BOOK REVIEWS

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

I should have ended things with this book as soon as I grew irritated by our narrator’s navel-gazing. But, I persevered, hoping against hope that at some point, ideally before reaching the book’s finish line, I would find what I was reading to be even remotely intriguing.

At the beginning we have a young woman who is in a car with her relatively new boyfriend. She’s thinking of ending things—by ‘things’ we are led to assume that she’s referring to said relationship with bf—and in doing so she finds herself looking back on her first meeting with Jake. Flashbacks inform us of the kind of person Jake is, their early days together, and their overall ‘dynamic’. Our protagonist—who is so remarkable that I have forgotten her name and I am too lazy to look it up—likes Jake but sometimes she doesn’t. The thoughts that pass through her head are just like ours: she’s worried about sharing her life with him, of having to commit herself to this one person, of being stuck with someone who has quirks that annoy her…as she’s weighing the pros and cons of her relationship with Jake he keeps driving. Their destination is his parents’ place. She pities him for not knowing that she’s thinking of ending things while seeming to want to take things to the next ‘level’. She inundates him with questions, and sometimes he seems weirdly unresponsive.
Relationship dilemma aside, weighing on her mind is the Caller. This person keeps calling her during the night, leaving sinister messages. What truly rattles our MC is that this person is calling from her own number (cue creepy music).
When this couple finally reachers Jake’s parents’ farm, things get ‘spookier’. The parents are odd, the house is ominous, and Jake is acting strange. MC doesn’t mind her business or the warnings that are thrown her way. She goes where she shouldn’t, listens in to other people’s conversations. Mystery Caller keeps calling. MC tells us she’s anxious about the whole situation yet she doesn’t even bother switching off her phone.
We then have a scene in a Dairy Queen, followed by a drawn-out sequence in a high school, and, at long last, an exceedingly unsatisfying end.

The protagonist’s narration is occasionally interrupted by segments focusing on people gossiping about some violently horrific crime. Readers are meant to wonder or care who is the person these people are discussing, what they did, how they are connected to Jake and GF.

As you can tell by the tone of my review, I was not very taken by this novel. The car-drive was boring. Here we have two people having a very ‘normal’ and ‘realistically’ choppy conversation about nothing in particular. Here we have a woman who is rethinking her relationship with her boyfriend, for no reason in particular. Which, yeah, as relatable as these things are, the author seemed so intent on creating this ‘eerie’ atmosphere that I just never got into the story. That conversation that appears now and again about this unknown person who did something bad sounded so stilted and unbelievable that it had the opposite effect of scaring me. That the narrative itself smugly proclaims that what truly is terrifying is the not knowing what’s real and what isn’t did not make me realise that ‘wow, that must be why I feel so afraid! Genius!’ Reid relies on creepy figures and descriptions about maggots feasting on pigs in order to unsettle his readers. To me that isn’t the same thing as blurring the line between ‘real/unreal’.

The ending made little sense but then again that fits with the rest of the novel. Maybe I’m to blame (for keeping my nerve when reading allegedly unnerving books) but even leaving aside the ‘horror’ storyline…what are we left with? An unremarkable narrator whose mediations on the highs and love of dating & love had a deeply soporific effect on me? Not only did the ‘realness’ of her inner-monologue seemed contrived, but her reflections or assertions never truly conveyed any actual feelings on her part. Which maybe it was intentional, given the novel’s supposed twist but I still had to put up with her. And, my god, was she annoying. She kept asking Jake inane questions about his childhood. And of course, when we get to the farm, she receives a Bluebeard kind of warning…and what does she do? Se la va a cercà!
I probably would have ended things with novel sooner if it hadn’t been for the fact that I listened to the audiobook version and the narrator was really good.

MY RATING: 2 out of 5 stars

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Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese

“We become eternal by being held in memory’s loving arms.”

