One Last Stop

Cover image for One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

by Casey McQuiston

ISBN 9781250244499

“August looks at her as the train reverses past Gravesend rooftops, this girl out of time, the same face and body and hair and smile that took August’s life by the shoulders in January and shook. And she can’t believe Jane had the nerve, the audacity, to become the one thing August can’t resist: a mystery.”

Leaving her eccentric mother behind in New Orleans, August Landry moves to New York in search of a new start, a city where she might actually fit, and a new college where she might finally finish her degree. A childhood spent helping her mother try to solve the cold case of Suzette Landry’s missing brother and August’s namesake has left her wary and mistrustful, and New York seems like just the kind of place for a girl like her. But then August meets a beautiful, charming, mysterious woman on her subway commute. With her tattoos, leather jacket, and old-school Walkman, Jane Su looks like a 70s punk rock dream. But as August gets to know her she realizes that somehow—impossibly—Jane is literally trapped out of time, having become stuck on the Q subway line in the mid-1970s. Suddenly, the investigative skills August learned at her mother’s knee are more relevant than ever, even as she tries to keep herself from falling for the impossible girl on the train while also figuring out where she came from and how to get her home.

August is a prickly and mistrustful protagonist, carefully guarding her heart and cultivating her cynicism. We learn over the course of the book how she came to be that way, from her complex relationship with her mother to her nearly non-existent relationship with her grandparents. However, her opening up begins not with meeting her love interest Jane but when she moves into the crowded old apartment above the Popeye’s with Myla, Niko, and Wes. If you love a good found family story, this book delivers. August becomes part of their chosen family, and it is this as much as anything that begins to open her up to the possibility of being in love with Jane, even if it takes her a while to admit to her feelings. Falling in love with someone who might not be entirely real, who might disappear at any moment, is a fundamentally vulnerable act.

The subplot of the book focuses on Billy’s Pancake House, where August gets a job, and where Jane used to work back when it opened in 1976. As Brooklyn gentrifies and rent rises, the beloved diner is in danger of going out of business, but the community rallies together to try to raise the necessary funds to help Billy buy the building when he can’t get a loan. If the friends August meets in her new apartment become her found family, Billy’s is about the larger community into which they fit, and McQuiston slips in bits of history about New York and its queer community.

In terms of genre, One Last Stop is modern romance with a touch of the paranormal. Jane is stuck out of time on the train, and is capable of various feats that should be impossible, but she is fully corporeal and definitely not dead (per se). Additionally, August’s roommate Niko is a psychic, adding another touch of magic to the largely normal world in which the story is set. New York is otherwise New York as we know it. Content warnings for the book are available on the author’s site.

This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

“It occurs to me to dwell on what a microcosm we are of the war as a whole, you and I. The physics of us. An action and an equal and opposite reaction.”

The future is malleable, shaped and reshaped by agents from rival factions, traveling up and down the threads of history to mold events to suit their own agendas. Red is among the best operatives for the techno-utopian Agency, winning against the agents sent by organic-futurist Garden time and again. But amidst the ashes of what should be her greatest victory, Red senses something amiss, a salvo from a rival operative that will change everything. In the ruins of the battlefield she finds a communication from an agent on the opposing side, one of the most challenging operatives Red has ever gone head to head with, her most worthy opponent. The letter is a taunt, an invitation, a beginning. In the midst of this endless war, Red and Blue strike up a secret correspondence that transcends the central dichotomy of their existence. As they continue to do battle, and exchange their hidden messages, they discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined. But what possible future is there two people trapped on opposite sides of a war that never ends?

The story is told is the form of a novella with alternating points of view, including the letters passed between Red and Blue. It is not entirely epistolary, but significantly so. Between the exchanges lurks the Seeker, a mysterious figure that seems to be tracking Red and Blue’s correspondence, yet not betraying it to either the Commandant or Garden. They work opposite sides of the same missions, and spend other years never crossing paths, but always there is another letter, another conflict, another battle to be won or lost. Both sides are beautifully written—Red by Max Gladstone, and Blue by Amal El-Mohtar—so that while it was a relatively short read, I spent quite a lot of time on it, just luxuriating in the distinct voices and the beautiful prose.

