Canada Reads: The Woo-Woo

Next month, five different books will be discussed and defended with the ultimate goal of narrowing it down to one book that all Canadians should read. That’s the idea behind Canada Reads, an annual book tournament televised on the CBC. This year’s theme is “one book to move you.”

This year’s contenders and their chosen books are:

Someone I follow on Instagram is actually the literary agent for The Woo-Woo and she mentioned it in her stories so I decided that that would be the first book I’d read.

woo woo.jpg

The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family by Lindsay Wong is a memoir of growing up in a family struggling with untreated mental illnesses, believing instead that the afflicted person was possessed by ghosts. Lindsay’s mother was terrified of being possessed, taking her children to live in a mall food court for weeks at a time because the ghosts wouldn’t find them there. Her father used work as a solace, using his role as family breadwinner as an excuse for not dealing with any of the madness at home. To this day Lindsay doesn’t speak with her younger sister and her relationship with her younger brother is incredibly damaged. Her aunt once held the Lower Mainland hostage on Canada Day as she threatened to jump from one of the main bridges in the area.

That Wong manage to make it out alive at all is a testament to her strength. That she not only survived but was able to relive it all to write about it is something else entirely. While this memoir could be compared to Educated or The Glass Castle, I hesitate to make the comparison. For one thing, this book didn’t get to me emotionally like those books did. I don’t think that Wong is completely free of this story, I think she probably still lives it, so there’s an emotional distance that was likely necessary to write the book.

Reading about her childhood I felt anger and sadness for this little girl that couldn’t possibly understand how sick her family was. That there was no one at school, no friends, no friends’ parents who stepped in to offer Lindsay any kind of help, a place to go that was clean and safe. I’m still incredibly curious about how she has managed to become a functioning, capable adult from the violent, crass, unwashed teenager she writes about so callously.

The Woo-Woo is dark. I know it’s being billed as darkly humorous but I don’t recall laughing that much. What I felt was anger. Anger at her family, the city she derisively calls Hongcouver, at herself for not understanding sooner how broken her home life was. I had a hard time with some of the language used too. I have no doubt that it was accurate, that her parents absolutely used the word to refer to her but I hate the R word a lot and it was sprinkled liberally throughout. I like to think that it was a tough decision for Wong to include or not include the word but I still found it jarring to encounter it so often.

In the end, this was a horrifying look at the damage untreated mental illness can do, at the superstitions that can hold a culture hostage. But I’m not sure that The Woo-Woo has the emotional heft to win Canada Reads.



Canada Reads: The Boat People

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

It’s that time of year again! Canada’s national book competition, Canada Reads, is kicking off once more!

This year the theme is One Book to Open Your Eyes. The books that will be competing are:

And because I’m still working on becoming a better CanLit reader, I’ve only read one of the books this year: The Boat People by Sharon Bala.
From Goodreads:
When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war reaches Canadian shores, the young father believes he and his six-year-old son can finally begin a new life. Instead, the group is thrown into prison, with government officials and news headlines speculating that hidden among the “boat people” are members of a terrorist organization infamous for their suicide attacks. As suspicion swirls and interrogation mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize his and his son’s chances for asylum.
boat people
The Boat People is told from alternating perspectives: Mahindan as he tries to figure out what is happening to him in this new country and worries over his son, who he has been separated from; his lawyer Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan-Canadian who has never really been a part of Sri Lankan culture and must grapple with her identity and her role in Mahindan’s life; and Grace, the adjudicator, a third generation Japanese-Canadian whose family was interred during the war and stripped of everything they had worked to achieve, who must decide if Mahindan is a threat to the safety of her country, just like people decided her family was all those years ago.
The alternating perspectives provided a lot of layers to this story – Mahindan’s story is told from when he is in Canada but also what happened to him and others in Sri Lanka, that brought him here in the first place. Bala tells the story of Sri Lanka through Mahindan and Priya who learns about what happened to her own family that prompted them to escape to Canada.
But The Boat People can feel heavy handed with it’s message of inclusion and the duty to provide asylum and it’s mostly because of Grace. Grace has been appointed as an adjudicator by a former boss, a minister who is intent on kicking all of these people out of the country because they are probably terrorists. She is terrified of disappointing him and is infected by his xenophobic rhetoric. And as she continues to ignore her own family history, she is doomed to be the reason history is repeated.
There is a lot of complex history about Sri Lanka that Bala has no doubt simplified for her readers. And still I found it really overwhelming. The political history of that country is still something that I do not understand but Bala does do an admirable job of focusing those politics on the people they affected. In this way, Bala focuses on the human toll of political upheaval and forces readers to decide where the line is in offering asylum or shutting the door.
I think that The Boat People can be the kind of book a lot of people should read. It clearly did open my eyes to suffering in a part of the world I wasn’t paying attention to. But I’m not sure that this is the one book that will force the entire country to open their eyes and pay attention.
The competition starts on March 26 – tune in at cbc.ca!

