Book Review: Gork, the Teenage Dragon by Gabe Hudson

A couple of disclaimers first:

This book will be released on July 11th by Knopf. I got an Advanced Reading Copy, with no expectation of anything in return.

I did not finish reading this book. I made it to page 92/chapter 12 and gave up.

I knew I wasn’t the target audience of this novel. I don’t read much fantasy and I’m not into “quirky” books. I’m not necessarily against them but quirkiness alone is not enough to hold me. That said, I’m open to new things and the blurbs compared it to Harry Potter and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Plus, it’s about dragons and I loved The Hobbit as a kid.

In the first chapter, our narrator insults Tolkien and The Hobbit in particular, so we we didn’t get off to a great start.

This book is about very advanced dragons. They travel in spaceships, conquering other planets with their advanced technology and fearsome dragon might. Our narrator is Gork, who is sixteen, a recent graduate of Warwings Academy and not a particularly impressive specimen of dragonhood.

So here’s what bugged me about this book and why I gave up on it:

  • There’s so much information thrown at you. Gork knows his reader is potentially unfamiliar with the dragon world and lifestyle so he just tosses out jargon and explanation, one after the other, with no attempt to really craft it into a story. Since the blurb compares it to Harry Potter, I couldn’t help make that comparison in the negative. J.K. Rowling did some amazing world-building but one of the smart things she did is she told the story through Harry’s eyes. And Harry was also a newcomer to the wizarding world and so the information and names and timelines were slowly introduced to the reader. Gork reads more like the author came up with a bunch of stuff he thought sounded cool and wanted to add it all in. In the first 92 pages we are told about nanorobots, AI technology, alternate dimensions, time travel, future prophecies, teleportation…just to name a few. And through all of this, Gork isn’t really even doing anything. He’s in a space ship (sentient, somehow) with his best friend (who is a dragon robot), just spewing facts at us.
  • I became increasingly bothered by the sexism of the storyline. Upon graduating from Warwings Academy, Gork must ask a female dragon to be his queen. When she accepts, they’ll jet off into space together, she’ll lay eggs, and then they’ll find a new planet to conquer. Gork has his sights set on Runcita, who is clearly out of his league. If she says no, then he has to be a slave forever. Primarily, this seems like a really dumb way to run a society. That’s a lot of pressure at sixteen-years-old. Especially when, as Gork tells us, dragons can live hundreds of years. It also doesn’t explain how their home planet functions if only slaves get left behind but maybe that’s expanded on later on. My problem was the way Gork focuses on Runcita as purely an object. A thing with which to advance his own life and to satisfy his physical urges. Yes, he’s a teenage male; yes, they’re dragons. But they’re also obviously intelligent and Gork is narrating this from the future. The more he talked, the more I disliked him. (Also, would dragons really have nipples?)
  • Which brings me to my final point: Gork is really unlikeable. He’s a bad narrator, he’s sexist and violent (ok, again, dragon) and his motivations are unclear. I wasn’t rooting for him and I didn’t care what happened to him. So I stopped reading.

There may be a lot of people out there who like this book. Perhaps readers who delve into fantasy/science fiction more often than me will find this book as funny as it thinks itself to be. I wanted to like it, given its entirely unique premise but there just wasn’t enough there for me.

Book Review: The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese

The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (HarperCollins, 1998)

After a somewhat awkward incident of an acquaintance thinking I’d borrowed his copy of The Tennis Partner almost ten years ago and never returned it, I decided to take it as a sign and actually read the book. (I got it from the library, however.)

Having read Cutting for Stone last year, I already knew Verghese as a talented writer and a medical doctor in his daily life.The books are, of course, very different. While Cutting for Stone is a novel, The Tennis Partner is the true story of Verghese’s friendship with another doctor named David Smith.

In the mid-1990s, Verghese and his family move to El Paso, Texas where he works in internal medicine. I found the setting of El Paso, a city I’m entirely unfamiliar with, to be fascinating. A town bordering Mexico, Verghese manages to show us a city both beautiful and dangerous. Barren but with hidden corners of bounty. Verghese’s work introduces him to many victims of AIDS and drug abuse but he doesn’t immediately recognize his colleague as a drug user.

