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.

Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

“Hold it gently, this hungry beast that is your heart. Feed it well.”

5/5 stars.
ebook, 441 pages.
Read from February 21, 2021 to February 24, 2021.

I’m finally starting to catch up on the Canada Reads selection for this year, hopefully just in time for the debates happening soon. This is book three of five of the Canada Reads 2021 contenders. Roger Mooking is championing Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi in the debates taking place on March 8-11.

Butter Honey Pig Bread begins in Lagos with a young Kambirinachi, an Ogbanje, who is a spirit that causes misfortune to a family by being born and then dying as a child, unwilling to commit to the world of the flesh and causing misery to the humans that she affects. This changes one day when she decides to stay and live as a human. This choice however, does not come without consequences. The book follows Kambirinachi through her youth, how she finds love, that then gives birth to her twin daughters, Kehinde and Taiye. The story progresses through her daughters stories and the traumas that tears them apart. Kehinde’s childhood trauma causes her distance herself and blames her sister resulting in her running off to Canada where she becomes an artist and meets her husband. Taiye also runs off but to England where she covers her guilt and loneliness in one-night stands and benders. Taiye finds some reprieve in cooking and eventually pursues a cooking certification in Halifax, Canada. Each member of the family is haunted by the past and they can’t avoid each other forever. After Taiye returns home to take care of her mother in Lagos, Kehinde returns for a visit so that her family can meet her new husband, each are eager but reluctant to reconcile.

This is one of the most beautiful and moving books I’ve read in the last few years and it reached me in ways I didn’t anticipate. It’s a story of forgiveness, friendship, love, and family that spans across three countries with a whimsical touch from the addition of Kambirinachi’s real self as an Ogbanje. I cried at the story’s climax and conclusion as the writing had me absolutely captivated and captured in this world and characters. I was more engaged with Taiye’s struggles that circle around her tumultuous and non-committal love life that allows her to neglect her own feeling of guilt. Taiye’s connections and struggles with others are immensely relatable and I found the tension between her and Kehinde familiar. There are also some amazing and intense sex scenes and scrumptious descriptions of traditional foods from Nigeria. This book really has something for everyone. I was absolutely transported with this book, in fact, I missed bus stops while reading this book I was so enthralled with it at times. The writing it concise and succinct and shows off the author’s talents as a storyteller, especially with a debut novel. I hope to see more from this author in the future.

Out of all the books I’ve read from the Canada Reads 2021 contenders this one is my favourite so far. It’s a gorgeous piece of literature with a phenomenal story and it best meets the theme of One Book To Transport Us out of the books that I’ve read. A strong contender for the winner likely to be one of my favourite reads of the year.

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“And here you are, safe in your asylum, one of the committed. The question is: Committed to what?”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 368 pages
Read from January 26, 2021 to February 2, 2021.

I was so excited to find this anticipated sequel to The Sympathizer on Netgalley and was even more thrilled that I’ve had a chance to read and review it before its publication. This story is a immediate continuation of The Sympathizer and won’t make much sense if you have not read it.

We were the unwanted, the unneeded, and the unseen, invisible to all but ourselves. Less than nothing, we also saw nothing as we crouched blindly in the unlit belly of our ark. . . Even among the unwanted there were unwanted, and at that some of us could only laugh.

Arriving in Paris as a refugee, the Sympathizer is still reeling from the trauma of his communist reeducation camp experiences in Vietnam. He was a communist spy working in America, a double-agent, though he always classified himself as a sympathizer to either cause, not that his blood brother Bon, an anti-communist, knows that. After a horrendous journey he and Bon arrive in Paris to stay with his French-Vietnamese ‘Aunt’, the communist woman who was his correspondence while he was in America. Between mingling with her snooty left-wing intellectual friends, the Sympathizer throws himself into capitalism through drug dealing. Bon is as immensely traumatized as the Sympathizer especially as he made it out of Vietnam alive but his wife and child did not. The Sympathizer knows that Bon will kill him if he ever finds out that he isn’t the die-hard communist hater that he is and that he was once a double agent but Bon is the closest thing to family that he has had since his mother. Unable to resolve his moral and political dilemma and unsure of where his personal beliefs stand he verges on the fence of nihilism and self-destruction.

And here you are, safe in your asylum, one of the committed. The question is: Committed to what? You have had two years …to confess to the crimes you have committed, to acknowledge that after everything you have been through, everything you have done, you are still committed to revolution, which must mean you’re crazy.

The book has a completely different tone and approach than the previous book. The Sympathizer was deliberately written as a spy or adventure type of novel. Wanting to take a different approach, the author stated in an interview that,

“I wanted to write a dialectical novel with The Sympathizer and to write a novel deeply influenced by Marxism and Marxist theory.” and to explore ideas such as “what does [a] disillusioned former revolutionary do with himself?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen,“On Writing Memory and Identity: An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen

This novel is by far more philosophical and theoretical than The Sympathizer which, at times is refreshing, but if you were hoping for more of the same spy action you might be disappointed. It’s not that this plot isn’t without action it’s that the author’s state is distressing and even while filling his head with rhetoric from people he would have gone on with previously, he see flaws in their beliefs and their racist personas and can’t come to terms with the indifferent person he is now. This story is one of trauma, love, friendship, sexism, rhetoric, and racism. The writing quality is still of immense quality and you still feel committed to this sad character and how his story is going end, it just didn’t pack the same punch as The Sympathizer. However, that book is definitely a tough act to follow. The narrator’s inner thoughts are still the best parts of the story and how he manages his trauma, decisions, and realisations. I really enjoyed reading this conclusion of his story and would highly recommend reading this novel to any that enjoyed The Sympathizer.