After I read Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk, I was looking forward to reading more of his work. And Ragged Company did not disappoint. Similarly to Medicine Walk, which felt like a long conversation between a dying man and his son, Ragged Company presents its readers with a dialogue-heavy narrative. Amelia One Sky, Timber, Double Dick and Digger are the makeshift family at the heart of this novel. After enduring personal tragedies and hardships they now live on the street, referring to themselves as rounders, where they spend their days drifting from street to street, on the lookout for warm spots, food, and drink. During a particularly cold winter they start seeking refuge in movie theatres, where they find themselves being swept away by the films they watch. They repeatedly come across the same man, a former journalist called Granite, who also views films as an escape. After the loss of his wife and child Granite views films as an escape from the pain of his lonely existence. While not everyone is keen on his presence, Digger for one is particularly against ‘Square Johns’ (that is ‘respectable’ members of society), our rounders form a sort of companionship with Granite.
When Digger picks up a winning lottery ticket, for the value of 13.5 million dollars, their lives are irrevocably changed. Because they don’t have any proper identification they seek Granite’s help. Although their newfound wealth drastically changes their lives and lifestyles, they have difficulty assimilating back into society. They carry their trauma with them, and are all similarly haunted by their past. As each character tries to confront their past actions and mistakes, the bond between our makeshift family deepens. Things don’t go smoothly for all, and at times no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to forgive yourself for the terrible things that you did.
As I said this is a very dialogue-oriented story. Whereas in Medicine Walk descriptions of the natural landscape offer breaks in the father/son talk, in Ragged Company the focus remains on the characters’ conversations and arguments. Still, First Nation beliefs and teachings around spirituality illuminate its narrative.
Although this isn’t an easy or fast read, I loved it. Wagamese has a gift for creating realistic characters, and an ear for dialogue. Although he doesn’t loose himself in sentimentalities he demonstrates careful empathy when writing about his characters’ suffering. Because the story is set in 1980s the films our characters watch and discuss could easily seem dated or obscure, but thanks to Wagamese skill for conveying his characters impressions of these films they don’t (if anything he made me want to watch those films I didn’t know about). Plus Cinema Paradiso gets a mention!
If you happen to have read other books by Wagamese or you watched and enjoyed Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers chances are Ragged Company is the book for you.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Empire of Wild is one of those novels that doesn’t live up to its intriguing premise. There were a few moments that I actually enjoyed, but these were far too few in between. We have a half-baked storyline, some painfully cartoonish villains, a thinly rendered main character, and an unsatisfying conclusion.


Empire of Wild follows Joan who has recently returned to her Métis community in northern Ontario. After a heated argument with her husband, over the land Joan has inherited from her father, he walks out of their home in a huff…and he doesn’t come back. A year later Joan is still desperately trying to make sense of Victor’s disappearance, hoping to glimpse his face every time she goes outside. Although her family initially helped her look for Victor, they have now moved on and urge her to do the same.
When Joan walks into a revival tent for laughs, she doesn’t expect to see her husband. Except the man, a reverend, doesn’t know who she is, and calls himself Eugene Wolff.
Ajean, an older woman from Joan’s community, believes that the Rogarou, a wolf-like creature, may have something to do with what happened to Victor. Joan, convinced that Eugene is Victor, decides to ‘take’ him back, and the person behind the revival isn’t too happy about it.

