Book Review: Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis

My stalled Book Bingo challenge is not going very well. But while I am not exactly reading suggested books on the bingo card, it has spurred me to read more Canadian speculative fiction, which I suppose is the point. So not an entire fail.

This month my local book club is reading Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis. We are reading it at my suggestion, as it was the winner for CBC’s annual contest, Canada Reads, and it sounded intriguing to me.

Fifteen Dogs is a speculative fiction novel that has a fairly basic, but interesting, premise. Two Greek gods, Apollo and Hermes, decide to grant fifteen dogs human consciousness to see if it will bring the dogs happiness or misery.

I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence. 

I wonder if they’d be as unhappy as humans, Apollo answered.

 Some humans are unhappy; others aren’t. Their intelligence is a difficult gift. 

 I’ll wager a year’s servitude, said Apollo, that animals – any animal you choose – would be even more unhappy than humans are if they had human intelligence. 

 An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.

The fifteen dogs are chosen at random, they are ones at a nearby veterinarian’s clinic, and the story follows the exploits of the dogs as they begin to cope with having human consciousness.

I love dogs, and I love stories about dogs and stories that have dog narrators. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, is one of my favourite books. And while I knew that Fifteen Dogs was more likely to be an exploration of what it meant to be human as opposed to what it means to be a dog, I still had high hopes that it would be one that I would really enjoy.

Unfortunately, not so much. In fact, I can honestly say I only finished it because we were reading it for book club.

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To start with the positive, though, the writing in the book is excellent. The prose is lyrical, and he does a good job of pulling all the stories of the dogs together, without making it too confusing.  The concept is an intriguing one, but the execution of it just doesn’t work for me.

This is a very depressing book. Alexis focusses on the negative aspects of humanity and dogs both, and I don’t think he gets the dog interactions exactly right, either. He sets his pack up using the concept of alpha and submissive dogs, which, although a very popular way of looking at dog psychology and behaviour, is becoming more and more outdated.*

So, marrying the idea of pack theory with humanity’s predilection for murder, greed, cheating, and selfishness makes for a very gloomy read indeed. Yes, the book is also a meditation on language, poetry, status, and power. And there are good points to ponder in the book about all those. But I just couldn’t get past my heartaches for the poor dogs to really appreciate them.

[SPOIER ALERT}

There is a lot of death in this book. Most of the dogs don’t make it out of the first few chapters. And like those dogs, the remaining ones die horrible deaths, especially the last one, due to interference by the gods, as Zeus tries to make something right but ends up making it worse.

Just as I quibble with the author’s understanding of dog behaviour, I quibble with his understanding of humanity. I will not argue with him that humanity is flawed, and that people do terrible things to each other. One can’t look at the nightly news and not come out believing otherwise.

But that is not all we are. And in my opinion, this book, which supposedly asks a question about  what it means to be human, only gives us part of the answer.

My rating: two stars out of five. One star for the excellent writing, one for the concept.


*if you are interested, here are a couple of articles about this.

https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/14_12/features/Alpha-Dogs_20416-1.html

https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/dog-behavior-and-training-dominance-alpha-and-pack-leadership-what-does-it-really-mean

 

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YOFR: A Book of Any Genre That Addresses Current Events

This month I got more bang for my buck by choosing one book that would actually fit on both of the lists on the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge. This month on the Year of Fun Reading Challenge (YOFR) I was supposed to read a book of any genre that addresses current events. But the book I chose, Company Town, by Madeleine Ashby, also would fit under the Reading for Growth Challenge, under this month’s category of a Genre I Usually Avoid, as it is science fiction. Although I can enjoy SF at times, it’s not one of my go-to genres.

However, Company Town is pretty soft science fiction, which is the way I like my SF, generally. So it’s not too far outside of my comfort zone.

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I picked this book for a number of reasons. First of all, in my quest to try to read more Canadian spec-fic authors (sparked by my verrry slow Book Bingo challenge from last year), this one, shortlisted for CBC’s 2017 Canada Reads competition, fit that bill. Secondly, it’s speculative fiction. Thirdly, it addresses current events.

Sort of. Company Town is set in the near future, in a town located off the east coast of Canada called New Arcadia which has been completely bought out and taken over by an oil company, whose rigs provide the main source of wealth in the town. In fact, the rig pretty much IS the town. The protagonist is Go-Jung Hwa, the only person in New Arcadia who does not have any bio-engineered enhancements, and that makes her difficult for others with enhancements to see. This, along with her expertise in self-defence, comes in handy in her job as a security guard, and she is hired to protect the son of the multi-billionaire owner of the oil company that owns the town.

This was all I knew about the book before I read it. I don’t like to know too much about a book going in, which sometimes is not the best strategy. You can see that from how often I have been surprised by a book being YA when I wasn’t expecting it. This one, thankfully, is not.

I picked it because I thought it was going to explore the oil industry, and where it might be going in the future.  I live in Alberta, where the oil industry is one of our major sources of income, and where there is considerable debate about its merits. I thought this book might address that in an interesting, fictional way.

Well, not so much. The book doesn’t discuss the pros and cons of the oil industry or our reliance on fossil fuels (which I admit I was rather glad about) but it does address other current issues such as the place of technology in our lives and where it might be leading us. That threw me for a loop, but once I realized it wasn’t really about the oil industry at all I readjusted and quit trying to find that thread in it. The casual acceptance of the bio-enhancements portrayed in the book was certainly food for thought, and frighteningly very plausible.