Canada Reads 2017: The Right To Be Cold

When the Canada Reads shortlist was announced this year, it struck me (and many others) as odd that there was a non-fiction selection among them. How can the merits of a non-fiction selection be weighed alongside fiction?

Nonetheless, the non-fiction title (The Right To Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, The Arctic and the Whole Planet) was one of only two titles that I even wanted to read. (The other was Katherena Vermette’s The Break and I don’t even want to talk about how that book was treated during the debates. READ IT)

right to be cold

Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right To Be Cold is part memoir, part manifesto. The first half of the memoir, about her life growing up in the Arctic and the traditions of her Inuit culture, I loved. Her home, her traditions, her culture, her language, her family – all were written about with such love while pointing out that their way of life was being threatened by the warming of the Earth.

She writes quite plainly:

The Arctic ice and snow, the frozen terrain that Inuit life has depended on for millennia, is now diminishing in front of our eyes.

We are all accustomed to the dire metaphors used to evoke the havoc of climate change, but in many parts of the Arctic, the metaphors have already become a very literal reality. For a number of reasons, the planet warms several times faster at the poles. While climate experts warn that an increase of two degrees in the global average temperature is the threshold of disaster, in the Arctic we have already seen nearly double that.

Part of the issue, of course, is that those sounding the alarm are not the “right” kind of people. They are those citizens that have been taken advantage of, that have been robbed of their culture, forced into educational institutions that separated them from their families and did their own kind of damage. Although not the focus of the book, Watt-Cloutier does touch on this aspect of it. Those citizens that have been suppressed and abused are now charged with righting the wrongs of the rest of us.

And so, as her people’s way of life became threatened, as new generations were being robbed of the necessary environment to practice essential skills, as the habitats of animals necessary to sustain life in the Arctic became increasingly endangered, Watt-Cloutier saw that she would need to take a stand.

And that leads to the manifesto/memoir overlap of the book that kind of lost me. Undoubtedly her work is so very important and fundamental to the future of her people and the entire planet. But in writing about it, she relies on the retelling of political process, of the meetings she had, speeches she heard and gave, of those she met whose minds she changed.

It was all so dry.

Which is a shame because I do think that this is an important book for people to read, to understand just how precarious our situation is when it comes to climate change. It has already had very real implications for people right now.

I so appreciate Sheila Watt-Cloutier and the work she has done. I just wish that she had been able to leave out the process and focus on what needs to happen. Or spend more time on shocking people into that state of things as they are, and how much damage we have already done.

Canada Reads has come and gone by now and though I still think it was weird to add a non-fiction book to the party, there’s enough in The Right To Be Cold to make it worth your while. We can’t really afford to pretend this isn’t a serious problem.


Canada Reads 2017: The Break

Two years ago, I tuned into the Canada Reads debate for the first time. I ended up reading two of the books after the fact (one of which, When Everything Feels Like The Movies stays with me still).

Last year, I read two of the books ahead of the debate (progress!). I bought the winner soon after it was over and have yet to read it (because that’s how I roll).

