Canada Reads, Canadian, Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2023: Greenwood

Cover image for Greenwood by Michael Christie

by Michael Christie


“If history were itself a book, this era would surely be the last chapter, wouldn’t it? Or have all ages believed this? That life can’t possibly go on and that these are the end times?”

Jacinda “Jake” Greenwood studies trees, in a dying world that has far too few trees left. It’s 2038, and the Great Withering has destroyed most of the Earth’s forests. One of the rare exceptions is Greenwood Island, a private resort off the coast of British Columbia that enjoys a unique microclimate which has thus far protected it from the ravages of global warming. Jake shares a name with the island, a fact she always believed to be a coincidence—she is little more than an overqualified tour guide for wealthy vacationers. But as her family tree is peeled back ring by ring, Michael Christie reveals her surprising connection to the Greenwood Timber Greenwoods, lumber barons who made their fortune in the early 20th century. The story follows the intervening generations through the century as Canada’s timber industry rises and falls.

Greenwood is a multi-generational family saga that begins with orphans Harris and Everett Greenwood. From a meagre plot of woods in Ontario, Harris goes on to found Greenwood Timber, a titan of the forest industry than Christie slips in alongside the real companies that inspired it. But Harris’ daughter, Willow, rejects her father’s fortune and becomes an environmental crusader known for her direct-action protests. She in turn is appalled by her son Liam’s decision to become a carpenter, gobbling up wood to satisfy the appetites of rich corporate clients. But none of that success can save Liam from the accident that leaves his daughter an orphan. Likeable and unlikeable, each generation’s relationship to the land tells a broader story about how Canada relates to its natural environment, and the resources we have long taken for granted.

Michael Christie takes the reader through the Dust Bowl and into a future that imagines a Great Withering that echoes it, once again brought about by the consequences of human actions. Greenwood largely reads like historical fiction but with a dystopian frame narrative set in the near future. The bulk of the novel is not set in the future but focuses on the past choices that brought the Greenwood Island resort into being. Covered in old-growth forest inspired by Galiano Island, the trees of Greenwood Island are much older than the family whose name it continues to bear long after they relinquish ownership. Intact nature becomes a valuable commodity sold to the elite as a high-end vacation experience while average citizens live in a world wracked by dust and lung disease. It is a near future that feels all too possible, wrapped in a history that resonates with familiarity.

Greenwood is defended by actor and film maker Keegan Connor Tracy on Canada Reads 2023, airing March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.

“It is a cautionary tale about how we have used our natural resources and how we will use them in the future, which is something that I think we really need to face as Canadians.” – Keegan Connor Tracy

You might also like:

And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier (trans. Rhonda Mullins)

Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

Canada Reads, Canadian, Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2023: Hotline

Cover image for Hotline by Dimitri Nasrallah

by Dimitri Nasrallah

ISBN 9781550655940

“I’m so sad for him! It breaks my heart every time he tells me about some little sharmoot at school who insults him or pushes him or takes his lunch. I want for him to love and be loved by this new world, to make this city his own if only it will let him. My only solace is that being pushed around at school is an improvement from not going to school at all or worrying a car bomb will explode as we return from the grocery store. This has to be better.”

When Muna Heddad arrives in 1980s Montreal with her eight-year-old son Omar, she is still grieving the loss of her husband Halim to Lebanon’s civil war. Immigrating to Canada was always Halim’s plan for their family, but now it falls to Muna to carry it out alone. While Muna’s credentials as a French teacher get them into Canada, she quickly finds that there no jobs teaching French in Montreal for someone who isn’t Quebecois. With the money from her husband’s family running out, Muna accepts a job working the phonelines for a diet food plan company. Hotline follows Muna and Omar through their first winter in Canada as Muna listens to the stories of struggling Canadians on the phones, while trying to rebuild her life from the ground up.

Hotline is loosely Inspired by the true story of Dimitri Nasrallah’s mother, who brought him to Canada from Lebanon as a child, after first passing through Greece and Kuwait. In Montreal, she found a job at a weight loss centre. Making Muna the point of view character requires Nasrallah to imagine her—and therefore his own mother—not just as a parent raising her child, but also a stranger in a new land, a woman who is missing her husband, and a person with her own dreams and ambitions. While the story is largely realistic, there are portions where Muna vividly dreams or imagines that her husband Halim is there with her, the invisible partner to this new life in Canada. It is a grief that never goes away, a wound that never really heals, and yet life must go on.