The book also speaks to the power of big corporations and their hold on ordinary people. The portrayal of both the oil company which holds all the purse strings in the town and is playing fast and loose with the truth of what it is actually developing under the water and the invasiveness of the bio-enhancements which people add to themselves to “keep up with the Jones'” has a lot to say about the power of greed, unbridled capitalism, and the effects of those on ordinary people who just want a job to go to and to be successful in their lives.

The book doesn’t hit you over the head with these themes, though, which I appreciate. It is basically set up as a murder mystery, with Hwa trying to solve some unsettling murders which all seem to be related to a threat faced by her teenaged charge.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the positive side, Ashby is a strong writer technically, and she had an interesting idea. I loved the Canadian setting, and the near-future, gritty,  cyber-punky feel to the book. I liked the main character for the most part. Even though she would definitely fall under the category of “warrior-chick” which I get so tired of, Ashby fleshed her out enough that she is interesting and relatable.

However I did struggle reading it at times. It always takes awhile to settle into the world of any fantasy or science fiction book, so I tried to ignore my niggling questions and confusion I felt at the beginning. But those questions kept popping up, and kept not being resolved, and it started to bug me the further into the book I got. The worst was the questions that surrounded Hwa. You learn early on that she has a “stain” on her face, and for some reason this makes her unsuitable for enhancements. I assume the author meant a port wine stain but wasn’t sure why this made her unsuitable, which wasn’t revealed until later when you realize her mother thought her ugly and unworthy of the expense of enhancement.

But along with the stain she has some kind of mysterious medical condition which causes seizures, and it seemed to be related to the stain on her face, or was it? Do port wine stains cause seizures? I didn’t think so but maybe they do? Or maybe this was unrelated to the stain but the way it was written made me think it was…and so you see I keep being confused about this point which kept throwing me out of the book.

The setting, the oil rig/town with the various towers was a bit unclear to me too. I had a hard time getting settled into the landscape of the book. Maybe it was just me.

I found the plot confusing at times, too. It’s basically a sci-fi murder mystery, which is fine. But there is also some romance thrown in, which is also fine, but her love interest, Daniel, seems a little too good to be true and their relationship is not really believable at times.

I think that qualifier, “at times” sums up the problems I was having with this book. It was uneven. Maybe trying to do too much? Some places the book snaps along, at others it meanders, trying to find its way. And at times Ashby resorts to stock characters to prop up plot failings, and it doesn’t work.

All these problems come into stark relief at the climax of the book, unfortunately.  I looked at the Goodreads reviews I saw others struggled with the ending too. I’m not exactly sure I understand the explanation of it all, to tell you the truth. It all felt a bit forced and out of left field.

So while I really wanted to love this book, I came away unsatisfied. It has potential, but I wish it had just a little more cohesion and a better ending.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 5. Stellar idea and good writing, but plot needs work.

 

Giving Thanks

Here in Canada we are celebrating Thanksgiving this weekend. We don’t have the stories of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower, but we do have a wonderful tradition of giving thanks in this country as well. I didn’t know much about the history of our Thanksgiving, but in a quick search on the web I found these fascinating details:

  • Some historians say that the first North American Thanksgiving was held in 1578 as explorer Martin Frobisher, who with a fleet of ships was searching for the Northwest Passage, gave thanks and celebrated Communion after a particularly harrowing voyage from Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island and back again.
  • French settlers who crossed the ocean with Samuel de Champlain and arrived safely in Canada with him in 1604, celebrated with a feast of Thanksgiving. They formed the Order of Good Cheer (don’t you love that name?) and held weekly feasts, during which they shared food with their First Nations neighbours.
  • Thanksgiving Days were celebrated to commemorate important events, such as the end of the Seven Years War (1763), the end of the War of 1812, the end of the Lower Canada Rebellion (1838), and even the recovery of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) from a serious illness in 1872.
  • It wasn’t until 1957 that the second Monday in October was officially designated Thanksgiving Day by Parliament.

sir_martin_frobisher_by_cornelis_ketel

Sir Martin Frobisher, the first to celebrate Thanksgiving on North American soil. Apparently after returning to Frobisher Bay after the harrowing voyage in which one ship was lost and another returned to Europe, the chaplain, Robert Wolfall, “made unto them a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankefull to God for theyr strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places.” Photo : Portrait of Sir Martin Frobisher, by Cornelis Ketel, on Wikicommons

In doing the research on my books, I discovered that the Celtic Christian monks of the early Middle Ages excelled at thanksgiving. Their lives were founded upon praise, celebration and giving thanks. Every day they would recite Psalms 148-150, the praise psalms, which all begin and end with “Praise the Lord”. These words etched their way into their hearts and minds. They would find it very odd indeed to be “thankful” without that thankfulness spilling over into specific thanks to God, the Creator and Sustainer of all.

I don’t want to distract you for too long from your turkey feasts and family celebrations, so I will leave you with this ancient Celtic Christian prayer, recorded in the Carmina Gadelica. Whether you are in Canada or not, why not take some time this weekend to say this prayer slowly, with gratitude for all God has given you? We are truly blessed to live where we do and in the time in which we live.

Thanks to thee, 0 God, that I have risen to-day,
To the rising of this life itself;
May it be to Thine own glory, 0 God of every gift,
And to the glory of my soul likewise.

0 great God, aid Thou my soul
With the aiding of Thine own mercy ;
Even as I clothe my body with wool,
Cover Thou my soul with the shadow of Thy wing.

Help me to avoid every sin,
And the source of every sin to forsake ;
And as the mist scatters on the crest of the hills,
May each ill haze clear from my soul, 0 God.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!