Category: Canadian

Canada Reads Along: Fifteen Dogs

Cover image for Fifteen Dogs by André Alexisby André Alexis

ISBN 978-1-55245-305-6

“Perfect understanding between beings is no guarantor of happiness. To perfectly understand another’s madness, for instance, is to be mad oneself. The veil that separates earthly beings is, at times, a tragic barrier, but it is also, at times, a great kindness.”

In a Toronto tavern, the gods Apollo and Hermes strike a bet. When Hermes wonders what it would be like if animals had human intelligence, his brother Apollo wagers a year’s servitude that the animals—any animals Hermes would like—would be unhappier than humans if given human intelligence. The wager is struck, and fifteen dogs in a nearby animal shelter suddenly gain human consciousness—all while still in possession of their canine urges and instincts. As they develop a new language to convey their transformed understanding of the world, the pack becomes divided between those who embrace the new way of thinking and communicating, and those who wish to resist change at all costs. The gods watch—and occasionally interfere—as the dogs try to navigate this abrupt transition. But will any of them die happy?

Fifteen Dogs is an apologue, which is a fancy term for a fable, of which the beast fable is the most common type. Here the twist is that the dogs aren’t just unquestioned allegories for humans, but literal dogs given human intelligence by outside intervention. The distance—or lack thereof—between the two is what drives home the point. We are reminded that humans, too, have baser instincts and urges. It is a sort of defamiliarization that gives us just enough distance from our own nature and behaviour that we are able to see it with fresh eyes. The events of Fifteen Dogs can be rather brutal, and yet this clever devoice only serves to amplify that fact of our nature, lending the story additional poignancy.

Although we begin with fifteen dogs, the story quickly narrows to focus on three: Majnoun, Benjy, and Prince. Majnoun and Prince both depart the pack when the leader, Atticus, decides that the dogs will no longer use their new language, and will instead try to live as if the change never took place. This makes for an interesting allegory about traditionalist thinking and anti-intellectualism. Prince in particular is ousted due to his invention of canine poetry, which several of the other dogs find disturbing. However, most of the story follows Majnoun as he joins a human family, and forges an unusual bond with Nira, who knows he possesses human intelligence, and her husband Miguel, who refuses to acknowledge that fact. All but one of the female dogs are killed by page 35, and Nira is the most significant female character in the story. The dogs continue to refer to the females as bitches, a fact that becomes increasingly uncomfortable after they gain human intelligence. The ousting of the female perspective is noteworthy, even if it could potentially be intended as a commentary on human nature.

Fifteen Dogs was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by YouTube star and spoken word artist Humble the Poet. The theme for this year’s program was “the one book Canada needs now.” The other candidates chose to highlight specific issues, from the plight of Indigenous women, to climate change, to the consequences of technology, and Humble differentiated Fifteen Dogs from the other books in his defence by arguing that it helps us understand all of these issues by giving readers a deeper understanding of our fundamental human nature, which is the root of all of our other problems. Humble described the book as both timeless and current in his opening remarks, and he returned to this point repeatedly throughout the week.

Over the course of the week, many of the panelists discussed whether or not they were dog people, and whether that affected their reading of the book. For some, it helped them relate to the story, while others found it alienating. However, the best point in this regard was not raised by a panelist, but by an audience member in the Q&A after the show. She pointed out how different the impact of this book would be if it was Fifteen Chickens or Fifteen Cows. Indeed, the close relationship humans enjoy with dogs is precisely what makes the allegory so effective, as the panelists readily acknowledged.

Candy Palmater repeatedly tried to raise questions about the fact that almost all of the female dogs die early in the book, with Chantal Kreviazuk seconding this perspective. When Palmater tried to bring it up again during another question on the final day of debate, host Ali Hassan redirected, promising that they would get to that later, but it was not substantially addressed, as Humble always avoided the issue by pointing to Nira. It was especially frustrating to see this line of questioning downplayed after The Break was ousted on the first day, largely based on Brueggergosman’s argument that it lacked redeemable male characters. Author André Alexis did speak about it later, on q with Tom Powers, but it did not inform the debate. Alexis also highlighted Nira as the most sympathetic character, the one who has to overcome her own prejudice to accept Majnoun as an intelligent being. However, he admits that he did miss out on the opportunity to explore Rosie’s perspective as the only surviving female dog. I was very happy to hear him acknowledge this, after Humble danced around it all week.

