Category: Fiction

Pachinko

Cover image for Pachinko by Min Jin LeeMin Jin Lee

ISBN 978-1-4555-6392-0

All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer—suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother—die suffering. Go-saeng—the word made her sick. What else was there besides this?

When teenage Sunja meets Koh Hansu in the market of her small Korean village of Busan, she has no idea that their love affair will irrevocably alter the fates of all the generations of her family that will follow after her. Pregnant and unwed, she makes a marriage of convenience with a kindly Korean Christian pastor, who is on his way to Japan to minister to the downtrodden Korean community there. Soon the separation from Korea becomes permanent, as World War II destroys fortunes, and then the Korean War rends their homeland in two. Sunja’s children and grandchildren are born in Japan, will live their lives and likely die there, but they will never be Japanese. Brothers Noa and Mozasu follow this fate down different paths, grappling with what it means to be a “good Japanese” or a “good Korean,” and who you are when you have no place to call home.

Beginning in the early 1900s, Pachinko fictionalizes the Koreans who arrived in Japan during the colonial period, and the succeeding generations who found themselves stateless after Korea was divided, and Japan refused to recognize them as citizens. Many generations of Korean Japanese would never see Korea, and yet would be unable to claim the land where they were born as their home. It is a narrative that is at once sweeping and minute, capturing three wars and four generations, and yet also sinking down into the day to day lives of the Baek family as they struggle to make their way in Japan.

Min Jin Lee relies on third person omniscient narration, which can comfortably encompass the many successive generations of characters born into the Baek family. This allows for deep insight into each subsequent character as they take their place at the heart of the story for a time, before passing the torch to the next generation. Interestingly, however, I found that I related more to the older characters who we get to spend more time with. While I had more in common with the younger generations, like Mozasu’s son Solomon, and his girlfriend, Phoebe, I was less interested in their stories. Nevertheless, Lee’s characters and the history that propels them are what gives Pachinko its depth. I was particularly compelled by the friendship that develops between Sunja, and her sister-in-law, Kyung-hee. Kyung-hee knows the truth about Sunja’s marriage to Isak, but she never shuns or judges her. Rather, the two women become allies, and it is through the strength of this bond that they carry the family through its many trials.

Thematically, Pachinko is about the experience of otherness in various forms. For the first generation of Koreans, it is being away from home in a strange land where they are considered less-than. For their children, it is being born in Japan but never accepted as Japanese. And later in the novel, Lee begins to introduce alienated Japanese, like Haruki, Etsuko, and Hana, who struggle with the strictures that are supposed to define their Japanese identities. Haruki is gay, and has a disabled brother, both shameful facts in a conformist society. He keeps his sexuality a secret, even marrying a woman of his mother’s choice. After his mother’s death, he is faced with social pressure to put his brother in an institution. Etsuko is rejected by mainstream society after her affair and divorce, and is left feeling unable to marry the Korean Japanese man she loves, because it would further disgrace her family. Her daughter Hana already lives in the shadow of Etsuko’s divorce, and finds her options limited by the taint of her mother’s fallen reputation. Their fates wend together with the Baek family, exploring how the strictures impact Japanese and Koreans alike.

Pachinko is a striking portrait of both struggle and family, and how the one shapes the other. As the author herself put it an interview with The Atlantic, “even in darkness, there are still weddings. There are still children. There’s laughter. You can’t just look at the dark and you can’t just look at the light: Real human lives are a constant interplay of light and dark.”

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You might also like Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Summer Reading Suggestions 2018

Each summer my book club goes on break, as members scatter to the four winds for visits and vacations. But being too busy to meet isn’t the same thing as too busy to read. So here’s this year’s list of suggestions for my book club members looking for something to read over the hiatus. September will be here before you know it! Click the headlines for links to full length reviews where applicable.

Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

Cover image for Cork Dork by Bianca BoskerBianca Bosker had a successful career as a technology journalist when she became fascinated with the world of wine, and blind taste testing in particular. How could expert tasters identify the grape, vintage, and even the vineyard of what they were drinking, without ever seeing the bottle? Cork Dork is the story of the eighteen months she spent following this obsession, quitting her job as a journalist in order to study to become a certified sommelier, while also interviewing vintners, sommeliers, chemists, and collectors. But the rubber really hits the road in Cork Dork when Bosker tries to make her way into the restaurant industry armed with her freshly polished but highly theoretical knowledge of wine and wine service, with often humourous results.

The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

Cover image for The Other Alcott by Elise HooperFans of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women will already be aware that the much beloved children’s story was loosely based on the Alcott sisters’ childhood. The Other Alcott follows Louisa’s youngest sister, May, who lives under the shadow of her fame as the inspiration for the much-hated Amy March. May aspired to be an artist, and illustrated the first edition of Little Women. But while her sister’s novel was a critical success, May’s illustrations were panned. If Jo is the rough but shining favourite of Little Women, then The Other Alcott tries to imagine what it would be like to be the youngest sister of the person who penned this fictionalized version of herself. The Other Alcott follows May into Europe’s art scene at a fascinating period when the Impressionists were beginning to rock the French art establishment with their radical ideas, and more women were finding ways to formally study art.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Cover image for One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi KoulIn this humourous collection of essays, Scaachi Koul vividly sketches a portrait of her Kashmiri immigrant family, including her parents, much older brother, and young niece. Her father in particular is a vivid character, the kind of person who will decide a year later that he isn’t done being mad at you about something you did that he didn’t approve of, and abruptly stop talking to you for months at time. The inter-generational conflict is at once unique to her situation, and recognizable to parents and children everywhere. With a deft hand, Koul combines funny family stories with insightful cultural commentary about growing up as first generation Canadian in an immigrant family.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

Cover image for The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. FlynnWhen 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. 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. Highly recommended for fans of time travel fiction that is more about the destination than the science of such an endeavour.

Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi

Cover image for Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma LakshmiPadma Lakshmi has had a varied career. In her twenties she was a model, and then a television host and actress. She published a cookbook about what she ate to lose weight after a movie role required her to put on twenty pounds, and as a result made the improbable transition from model to foodie, co-hosting the popular cooking competition Top ChefLove, Loss, and What We Ate is a chronicle of the role food has played in her life, through times of love, and times of loss, and how she navigated the jump from a career that was based on her looks to one that engaged her heart and her mind. From a childhood in India, to an early adulthood spent traveling Europe, to a second career in America, she shows how food can be a source of comfort, a connection to identity, and an occasion to examine our biases about beauty.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

Cover image for Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie FordLocal author Jamie Ford’s third historical novel is 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. Through fiction, Ford explores the history of the city.

The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu

Cover image for The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu So much of the web is free, at least in terms of money paid by the users who access its vast array of content. From eyeballs on ads, to time on site, these are the metrics that the tech industry thrives on, as free-of-charge enterprises find ways to monetize. Wu explores the attention economy, and how we pay for all this free content with our time, and our personal information. Through the history of advertising, this book explores how we got to the present state of the advertising industry, and how it is morphing to adapt to our new technologies.

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam

Cover image for Bloodletting and Miraculous CuresFour young medical school students start out on the road to becoming doctors, sure of their nobility of purpose and their calling, the real and trying rigours of the medical profession still ahead of them. Ming, Fitz, Sri, and Chen come from different backgrounds and have different career paths awaiting them. In a series of twelve interlinked short stories, Dr. Vincent Lam takes the reader behind the scenes of the medical world, from medical school to residency to the emergency room and the operating room. Lam’s characters are complicated and flawed, fallible humans who have been trusted with unthinkable responsibility, and faced with terrible dilemmas. This adds depth to the rich detail of the author’s own medical experience, making for an intriguing collection.