This is How You Lose the Time War is highly focused on the main characters. The two rival futures are rarely depicted, and the sides little described, so that there is no clear idea of either side being definitely right or wrong. The war is a vague, nebulous thing, while Red and Blue shine crisp and clear. There are relatively few other significant characters, though both agents come face to face with the heads of their respective factions at critical junctures. They both work largely alone, and while they may embed themselves in a single strand of history for a while, it inevitably comes time to move on to the next mission. They become the singular most consistent point in one another’s lives, even as they never interact directly, always keeping their distance, ever mindful of being watched by their respective commanders.

The letters begin with rivalry and taunts, but bend towards intimacy and mutual understanding as the correspondence progresses. Both Red and Blue have unique traits that make them especially good agents, but also set them slightly apart from their fellows. Together they meditate on hunger, loneliness, trust and the nature of living out of time. For the first time, they discover what it is to want something for themselves, rather than simply wanting to win. While they are naturally competitive, their romance slowly wins out over rivalry until they are forced into a final confrontation. The ending is hopeful, but as loosely defined as the time war itself, and the worlds of Agency and Garden, leaving the reader free to imagine what they will.

I’ll Be the One

by Lyla Lee

ISBN 9780062936929

“Only eight years ago, people only knew about Psy and the memeable moments in “Gagnam Style.” Now BTS is everywhere, and people from all sorts of different backgrounds are lined up to audition.”

As a fat girl, Skye Shin is constantly hearing about all the things she shouldn’t do. Don’t dance. Don’t wear bright colours. Don’t eat too much, especially not in public. Even her own mother is so embarrassed about her weight that they haven’t been back to Korea to visit their extended family for years. But Skye isn’t about to let any of that stop her from achieving her dream of becoming a K-pop star, and she knows she has both the voice and the dance skills to do it. With a permission slip signed by her father, Skye auditions for My Shining Star, the first K-pop reality TV competition to take place entirely in America. But in order to win, she’ll not only have to prove her skills to the judges and audience, but also overcome the stereotypes and misconceptions of an industry whose beauty standards don’t leave any room for girls like her.  

Skye is a confident protagonist is who secure in her appearance but we get hints that this has not always been the case. We learn that in the past her mother put her on a series of restrictive diets, and there is a passing mention of a school counselor who may have been instrumental in helping her throw off that attitude and live her life without constantly thinking about her weight. However, I’ll Be the One isn’t the story of her coming to accept herself, but rather what she does with confidence once she has grounded herself in it. There is one brief moment in the story, after a judge has been particularly nasty to her, that Skye considers resubmitting to a dietary regime, but in general she holds fast to her principles and doesn’t let people’s comments get to her. She literally wears rose-tinted sunglasses to her audition, and this is generally representative of her character and approach to the world.

Skye meets a cute girl in line for her audition, but when Lana turns out to have a girlfriend, Skye pivots just as quickly to being excited about meeting other queer Asian young women. The plot of I’ll Be the One does not focus significantly on Skye’s rivals. Rather, the main villain of the book is Bora, one of the judges of the show. She also happens to be the only woman on the judge’s panel, adding insult to injury. Bora repeatedly calls out Skye’s weight and appearance as being an impediment to her having a real career in the industry, but doesn’t seem to be able to see that this says more about the industry than about Skye or the market itself. With a sole vote, she cannot eliminate Skye single-handedly, but this brings the added pressure of knowing that in each stage of the competition, Skye must win the votes of both other judges every time in order to advance.

Because of the American setting, forbidden romance doesn’t play into I’ll Be the One in quite the same way that it featured in K-Pop Confidential or Shine. However, Skye does have a love interest in the form of Henry Cho, who also tries out for the show. Henry is a social media influencer who is the son of two people who are famous in the Korean entertainment industry, but who does not have a career there himself. However, my favourite part about their relationship is something that doesn’t come up until later in the book once they’ve gotten to know one another fairly well, which is that Henry is also bisexual, a nice bit of double representation. Henry is also the character who provides the window into the potential downsides of fame, and forces Skye into reckoning with the differences between a person’s public persona and their private self.

I’ll Be the One was the third K-pop YA novel I read recently, but I think it had a slightly different vibe while dealing with many of the same issues. Much of this is due to the fact that Skye is living at home and only periodically travelling to Los Angeles to take part in the show. It creates much less of an intense environment than stories in which the protagonist is enrolled in a full-time idol training program and mostly separated from their family. With the added aspect of the representation in this book, I think it might be my favourite of the three. This was a bit of a surprise to me as I initially started explore this genre looking for an analogue to the intense competition and drama provided by dance school books, but this lighter take really hit the spot.

