Brief Thoughts: Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

Son of a Trickster

Everyone knows a guy like Jared: the burnout kid in high school who sells weed cookies and has a scary mom who’s often wasted and wielding some kind of weapon. Jared does smoke and drink too much, and he does make the best cookies in town, and his mom is a mess, but he’s also a kid who has an immense capacity for compassion and an impulse to watch over people more than twice his age, and he can’t rely on anyone for consistent love and support, except for his flatulent pit bull, Baby Killer (he calls her Baby)–and now she’s dead.

Jared can’t count on his mom to stay sober and stick around to take care of him. He can’t rely on his dad to pay the bills and support his new wife and step-daughter. Jared is only sixteen but feels like he is the one who must stabilize his family’s life, even look out for his elderly neighbours. But he struggles to keep everything afloat…and sometimes he blacks out. And he puzzles over why his maternal grandmother has never liked him, why she says he’s the son of a trickster, that he isn’t human. Mind you, ravens speak to him–even when he’s not stoned.

You think you know Jared, but you don’t.

★★★½Goodreads | Chapters 

I received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

  • My thoughts on Son of a Trickster mostly focus on the perils of basing expectations for one book on another book.
  • Two things drew me to this book: Eden Robinson (Haisla First Nation author) + magical realism. I previously read and enjoyed Robinson’s Monkey Beach.  Son of a Trickster stars teenage boy Jared, who differs greatly from Monkey Beach’s adult woman Lisa (what an astute observation, Jenna). I didn’t realize how much my enjoyment of Monkey Beach depended on Lisa until I started Son of a Trickster. Jared is a great character but not one with which I personally connect.
  • When I read Monkey Beach, I did not anticipate any magical realism. Only when I finished the book and participated in a group discussion did the term come up to describe the story. I personally wouldn’t have described the book as magical realism, although technically that’s what it was (to me it was a lot more real than magical). I only remembered all this when I looked back on my review a few minutes ago. 😛 In contrast, I had high expectations for the magical realism in Son of a Trickster. I lifted expectations for Son of a Trickster from Monkey Beach without considering the obvious differences between the books.
  • The jacket description above describes spot-on the content of Son of a Trickster. It’s my bad for expecting more magical realism in this tale. A virtual footnote in the summary translates to a relatively minor role in the story. Jared’s ‘magical’ abilities start to have a serious impact on the story about two thirds of the way in. I liked exploring particular Indigenous beliefs and culture through Jared’s eyes, as he learns bit by bit about what he can see and about his family’s background (Jared is “part ‘Namgis, part Heiltsuk”). I would definitely describe Son of a Trickster as magical realism, in a way that I wouldn’t describe Monkey Beach. But Jared’s story is really about family relationships. The ‘magic’ is just a means to explore that topic. And I suppose that’s generally how you might describe magical realism (you could argue Monkey Beach is the same way), but I’m always hoping the magical elements will be more of a focus. Honestly, as I type this out, I can imagine someone who’s read this book being aghast and saying the magic plays a lot more significant role, but that’s how it felt to me. I have the impression that the next books in the trilogy will delve more into Jared’s family background and abilities. Son of a Trickster does have something of an introductory story line vibe to it.
  • To summarize, Son of a Trickster did not match my misguided expectations, but it is by no means a poor book. Here are some reasons you might enjoy it:
  • Jared is an engaging main character. I kept reading because I wanted to know what he would do next. He really is just a kid trying to make do with an awful situation. Like the description says, he “has an immense capacity for compassion”. Most of the adults around him are disasters, often causing me to grit my teeth and roll my eyes (ugh, his Mom). He’s not an angel, but despite his poor circumstances, Jared remains a good kid, guided by good intentions. There are some moving moments in the story where I found myself thinking, “Geez, he really is just a 16 year old kid” despite the partying, drinking, etc. he gets into. If you love reading about dysfunctional families – you will love this book.
  • My favourite strength of Robinson’s is her ability to created vivid and believable settings. She does an excellent job of translating her personal experience and knowledge of real world places onto the page. (Son of a Trickster is set in her hometown of Kitimaat, in northern British Columbia, with many scenes also taking place on the nearby reserve).
  • The book contains many specific cultural references, so much so that you can easily pin down the time period of the story. Examples include Idle No More protests, songs such as Red Skin Girl and Like A G6, and debates over the best Doctor in Doctor Who. The text message exchanges between Jared and various characters felt real, not constructed. Sometimes specific references irk me. In this case, I found they added realism to the story.
  • The Bottom Line: Overall, this book is a solid addition to the field of Indigenous literature. The representation of Indigenous youth like Jared and his friends is something the field could always use more of. The magical realism aspect of the story adds another layer of culture and intrigue to something that might read too bleak. Recommended for fans of Indigenous literature, dysfunctional families, or kids trying to do their best they know how. I’d also recommend this for teens -there’s a lot for them to enjoy here.