Reset by Ellen Pao

Cover image for Reset by Ellen K. PaoGet a glimpse into the boy’s club that powers the venture capital world funding today’s hottest tech start ups, and your favourite websites. Ellen Pao speaks up about her experience as an Asian American woman in this cliquey world, and offers her insights into why Silicon Valley’s diversity initiatives have failed. Going beyond the “pipeline problem,” Pao examines why women who made it through school and into lucrative careers later drop out of tech jobs in astonishing numbers, and what it would take to reset the industry culture so that everyone can thrive.

Children of Blood and Bone

Cover image for Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemiby Tomi Adeyemi

ISBN 978-1-250-17097-2

Deep down, I know the truth. I knew it the moment I saw the maji of Ibadan in chains. The gods died with our magic. They are never coming back.”

Once, Orïsha was the land of maji, ten powerful clans, each with their own unique powers to command earth or water, life or death. But eleven years ago, King Saran conducted the Raid, cutting the maji off from their gods, and killing every practitioner old enough to have come into their powers. Only the divîners remain. Children at the time of the Raid, they will live their entire lives under the heel of the Royal Guard, derided as maggots, never coming into their inheritance. It seems that the gods have abandoned Orïsha. But tension is brewing in the royal family. Princess Amari’s best friend is a divîner named Binta, who serves as her chamber maid, and Prince Inan is hiding a dark secret of his own. Having lost her mother in the Raid, a young divîner named Zélie harbours a deep resentment for the royal family, and a longing for the Reaper powers she should have inherited on her thirteenth birthday. Instead, she trains to fight with a staff, and dreams of a day when the divîners will rise up against their oppressors. But the gods have plans to throw some unusual allies in her path.

Children of Blood and Bone is made up of short chapters from several narrative points of view, including Zélie, Amari, and Inan. Zélie is joined in her quest by her brother Tzain, a promising athlete who takes after their kosidán father, rather than their maji mother. Adeyemi employs short chapters that have a slightly choppy pacing. Point of view changes are frequently accompanied by a time jump as well as a change of location. She tends to leap straight into the action after each transition, but I was frequently distracted from settling into whatever was going on by first needing to figure out the relative timing. It sometimes seemed that Adeyemi intended these jumps to add an element of surprise; by disjointing the timing between the chapters, she could cut straight to an encounter that the reader might otherwise have assumed could not take place yet. In general, however, I did not find this technique to be effective.

One of the characters I wanted to know more about was Binta, as I felt that her friendship with Princess Amari was necessarily a complex relationship that deserved more depth. Binta is a divîner, the only such to serve in a prominent place at court as Amari’s handmaid. It is specified that she is a paid servant, not a slave, but she is still a member of an oppressed group, and her relationship to Amari is therefore fraught with certain baggage. However, she is not a character that we get to meet or interact with directly. Instead, her death is a motivating factor for Amari, a moment of awakening to the injustices her father has been responsible for perpetrating against the divîners, who are referred to as maggots by those who do not share their magical heritage. As such, Binta is a character who exists largely in Amari’s memories and regrets.

Although the complexity of Binta’s situation was glossed over, I was able to see Adeyemi’s adeptness at handling such a power imbalance in the relationships that she subsequently builds between Zélie and Amari, and Zélie and Inan. Zélie has difficulty with trust, and does not always give it wisely, especially when her hand is forced by circumstance. Both Amari and Inan are shown grappling in different ways with their family legacy. Inan has to discover if he can maintain his father’s convictions when he is not directly under his eye, and Amari is faced with the realities of the world for the first time after a sheltered life inside the palace walls in Lagos. She has been trained to fight in theory, but she has never had to carry it out in practice until she defies her father and runs away. Adeyemi also did an excellent job with the sibling relationship between Tzain and Zélie, and I look forward to seeing her further develop Amari and Inan’s sibling dynamic as they decide whether they will perpetuate or defy the values their father has taught them.