It was suggested a couple times over the course of the week that, because Fifteen Dogs had already won the Giller Prize as well as the Writers Trust Fiction Prize, that Canada Reads should take the opportunity to highlight a different voice. (Interestingly, this is the only book from the short-list that I already owned before the contenders were announced.) Both Brueggergosman and Kreviazuk brought this up, and Brueggergosman made it the core of her closing remarks as she defended Company Town in the finale. Though it received some criticism over the course of the week, prior to the finale, Jody Mitic was the only person who actually cast a vote against Fifteen Dogs, on day two. Candy Palmater had originally planned to vote against it on day one, but changed her mind to cast a strategic vote in an attempt to save The Break. When it came down to the final vote, however, all of the free agents chose to vote against Company Town, making Fifteen Dogs the winner of Canada Reads 2017.

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Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette

Canada Reads Along: Company Town

Cover image for Company Town by Madeline Ashbyby Madeline Ashby

ISBN 978-0-7653-8290

“Choice had little to do with it. Money was the thing. When you had no money, you had no choice. But there was no use explaining that to a man like Zachariah Lynch.”

On an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland, Hwa is one of the few entirely biological humans, unaugmented by technology or genetic tailoring. Hwa works as a bodyguard for the sex workers’ union, but when the rig is bought out by the Lynch family, she is hired to protect the patriarch’s son and heir, fifteen-year-old Joel. Hwa’s lack of augmentation means that she is not vulnerable to hacking, but the medical condition that led her mother to write her off as not worth the cost of the augmentation procedures leaves her vulnerable to seizures. But the fact that she cannot be hacked is valuable to the Lynch family, because Joel has been receiving high-tech death threats suggesting he will be killed before his next birthday. However, as Hwa’s involvement with the Lynch Company grows, the women she used to work with begin turning up dead in a gruesome series of murders.

Company Town is a page-turning sci-fi adventure set in a future that is a cautionary tale about technologies from resource extraction to genetic editing. With such a detailed and fully realized futuristic setting, it is no surprise to learn that Ashby works as a professional futurist, helping companies with strategic foresight, imagining both optimistic outcomes and worst-case scenarios. The concepts and ideas she incorporates range from the already-viable to more theoretical concepts, such as the fact that the death threats against Joel appear to be coming from the future. Company Town is also a gritty noir mystery; after Hwa leaves her old job, someone begins targeting the women she used to protect, and Hwa is determined to figure out how these brutal killings relate to her new employers.

Though Hwa is an entirely biological human, it is important to note that this is a matter of circumstance rather than a principled stand against augmentation. Hwa’s mother is abusive, particularly about her daughter’s appearance. One of the symptoms Sturge-Weber syndrome—which causes Hwa’s seizures—is a prominent facial birthmark. Sunny never wanted to waste money on her ugly daughter, and even as an adult, Hwa is still very poor. Her job with the Lynches represents her first experience with financial security, and she remains cautious about spending any of that windfall as she tentatively steps into her new role. Hwa begins to come to terms with this for the first time over the course of the story, but unfortunately the choice is ultimately taken from her, and she once again has to live with the consequences of what others have decided for her. I had mixed feelings about this turn of events; on the one hand, Hwa deserved to receive medical treatment for her condition, rather than having to live in fear of seizures and other serious complications. But the miraculous erasure of disability in speculative fiction is a problematic trope, and the fact that she didn’t consent further muddied the waters.

Company Town was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by opera singer Measha Brueggergosman, who stepped in after the original defender, Tamara Taylor, had to bow out. Brueggergosman is a two-time panelist who previously defended The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro in 2004. Brueggergosman highlighted the way the novel smoothly combined a fast-paced plot with conceptual elements that raise important issues such as resource depletion and rights for sex workers. She also had to defend against two main issues raised by the other panelists, who tended to agree that the book was entertaining, but perhaps lacking in substance. A number of questions were also raised about the ending, which involves a romance, and a loss of free choice on Hwa’s part.

