Review | The Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West, Nate Blakeslee

34540352The Wolf is absolutely incredible! I highly, HIGHLY recommend it, especially for animal lovers. Nate Blakeslee does a great job crafting a true-to-life drama around the wolves in Yellowstone, particularly a kick-ass female wolf named Oh-Six. This is by far the best book I’ve read a long time (I’d say the best this year, but I read it late January).

It has been touted as “Game of Thrones, but with wolves,” and certainly, there is something of Khaleesi’s kickassery in Oh-Six. I loved reading about how she started her own pack after being turned away by the other packs in Yellowstone. There’s a great passage where Blakeslee talks about how she entices a couple of young male wolves over to her, and how she peed against a tree to mark her territory and they both peed on the same spot to mark themselves as hers. I also loved reading about the wars for territory, with Oh-Six’s pack going up against other, sometimes more established packs, and how things like illness can totally shift the power dynamic. I especially love that while Oh-Six is clearly the heroine of the book, Blakeslee also talks about some of the other packs and animals in the area, giving us a broad brush picture of what life in Yellowstone is like.

Blakeslee creates almost a political thriller out of a nature documentary, and manages to do so without anthropomorphizing the wolves at all. I feel like I learned so much about wolves from this book, for example, that it’s actually very dangerous to be a lone wolf, because it makes you a target for other packs.

One of the biggest threats Oh-Six and the other wolves face is hunters. I have very strong views on hunting, and Blakeslee’s own opinion comes through fairly clearly, but I like how he takes care to present a balanced view. Most notably, he points out the families who live in the area and depend on elk meat for food and ranchers who raise livestock, and how both lifestyles are threatened by wolves who eat the elk and the livestock, and in one particularly sad scene, traumatized a pet dog.

But hunting for trophies still boils my blood, and the central hunter in this book is utterly unapologetic about what he does. What gets me the most is that without human intervention, the wolves and elks and bears all settle into a nice, balanced symbiosis, where they’re killing each other for food, but at least at a reasonable number which keeps their populations more or less steady. The reason wolves and other animals are becoming endangered is because of the human hunters who upset the delicate balance. So ugh.

Since this is basically a biography of Oh-Six, the book’s ending can be expected to align with her own demise. The circumstances around her death were tragic, but I’m SO GLAD it led to some changes in legislation and an increased awareness of wolf welfare.

I cannot recommend this book enough, particularly if you love animals, nature documentaries or stories about wildlife. I absolutely loved it and now I’m hungry for more and similar stories. John Vaillant’s The Tiger is on my radar, and I’m open for more suggestions!

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This book is also published under the title American Wolf, though at the publisher’s Fall Preview, they said the Yellowstone wolves are actually Canadian, and were imported into Yellowstone to repopulate the area.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Calculus of Change, Jessie Hilb

31286355The Calculus of Change is such a sweet and moving piece of realistic YA fiction. It begins as a story of unrequited love — Aden is secretly in love with her classmate and friend Tate, whom she tutors in Calculus and who already has a girlfriend — and I requested it for review originally because I love the friends-turned-lovers and the shy-girl-gets-the-guy-in-the-end tropes. But the story reveals itself fairly early on as being much more than a romance; there’s almost a Judy Blume feel in the texture of its realism and in the themes it tackles about family, friendship and spirituality.

Much of the story actually centres on family issues and coming to terms with grief. Aden, her brother Jon and their father have a somewhat strained relationship, partly because the father has a hair-trigger temper than keeps his children on edge even though he never quite gets physically violent. Early in the book, he jokes about being like a teenager himself in his mood swings, and I love how Hilb keeps the tension thrumming just beneath the surface in that scene — we know it’s a lame out for his immaturity, but we can also understand why Aden would let it pass. As the story progresses, however, we see that a lot of the strain also has to do with the family’s struggle to get over the death of Aden and Jon’s mother, an event they all just kinda deal with, but never actually worked out in depth as a family. Scenes where Aden’s father watches her playing her mother’s guitar or gives her lyrics her mother has written are beautifully heart-wrenching in the subtlety of their execution.

Moreover, Aden’s attraction to Tate in the first place is somewhat linked to her missing her mother: she notices him for the yarmulke he always wears. While Aden’s family isn’t very spiritual, her mother was Jewish, and her earlier conversations with Tate are about Judaism and their shared heritage. While their friendship later expands beyond spirituality, I love how this romance is more than the usual hot-guy-heartthrob, and how her feelings for Tate are somewhat interwoven with her desire to know her mother better.

