Category: Canadian

10 Years of Required Reading: Best Fiction

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.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

by Anthony Marra

ISBN 9780770436407

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.

Station Eleven

Cover image for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

by Emily St. John Mandel

ISBN 9780385353304

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.

Categories: Speculative Fiction, Canadian

This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

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.

Categories: Science Fiction, LGBTQIA+

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

by R. F. Kuang

ISBN 9780062662569

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.

Categories: Fantasy

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

by Esi Edugyan

ISBN 9780525521426

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.

Categories: Historical Fiction, Canadian

Because this could easily have been a list composed entirely of fantasy novels, I’ll be back later this week with a genre-specific list!

10 Years of Required Reading

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:

Heat map of all-time visitors to Required Reading by country.
Heatmap of all-time visitors to Required Reading by country

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:

The Rose and the Dagger

by Renée Ahdieh

ISBN 9780399171628

Cover image for The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

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. 

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy

Always and Forever, Lara Jean and P.S. I Still Love You

by Jenny Han

ISBNs 9781481430487 and 9781442426733

Cover image for Always and Forever Lara Jean by Jenny Han

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 popular text 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.

Categories: Young Adult, Romance

The Outside Circle

by Patti LaBoucane-Benson

ISBN 9781770899377

Cover image for The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

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.

Categories: Canadian, Graphic Novel

El Deafo

by Cece Bell

ISBN 9781419710209

Cover image for El Deafo by Cece Bell

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.

Categories: Middle Grade, Graphic Novel

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.

The Library of Legends

Cover image for The Library of Legends by Janie Chang

by Janie Chang

ISBN 9780062851512

“At first, she had found humans’ hopefulness endearing. Valiant even. Now she couldn’t begin to count all the ways they managed to delude themselves.”

 In the fall of 1937, Hu Lian hopes to somehow get from Nanking to Shanghai to reunite with her mother, her only living relative. However, the Japanese bombing of Nanking throws off her travel plans, and instead Lian finds herself evacuating Minghua University with her fellow remaining students. On foot, they will make the arduous trek from Nanking inland to Chengtu, where they will establish an interim wartime campus. The students of Minghua also have a special charge; they will carry with them the Library of Legends, more than a hundred volumes of ancient stories that were once part of a larger encyclopedia. They will need to preserve this heritage while also continuing their education on the road, so that they can become the generation that rebuilds post-war China. However, politics are simmering among the students as old families with Nationalist loyalties come up against the rising ideals of the young Communist Party of China and the journey will not be without its dangers.

The Library of Legends takes place between 1937 and 1938, in the early days of the Japanese occupation of China. The evacuation of the universities of Nanking takes place in September 1937, about two months before the eventual Nanking Massacre. While many young people are joining the war effort, China’s university students are encouraged to preserve the country’s cultural heritage and intellectual future by remaining in school, training to eventually become the generation that will rebuild China after the invaders are repelled. The story is inspired by true events, and Chang’s father was among the university students who made the inland trek to escape Japanese bombers while struggling to continue their educations. However, Chang also brings a fantasy element to the narrative, telling the tale of how gods, spirits, and creatures of legend are making a westward trek of their own to the Kunlun mountains, where the Queen Mother of Heaven has thrown open the gates—but only for a short time. Soon things that were once real will pass into the realm of legend forever, and the world will become a little more mundane.

Using third person point of view, Chang follows Hu Lian, but also her wealthy classmate Liu Shaoming and a number of other characters, including Professor Kang, who is leading their group of students to Chengtu. While I enjoyed both the historical and fantastical plots that commingle in the novel, I struggled with the narration. It created a certain distance from the characters, and also had a tendency to switch at unexpected moments. Sometimes it would focus in on a minor character who had only just walked into the narrative and then leave just as abruptly. In these moments, I felt that Chang was trying to give a glimpse of the broader war experience happening outside the university group, but these additions tended to disrupt the flow of the main narrative. Interestingly, Chang mentions in the author’s note at the end of the book the she struggled with the point of view while writing the novel.