Adeyemi has laid down the foundations of a rich world and magical system, albeit one that is in abeyance, more memory than practice for much of Children of Blood and Bone. This first volume is about the fight to restore magic, and explores the question of how the absence of power shapes a people. There is much interesting ground to be covered in the question of what happens when an oppressed group gains power and must figure out how to use it responsibly. Despite some choppy parts, I am looking forward to seeing how this series develops.

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You might also like Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

The Poppy War

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

ISBN 978-0-06-266256-9

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

The Keju is a ruse to keep uneducated peasants right where they’ve always been. You slip past the Keju, they’ll find a way to expel you anyway. The Keju keeps the lower classes sedated. It keeps us dreaming. It’s not a ladder for mobility; it’s a way to keep people like me exactly where they were born. The Keju is a drug.

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. Even as she is further alienated from her teachers and classmates, she becomes the protégé of an eccentric master who has taken no other apprentices from her class. But Master Jiang wants Rin to learn to control and suppress her abilities, while Rin dreams of wielding them in battle for the glory of the Empire. And with the Empire constantly on the brink of the next war with the Mugen Federation, it becomes increasingly difficult to heed her Master’s advice and resist the call of the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance.

Rin starts off as a grey protagonist who is driven hard by ambition and misplaced loyalty. I was reminded of the way we watched the development of Adelina Amouterou in Marie Lu’s The Young Elites series. However, I think it is important to note that in spite of the age of the protagonist, in tone, pacing, and subject matter, The Poppy War is a decidedly adult fantasy novel that deals with war, substance abuse, rape, genocide, and intergenerational trauma, to name a few. Although her character develops to an increasingly dark place, early in the book, I found Rin very appealing. She is independent, ambitious, and irreverent, and she doesn’t care about customs or social roles. The Fangs plan to marry her off to a local official several times her age so that he will look the other way when it comes to their opium smuggling business. Her reaction is “fuck the heavenly order of things. If getting married to a gross old man was her preordained role on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.” However, she quickly developed into a person who worried me. She burns herself to stay awake when studying for the Keju, leaving herself scarred. And when she arrives in Sinegard and finds her studies imperiled by menarche, she decides to have her reproductive organs medically destroyed. In short, she is a terrifying badass. I admired her rejection of social norms, even as I was terrified of what she was going to grow up into. While I described her as a grey protagonist above, I think it is safe to say that the grey will be pretty black by the end of this planned trilogy. In fact, the transformation is arguably in place by the end of the third act, when Rin refuses to apologize or abdicate responsibility for her actions in the war.

The Poppy War’s narrative is divided into three acts. Part I is Rin’s origin story, and covers her studying for the Keju and her time at Sinegard. Although there are parts of this section that are hardcore, as mentioned above, it is the most youthful part of the narrative, and mirrors many of the familiar traditions of the magical boarding school setting, including trials, rivalries, and unexpected friendships. However, Part II sees the arrival of a long-awaited war, and the students of Sinegard, no longer children, are drafted into the war effort. Rin is once again cast adrift, and must find her place in the Empire’s military, a milieu in many ways more daunting than even elitist Sinegard. There are some lengthy descriptions of military sieges and tactics that would generally not be in my wheelhouse, but I liked the way Kuang was using these elements to explore politics, history, and the implications of war, not just wallow in war itself. In fact, one of the most important battles (see Chapter 21) is described only by its aftermath, in a way that is somehow both understated and horrifying. These choices continued to keep me with the book despite the increasing military focus.

Debut author Rebecca Kuang studied Chinese history at Georgetown, and in the same week that she was celebrating her debut novel, she was tweeting about completing her honours thesis on the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. The Poppy War draws deeply on that knowledge, with a fantasy twist that introduces ancient gods, and the remaining few who are able to draw on their power at a terrible price. Kuang cleverly insinuates much of her history and world-building as Rin studies for the Keju, and has to master many of these subjects for herself. To the extent that The Poppy War is a dark fantasy, it is a merely a dark reflection of the history that Kuang is drawing on. And with the fantasy genre awash in European history inspired fantasies, dark and otherwise, I think it is safe to say we could use a few more like Kuang’s that are inspired by and centered on other parts of the world.