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Read Diverse 2017
This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

Review: The Witches of New York by Ami McKay

Cover of The Witches of New YorkAuthor: Ami McKay
Title: The Witches of New York
Format/Source: ebook/Netgalley (hardcover since purchased)
Published: 25 October 2016
Publisher: Knopf
Length: 504 pages
Genre: Magical realism/historical fiction
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, cover caught my eye
Rating: ★★★★½
GoodReads | Indigo | The Book Depository

 

I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Is there a better feeling than when you accurately judge a book by its cover? I requested The Witches of New York on NetGalley solely because of the cover.  I have since purchased a copy. This is one of those editions that reminds me how beautiful books can be. If the image above intrigues you, then you probably don’t need to read the rest of my review – go grab a copy now and enjoy. Ami McKay has penned an excellent tale about three witches living in 1880 New York City. I am already crossing my fingers for a follow-up tale. Here are six reasons why this book is one of my favourites of 2016.

6 Reasons Why You Should Read The Witches of New York

  1. The witches, of course (Eleanor St. Clair, Adelaide Thom, and Beatrice Dunn) – I loved the characterization of these three ladies. They each felt deeply real to me, with their flaws and mannerisms and talents. I felt as though they were real people the author might have known. I rarely connect so well with one character, let alone three. I also appreciated how, despite their differences and disagreements, they always cared for each. It would be easy to reduce them to stereotypes in an attempt to briefly describe them, but Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice are much more than that. (Plus, they all have charming names.)
  2. Feminine magic – I have recently discovered that I enjoy stories of feminine magic, where women have their own special power and work fight the patriarchy. That is not a sentence I would have written even just two years ago. I am a novice feminist when it comes to literature (see note after the list for more about feminism in this tale). But I do know that I loved the magic in this book. McKay differentiates the witch’s talents. Their magic felt real to me; I believe in it while reading the story (and I think that ties in to my point above about the realness of the characters).
  3. Historical context – McKay strikes the perfect blend of historical fiction and magical realism for me in this tale. The Witches of New York sits neatly in history, as McKay incorporates things such as the installation of Cleopatra’s Needle, the Victorian interest in spiritualism and science, and of course women’s rights. The witch’s magic fit snugly in the setting McKay crafts.
  4. Supporting characters –  I haven’t mentioned Dr. Brody, who wants to work with Beatrice to test her abilities and who may have a crush on Adelaide and who is an actually lovely man. The Reverend functioned well as the villain of the tale. (I get squirmy and angry when I think about the twisted logic people like him use to justify their actions.) He may be a one-dimensional character, but this isn’t his story. He symbolizes what’s working against women in society.  There are additional characters who we occasionally read passages about. I like stories like this where threads about seemingly unconnected people come crashing together.
  5. Additional texts  – Included throughout the book are bits of news, snippets of spells, excerpts from writings about witches, and other ephemera. These are nicely integrated into the text (both the physical book and the narrative) and give the story a little more flavour.
  6. Hints of more to come?? – While the story works fine as a stand alone, there were a few things not entirely explained that I would love to read more about. Not to worry, the plot is largely tied up in this volume, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel! Adelaide features as her younger self Moth in McKay’s The Virgin Cure, so there’s always that to check out in the mean time.