Canada Reads Along 2021: Jonny Appleseed

by Joshua Whitehead

ISBN 9781551527253

“My home is full of hope and ghosts.”

Since leaving the Peguis reservation, Jonny has been doing cybersex work to pay the rent in Winnipeg, rarely traveling back home especially after his grandmother’s death. But when his step-father dies, his mother calls him home for the funeral and Jonny has only a few days to get together the money he needs for the trip back to the rez. As he works to scrape together the rent plus funds for the drive up north, Jonny reflects on his childhood, his relationship with his mother and grandmother, and the fraught intersection between his indigenous heritage and his queer identity. Homecoming is a complex reckoning with the self, and the family that made him.

The relationships with the women in his family are at the heart of the story, as Jonny was raised by his mother, who had him young, and his grandmother. His father left when he was a toddler and then died tragically, and his step-father was never a positive force in his life, even if his mother loved him. In fact, for self-identified glitter princess Jonny, masculinity has always been fraught, especially where it intersects with his indigeneity. He has had to play “straight on the rez in order to be NDN” and in the city he has played “white in order to be queer.” Part of this tension is embodied by the symbol of a bear. Jonny’s family is bear clan, but within the queer community, he cannot claim this title due to an entirely separate meaning. It is only one small way in which he feels he has been forced to divide his identities against himself. Part of his journey of self-reclamation is laying claim to titles like Two Spirit and indigiqueer that try to forge the two halves of himself back into a single whole.

Running through the story is Jonny’s poignant relationship with Tias. They have been friends since childhood, and have long been lovers, but Tias is not fully reconciled with what his love for Jonny means about his own sexual identity. Tias also has a long-time girlfriend, and the three are caught in a complex relationship, where Jordan and Jonny know that they share Tias, but do not openly acknowledge it to one another. Yet Jonny finds himself unable to hate her because she reminds him in many ways of his grandmother; “they were both little women with the ferocious power of a behemoth inside them.” The relationship Joshua Whitehead has created here is simultaneously tender and tragic; in order for Jonny to have love, it is not enough for him to be reconciled with himself, he also needs for Tias to do the same.

Bodies and physicality are an important part of Jonny’s story, the site of both injuries and pleasure, the one often morphing into the other. He also literally makes his living by his body, mostly selling cam shows and the occasional live meeting with a client, because his mother taught him that if he likes something and he is good at it, he should never do it for free. As a child, Jonny’s long hair is simultaneously a symbol of his indigeneity and part of the perception of his queerness, the two pulling against one another. We he finally cuts it off for a fauxhawk, it is his grandmother, in her admiration for whiteness, who allows the change. Yet she is also the person who first sees Jonny for what he is, and gives him the term Two Spirit to describe it. Straight bodies also tell stories, if in less fraught ways. Jonny’s stepfather’s body “was like a graveyard of injuries and ailments, so alive with experiences, while mine was riddled with shame.” As Jonny puts it, “our bodies are a library, and our stories are written like braille on the skin.” Jonny Appleseed braids together past and present, the mundane and the spiritual, the crass and the poetic into a visceral exploration of family, identity, and sexuality that will make you feel like you have walked a mile in Jonny’s shoes.

Jonny Appleseed was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs. As a queer Mohawk woman herself, Jacobs spoke passionately to the importance of this narrative, highlighting the fact that it is the first book by a Two Spirit indigenous author that has been represented at the table in the twenty year history of Canada Reads. Her defence repeatedly touched on themes such as resilience, healing, and the power to transmute pain into humour in order to survive and thrive. Describing it as a full body reading experience, Jacobs leaned into the physicality of the narrative, including the sexuality, arguing that it was a book she needed herself as a teen.

Jonny Appleseed went into the finale against Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi, defended by Roger Mooking, another title also published by the small, independent Arsenal Pulp Press. Both books touched on themes of family, trauma, healing, resilience, and forgiveness, making the final day of debates particularly interesting. Host Ali Hassan posed a series of questions that asked the panelists to consider which book most effectively depicted complicated relationships, the multidimensional theme of home, and fresh perspectives on love. However, most of the panelists spoke to how both books effectively achieved these ends. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee noted the relationship between Tias and Jonny, while Rosey Edeh was moved by Jonny’s relationship with his mother and grandmother.