I had expected the book might incorporate myths from the Library of Legends into the story, but Chang only invents the story of the Willow Star and the Prince, loosely based on the Chinese myth of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. The Willow Star made a bargain with the Queen Mother of Heaven for her Prince to be reborn again and again, but only if he remembers their love in his new incarnation can he join her in the heavens. Instead of just stories within stories, the fantastical element is actually much more real than what I had been expecting. Among the servants of Minghua University is an immortal being, who has dedicated herself to helping guide the students and faculty to safety, along with their precious treasure. Along the way she meets other immortals, though most of the humans cannot recognize them as such. She carries with her the message that the gates are open, but that when they close, they will close forever. The guardians are leaving this world, and with this comes the melancholy sense that China will never be the same again.

You might also like Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Canada Reads Along 2022: Five Little Indians

Cover image for Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

by Michelle Good

ISBN 9781443459198

“There are no English words to describe how one woman walked into that lodge, and another walked out. All Clara knew was that it took her back. Back to the birch grove and the angel songs. Back to who she was before Sister Mary, before the school, before they tried to beat her into a little brown white girl.”

Five Little Indians follows five former residential school students as they try to make new lives for themselves in 1960s Vancouver, while being haunted by the demons of their past. Maisie, Clara, Lucy, Kenny, and Howie are all survivors of the Arrowhead Bay Indian School. Except they don’t always feel like survivors; sometimes they feel like the walking dead. Something in them was taken at Arrowhead Bay that can never be replaced, something broken that can never be repaired. It takes a different form for each of them, but the scars are always there, long after they’ve escaped or aged out of the school. “We were children, me and Lily, and neither of us survived, even though I’m still walking,” Clara explains, reflecting on a friend who died at the school.

Five Little Indians is told from alternating perspectives, usually in the third person, but occasionally in first. I felt this first person POV particularly viscerally in Maisie’s story. We meet Maisie through Lucy, who ages out of the system with nowhere to go and lands on Maisie’s doorstep on the Downtown Eastside. Maisie has been out of the school system for a year, and from Lucy’s perspective, she seems world-wise, and like she has her life together. She has a job, her own apartment, and a kind boyfriend who adores her. But when we get inside Maisie’s head, we are quickly confronted with the pain she is hiding, the cracks in her façade that she is trying so hard to plaster over so that neither her boyfriend nor Lucy will see her messy pain. This is by no means an easy book in any respect, but Maisie’s chapter was one of the hardest, grappling with the fallout of sexual abuse, sexual self-harm, and addiction.

Although she is not a POV character, Mariah’s name heads several chapters in Five Little Indians, and she plays an important role. Clara first meets her when she is run back across the Canadian border after a disastrous attempt to get involved with American Indian Movement. Mariah takes Clara in and, over the course of a winter, helps heal her, not just in body, but in spirit. Through Mariah, Clara finds a way to reconnect with the traditions of her people without the fear and self-hatred that the nuns drove deep into her bones. Although Mariah is not a residential school survivor herself, she represents an important connection back to the heritage the schools tried to brutally sever. She is the unbroken link to which Clara and her generation can reach back and reconnect, but only if they can see past their own pain to take her hand.

Throughout the book there are also other Indigenous secondary characters who did not attend the mission schools for various reasons, sometimes because their families hid them, or because they were Metis and therefore were not required to attend. The bond that grows up among the survivors is of a different sort from those who did not share that terrible experience, and many of them struggle to understand the long shadow it casts. Early in the book, Maisie has a very nice boyfriend, but she cannot accept his love for fear that allowing him close will let him see how broken and soiled she considers herself. Also poignant is Kendra, the daughter of two survivors. Her father was an escapee of the residential school system, but his trauma never allowed him to stop running, so he lives on the move, frequently leaving his family behind. Kendra struggles against the pain this absenteeism causes her and her mother, grappling with what it means to love her father despite his flaws. In many ways, the reader is invited to face these same challenges, to stretch beyond themselves and their own experiences, to understand, in as far as art makes it possible, the terrible pain the residential school system caused, and is still causing the Indigenous community in Canada.

