Category: Fiction

Vampires Never Get Old

Cpver image for Vampires Never Get Old edited by Zoraida Cordova and Natalie C. ParkerEdited by Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker

ISBN 9781250230003

“There is no one way to write the vampire. After all, a being with the power to shape-shift should wear many faces and tell many tales.”

Vampires Never Get Old brings together a variety of stars from the world of young adult fiction to provide fresh takes on the vampire story, with a particular focus on diversity and inclusion. The collection consists of eleven short stories, each with their own spin on the vampire mythology. To each story the editors add a quick note on the aspects of the vampire tradition used, transformed, or subverted in that tale. The stories include a wide variety of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC protagonists, as well as a fat slayer and a vampire with a disability.

For unique form and dark and creepy vibes, I want to call out “Mirrors, Windows & Selfies by Mark Oshiro. The story is written in the form of an online diary or blog, but the commenters perceive it as a work of ongoing fiction, which gains in popularity over time. The writer is a young vampire who was born, not made, and although I really hate this trope, I still enjoyed Oshiro’s execution. Cisco has been moved around the country his entire life by his vampire parents, but as he nears adulthood, he begins to question the secrecy and the rules, and wonders why exactly his parents have been keeping him hidden and isolated from vampire society.

Perhaps the most chilling tale is “In Kind” by Kayla Whaley, a dark revenge fantasy in which a disabled teenage girl is murdered by her father, an act which the press dubs a “mercy killing.” Grace then faces the choice about whether to use her new powers to punish her father for what he has done. The story is also notable in that while becoming a vampire makes Grace stronger and more powerful in many ways, it is not able to restore her ability to walk. Her vampirism is empowering, without being a miracle cure for her disability, which is a core part of her identity.

The funniest story belongs to Samira Ahmed, who contributes “A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire.” A brand new vampire wakes up alone in a dark warehouse, and has to undergo Vampire Orientation 101 by Vampersand, a newly minted vampire tech start up for young Indian vampires who have been unexpectedly turned by careless British vampire tourists. Filled with snark and anticolonial bite, this was the only story that made me laugh out loud.

Most of the stories stand alone well, but several had strong potential as novel starters. In particular, I would definitely read a f/f novel with a vampire and a slayer, something that Julie Murphy explores in “Senior Year Sucks,” and which Victoria Schwab also features in her tale, “First Kill.” However, the stand out in this regard was absolutely “The House of Black Sapphires” by Dhonielle Clayton, in which the Turner women return to New Orleans’ Eternal Ward after centuries away. Descended from vampires, but distinct, Eternals can only be killed by Shadow Barons, but none of the Turner girls have ever met one until they return to their mother’s home in New Orleans, and discover that their mother was once in love with a Shadow Baron herself. This story had atmosphere and world-building potential galore, and I would dearly love to read an entire novel set in this world.

Vampires Never Get Olds marks a delightful return to the mythology of vampires, filled with unique tales and fun little extra nuggets. Read through the author bios to find out each contributor’s favourite vampire, and check out the copyright page for a vampire-themed book curse! If like me you’ve been missing vampires, this collection might just quench your thirst, at least for a while.

For more vampires, you might also like:

Urban Fantasy Vampires

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Certain Dark Things 

I Kissed Alice

Cover image for I Kissed Alice by Anna Birchby Anna Birch

Illustrated by Victoria Ying

ISBN 978125021986-2

“The fact that life is just throwing us together should feel like fate, but instead all I have is an impending sense of doom.”

Friends. Lovers. Competitors. Rhodes, Sarah, and Iliana are all students at the Alabama Conservatory of the Arts and Technology, a speciality high school. Rhodes is the award-winning model student, and Sarah is her roommate. Sarah and Iliana have been best friends since childhood, and they transferred to the Conservatory together, even though they don’t share the privileged background of most of the school’s students. But their friendships are challenged by one complicated fact; Rhodes and Iliana hate one another, and they are in fierce competition for the Capstone Award, which includes a scholarship to the local college of art and design. Hard-working Iliana is furious that rich, talented Rhodes might snatch the scholarship she so desperately needs. What she doesn’t know is that Rhodes is battling depression, and a creative block that is threatening to destroy her academic career and her future. Unbeknownst to them both, they share a secret online life on Slash/Spot, a fanfiction site where Curious-in-Cheshire and I-Kissed-Alice are co-creators of an Alice in Wonderland-inspired comic. But their feelings for one another might go beyond creative collaboration, if they were ever to meet in real life…

I Kissed Alice is told in alternating first person chapters, switching perspectives between Rhodes and Iliana. The chapters occasionally conclude with a comic by Victoria Ying, capturing the story of Alice and the Red Queen that Iliana and Rhodes are unknowingly collaborating on. The comics were amazing, and would have loved to see more of them included in the book, preferably in colour! Birch also uses, chat, the Slash/Spot comments, and text messages to flesh out the story. I enjoyed the fandom aspect of the book, and the intense connection Rhodes and Iliana both feel to Alice in Wonderland, as well as their f/f take on it in their comic.