This year I’ve bought two of the books and currently, I’ve read one. I’ll read the other one but I hope The Break wins.


Katherena Vermette’s debut novel, The Break, centres on a sexual assault that takes place in the middle of the night. Stella, a young Metis mother, hears something outside and, fearing that someone is hurt but unable to leave her house and her children, she calls the police. The book tells the story leading up to that night and it’s aftermath from rotating, multi-generational viewpoints: the sisters, cousins, mothers and aunts that make up one Aboriginal family affected, their friends, and a young Metis police officer assigned to investigate the case.

The Break slowly burns into an inferno of a book. It rightfully comes with a trigger warning due to scenes of sexual and physical violence and those scenes are brutal. But they don’t take away from the beauty of this book.

Vermette weaves a layered tale involving perspectives from mothers, daughters, lost children, of Aboriginal women who have chosen to forge a life in the city away from their ancestral lands and traditions. It is a commentary on the value our country has placed on these women, how easily we dismiss their concerns, the destruction of their young. Vermette’s vivid characters belong to a sisterhood long used to fending for themselves, who worry for their children and how the world will view them.

The whole idea of Canada Reads is that we’re supposed to find that one book that the country needs to read. In the face of all that is wrong in this country when it comes to Aboriginal relations, I think it would benefit the country massively to read The Break. It is a the kind of book that breaks you wide open and lets some much needed light in.



Canada Reads – Bone and Bread

For the first time ever, I have read at least one of the Canada Reads finalists BEFORE the competition even starts. Actually, I’ve read two.

I basically exclusively read CanLit at this point.

Today the competition starts. At some point, I will get caught up on what happened but in the meantime, let me add my voice to the flood of Canada Reads posts you’ve been seeing.

I talked about The Hero’s Walk recently – click here to get caught up.

The second book I read was Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz. I liked it a lot more than The Hero’s Walk, but again, I don’t think that’s the fault of The Hero’s Walk  – there’s just something wrong with me.

bone and bread

Bone and Bread tells the story of sisters Beena and Sadhana. Sadhana has died recently, suddenly, and Beena and her teenage son, Quinn, are left to sort through the aftermath of her death. Beena tells us their story, of their unusual upbringing as the daughter of an Indian father and a white Irish mother, and then when each of their parents’ dies, at different times, of their life with their father’s brother, a man who is not equipped to handle two teenage girls in any way.

When Beena is 16 she gets pregnant. This is at the same time as Sadhana starts her years’ long battle with anorexia, a disease that sees her hospitalized more than once. As Beena learns to be a mother to Quinn, without her own mother to lean on, she and Sadhana enter into an uncomfortable relationship that satisfies no one.

This is a complex story of two young women trying to figure out their lives in the wake of a host of complications: the death of each of their parents, an unplanned pregnancy, a disapproving uncle, an all-encompassing illness. At times it felt like Beena and I were having coffee, like she was my friend telling me what was going on in her life. That’s how invested I was in this one.

Beena and Quinn are trying to come to terms with Sadhana’s passing, with the hole she left in both of their lives in different ways. Montreal is almost another character in this one as the setting of most of the story. The girls are born and grow up in Montreal, Sadhana stays when Beena moves to Ottawa with Quinn but now that it’s time for university, Quinn is heading back.

In terms of the Canada Reads theme of ‘Starting Over’ this one is easy. Beena and Sadhana are constantly starting over, forced to make new lives out of the ruins of the old ones. I felt like I’d been put through the wringer after reading this one. Emotionally, I was spent. I’m looking forward to cheering this one on through the debates.

Which book are you rooting for?



Canada Reads: The Hero’s Walk

The Canada Reads tournament is upon is! In less than 2 weeks, eminent Canadians (including badass Olympian Clara Hughes, who has won multiple medals in both the winter and summer Olympics, and Farah Mohamed, the founder and CEO of G(irls) 20, a social profit enterprise that promotes the economic and educational empowerment of girls and women) will meet to battle for their chosen books.

Five books with the theme of “starting over” have been chosen: The Illegal by Lawrence Hill, Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz, Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter, Birdie by Tracey Lindberg and The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami.