Smith and Verghese are drawn together by a love of tennis. Smith, an Australian, travelled on the pro circuit while Verghese has simply had a life long obsession with the sport. They find that they make good partners on the court and a friendship springs up. While Verghese navigates through a divorce from his wife, Smith gradually reveals his past addiction and how he has had to start over. While clean at the beginning of the book, it’s clear that there are unresolved issues for Smith, particularly in his relationships with women.

As close as the two men become, Verghese is always slightly removed from Smith’s inner life, often not knowing exactly what’s happening to his friend. At times he seems to have a sort of willful blindness, though it’s not hard to sympathize with someone who wants to see the best in a person he cares about. Verghese is extremely knowledgeable about the mechanics of addiction and drug use, as demonstrated by his work with his patients, and yet baffled by the mental struggle behind addiction. In fact, he comes across rather callously in one section, after Smith has returned from rehab. At times, it seems that Verghese’s concern is more with losing his tennis partner than with what’s best for his friend.

Overall though, the book is a moving and intimate portrayal of medical work and friendship. As with Cutting for Stone, I found that sometimes the medical descriptions delved too deep and, while interesting, left me feeling nauseous. Perhaps readers with stronger stomachs will do better. In a similar manner, there is a lot of detail about tennis in the book. As someone who has never held a tennis racquet in my life, I just didn’t care and found myself skipping over many of these sections, which didn’t detract from the story itself.

Book Review: Everything Was Good-Bye by Gurjinder Basran

Everything was Good-Bye – Gurjinder Basran (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2010)

For most of high school, I lived within walking distance of a Sikh temple in East Vancouver. A lot of my friends were Punjabi and so while there’s still a lot I don’t know about Sikh culture, I’d say I’m fairly familiar with it over all. So I was excited to read Basran’s novel of a young Sikh girl growing up in Delta (a suburb of Vancouver).

Meena is the youngest of six daughters, raised by their widowed mother, and growing up in the often restrictive confines of traditional Sikh culture. While one sister has bucked tradition and run away, Meena’s older sisters have each ended up in arranged marriages and while Meena doesn’t particularly want this, she feels trapped by the expectations of her family. She’s isolated in her school as a minority and befriends Liam, a white boy who is an outcast for other reasons. Their relationship is awkward, halting, and very believable, with all the uncomfortableness and confusion of teenage romance.

I don’t Delta very well but I do know that outside of India, the Vancouver area has the largest Sikh population in the world. So I did find Meena’s isolation a little false. I find it hard to believe that she would be the only Punjabi girl in her school and wouldn’t at least be able to make friends within her own cultural community. It ends up feeling like the author is trying to force her friendship with Liam a little too hard but unnecessarily isolating Meena.

I did really enjoy the first section of the book, while Meena is still in school, trying to figure out how she feels about Liam, what her future will be, and watching the last of her sisters move into marriage. The novel then hops forward in time by several years to Meena in her early twenties. She’s finished university (which we didn’t get to see at all and I think was a missed opportunity), working but still very isolated as she lives with her mother, and being pushed toward her own arranged marriage.

There’s one more jump in time and Meena’s life changes drastically. This change felt realistic, following on what we know about Meena and what she’s narrated to us, as well as what’s come before. The ending, however, felt emotionally manipulative. Aside from being pretty unrealistic, it felt like the author keeping a happy ending from Meena for the sake of avoiding a happy ending.

The setting is great and familiar to readers who know Vancouver and its surroundings and the cultural details are authentic and interesting. Basran doesn’t drown us with them but throws them in as needed and they add to a world that feels genuine and fascinating. Some of it felt familiar to me and others were things I learned for the first time. I haven’t come across a lot of Indo-Canadian writing so I look forward to seeing more from Basran.

Book Review: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown & Co, 2017)

If you’ve read Sherman Alexie’s work before, particularly The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which I reviewed here) then you likely know a bit of Alexie’s story already. His writing is infused with his own life experiences, particularly growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me gets even more intimate as he delves into his childhood, his family, and his relationship with his mother, who died in 2015. It’s complicated, loving, and often sad. Near the beginning of the book Alexie details the story of the night his mother stopped drinking and credits that decision with saving his and his siblings’ lives. His mother paid the bills, kept them fed, and protected them within the volatile environment of the reservation and a loving but alcoholic family. At the same time, she could also be cruel, vindictive, and an awful lawyer. Alike in many ways, Alexie and his mother were often at odds and went years without speaking to each other.