The tone of this book was a little bit heavier than what I expected from the publisher’s summary and the cover art, all of which suggested a light enemies-to-lovers romp. However, the book deals with complex themes including unhealthy relationships of various types, and a protagonist who is battling with significant depression. Rhodes is wealthy and seems to have everything Iliana wants, but beneath the well-polished surface, she is dealing with a mother who is a functioning alcoholic determined to control her future, and stifling a depression that has choked off her ability to create any art other than her comic with Curious-in-Cheshire. She is drowning in the expectations of others. Meanwhile, Iliana has lost out on one scholarship after getting into trouble with Rhodes and Sarah, making for a bitter competition for the Capstone Award, which she desperately needs to afford college. Both Iliana and Sarah work part-time at a diner in addition to their studies, struggling to purchase the necessary art supplies for all their classes. Studying art at college seems even further out of reach.

Although I Kissed Alice is an enemies-to-lovers story, it is lacking in sizzle, tension, and banter. Iliana and Rhodes mostly make themselves, and Sarah, miserable with their bickering and in-fighting. The narration alternates between Iliana and Rhodes, but the perspective I felt was really missing was Sarah, who is the real life bridge between the two, and often caught in the crossfire of their arguments. Given the significant role she plays in the story, I really wanted to understand her point-of-view better, particularly towards the end of the book. Friendship is just as important to this book as romance, so Sarah not having a voice in the narrative somewhat limits that exploration.

Urban Fantasy Vampires

Ever since discovering the work of Anne Rice when I was about fifteen, I’ve been more or less obsessed with vampires, which tend to rise and fall in the trends of speculative fiction literature in a somewhat cyclical fashion. They’ve been having a bit of a quiescence since the hype of Twilight settled down, but I’ve recently been craving a return to this obsession that never dies. I’m impatiently awaiting the publication of Vampires Never Get Old next week, a short story anthology that brings together authors like Zoraida Córdova, Dhonielle Clayton, and Julie Murphy with fresh takes on an old favourite. While I was waiting, I decided to revisit some classics from the vampire urban fantasy oeuvre, and see how they held up. (Fellow UNBC alum: Yes, these were all on the syllabus from Dr. Stan Beeler’s English 486 Literature of the Fantastic course!)

Blood Price

Cover image for Blood Price by Tanya HuffOriginally published in 1991, Blood Price by Canadian SFF writer Tanya Huff is probably the oldest book I’ve read that could classed as urban fantasy. Vicki Nelson has recently retired from the Toronto police force at the ripe old age of 31, due to her rapidly deteriorating vision caused by retinitis pigmentosa. A former rising star within the department, Vicki still feels like she has a lot to prove, and she’s set up shop as a private investigator. In Blood Price, she is hired by a wealthy college student to investigate the murder of her boyfriend. As the killings continue, the local press begins speculating about vampires, as all the victims have been drained of blood. While she tries to keep an open mind, what Vicki never expected was to run into a real vampire who is trying to solve the murders himself, before the press draws too much attention to the potential existence of his kind. Part of the great fun of this series in the vampire himself, Henry Fitzroy, who is the bastard son of King Henry VIII. In 1990s Toronto, he is making a living as a romance novelist, penning historical bodice rippers under the nom de plume Elizabeth Fitzroy.

This was a fun reread that has held up in many respects, but aged markedly in others. The human villain of this installment is an angry young, white, male college student who feels he hasn’t received everything to which he is entitled, something that still rings so true as to almost be too on the nose. When this novel was published, the École Polytechnique massacre of 1989 would have been a still fresh event, and not much has changed since. A lot of the plot turns on answering machines, and people waiting for phone calls, something I didn’t notice when I first read this book in 2008 with a flip phone in my purse, but which is glaringly obvious in 2020 with everyone glued to their smartphones. I’m also less interested in police protagonists, and cringed really hard when Vicki’s former partner, Mike, made a joke about police brutality.