[Spoilers! This paragraph discusses the ending of the book, and the panelists’ reactions to it in detail. You are forewarned.] Over the course of the week, the ending of Company Town was brought up several times. After initially being very invested in the book, Candy Palmater related how the ending lost her when Hwa’s condition was cured by having unprotected sex with Daniel, who is her supervisor at the Lynch Company. Daniel unknowingly infects her with nanobots, which go to work repairing her condition without her knowledge or consent. Brueggergosman related that Ashby’s intention was to challenge the notion of the “pure” heroine and reward Hwa for daring to be vulnerable and explore her feelings for Daniel, and then become intimate with him, but the issue continued to come up throughout the debates. For many of the panelists, this turn of events undermined Hwa’s otherwise strong character.

In her final plea, Brueggergosman asked her fellow panelists to considering elevating a new and exciting voice in Canadian fiction, rather than delivering another accolade to an already well-decorated text. This is a strategy panelists also tried, unsuccessfully, to use against Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal in Canada Reads 2016, arguing that he had already won Canada Reads in the past. With the exception of Brueggergosman, the panelists unanimously voted to eliminate Company Town, making Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis the winner of Canada Reads 2017. Check back tomorrow for my review of the winner!

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Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along 2017? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette

Canada Reads Along: The Right to Be Cold

Cover image for The Right to Be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutierby Sheila Watt-Cloutier

ISBN 978-0-14-318764-6

“Climate change is about people as much as it is about the earth, and the science, economics and politics of our changing environment must always have a human face.”

Born in Kuujuuaq in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec in 1953, Sheila Watt-Cloutier has borne witness to tremendous change in the Inuit way of life over the past six decades. Her diverse career has included work in the fields of health and education before she turned to climate activism in the 1990s. However, all of these pursuits have a unifying purpose; the protection of Inuit culture and the well-being of Inuit people. Part memoir and part call to action, The Right to Be Cold combines scientific evidence and Inuit traditional knowledge, putting a human face on the impact of climate change, which has been acutely felt in the Arctic region Watt-Cloutier calls home. Focusing on the interconnectedness of all things, Watt-Cloutier positions Inuit as sentinels, sounding the alarm about issues that have already devastated the Arctic, but must eventually impact the entire world.

Watt-Cloutier does a wonderful job of putting a human face on climate change, both by giving accounts of traditional Inuit practices, and chronicling how they have changed as the Arctic warms. She also writes very understandable explanations of the scientific processes that are involved in climate change, including explaining why the poles are experiencing the phenomenon at a more rapid rate than other parts of the planet. By describing her Inuit childhood, Watt-Cloutier is able to illustrate how much has changed in such a short period. For the first the first ten years of her life she traveled only by dog sled, until the government executed most of the sled dogs in the 1960s. Today, travel by sled or snow machine is difficult because the texture of the snow has changed due to rising temperatures. Travel over once-solid sea ice has also been made dangerous by the changes wrought by temperature and pollutants. The traditional knowledge of the elders that once kept hunters safe is rapidly becoming obsolete in a swiftly-changing environment.

While humanizing the issues is certainly one of Watt-Cloutier’s strengths, the book does get bogged down in the middle, in the chapters “POPs and the Inuit Journey,” and “The Right to Be Cold.” These chapters chronicle her international political advocacy as the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, where she served for eleven years beginning in 1995. Her first major issue was Persistent Organic Pollutants which, due to weather systems, tend to gather in the Arctic and poison traditional Inuit food sources as they accumulate at the top of the food chain. After the Stockholm Convention, the organization turned its attention to climate change. Watt-Cloutier then advanced the argument that climate change is a human rights issue, because it directly impacts all of the other recognized human rights. Unfortunately, these chapters can be a little bit inside baseball, consisting of long lists of the many international players, which will not be relevant to the average reader. These chapters do serve to illustrate the immense difficulty and cooperation needed to orchestrate an agreement on an international issue, but this could have been accomplished with only a few of the telling anecdotes. For example, at a conference where the ICC was only an observer, the organization tried to get the Canadian delegation to mention the impacts on the Arctic in relation to climate change. When they dismissed the request, the ICC instead turned to the Samoan delegation, which agreed to mention that the flooding they were experiencing from rising sea levels was a direct result of the rapidly melting Arctic ice cap.

The Right to Be Cold was represented in this year’s Canada Reads competition by singer Chantal Kreviazuk, who had a couple of disadvantages representing this title. While all of the other panelists appeared live in the studio in Toronto, Kreviazuk appeared by video link from Los Angeles due to the fact that her son was in the hospital there. Kreviazuk did her best to try to turn this to the book’s advantage by pointing out that her son’s acute asthma attack was caused by increased pollen levels that are a direct result of a warmer climate. However, due to the slight lag in the video link, it was difficult for Kreviazuk to jump into the back and forth of the debate, although host Ali Hassan did a good job of ensuring that questions were addressed to her, and offering her opportunities to respond. Kreviazuk was also defending the only non-fiction title among this year’s selections, which has historically been a disadvantage. Since Canada Reads began in 2002, Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre has been the only non-fiction winner in 2012, although the 2015 winner Ru was heavily based on autobiographical elements of Kim Thuy’s life.

Despite these disadvantages, Kreviazuk mounted a strong case for The Right to Be Cold based on this year’s Canada Reads theme, “the one book Canada needs now.” Climate change is a compelling and time-sensitive issue that fits well with this topic. Kreviazuk also gained a vocal ally when Candy Palmater became a free agent after The Break was eliminated on day one. Although Palmater cast a strategic vote against The Right to Be Cold in an effort to save her own book on the first day, she subsequently fought strongly for the book she initially voted to eliminate. In addition to bringing forth some Indigenous perspectives on aspects of the book, Palmater also pointed out the apples to oranges comparison of pitting one non-fiction title against the two remaining novels.

Throughout the week, the main argument against The Right to Be Cold centered on the amount of information provided and its readability as a result. Kreviazuk felt the wealth of information was necessary to ensure that the book was not dismissed as “just an opinion.” Jody Mitic felt that there was too much information not about Sheila herself. Measha Breuggergosman acknowledged that the topic was essential, but argued that The Right to Be Cold was simply not as engaging as the other books on the table. Humble the Poet also repeatedly raised the question of readability. The tension centered on the disconnect some panelists felt between the undisputed significance of the issue, and the accessibility of the manner in which it was presented. When it came time to vote, Palmater and Kreviazuk voted against Company Town, while Humble the Poet, Brueggergosman, and Mitic all cast their ballots against The Right to Be Cold, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2017.

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Need to get caught up with Canada Reads Along 2017? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette

Canada Reads Along: Nostalgia

Cover image for Nostalgia by M.G. Vassanjiby M. G. Vassanji

ISBN 978-0-385-6617-3

“But now I have this strange feeling that I myself don’t belong. The world is not mine anymore. I who implanted idyllic fictions am a fiction myself and that fiction is falling apart.”

In a future where the wealthy can afford to extend their youth, patients sometimes live multiple lives, having their memories erased and replaced in order to take on new identities. Dr. Frank Sina specializes in treating patients who are suffering from Leaked Memory Syndrome, more commonly known as Nostalgia. These patients are experiencing breakthrough memories from their past lives, a precursor to a potentially serious breakdown. When Presley Smith arrives in Dr. Sina’s office, he has been repeatedly hearing the phrase “it’s midnight, the lion is out” running through his mind. Dr. Sina becomes fascinated and then obsessed with this case, even after Presley declines treatment and then disappears. Dr. Sina continues to investigate, but soon the government comes knocking at his door. By law, most patients have all records of their past lives deleted, but it seems that Presley was an exception, either a criminal, a terrorist, or an immigrant from the other side of the Long Border who has been assimilated. But despite this warning, there is something about the case that Dr. Sina cannot let go, even when it threatens to unravel his own carefully constructed life.

