Category: Canadian

Canada Reads Along 2018: Forgiveness

Cover image for Forgiveness by Mark Sakamotoby Mark Sakamoto

ISBN 9781443417990

History has proven all too many times that discrimination in any form is a downward spiral.”

On opposite sides of the Pacific, two Canadians become prisoners of World War II. In December 1941, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese, and more than 1500 Canadian soldiers were captured and rounded up into camps. Among them was Ralph McLean, a young man from Canada’s eastern Magdalen Islands. For the remainder of the war, the prisoners would endure dire, often life threatening conditions. That same month, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ratcheted up anti-Asian sentiment in Canada, particularly on the West Coast. Mitsue Sakamoto, recently married, found herself and her family forced out of their homes, and given a choice between internment and hard labour on a farm to help supplement war rationing. They would never be able to return home to Vancouver. Decades later, these war survivors would be united by the marriage of their children, and the birth of their shared grandchildren. But tragedy would continue to touch the family down through the years, in the form of divorce and addiction and loss.

Forgiveness is a book with three main acts or movements. We first follow Grandpa Ralph through an abusive childhood with his alcoholic father through to his enlistment in the war in order to escape home. On the opposite coast, Mark’s grandmother, Mitsue, is beginning her career as a seamstress, meeting her husband-to-be, and facing the rising tide of anti-Japanese sentiment fostered by their dominance in the coastal fishing industry. Mark Sakamoto follows his grandparents through the war, recounts the meeting and marriage of his parents, as well as the first dinner between his maternal and paternal grandparents. The third act of the book is concerned with his parents’ divorce, and his mother’s subsequent descent into alcoholism, near-homelessness, and an abusive relationship. Each section carries its own unique and heavy weight of tragedy and loss.

The cover copy for this book describes it as being about “two families on either side of the Second World War.” But what struck me about Forgiveness is that it is actually about two families that were supposed to be on the same side of the war. Mitsue was not even a Japanese citizen; she was born and raised in Canada, and had never set foot in the country of her parents’ birth. Grandpa Ralph was imprisoned by enemy combatants. Mitsue Sakamoto was forced out of her home and given a choice between near-slave labour and imprisonment by her fellow Canadian citizens and her own government. Throughout Canada Reads week, Grandpa Ralph was by far the most frequently spoken about by the panelists, but for me it was Mitsue whose story and character were of greatest interest. And while the theme of the book is forgiveness, it remains largely on a personal level, dealing with Ralph and Mitsue’s ability to put their pasts behind them in order to allow their families to come together, and then with Mark’s need to forgive himself for not being able to save his mother. The book never digs deeper to try to reckon with the much bigger forgiveness and reconciliation that needs to happen on a national level in order for Canada to move on from the wrong that was done to Canadians of Japanese descent during the war, and to ensure that such injustice is not repeated.

After the death of his paternal grandfather, Hideo Sakamoto, Mark helped his grandmother clean out their basement. There they found Ralph McLean’s war medals, and Mitsue asked Mark to return them to his maternal grandfather. In this early scene, Mark describes the profound respect that existed between Mitsue and Ralph, so I was disappointed that the book did not go on to recount many interactions between them. The first dinner between the two families is described, but very few other scenes place them together. Rather, after the war years, Mark’s focus turns to his parents’ marriage and divorce, and his mother’s struggle with addiction, and his own difficulties as a young man trying to find ways to help her, and eventually to free himself from her cycle of destruction. We never do circle back to those war medals, to the friendship that developed between the two sets of grandparents, and how the medals came to be gifted from one side to the other.

Forgiveness was defended in this year’s Canada Reads debates by fashion television host Jeanne Beker. In her opening argument, Beker highlighted the importance of remembering the darker chapters in Canada’s history, while also forgiving them in order for healing to take place. The hopefulness of Mark Sakamoto’s narrative became a key pillar in her defense of the book throughout the week, with Beker arguing that it is necessary to heal our own hurts before we can turn to healing anything outside of ourselves.

Working on this basis, Beker took relentless aim at the darkness and tragedy in other books on the table, particularly The Marrow Thieves, and American War. She described The Marrow Thieves as being too fearful, since much of the book is spent on the run in the woods, and ascribed her aversion as being a product of hearing her parents’ stories about being Holocaust survivors, and fleeing the Nazis. Beker took a similar tactic against American War, describing the book as a “soul destroying” revenge narrative. Despite these arguments, on Day Two, Beker cast the tie breaking vote between American War and Precious Cargo, which eliminated Precious Cargo from the competition, leading some viewers to speculate that she was voting strategically, since it was the only book on the table that was more upbeat and arguably more hopeful than her own. Beker went on to explain her vote by saying she didn’t feel that Precious Cargo had the “gravitas” to compete against the other books.