Guilty Pleasures

Cover image for Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. HamiltonPublished in 1993, this still ongoing series is often cited among the influences of urban fantasy writers, though my 2002 paperback edition describes it as “a heady mix of romance and horror,” and the cover blurbs are mostly from mystery rather than SFF writers. Guilty Pleasures introduces Anita Blake, zombie raiser and vampire hunter. Although her primary job is raising the dead, Anita sidelines in killing rogue vampires, and in this first installment of what is now a 27 book series, she is hired to investigate the murders of four vampires. Pressured into undertaking the investigation against her better judgement, Anita finds herself pulled into vampire politics, squaring off against the terrifying Master of the City of St. Louis, and upending the balance of power in a way that will inevitably bind her to the supernatural world, and to the handsome and alluring vampire Jean-Claude.

Urban fantasy is split into those series in which the supernatural world is secret and those in which it is openly acknowledged—sometimes with a transition in which the supernatural world is unveiled. This series begins two years after vampires become legally recognized in the United States, and one thing I find interesting about this book is the world-building that explores the consequences of such a ruling. Vampires can use their abilities for commerce—as we see at the vampire strip club Guilty Pleasures—or to found their own religions, as with the Church of Eternal Life, a vampire church being a truly fascinating concept in a world Laurell K. Hamilton also chooses to have holy objects repel her vampires. This series has transformed and reincarnated itself several times over the nearly thirty years it has been running, and I haven’t read a new installment in over a decade, but it was nevertheless illuminating to revisit. Even if the plot also heavily figured answering machines. Go figure.

Dead Until Dark

Cover image for Dead Until Dark by Charlaine HarrisBetter known for its 2008 television adaptation True Blood, Dead Until Dark was originally published in 2001. Set in rural northern Louisiana, it follows the adventures of Sookie Stackhouse, the psychic waitress. Like the Anita Blake series, these books take place about two years after vampires have “come out of the coffin,” and the book opens with Sookie meeting her first vampire, Bill Compton, who has returned Bon Temps to reclaim his family’s property there now that vampires have been legally recognized. Regarded as somewhat crazy by her neighbours, who don’t really want to believe in her psychic abilities, Sookie has faced a lot of social rejection before Bill rolls into town, but she is surprised to find that—unlike humans—she can’t hear vampire thoughts. She quickly falls into a romance with Bill, but this attachment is complicated by local suspicions about the newcomer, a series of murders of young women known to have associated with vampires, and the fact the vampires would very much like to put Sookie’s psychic talents to their own uses.

Urban fantasies commonly feature working class protagonists, but Sookie is notable for her pride in her job as a waitress, and her defensiveness about anyone who tries to put her down for being low class or air-headed because of her lack of education or her choice of employment. Much of the action centers on her interactions with patrons at Merlotte’s, the local watering hole. Dead Until Dark has one of the most rural settings of any urban fantasy series I’ve read, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, but Harris turns small town life to good effect, even as she pulls in wider vampire politics with Sookie becoming enmeshed in the supernatural community. The big cringe here might be when Sookie’s grandmother invites Bill over to talk to her about the Civil War, and she seems fascinated and delighted when he is able to tell her that her husband’s family owned two slaves. And yes, in case you were wondering, there were several plot points featuring answering machines. So let that be a lesson to you writers out there; vampires may never get old, but the technology you include in your stories will!

Have you got favourite vampire reading recommendations? Hit me in the comments!

More Vampire Reads:

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

The Dutch House

Cover image for The Dutch House by Ann Patchettby Ann Patchett

ISBN 9780062963673

“We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside.”

Danny and Maeve Conroy grew up in the Dutch House, a unique and magnificent home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, which their father purchased for their mother with the hard earnings of his own self-made real estate empire, built up in the aftermath of WWII. But the house undoes Cyril Conroy’s first marriage, leaving Maeve to raise Danny with the help of Sandy and Jocelyn, two sisters who work in the kitchen and manage the household. It is their father’s remarriage to the despised Andrea that truly sets the chain of events in motion that will define their lives as orphans who have only one another to rely on. As drawn to the Dutch House as Elna Conroy was repulsed by it, Andrea becomes the villain, the wicked stepmother who dispossesses and exiles her stepchildren. Her choice will reverberate through all their lives over the course of the coming decades.