I started with The Hero’s Walk.


Sripathi Rao’s daughter Maya and her husband Alan Baker have been killed in a car accident, leaving behind their 7 year old daughter, Nandana. Sripathi and his daughter have been estranged for nearly a decade and he’s never met his granddaughter but he goes to bring her home to India, where she must learn to live a new life, away from everything she’s ever known. So too must Sripathi come to terms with this permanent estrangement from his daughter, in a world that is becoming less and less familiar. His house is falling down around him and the social constructs that have always governed his life are being broken down around him, given a helping hand by his social activist son, Arun.

I love an inter-generational tale and The Hero’s Walk had plenty of drama to keep me engaged. Sripathi’s mother clings to the old ways of life, when as the wife of a Brahmin lawyer, she was above the rest of society – she tortures her daughter-in-law and refuses to let her 42 year old daughter get married. Nirmala, Sripathi’s wife, devastated by the loss of her daughter before she was able to reconcile her with her father, breaks out of her role as helpful, mild helpmate. She is angry with Sripathi for allowing so much time to go by, to let their daughter die without letting her ever come home and for keeping her away from her granddaughter.

And yet, for all the drama and the struggle to get out from under the oppressive weight of grief and the past, this book was lacking something for me. Maybe this week was the wrong time to read this – I suspect that it might be the kind of book that benefits from spending longer stretches of uninterrupted time with it.

When I was reading it, I was thinking about the tournament and how it holds up the theme of starting over. Obviously Nandana has to start a new life in India with her mother’s family, who are basically strangers. But Nandana’s story is almost a footnote, mute as she decides to be – she is a character that is on the periphery, observing. Sripathi starts over in any number of ways – a life without his daughter or the chance to ever make it right, as a man on the edge of retirement, a man letting go of the old ways of life in this town he’s only ever left once, as a man who is looking at his family in a new way – but I wonder how it will hold up against heavyweights like The Illegal or Minister Without Portfolio. But who knows, maybe this quieter tale of redemption at any age will strike a chord with readers.

I can’t wait to tune into the debate, in any case!

I did receive a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada. This does not affect my review.


When Everything Feels Like the Movies

For the first time ever, I tuned into Canada Reads this year. I was blown away by the passionate debate and came away with a few more titles to add to my never-ending TBR list. The theme this year was books that break barriers. Elaine Lui, aka Lainey Gossip, championed Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies. Ultimately this book came in second, but it was the book that I most wanted to read after.


When Everything Feels Like the Movies (WEFLTM for my sanity) is Jude’s story. He is a gay teenager in a small, depressing Canadian town in the middle of winter who dreams of being a Hollywood star. He is bullied at school, and has a train wreck of a home life. Jude’s one friend Angela is a promiscuous girl who keeps a list of all the guys she’s slept with under their favourite booth at the Day-n-Nite. Jude is planning on running away to Hollywood soon but in the meantime, he tells the story of the everyday: his mom’s turbulent relationship with her boyfriend Ray, smoking joints with Angela, his relationship with teacher Mr Dawson, stealing the Glinda dress from the school production when he doesn’t get the part.

Watching Canada Reads, I was prepared not to like Jude. I was prepared to spend some time with a vulgar, narcissistic teenager, dropping f-bombs and generally being an asshole. I wasn’t prepared to fall in love with Jude, to want to protect him and show him a different kind of life. I agree with Lainey that the language in this book is supposed to shock you so that you sit up and realize that the life Jude leads, the one filled with homophobia and physical violence, is the life that is led by thousands of young gay teenagers. Jude’s story isn’t an anomaly, his ending isn’t a one-in-a-million. When Jude asks his crush, Luke, to be his Valentine, Luke’s reaction isn’t an uncommon one.

This book broke my damn heart. The last few pages feel like a punch in the gut when you’re already on the floor gasping for breath. There’s a scene near the end when Jude’s little brother climbs up on his bed and makes sure that Jude looks his best that even now makes me cry. His little brother always saw Jude the way that Jude wanted everyone to see him – as fabulous.