Although Muna’s job is at a hotline that sells weight loss products, diet culture is not a significant focus of the story. The people on the phone lines who are struggling with their weight provide Muna with an unexpected window into the lives and problems of the Canadians who are so slow to accept her on the streets of Toronto. On the phone lines, under the pseudonym Mona, her Old World accent is charming, soothing. On the streets of the city, hunting for a teaching job, it marks her as Other. These sad, lonely callers are the people who have the lives she is supposed to being aspiring to when teachers and government official urge her to integrate into Canadian life and culture. Later in the book, when a student doctor comes to visit Omar when he is sick, the medical student tells Muna she should stop feeding him the sample packs she is allowed to take home from work, because they are just low-calorie junk food, and that she should probably stop eating them herself. This non-food has helped keep them alive, but it is also a symbol of the shadow that lurks behind the promise of the Canadian dream as they struggle to find a way into their new lives.

Hotline is defended by bhangra dancer Gurdeep Pandher on Canada Reads 2023, airing March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.

“The book explores racism, belonging, loneliness and single parenting, but there’s also hope. The story is set in the 1980s — but is as true today as it was then.” – Gurdeep Pandher

You might also like:

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez

Brother by David Chariandy

Canada Reads, Canadian, Dystopian, Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2023: Station Eleven

Cover image for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

by Emily St.John Mandel

ISBN 9780385353304

“Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.

I try not to be biased, but it’s not often I get to see one of my all-time favourite books heading to the Canada Reads stage! Station Eleven was longlisted in 2016, which is–I believe–how I first discovered it, but didn’t make it to the debates. I read it anyway, and was struck by it as a post-apocalyptic narrative that focused not on the disaster itself, but the aftermath, as well as the way that pop culture remnants form an important touchstone for those who remember the pre-apocalypse world. I’ve since read it again with my book club, and turned to it as a familiar touchstone in the spring of 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown. If you prefer audiobooks, there’s an excellent version narrated by Kirsten Potter. Station Eleven sits alongside other literary takes on the apocalypse, from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake to Chang-rae Lee’s  On Such a Full Sea, but it wins me over by effortlessly balancing comic books and Star Trek right alongside Shakespeare.

Read my full review from 2016.

Station Eleven will be defended by actor and dancer Michael Greyeyes on Canada Reads 2023, set to air March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.

Station Eleven is “an extraordinary journey into the things that hold us together — into our dreams and the things so dear to us we cannot leave them behind.” -Michael Greyeyes

You might also like:

Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

We Stand on Guard by Brian K. Vaughan

Canada Reads, Canadian, Fiction, Horror

Canada Reads Along 2023: Mexican Gothic

Cover image for Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

ISBN 9780525620792

“It was the kind of thing she could imagine impressing her cousin: an old house atop a hill, with mist and moonlight, like an etching out of a Gothic novel. Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, those were Catalina’s sort of books.”

When her father receives a strange letter from her recently married cousin Catalina, Noemí Taboada is dispatched from Mexico City to check on her. Noemí arrives at High Place, a moldering mansion in the mountains built on the largesse of a now-defunct silver mine, to find an odd and eerie situation. High Place is like something right out of one of the gothic novels her cousin always favoured, right down to the fact that the Doyle family doctor says that Catalina has tuberculosis. Her strange letter to the Taboadas is attributed to a fever caused by her condition. Self-assured Noemí isn’t about to let herself be scared off by Catalina’s coldly enigmatic husband Virgil Doyle, nor any of the other odd members of the Doyle clan. She may even be able to use Francis, Virgil’s awkward younger cousin who has never left High Place but clearly longs for escape. As the mystery deepens, not only may Noemí be unable to extract Catalina from High Place, but she may also find herself trapped there as well.

The Doyles are an English family that built their fortune tossing Mexican labourers into the rapacious maw of their silver mine before losing almost all of it during Mexican Revolution. Some thirty years later, the last vestiges of the Doyle family live cloistered away in High Place under the iron dictates of their dying patriarch, Howard Doyle, while Catalina’s husband Virgil stands poised to inherit. The family rarely leaves the house, and never goes to town, where strange rumours about them circulate among the local population that once provided the labour for their now-crumbling estate. The series of disasters that reduced them to their present circumstances remains shrouded in mystery.

Mexican Gothic is an eerie post-colonial horror novel set in rural 1950s Mexico. Noemí grew up in the city, with all the arts, culture and education that entails. But history still casts a long shadow over her country, and in particular the legacy of colonialism touches everything. The huge but rotting library at High Place stands as a symbol of the Doyles’ lack of interest in real knowledge, favouring instead the pseudoscience of eugenics. While Noemí studies and debates the latest in anthropology at the university, the Doyles cling to eugenics even as their supposedly superior bloodline dwindles, blaming their falling fortunes on the Revolution and the quest for Mexican independence. Only Francis, with his interest in mycology, shows any real inclination for the life of the mind.

