“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
“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 Reads2023, 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
“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.
“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
“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
“I had done the worst thing anyone could imagine. Soul-bargaining was the only likely act in the whole Anathemata—who had ever seen a unicorn or an angel, much less killed one?”
A decade ago, Helen sold her soul to save her younger brother, Ted. For her trouble, she was exiled from her remaining family and the larger magical community. Now she gets by doing magical odd jobs, knowing that her clock is ticking; a demon bargain only gets you ten years, and her time is almost up. That is, until Helen is offered a new, once in a millennium bargain. All she must do is find the serial killer known as the White City Vampire and she can have her soul back, along with a chance to make a new life with her girlfriend, Edith.
Even Though I Knew the End is a noirish mystery novella set in a magical version of 1940s Chicago haunted by angels and demons alike. Helen is a magical private eye, but she must tread carefully in order to avoid the Brotherhood, the magical order from which she was expelled as anathema. When Helen takes one last job from a wealthy client in order to put by a little more money for Edith, she stumbles into more than she bargained for: a serial killer being hunted by the Brotherhood, including her own estranged brother Teddy.
Helen is a gruff character who plays her cards close to the chest. She hasn’t told Edith, her girlfriend of two years, about her bargain, even though she has been putting her affairs in order so that Edith will inherit all her earthly goods. The possibility that Helen and Edith might get to be together after all adds a thrumming core of urgency to the mystery. Only three days remain before Helen’s bill will come due but perhaps if she solves this mystery they can still fulfill their dream of moving to San Francisco and buying a little house together in a city that “didn’t mind us much.” However, Helen is far from the only one keeping secrets in this relationship.
While there is a certain magical romanticism to Polk’s Chicago, it also has an undeniable dark side. Raids are an ever-present threat for queer clubs like the one where Helen and Edith first met. Sometimes women disappear from their community, perhaps found out by their families or worse. When they visit an asylum for women to try to interview a victim, Helen is confronted by the imprisonment of a woman she recognizes from the club. We are reminded that this is a setting where electroshock aversion therapy is considered a valid treatment for homosexuality. At the same time, in a world where demons and angels are real, Polk makes it extremely clear that “the revulsion for homosexual love is a human prejudice.”
With an excellent setting and characters, Even Though I Knew the End is a haunting story with a bittersweet ending. It is the kind of novella that makes you absolutely want more, even while you grudgingly acknowledge that it doesn’t need to be any longer than it is.
Today marks ten years since I launched this blog with a review of the YA novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Since then I’ve read and reviewed hundreds of books, but for the anniversary I wanted to round up some of my absolute favourites, beginning with fiction. All five books listed below are ones that I’ve read more than once. They stand up to rereading, and make reliable quick picks when someone has asked me to recommend a book as a gift or for their book group.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Sonja escaped from war-torn Chechnya on a scholarship to study medicine in London. But she is pulled back home by the disappearance of her beautiful but troubled sister, Natasha, just in time to be trapped by the outbreak of the first Chechen war of independence. Against all odds, Sonja thrives, taking charge of a decrepit hospital and becoming a surgeon renowned by rebels and Feds alike. Miraculously, Natasha is returned to her, a shattered wreck rescued from a prostitution ring in Italy. They slowly begin to rebuild their lives, only to have them smashed again by a second war, and Natasha’s second disappearance. The story is an exercise in contrasts, filled with exquisite, lyrical prose counterpointed by brutal, senseless violence. Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness. I discovered this novel after meeting the author at ALA Annual 2013, and it is a frequent recommendation for people who like books about sibling relationships.
At a production of King Lear in Toronto, Jeevan Chaudhary charges onstage in the middle of the show to perform CPR on lead actor Arthur Leander. Unbeknownst to everyone, this is the last night of the old world; even as the show goes on, recent arrivals on a flight from Moscow are flooding into local hospitals, stricken with the Georgia Flu that only days before seemed like a distant European epidemic. Fifteen years later, Kirsten Raymonde, who played the child-version of Cordelia in that long ago production of King Lear, is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors that perform Shakespeare. When the Symphony arrives back in St. Deborah-by-the-Water after a two year absence, eagerly anticipating a reunion with two members of their group left behind there, they find the settlement irrevocably altered. A Prophet has taken over the town, driving many residents away, and bringing the rest under his sway. When the Prophet demands one of the Symphony’s young women to be his next wife, the Conductor and her people flee south into unknown territory. Station Eleven is intricately woven from multiple perspectives and shifting timelines. I first read this book in 2016, when I discovered it on the Canada Reads longlist, but it has taken on a new resonance since the COVID-19 pandemic.