I haven’t really discussed the feminist aspects of this story. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about how this book can be considered feminist literature until I attended an ‘Evening With’ event with Ami McKay. The area was packed with women. The discussion focused on the persecution of female witches by a patriarchal society,  and how relevant this book is today (especially in context of the US election, which happened two days before the event). I appreciated the discussion as it expanded my understanding of the story. I want to learn more about the role of witches and their treatment throughout history. Can you recommend any great books (fiction or non-fiction) about historical witches?

The Bottom Line:

Ami McKay is spot on when she describes her book as “historical fiction with a twist—part Victorian fairy tale, part penny dreadful, part feminist manifesto”. Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice make The Witches of New York a 2016 must read.

Further Reading:

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Review: A Song to Take the World Apart by Zan Romanoff

Author: Zan Romanoff
Title: A Song to Take the World Apart
Format/Source: ebook/Publisher
Published: 13 September 2016
Publisher: Knopf
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA with touch of magical realism
Why I Read: Cover + comparison to Leslye Walton and Jandy Nelson
Rating★★★½
GoodReads IndieBound | Indigo | Amazon
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Hanging out with Chris was supposed to make Lorelei’s life normal. He’s cooler, he’s older, and he’s in a band, which means he can teach her about the music that was forbidden in her house growing up. Her grandmother told her when she was little that she was never allowed to sing, but listening to someone else do it is probably harmless— right? The more she listens, though, the more keenly she can feel her own voice locked up in her throat, and how she longs to use it. And as she starts exploring the power her grandmother never wanted her to discover, influencing Chris and everyone around her, the foundations of Lorelei’s life start to crumble. There’s a reason the women in her family never want to talk about what their voices can do. And a reason Lorelei can’t seem to stop herself from singing anyway.

I have to admit, I was completely baited in to read this book by the comparisons to I’ll Give You the Sun and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. Those novels are two of my favourites in young adult, a category I’m very picky about. I didn’t expect A Song to Take the World Apart to stand up to those two books, but if it was even just a bit like the two, then I could see myself enjoying it. In general, I enjoy magical realism and mythical creatures and ocean settings, and I’m interested to see what can be done with them in a contemporary setting. At first, I wasn’t sure how the plot was going to go. The story starts out a bit slow and very much as typical teen romance. But as Lorelei’s abilities began to play into the plot, the story took on a more serious tone and became the kind of YA I adore.

What I liked most about this book is that the story isn’t just about first love. It’s also about love between friends and family. Lorelei’s best friend Zoe was one of my favourite characters in the book. She helps to ground Lorelei. Lorelei’s brothers, parents, and Oma also play a significant role in the story, just as important as Lorelei’s love interest Chris. Where the story is about teen romance, I appreciated how realistic it felt. I also appreciated how other characters reminded Lorelei that her high school romance was just that – a high school romance, of the sort rarely built to last. I’ve noticed some reviews crying ‘instalove!’ but for me, the development of Lorelei and Chris’ relationship was very natural and how I would expect a young relationship to grow, from my experience. I was so pleased they didn’t get a fairy tale ending. That relationship played out like I wanted it to. With regards to the relationships, I think that’s where this book finds some comparison with I’ll Give You the Sun. The relationships here aren’t as strong or striking but I think they’re just as real.

I also liked how Lorelei experiments with her ability and doesn’t fully know how to control it or use it. She gets caught up in it, as you might expect her to. She has darker moments of negativity where she allows her to use her abilities impulsively and selfishly, as she can’t really imagine the consequences. I thought this worked well as a something of a metaphor for growing up and realizing or learning how we can manipulate ourselves and others for our own greedy desires, even when we’re trying to be decent people. I think this is why I enjoyed the book. It’s not really a love story. It’s a story about growing and finding yourself.
 