For the first fifth of the novel, High Place is disturbing but in a relatively mundane way. Virgil is lecherous, and his father openly racist. Florence openly aids and abets them in this behaviour. Mexican Gothic is layered with history, biology, anthropology, and Moreno-Garcia’s usual dab hand for incorporating the traditions of the genre she is working in while also making it her own. As the novel progresses, the atmospheric horror ramps up steadily even as the Doyles try to keep a polite English façade on their efforts to control Catalina and manipulate Noemí. The quagmire grows deeper as Noemí becomes determined to save not just her cousin, but also Francis, the only Spanish-speaking member of the Doyle household, a sad young man who has spent his short life trapped at High Place under the thumb of his more assertive family members.

Mexican Gothic will be defended by BookTok content creator Tasnim Geedi on Canada Reads 2023, set to air March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.

“This is not just a story about dark family secrets but the lingering effects of colonialism. And Silvia does not waste a single sentence to immerse you in this chilling story, which will have you questioning everybody, including yourself.” -Tasnim Geedi

You might also like:

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Canada Reads, Canada Reads Winners, Canadian, Graphic Novel, Memoir, Non-Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2023: Ducks

Cover image for Ducks by Kate Beaton

by Kate Beaton

ISBN 9781770462892

“I learn that I can have opportunity or I can have home. I cannot have both, and either will always hurt.”

Content Note: Sexual assault

Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant presents her first full-length graphic narrative in this memoir of the two years she spent working in the Alberta oil sands in order to pay off her student loans. Born and raised by the sea in Cape Breton, Beaton joined the many Atlantic Canadians seeking their fortune in the landlocked West while always longing for home. Heading first to the oil town of Fort McMurray and then into the camps of the oil companies, Beaton discovers the culture shock of being one of only a few women working in the industry. While she eventually pays off her loans in less time than it took to earn her degree, the real price is one she continues to reckon with.

Ducks makes for a somewhat grim read, dealing as it does with the double whammy of environmental devastation and sexual assault. The entire comic is drawn in greyscale, from the starkly beautiful landscapes of Cape Breton and Northern Alberta to the barren devastation of the oil sands, and even the aurora borealis and a rainbow. Beaton largely elides the first assault with four simple but effective pitch-black panels. The second time, slightly more is shown on page as she depicts herself getting up and walking away from her body while the attack takes place.

The oil town of Fort McMurray is filled with young families that were able to make a prosperous start on the largesse of the oil industry, but the town and the camps that surround it are also packed with lone men who have come from around the country to fill out the ranks. With little to do but work, the camps are a place of boredom, loneliness, isolation, and a self-reinforcing breeding ground for toxic masculinity. Drugs, alcohol abuse, and sexual harassment abound, but all are tolerated so long as they do not lead to a lost time incident that impacts the oil company. Over and over again, when Beaton finds the courage to share her story with other women, she hears one thing back: me, too.

Threaded throughout the narrative is the deep longing for home experienced by the many Atlantic Canadians forced to go west in order to find work to support their families. The camps are filled with refugees from the collapsed resource industries of Newfoundland and Cape Breton, be it mining or fishing. After experiencing constant harassment and two sexual assaults, Beaton is haunted by the idea that her own male relatives might have gone to the camps, and how the culture there would have affected them. She struggles to square this with the many moments of kindness she experiences when men from back home who know her family make a point to visit her or invite her into their homes.

Eventually Beaton succeeds in paying off her loans and saving up enough money to go home and make a proper go of her art, trying to leave the shadow of the oil sands behind. In the final panels of Ducks, she and her sister run into a man they knew at the camps while they’re out on the town with friends back home in Halifax. He speaks to them in a vulgar fashion, and when he leaves their friends are left stunned and appalled by his crass behaviour, but they are even more taken aback by the way Beaton and her sister simply accepted it as normal. And so Beaton concludes with the reminder that while you can quit the camps, you can never really leave them behind.

Ducks will be defended by Jeopardy champion Mattea Roach on Canada Reads 2023, set to air March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.