Although Danny is the narrator of this tale, he is probably the least interesting character in the book. He is also not the most insightful, though there is enough detail that is observed but not understood for the reader to pick up the things that he is missing. I personally would have been more interested in Maeve’s perspective, but as Ann Patchett herself put it in an interview on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, Maeve is not the sort of person who would ever think her own story is worth telling. She is not as self-effacing as her mother, but nor can she countenance being at the center of attention. So we are left with Danny, who is surrounded by a cast of fascinating women, all of whom are holding him up, always ensuring that the fifteen year old boy who lost his father and his home finds his way, continuing long after he is grown. Even flipping to the perspective of Andrea might be fascinating, because she is the character into whom we get the least insight, seeing her always through Danny’s eyes and grievances.

Another intriguing character is Fiona, who also grew up in the Dutch House before Danny and Maeve, because her parents were the caretakers for the previous owners, the VanHoebeeks, whose possessions still decorate the Dutch House like some sort of museum to the past. Like Danny and Maeve, Fiona is exiled from the Dutch House, fired by Mr. Conroy after she strikes four year old Danny, an event he can barely remember. When Fiona finally resurfaces late in the book, she serves as contrast to Elna Conroy, the mother who abandoned her children in order to serve those she felt needed her more. Danny is able to forgive Fiona quite readily, something he is not so easily able to extend to his own mother when he is finally forced to reckon with some of the shades of his past.

The Dutch House is permeated by a strong sense of two people who are not living entirely in the present moment, but are in constant state of reaction to the hurts of their past. This is echoed in some ways by Patchett’s choice to set the book in the near past, perhaps not far enough to really be considered historical fiction, but not present either. The loss of their parents and their home is a wound that Danny and Maeve can’t seem to help reopening again and again, every time they park in front of the Dutch House, unable to go inside, but unable to stop watching it from afar. This is paired with the more obviously destructive metaphor of their smoking habit, something a doctor and a diabetic should surely know better than to engage in, yet can’t quite seem to kick. Maeve has pushed Danny through a rigorous education, including an elite private boarding school and a top medical school, even though he had no desire to be a doctor, all in service of taking the only thing they can access from their stepmother; money from the shared educational trust established for Danny and for Andrea’s two daughters. Unable to go back to school herself, Maeve sets Danny to fulfilling her missed opportunities.

As Maeve and Danny grow up, echoes of their parents’ lives haunt them, and an omnipresent past hovers overhead, certainly not dead, and not even really past so long as it is kept alive by the living, constantly turned over and reimagined until it is finally worn smooth.

You might also like:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony F. Marra

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

Nonbinary and Genderqueer Reads

Today I’ve got mini-reviews four books by and about nonbinary and genderqueer people, including two young adult novels, and two memoirs, including one graphic memoir. I’m part of a monthly bring your own book club with other library workers, and this month’s theme was “read a book by an author whose gender is different than yours.” Having read a lot of books by men already in my life, I decided to focus on books by nonbinary people instead!

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver (they/them)

Cover image for I Wish You All the BestThis YA novel is a classic coming out narrative, but for gender rather than sexuality. Ben is thrown out by their parents after coming out as nonbinary, and is taken in by their estranged older sister, Hannah. Ben starts the last semester of senior year at a new school, where they decide not to come out as nonbinary because of the fallout from the fight with their parents. At the new school, Ben falls for their first new friend, the handsome and ebullient Nathan Allan. This quiet contemporary focuses on relationships and acceptance, including Ben’s growing feelings for Nathan, reconnecting with their sister, and their decision about whether or not to forgive their parents. One thing that I Wish You All the Best does really well is highlight just how unnecessarily gendered language can be in small, quotidian ways that creep into everything. From binary checkboxes on forms, to endearments like “little bro” or “dude” and “my prince,” gendered language is a minefield that is slowly killing Ben with a thousand thoughtless cuts.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (he/they)

Cover image for Felix Ever After by Kacen CallenderWhereas I Wish You All the Best is a coming out story, Felix Ever After follows the story of Felix Love, who has already transitioned to male, but is still exploring their gender identity and coming to terms with some of the nonbinary options. Felix has never been in love, but has a deep romantic streak, and this novel sees him caught between an enemies-to-lovers epistolary romance via Instagram messages, and the possibility that one of his oldest friendships is actually romantic. Next to the romances, my favourite element of this book was the way it explored the complicated forms of homophobia and transphobia that can exist within the queer community where Felix is supposed to feel safe, such as his ex-girlfriend Marisol, and the anonymous bullies causing trouble at school and online. Felix’s best friend Ezra is the light of this book, and he reminded me a great deal of Nathan from I Wish You All the Best.