When I think of Ava Lavender, I think of the particular and lovely prose. The prose here doesn’t really hold up to Ava Lavender. It’s standard contemporary YA stuff. But there are some great moments, particularly in 1) the descriptions of how Lorelei feels when singing and in 2) some dialogue that captured important concepts.  I wondered how the music scenes would play out, as listening to music can be such a unique and individual experience. Not to mention it’s a very physical thing! Reading a description of music is nowhere near the same as listening to that music. However, Romanoff doesn’t try to describe exactly how or what Lorelei sings. She instead describes the emotions of the experience, which she does very well. As for the dialogue, there were moments that touched on topics I considered important, things that maybe teens don’t hear or talk about enough. That being said, I was frustrated that Zoe and Lorelei (and Lorelei and Chris) don’t have any frank discussions about their relationships. Chris just becomes Lorelei’s boyfriend, without any talk about it. There’s a scene between Lorelei and Chris that I thought implied sex but later on when Lorelei speaks with Zoe, there’s talk about how Lorelei might be jealous because Zoe had sex before Lorelei, and Lorelei doesn’t comment on her own experience (of course the word sex is never actually used). I don’t like the dancing around the subject, though I suppose it is realistic. At that age everything is new and exciting and therefore a bit scary too.

The Bottom Line: Overall, Romanoff makes a solid debut with this contemporary YA tale and its good twist of magical realism. I recommend A Song to Take the World Apart for those who love high school setting YA but could use a little shake-up.

Further Reading:

Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Format/Source: Paperback/Purchased
Published: March 2016
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton 
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Short stories (literary/magical realism)
Why I Read: Favourite author
Read If You: Like new and fresh short stories, with a hint of the surreal about them
Rating★★★★½ 
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is Helen Oyeyemi’s debut short story collection. The book contains a number of excellent tales that demonstrate her maturing talent. Her prose exemplifies this growth best. This is the first time I’ve followed a young author’s works as they are published, and been able to experience the evolution of their writing. White is for Witching (which Oyeyemi published in 2009 at 25 years old) will always be my favourite Oyeyemi tale, but a distinct difference exists between that story and the ones in WINYINY. I feel that Oyeyemi’s prose has become even more of what it was – she has grown into her style (and will hopefully continue growing).

Mr. Fox is also, to some extent, a ‘short story’ collection. Mr. Fox‘s stories strongly connect through an overarching storyline and characters. WINYINY‘s stories do connect, but in a far looser manner. Some characters who feature in their own story may receive a brief mention in another. My understanding of WINYINY will likely benefit from rereading – for the individual stories themselves, and for how they connect together.Overall, I enjoyed WINYINY a lot more than Mr. Fox. I didn’t find myself enjoying any story less than the others.

Oyeyemi’s vivid creativity impresses me. I could hardly begin to imagine stories like the ones she pens. Her writing doesn’t usually take grand or unexpected turns. Her creativity exists in something more refined than that, little details or small turns in action that truly fuel the story. I thought about giving an example, but that spoils the effect. All the stories in WINYINY exemplify that creativity.  It imbues her stories with something refreshing, allowing their reader to feel like they’ve experienced something new (at least for this reader of few short stories).

All of Oyeyemi’s works demonstrate diversity, and these stories feature a varied cast of characters. Just as she did in White is for Witching (which features an interracial lesbian couple),  the ‘diverse’ aspects of the character’s feel natural and almost incidental (not in a bad way) to the story. Sexuality and racial identity are not used as token diversity markers. But, the stories would not be the same without these aspects of identities. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is, Oyeyemi has found the balance between writing diverse characters who are only their diversity and writing diverse characters who are wholly separate from their diversity.

On that note… If you’re familiar with Boy, Snow, Bird, you may recall the problematic portrayal of a trans character. This collection contains one minor trans character in “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society”, whom I identified mostly from this statement: “Pepper wasn’t always on the surface, but whether [Day] was with Pepper as Pepper or Pepper as Michael, Day had found one she’d always be young with […]”. Day initially meets and dates Michael, who transitions to Pepper. This transition is not a major plot point or a catalyst for another character’s development. I think Pepper’s portrayal is realistic and not transphobic, but I would be interested to hear a trans person’s opinion on the portrayal of a trans character in this story vs in Boy, Snow, Bird.

