid to convince her parents to turn down a proposal from the Kuo family to marry their son. The only problem is that Chloe doesn’t have any boyfriend, let alone one impressive enough to convince her parents she shouldn’t marry the son and heir of the most prominent family in their church community. So she turns to Rent for Your ‘Rents, a company that specializes in providing fake boyfriends guaranteed to impress traditional Asian parents at family events. Drew Chan is a starving artist side-hustling as a professional fake boyfriend after he was disowned by his family for dropping out of college to pursue his dreams. Drew has a natural sympathy for the pressure his clients are under from their families, and a talent for impressing even the most exacting parents. But when Chloe starts falling for the real Drew, not Andrew Huang the fake boyfriend, they’ll have to face the fact that his real resume is nothing like the bill of goods they’ve sold her parents.

If you like a fake dating trope, in Rent a Boyfriend Gloria Chau takes it to the next level, with Chloe actually hiring a fake boyfriend from a company that specializes in training young men specifically to impress uptight Asian parents who have a very particular standard of acceptable for their daughters. Andrew the Rent for your ‘Rents operative has been trained in everything from mah-jong to dancing, and can fake any major from art history to computer science on demand. Through alternating points of view, Chau explores the consequences of this idea for both Chloe, who hires the fake boyfriend, and Drew, who plays the role and has to compartmentalize his job from his real life. The resulting story is a mixture of funny, sappy, earnest and cute, as Chloe and Drew try to figure out whether their similarities are enough to overcome their differences, and the bizarre circumstances of their meeting.

Both Chloe and Drew have two names, and two separate selves. At home, Chloe is Jing-Jing, the pure and innocent daughter of her immigrant parents, who are deeply enmeshed in their small church community, and place a lot of value on her making a marriage with an upstanding member of their inner circle. At school she is Chloe, an economics major who focuses on her studies and doesn’t have many friends. When he’s at work, Drew is Andrew, a one syllable difference that serves as a constant reminder of the role he is playing on any given day, made to order for the parents of whatever girl he is helping this week. The rest of the time, he makes his art, and tries to find the courage to show it to anyone. Rejected by his family, he can’t quite believe his work is actually worth anything if they would abandon him over it.

Between Drew and Chloe we get two very different views on incorporating their parents’ cultures into their lives as Chinese Americans. Drew is estranged from his family, but his heritage is very much a part of his daily life and his art. By contrast, Chloe is still trying to have a relationship with her parents, but when she is away at college, she feels like an entirely separate person, one who flinches away from references to her heritage or the language her parents speak at home. Drew comes from a more working class community, while Chloe’s parents are dentists in Palo Alto, surrounded by tech money and venture capitalists.

I was a little bit worried about how the story would handle Drew’s job after he and Chloe get together, but I think Chao did a good job with resolving that question. His job isn’t treated as something to be jettisoned the moment he gets the girl, but an important part of his life and financial stability while he figures out how to make a living as an artist. Rent a Boyfriend combines a light romantic romp with earnest questions about reconciling your heritage, relating to your parents as an adult, making hard choices between what you want and what you’re willing to give up in order to have it.

You might also like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 

Shine

Cover image for Shine by Jessica Jungby Jessica Jung

ISBN 9781534462519

“They’ll fucking ruin you and make it seem like you’re the one who destroyed yourself.”

When she was only eleven years old, Rachel Kim’s whole family gave up their life in New York City to move to Seoul so that Rachel could pursue her dreams of becoming a K-pop artist. Ever since, Rachel has been a trainee at DB Entertainment, spending her days at school, and her evenings and weekends dancing, singing, and competing with the other girls who share her aspirations. After six years in training, Rachel is starting to worry that she will never debut, because no matter how good she is at singing and dancing, she is still camera shy in an industry that is all about image. Then rumours begin to swirl that DB Entertainment is about to debut a new girls group for the first time in seven years, and Rachel will have to decide if she is willing to do what it takes to be one of the nine girls chosen.

Shine is set in the cut-throat world of the K-pop idol system, where young men and women give up their childhoods to train as entertainers, in the hopes of being debuted in one of the industry’s famous music groups. I’ve enjoyed novels set in the high-pressure environment of ballet school, so idol school seemed like an interesting analog for this type of setting. As a bonus, author Jessica Jung is a former member of the K-pop group Girls Generation, bringing insider knowledge of the industry to the table. I don’t have a lot of knowledge about K-pop or the idol industry, so a book written by an insider seemed like a good bet. Like Rachel, Jung is a Korean American who went to Seoul to become an idol, before breaking with her band and her label in 2014.