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe (e/em/eir)

Cover image for Gender Queer by Maia KobabeThis graphic memoir follows Maia Kobabe on eir exploration of gender, and how e came to understand that e was nonbinary, with colours by eir sister, Phoebe Kobabe. The book recounts eir confusion about increasingly gendered expectations in childhood, such as differences in acceptable swimwear for young boys and girls. As e gets older, there is an increasing focus on body dysmorphia, particularly body horror related to menstruation and gynecological exams. E confesses to secretly harbouring a guilty wish for breast cancer as an excuse for a mastectomy. Unaware of the nonbinary option, as a teen Kobabe wished for the ability to switch between genders at will, like in the cartoon Ranma ½. The memoir comes to an open ending, as Kobabe has realized eir nonbinary identity, but is still struggling with being open about it in various settings, such as the art class e teaches. The book concludes: “A note to my parents: Though I have struggled with being your daughter, I am so, so glad I am your child.”

Sissy by Jacob Tobia (they/them)

Cover image for Sissy by Jacob TobiaJacob Tobia is a gender nonconforming writer, producer, and performer based in Los Angeles. Sissy is their memoir about growing up in North Carolina, and their years coming into their gender identity and expression as a scholarship student at Duke University. Tobia is perhaps best known for their 2012 run in five inch high heels across the Brooklyn Bridge to raise money for the Ali Forney Center after it was flooded by Hurricane Sandy. Tobia has a loud love-me-or-leave-me style that you will either jive with, or not; in their conclusion they write “to this day, your divine conviction in your own self-love makes you kinda arrogant and a little bit of an asshole,” apparently aware of the inevitable dichotomy. Tobia likes humour and extended metaphors; for example, they propose that instead of the closet, the metaphor for coming out should be a snail coming out of its shell. Their tone is a whiplash combination of earnestness and irreverence, mixing insights about gender and socialization with jokes, dropping insights about toxic masculinity in the same breath as a dick joke. Tobia loudly pushes for more trans stories that go beyond the traditional gender binary, using their own struggles with their parents, their church, and their university to pave the way.

Browse more LGBTQ+ reads

Canada Reads Along: Son of a Trickster

Cover image for Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinsonby Eden Robinson

Content Warnings: Substance abuse, self-harm, child abuse, domestic violence.

ISBN 978-0-345-81078-6

“He wanted to stay with Sarah, but watching Mr. and Mrs. Jaks slowly dying was brutal. He wanted to believe his mom was sorry, but his dad was always sorry and he still kept doing crap he had to say sorry for. He didn’t want to be a sucker, but he didn’t want to be alone. Everything ached and all the choices felt wrong.”

Old beyond his years, teenage Jared feels responsible for all the adults around him, from his mercurial mom Maggie, to her deadbeat boyfriend Richie, to his lying father and his pregnant step-sister, and the elderly neighbours who helped him out in a time of need, as well as their wayward granddaughter. His mom is estranged from her own family, and his father’s mother has always harboured the belief that he isn’t actually her grandson, but rather the illegitimate son of a Trickster. His only support, his beloved dog Baby, has recently died, and Jared is having a hard time keeping it together for everyone who needs him. He drinks too much, and smokes too much, and sometimes he blacks out. And sometimes he think he sees and hears things, even when he isn’t half-cut. Things that make him wonder if his grandmother might not be crazy after all.

Son of a Trickster starts out slowly, setting the scene on the northern coast of British Columbia, in a town defined by the boom and bust of the resource cycle. The ups and downs in Jared’s life ride upon the unstable temperament of his formidable mom, Maggie, who would do anything to protect her son from the world, but can’t always protect him from herself, or her secrets. By turns fascinating and terrifying, Maggie has carved out a place in the world by sheer force of will, but it is a constant effort to hold that space, and sometimes she lets it all collapse, leaving Jared to pick up the pieces. Jared’s own will is as stubborn as his mother’s, and as the story progresses it becomes evident that there is much he has been refusing to see out of a deep-seated sense of self-preservation.

At first, Jared’s life seems normal, or at least, only abnormal in sadly normal human ways. Slowly but surely, however, little bits of weirdness creep in around the edges, and Jared’s chapters are mixed with bizarre, expansive interludes that hint at a world beyond his day-to-day reality. The magic seeps in until it is almost pervasive, slowly invading every corner of his life until he has no choice but to face the destiny he has been running from. While this element comes into full force late in the book, the fact that Son of a Trickster is the first in a series leaves room for Robinson to continue to explore the implications of the first book’s final revelations.