I also like the way the romance and somewhat love triangle feel real. Often, Tate’s girlfriend Maggie would be portrayed as a popular mean girl, but Hilb instead chooses to make her likeable. She was so likeable that even though I knew I was supposed to be rooting for Aden and Tate to get together, I couldn’t help but root for Maggie to keep Tate instead, since they actually seemed good together. I particularly love how self-aware Hilb makes Aden, such that even when she lashes out at Maggie, she knows Maggie didn’t actually do anything to deserve it. In one of my favourite parts, Aden reflects on how easy it would be to frame the love triangle as a Taylor Swift song, with Aden as the girl next door and Maggie as the bitchy cheerleader, but the truth is that there’s a bit of both personalities in both of them.

There are so many other subplots that round out these characters and make them feel so real, including body image issues (Aden is insecure next to thinner and prettier girls like Maggie and Aden’s best friend Marissa), sexual assault, sex with regrets, sex with consequences, and so on. I was particularly moved by the subplot that explored romantic power dynamics — Marissa is in a relationship with her English teacher (who is married with children) and is seriously considering having sex with him. I love how realistically this plays out (until possibly the very end which seems a bit too easy), with Aden struggling between wanting to report the relationship as inappropriate but not wanting to hurt Marissa.

There’s also a very well written subplot about financial barriers in Aden and Jon’s family, with both teens wanting to go to prestigious colleges but not having enough money to afford both. Jon’s dilemma of going to his dream school for his dream program or going to a college where he may have a shot at a sports scholarship is very relatable, as is Aden’s being torn between supporting her brother and wishing he chooses the scholarship to increase her chances of her father being able to send her to her dream school.

My one (admittedly slight and possibly unjust) disappointment is that there wasn’t a lot of calculus in the story. I was expecting a wonderfully geeky romance like When Dimple Met Rishi, yet there was very little geekiness in the story.

Beautifully written and compellingly told, this is a powerful, moving story with so much packed inside. I loved it.

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Wildwood, Elinor Florence

34878639Wildwood is a contemporary pioneer narrative, Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush updated to the 21st century. It tells the story of Molly, a young single mother who must live in a remote farm in northern Alberta for a year to receive her great-aunt’s inheritance. Far from civilization, the farm has no electricity or running water, and Molly must rely on her wits to survive. To complicate matters, Molly is also from Arizona, and ill-prepared for life in place where winter lasts nine months. Her main motivation is the $1.5 million she stands to inherit if she lasts a year — broke and jobless, Molly desperately needs the money to pay for her four-year-old daughter’s medical treatments.

I absolutely loved this book. Early in the story, Molly muses that she worries about urban dangers like criminals and traffic accidents, but never seriously considered until now that nature herself would be a threat. That pretty much sums up the book: it’s the classic Canadian literature trope of settlers struggling to tame the wilderness, and Florence does a great job of making it believable in the present day. I enjoyed reading about Molly and her daughter Bridget’s adventures in figuring out how to get water from the well and how to use the outdoors outhouse as a toilet. I like how practical Molly had to become in her choices, whether it’s deciding what groceries are absolutely necessary for that month or choosing to get a cat to deal with the mice in the basement. Moreover, I loved the characters, from 12 year old Wynona, an Indigenous girl from a nearby reservation to bubbly and friendly Lottie, a lawyer’s assistant who dresses in retro funk and is not-so-secretly in love with her boss.

I’m not too familiar with selective mutism, which is what a child psychologist diagnosed Bridget with, but I like how Elinor Florence presents the challenges Molly and Bridget face when encountering new people who sometimes don’t understand Bridget’s boundaries. I also love seeing Bridget flourish in the solitude and calm of the farm, and slowly become more comfortable being around other people.

There’s also intriguing plot threads about untrustworthy authority figures, that are dealt with mostly in passing, and an insta-love romance that sparks without ever actually sizzling. These feel mostly like distractions and while their impact can be significant, the story doesn’t quite dwell on them enough to detract from the overall pleasant feel of reading this book. There’s also a secondary parallel story of Molly’s great-aunt, told through her journal, but while there are some touching moments in this, it never quite becomes as compelling as Molly’s story.

At one point, Molly admits she doesn’t miss having a phone or TV to learn about world news, like people getting killed or a cafe being bombed, and indeed there’s something escapist about immersing oneself in this story. Despite the pioneer-like struggles, there’s a retreat-like calm in isolating one’s focus to the bucolic problems in this town, and a comfort in the friendly warmth of Molly’s neighbours. I would definitely not call the pioneer era a simpler time, but the story does hearken to an appealing simplicity, and Wildwood is a fun read for a chilly weekend in.

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Thank you to Dundurn Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.