Going into the final day of debates, not one panelist had cast a vote to eliminate Forgiveness. By contrast, the last opponent standing, American War, had been voted against every day, and narrowly survived the Day Two tie against Precious Cargo. With the only other memoir having been eliminated, Beker dodged many questions by refusing to compare fiction and non-fiction, selecting Ralph McLean as her favourite character in the books because he was real, and describing the question “what does Forgiveness have that American War doesn’t” as “ridiculous,” because the two books were apples and oranges. Beker closed with an appeal to the values of the book, including forgiveness, healing, and remembrance. By contrast, Tahmoh Penikett asked his fellow panelists to be open to hearing and acknowledging the hard truths of American War, and thanking them for their passionate defenses of their own books. Jully Black, who had fiercely challenged Beker’s negative characterization of difficult books throughout the week, voted with Penikett against Forgiveness. However, Beker’s appeals to positivity and true stories over fiction were effective with Greg Johnson and Mozdah Jamalzadah, who voted with Beker to make Forgiveness the winner of Canada Reads 2018.

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That’s it for Canada Reads Along 2018! Catch up on my recaps starting here.

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Canada Reads Along 2018: American War

Cover image for American War by Omar Ell Akkadby Omar El Akkad

ISBN 978-0-451-49358-3

If we nod and smile while they parade some fantasy about this being a noble disagreement between equals and not a bloody fight over their stubborn commitment to a ruinous fuel, the war will never really be over…You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.

Sarat Chestnut is born by the sea, into contested territory between the Reds and Blues that are fighting the Second American Civil War. Her world is wracked by climate change, and by the South’s refusal to give up on fossil fuels. Much of the Southern US coast is now underwater, and out-of-control drones crawl the skies. When her father is killed in a bombing, Sarat’s mother and her three children flee to Camp Patience, a refugee camp on the North/South border. There they scrape together a life always on the edge of dissolution, and the children grow up with the question of what the future can possibly hold for them. It is here that Sarat meets the mentor who will shape her mind, and turn her to his own ends.

In American War, journalist Omar El Akkad paints a dark dystopian future in which the unreconciled shadows of America’s past rise up to tear the country apart once more. His protagonist begins as a child caught in the middle of that fight, and is irrevocably twisted and shaped by the horrors of war. We follow Sarat as she goes from refugee to fighter to war hero to wanted terrorist, perceptions of her swaying and turning depending from which side of the conflict she is being seen. We see her broken and remade, and broken again, and must inevitably follow her to the consequences of that final breaking. She is not a likeable character, and the reader is not necessarily supposed to sympathize with her actions, but it the author’s quest to make us understand her nevertheless.

American War is told with a frame narrative. It is many years after the Second American Civil War, and the Reunification Plague that followed it. In the far north of the Alaska Neutral Territory, someone who remembers Sarat, who knows who she was, and what she did, is dying. For so long the secret has been kept, but now the story will be told. Also interspersed through the book, at the end of each chapter, are documents that assist the massive feat of world-building that El Akkad has undertaken. The story covers a large swath of time, with a lot of alternate history that needs to be explained, and these excerpts help support that, but are inserted at natural breaking points rather than dumped into the main body of the text.

Although American War was extremely well conceived and written, there were three parts that stuck out which were difficult for me to reconcile. I was able to cope with the darkness of the book, but somehow I couldn’t handle the scene where a boy spying on Sarat in the shower was supposed to make her feel powerful. Fortunately this scene did not devolve into a sexual assault, but it was still a moment of exploitation, and unlike other such moments, the author chose to spin this one as empowering. Next, there was Sarat’s distaste for her disabled brother, who sustains a traumatic brain injury in the course of the book. Her love for her family is supposed to be one of Sarat’s only redeeming qualities, so this felt somewhat incongruous. Most of all however, I struggled with El Akkad’s choice to create a queer, black, female terrorist as the protagonist of his book, when so often these are the people we see become the victims of terrorism. The author failed to meaningfully engage with how these aspects of her identity might have interacted with her experiences to shape her trajectory.

American War was defended in this year’s Canada Reads debates by actor Tahmoh Penikett, who is best known for his work in science fiction television. In his opening arguments, Penikett posited American War as a novel that addresses a crisis of empathy in our society. Going into the finale, he asked his fellow panelists to be open to hearing the hard truths of this book, because listening is essential in order to find compassion and make healing possible.

Over the course of the week, the darkness of American War was repeatedly pitted against the themes of hope in Forgiveness and The Marrow Thieves, and the humour and levity of Precious Cargo. Greg Johnson in particular was adamant in his argument that the world is not as dark a place as it is painted in this novel, and Jeanne Beker was right there with him, having effectively used this argument against The Marrow Thieves as well. American War was voted against at least once every day of the debates, survived a tie breaker on Day Two, and received two more strikes on Day Three. By contrast, going into Day Four, not one panelist had cast a ballot against Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto, making it evident that while American War was going to the finale, it would have a tough fight to win Canada Reads 2018.

One thing the panelists did find particularly effective about American War was the role reversal of empires. America has fallen into the civil war-torn state we see on the news of many other countries, while the Bouazizi Empire has risen in North Africa and the Middle East, to fill the role America once held in the world. The Empire and China now send aid ships to America. Mozhdah Jamalzadah spoke eloquently to this on Day Two, pointing out how this was effective against the North American tendency to block out what is going on in the rest of the world. Tahmoh Penikett continued to amplify this line of argument, suggesting that the book is so effective because it is set in our backyard. Occasionally, a panelist would try to raise the American-ness of the book as a strike against it, but this argument never gained much traction or serious debate. Darkness and revenge were the main sticking points.