One of the strict and well known rules of the idol industry is that the stars are forbidden from dating. For Rachel, this rule is put to the test when she meets Jason Lee, a Korean Canadian idol who is the lead vocalist of DB Entertainment’s hottest boy band. Jung uses this relationship not only as a vehicle for romance within the story, but also as a way to examine the double standards of the K-pop industry for male vs. female artists, with an added power differential in that Jason is an artist who has already successfully debuted, while Rachel could lose any chance at a future in the industry if their relationship is revealed. Jason is a sweet character, but fairly blind to the additional pressures faced by the women around him.

While the difficulties of romance in the idol industry is a major plot point for Shine, the complications in Rachel’s other relationships are no less central. Her family has made many sacrifices for her career, and her sister Leah also seems to be harbouring K-pop dreams despite the reservations of their mother. At school and at training, Rachel has friendships and rivalries that shift with her fortunes. Success may mean working with girls she doesn’t like, while leaving behind those who have truly been her friends. Her relationship with her sister is a particular bright spot of comfort and mutual support, but Leah pays her own price for her sister’s choices.

The writing in Shine is a little bit uneven, with a number of awkward transitions, and a few scenarios that are overly contrived. For example, Rachel accidently runs into Kang Jina, a member of the girls group Electric Flower, not once but twice, first on a school field trip, and then again at a street food stand. Jina plays an important role in the story, in that she stands for the worst possibilities of the future Rachel has been fighting for, but her appearances can be a bit on the nose. Rachel is very focused on debuting, believing it will solve all her problems, but Jina’s story reminds the reader that new, bigger problems lie ahead for those who actually succeed.

Shine is the first in a duology, and a second novel called Bright is due out in October 2021, which will take the story out of idol school and onto the stage.

You might also like Tiny Pretty Things 

Wicked Fox

Cover image for Wicked Fox by Kat ChoKat Cho

ISBN 9781984812353

“Gu Miyoung’s relationship with the moon was complicated, as are most relationships centered around power.”

Gu Miyoung has recently moved to Seoul with her mother, and started school as a perpetual transfer student. Miyoung is half-human, half-gumiho, the nine-tailed fox spirit of legend, which preys upon men in order to retain immortality. Miyoung is used to being a loner, but something goes wrong her very first hunt in Seoul, when she encounters a dokkaebi, a sort of goblin. Only the interference of a human boy helps her save herself, although she also saves the boy. But in the fight, she expels her yeowu guseul, the fox bead that is the essence of the gumiho. The boy, Anh Jihoon, touches the bead, forging an unintentional connection between them. Miyoung hopes that she can ignore the boy, and focus on figuring out how to reabsorb her bead, but then she lands in class with Jihoon, forcing them to face their newfound connection.

Parent-child relationships form an important part of Wicked Fox, and Miyoung has long had a rift with her mother, Gu Yena, over the method of feeding that keeps gumiho alive. Yena extracts the life force, or gi, from men by consuming their livers. Miyoung will only hunt on the full moon, when she can siphon the gi painlessly from her victims, sparing them a violent death even if she must take their lives. She has also secretly begun selecting her victims with the help of a shaman, who can commune with ghosts, and help lay those hungry spirits to rest by having Miyoung avenge their deaths, ensuring that her victims are only the vilest of men. Still, Miyoung is not at peace with what she must do to survive. Although she has trusted her mother implicitly for most of her life, Miyoung cannot tell her the truth about what has happened with her yeowu guseul without putting Jihoon’s life in danger; Yena would not hesitate to eliminate him for knowing too much. Miyoung tries to solve the problem on her own, but she is limited by the secrets that her mother has been keeping from her.

Wicked Fox intersperses the narrative chapters with mythological interludes on the history of the gumiho in general, and Gu Yena in particular. Author Kat Cho engages with the complexity of the gumiho legend, and how it interacts with beliefs about women’s sexuality. When Jihoon asks his halmeoni how the gumiho became evil, she replies that “men fell in love with gumiho because they were beautiful. Then they blamed their adultery on the creatures instead of accepting their own mistakes. Maybe it happened often enough that it became normal to say gumiho lured men into cheating on their wives.” Cho also includes a chonggak dokkaebi, a male goblin that attracts women in a similar way, balancing out the mythologies.