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 letters begin with rivalry and taunts, but bend towards intimacy and mutual understanding as the correspondence progresses. 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. This beautifully written short novel gripped me so thoroughly that I read it twice in a row, and listened to the audiobook as well.
Rin is a war orphan, being raised by the Fang family only because the government has mandated that families adopt such children, and because they find it convenient to use her to help them in their drug smuggling business. Living in the deep rural south of the Nikara Empire, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods, but immortals exact a terrible price. When I received a free ARC of this debut novel from the publisher in 2018, I was more struck by the cover art by Jun Shan Chang than anything else. I had no idea I was discovering one of my new favourite writers, who has since completed the Poppy War trilogy and gone on to write Babel.
Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith Plantation are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse. Washington Black is a novel full of adventure and travel, from Titch and Wash’s improbable escape from Faith Plantation, to encounters with bounty hunters, expeditions to the Arctic, and the escapades of cutting edge scientists diving for marine zoology specimens for an ambitious new undertaking. However it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that earns this novel a place on this list.
When I launched this blog in the fall of 2012, shortly after my husband and I moved to the Seattle area for his job, I had no idea I would still be maintaining it a decade later! At the time, I was at loose ends waiting for a work visa, and looking for something to fill the time. Since then, I’ve returned to library work, starting in public libraries and then making an unexpected jump into the world of corporate librarianship. We’ve adopted two cats, bought a condo, and settled in to stay. These days I don’t have quite as much spare time to read or review, but I still love having a place to collect my thoughts and reading history, especially when someone asks me for a reading recommendation!
In honour of the tenth anniversary of Required Reading, I thought it might be fun to dig into the stats and find my most popular posts. Since October 2012, I’ve published 722 posts (this makes 723!) for a total of more than half a million words, which have been read by people from literally all over the world:
Over the course of the coming week, I’m planning to share some of my favourite reads from the the past ten years, but to kick things off, here are the top five most popular posts on the site:
I’m not sure why this 2016 review of the YA fantasy sequel to The Wrath and the Dawn is so popular, but year after year this review continues to receive hits. It’s one of the few spoiler reviews on my site, because I couldn’t find a way to write about it without discussing the ending. It makes me think that, despite the taboo, people actually do like spoilers! Inspired by the 1001 Nights, the sequel focuses on Khalid and Shahrzad trying to break the curse that turned him into the murderous caliph who executed all of his previous brides, including Shahrzad’s best friend. She must find a way to regain the trust of her allies, and free the kingdom from this curse so that no more girls have to be sacrificed.
My 2015 and 2017 reviews of two of the books in Han’s popular To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series continue to see high traffic, with a bump driven by the recent Netflix adaptation. However, the much of the traffic here comes from some populartext graphics I shared on Pinterest, that continue to do the rounds. P.S. I Still Love You follows Lara Jean and Peter trying to figure out how to date for real after the fake dating plot of the first book, when another boy from her past shows up with a letter in hand. Then, Always and Forever, Lara Jean focuses Lara Jean’s senior year of high school and her decision about whether or not to follow her boyfriend to college. You can start the series here with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
This 2016 review of a Canadian graphic novel continues to see a high hit count, and the search terms lead me to guess that maybe it is being taught in some Canadian classrooms. The Outside Circle follows Pete, a young aboriginal man who goes to jail after a fight with his mother’s boyfriend. Eventually, time served and good behaviour gets Pete admitted to a traditional aboriginal healing centre in Edmonton, where the program aims to help First Nations people process their history in order to help them understand the cycle of abuse in which they have been trapped. The standout here is the striking art by Kelly Mellings which brings Pete’s story to life using a minimalist colour palette.
This 2015 post is a review of Bell’s graphic memoir, based on her own experiences as a deaf child in school, although the characters are drawn as cute rabbits. When four-year-old Cece suddenly becomes violently ill, she wakes up in the hospital unable to hear, and has to be outfitted with a hearing aid. When first grade rolls around, it is time for Cece to go to her neighbourhood school, where she will be the only deaf student. Cece’s El Deafo character doesn’t just turn deafness into a super power. Rather, El Deafo is Cece’s more assertive self, the one that is brave enough to stand up and explain when something that her friends are doing is actually making things more difficult for her.
Thanks to all my readers, whether you’ve been here from the beginning or are just tuning in now! Check back throughout the week as I highlight some of my favourite reads since the inception of this blog.