The final day of debates focused on finding elements of the eliminated books in the remaining contenders, a persuasive line of attack given that the three free agents decide the competition. Tahmoh Penikett appealed to Mozhdah Jamalzadah, arguing that the refugee crisis of The Boat People is also represented in Sarat’s story. Jeanne Beker tried to relate Forgiveness to The Marrow Thieves, arguing that its message of learning from our elders and moving forward with an eye on the past was represented in her book as well. All of the remaining panelists were also asked to say what they liked about the remaining books. Tahmoh Penikett said he personally related to Mark Sakamoto’s description of loving someone who is struggling with alcoholism. Jeanne Beker praised Omar El Akkad’s writing, and his visual, cinematic style.

When it came time to vote, Penikett and Beker of course voted against the opposing book. After voting against American War for much of the week, always citing its American-ness as her reason, Jully Black moved on the final day to vote against Forgiveness. Greg Johnson—though he admitted he had come close to flipping thanks to Penikett’s defense—voted against American War for the third time. Canada Reads once again put Mozhdah Jamalzadah in the position of casting the final ballot, and her strike against American War made Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto the winner of Canada Reads 2018.

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Check back tomorrow for my review of the winner of Canada Reads 2018! Meanwhile, you can catch up on my recaps, or tune into to replays on CBC.

Canada Reads Along 2018: The Marrow Thieves

Cover image for The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimalineby Cherie Dimaline

ISBN 978-1-77086-486-3

Everyone tells their own coming-to story. That’s the rule. Everyone’s creation story is their own.”

Fifteen-year-old Frenchie is a survivor, the last remaining member of his family after seeing his brother snatched by the government. In a near-future where the world is falling apart thanks to the results of global warming, society is also plagued by a new problem. People have forgotten how to dream, and this dreamlessness is slowly driving them mad. Only the Indigenous population retains the ability to dream, and it is their bone marrow that seems to hold the key to why they have not succumbed to this new plague. As the madness spreads, the government takes a page from history, and begins herding the remaining First Nations people into facilities modeled on residential schools, where their marrow is harvested at the cost of their lives. The few who remain free push northward into the wilderness, trying outrun the reach of the government. But a confrontation with the Recruiters is inevitable, and one day there will be nowhere left to run.

The Marrow Thieves opens with Frenchie’s coming-to story, a flashback that recounts how he came to be on the run in the northern bush, and who he was before the plague came. The bulk of the story is set in the bush, but several of the characters in the party share their own coming-to stories over the course of the book. There are also bits of Story mixed in, times when the elders Miig and Minerva pass down their knowledge to the youth that they are taking north. Hearing Story is both a privilege and a responsibility to become the carriers of their heritage going forward into an uncertain future. So much has already been lost, or deliberately stripped away, and the kids cling to the little bits of Story and language that remain to them, that help them understand who they are, and why they are hunted. It is their weakness, but also their truth, and their power.

Using a futuristic echo of the residential school system, The Marrow Thieves examines how Canada might repeat the horrors of the past by failing to acknowledge or reconcile with them. The science fiction element of extracting dreams from bone marrow is not deeply explored in a technical sense. Rather, the bone marrow becomes a powerful metaphor for what has been taken from Indigenous peoples, as well as the appropriation of their culture by those who have already taken their land, their resources, their homes, and their families, and are still not satisfied by the destruction they have wrought. It is a gut-churning portrayal entitlement.

Despite the dark premise, and the threat that Frenchie and his friends are facing, I still found an abundance of hope in The Marrow Thieves. Although they are on the run, the characters still build lives, families, and friendships. They care for Minerva, who has deep roots to the culture, but who would not be strong enough to run on her own. They protect little RiRi, the youngest of their group, slowly helping her to understand what things were like before her birth, and what has been done to their people since then. Miig mourns the husband that he lost, but finds his purpose in protecting and teaching the youth who are left. And Frenchie and Rose are clumsily falling in love, haltingly trying to figure out themselves, and one another, and what it means to love in a world like the one they were born into.

The Marrow Thieves was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by R&B singer-songwriter Jully Black. Back on Day One, Black championed The Marrow Thieves as a hopeful book that acknowledges the power of the youth voice, and the importance of hearing Indigenous stories and understanding Canada’s original injustice. During her Day Three opening, she said that she felt the book was more important than ever in light of the breaking news that Pope Francis is refusing to issue an apology for the role of the Catholic Church in the abuses of the residential school system, despite the recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Marrow Thieves has had a tough row to hoe on Canada Reads 2018 from Day One. As the only Young Adult book in the competition, panelists repeatedly singled it out, recommending it for use in schools, but denying that it could be the “One Book to Open Your Eyes” that adult Canadians need to read. Jully Black argued for the importance of the youth perspective, and further that “the soul has no age.” After the book he was defending, Precious Cargo, was eliminated on Day Two, free agent Greg Johnson went so far as to announce that in addition to donating twenty-five copies of Precious Cargo to schools, he was also purchasing twenty-five copies of The Marrow Thieves. He highlighted the hopefulness of the book, and the fact that it was about the kids’ journey to rediscover their history.