Five Little Indians was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by Christian Allaire, an Ojibway author and fashion writer from Nipissing. The book has been particularly topical this week, as Indigenous activists head to the Vatican in pursuit of an apology from Pope Francis on behalf of the Catholic Church for atrocities committed in the residential school system. Allaire’s defense of the book spoke to the fact that residential schools are often discussed only in a historical context, even though the bodies of lost children are still being exhumed. The echoes of the intergenerational trauma are still being felt and the last residential school did not close until 1996. Allaire’s defense also highlighted the fact that the book is largely set in the aftermath, and therefore focuses not on the trauma itself but on the messy, non-linear attempt to heal.

As the last challenger standing, Malia Baker had a difficult challenge to face against themes as important as truth and reconciliation, something she briefly acknowledged in her opening statement on the final day before pivoting to discuss her own book’s strengths. While there were a few moments this year where defenders spoke about reading as escapism, or the need for hopeful endings, overall this was a panel that really respected the legitimacy of difficult reads. This is also the first year I can recall that the CBC offered a content warning regarding the themes of all the books, and provided accompanying support resources.

Five Little Indians moved quietly through the first half of the week, the only book not to have any votes against it on the first two days, where we saw Life in the City of Dirty Water and What Strange Paradise eliminated. Meanwhile, Christian Allaire consistently cast his vote against Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez. Both books feature a cast of characters from disenfranchised communities, and employ alternating perspectives including both first and third person narration. The structural and thematic similarities led me to suspect this was strategic voting on Allaire’s part, something he confirmed when he appeared for a post-victory interview on Jael Richardson’s Instagram channel. When targeting Scarborough, Allaire narrowed in on the fact that the even larger cast of POV characters made it harder to get to know them compared to the core cast in Five Little Indians. He also spoke to the character of Sylvie and the Beaudoin family, saying that as the only Indigenous characters in the book he found their development lacking, and that Sylvie primarily existed to in the narrative to serve other characters’ stories. Malia Baker attempted to counter this line of argument by highlighting Sylvie’s role a storyteller who is still coming into her own voice during the main events of the book.

It was clear by the third day of debate that both Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury viewed Five Little Indians as the book to beat if they wanted to head into the finale. They both voted against it, while free agents Suzanne Simard and Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black. Due to the tiebreaking rules this left Christian Allaire, who had voted against Scarborough, to have to move his vote to one of the two books up for elimination. Since one of them was his own, naturally he voted to eliminate Washington Black, taking Five Little Indians to the finale against Scarborough. In his final defense, Allaire called on readers to accept a little bit of discomfort in order to empathize with the truths of residential school survivors and enable healing. In an unusually unified final vote, all of the panelists except for Scarborough defender Malia Baker voted to make Five Little Indians the winner of Canada Reads 2022.

That’s it for Canada Reads Along 2022! Thanks for joining me and don’t forget to check out some of the past winners like We Have Always Been Here (2020) and By Chance Alone (2019).

If you liked Five Little Indians you might also enjoy:

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg

The Break by Katherena Vermette

Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

Canada Reads Along 2022: Scarborough

Cover image for Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez

by Catherine Hernandez

ISBN 9781551526782

“He opens his arms and asks if I would like a hug. I walk to him. I’m so scared. But then he holds me. He smells like food. He smells like flowers. And smiles. And sorrys. And If Onlys. I Never Meant Tos. I’m Different Nows. I’ve Learned So Muches. I’m Not the Sames. I’ve never been hugged like that before, and that hug feels so good, so I hug him back. It feels so good to hug someone who will never hit you.”

When Miss Hina takes a position working for a government literacy program in Scarborough, east of Toronto, she finds herself embedded in a community full of people struggling to get by. Cory has just taken in his seven-year-old daughter Laura after his ex-wife abandoned her at a bowling alley. Marie is beginning to suspect that her young son Johnny may have a disability, but much of her time an energy is preoccupied by the fact that they’re currently living in a shelter with no prospect for stable housing. Edna sees that her young son Bing is queer, and loves him unconditionally, but has to figure out the best ways to support him in a community where his differences will not be appreciated. Fighting against a system that has specific ideas about what services she should be providing to the community without reference to what its people actually needs, Miss Hina sets out to make a small difference in the lives of these children and their families.