The arguments for Jonny Appleseed throughout the week clearly made a particularly strong impression on panelist Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who spoke about how hard he found the book to read. However, he credited the influence of the debates in causing him to re-examine why he wasn’t initially able to see the healing and perseverance in the novel. He also cited Jonny Appleseed as the book that brought him a fresh and compelling perspective that he had never considered or been privy to before.

In the final vote of the week, Devery Jacobs and Roger Mooking cast their ballots against one another’s books, while Scott Helman voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, and Rosey Edeh voted against Jonny Appleseed. The final vote went to Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, making Jonny Appleseed the first book by an indigenous author to win Canada Reads.

You might also like:

When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reed

The Break by Katherena Vermette

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

Canada Reads Along: Butter Honey Pig Bread

by Francesca Ekwuyasi

ISBN 9781551528236

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

Content Warning: Childhood sexual abuse

Twins Taiye and Kehinde used to be one zygote. These days, they barely speak to one another after being a torn apart by a terrible thing they never speak about. Leaving their mother Kambirinachi behind in Nigeria, they venture out into the world separately, to France, England, Canada and beyond. Sometimes they are on opposite sides of the world, other times they live only hours apart without ever seeing one another. But now they are both back home in Lagos, Kehinde bringing her husband Farouq, and Taiye trailing a long series of failed relationships with women who have changed her life for better and for worse. Back in their childhood home, the two sisters and their eccentric mother must reckon with the event that drove Taiye and Kehinde apart.

Butter Honey Pig Bread is a story of family with just a touch of the supernatural. Kambirinachi believes herself to be ogbanje or abiku, a non-human spirit that plagues a family with misfortune by repeatedly being born and then dying in childhood to cause a human mother misery. On her third birth, she chose to stay in this world for a time, but she still hears the voices of her disembodied Kin call to her, tempting her towards the doorways back to the space between. For much of their lives, her daughters seem quite normal, but as an adult, Taiye sees the manifestation of Our Lady—a spirit that looks like her sister—in whom she confides and seeks advice, even when she is not speaking to the real Kehinde.

It is revealed relatively early in the story that, while their mother was still grieving their father’s death, one of the sisters was sexually assaulted by a relative. Previously so alike, this difference divides them, festering unspoken in their relationship for decades. Because they cannot talk about this biggest hurt, they cannot speak of almost anything, a long silence stretching between them. In the years since, Taiye wrote to Kehinde, but never mailed the letters, until one day her girlfriend found them and posted them to her sister. Kehinde has been reading the letters, while Taiye continues to pretend they were never sent. The letters add an additional layer of narration between them as they struggle towards a new relationship.

Taiye has spent her adult life working in kitchens and studying culinary arts around the world. Cooking can serve as both a method of bonding, of creating something together, and also as a way for the three women to avoid talking to one another, making busy with the work of the kitchen. Many of the recipes in Butter Honey Pig Bread are so closely described, including measurements, that it might be possible to recreate them straight from the cooking passages. The book’s very title is derived from the food that permeates the narrative, providing a connection to family and home.

Francesca Ekwuyasi makes varying narrative choices for the different sections, which range from Kambirinachi to Taiye to Kehinde in a non-linear fashion. At first, Kehinde is the only first person narrator, drawing the reader a little closer to her character while her mother and her sister’s stories are told in the third person. The occasional passage will address the reader directly, such as when Ekwuyasi writes that “perhaps in your life you’ve come across a force that’s matched and moved you. Maybe it changed you so profoundly that when you look back at the landscape of your life, you are struck by the indelible mark it left.” Late in the book, Kambirinachi breaks from third into the first person, demanding agency and the right to finally tell her own story. These shifts draw attention to the power of narrative and point of view, and how it shapes the reader’s perception of the story being told. The novel explores grief, humanity, loss, family, identity and more, taking the reader across the world and back again in a sweeping family saga.

Butter Honey Pig Bread was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by chef and television host Roger Mooking. Throughout the week, Mooking was a passionate and eloquent defender of his book, though he often struggled against the time limits imposed by the debate format, with unrehearsed arguments that did not fit into the time allotted for opening and closing statements. However, his energy was enough to bring Butter Honey Pig Bread to the finale, highlighting both the craft and the themes of the book in his defense. He spoke to the relationships, the mythology, the food, and the sense of community that bind this story together into a tapestry that can be viewed at a distance, or examined up close without diminishing its beauty.