The Bottom Line: Though I understand Oyeyemi’s work is not for everyone, I recommend this collection for those who are curious about her writing. Her creativity and prose are at their strongest in the stories of this collection.

Further Reading:

Brief Thoughts on Some Fables

During last week’s Bout of Books, I read two books that you might call fables. The Magician’s Elephant is an extended middle grade fable, while Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day puts a contemporary, speculative twist on the fable form.

  • The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
    • Rating: ★★★½
    • Goodreads | Indiebound | Chapters | Amazon 
    • Kate @ Bookish Illuminations review | NY Times review
    • My first time reading something by Kate DiCamillo
    • A cozy tale, perfect for a winter’s night with a big mug of hot chocolate. I took comfort in the slow, quiet story with its pleasant characters. 
      • I liked how the police officer Leo Matienne, down on the sidewalk, would talk to Peter up in his apartment and call him “little cuckoo bird  of the attic world” (79).
    • DiCamillo writes gentle yet evocative prose. She creates a charming setting of an Eastern European town long ago. I can’t imagine the tale in any different setting.
    • In the author description, DiCamillo shares that she “wanted, needed, longed to tell a story of love and magic”. She succeeds in this task.
    • The handful of full-page illustrations by Yoko Tanaka suit the story well.
    • One dark moment when the elephant decides she wants to die startled me.
    • This is not a tale for everyone – certainly not if you don’t like ‘novel-length fables’, as one Goodreads review describes it, but it delighted me. Admittedly, even for me this was a mood book. I tried it previously and couldn’t get into it. I’m not sure what a 10 year old would make of this story (too dull?). While not particularly exciting, and not particularly deep, you may find this a pleasant little tale.
  • Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory
    • Rating: ★★★
    • Goodreads | Indiebound | Chapters | Amazon
    • From the publisher: “This collection of wry and witty, dark and perilous contemporary fables and tales is populated by people – and monsters and aliens and animals and inanimate objects – motivated by and grappling with the fears and desires that unite us all.”
    • A brief and easy read containing 40 small tales (averaging perhaps four pages), it’s hard not to recommend this even though many of the stories fell flat for me. You’ll probably find a few tales to adore and even if you don’t, reading the entire book won’t have taken much of your time.
    • The first tale – “The Book” – convinced me to sign this out from the library. It’s my favourite in the collection.
      • Other stories I really liked: “The Tunnel”, “Bigfoot”, “The Little Girl and the Balloon”, and “The Poet”
      • A few stories aren’t suited to my tastes, such as “The Man and the Moose” and “The Octopus”. I suppose I don’t like animals that fit in just as normal humans/talking animals.
    • I enjoy the atmosphere and style (dreamy, fog induced) of all the stories, if not the substance. I like the absence of names and succinct, matter-of-fact prose. I like the open ended-ness of most of the tales. I can barely tolerate open endings in long-form fiction, but I love it in short-form.  Loory’s stories are bare bones fables, containing just enough to fire your imagination. I can fill in the gaps however I like and if I can’t fill them in to my satisfaction, then I can take comfort in imagining that the author knew just what was happening in their tale even if the reader can’t figure it out. These are just the kind of stories you might expect from a collection with this title. Though they do not explicitly interconnect, their themes and moods fit well beside each other.
    • All that being said, some of the stories don’t manage to pull off what the most successful do. The sparseness doesn’t satisfy; the oddness feels a bit too weird; my imagination needs a few more tidbits to be satisfied.
    • Why three stars? I liked this collection, some stories more than others, and the writing is my style, but the tales themselves didn’t really click any deeper for me. Probably a good read if it intrigues you at all, but nothing deeply memorable for me.

Once there was a man who was afraid of his shadow.
Then he met it.
Now he glows in the dark. (58)