Son of a Trickster was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by Kaniehtiio Horn, an Indigenous actor and podcaster from Kahnawake. Horn mounted a quiet but powerful defense of her chosen book, touting it as coming of age story that will appeal to everyone from young adults to elders. This year’s Canada Reads theme was “One book to bring Canada into focus,” and Horn also argued that it was time to expand Canada’s focus beyond Indigenous trauma narratives, and make room for the broader voices that are also part of the Indigenous experience in Canada. Toward the very end of the finale, she expressed that she wanted to see Indigenous authors on every shelf, from crime fiction to fantasy to science fiction and beyond, occupying every genre.

Son of a Trickster faced a variety of hurdles in this year’s Canada Reads competition. Most notably, some of the panelists seemed to have a decided preference for non-fiction. This formed a central part of the second day of debates, with both George Canyon and Akil Augustine expressing a stronger connection to real people rather than fictional characters in response to a variety of questions posed by the host. Nevertheless, Son of a Trickster arrived at the finale having only been voted against once, by Alayna Fender on Day Three, as she tried to save her book Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club from elimination.

After giving the eliminated panelists a moment to remind the audience why they should still read all those books, moderator Ali Hassan focused the final day of debates on questions about compassion, engaging storytelling, and which book most challenged the way the panelists look at the world. Son of a Trickster eked out an edge in the storytelling department, with George Canyon describing the book as a captivating, Akil Augustine lauding the magical element, and Alayna Fender praising the engaging cast of characters.

Throughout the competition, Horn spoke eloquently to Son of a Trickster specifically as an Indigenous story. When Alayna Fender raised questions about the completeness of the story, and its sense of having a beginning, middle and end, Horn responded with an explanation about how Indigenous stories are often more cyclical, but tend to be judged against the linear standard more common in settler narratives, though she acknowledged that the book is also the first in a trilogy. She also took time to educate listeners about the important role of the storyteller within Indigenous culture. In her final appeal, she asked her fellow panelists to make Son of a Trickster the first book by an Indigenous author to win Canada Reads.

After a lively final day of debates, the panelists cast their ballots for the last time. Kaniehtiio Horn voted against We Have Always Been Here, but the other panelists came together in a unanimous block to eliminate Son of a Trickster, and make We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib and defended by Amanda Brugel the first book by a woman author defended by a woman panelist to win Canada Reads since the program began in 2002.

Check back tomorrow for my review of the winning book!

Canada Reads Along: Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club

Cover image for Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail ColesMegan Gail Coles

ISBN 978-1-4870-0171-1

Content Warnings: Sexual violence, substance abuse, misogyny, animal abuse.

“She suspected John would try to colonize every aspect of her character so that he could accredit himself with anything worthwhile later. Early on, before the truly horrid had happened, Iris was concerned that John could not care less about what she was really like as long as this impersonation woman he preferred to her was believable.”

As a storm blows into St. John’s on Valentine’s Day, at the heart of a brutally cold February on the bay, the staff of The Hazel restaurant are preparing for service despite the weather. But another more personal storm front hangs over the dining room. John, the restaurant’s chef, has been conducting a precarious affair with Iris, the hostess, under the nose of his wife, who bankrolls the business. Damian, fresh off a breakup with his boyfriend, has arrived to his shift hung over, and without the patience to deal with the two increasingly wasted customers who take up position at the bar as lunch service begins. Outside, Olive watches it all from the cold winter streets of St. John’s, near-homeless because she cannot return to an apartment on which she has not paid the month’s rent. The Hazel is a house of cards ready to come crashing down, and a storm is blowing in.

I’m having a hard time doing this novel justice, so let’s start with the positive; Megan Gail Coles can write beautifully, turning out some stark gems of highly polished prose. Everything is carefully described, and her characters are incisively drawn. That being said, I didn’t find this at all pleasant to read. It probably doesn’t help that I started it in early March, as the COVID-19 crisis was picking up steam, and everything was changing by the day. When it was announced on March 13 that Canada Reads 2020 was being postponed, I threw this book down with relief, and didn’t return to it until last week, wanting to finish out the final quarter before the debates aired. With a measure more focus than I had back in March, I was able to handle the widely ranging narration, and the fact that the author eschews quotation marks or dialogue tags, and get past that somewhat to appreciate her characterization and themes.