The questions focused on the depiction of complicated relationships, the concept of home, and the portrayal of love in the last two books standing. In their answers to most of the questions, the panelists were able to draw out aspects of both titles that effectively touched on these themes, or helped them experience a new perspective. Scott Helman returned to the idea of finding more hope in Jonny Appleseed compared to Butter Honey Pig Bread, but in general it was difficult to tell which way the panelists were leaning. In some ways, the efforts of the host to tease the two books apart through these questions only served to illustrate that the two books shared many themes. Rosey Edeh praised the warmth and strength of the story, and how that was able to carry her through confronting the trauma that the characters have experienced in their lives. The final round of debate asked each panelist to speak to how the remaining books had changed them, and almost all of them had good things to say about both of the remaining titles. Scott Helman particularly cited the concept of the ogbanje as a new idea that stayed with him long after he closed the book, despite his other criticisms of this title.

On the final day, the votes come down to the free agents whose books have already been eliminated earlier in the week. Devery Jacobs and Roger Mooking cast their ballots against one another’s books, while Scott Helman voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, and Rosey Edeh voted against Jonny Appleseed. The final vote went to Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, making it the final book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Check back tomorrow for a review of the winning book, and a look back on the week’s debates!

You might also like Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

Canada Reads Along 2021: Hench

Cover image for Hench by Natalie Zina Walschotsby Natalie Zina Walschots

ISBN 9780062978578

“Doc Proton told me, ‘You make your own nemesis.’ I didn’t understand it then. I thought it was one of those things a rambling old hero said to sound wise. But it’s been absolutely true. Every evil, every great power that has ever risen to challenge me, every arch villain who’s ever been an actual threat, was someone whose path I altered. I set our enmity in motion every time. A tiny action can cause an avalanche.”

Anna Tromedlov is a hench. She does data entry and analysis for supervillains to pay the bills, and keep food on the table, making the trek down to the Agency for her next gig whenever the money runs out. She prefers to work from home, office work if she must, but never, ever field work. When she gets a new gig with a villain known as the Electric Eel, she thinks her temping days are done. Instead she finds herself pulled into the field, where a catastrophic encounter with a superhero known as Supercollider shatters her body. During her long recovery, Anna begins to wonder how many others like her have been harmed or disabled by the devastating overresponse of heroes. Using her talent for data analysis, she runs the numbers and starts the Injury Report, a blog where she calculates the cost of life and money caused by heroes. The math does not come out in their favour; they do more harm than good. When her work catches the eye of Leviathan—the biggest supervillain of them all and the arch nemesis of the hero who hurt her—Anna finds herself with a new gig using data to take down heroes in unexpected ways.

If you’ve ever watched a superhero movie and marveled at the collateral damage wreaked by a battle in the middle of downtown Manhattan, to both bystanders and property, you will probably be fascinated by Hench. When we meet Anna, she is just a temp, taking any data entry job that she can get her hands on. Positions that play to her strengths, pay her bills, and keep her out of the field, where things can get really dangerous. After all Anna doesn’t have any superpowers, let alone invulnerability. Her talent lies in data analysis, and the power of a good spreadsheet to bring the world into focus. During her one trip into the field, she suffers both physical trauma and long-term anxiety as a result of her injury at the hands of Supercollider, and becomes hyper-fixated on calculating the cost of the damages superheroes cause to society.

Hench paints the world in shades of grey, arguing that the main difference between superheroes and supervillains is good marketing, and their perceived alignment with the institutions of society. Much of the book is about the mundanity of evil, in addition to the fallibility of heroes. Anna lives a surprisingly normal looking life for much of the book, going on dates, hanging out with her best friend, dealing with coworkers and office politics. She hires and trains new employees, fights and makes up with her best friend, loses out on a date because of the nature of her job. Sometimes she grits her teeth and does things that make her feel squeamish, and other times she acts with the righteous fury of an avenger who knows that the math supports her actions. What she never asks is whether she, or anyone else, should have the right to make those decisions at all.

In most respects, the world of Hench is entirely recognizable and mundane outside of the superhero system. Much of this world building happens very peripherally, and over the course of the book we learn that children are tested at the beginning and end of puberty for signs of superpowers, and those who are identified must join the Draft, becoming a superhero, or face being labelled a villain. Walschots has left the ending of this book open enough that there is definitely room for a sequel, and my hope for a follow up would be that it delves more into this system and the institutions that make superheroes and villains in the first place.