Although Miyoung and Jihoon form a romantic attachment, Wicked Fox is about interpersonal relationships in many forms. Jihoon has a close relationship with his grandmother, but is estranged from his mother, who abandoned him when he was young, and eventually started a new family. He also contends with how the secrets he keeps for Miyoung impact his friendships with his human friends Changwan and Somin. Cho cautions that “love and lies do not mix well,” and this plays out again and again across all kinds of relationships. For her part, Miyoung has only ever been allowed to be close to her mother, but she is drawn into Jihoon’s group at school despite her efforts to keep them at arm’s length. Miyoung sees her own monstrousness in the things she must do to survive, but fails to consider that “isolation is the enemy of humanity. Loneliness is a threat to empathy.”

Wicked Fox builds to the climax I was expecting by the midpoint of the book, then takes a turn for the second half, widening in scope. The ending is left open for a sequel that explores the consequences of the choices Miyoung and Jihoon make, and the losses they have endured.

Spin the Dawn

Cover image for Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim by Elizabeth Lim

ISBN 9780525647010

“You will hold the seams of our family together, Maia. No other tailor in the world can do that.”

As the youngest child and only daughter of Master Tailor Kalsang Tamarin, Maia knows that she will never inherit her father’s title. Not only does she have three older brothers, but the title cannot be held by a woman in her own right. Nevertheless, Maia is the most dedicated to the family’s trade, while her brothers dream of other things. Then war comes to A’landi, and two of Maia’s brothers are taken, and the third severely injured. After five years of fighting, Emperor Khanujin strikes a marriage alliance with the shansen’s daughter, Lady Sarnai, to bring peace at last. In honour of their wedding, a new imperial tailor will be selected, and Kalsang Tamarin is summoned to the Summer Palace to compete for the position. Too broken by drink and grief, Maia’s father has not sewn in years, while her youngest brother is still recovering from the war, and cannot equal his father’s skill anyway. Disguised as Keton Tamarin, Maia answers the call to represent her family, plunged into a world of imperial politics, and impossible challenges set by a reluctant bride who has been sold by her father in exchange for peace. Only with the help of the Lord Enchanter may Maia have a chance to survive the intrigues of the court and prove her skill as the best tailor in the land.

Spin the Dawn in the first in a duology that follows the trials and adventures of Maia Tamarin. Elizabeth Lim has divided the novel into three parts, including The Trial, The Journey, and The Oath. The first part of the book focuses on Maia’s arrival at the imperial court, and the fierce competition for the position of imperial tailor. The incumbent died under mysterious circumstances, and the selection of his successor is looking to be equally fraught. As the youngest candidate without a reputation of her own, Maia is in a weak position despite her evident skill. She has also drawn the attention of the Lord Enchanter, who may know her secret, or have some other reason for watching her so closely. The other tailors are determined to win the post at any cost, and the Lady Sarnai has no interest in making the competition any easier. In fact, it seems that the shansen’s daughter will do anything to delay her marriage to the emperor. After setting a series of impossible challenges in the competition, she throws down the final gauntlet; the winner must gather sunbeams, moonlight, and the blood of the stars in order to sew the three dresses of the Goddess Amana for the imperial wedding.

Lady Sarnai is one of the more interesting characters in the book, but not one that we get much chance to explore deeply, as she disappears from the narrative when Maia leaves on her journey to gather the materials to make the legendary three dresses of Amana. Honestly, I would have been more interested to see what could have come from an alliance between Maia and Lady Sarnai than the romance that is developed in the second half with Maia and the Lord Enchanter. A fierce huntress with ideas of her own, Lady Sarnai has been betrayed by her own father, who promised never to marry her off. She is reportedly in love with Lord Xina, but has been forced into a marriage alliance instead, with a man who has been the enemy of her people. Biased by the differences of a five year war, she and Maia are set at odds where perhaps they could have been allies.

The second part of the book takes Maia out of the palace to gather the magical materials demanded of her impossible task. She is accompanied by Edan, the Lord Enchanter, who has become an unexpected ally but one she does not know much about or have a great deal of reason to trust. However, she needs his magic and knowledge to accomplish her impossible task. Over the course of their journey, Maia comes to understand the nature of Edan’s binding to Emperor Khanujin, and how he has been forced to serve the throne of A’landi for generations. On the road, the two fall in love as they face the dangers of the Halakamarat Desert, Rainmaker’s Peak, and the Forgotten Isles of Lapzur. They are racing against time, as the Lady Sarnai has declared the dresses must be complete by the time the Red Sun rises on the ninth day of the ninth month.