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club takes place over the course of a single day, divided by the cycle of the restaurant into Prep, Lunch, and Dinner. The narrative perspective shifts at will among the various characters, often descending deep into their stream of consciousness before shifting to the next. Each character is distinctive, some of them employing various degrees of Newfoundland dialect, which helps anchor the sense of place. By and large, these are not pleasant people, and I would be relieved to leave one behind when the perspective shifted, only to find the next person was equally nasty company. It isn’t terribly enjoyable to be inside their heads, but I can’t say the author didn’t warn me. “This might hurt a little. Be brave,” reads the epigraph with which Coles opens the book.

Pulsing beneath the humdrum events of the day is a deep current of misogyny. Toxic masculinity runs rampant amongst the male characters, and as we get to know Iris and Olive, their abuse at the hands of the men around them is slowly revealed. Iris’s ill-advised affair with her boss is crumbling, and John is actively planning how he will gaslight and discredit her if she reveals anything to his wife, Georgina. At the bar, we have Roger and Calv, two long-time friends with a complicated history. The women in his life—from his wife, to his mother, to his sister—are always telling Calv to dump Roger, but he can’t quite seem to cut the cord, even as he becomes increasingly complicit in Roger’s misdeeds. Georgina, known as George, a woman with a man’s name, is also tellingly complicit in her husband’s behaviour; Iris is not the first staff member at her restaurant that John has taken liberties with while she looked the other way.

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by YouTube star Alayna Fender, known online as Alayna Joy. Fender mounted an impassioned defense of her book in the face of deep resistance to the writing style and subject matter, particularly from the male panelists. Both Akil Augustine and George Canyon consistently voted against the book on the first two days of debate, with discussion becoming quite heated. At the opening of the third day, Canyon began by apologizing for chiding the women panelists as “girls, girls, girls,” when his book, From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle, was eliminated yesterday in a vote that broke along gender lines.

Host Ali Hassan focused the third day of debates around setting, character, resilience and hope, while trying to steer the panel firmly clear of the fiction vs. non-fiction debate that dominated day two. This focus on literary elements led to a less contentious debate, and brought up new aspects of the remaining books that had not been previously discussed. Samra from We Have Always Been Here seemed to appeal broadly to the panelists, while Canyon felt there were too many characters in Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club for him to relate strongly to any particular one, which Kaniehtiio Horn echoed. Alayna Fender attempted to parlay this into a strength, arguing in her rebuttal that the beauty of the book lies in the way it ties many stories together, showing how each issue is connected.

The final question of the day addressed resilience, and which book best embodied that idea. Alayna Fender highlighted the resilience of Iris and Olive, but part way through the discussion, host Ali Hassan redirected the panel towards the idea of hope, and what relationship that has to resilience. This seemed to resonate with George Canyon, who felt that Samra from We Have Always Been Here was the character from the remaining books that gave him hope. However, panelist Akil Augustine firmly rejected this idea, saying that hope bears no connection to the work that needs to be done. Alayna Fender also pushed back against the idea of tidy endings, arguing that a happy ending can leave the reader feeling complacent, whereas a more nuanced ending leaves the reader knowing that there is work yet to be done.

After three rounds of debate and discussion, when the ballots were in, and the votes were read, both Akil Augustine and George Canyon stuck firmly to their earlier positions, voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. Defender Alayna Fender, who was obviously not going to vote against her own book, cast her ballot against Son of a Trickster. However, both Amanda Brugel and Kaniehtiio Horn joined the rest of the panel in voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, despite Brugel’s expressed love for the book, thus making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020.

Need to catch up with Canada Reads 2020? Start with Radicalized by Cory Doctorow. 

Canada Reads Along: Radicalized

Cover image for Radicalized by Cory Doctorowby Cory Doctorow

ISBN 978-1-250-22858-1

Content Warnings: Racism, xenophobia, medical horror, police brutality.

 “They’re kids. If they understood risks, they wouldn’t join uprisings and march in the streets and the world would be a simpler place. Not a better one, of course. But simpler.”

Radicalized is a collection of four novellas by author, editor, and technology activist Cory Doctorow, a Canadian-born writer who lives in the United States. His fiction is typically set in the U.S. and deals with issues through an American lens, but with nods and references to Canada. The featured works deal with issues including the circumvention of copyright controls, racial bias in predictive policing software, healthcare insurance loopholes, and survivalist billionaires with more money than they know what to do with. That last story takes on a particular new resonance in the age of COVID-19.

The first novella, “Unauthorized Bread” is an Internet-of-Things horror story about a young immigrant who finds herself on the wrong side of copyright law after jailbreaking her internet-connected toaster, which will only toast bread made by authorized bakeries. This story can be read online for free at Ars Technica if you want to get a taste of Radicalized, and is currently under development as both a graphic novel and a television show. It is a story about the small inconveniences and humiliations of poverty, and being controlled by the technology we supposedly own.