I really liked the scenes with Ajean. I liked her no-nonsense attitude and her knowledge of Métis lore. Sadly, she only plays a minor role in the story, and the narrative mostly switches between Joan, Victor, and the two ‘bad’ guys. Joan’s nephew had the potential of being a likeable character (he feels left out from his immediate family and has a quirky obsession with Johnny Cash) but there were things he said or did that didn’t really ring true (and made him sound like an older man or a possessive lover). Although the book summary makes it sound as if he really helps Joan in her ‘quest’ to take Victor back, he mainly looks up stuff on the internet for her (and he does this quite later on in the narrative…which is weird given that Joan should have wanted this type of information way earlier in the story).
Joan’s family are also largely overlooked, which is a pity as it would have been nice to read about Joan’s relationship with her mother and siblings. They have two meals together, and that’s about it. Their first meal actually gave us an impression of their dynamics and disagreements (when discussing their job prospects), but this scene was far too fleeting, and I wish the story had remained more focused on Joan’s family.
There were chapters focused on Victor, and these were very short and intentionally confusing (he is the woods). In a way these chapters weren’t actually about him. He’s so out of it that we don’t really gleam anything about what kind of person he is. I think that the story would have benefited from some flashbacks, that way we could have seen Victor and Joan together. But we don’t. And because of that I didn’t really care for their relationship. Joan misses him, sure. Often, however, she seemed to miss having sex with him—which, fair enough—more than him.
After seeing him once at the revival, during this ‘first’ meeting she’s somewhat drunk, she is absolutely certain that this reverend is Victor. She doesn’t wait for proof but immediately plans to win him back by seducing him. Like, really? She doesn’t seem worried about the fact that he could have been brainwashed or possessed, or that he has amnesia. Nah. After this confusing encounter she knows that this man is her husband (I mean, I wish she could have at least considered the twin brother theory) and rather than doing some extensive research, she’s all ‘I’m going to wear my best panties’. Which, yeah. Great plan.
For reasons unbeknown to me, the narrative also follows the two baddies. Rather than making them more believable, these sections consolidated my not so positive view of them. They were painfully clichéd. The ‘evil’ son of German immigrants who possesses only vices (he’s either having, just about to, or finished having sex). The woman is a psychopath who is jealous, petty, and cruel. I didn’t particularly like the ‘slut-shaming’ tone the narrative had when focused on this character.
Speaking of ‘shaming’, most of the time both overweight and underweight characters are described with a certain acerbic or mocking tone. The three young-ish women who have most page time (Joan, Ivy, and Cecile) are particularly disparaging towards each other’s bodies. And part of me really wanted to shake them for it. Given the circumstances they are in, would Joan really have the time to whinge about Joan’s thigh-gap?
I think this book could have been far more interesting and thought-provoking. I wish Dimaline could have explored more in-depth the effects that colonialism, capitalism, religious institutions, the Canadian government have on a community like Joan’s. But she merely scratches the surface by mentioning that indigenous people are being manipulated/forced into giving their lands away. And for the most part the narrative seemed to imply that only cartoonishly bad men are responsible for this.
Joan was an underwhelming character. I only really rooted for her in one scene, where she punches someone who 100% deserved to be punched. Other than that…I found her quite superficial and unlikeable.
The novel is also really obsessed with Joan’s ‘panties’…1) I hate that word 2) why mention them so many times?
The dramatic confrontation at the end was predictable and didn’t really make sense (what’s new?!).

Sadly, this really didn’t work for me. A good premise is let down by an uneventful storyline, one-dimensional characters, and an occasionally cringey prose. If there is a sequel, I will be steering clear of it.
Then again it was refreshing to read a story centred around Métis community that has a supernatural twist. So, even if I didn’t particularly care for this novel, I wouldn’t discourage other readers from picking this one up.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta

“I wondered if all daughters fought with their mothers this way when they grew up.”

Frying Plantain presents its readers with a vibrant coming-of-age. Through the course of twelve chapters Zalika Reid-Benta captures a girl’s transition from childhood to adolescence into young adulthood. But this is far from a conventional Bildungsroman as within each chapter Reid-Benta hones in on a particular moment of her protagonist’s life, playing with perspective and style.
Kara Davis, a second-generation Canadian, feels divided between her Canadian nationality and her Jamaican heritage. Kara lives in Toronto with her hardworking single mother. Everyone Kara knows seems to find fault with her: her relatives, her mother in particular, scold her for her “impertinence”, while her peers often tease her for being too “soft” or a goody two shoes.
In most chapters Kara learns a lesson of sorts. In the opening chapter Kara, who has just returned from a trip to Jamaica, begins to tell a rather tall tale about a pig head to impress her classmates and her neighbourhood’s children (who aren’t as gullible as the white kids). As her story becomes increasingly fantastical, she lands herself in a spot of trouble. In the following chapter, which takes place a few years later, Kara becomes the victim of a cruel prank by her ‘friends’. Another chapter revolves around a somewhat tense Christmas dinner at her grandparents house.
While the chapters can be read as a series self-contained narratives, read as a whole Frying Plantain provides its reader with a detailed and nuanced story of growing up. The fraught mother-daughter bond between Kara and her mother is present at each stage of Kara’s life. This pressure to succeed, to excel, drives Kara and her mother apart. Kara’s mother too has a troubled relationship with her mother. While the tension between these women often results in disagreements and fights, Reid-Benta conveys the love and affection that underlines their ‘difficult’ relationships (mothers wanting their daughters to achieve what they themselves couldn’t).
Reid-Benta vividly renders family tensions, the gap between generations, the self-divide created by Kara’s Canadian nationality and her Black identity. The realism of Reid-Benta dialogues was utterly captivating. During the first chapters I was struck by Reid-Benta’s ability to so accurately portray a child’s mind.
The last few chapters did loose me somewhat as I was more interested in Kara’s early experiences.
Nevertheless this is a great debut novel and I look forward to reading whatever Reid-Benta will write next.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars

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Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese — book reviews

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“In the Ojibway world you go inward in order to express outward. That journey can be harrowing sometimes but it can also be the source of much joy, freedom, and light.”

It is difficult to describe Medicine Walk as a work of fiction as this novel reads like reality. In a gracefully incisive prose Richard Wagamese tells a moving father/son tale. By turns brutally honest and deeply empathetic, Wagamese’s narrative explores the many undercurrents of this complex father/son dynamic. He renders with clarity Franklin Starlight’s tangled feelings—sorrow, rancour, pity—towards his estranged and alcoholic father.

“He wondered how he would look years on and what effect this history would have on him. He’d expected that it might have filled him but all he felt was emptiness and a fear that there would be nothing that could fill that void.”

Set in Canada during the 1950s Medicine Walk follows sixteen year old Franklin, referred throughout the majority of the novel as ‘the kid’, who lives on a farm with his guardian, ‘the old man’. When his father reaches out to him, Franklin finds himself unable to refuse him. Years of drinking have finally taken their toll on Eldon. Knowing his death is imminent, Eldon asks his son to travel alongside him to the mountains, so that he can be buried in the Ojibway warrior way, facing east. Franklin reluctantly embarks on this journey, and as the two make their way into the mountains, old wounds are reopened. He has few memories of his father, and in most of them Eldon appears as a chaotic and disruptive individual, hell-bent on self-destruction and far more interested in staying drunk than acting like Franklin’s father. It is ‘the old man’ who takes on a father role for Franklin. Still, Franklin has clearly suffered, and his relationship with Eldon is strained. It is perhaps his approaching death that makes Eldon finally open up to Franklin.

“His life was built of the stories of vague ghosts. He wanted desperately to see them fleshed out and vital. History, he supposed, lacked that power. ”

As his body begins to shut down, Eldon finds himself recounting his life to Franklin: his childhood, marked by poverty and loss, fighting alongside his best friend in the Korean War, what led to him to a path of spiralling alcoholism and self-hatred, before finally turning to his relationship with Franklin’s mother. Eldon’s troubled past brings about questions of cowardice and bravery, of loneliness and connection.

“The certainty of failure, the landscape of his secrets, became the terror that kept him awake.”

Wagamese’s story hit close to home as Franklin’s confusing emotions towards his father are depicted with incredible realism. Is it fair for Eldon to seek forgiveness when he’s about die? Should Franklin condone him in light of Eldon’s traumatic past? Wagamese doesn’t offer us simplified answers, letting his characters talk it out (with each other and themselves).

“The light weakened. He could feel the thrust of evening working its way through the cut of the valley and he watched the shapes of things alter. The sun sat blood red near the lip of the world and in that rose and canted light he sat there filled with wonder and a welling sorrow. He wiped his face with the palm of his hand and he stared down across the valley. Soon the light had nudged down deeper into shadow and it was like he existed in a dream world, hung there above that peaceful space where the wind ruled, and he could feel it push against him.”

In many ways Medicine Walk feels less like a novel that a long conversation: between a dying man and his child, between a man and his past, and between people and nature. Wagamese compassionate portrayal of addiction and shame, as well as his affecting examination of grief, family, history, forgiveness, and freedom, make Medicine Walk a book of rare beauty.

“He sat on the fence rail and rolled another smoke, looking at the spot where the coyotes had disappeared. The spirit of them still clung to the gap in the trees. But the kid could feel them in the splayed moonlight and for a time he wondered about journeys, about endings, about things left behind, questions that lurk forever in the dark of attic rooms, unspoken, unanswered, and when the smoke was done he crushed it out on the rail and cupped it in his palm while he walked back to the barn in the first pale, weak light of dawn.”

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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