Despite being at the heart of the mystery, Presley Smith is relatively uninteresting as a character. Dr. Sina is caught by the case, but for the reader, there is nothing about Presley to particularly pique curiosity. He seems unremarkable, and more like a plot device pushing the story forward than an individual character until relatively late in the book when his past life is eventually revealed. Before that, he is mostly the spur that causes Frank to begin questioning his place in this society he has helped to build. The more he investigates Presley’s case, the more Frank questions his job, his relationship, and his beliefs. Presley’s unraveling is the trigger, but it is Frank’s coming undone that is centered. Stylistically, Nostalgia is part literary, part sci-fi, part noirish mystery. Vassanji maintains his ponderous literary writing style, with a sci-fi premise, and a slowly unraveling mystery at the heart of the narrative

Like Presley, Dr. Sina’s girlfriend, Joanie, doesn’t feel like a real, fully fledged person. She is a G0, or a Baby, a real young person who has never been reborn into a new life. She lives with Frank, but he is fully aware that she is stepping out with another, probably younger, man on the side. She is a foil to Frank’s rejuvenated state, and an embodiment of the intergenerational divide. This is something that is already present in a way in our own world, but it is magnified in Vassanji’s imagination by the fact that the longer lives of the wealthy “rejuvies” mean that 30% of young people are unemployed, and resentful of the fact that older people refuse to step aside to provide opportunities for the next generation.

Nostalgia depicts a world that is divided between rich and poor, North and South. The Long Border is a literal construction in this world, a barrier that divides the developed North Atlantic region from poor, war-torn areas, except for the occasional carefully orchestrated tourism trip. The South is ravaged by hunger, disease, and radiation, and its residents frequently attempt the dangerous crossing. This fictional physical barrier embodies a figurative divide that already exists in our world and is worsening as the refugee crisis continues to grow. In that respect, Nostalgia feels very real and timely. Although Vassanji spent more than ten years writing the book, it looms large today as the new American administration proposes to build a wall along the Mexican border.

Nostalgia was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by Canadian military veteran and current Ottawa city council member Jody Mitic. All of the remaining books received at least one vote for elimination during the second day. The deciding factor against Nostalgia was not clear, but Candy Palmater noted that the book was very male dominated, and Chantal Kreviazuk observed that the narrative was too personal to Dr. Frank. When it was time to cast the ballots, Humble the Poet voted against Company Town, Measha Breuggergosman voted to eliminate The Right to be Cold, and Jody Mitic cast his vote against Fifteen Dogs. Chantal Kreviazuk voted against Nostalgia, and so the final vote went to Candy Palmater—the first free agent after her book, The Break, was eliminated yesterday. Her vote made Nostalgia the second book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2017.

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Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along? Check out my review and recap of The Break by Katherena Vermette.

Canada Reads Along: The Break

Cover image for The Break by Katherena Vermetteby Katherena Vermette

ISBN 978-1-4870-011-7

“She nods but I don’t know if she knows yet, that men are good, strong, amazing and ordinary, but not everything. They can’t be. They are too busy doing other things, and she should be too.”

When a young indigenous woman is attacked on Winnipeg’s troubled North side, her family gathers around her hospital bed. Four generations of women close ranks, belatedly trying to protect their victimized relative. However, as they struggle to understand what has happened, the spectres of their own traumatic pasts begin to rise, demanding to be acknowledged at last. Officer Scott is the ambitious young Métis policeman dispatched with his partner to investigate the brutal assault. He sympathizes with the family, but his efforts to solve the case are hampered by the victim’s reluctance to speak up, and the roadblocks thrown up by his jaded, burnt-out partner. Many perspectives weave together as the truth about what really happened that night out on the Break unfolds.

The Break is the heart-wrenching story of a community that has been repeatedly torn apart by violence, as Winnipeg’s indigenous population struggles with the lingering effects of colonization. Through the skillful use of multiple narrative perspectives, Katherena Vermette illustrates how trauma accumulates and cascades down through the generations, becoming compounded as those who have been hurt try to raise the next generation of children, who cannot help but be affected by their parents’ pain, even when those parents do their best to shield their children from repeating their mistakes.