“This book is a window into so many critical conversations about the environment, about Indigenous land rights, about the student debt crisis and about gender relations. So there is an angle for every person to have their perspective shifted in some way.” -Mattea Roach

You might also like:

Messy Roots by Laura Gao

The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson

Fantasy, Fiction

The Goblin Emperor

Cover image for The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

by Katherine Addison

ISBN 9781429946407

“Dach’osmin Ceredin had warned him about Min Vechin, but he wanted a dutiful companion no more than he wanted a mercenary one. He wanted a friend, and that, it seemed, was exactly what he could not have.”

When an airship crash leads to the death of the Emperor of the Elflands and all his immediate successors, the youngest son of Varenechibel IV unexpectedly finds himself on the throne. Half-goblin prince Maia Drazhar has lived his life in exile from his father’s court. Since the death of his mother when he was eight, he has been raised by a relegated cousin who was also out of favour with the emperor. Friendless and largely unschooled in the customs of the court, the new emperor will need to find allies quickly if he is to seize control of a country in turmoil. But there are factions of the court that will never stand for a half-goblin on the throne, and to survive the Untheileneise Court Maia will have to outwit the opposition while also investigating the suspicious deaths of his estranged family.

The Goblin Emperor gets off to a relatively slow start, opening with Maia receiving the stunning news that he his emperor but then spending the first quarter of the book getting him crowned. Add this to the esoteric naming conventions, and the formal court speech style which can feel quite stilted, and this is the type of worldbuilding that it can take a while to sink into. The setting is introduced via an excerpted travelogue or guidebook that gives an overview of the Elflands and the customs of the court. There is also an extensive glossary of places and characters. Please see below for a much livelier introduction to the important characters, humorously detailed by my friend Amelia, who recommended the book!

Presenting: "Who the heck is that!?" by Amelia Garcia Scott, A Very Accurate Guide to the Characters in The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Maia never imagined himself at court, let alone on the throne, and he has little taste for power. In fact, in Maia we find a surprisingly kind and reflective character who is determined not to perpetuate the injustices he has suffered at the hands of his father. As much as he would like to abdicate the responsibility of the crown, the only other possible heirs are still children, and Maia knows enough history to understand that the regency of a minor could result in a disastrous power struggle. At eighteen, he is barely more than a child himself, but the task nevertheless falls to him. The plot follows Maia as he reluctantly learns the ways of the court while also trying to mount an investigation into the airship crash the landed him on the throne.

While the plot follows the investigation into the crash of the Wisdom of Choharo, the emotional arc of the story bends around Maia’s loneliness from his time in exile, and the new form of loneliness he discovers at court as the newly crowned emperor Edrehasivar VII. Surrounded by courtiers, servants, secretaries, and bodyguards, he is nevertheless more isolated than he has ever been. What Maia wants more than anything else is a friend, but it seems that is the one luxury even the Emperor of the Elflands cannot obtain. Everyone at court wants something from him or has their own agenda. However, The Goblin Emperor is more character- than plot-driven, resulting in a surprisingly cozy court intrigue as Maia builds the relationships he will need to rule long and well despite the prejudice that surrounds him.

You might also like:

A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Fantasy, Fiction, Horror

Hell Bent (Alex Stern #2)

Cover image for Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

by Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 9781250313102

“To pay your debts, you had to know who you owed. You had to decide who you were willing to go to war for and who you trusted to jump into the fray for you. That was all there was in this world. No heroes or villains, just the people you’d brave the waves for, and the ones you’d let drown.”

After the events of Ninth House, Daniel Arlington—the part of him that isn’t trapped in hell—is bound in the warding circle in ballroom of Black Elm, but that binding will not hold forever. Without his soul, the gentleman of Lethe isn’t quite human, and there is no saying what destruction might be unleashed when the circle finally fails. Alex Stern and Pamela Dawes will need to find the gateway to hell rumoured to be hidden in New Haven and either steal Darlington’s soul back or destroy him before he harms anyone. Forbidden by Lethe from attempting the rescue, Dante, Oculus and Centurion shed their official roles and—with the help of an unexpected ally—set about planning a covert operation to extract Darlington. But no one can walk into hell without paying a price.

Heading into her second year with Lethe, Alex is trying to keep too many balls in the air. She needs to attend class, save Darlington from hell, appease the reactionary new praetor of Lethe, assuage her mother’s worries, and ensure that her roommates don’t find out anything they shouldn’t about the supernatural. Worse, the past she thought she’d left behind in Los Angeles has come calling, and now she has a drug lord to worry about. And if that weren’t enough, Alex doesn’t just see the Greys, she now hears them as well, raising more questions about what it means to be a Wheelwalker.