Hench was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and was one of two genre fiction novels brought to the table this year along with The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk which was defended by Rosey Edeh and eliminated on Day Two. Throughout the week, Lee repeatedly urged readers and his fellow panelists to look beneath the surface, and not dismiss Hench simply because it was a book about superheroes and villains. He praised the book for being subversive and inclusive, but also fun to read, arguing that this would make it accessible to audiences while also asking them to think about issues of power, accountability and collateral damage, and who gets a free pass in our society.

Scott Helman was one of the earliest panelists to critique Hench back on Day One of the debates, citing its moral relativism and nihilism as reasons that he struggled to connect with the book. It was clear that a sense of hope, uplift, or reconciliation was something he was looking for in order to be transported. Lee’s counterargument was that Hench leaves it to the reader to mull over the complexities of good and evil rather than offering easy answers. Roger Mooking also pointed out that Hench is a book that rejects easy binaries.

Day Three of the debates focused around questions about resilience, trauma, and accessibility of the texts, as well as which book most effectively expanded the panelists’ understanding of an experience different from their own. Olympian Rosey Edeh admired the way Hench took readers inside the experience of a person who had both an agile mind and a physical disability, illustrating the resilience of Anna’s character. The panelists also got into a bit of a sidetrack about the nicheness of superheroes, and whether that premise would be alienating for some readers, or if the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would actually signal that this concept has broad appeal and accessibility to audiences.

When the ballots were counted, Roger Mooking cast the sole vote against Jonny Appleseed, while Devery Jacobs and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread. Rosey Edeh and Scott Helman voted against Hench. The vote came to a tie for the second day in a row, with the tie breaking vote going to the panelist who did not vote for either of the books that were part of the tie. As the defender of Butter Honey Pig Bread, Roger Mooking naturally voted against Hench, making it the third book eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along 2021? Start here!

Canada Reads Along 2021: The Midnight Bargain

Cover image for The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polkby C.L. Polk

ISBN 9781645660071

“Beatrice didn’t want to hear what she would have if she were a man. She didn’t want to be a man. She wanted to be a magician.”

In Chasland, magic is the realm of men. Among women, only widows and crones can pursue the arcane arts. Married women are locked into warding collars that shield them from magic in order to prevent spirits from possessing their unborn children. Problematic daughters may be collared even before their weddings. Young women with magical talent are valued only as the mothers of the next generation of male magicians. Each year brings bargaining season, when the ingénues descend on Bendleton for a series of balls, parties, and marriage negotiations. Beatrice Clayborn is about to make her debut in desperate bid to save her family from desperate financial straits, but in her heart she would prefer to pursue life as a magician, even if it means being called a thornback. At the beginning of bargaining season, Beatrice finds a grimoire in a bookshop that may hold the key to making the greater bargain with a spirit and staving off marriage forever. But the book is taken from under her by the wealthy heiress Ysbeta Lavan and her brother Ianthe, who have traveled from Llanandras for bargaining season. Ysbeta is as desperate as Beatrice for a solution to the marriage problem, but she will need Beatrice’s help to decode the grimoire.

Ysbeta and Ianthe come from Llanandras, a country with a more liberal policy towards women and magic; women are only shielded during their pregnancies. Nevertheless, their mother has brought Ysbeta to the Chasland marriage mart in hopes of brokering an advantageous alliance for their trading company, regardless of the cost to her daughter personally. Ysbeta would prefer to remain unwed, and as she and Beatrice get to know one another, it becomes clear that her plans for the future involve neither marriage nor children. Beatrice, by contrast, dreams of a world where she can have it all, while her younger sister Harriet has made her magic small in order to focus on her own future bargaining season. I appreciated that the book showed women with a variety of dreams for the future, and centered their right to make that choice for themselves rather than positioning a single outcome as the ideal. Although the book is currently a standalone, I would absolutely read a follow up from Ysbeta’s perspective.

In addition to marriage, The Midnight Bargain also explores the conflicts between women created by the patriarchal system they live under. Beatrice’s own sister betrays some of her secrets to their parents when she believes something bad may have happened to her, only to unleash a worse punishment. When Beatrice and Ysbeta seek help from a network of women magicians, the power wielded by their families and the potential backlash of aiding the escape of two ingénues is deemed too risky for the rest of the network. Both girls are facing potential betrayal by their own mothers, who are shepherding their daughters towards a terrible future. I was particularly curious to know more about Beatrice’s mother, who makes some difficult choices in the course of the narrative that show she is not entirely at peace with her situation despite outward appearances. I particularly liked that Beatrice and Ysbeta became allies rather than rivals, even though their alliance is often an uneasy one since their aims are sometimes at odds.

