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Ducks cover.jpg

The Pajiba November 2022 Book Recommendations Superpost!

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | November 30, 2022 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | November 30, 2022 |

Ducks cover.jpg

The end of the year is in sight, oh dear lord how did that happen?! The nights are dark and cold and the last thing I want to do is leave the house so let me insulate myself with books. Hey it’s cheaper than my heating bills right now. Here are a few of my favorite reads of this past month, and make sure to share your own recs in the comments!

Glass Houses and A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

I love Louise Penny’s books. I’ve written before about my affection for her long-running Armand Gamache series, a saga of crime novels set in the Eastern townships of Quebec. In 2019, during some tough personal times, I found the Three Pines books to be the exact kind of comfort I needed. Now, with the Amazon adaptation premiering this week (hello, Alfred Molina as Gamache!), I’m back on my bullsh*t and trying to finish the series.

I once glibly referred to Gamache as the cop version of Ted Lasso, which was mostly facetious but also tapped into something I love about that character. In a genre populated by surly tortured dudes with trigger fingers and whisky stains on their shirts, Gamache stands out. He’s a man driven by pure goodness, an optimistic figure of immense warmth who actually wants to do the right thing. That attitude cannot help but impact those around him, for better or worse. Having this kind of protagonist could be cloying, especially as the series delves into darker territory, but Penny is a far smarter writer than that. As the novels delve into topics as serious and varied as the opioid crisis, police corruption, and abuse, Gamache’s immovable moral compass brings complications.

In Glass Houses, Gamache has compiled a team to deal with drug rings using the border to America for smuggling purposes. His grand plan to bring down these operations is one of utilitarian neatness in theory, but it requires months of silence and the deaths of potentially hundreds of people. Is it still the ‘right’ thing in the grand scheme of things if the collateral damage is so immense? The latter half of the Three Pines series is far less ‘cozy’ than the earlier titles, and more willing to put its hero into these moral quandaries, from which there are no easy answers. It’s a narrative I cannot help but be enthralled by (really, it’s kind of remarkable that this series is so consistently excellent across so many books, and the 18th one just came out!) I’m not sure I can necessarily call this series my comfort read but now I appreciate that Penny has never sacrificed that warmth, even as she goes to places where the light cannot reach.

Ducks by Kate Beaton

After graduating from university, saddled with student debt, cartoonist Kate Beaton decided to sign up for work in the oil sands of Alberta. Like many a Canadian before her, she moved across the country to find work, leaving behind family, friends, and her sense of self. For over two years, Beaton worked in a hostile and uber-macho environment where every woman was outnumbered by dozens of men. Sexual harassment was common. The 12-hour shifts were merciless. The loneliness was unceasing.

Ducks is Beaton’s first long-form foray into memoir, a marked change from her literary parodies on Hark A Vagrant and her impeccably adorable children’s picture-books. Her scratchy, simple art style translates remarkably well to this new genre. As someone very familiar with her work, it proved striking and often disorienting to see this aesthetic played completely straight. Told in a fragmentary fashion, Beaton conveys the surreal mish-mash of solitude, misogyny, mundanities, and loss of life in such a cloistered space.

Without sugar-coating her experiences, she offers surprising nuance to situations that seem impossible to readers. Living in the oil sands means that even the nicest guys, the old dudes who look out for you, are likely to spew misogynistic cruelty without a second thought. This is a portrayal of a particular kind of working-class conundrum, the deprivation of true options when debts are mounting and work is lacking. Many of Beaton’s colleagues were former fishermen, coal-miners, figures from fields that dried up, something that will eventually happen to oil. But not before they destroy the land they stole form First Nations communities, of course.

This is a profoundly unhappy memoir, one documenting a time of smothering solitude and trauma on Beaton’s part. That doesn’t make it an easy read for obvious reasons. It offers an insight into a part of Canadian life and history that I imagine most of us non-Canadians are totally unfamiliar with. While it’s a weighty read, it’s one I can’t recommend highly enough. Beaton has a lot to say and we’re lucky to be able to read it.

A Prayer for the Crown Shy by Becky Chambers

As we find ourselves neck-deep in a real-life dystopia that threatens to consume us all, you can’t blame me for wanting to read something a little more utopian. Becky Chambers’ Monk and Robot series of novellas is a calming salve to the sci-fi genre, the literary equivalent of ASMR. Set in a future where the world’s robots decided to abandon humanity, a tea monk named Sibling Dex becomes the first human to encounter a robot in an era. Mosscap has been sent on a mission to determine what it is that humanity really needs. Yet this is a good future, one where our planet’s problems seem to have been solved.

The growth of the so-called hopepunk genre — a deliberate opposition to grimdark fiction that prizes positivity and communal growth over societal disaster — is one I’ve viewed with skepticism. I don’t feel like it has much of a foundation in speculative fiction beyond aesthetic quirks and occasional moralizing (it doesn’t help that the Wikipedia list of hopepunk books is so disparate and nonsensical.) Hope is a tough quality to convey in storytelling. It’s something you must earn. Yet it’s different with Becky Chambers, a writer who is fully committed to intense humanity in even the most fantastical of settings. She doesn’t necessarily aim for big dramatic tension, intrigued more by minute human interactions and natural optimism. Her Monk and Robot stories are the epitome of this. The organic peace and progressivism of this world is a balm to readers, admittedly, but it’s not a trite exercise. If hopepunk is ever to truly become a thing, writers would be smart to look to Becky Chambers for a guide on how to do it properly.