Set in 2011, Scarborough follows the cycle of a school year as Miss Hina begins her work in the Ontario Reads Literacy Program at the Rouge Hill Public School. Catherine Hernandez employs shifting perspectives in first and third person narration that reveal the poverty and racial tensions that simmer through the neighbourhood. Marie’s family is homeless, living in a local shelter while she also tries desperately to access the services to get her son assessed for developmental disabilities. Cory relies on some of the resources Miss Hina can provide, but he mistrusts her hijab and the colour of her skin. He does not want her touching his daughter, and his past as neo-Nazi is ever-present in the background. Every family is facing its own challenges and fighting an faceless, inhumane system that does not see them as people.

In addition to first and third person narrative, Hernandez also employs attendance reports filed by Miss Hina, and emails between her and her distant supervisor, who is unfamiliar with the situation in Scarborough. Miss Hina faces pressure to ensure families aren’t treating the snacks she provides as a free breakfast program, even though lack of access to dependable meals is a major learning barrier for the children in her community. A larger story of systemic failure plays out through these interactions, highlighting the precarious funding of the literacy program at the whims of the sitting government, and the particular agendas of the administrators who control the program budget. All this takes place as a backdrop to the day-to-day struggles of the characters who are simply looking for their next meal or more stable housing.

The stories in Scarborough are interconnected and overlap, sometimes in unexpected ways, and from multiple directions. The neighbourhood is at once large, and so very small. Michelle, the shelter worker, sees two men arguing in the street when she steps out for her smoke break. When we get to Clive’s chapter, we experience this encounter firsthand, and realize that the drunk man is Cory, stumbling through the nearly deserted streets, trying to figure out how he will provide Christmas dinner for his daughter. Things have a way of looping back on one another in a multiplicity of perspectives that add up to form the story of a community that is larger than the sum of its parts.

Scarborough was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by actor and activist Malia Baker, who at fifteen is also Canada Reads’ youngest ever panelist. Baker is from Vancouver, and in her opening statement she highlighted the fact that Scarborough is such a microcosm of Canada as a whole that it spoke to her despite the fact that she had no personal connection to the setting. She also argued that the book’s depiction of community and multiplicity of perspectives is what made it the One Book to Connect Us, which is the Canada Reads 2022 theme. Throughout the week of debates, Baker more than held her own against the much older panelists, successfully championing Scarborough to the finale against Five Little Indians by Michelle Good, which was defended by fashion writer Christian Allaire.

Throughout the week of debates, Christian Allaire was also the only panelist consistently casting his vote against Scarborough, perhaps sensing that thematically and structurally it was his closest competition. Before the finale, no other panelist had cast a vote against it, though that doesn’t mean that it did not come in for criticism. Christian Alliare repeatedly called out the fact that he wanted more from the character of Sylvie, particularly since her family constitutes Scarborough’s Indigenous representation. Indeed, the development of character came up from many of the panelists over the course of the week. Because of the structure of the book and the large cast of characters, we do not spend much time in any one point of view. Many of the characters are barely more than a glimpse, flitting in and out of the story before we get a chance to really know them. However, some of these snapshots are highly effective, and many of the panelists called out the character of Cory who is memorably human while also being thoroughly despicable in his racism.

During the final day of the debates, host Ali Hassan raised questions about how the two remaining books took readers inside the hearts and minds of the characters, revealed our shared humanity, and changed how the panelists moved through the world. The conversation moved quickly, and all too soon it was time for the final round of ballots to be cast. Unanimous votes are rare on Canada Reads in any circumstance, but this may be the first time since I began following the program that such a unified vote took place during the finale. Defender Malia Baker voted against Five Little Indians (only one panelist has ever voted against their own book). However, all four of the other panelists unanimously voted to eliminate Scarborough, making Five Little Indians the winner of Canada Reads 2022.

Thanks for joining me for Canada Reads Along 2022! Need to catch up? Start here with Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller. Check back tomorrow for my review of the winning book!

You might also like:

Brother by David Chariandy

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam

Canada Reads Along 2022: Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

by Esi Edugyan

ISBN 978-0-525-52142-6

“How could he have treated me so, he who congratulated himself on his belief that I was his equal? I had never been his equal. To him, perhaps, any deep acceptance of equality was impossible. He saw only those who were there to be saved, and those did the saving.”

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.