The final part of the book wraps up the challenge of the dresses of Amana, but opens a new challenge for Maia and Edan, surrounded by the circumstances of his oath, and the consequences of the choices they made on their journey. As I was not particularly invested in their relationship, I think that I will be unlikely to finish this series.

You might also be interested in The Star-Touched Queen 

Over the Woodward Wall

Cover image for Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Bakerby A. Deborah Baker

ISBN 978-0-7653-9927-4

“Are you sure you want an ending? Endings are tricky things. They wiggle and writhe like worms, and once you have them, you can’t give them back again. You can hang them on hooks and sail the seas for sequels, if you realize you don’t like where your story stopped, but you’ll always have had an ending, and there will always be people who won’t follow you past that line. You lose things when you have an ending. Big things. Important things. Better not to end at all, if you can help it.”

Once upon a time, on an ordinary street, in an ordinary suburb, in an ordinary town, two perfectly ordinary children wake up on what should be an entirely ordinary day, only to find themselves on an adventure. Restless and quick, Zib Jones loves messes and surprises, and playing in the woods behind her house. Quiet and steady, Avery Grey is a boy who likes order and polish, and long hours spent at the library looking for the secrets of the universe. Though they are neighbours, these two very different children have never crossed paths, so the paths are about to cross for them, whether they will it or not. Despite being students at two entirely different schools, both children find a mysterious wall cutting through their neighbourhood where it has no right to be, blocking their way to school. On the other side is the Up-and-Under, and the adventure that awaits them there.

Over the Woodward Wall is the middle grade debut of fantasy author Seanan McGuire, writing as A. Deborah Baker (she also writes horror as Mira Grant). Tor describes it as a companion book to Middlegame, one of her books that I have not read yet. In many ways, however, it actually feels like a sibling book to McGuire’s Wayward Children series, but for a slightly younger audience. A wall leads to the Up-and-Under, not a doorway, but what comes next is much of a kind, a portal fantasy with two children on an adventure that is about self-discovery and finding their place in the world(s). This is as much about knowing where you do not belong as where you do, the choices that you make along the way, and the companions that you choose or discard.

Over the Woodward Wall employs a fairly self-conscious narration style, wordy and clever, one that draws attention to the fact that the story is being narrated rather than allowing you to relax into it. Baker does not want you to forget that this is a story, and that stories have rules, even if rules are meant to be broken, or at least interrogated. Although it is like a fairy tale, it is one that warns children against many of the things fairy tales sometimes perpetuate. The Queens of the Up-and-Under are beautiful, but “it is a myth that goodness is always lovely and wickedness is always dreadful to behold; the people who say such things have reason for their claims and would rather those reasons not be overly explored,” Baker warns. Similarly, “sometimes anger is a good, true thing, because the world is often unfair and unfairness deserves to be acknowledged. But all too often, anger is another feeling in its Sunday clothes, sadness or envy or—most dangerous of all—fear,” she cautions.

This book is only two hundred pages, and the ending still came more quickly than I expected, but Over the Woodward Wall is listed as first in a series, so there is likely more to come for Zib and Avery. I’ll definitely be sailing the seas for that sequel.

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2020

The year is drawing to a close, and I’ve left it to the very last minute to name my top picks from this year’s reading! These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2020. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

From the Ashes

Cover image for From the Ashes by Jesse ThistleFrom the Ashes is the account of an unstable childhood, intergenerational trauma, and a young adulthood lost to the streets. After being abandoned by parents who struggled with their own demons, Jesse Thistle and his two brothers landed in the home of their paternal grandparents, where the boys were expected to work hard, were scolded for eating too much, or for any behaviour that reminded their grandfather of their wayward father. A lacklustre student, Thistle dropped out of high school, and was kicked out of his grandparents’ home when they caught him with drugs, beginning a decade-long downward spiral into homelessness and addiction. From the Ashes recounts his troubled childhood, his lost years on the streets, and his eventual recovery and journey into academia and Indigenous Studies. Thistle’s chapters are often short and somewhat fractured, an accurate reflection of a disjointed life punctuated by black outs. It is a chronicle of poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak. Occasional interludes are more like poems, including a disturbing section in which Thistle envisions turning into a wendigo who then cannibalizes himself.