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You might also like City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

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: 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.

Little Women/The Other Alcott

Cover image for Little Women by Louisa May AlcottLouisa May Alcott / Elise Hooper

ISBN 9780451529305 / 9780062645340

“Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason.”

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March live in Civil War era Boston with their mother, Marmee. Their father is away at war, and the two older girls have gone to work to support the family. Beth stays home to keep house, while little Amy is still at school. Little Women is a quiet, domestic coming of age novel that follows four very different sisters as they grow up and find their place in the world. Together they befriend their wealthy but lonely neighbour, Theodore Laurence, and his grandfather, weather sickness and loss, and face difficult choices about marriage and family in the aftermath of the war.

Cover image for The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper I first tried to read Little Women when I was about eleven years old, after receiving a boxset as a gift. I found it exceedingly boring, and put it aside after only a few chapters. I next picked it up when I was about thirteen, and utterly devoured it. Along with many a previous reader, I was charmed by Jo, vexed by Amy, and felt cheated by Laurie’s disposition at the end of the novel. After attending a reading of The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper at Brick & Mortar Books in January, I decided that is was well past time to revisit this classic.

What struck me most on this third reading was how condescending and moralizing Little Women is. It is full of asides, lectures, and reprimands that bog down the delicate characterizations and loving depiction of a family. Knowing more about the history of the novel, this is now less surprising. Alcott was induced to write the books by her publisher, who saw an untapped market for clean literature for young women. Alcott herself was not precisely a traditional woman; she was an unmarried career woman who supported her parents and siblings with her craft. And it was precisely this responsibility to care for her dependents that persuaded her to accept her publisher’s offer, and to publish not one but two installments of Little Women, and then two later sequels. In short, Alcott knew that she was pandering, but she had a family to support, so she wrote what her publisher wanted. The subtext of the book is more complicated than that, of course, but the bad taste remains.

One of May Alcott's original illustrations for the first edition of Little Women, 1868While the lecturing tone of the book is now decidedly unappealing, I was as drawn to the characters as ever. The focus is on the interactions and interplay between the sisters, though their neighbour Theodore Laurence of course plays an important role. The March sisters have a pleasingly realistic air, likely helped by their basis in Alcott’s own family. It is this fact that Elise Hooper draws on in her historical novel, The Other Alcott. The story follows Louisa’s youngest sister, May, who lives under the shadow of her fame as the inspiration for the much-hated Amy March. May aspired to be an artist, and illustrated the first edition of Little Women. But while her sister’s novel was a critical success, May’s illustrations were panned.

If Jo is the rough but shining favourite of Little Women, then The Other Alcott tries to imagine what it would be like to be the youngest sister of the person who penned this fictionalized version of herself. Hooper’s Louisa is prickly and temperamental, using her position as the family breadwinner as a right to exercise control over those she supports. Yet she has mixed feelings about her success with such pandering material, and little patience for her fans. May’s dreams of being an artist are constantly subordinated to her family responsibilities, and with little idea of how to support herself as an artist, she labours under a heavy weight of obligation to her wealthy sister. That weight is especially burdensome when the character of Amy March in Little Women reveals all too clearly how May thinks her sister must see her.

The Other Alcott follows May into Europe’s art scene at a fascinating period when the Impressionists were beginning to rock the French art establishment with their radical ideas. Women were finding ways to study art, despite prevailing ideas about the indecency of such an endeavour. So in addition to a difficult and well-drawn family tension, the novel also has a great historical backdrop to work with. Hooper occasionally inserts her historical research about the Alcotts or May’s artistic contemporaries in a way that is less than fluid, but it seems to be a stumble born mostly of enthusiasm for her subject. However, it is all this information that helps the novel form such an intriguing counterpoint to Little Women, adding context, and taking the part of the most maligned sister. And May’s own life is more interesting than anything Louisa imagined for Amy.