I first came to love the work of Esi Edugyan with Half-Blood Blues, which was championed by Olympian Donovan Bailey on the 2014 edition of Canada Reads. In Washington Black, Edugyan brings her trademark exquisite prose to the story of a slave who gains his freedom under complicated circumstances. Wash goes on to lead a big, improbable life as a result of Titch’s intervention, but a life that is not without difficulty and costs. The novel reflects some of the harder realities of the abolition movement, such as white men who were more concerned about the moral stain of slavery than about the actual harm suffered by Black people as a result. Titch’s intervention also cuts Wash off from his own people on the plantation, costing him his relationship with his foster mother, and setting him apart from field and house slaves alike. Wash learns to read, and draw, and calculate, but once he finds himself out in the world, he discovers he is an anomaly wherever he goes, not least because of the horrible physical scars he bears as a result of his enslavement. Tellingly, it is a result of Titch’s careless actions, rather than Erasmus’ more standard cruelty, that Wash goes through life thus marked.

Present or absent, Titch’s hand is always irrevocably shaping Wash’s life. Though Titch does not wish to accept responsibility for this fact, it is true nevertheless. While in the beginning Titch is a character that the reader can admire for rebelling against his family’s immoral expectations, in the end he throws off other expectations and responsibilities as well, calling into question whether it was the immorality or the expectations he was resisting in the first place. Although Wash is the protagonist and the narrator, it is Titch who haunts the story, his choices echoing through Wash’s life even after their unequal partnership has unraveled, and Wash has built a new life for himself among the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia. These echoes will eventually take Wash to Europe and Africa, in search of understanding Titch’s decisions and their far-reaching consequences. But some questions have no satisfactory answers, and Edugyan’s open-ended conclusion reflects that.

Washington Black was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by Olympian Mark Tewksbury. Tewksbury emerged early as a strong debater on this year’s panel, with powerful, well-articulated opening statements, and the ability to find the strengths of the other books in the title he was championing. He emphasized the strong writing in his selection, and the way Edugyan’s descriptions transport the reader to a different time and place. On Day Three, host Ali Hassan asked the remaining champions to open with a statement about why they chose their books. Mark Tewksbury spoke to the relationship he felt to the character of Washington Black, drawing parallels between accepting his own gay identity and Wash’s struggles as a to find his place in the world as a freed slave with visible facial scars.

Throughout the week, Washington Black was often called out alongside What Strange Paradise as the book on this year’s table with the most beautiful writing. Suzanne Simard described it as cinematic, and as a fellow writer Christian Allaire praised its craft. The debates thus far however have focused more on theme and character than on prose or craft. This very much echoed the fate Edugyan’s first book Half-Blood Blues faced when Cameron Bailey defended it on Canada Reads 2014. However, Washington Black also came up against criticism, particularly regarding the ending, and the centrality of Titch’s character to Wash’s journey. Wash’s quest for closure comes to an unsatisfying conclusion, because it is not ultimately something he can find in an external source.

After a day of rapid-fire debate, when the time came to vote both Suzanne Simard and Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black, while Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury voted against Five Little Indians. The outlying vote belonged to Christian Allaire, who voted against Scarborough for the third day in a row. Per the Canada Reads rules, in the event of a tie the panelist who did not vote against one of the two books up for elimination is required to cast the tiebreaking voting. Since Christian Allaire was defending Five Little Indians, which also had two strikes, he naturally voted against Washington Black, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.  

Just tuning in to Canada Reads 2022? Start here with Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller.

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Canada Reads Along 2022: What Strange Paradise

Cover image for What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

by Omar El Akkad

ISBN 9780525657910

“You are the temporary object of their fraudulent outrage, their fraudulent grief. They will march the streets on your behalf, they will write to politicians on your behalf, they will cry on your behalf, but you are to them in the end nothing but a hook on which to hang the best possible image of themselves. Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will be as though you never existed.”

When Syria is torn apart by civil war, Amir and his family flee to Egypt. But while his mother tries to rebuild their life, his uncle is still looking for a way out, a promise of better things. When he follows his uncle down to the docks late one night, Amir finds himself aboard a smuggler’s ship bound across the sea. On board that ill-fated ship are many passengers with disparate hopes for the future, if only they can get to a better place. When the ship sinks in a storm, Amir meets fifteen-year-old Vanna, a resident of one of the islands that the migrants try so desperately to reach. Pursued by the local authorities, Amir and Vanna go on the run, but tiny islands keep no secrets and have very few places to hide.