This is also the story of the Spokane people. Of Indigenous people in America. Of a salmon people who have lost their salmon. Of men and women who have grown up amidst loss and violence and poverty. It is Alexie’s story but not his alone. Like Junior in The Absolutely True Diary, Alexie chose to attend high school outside of the reservation, surrounded by white kids. He tells a compelling story of attending a funeral for one of his classmates and realizing how differently death was dealt with on the reservation and off. Most strikingly, Alexie realizes that while he has already been to dozens of funerals, for most of his classmates this is their first up-close experience with death.

The book is an unusual mix of poetry and prose, with short chapters that dip into moments in his life or the history of the Spokane people and then move on to something completely different. The book has a looping, loping feel, often returning to the same topics or moments, clearly the ones that linger in Alexie’s memories.

His honesty is what makes the book. At times it feels like reading someone’s private diaries. Like Alexie’s fiction, it provides a fantastic viewpoint into a life and history that many of us in North America are not as familiar with as we should be. I recommend it for both its quality writing and the important topic of life for many Indigenous people in America today.

Book Review: Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

You know how, as you get older, you begin to realize that your family is maybe not so normal? That all the things they do that you thought were average, might actually be a little crazy? That’s what’s happening to Matty Telemachus.

Sure, Matty’s always known his family is unique. Not many families once travelled the country and performed psychic feats of strength on television. But that’s all years in the past and nobody in the Telemachus family has done anything amazing in years. Until Matty suddenly leaves his body one day and begins to wonder if he might also be an Amazing Telemachus.

Teddy Telemachus is the family patriarch, the driving force behind their once upon a time fame. Teddy met his wife Maureen when participating in a highly secretive government study of psychic powers in relation to the Cold War. Maureen, or Grandma Mo, has been dead for years and her children have largely rejected their own powers. Frankie is something of a low-level con, in debt to the mob and hiding too many secrets from his wife. Irene has just moved back in with her dad, along with her own son, Matty, and struggles to form real relationships because she knows when people are lying to her. And Buddy…well, Buddy might just be the World’s Most Powerful Psychic but he hasn’t spoken much in the last few years and he’s building some kind of weird project in the basement.

This novel is fun and goofy and if you’re willing to suspend belief, it’s a good read. Even aside from the psychic powers, the real world plot is pretty over the top too. The story moves between perspectives of Teddy, Matty, and the three siblings and the sections are pretty balanced in terms of interest and enjoyability. These are strange and flawed people but they’re likeable too and easy to root for. It’s not terribly difficult to see where it’s all going to end up but it’s fun to travel along as Gregory takes us there.

Book Review: Silence by Shusaku Endo

Silence – Shusaku Endo (Picador Classic, 2015)

In the realm of Christian literature, Japan does not loom large. Yet for years, I’ve seen Silence listed amongst the classics. Having finally read it, I find myself both wishing I’d read it years ago and glad that I read it now, in my thirties, with a few years of experience behind me.

The novel begins in the 16th century after Japan leadership has declared Christianity punishable by death and torture. The country is closed to missionaries, leaving those European priests and missionaries already in country stranded and endangered. Quickly realizing that putting Christians to death only creates martyrs for others to follow, the ruling powers work to force Christians to apostatize. They do so by torturing them until they will reject Jesus Christ and stomp on an image of him. (The book deals with Catholic Christianity, meaning that imagery is much more powerful and important to these believers than it may be to a modern Protestant.

The protagonist is a young Jesuit priest, who sneaks into Japan in search of his former mentor, rumoured to have betrayed the faith. We see the story almost entirely from his perspective, from his initial arrival with another priest, hiding in the mountains, to their eventual separation and his arrest. The story is intimate, horrifying, and heartbreaking.

This is a story about the silence of God. I can’t speak to how it might come across to a non-Christian but for me it was moving and, even five hundred years later, painfully familiar. While I have never been persecuted or tortured due to my faith, like most Christians, I have faced a silent God. Based on this book, I suspect Shusaku Endo has faced Him too. This is the question of Silence – what do you do in the midst of suffering when God seems to have turned His back?

The setting of medieval Japan is well-evoked; the peasants living in extreme feudal poverty, the samurais and warlords who rule over them. Endo evokes the extreme differences in these parties, from their power to their dwelling places to what they eat. On the other hand, characterization is slightly thinner. While we are deep inside our central characters mind and spiritual thought, there is almost nothing else known about him. He doesn’t seem to have ever existed before the story began. Likewise, the rest of the characters are shown briefly. Important while on page but hard to imagine otherwise.

For Christians who enjoy literature or readers wanting a fictional glimpse into a Christian experience, I highly recommend Silence.

Book Review: Trust No One by Paul Cleave

Trust No One – Paul Cleave (Upstart Press, 2015)

You may have noticed that I don’t read a lot of mysteries. The very simple reason behind that is that I find them too scary. Overactive imagination + gory tale is not a good combination for me in the middle of the night. However, when my sister-in-law was in New Zealand just before Christmas, she brought me back a selection of fiction and candy unique to NZ and this was one of them. (Books and candy – kind of the perfect gift, right?)

The premise of Trust No One is quite good I thought. Jerry Grey is a successful crime writer, known under the pseudonym of Henry Cutter. He’s made a good living as a writer, has a beautiful wife and an adult daughter. And he’s just been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers.

The book moves through time quite smoothly, returning to Jerry’s early diagnosis and his quick spiral into dementia. This is balanced with scenes of him in the present, living in a nursing home where we know his wife never comes to see him and his daughter no longer refers to him as “dad”. Something has gone horribly wrong and it isn’t just the Alzheimers. Jerry, it turns out, has begun to confess to terrible murders, though many of them sound familiar to fans of Henry Cutter’s novels. And yet, there are some new bodies showing up and Jerry’s become quite good at escaping from the nursing home.

The sections of the novel set in the present were the most interesting. Here Jerry moves between almost total lucidity and a sort of dazed and confused fog. He usually knows who he is but not where he is or what has happened to him in the last year. These sections are interrupted with Jerry’s “Madness Journal”, a record he begins to keep when he is first diagnosed. These sections were largely annoying. First, they’re written in second person which is a ridiculous way to keep a journal and second, they are sometimes written from the perspective of Henry Cutter. And Henry Cutter is a bad writer. Since the entire novel is not poorly written, I have to assume this is a deliberate choice on Cleave’s part. But to what end, I’m not entirely sure. Is he trying to demonstrate that Jerry (and by extension Henry) is not actually a great writer? That his readers only enjoy the violence and fear of his stories? Is Jerry actually a good writer but his dementia has stolen this ability from him? As the story progresses, Henry Cutter becomes almost an alternate identity for Jerry, perhaps one that is taking over his real life and his mind. While an interesting premise, that isn’t quite how Alzheimers works and so clouds the plot as to what is really happening to Jerry.

The story is still entertaining and none of this made me want to give up on it. It’s suspenseful and intriguing enough that I made it through to the end quickly. It’s the ending that drove me crazy. So I’ll warn you that I’m about to give away a spoiler because I need to rant a little.

Spoiler ahead:

Turns out Jerry is being framed. Okay, fine, that makes sense. Where it gets ridiculous though is that Jerry is being framed by two separate and unrelated murderers. That’s right. Two people close enough to Jerry to use him in this way also want to rape and murder women (all of whom match the same generic description). While one of these characters is well established enough that this solution makes sense (and was something I was beginning to suspect), adding in the second murderer is completely ridiculous and discredits the whole plot.

Spoiler over.

So while I didn’t mind the story overall (especially when I skimmed over the parts with Jerry’s journal) the ending completely ruined it for me. There was a lot of potential here for a unique mystery and, in many ways, Cleave succeeds, but overall he hasn’t convinced me to start reading more mysteries.

What I Read – May 2017

Silence – Shusaku Endo (Picador Classic, 2015)

translated from the Japanese by William Johnston

But Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt – this is the realization that came home to me acutely at that time.

(from Silence)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineGail Honeyman (Viking, 2017)

The Collected Stories – Grace Paley (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)

They walked east and south to neighbourhoods where our city, in fields of garbage and broken brick, stands, desolate, her windows burnt and blind. Here, Faith said, the people suffer and struggle, their children turn round and round in one place, growing first in beauty, then in rage.

(from “The Expensive Moment” by Grace Paley

Holding Still for as Long as Possible – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2009)

Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

Trust No One – Paul Cleave (Upstart Press, 2015)

Everything was Good-Bye – Gurjinder Basran (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2010)

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Sceptre, 2016)

The Red Pony – John Steinbeck (Penguin Classics, 2009)

Currently Reading:

Green Mansions – W.H. Hudson

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie

Book Review: Holding Still for as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall

Holding Still for as Long as Possible – Zoe Whittall (Anansi, 2009)

After reading Zoe Whittall’s most recent novel, The Best Kind of People, I was eager to see what her earlier work was like. I enjoyed Holding Still for as Long as Possible and would even go so far as describing it as more realistic than The Best Kind of People. The description on the front flap, however, I would describe as very poor. The book advertises itself as a sort of snapshot of a generation but it’s really a story about three people in a particular time and community. I know this because I’m only slightly younger than the characters and while the blurb wants you to think this is a novel about what it’s like to grow up in the shadow of 9/11, amidst modern technology, when it’s really a story of relationships and how they change as people change.

The story alternates perspectives between Josh, Amy, and Billy (also known as Hilary). Josh and Amy are in a serious but fading relationship. Billy was once a teenage pop idol but now struggles to make it through the day due to anxiety and panic attacks. They live in the same Montreal neighbourhood and their paths begin to cross in a number of ways.

Josh works as a paramedic and the glimpse into his life and schedule – the things he witnesses and the snapshots of lives that he steps into – are the most fascinating part of the novel. It’s a gruelling job and one that begins to take its toll on most paramedics.

Amy is the privileged child, seemingly lacking in nothing, but Whittall does well by showing us Amy’s perspective, which adds some depth to her character and reveals things that not even Josh is aware of.

Billy’s character I initially found difficult. Anxiety has its fingers in everything she says and does and, as someone largely unfamiliar with panic attacks, I found it a bit much. Which, by the end, is the point, I think. It is a bit much, just as it would be for any anxiety sufferer. The disconnect between how Billy saw herself and how others see her is the largest of any of the characters but this actually made for an interesting and nuanced portrayal of how anxiety plays on someone’s fears. From her own perspective, Billy is barely hanging on, nothing special, and generally a complete mess. But when we see her in the eyes of Josh and Amy she’s someone attractive and enviable.

Whittall captures well the sort of driftlessness that can accompany one’s early twenties. Whether in relationships or jobs or passions, there is often an uncertainty of how long can things last? Am I doing this right? Was that the correct choice? How long should I stick this out? When is it too late?

Book Review: 2 Short Story Collections

It’s a bit unfair to lump these two story collections in together but I read them almost back to back and, a few weeks later, am struggling to differentiate them in my mind.

A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015)

A Manual for Cleaning Women and Collected Stories are collections of a life’s worth of short stories by Lucia Berlin and Grace Paley, respectively. Both women are Americans and wrote primarily in the first half of the 20th centuries.While Paley’s stories are set in New York (almost entirely in Brooklyn), Berlin’s roam around the USA, delving into Mexico. They write about the ordinary lives of women, mostly at home, often surrounding their children and their failed relationships. A Canadian comparison might be the stories of Alice Munro, although Munro’s stories end up feeling almost pastoral compared to the crowded apartments of Berlin and Paley.

The Collected Stories – Grace Paley (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2009)

These story collections have two major things in common. The first is that each author leans heavily on their own life experiences. Berlin seems almost to be writing her own autobiography, often naming characters Lucia or delving into stories of her childhood in mining camps and South America. Her characters often have four sons, like Berlin herself did, and are divorced multiple times.

The second characteristic that I found the two collections to have in common was the recurrence of stories. Characters often popped up again and this made both collections have a larger feel, as the reader follows a woman through her life, watches her children grow, her marriage flourish and wilt, her neighbours age and change. It felt like a small challenge to connect the stories together. While they certainly stand as individual tales, the connections definitely add.

Both Berlin and Paley are excellent story tellers and while they’re overall experience of life as women, wives and mothers in the early 20th century doesn’t echo my own in 2017, there are certainly many familiar moments. I would categorize Berlin’s stories as slightly darker – there was one I stopped reading partway through – but I enjoyed each collection and found both of these women an important addition to modern American writing.