In Hell Bent, Leigh Bardugo employs a non-linear narrative structure similar to Ninth House; we get a glimpse into a moment of crisis before returning to the beginning of the school year and learning how Alex came to that critical point. The story is told predominantly from Alex’s point of view, but with additional sections from the other characters. In particular, on the descent to hell, we see from the perspective of each of the four pilgrims the murder that qualifies them to descend, deepening our insights into the secondary characters. The not-quite-human Darlington also gets a stint in the second half.

Hell Bent comes in at nearly 500 pages, and is divided into two parts, entitled “As Above” and “So Below.” While there are constant puzzles and dangerous occurrences driving the action, the pacing was recursive, particularly around the mid-point when a failed first attempt to extract Darlington from hell sets Alex and her allies back to square one in many respects. And with the door to hell cracked open, additional complications rear their heads in the second act, not all of which are resolved in this installment. On Twitter, Bardugo has hinted there may be as many as five book in the series, though nothing is certain in publishing.

Like its predecessor, Hell Bent absolutely runs the gamut of possible content warnings for everything from death and violence to police brutality and animal cruelty. If you need more information, consider checking out the book’s page on Storygraph. This Goodreads alternative allows users to submit warnings along with their reviews, an extremely useful feature for helping you decide if a book or series might be your speed right now. However, do note that since these are user submitted, the feature necessarily works better for more popular books that have a lot of reviews. I’ve been trying it out for the last year or so, and you can find me here on Storygraph.

You might also like Babel by R.F. Kuang

Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

The Stolen Heir

Cover image for The Stolen Heir by Holly Black

by Holly Black

ISBN 9780316592703 

“My greatest weakness has always been my desire for love. It is a yawning chasm within me, and the more that I reach for it, the more easily I am tricked. I am a walking bruise, an open sore. If Oak is masked, I am a face with all the skin ripped off. Over and over, I have told myself that I need to guard against my own yearnings, but that hasn’t worked. I must try something new.”

New to the world of Elfhame? Start here with The Cruel Prince!

Prince Oak, heir to the Greenbriar line, has grown up under Heather and Vivi’s care in the mortal world and has now returned to the treacherous fae court in Elfhame. General Madoc is being held prisoner in the Court of Teeth, and despite his betrayals, Oak is still determined to save the father who raised him, with or without help from Jude and Cardan. But to do that, he’ll need find Lady Suren, the true queen of the north and the one person with the power to defeat Lady Nore thanks to the oath the High Queen forced Lady Nore to swear to her daughter and queen. Meanwhile, Wren has been living half-wild in the mortal world, close but not too close to her former human family. She makes a place for herself breaking the curses and traps that faeries try to trick mortals into. But without a strong talent for glamour, she cannot truly become part of the mortal world again thanks to her blue skin and knife-sharp teeth. When Oak appears in the mortal world asking for her help, Wren knows she cannot not trust him, but nor can she deny the desire to follow him.

The adventure of The Stolen Heir takes the form of a quest, crossing from the mortal world and traveling north to the Ice Citadel where Lady Nore is holding Madoc captive in her dungeons. After stealing Mab’s bones from the bowels of the court of Elfhame, Lady Nore has been using the magic of the dead fae queen’s remains to raise a terrible army. But she is still bound by oath of fealty to Lady Suren; a word from her could ruin all of Lady Nore’s plans—if Wren can get close enough. Doing so will require her to work closely with Oak. Our protagonists are two damaged children who have spent their lives being used as political pawns and now find themselves on the verge of adulthood. A true alliance between them could reshape the political landscape of Elfhame, but trust is terribly hard to come by.

Since the events of The Queen of Nothing, mischievous little Prince Oak has grown up to be beautiful and charming. Wren is afraid that Oak is a gancanagh—a lovetalker, like his birth mother before him, who ensnared first the High King, and then his son. Having spent her time in the mortal world as a cursebreaker, Wren knows all too well that she should never trust the beauty or charm of one of the fair folk. It does not help matters that Oak and Tiernan still hold Grimsen’s bridle, the magical artifact that Wren’s parents once used to control her. Worse, they are actively using it on Hyancinthe, keeping him prisoner and taking him north with them on their mission. Wren fears being put back in the bridle, but it is terrible in an entirely different way to see it inflicted upon another, and to do nothing.

In Holly Black’s new duology set in the world of Elfhame, Oak and Wren take center stage, with a side plot featuring Oak’s bodyguard Tiernan and his former lover Hyacinthe, who found themselves on opposite sides of the war. Jude and Cardan are firmly off-page, though the conclusion of The Stolen Heir makes it likely that they will feature more significantly in The Prisoner’s Throne, due out in 2024.

You might also like:

An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson

A Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black