Ianthe is Beatrice’s love interest, and a more tolerant and liberal-minded young man that she is used to meeting with. For the first time, marriage doesn’t seem quite so unthinkable; Ianthe listens to her ideas and would clearly allow her more freedom than her mother has ever enjoyed. In some ways, however, this complicates the narrative. Beatrice would be free to hate a husband she took only to save her family. If she managed to make the greater bargain with a spirit and become a fully-fledged magician, she would never regret passing up the chance to wed any of the local men. Ianthe represents a compromise she must decide if she can make without coming to hate him, or herself. C.L. Polk adds depth to their relationship by acknowledging the sacrifice Beatrice would still be making in marrying Ianthe; though he might seem the obvious choice, it would still represent a loss of Beatrice’s freedom and self-determination to place the key to her collar in his hands.

The Midnight Bargain was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by Olympian and broadcaster Rosey Edeh. She touted her selection as an immersive narrative appropriate for a wide range of readers, and also highlighted the fast pacing and linear narrative as benefits in a time when many of us are stressed and distracted. However, she also urged readers to look to the complexity beneath the surface, for a story about race, magic, complex friendships, and self-determination. The book has a subversive undercurrent that might initially be missed beneath the romance, magic, and world building, creating a richly layered story.

Day Two of the debates opened a round table format that allowed each defender a one minute opening statement, followed by a discussion of their books by the other panelists. Each defender was then given a thirty second closing before the votes were cast. The Midnight Bargain first came under fire from Devery Jacobs, who also spoke against the book on Day One. She argued that the book had some problems with repetition that made her feel like the author was spoon feeding her. Edeh’s rebuttal focused on the importance of repetition and reinforcement in a journey of the mind where the character is setting herself against society in order to achieve what everyone says is an impossible goal.

Roger Mooking’s criticism of the book focused more on the believability of the fact that Beatrice would give up the grimoire to Ysbeta in the bookshop, the inciting incident for the entire narrative. He felt that this was implausible, while Edeh argued that this moment, in addition to setting up the conflict, is a powerful illustration of Beatrice’s social training, the very thing that she needs to overcome in order to reach her goal. She is keenly aware of the problems her actions may cause her family, and also of the power imbalance between the Clayborns and the Lavans in terms of both their wealth and their station in society. That she concedes in this moment both kicks off the story, and provides an important act of world-building while helping us understand her character.

When the time came to cast the ballots, Devery Jacobs and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee voted against The Midnight Bargain, with Lee citing the fact that he felt it was the type of story he had read many times before. Devery Jacobs had also voted against the book on Day One. Both Rosey Edeh and Roger Mooking cast their votes against Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, creating a tie between two books. Scott Helman, who initially voted against Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots, was called in to be the tie breaker. Helman was a free agent today after the elimination of his pick, Two Trees Make a Forest, on Day One. Citing the fact that he became a little bit tired with the Regency aspect, and the wealth of the characters, he elected to eliminate The Midnight Bargain, making it the second book voted off of Canada Reads 2021.

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Canada Reads Along 2021: Two Trees Make a Forest

Cover image for Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Leeby Jessica J. Lee

ISBN 9781646220007

“I find in the cedar forest a place where the old trees can span all our stories, where three human generations seem small. The forest stands despite us.”

Jessica J. Lee grew up in Ontario, a biracial child more connected to her father’s large Welsh-Canadian family than her mother’s side of the family tree, which hailed from China via Taiwan. She knew only her maternal grandparents, Po and Gong. For most of her life she was unbothered by this, however, as she grew older she developed an “inarticulate longing” for both her family history, and the island from which they had come to Canada. Her grandfather was lost to Alzheimer’s disease, and her grandmother spoke rarely of the past before her death, leaving Lee to take her own journey to Taiwan with her mother in order to reconnect with her family history. In revisiting the scenes of her mother’s childhood, as well as hiking and biking through the forests and marshes of the island, Lee explores the importance of place to our understanding of self.

As an environmental historian, Lee is concerned with the physical island of Taiwan, with its geography, flora and fauna, in addition to its anthropological history and personal connection. Her book is memoir meets family history meets travelogue. On her first trip to Taiwan as an adult, Lee writes, “I moved from the human timescale of my family’s history through green and unfurling dendrological time, to that which far exceeds the scope of my understanding: the deep and fathomless span of geological time.” In trying to understand her family’s past, she also traces the island’s history of colonization, first being claimed by China in the late 1600s, roughly contemporary with the arrival of Western explorers, and briefly passing into Japanese hands for a generation, before becoming the home of China’s exiled nationalist government.