What Strange Paradise is broken into alternating Before chapters, which tell of Amir’s life prior to the events on the island, and After chapters, which follow his adventures with Vanna on the island. One final chapter is entitled Now. In the Before chapters, we learn about how Amir’s family lost their home in Syria, took refuge in Egypt, and then tried to escape across the sea. In the After chapters, Vanna tries to conceal Amir from the authorities and—with the help of the local refugee camp coordinator who does not want to see the little boy dragged into that system—tries to get him to an old dock on the far side of the island where a ferryman will smuggle him across the water. 

What Strange Paradise is short but powerful. I read it quickly, and then wished I had spent more time absorbing it as I sat with the ending. The book is open-ended and invites a wide range of possible interpretations. The opening image of a boy’s body washing up on the beach has clear echoes of the death of Alan Kurdi in 2015. But this little boy, Amir Utu, opens his eyes, and the story continues. How that continuation is interpreted is in the hands of the reader, but it is a haunting ending that more than one reader has found frustrating.

The villain of the piece is Colonel Kethros, a broken man who used to be a peacekeeper, only to realize that “peace keeping” meant watching a genocide and being able to do nothing to stop it. He lost not just his leg, but a piece of his humanity on that mission. The same man who will save a small girl from drowning will also throw a little boy into a refugee camp that lacks fresh water without a moment’s hesitation. His duality embodies the limitations and fickleness of human empathy, and the lines that we draw between “us” and “them.”

What Strange Paradise was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by entrepreneur Tareq Hadhad, who himself came to Canada as a refugee from Syria in 2015 with his family. Hadhad drew on that history in his pitch for why it is the one book that all of Canada should read this year. With millions of people just like Amir on the news every day, Hadhad argued that What Strange Paradise is the timely book Canada needs right now to foster empathy and compassion for refugees. Many of his fellow panelists seemed to agree that the book was effective at fostering this empathy, and several called out particular scenes from the Before chapters on the boat that spoke to them and highlighted the humanity of all the passengers, even that of Mohammed the smuggler.

The ending of What Strange Paradise repeatedly came under fire from Canada Reads panelists, an angle of attack which the book’s champion Tareq Hadhad indicated that he had expected. Mark Tewksbury in particular called it out several times, and even Malia Baker, who said that she likes a subjective ending, felt this one might go too far. Hadhad argued that the open conclusion is part of the power of the book, and pointed out that this is a feature it shares with Washington Black, the book Tewksbury is defending. The alternating chapters were also unpopular with some of the panelists, including Malia Baker and Christian Allaire. Baker noted that the character of the antagonist, Colonel Kethros, is much better developed than either Vanna or Amir, and we have much better insight into his motivations than anyone else’s.

The hopefulness of the book was also a point of contention that came up for discussion on the second day of the debates. Tareq Hadhad described What Strange Paradise as hopeful in his argument, and certainly it is a book about the hopes and dreams of immigrants and refugees, but none of the panelists seemed to agree that the book’s ending was hopeful. Some of the panelists, including Mark Tewksbury and Christian Allaire, questioned Vanna’s motivations and believability in her decision to aid Amir despite the serious potential consequences to herself and her family. In response, Hadhad noted that he had found his own Vanna in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and argued that kindness does not need a reason.

When the ballots were cast at the end of Day Two, Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury voted against What Strange Paradise, while Christian Allaire cast his vote against Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez and defender Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. In the after show, free agent Suzanne Simard noted that she struggled with her vote but felt that while the book had a Canadian face in many ways, it was the only book that did not have a Canadian setting. Her deciding ballot made What Strange Paradise the second book eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.

Catch up on Day One of Canada Reads 2022: Life in the City of Dirty Water

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Canada Reads Along 2022: Life in the City of Dirty Water

Cover image for Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Muller

by Clayton Thomas-Müller

ISBN 9780735240070

“One of the mysteries of creation is how closely saving yourself and saving the world are linked. If you don’t take care of the world, you will only end up harming yourself. And if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t do the world any good. We’re all part of the world. It is an illusion to think any of us can be separate.”