All of the women of the family this story centres on were such fully realized, sympathetic characters. They are daughters and sisters, aunts and cousins, friends and coworkers. Each woman has her own struggles, and difficult secrets or traumas in her past. Louisa’s partner of five years, and the father of her child, has just left her. After struggling for many years, Pauline has finally managed to overcome her instinctive distrust of men enough to allow her boyfriend to move in. Their mother Cheryl struggles with substance abuse, but she is proud of the fact that she has come so far and now runs an art gallery. Running underneath the most recent tragedy is a current of tension, a memory of the last time the family was hurt this way, when Cheryl’s sister Rain died. But they all shy away from thinking about it, and so Rain’s death is the shadow narrative that mirrors the latest tragedy.

The men in the story are more absences than presences, defined by leaving and separation. They too are all hurting in their own way, and in turn hurting others as they try to cope with their pain. They are not as clearly drawn as the women, but they are not monsters, either, but flawed human beings. Officer Scott is the only male point of view character, and is the most well-developed. He is Metis, but never actively identified himself as such until his girlfriend convinced him to check the box on the application form for the police academy. But now everyone in the department knows, and this case in particular forces him to begin coming to terms with the heritage he has avoided for so long.

The Break was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by comedian and broadcaster Candy Palmater. In her opening remarks, Palmater highlighted the way in which The Break illustrates the continuing effects of colonization on Canada’s indigenous people. This year’s Canada Reads theme is “the one book Canada needs now,” and Palmater argued that this is a book that can help heal the nation as the country’s 150th birthday approaches in July. She also highlighted the fact that The Break emerged as an early audience favourite in online polls and best seller lists.

Panelist Measha Brueggergosman tore into The Break with a reverse sexism line of argument that Candy Palmater admitted afterward she had never expected when she prepared to defend the book. Brueggergosman argued that The Break excluded men, and that there were no redeemable male characters. She found the instinctive distrust the women in the story had for men—a reaction born from their history of abuse—divisive. Jodi Mitic admitted that he did not relate to the book as a man. In her rebuttal, Palmater pointed to Officer Scott as an example of a positive male character, and tried to highlight the way in which The Break is intended to center and reflect the experiences of indigenous women, as well as the harm both men and women in that community have suffered in the fall out of colonization.

Unmoved my Palmater’s rebuttal and closing remarks, both Brueggergosman and Mitic voted against The Break when the time came to eliminate the first book of the competition. This created a tie with The Right to be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, which Palmater and Humble the Poet voted against. Chantal Kreviazuk—who initially voted against Company Town—was given the tie breaking vote. As the defender of The Right to be Cold, she of course did not vote against her own book. She reluctantly cast the vote that eliminated The Break, which she stated was her favourite book after her own. I was extremely disappointed to see this moving story about family, resilience, and healing eliminated so early in the competition, and on such a weak argument.

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You might also like these past Canada Reads contenders:

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg

Certain Dark Things

Cover image for Certain Dark Things by Silvia Morena-Garcia by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

ISBN 978-1-250-09908-2

“She seems to enjoy your company, she may even like you, and yet. Don’t deceive yourself, my boy, this is not a love story.”

Domingo is a street kid who scrapes by as a junk collector on the streets of Mexico City, one of the few vampire-free zones in a world that learned in 1967 that vampires are all too real. Domingo is fascinated by the pop-culture lore of these creatures, but he has never seen one until Atl drops into his life. The scion of a powerful northern narco-clan, Atl is on the run after a disastrous clash with a rival clan. Sneaking into Mexico City is risky, but she needs to buy the papers that will allow her to escape to South America. Atl wants to get in and get out quickly and quietly, but she needs a source of blood that will not draw suspicion or attention. Unfortunately, her rivals are much less discreet, and soon the human gangs and cops of Mexico City become aware that vampires have invaded their territory.