During Day One, Jeanne Beker had derided the despair and fear of The Marrow Thieves, arguing that it might alienate readers. The point was raised again on Day Two, and Jully Black challenged her to think about who might be made uncomfortable by the book and why. Tahmoh Penikett defended the book as having resonated with him on many levels, particularly considering his mother’s experiences in the residential school system. However, both Penikett (a science fiction actor) and Mozhdah Jamalzadah expressed that they were taken out of the story by the lack of explanation about how the bone marrow extraction worked. Jully Black argued that the bone marrow was a metaphor, and that we do not need to understand the process in order to connect with what the bone marrow represents. Drawing a parallel to the residential schools, she argued that we do not need to see behind the drywall to the architecture of the school building to know that the system was harmful.

The Day Three debate focused on the differences between memoir and fiction, reading as an enjoyable experience, and compelling characters. These question led the panelists to mostly discuss American War and Forgiveness, with less specific discussion of The Marrow Thieves compared to previous days. When the ballots were cast, Jully Black and Greg Johnson formed an unsurprising alliance, voting against American War. Tahmoh Penikett and Jeanne Beker voted against The Marrow Thieves. This put the final vote in the hands of free agent Mozhdah Jamalzadah, whose choice made The Marrow Thieves the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2018.

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Catch up with the 2018 Canada Reads debates starting with Day One, or tune into the program with CBC 

And if you loved The Marrow Thieves as much as I did, you might also like The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Indigenous Australian author Ambelin Kwaymullina

Canada Reads Along 2018: Precious Cargo

Cover image for Precious Cargo by Craig Davidsonby Craig Davidson

ISBN 978-0-345-81051-9

Failure carries weight. Nobody tells you this. Cinderblocks stacked on your chest and piled atop your skull; you develop a persistent slump, your shoulders round in defeat. People can sense it. They avoid you as if you’ve got scabies.”

In the summer of 2008, Craig Davidson was broke and unemployed, a struggling writer who felt he had blown his one chance at success. After being rejected for a lunch monitor position, a flyer landed in his mailbox advertising school bus driver jobs—no experience necessary! By simple chance, the route closest to home was a mini-bus that transported five students with various disabilities to their middle and high schools. Over the course of the school year, the kids on the bus unwound Davidson’s sense of failure, and soon helped him begin writing again. Precious Cargo is his account of that year on the bus, and what he learned along the way.

Precious Cargo is divided into four sections by the seasons of the school year, beginning with Craig’s hiring and training, and progressing through to the following June. Interspersed with these main sections are chapters from an unpublished novel called The Seekers. It wasn’t immediately clear to me what was going on with these excerpts, which are not explained, but I soon realized that Davidson had cast the kids from his bus as heroes in an adventure novel about time travel. Over the course of the book, as we get to know the five kids, it becomes evident that they are largely geeky and creative, enjoying science fiction and fantasy, and making up their own stories as well. I wondered if Davidson had shared his invention with them, or involved them in it, but this is never touched on.

The portrayals of the five kids who rode Davidson’s bus are a bit uneven. Jake, a teenager with Cerebral Palsy who loves science fiction, and wants to be a writer, by far receives the most attention and detail, followed by Oliver, a dramatic character who has Fragile X syndrome. Vincent and Gavin (who is non-verbal) fall in between, and Nadja receives very little attention at all. I had wondered if this is might have been at the request or the kids or their families, but that turned out not to be the case. When this was brought up during the Canada Reads debates, defender Greg Johnson raised it with the author, who admitted that he connected more with some of the kids, and that the book reflects that. I think this was one thing that always felt awkward to me as I was reading the book; Davidson was an adult in a position of responsibility with these kids, but he clearly had favourites.

If some of the kids were barely sketched in, others are very closely described. I was left wondering how Jake and his family felt about the intimate portrayal of their situation. Davidson states that he told the kids and their families that he was a writer, but we never hear from them directly. In Jake’s case in particular, enough identifying details are provided that, although a pseudonym is used in the book, the family is easily identifiable with the most cursory internet search. Davidson very much centered himself and his journey in this account of his year on the bus, and I hope that it has not been at the expense of his subjects. While he seems to have genuine feeling for the kids, he also falls into common tropes, like referring to Jake as being “trapped inside his own diminishing body.”

Precious Cargo was defended in this year’s Canada Reads debates by tornado chaser Greg Johnson. In his opening arguments, Johnson lauded the book for opening his eyes on a personal level—this year’s theme is One Book to Open Your Eyes—and for using humour to tackle difficult issues. Certainly, its tone is different from the other books selected for this year’s competition. In his final rebuttal, he pointed out that this is the first time that a book about disabilities has been selected in the seventeen years of Canada Reads. However, it is a book that is told from an outside perspective.