Growing up as a young Indigenous man in Winnipeg, Clayton Thomas-Müller faced a rough childhood marked by intergenerational trauma, racism, and abuse. After the death of his great-grandparents, his family became disconnected from their traditional practices on their tribal lands in Jetait in northern Manitoba. His itinerant youth took Thomas-Müller from Winnipeg to northern British Columbia, with a detour through juvenile detention before landing back on the streets of Winnipeg on the cusp of adulthood. Life in the City of Dirty Water is the story of how, after all this suffering, Thomas-Müller reconnected with his heritage and became an environmental activist who has worked with organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network and 350.org.

Thomas-Müller is the biological son of two residential school survivors, though the men who he called father, who helped raise him, whose names he took, were not all one and the same. It is very much a history of intergenerational trauma, and his mother’s story is that of a very young woman from northern Manitoba who became pregnant as a teenager, and had to leave home to go to the city to access the services she would need to support herself and her child as she tried to complete her education. Their journey is not one of smooth sailing, but “he has my full support and permission to share his story; as his mother, that is the gift I can give him at this junction in his life,” Gail Pelletier writes in her forward to the book. Family remains an important theme throughout, both in how families support one another, and how they are fragmented by trauma.

Life in the City of Dirty Water describes Thomas-Müller’s non-linear path into the world of environmental activism, even as he remained tangled with the gangs his family was involved with, and continued to occasionally sell drugs to meet his obligations or help support his family. The latter part of the book turns frequently to Thomas-Müller’s anger at the world, and the way that anger both fueled his activism and also threatened to burn him up from the inside. Anger “consumes you even as it nourishes you” he warns, as he recounts a brutal schedule travelling across Turtle Island and around the world to fight for Indigenous rights in order to protect the environment. In these sections, he recounts both his work with environmental NGOs, and also how the Indigenous practice of the Sundance helped him heal and reconnect with his heritage despite growing up in the city.

Life in the City of Dirty Water employs a chatty and discursive style. Thomas-Müller’s narration is conversational, and his memoir has the feel of an oral tale that has been written down. I read this as an e-book but would be very curious to hear the author’s audio narration, as I have a feeling it might do the tale better service. The story is semi-chronological, but also ranges widely. He will make passing mention of an interesting fact or detail that sounds as if it could be a story in its own right, and then never return to it. There can also be a sort of whiplash to his blandly matter-of-fact narration of some extremely traumatic events, such as childhood sexual abuse, mixed in with descriptions of much more quotidian occurrences. It speaks to the extent that violence of all kinds was normal in Thomas-Müller’s early life, but also conceals a deep hurt that will not bear more interiority or closer examination.

Life in the City of Dirty Water was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by author and ecology professor Suzanne Simard, who teaches at the University of British Columbia. Simard argued that Canada faces an uncertain future grappling with the dual consequences of climate change and intergenerational trauma, two key themes of this memoir. She presented Life in the City of Dirty Water as a book that shows how we can turn anger into action at this crucial crossroads, and care for the earth by first healing ourselves. She felt that it was unique among the Canada Reads 2022 books in offering readers that path forward.

This first day of debates always moves quickly, with good portion of the time taken up by panelist introductions, book trailers, and a pep talk by the authors for their defenders. This year was no different. Often the book that is voted off first is the one that takes a few hits or draws attention and the best strategy on the first day can be to simply fly under the radar. This year’s theme is One Book to Connect Us, and host Ali Hassan’s questions focused on how the books on the table bridge the divides between us. Life in the City of Dirty Water did not come in for particular criticism, however Clayton Thomas-Müller’s memoir did stand out in that it was the only non-fiction book on the table this year, a fact that was called out by panelist Tareq Hadhad.

When the time came to vote, Malia Baker cast the first vote against Life in the City of Dirty Water. In the post-show Q&A with Ali Hassan, she pointed to the book’s multiplicity of stories and that she felt the meat of the activism narrative didn’t come until the second half. Three other books received one vote each, with Suzanne Simard voting against Washington Black, Christian Allaire voting against Scarborough, and Mark Tewksbury voting against What Strange Paradise. Citing the way the book sometimes read like a narrative resume, Tareq Hadhad cast the second vote against Life in the City of the Dirty Water, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.

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