Atl picks up Domingo on Mexico City’s subway, figuring that she can discreetly pay him to be her source of blood for the duration of her stay. This is not quite the arrangement Domingo expected when Atl solicited him, but he is fascinated by vampire stories, and willing to go along with what she wants. Soon, however, the two are bonded together by their adventures and Atl starts considering something more. Technically speaking, she is too young to be allowed to have a Tlapalehuiani, or a Renfield, but the unusual circumstances cause her to consider violating custom and binding Domingo even more closely. Yet it is also clear that Domingo is in danger of falling in love with her.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia pulls together a diverse variety of vampire lore, and is able to incorporate many different traditions by dividing her vampires into ten different sub-species. The protagonist, Atl, is descended from vampires that are native to Mexico with their roots in Aztec lore, but her family has been decimated by the Necros, a hardy and brutal European sub-species. A lot of information is built into the text, but for those who can’t get enough, there is also a glossary at the back for some extra details. Three sub-species of vampire feature in Certain Dark Things, but Moreno-Garcia clearly has a strong idea of the rest of her world as well.

Atl and Domingo are both vivid protagonists, but the secondary characters are no less interesting. Ana is a cop who used to work in vampire territory in Zacatecas, but moved to Mexico City for the promise of a better career, and a better life for her teenage daughter, Marisol. She has toed the line for so long, and tried to be honest, but the promise of Mexico City has proved hollow. The police force is still corrupt, and there are few opportunities for women. When a human gang offers a significant sum of money for Ana’s cooperation in helping them take out the vampires that have invaded their territory, she is tempted to accept.

Certain Dark Things is constantly shifting perspective, from Atl and Domingo, to Ana, to Nick Godoy and the Renfield Rodrigo. Rodrigo has worked for the Godoys for decades, and Nick is the spoiled son of his long-time employer. But this job has gotten out of control, leaving Rodrigo longing for retirement, and an escape from trying to harness Nick’s reckless appetite and careless disregard for caution. The Godoys relentlessly pursue Atl, even as she seeks passage out of Mexico City, while both the human gangs and the local authorities want to eliminate them both. The result is a perfect blend of real world crime drama and urban fantasy lore in this unique new take on the vampire story.

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Interested in learning more? Check out an interview with the author over at Read Diverse Books! 

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures

Cover image for Bloodletting and Miraculous Curesby Vincent Lam

ISBN 9780385661447

“Her family, she said, was modern in what they wanted for her education, and old-fashioned in what they imagined for her husband.”

Four young medical school students start out on the road to becoming doctors, sure of their nobility of purpose and their calling, the real and trying rigours of the medical profession still ahead of them. Ming, Fitz, Sri, and Chen come from different backgrounds and have different career paths awaiting them. In a series of twelve interlinked short stories, Dr. Vincent Lam takes the reader behind the scenes of the medical world, from medical school to residency to the emergency room and the operating room. He also draws on his experience in international air evacuation medicine and his knowledge of influenza pandemics to create richly detailed fictional accounts.

Lam touches on a lot key moments in a doctor’s medical career, from getting accepted to medical school, to the first cadaver lab, to the long nights of residency, losing a patient, and even working during a pandemic. “Contact Tracing,” the story about the SARS outbreak, holds up remarkably well over a decade later, perhaps because it could really be the story of any unexpected pandemic.

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures also touches on important cultural issues. In “Eli” Fitz is called on to treat a patient who he believes to have been the victim of police brutality. He must decide if he is willing to be complicit in helping them cover up the abuse, or if he has the strength of character to stand up to them. In “Winston” Sri is faced with a patient who has had a mental break down. When Winston fails to return to the hospital for follow-up care, Sri has to choose between letting the case go, and stepping outside the usual bounds of the doctor-patient relationship to track down his charge.

For fans of Lam’s 2012 novel, The Headmaster’s Wager, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures also contains “A Long Migration” in which Chen is called on to care for his ailing grandfather. He travels to Australia, where his family depends on him to call them in from around the world in time to attend the patriarch’s last moments. His grandfather, Percival Chen, is the protagonist of Lam’s novel, where he featured as the gambling, womanizing headmaster of an English school in Saigon. But in “A Long Migration,” he is an old man in his last days, considering his life and possible conversion to Christianity.