The discussion of Precious Cargo on Day Two centered on whether or not the characters were fully realized. Although many of the panelists enjoyed the book, they also felt unable to connect with many of the kids other than Jake. Jully Black said that Jake’s father, Calvin, reminded her of her own mother, who cares for Jully’s sister who has a disability. Tahmoh Penikett also argued that while Precious Cargo was humourous and heart-warming, it does not deal with the most pressing issues that are facing humanity today, such as climate change, war, and radicalization. This led into a heated and sometimes chaotic debate about the darkness of American War, and the role of hopefulness and humour in delivering a message.

When it came time to vote, Greg Johnson and Jully Black voted against American War, while Tahmoh Penikett and Mozhdah Jamalzadah cast their ballots against Precious Cargo. Jeanne Beker was the sole vote for The Marrow Thieves, and was called on to cast the tie-breaking vote between American War and Precious Cargo. Surprisingly, given her vehement arguments against the darkness and despair of American War in the course of the Day Two debates, she chose to eliminate Precious Cargo from Canada Reads 2018. Asked to elucidate her decision in the Q&A after the show, Beker explained that as much as she enjoyed Precious Cargo, she didn’t feel that it had the gravitas to compete with the other books, and that it felt more lightweight than the others. She did not feel it was the book that most adult Canadians needed to open their eyes.

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Catch up with yesterday’s recap of the elimination of The Boat People by Sharon Bala. Or tune in to the Canada Reads debates on CBC.

Canada Reads Along 2018: The Boat People

Cover image for The Boat People by Sharon Balaby Sharon Bala

ISBN 978-0-385-54229-6

Certain people felt too rooted, too comfortable. They took it for granted that they deserved to be here more than us. Entitlement closed their hearts.”

Widower Mahindan leaves civil war-torn Sri Lanka dreaming of a new life in Canada for his young son, Sellian, who has already lost his mother and so much else to the conflict between the ruling Sinhalese and the separatist Tamil Tigers. Desperate to escape, Mahindan takes passage for them on an ancient, converted cargo boat, which will smuggle hundreds of refugees across the ocean to the west coast of Canada. But when they land, what awaits them is not a new life, but imprisonment, while Canadian authorities struggle to process the massive influx of refugee claimants, and the public debates whether the boat people should be allowed in at all. His fate, and the fate of his son, will lie in the hands of the Canadian lawyers and adjudicators, each of whom has a story of their own.

I got off to a bit of a rough start with The Boat People, which opens in the midst of an action sequence that lacks any context, and then turns out to be a dream. Fortunately, this passage was relatively short, and the meat of the book proved to be more rewarding than this doubly trite opening. Once I was able to settle into the Sharon Bala’s writing style—which rejects any use of quotation marks or other indications of dialogue, requiring close attention to who is saying what, and whether something is an internal or external monologue—I was drawn into the three main characters, whose personalities and histories ultimately drive the story.

The plot centers on Mahindan, Priya, and Grace, who represent three sides of the immigration question. For his part, Mahindan doesn’t understand the delay in processing his claim. Who would sell everything and spend months in a decrepit boat, leaving behind everything they have ever loved and known, if they didn’t fear for their lives at home? But the government is concerned that terrorists—former Tamil Tigers—may have concealed themselves among the refugees, and the discovery of a cache of unclaimed identity documents aboard the boat only raises further questions. Like everyone, Mahindan has a past in Sri Lanka, a complicated history tied up in civil war, and survival, and through flashbacks, Bala slowly reveals how he finally came to the point of fleeing, and what he had to do to get himself and his son onto that boat. She skillfully builds the character, drawing the reader to empathize with him even as she reveals his complexity.

Disconnected from her heritage, law student Priya Rajasekaran has no interest in immigration law, and resents having to spend her internship defending the refugees just because she is of Tamil descent herself. She barely understands the language, and was discouraged by her parents from getting involved in any cultural group that might mix her up in Tamil politics. But as her internship progresses, she is drawn into the lives of the refugees, and forced to consider anew her own family’s history. Were they really any more deserving of a new life than anyone on the boat, simply because they arrived sooner, while legitimate channels of escape were still open to Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority? And what doesn’t she know about the long, quiet feud between her father and her uncle that was only bridged by her mother’s death? Through Priya, we see the perspective of a second-generation Canadian forced to consider her place in the country she was born into.

Lastly, we have Grace Nakamura, a complex and sometimes infuriating character who has spent her career working for the government in the transportation department. Having recently admitted to her boss that she was bored and burnt out, the Minister of Public Safety granted her a three year appointment as a refugee adjudicator. With no training or background in immigration law, Grace is in over her head, and under intense political pressure from her former boss, but she has to learn to swim quickly when five hundred new cases land on the docket. A third generation Japanese-Canadian, Grace is largely disconnected from her Japanese roots, but as her mother descends into dementia, she lives more and more in the past, becoming obsessed with the Japanese internment, and the loss of their homes and livelihoods in Vancouver. Grace wishes to continue ignoring this past, as her family has always done, but her fourth generation, thoroughly Canadianized teenage twin daughters engage in this journey with their grandmother.