Although these are works of fiction, Doctorow’s subjects generally find their inspiration in real life. The most speculative of the stories is “Model Minority,” a sort of Superman fan fiction about a super hero known as the American Eagle. He has a billionaire playboy defense contractor frenemy named Bruce, and an investigative reporter paramour named Lois. However, the story gets very real when the American Eagle decides to take a stand against a group of racist cops who give a Black man a paralyzing beating, enabled by the justification of predictive policing software. An alien among humans, the Eagle is forced to confront human xenophobia, and consider what price he is willing to pay if he draws this line in the sand.

The darkest story in the collection might be the titular Radicalized, which follows a career man named Joe who learns that his wife is dying of cancer on his 36th birthday. He becomes angry and sullen, especially when their insurance refuses to pay for a treatment the company deems too experimental. Soon he finds an internet message board full of other angry men who have lost wives and children despite being insured. Doctorow’s stories typically feature citizens using privacy technologies to empower themselves against overreaching corporations and governments, but this story follows a plotline whereby the Tor privacy browser and the dark web enable aggrieved citizens to plan acts of terrorism under the cloak of anonymity.

The collection closes with “The Masque of the Red Death,” a post-apocalyptic dystopian short about a billionaire who builds a doomsday bunker in the wilds of Arizona for his chosen few. The central character is Martin, a decidedly unlikeable protagonist who comes to hold the power of life and death over the people he has taken under his dubious protection when a pandemic strikes. Unwilling to contribute to rebuilding, Martin instead focuses on hoarding and protecting resources, fancying that this makes him a good leader. When I read this story in early February, I had little idea how relevant it would soon feel. The tagline of the collection, “Dystopia is now” could hardly be more accurate.

Overall, the stories are less than subtle, and often fairly didactic. For example, in “Unauthorized Bread,” Wye gives Salima an impromptu two page tutorial on public-key cryptography while the two women are riding the train. This is a pet issue of Doctorow’s that also feature prominently in his YA novel Little Brother, and if you want to contact him securely, you can find his public key in his Twitter bio.  In “Model Minority,” Lois delivers a two and a half page diatribe about racial bias in predictive policing, which the author even has her acknowledge as such in the text. The only justification for this is that, while didactic, there are certainly people who will find it more palatable to learn these concepts via fiction, which they might not otherwise seek out or consider. However, many science fiction fans will already be thinking about these issues.

After being postponed in March due to COVID-19, the Canada Reads debates began today in a near-empty Toronto studio with host Ali Hassan and defenders Akil Augustine, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel on-site, while George Canyon and Alayna Fender joined via video link from their homes in Calgary and Vancouver respectively. Radicalized was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by host and producer Akil Augustine, who is known for his work with the Toronto Raptors.

Radicalized was unique at the table in being a collection of novellas, facing off against two memoirs and two novels. Augustine seemed to anticipate that this might be an issue for his book, arguing in his opening statement that one singular story cannot tie together all the many necessary perspectives in the way that a collection can. However, this did not prove to be the focus of his opponent’s arguments. Actor Amanda Brugel brought the first critique, pointing out that three of the four stories in Radicalized were told through the perspectives of angry men, while the one woman of colour protagonist seemed less central to her own story than the toaster (see “Unauthorized Bread”). Indeed, the issue of gender became a flashpoint in the debate, with Augustine arguing that the men in Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club were not well-written and felt flat to him.

The theme for Canada Reads 2020 is “One book to bring Canada into focus,” and host Ali Hassan’s Day One questions focused on asking the defenders how well their books exemplified that theme, and which book at the table was least successful in their opinion. Once again, the debate quickly homed in on Radicalized and Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while the other three books were much less the center of discussion. Skating under the radar on Day One and avoiding an early elimination can be just as critical as a successful defense. Unsurprisingly, the question of whether Radicalized was sufficiently Canadian came up, a common critique in past Canada Reads debates. While Augustine argued that his book helped us to see how the issues we are facing in Canada are part of broader global issues to which we are connected in the modern world, both Alayna Fender and Kaniehtiio Horn argued that the book was not successful at bringing Canada into focus.

When the time came to cast the ballots, the panel split along gender lines, with Akil Augustine and George Canyon voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while Alayna Fender, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel voted together against Radicalized, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020. Akil Augustine remains at the table as this year’s first free agent.