Lam’s characters are complicated and flawed, fallible humans who have been trusted with unthinkable responsibility, and faced with terrible dilemmas. This adds depth to the rich detail of the author’s own medical experience, making for an intriguing collection.

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You might also like When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Open Heart, Open Mind

open-heart-open-mindby Clara Hughes

ISBN 978-1-4767-5698-1

“The extreme physical pain I was able to endure was a distraction from my emotional pain. I was like a traumatized person who slashes open a vein or with a razor to let the despair, the guilt, the repressed anger bleed out. I would cut myself to the bone, grinding and hammering before I’d give up.”

Clara Hughes is a prominent Canadian athlete, known for winning medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics in cycling and speed skating. In 2010, she was the flag-bearer when Canada hosted the Olympics in Vancouver. That year, she also became the public face of the Bell Let’s Talk initiative, which aims to raise funds and awareness for mental health issues. This was the first time that many people learned about the depression and self-doubt that lurked behind Hughes’ megawatt smile. Open Heart, Open Mind chronicles Hughes’ journey from party kid in Winnipeg, to Olympic athlete, to public health advocate and humanitarian.

Open Heart, Open Mind opens on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. As flag-bearer, Hughes was at the centre of media attention in the lead up to the opening ceremony. Although she was elated by the honour, no one had prepared her to be a de facto spokesperson for the Games. This moment on the steps of Richmond City Hall serves as the perfect illustration of the contrast between her public persona, and her private struggles. The Vancouver Olympics proved both a high and a low point, celebrating her athletic career, but also showing the hurt that came from not having her achievements acknowledged by her alcoholic father.

From the Vancouver Olympics, Hughes circles back to her childhood in the Elmwood neighbourhood of Winnipeg, with her divorced parents and rebellious sister. Hughes shares the fact that she partied a lot, cutting school, drinking, and doing drugs. She gives only a very general description of her behaviour, offering few specific stories to bring it home and make it feel immediate. We get hints that her sister was also getting into trouble, but throughout the book Hughes protectively deflects attention away from her, trying hard to maintain her sister’s privacy while also acknowledging the impact of her troubled family environment. She is more open about her father, who died in 2013 of dementia, a life-long alcoholic.

In 1988, watching Gaétan Boucher skate for Canada at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary inspired Hughes to take up the sport. However, this only lasted a year before her coach moved to Ontario. The significance of a coach will be no surprise to any sports fan, and Hughes highlights it repeatedly throughout the book. Her next coach would shape her into an Olympic-calibre cyclist, but also crush her spirits and injure her body with his brutal methods, permanently tainting her love of cycling, and leaving her feeling like she was “rotting from the inside.”

In many ways, taking up sports was only trading one form of self-abuse for another, something it takes Hughes many pages to finally acknowledge outright. Whereas before she was using drugs and alcohol to mask her pain, sports created a socially acceptable way for her to drown emotional pain with physical pain, through brutal training regimens, and disordered eating. Cutting would have been frowned upon, but grueling workouts were a sign of dedication in an athlete. Closely controlled diets were also to be expected. Even as she writes, Hughes seems to be struggling to come to grips with the way her greatest achievements were also expressions of self-hatred. This is less surprising when you realize that she was still struggling to accept help for herself even while she was serving as the public face of a campaign to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Her reluctance about medication is evident, and she repeatedly uses the word “crazy” in a way some readers may find off-putting.

One thing this book does very well is demonstrate that depression isn’t about causes. Hughes acknowledges the damage her coach did, while also noting that finally leaving him didn’t fix her. She shares meeting her husband, the man who would support her through all her ups and downs, but admits that love couldn’t fix her either. She pushed herself to extremes in training, becoming known as an endurance athlete, but even Olympic medals couldn’t instill self-worth. She got out of a sport she hated to pursue the one she originally fell in love with, but still fell back into partying and alcohol when the strain of the sporting lifestyle took its toll. She isn’t miraculously cured by sports (quite the contrary) or anything else, for that matter. Open Heart, Open Mind is part of the journey of coming to terms with living with depression.

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