Categories: Canadian, Memoir

The Golden Spruce

Cover image for The Golden Spruce by John VaillantSometime around the year 1700, a spruce seed took root in the fertile soil of the Yakoun River valley on Haida Gwaii, off the west coast of what would become British Columbia, Canada. Despite a rare mutation that caused its needles to be yellow rather than green—a flaw that should have impeded its ability to photosynthesize—the tree that became known as K’iid K’iyaas or the golden spruce, grew to be a giant that stood on the banks of the river until 1997, when it was deliberately felled as a protest again the logging industry. In The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant documents the history of tree, the troubled life of the man who destroyed it, and the impact of this act on the community that was its home. The Golden Spruce is part history of the logging industry, and part post-mortem of the murder of a culturally significant icon of the Haida people. The early part of the book is dedicated to the history of the Haida, and the North American logging industry, as well as a brief foray into the fur trade that preceded it. Vaillant treats this all as necessary context before introducing Grant Hadwin, the man who destroyed the tree in the dark hours of January 20, 1997. The Golden Spruce is a sad and disturbing story of destruction, ignorance, and waste. According to Vaillant, “left in peace, the golden spruce could have lived until the twenty-sixth century.”

Categories: Canadian

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

Cover image for A Mind Spread Out on the GroundAlicia Elliot grew up largely on the Six Nations Reserve, home of her father’s people, with a gaggle of younger siblings. Her mother lived with them only intermittently; whenever her bipolar disorder became too pronounced, Elliott’s father would shuttle her mother across the New York border, and have her involuntarily committed. Her childhood was shaped by poverty, intergenerational trauma, and mental illness, all of which she reflects on in a series of essays. The collection opens with the award-winning titular essay, which is a rough English translation of the Mohawk word for depression or mental illness. This proves a central theme of the collection, as many of Elliot’s stories are about her mother’s bipolar disorder, and how it shaped and warped their family life for most of her childhood. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground blends the personal and the critical into incisive essays that cut to the heart of colonialism, and its effects on identity, community, and Canada’s conception of itself.

Categories: Canadian, Essays

Spillover

Cover image for Spillover by David QuammenZoonoses are diseases that originate in animals, usually harboured by a reservoir—a species that chronically carries the bacteria or virus but is not sickened by it—and are transmissible to humans. When the right set of circumstances occur, when the fragile ecological balance of the world is disrupted in a new way, a pathogen can spill over from animals to humans. Author David Quammen is a journalist with a long history of covering zoonosis, with the consequent experience in translating a highly technical subject for a lay audience. I read a variety of pandemic books this year, but if you’re only going to read one book about epidemics, this one combines multiple outbreaks into a single volume, highlights trends and commonalties, and provides a good basic understanding of the relationship between virology, ecology, and epidemiology. You’ll emerge from Spillover with a much better contextual understanding of our current situation, armed with many of the essential concepts for understanding the virology and epidemiology underpinning the ongoing public health conversations that have been dominating our discourse over the past year, and will no doubt continue into 2021.

Categories: Pandemic, Science

We Have Always Been Here

Cover image for We Have Always Been Here by Samra HabibSamra Habib’s family came to Canada from Pakistan in 1991, seeking freedom from the oppression they faced as members of the minority Ahmadi sect of Muslims. Along with her immediate family, they were accompanied by her first cousin, a young man about ten years her senior. When she was thirteen, she learned that her mother intended for her to marry her cousin when she turned eighteen. However, the marriage eventually took place when Habib was only sixteen years of age. For years, Habib lived a double life, secretly married to her cousin while still attending high school like an average Canadian teenager. We Have Always Been Here chronicles the complicated journey to reconciling her Muslim beliefs with her queer identity, and coming to terms with the choices her family made for her. In this memoir about the intersection of family, religion, and sexual identity, Habib shows an extremely touching thoughtfulness about her relationship with her parents. She stands firm in both her acknowledgment of the wrong they did her, and her ability to try to understand the circumstances that made them into the kind of people who would take such a step.

Categories: Canadian, Memoir, LGBTQ+

What were your top non-fiction reads this year? Did you read any pandemic books, or did you avoid the subject like the plague?