I think the major problem for many readers with The Boat People will be the ending. After spending months in detention, and failing repeatedly to win parole while his case is decided, Mahindan finally goes to the hearing that will decide his fate. He has been separated from his young son for months, as the case drags through the immigration court, and Sellian has been living with white strangers who do not even speak his language. But Sharon Bala makes the choice to leave the ending open, forcing the reader to face the many possibilities. We know how we hope it will go, and we know how we fear it will go, and the open ending forces the reader to confront the idea that Canada can be both the country of refuge we hope for, and the place of rejection and insularity that we fear.

The Boat People was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by singer and television host Mozhdah Jamalzadah, herself a refugee who came to Canada at the age of five. The theme for this year’s competition is “One Book to Open Your Eyes,” and in her opening argument, Jamalzadah highlighted the fact that the world is currently in the midst of the worst refugee crisis in history, a line of argument that Clara Hughes successfully used back in 2016 to shepherd The Illegal by Lawrence Hill to victory. Jamalzadah argued that Bala’s novel transforms the refugee crisis into more than numbers on the news, provides a human face, and encourages us to open our doors to fellow human beings who have lost everything.

Host Ali Hassan addressed one question to each book on the opening day of debates, and The Boat People was first up for discussion. He asked the panelists to discuss whether the narrative effectively showed the humanity of refugees and encouraged the reader to see them differently, as Jamalzadah had argued in her opening. Jeanne Beker, defender of Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto, raised the dissatisfying ending. Jully Black, defender of The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, was put off by the multiple characters and narratives that the story followed. Greg Johnson, defender of Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson, also took issue with the open ended conclusion of the book. Tahmoh Penikett, defender of American War by Omar El Akkad, spoke only positively, citing the multiple relatable perspectives that would help connect the book with many different readers.

When it came time to vote, The Marrow Thieves, Precious Cargo, and American War each received one vote against, from Mozhdah Jamalzadah, Tahmoh Penikett, and Jeanne Beker, respectively. All the panelists cited the decision as being very difficult, and only Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto received no votes against it on the first day. Both Craig Johnson and Jully Black voted against The Boat People, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2018.

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You can follow the Canada Reads debates on CBC. Find out how to tune in.

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2017

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (but not necessarily published) in 2017. Click the titles for links to full reviews where applicable. Check back later for my top five non-fiction picks of the year.

The Break

ISBN 978-1-4870-011-7

Cover image for The Break by Katherena VermetteI first read Katherena Vermette’s novel earlier this year as part of Canada Reads Along 2017. The Break is the heart-wrenching story of a community that has been repeatedly torn apart by violence, as Winnipeg’s indigenous population struggles with the lingering effects of colonization. Through the skillful use of multiple narrative perspectives, Vermette illustrates how trauma accumulates and cascades down through the generations, becoming compounded as those who have been hurt try to raise the next generation of children. When a young indigenous woman is attacked on Winnipeg’s troubled North side, her family gathers around her hospital bed. Four generations of women close ranks, belatedly trying to protect their victimized relative. However, as they struggle to understand what has happened, the spectres of their own traumatic pasts begin to rise, demanding to be acknowledged at last. US readers, this book is coming your way March 6, 2018 from House of Anansi Press.

Categories: Canadian

The Hate U Give

Cover image for The Hate U Give by Angie ThomasThe Hate U Give is a brutal coming-of-age story about the harsh realities that face young black men and women in America. Starr Carter is a girl with a foot in two worlds. By day, she attends Williamson, a suburban prep school where she is one of only two black students in her year. In the evening, she goes home to Garden Heights, the city’s poor, black neighbourhood, where she has lived all her life. She is one person at home and another person at school, because she can’t be too “bougie” in the neighbourhood, or too “ghetto” at school. But the wall she has carefully built between her two selves begins to crumble when she is the only witness to a police officer shooting and killing her childhood friend, Khalil. Thomas’ debut novel is fundamentally about identity, and Starr’s struggle to bring the two halves of herself together. But it is also about families, communities, and building relationships. The strength of this narrative is in the way it balances the hard topics—racism, police violence, gangs, drugs—with themes of family, friendship, justice, and love.

Categories: Young Adult

Neverwhere

ISBN 978-0-06-282133-1

Cover image for Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and Illustrated by Chris RiddellI’ve owned a copy of this novel for some time without getting around to reading it, but this fall the kind folks at HarperCollins sent me a copy of a new edition illustrated by frequent Gaiman collaborator Chris Riddell (see also The Sleeper and the Spindle). The new edition contains the author’s lightly edited preferred text, and is newly illustrated for the book’s twentieth anniversary. It also appends the short story “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back.”  Richard Mayhew is an entirely ordinary London businessman, whose spur of the moment decision to help a young girl in need causes him to slide through the cracks of reality, and into the dark realm of London-Below. But to be honest, Richard Mayhew is the least interesting or memorable part of Neverwhere. He is merely the reader’s access point to a uniquely atmospheric world just sideways from our own. Door is the last scion on a Neverwhere family endowed with unique abilities, and some of the residents of London’s underworld will stop at nothing to catch her and take advantage of her powers. Full of memorable villains, and unusual allies, I can’t believe I waited this long to read Gaiman’s earliest solo novel, but Riddell’s illustrations made it well worth the wait!

Categories: Fantasy

The Jane Austen Project

Cover image for The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn When Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane arrive in England in 1815, it is by unusual means, and with an even more unusual mission. Sent back in time from a somewhat dystopian near-future, they are charged with identifying the cause of Jane Austen’s untimely demise in 1817 at the young age of 41, and with recovering and bringing back her lost manuscript of The Watsons, as well as her letters to her sister Cassandra. This top-secret mission is known as The Jane Austen Project, and it has one very important rule; they must change the future as little as possible while achieving their objectives, or risk being stranded in Regency England forever. With this highly unusual premise, copy editor and ardent Austenite Kathleen A. Flynn has captured something of Austen’s tone and pacing, without trying to entirely mimic her style. The suspense of the narrative caught me by surprise, and I found myself barely able to put this novel down. This was in spite of the fact that there is a fair bit of set up involved in getting two people believably situated upper-class residents of 1815 London, and then into Austen’s family circle. Rachel is in the unenviable position of flirting with Henry Austen, while also getting to know her partner Liam, who is—awkwardly—posing as her brother for the purposes of the trip. Highly recommended for fans of time travel fiction that is more about the destination than the science of such an endeavour.

Categories: Science Fiction

City of Brass

Cover image for City of Brass by S. A. ChakrabortyDespite her abilities as healer, plying her con on the streets of French-occupied Cairo, Nahri has never really believed in magic. But when she stages an exorcism for a disturbed child, she accidentally summons a djinn who claims that she is that last descendant of the Nahids, the former rulers of the hidden djinn city of Daevabad. With murderous ifrits close on their heels, Dara vows to return Nahri to the home of her ancestors. But far from offering safety, Daevabad is a nest of politics that put the streets of Cairo to shame. While Nahri is a canny operator, she is naïve to the rules and traditions of her ancestors. The stand out feature of this novel is the complex dynamic S.A. Chakraborty has created between the different magical beings of this world, and even within the ranks and classes of the djinn themselves. In particular, the shafit—part human djinn—are an underclass poised on the edge of revolt. City of Brass was an utterly gripping novel from start to finish, but the last few pages introduced several plot twists that have me waiting with great impatience for The Kingdom of Copper to be released in 2018. Thanks to the fine folks at Harper Voyager, who provided me with an advance copy of this novel!

Categories: Fantasy

Honourable mentions also go out to Leigh Bardugo and Gail Carriger, as I finished reading series of theirs that I started last year. I utterly enjoyed both Crooked Kingdom, and The Parasol Protectorate, but as I’ve named books from those worlds to my top five in previous years, I decided to present a more varied list for those looking for my Top Picks. That’s it for fiction for 2017. Check back later for my non-fiction list!

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Cover image for Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thienby Madeleine Thien

ISBN 9780345810427

“It was very modern and deeply Western to listen to music that no one else could hear. Private music led to private thoughts. Private thoughts led to private desires, to private fulfillments or private hungers, to a whole private universe away from parents, family and society.”

In the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution, Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli enjoy a relatively sheltered existence at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where Sparrow is permitted to teach, and his niece Zhuli is permitted to study, despite the fact that Zhuli’s parents have been designated “class enemies.” But soon the forces growing against Westernization and bourgeois occupations like musicianship will overrun the Conservatory as well. In the present day, Marie travels from Vancouver to Hong Kong to try to uncover the details of her father’s mysterious suicide there two decades earlier, and to perhaps find out what has become of Ai-Ming, the Chinese student she and her mother took in during the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square student protests. The two timelines spiral together, uncovering family secrets, and decades of contested Chinese revolutionary history.

Although Madeline Thien’s novel follows two timelines, one bears significantly more weight than the other. The past reverberates into the present, and echoes there, but the present otherwise feels much less significant to Thien’s story than the past. Marie’s first person sections feel rougher and more abrupt, less fluid and polished, less immersive than the third person narrative of the past. She seems more important as a witness to history than as a protagonist in her own right. Her mother, Kai’s wife, has no name of her own, and no backstory. The heart of the tale rests with Sparrow, and Kai, and the results of their choices, their actions, and their failures to act. What will they do to survive the revolution, and what sacrifices will they make in its name?

The novel asks many questions, among them, how does one communicate authentically when everyone is regurgitating slogans and reciting platitudes to protect themselves and their families? In Canada, Marie’s mother cannot even read a letter she receives from China without a dictionary, because she does not know the simplified written Chinese mandated by the state. Do Not Say We Have Nothing offers many alternate forms of communication, from music, to mathematics, to encoded stories, and secret records not written by the victors. However, the Chinese speakers in my book club noted that Thien’s grasp of Chinese was rudimentary, and her use of it often incorrect. The alternate forms of communication become acts of resistance, such as the copying and distribution of illicit literature, or transcribing Western music into jianpu notation to make it more accessible to a Chinese audience. Music itself becomes a loaded form of expression, because it is open to interpretation. The same piece of music can be seen as a revolutionary anthem, or a ballad for those lost in the fighting. In this way, Thien’s fictional composer Sparrow echoes the real Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who was repeatedly denounced and then redeemed during various waves of the Russian revolution. Several such pieces of music are referenced repeatedly, and Glenn Gould’s performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations become the soundtrack of the story, which circles back on itself in the same way. History repeats, varies, but never fundamentally changes.

The question of how history is recorded and remembered is also fundamental to Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The Book of Records, passed down through generations and families from one steward to the next, both predates and reflects the reality that Marie is slowly uncovering as she delves into her father’s past. The protagonists of The Book of Records find themselves exiled and wandering in the desert, a fate that will eventually befall Zhuli’s parents, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer. Meanwhile, the heroine, May Fourth, takes her name from the early twentieth century movement in China that opposed Japanese encroachment into Chinese territory, a part of history almost forgotten by the characters, and largely unmentioned in the story, but which lives on in the copied and recopied page of the book.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is slowly paced, and the level of interest was inconsistent between sections. I was also disappointed to learn that neither Thien nor her publisher took the time to ensure that her use of Chinese was correct. However the novel is an interesting portrait of how different characters react to the curtailment of free speech and creative expression under a repressive regime, and asks interesting questions about how we record and remember history.

Fall 2017 Fiction Mini-Reviews

Hey there, stranger! Yes, I know, it’s been a while. After a busy summer of travel, at the beginning of September my husband and I started the process of buying our first home.  We took possession at the end of October, and moved in November 1. It was a big change that has pretty much consumed my life for the last several months! I didn’t read as much as usual, and my writing time was eaten up by packing, packing, and more packing. Then the packing become unpacking, and things are slowly starting to get back to normal. Here are a few mini-reviews of some of what I read while I was away.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Cover image for Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston by E.K. Johnston

ISBN  9781101994580

This YA novel is a loose modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Hermione Winters and her best friend Polly are newly elected co-captains of the Palermo Heights cheer leading team, heading into their senior year, and their final summer cheer camp at Camp Manitouwabing. But all of their plans for the summer are thrown off course when Herimione is drugged, raped, and left in the lake. The book is an interesting and deliberate divergence from the commonly experienced reality of many rape victims, in that Hermione enjoys a supportive family, and is helped by police and counselors. However, she faces controversy in the community, and the wrath of her ex-boyfriend, Leo, who blames her for what happened. Although the identity of Hermione’s assailant is unknown, this is not really a who-dunnit. Rather, it is an emotional chronicle of the consequences of rape, further magnified by the fact that anytime Hermione encounters a boy who was at camp, she must face the idea that he could be her rapist. The biggest standout of this book is the strong female friendship depicted between Hermione and Polly, who echoes Shakespeare’s Paulina.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes

Cover image for Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford by Jamie Ford

ISBN 9780525492580

This is Ford’s third historical novel, this time set in Seattle during the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. Ford opens on the better remembered 1962 fair, and uses it to echo and reflect the main action of 1909. The plot was inspired by a fascinating newspaper clipping from the AYP Expo, advertising the fact that an orphan boy was one of the raffle prizes at the fair. The fate of the real boy is unknown, but in his novel, Ford imagines what might have become of a young half-Chinese boy named Ernest, whose winning ticket is sold to the madam of an infamous brothel. Raised in a Catholic orphanage, Ernest comes to the red light district as the temperance movement is surging in the city, and finds himself caught between the Japanese house girl, Fahn, and Madam Flora’s stubborn daughter, Maisie. As usual with Jamie Ford, I was most fascinated by the carefully incorporated local history. This seems to be his passion, and I often wonder what would happen if he tried his hand at non-fiction. (Disclaimer: I received access to an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book through the library where I work.)

The Turner House

Cover image for The Turner House by Angela Fluornoyby Angela Fluornoy

ISBN 9780544705166

Fluornoy’s debut novel is a complex family tale that follows how the thirteen Turner siblings must grapple with what to do with the house on Yarrow Street where they grew up after their mother is too old to live alone any longer. Fluornoy focuses on the oldest sibling, Charles, aka Cha-Cha, and the youngest, Lela, separated by more than twenty-three years in age, and eleven siblings. Cha-Cha is in therapy after having claimed to have seen a ghost, and Lela is struggling mightily to hide a gambling addiction. Flashbacks illuminate the history of their parents, Francis and Viola Turner, who came North to Detroit for the promise of a better life than the one the South offered its black citizens. Thematically, the book deals broadly with place, both the importance of the Turner family home, and the history that resides there, and also the city of Detroit. Fluornoy also addresses the legacy of addiction within and between generations of a family, and how families understand mental health and addiction more generally. The plot is slow moving, but the highlight is the complex family dynamic amongst the many siblings.