Lee’s trip to Taiwan came after efforts to satisfy her longing through reading were mixed at best, and alienating at worst, being a by-product of the island’s long history of colonialism. She found that many English accounts of the island were written by nineteenth-century British geographers, and “these portrayals mingled beauty with fear, with curiosity and exoticism, occasionally with disgust. Though written in English, I struggled to find in them a language I could share.” Mapmaking was similarly fraught by the cataloguing efforts of both Chinese and Japanese colonial administrators steadily pushing the island’s indigenous people deeper into the mountains.

Language is also a theme that runs through the book, as Lee tries to reclaim some of the native tongue that has been lost to her. As a white-passing woman in Taiwan, she is asked why her Mandarin is so good, but if she reveals that her mother is from Taiwan, then she is asked why it is so bad. Language is a crucial barrier between herself and her family’s past. An important letter left by her grandfather upon his death must be entrusted to translators, and her mother’s annotations. Through her descriptions, Lee is able to convey how the language was both part of her, and not. When her mother taught her the Mandarin names for Taiwan’s plant life while they were hiking through the mountainous forests, Lee “found in them a longing to remember the things I had not known.” In a note at the beginning of the text, Lee explains the difficulties in something as seemingly simple as rendering Chinese and Taiwanese place names into roman letters; Lee was taught Hanyu Pinyin, while her elders prefer to use Wade-Giles, and she had to grapple with both systems to write her account in English.

Two Trees Make a Forest is a memoir about the vast complexities of identity, and Lee does a beautiful job of articulating the nuances. Her family are settlers in Canada, and she is simultaneously grappling with the fact that her family is part of a long history of Chinese colonialism in Taiwan. Her own grandparents only arrived there as rival governments were tearing China apart in the aftermath of the country’s revolution. “My mother, sister, and I stumbled over whether to call ourselves Chinese—we weren’t from a China that existed any longer—or Taiwanese. No single word can contain the movement that carried our story across waters, across continents,” Lee explains. “Political migrants. Exiles. Colonists. Diaspora. The past has many words for my grandparents’ generations, all of them containing a grain of truth.”

At the same time, her family was also on the receiving end of imperialism; her grandmother was living in Nanjing during the horrific Japanese invasion that is sometimes called the Rape of Nanking. “She never spoke of what happened in Nanjing. But I gleaned its seriousness at a young age through her unwillingness to set foot in a Japanese car or the ways she would suck her teeth in frustrated response to Japanese electronics,” Lee explains of her explosively difficult grandmother, known affectionately as Po.

In her memoir, Lee blends history, geography, language and family legacy in a meditative account of what it means to be caught between worlds: “I belong in a forest in a much bigger, colder country. I am not built for heat any more than my mother was built for winter. I speak in broken tones, making half sense to everyone I meet in Taiwan. My worlds exist in halves.” The liminality of her account is an inherent part of its beauty, and her unique perspective.

Two Trees Make a Forest was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by singer-songwriter Scott Helman. In his opening argument, Helman touted the book for its intersection of humanity and environmentalism, using the specificity of Lee’s family history to address the universal theme of finding our place in the world. His was the only non-fiction book at the table this year, and drew some early fire from other panelists. Day One of the program is full of panelist introductions, book trailers, opening statements, and author spotlights, with only a little bit of room for debate. Often the best thing a book can hope for is to fly low and avoid initial notice, something over which the defender has little control.

This year’s Canada Reads theme is “one book to transport us,” and the opening debate focused on how well the books did that at this moment, in the midst of a pandemic. No less than three of the panelists called out Two Trees Make a Forest as the book that did not work for them in this regard, with Rosey Edeh citing the non-linear structure, Roger Mooking pointing to the distraction of the environmental descriptions, and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee arguing that the book was overambitious. Helman’s rebuttal suggested that this is a book that calls for the reader to take a moment, a breath, and appreciate the Earth, and how the stories of our lives and the Earth are intertwined. He encouraged readers to make room for that.

When the time all too quickly came to cast the first round of ballots, Scott Helman and Devery Jacobs voted against The Midnight Bargain, while the other three panelists cast their votes to make Two Trees Make a Forest the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Check out these past Canada Reads contenders:

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong