The Power, by Naomi Alderman

First book down of 2019. I was actually hoping to finish it on Dec 31, 2018, but wine and charcuterie took priority that night. No matter, it was a great way to kick off 2019.

The Power is one of those books that fogged my brain into its universe as I was reading it. You know, one of those books that rewires synapses so that your world is overlaid with the fictional world from which you have to tear yourself away to do non-fictional human things like buy groceries, shower, and answer (repeated) direct questions from your partner.

The basic premise is that women have developed a new power to generate and release electricity. A tingle across the skin for pleasure, or a bolt to the temples to kill. Women are suddenly and consistently more physically powerful than men, and the book traces how that plays out. It’s set mainly over a 10-years period leading up to the Cataclysm, and follows 4 main characters as they react to, and shape, this new world.

The language is sharp, the story moves along swiftly but not carelessly, and the main characters are so engagingly written that you root for all of them, all the way through the plot.

What elevates The¬†Power narratively is that the basic premise I mention above isn’t actually the book. The story I outline above is actually a manuscript of historical fiction written by a historian named Neil, who’s tired of the lack of audience for his serious books. He’s sent the manuscript to Naomi, his mentor, for advice, and it’s their letters that frame the story. She finds the male soldiers and gangs described in the old world preposterous, since men are clearly the softer and weaker sex. Women need to be strong to protect their children, so you see that’s only natural, and couldn’t possibly have been another way.

Without this framing, the book would have been an engrossing read; with it, the political commentary is amped up a couple more astute notches.

I loved this book without qualification. For the first half, I felt stronger than every man I saw on the street, and felt a glorious “YES! FUCK YOU!” pulsing in a cloud around me, instead of my general woman-walking-outside vigilance. As the book progressed, and the tide turns, that feeling wilted and rotted on the vine, and I felt slightly nauseous at seeing who I could easily have become. I think Alderman would be pleased.

My 2018 Top 9

Looking back over my Goodreads, I had a really good run of reading in 2018. Of the 104 books I read, I gave 24 a five-star rating. That seems like a pretty high proportion – for comparison, I gave only one book a two-star rating.*

I was really lucky, maybe, or really smart in taking recommendations, or perhaps so excited about reading again that every book seemed like something special. No matter, it worked in favour of my enjoyment.

Narrowing the 24 to 9 wasn’t easy. Getting down to 12 was okay – some fives are more five-y than others. Cutting those last three was painful, though. Which means, for you, that I have actually really thought about why these 9 books are there. They’ve maybe stuck with me through months, or changed the way I think about things permanently, or used language so perfectly attenuated to its purpose that they left me in a fog while I was reading them.

Highly recommended, all of them.

Black Wave, by Michelle Tea
It’s 1999 and Michelle Tea is getting sober while the world ends. But sometimes it’s not 1999? Sometimes the person she’s dating has been gone a long time, sometimes they haven’t even met. It is funny and grim, with Tea’s eye for the telling detail. I read a lot of dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction this year, but this was the only one with a queer twist. It was an early entry for me, and remains one of my favourites because of

Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, by Daniel Heath Justice
I’m glad I read this before I decided to read 100 books, because I read zero non-fiction after that decision, and not reading this would have been a loss. The brillance of using the literatures of various cultures means that Heath is able to draw out some generalizations without ever having to say “Indigenous people believe this.” There’s always another story from another culture to add nuance to a concept, and to move away from reducing hundreds of cultures to “Indigenous culture.” It didn’t add to my knowledge of historical facts, but explained some incredibly important ????

Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis
For months after reading this book I couldn’t look at a dog without giving it a voice of one of the dogs that Alexis so carefully draws. The conceit, that the Greek gods Hermes and Apollo have given dogs human reasoning, could get tired, or seem trite, but it never did. I recommended it to some dog-lover friends of mine, and then almost immediately took that back, because the world of dogs and gods is not kind.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
The only historical fiction on this list, and, to be honest, the only historical fiction I read during the year. Generally not my thing, but Homegoing blew away all my pre-/mis-conceptions. Spanning several hundred years, it tells the story of Ghana, of the US, of wars and slavery, through short chapters narrated by of the descendants of one woman, Maame. Gyasi is stunningly able to bring all the characters to life. If you dislike short stories, this may not be for you, since each chapter stands on its own, as well as building the central narrative; an absorbing read for the rest of us.

Brother, by David Chariandry
Heartbreaking. The story is set around Michael and his older brother Francis, though it is the return of Aisha, Michael’s childhood sweetheart, who sets the waves of memory and regret to crossing and re-crossing each other. Michael’s love and awe of his brother is captured perfectly, the fear he feels for his mother as a child is tempered with an adult’s understanding of what it would have been like for her to immigrate from Trinidad to Canada.

Son of a Trickster, by Eden Robinson
I’m a huge fan of magic realism, and Robinson wields a deft hand in its use here. Jared is a regular 16-year old, except for the fact that ravens speak to him and otters with human hands try to eat his appendages. He gets by with humour, booze and drugs, and the love of a witchy woman. Robinson’s writing isn’t flashy, but lets the story shine through. I’ve got the next installment in the trilogy on my library holds list.

Little Fish, by Casey Plett
Set in Winnipeg in November and December, Little Fish follows Wendy Reimer, a thirty-year-old trans woman, as she grapples with her Oma’s death, her Opa’s sexuality, love, booze, work, and the ups and downs of being part of a small queer community. Wendy is so clearly drawn that I spent most of the book wanting to hug her or cheer her on. Winnipeg is written with a vibrant love. I loved Plett’s collection of short stories, A Safe Girl to Love, and am very much looking forward to whatever comes next.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward
Another magic realism entry for the list. Few books make me want to curl around them and cry, but this one did. It’s a story centred around 13-year old Jojo and the ghosts he sees, some of them flesh-and-blood, some as apparitions. Every one in his family hurts and loves and tries their best and fails and tries, and Ward captures this with a wide eye, and an empathy that allows her perception to move through characters like breath.

Heart Berries: A Memoir, by Terese Marie Mailhot
Sometimes you love a book because it is comforting. Sometimes because it’s completely new, and sometimes because it breaks open something you thought was set within you and shows you where to go. Heart Berries is the latter for me. Mailhot’s writing, for me, evokes Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, in all its poetic and incandescent, slightly melodramatic glory. Feel things! Feel them to their edges and write them down, especially where they hurt. Heart Berries and By Grand Central cover some of the same ground, in that both are centred around the love for unworthy men, but Mailhot doesn’t shy away from her place in the world as an Indigenous woman: how she sees herself, how the world sees her, and how she sees herself through the world. A brilliant, emotional read.

*It was Parker Posey’s You’re On An Airplane. With her? No thanks.