Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

“To seek vengeance and power instead of cowering when the world punishes you. That’s what they think evil is, do they not?”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 416 pages.
Read from March 2, 2021 to March 4, 2021

My final read of the five Canada Reads 2021 selections. I managed to read all the books in time but I’ve been very behind on my reviews of late, apologies. In the CBC Canada Reads Facebook group, a lot of people didn’t jive with this book but it managed to make it to day three in the debates which, I thought was a good run for this book.

The title of this book is quite literal in that it’s about the henchmen and women that help out supervillains. While the plot sounds like a cheesy comic book this story was anything but. If you have watched The Boys on Amazon Prime, this book is placed in a very similar world with similar dark tones and humour, especially as both plots both look at how the heroes are not always the good guys.

Anna works as a Hench and at first, it isn’t because she wants to but because she has to. She is barely scraping by and paying her bills, living in a ramshackle apartment. Often scrambling and fighting for temp work through agencies, Anna’s skill set is on data and organization. It’s often tedious and underpaid work but she’s pretty damn good at it. She is meant to work behind the scenes but one of her temp jobs accidentally puts her in front line danger she is nearly killed by a superhero, becoming just another piece of collateral damage in the fight between superheroes and villains. After the incident, Anna has months of recovery to get through and a permanent limp, and what does she get for it all? She gets laid off. With no money and no home, a friend takes her in. She spends her immobile recovery time looking into the data about how many others have been injured or have died as a result of a superhero, after all, data is what she is good at. What she finds is staggering and she plans to use this new data she has found. Her research eventually gets her hired by one of the most notorious supervillains in the world. Driven by anger, she becomes the absolutely best in using this data to manipulate heroes and the media, earning her top-ranking respect from her employer. She also starts to incur her own fame within the villain circle. She may be working for a supervillain but her work may also be able to finally right some wrongs.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It’s smart, witty, dark, and full of sarcasm. It’s an anti-hero story done right and is a refreshing take on the old superhero tropes. All the characters are immensely relatable and the writing is well organized and a pleasure to read. I suppose if you’re not into anything comic or superhero-related this book may not have spoken to you but I think that the character work made this story highly accessible to most readers. I’m not overly into superheroes but I enjoy a good fantasy novel so this story ticked quite a few boxes for me. SPOILER WARNING: I think one of the best-executed parts of this story was the unsaid romance Anna had with her supervillain employer. As a reader, you spend more than half the novel wondering if she has feelings for him as it’s not explicitly brought up for a long time and nothing physical ever happens between them. Anna’s boss is one of the most elusive characters in the book and this strategy really helped build up the tension of their relationship and was a pleasure to read: END OF SPOILER.

In terms of the theme for Canada Reads 2021, “One Book to Transport You”, I definitely felt transported. While it may not have been a world I wanted to live in, per se, I sure loved Anna and her crew and was very much invested in her story. I feel that in comparison to the other books in the debates that it was voted off appropriately on the third day as it was about where I ranked it as well.

Overall, a well organized story that was a lot of fun to read. Highly recommend this read for superhero, comic, and fantasy-lovers.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

You will be scared. But you won’t know why…

4/5 stars.
ebook, 183 pages.
Read November 16, 2020 to November 19, 2020.

If you have read this book and want to watch the Netflix show, DO NOT WATCH IT. I mean, even if you haven’t read the book I wouldn’t recommend watching the show. It was overly artsy, extremely drawn-out, boring, and missed all the best aspects and feel of the book. However, the book, I assure you is worth reading so just stick with that. A friend recommended this book, and when I first started reading it began as a typical relationship-based fiction but then, oh man, was I in for a surprise.

Jake and his girlfriend are on a road trip to meet Jake’s parents for the first time. The narration is from the girlfriend’s perspective and takes on a stream of consciousness approach as she ruminates about ending the relationship during the snowy ride over the family home.

“I’m thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It’s always there. Always.

Jake once said, “Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.”

And here’s what I’m thinking: I don’t want to be here.”

Outside of a strange reoccurring phone call and message the girlfriend keeps receiving, the road trip itself seems fairly normal until the couple gets to their destination. From there the narrative begins to show frays before completely unravelling during the detour on the trip home that finds Jake and his girlfriend trapt and lost in his old high school. As the girlfriend’s thought process progresses, she explores the inner depths of the psyche that covers everything from existentialism, intelligence, death, being alone, relationships, and mental illness.

“People talk about the ability to endure. To endure anything and everything, to keep going, to be strong. But you can do that only if you’re not alone. That’s always the infrastructure life’s built on. A closeness with others. Alone it all becomes a struggle of mere endurance.”

As the story spirals you come to realise that there is more to story than was initially present. The narrator becomes increasingly unclear all while you’re being sucked into this terrifying psyche. It’s a masterful psychological thriller that allows you to enter the mind of someone on the edge of ruminating between their perceived failings in life and the choice of death.

“What if suffering doesn’t end with death? How can we know? What if it doesn’t get better? What if death isn’t an escape? What if the maggots continue to feed and feed and feed and continue to be felt? This possibility scares me.”

I was on the absolute edge of my seat reading the last quarter of this book. I wasn’t sure if I wanted it all to end while also wanting to get through the anxiety-inducing plot as quickly as possible. It’s not often a book can produce that kind of effect, which is exactly what the Netflix show lacked, especially because it threw in random dance sequences and musical numbers at the pinnacle part of the story that was supposed to be terrifying. Needless to say, I vehemently hated the Netflix adaptation. The book is short, immensely poignant, brilliantly written. It can feel slightly convoluted at times because it’s hard to follow some of the thought processes as the plot comes undone but the feeling this book creates is consistent and remains long after you’ve finished reading. The story pulls you in until you find yourself within its inescapable hole. Arguably, I could also see why some people may not have enjoyed it for the same reasons.

I would recommend this book for those who enjoy psychological fiction and thriller and thought-provoking plots with a thriller or horror twist.

Mãn by Kim Thúy

“I offer you
The life I have not lived
The dream I can but dream
A soul I’ve left empty
During sleepless nights”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 153 pages.
Read from September 30, 2020 to October 6, 2020.

After reading Ru, the winner of the 2015 Canada Reads debates I was interested to see what else Thúy had to offer. This was also a nice short read to help me catch up on my reading goal for 2020.

This is the story of Mãn, a girl born in war torn Vietnam and how she came to under the care of three different women and what brought her to Montreal, Canada. She dutifully marries a Vietnamese restaurateur in Montreal and finds that she has a passion and knack for cooking. The food brings back memories of her home and the people who visit the restaurant come for this same taste of nostalgia and emotion. While she is the ever dutiful wife, she has little in common with her husband and they barely know each other. She is not unhappy, yet there is a void in her life that is missing, a divide between her life in Vietnam and her life in Canada. When Mãn meets a French chef and begins a passionate love affair, she discovers the elements in her life that she was missing and begins to connect the pieces of her life and story.

This book is a slow burner that peaks with intensity brought from Mãn’s food and eventually the passion she shares with her lover. The writing is beautiful, illicit, and moving. While not as potent as Ru this short novel is a great example of Thúy’s writing style and capabilities. It mixes prose in the languages of both Vietnamese, French/English (depending on the version you read) in a masterful collaboration through the book that compliments the plot and feel of the book.

Based on some of Thúy’s own personal history it’s easy to speculate that perhaps there is some truth in Mãn’s story as the plot is so emotive. Thúy herself arrived in Montreal from Vietnam in 1979 when she was only ten years old. While I would say that I still preferred Ru this was still a welcome read and a great introduction to Thúy and her writing.