It’s a short book but it has a lot to say. The end, when it comes, is fast and furious. I was so angry. I was prepared to be in tears but I wasn’t prepared to be so pissed. This book made me feel so much more than Ru. I think WEFLTM is the barrier breaking book that the whole country needs to read and then discuss so that the Judes in the world have a happier ending.

If you end up reading this book and wanting to do something, please check out Covenant House.


My CanLit Journey: Canada Reads

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that I’ve struggled with liking CanLit. This might not sound like a big deal for those of you that aren’t Canadian, but if you tell Canadians that you don’t really like Canadian Literature, it’s a thing.

Canada has a long, proud history of literature. We’re a bookish country. But I never really connected with CanLit. Not on purpose anyway.

But, one of the great things about having started this blog and connecting with other bookish people (I’m thinking especially of Naomi at Consumed by Ink and Tania and Kurt at WriteReads), is that I’ve been challenged to re-evaluate my position on CanLit. And I’m making progress. So much so that this year for the first time ever I tuned in to Canada Reads.

Oh yeah, I wasn’t kidding when I said Canada was a bookish country. We have a national reality show to choose a book that the whole country should read. Past winners include The Book of Negroes, The Orenda, and A Complicated Kindness. Finalists have included Life of Pi, A Fine Balance, The Prisoner of Tehran and The Birth House. Notable Canadians pick the books and then argue for why their book should win.

And actually if I’m being honest, of the ones I just listed, I’ve read and enjoyed four. Not too shabby for a CanLit snob.

Anyway, I tuned in this year and was blown away by the debate. It was passionate, it was intelligent, it was what I wish book club was actually like – at times it was emotional. The panelists argued about what it meant to be Canadian, which book broke the most barriers, writing quality etc.

Let me be honest – the reason I actually tuned in this year was because Elaine Lui (aka Lainey Gossip) was one of the panelists, defending When Everything Feels Like the Movies, the first YA book included in the competition. She was brilliant and really made me want to read the book.

I ended up reading the book that won over the weekend (I don’t want to ruin it for you, but really, you’re not going to get very far not knowing if you look at anything related to books and Canada). It was beautifully written, lyrical and poetic but honestly? I’m not sure it’s the kind of book that people are going to be clamouring to read. I think it’s one of those books that book critics love, but regular people are going to have a hard time with. The kind of book that most people are going to go “oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to read that…”

Still, actually tuning in to the competition feels like a watershed moment in my CanLit journey. If you’re looking for something to listen to, I really recommend it. It’s available as a podcast, or here.  Four sessions, four hours of fabulous bookish debate – what’s not to love?


A Book Buying Binge

Books are slowly taking over my apartment.

It’s not like this is a new problem. I’ve written about it before here. And probably here. Here too?

But this seems like the first time that I’m looking at my shelves thinking seriously about donating some of my less-loved titles. And I did that twice last year. My husband also moved a bunch of DVDs to free up shelf space for me, all of which is now crammed full of books. There are books all along the floor of the bookshelves, on the coffee table, my bedside table, the table beside my couch. Everywhere.

So I’m not exactly sure what I was doing in a bookstore in the first place.

And yet, in one week I went to the bookstore three times. I think. There might have been more times and I just blocked those memories. All I know is that I now have a lot more books that also need reading and since Chelsea asked for a book haul post, here are the books that I recently brought home:


Murder After Hours and 13 at Dinner by Agatha Christie. There’s this second hand bookstore near a friend’s house and it’s awesome. The books are stacked all the way to the ceiling, alphabetical by author, grouped by genre. The crime fiction authors have drawers. Most have to share. Agatha Christie gets her own drawer filled with the best vintage covers. I took home two of them because Agatha Christie you guys.

Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin. I grabbed this one at the same bookstore (in a shared drawer) because it’s the third book in the Inspector Rebus series and it’s a hard one to find.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. This is the only book of Gladwell’s’ that I haven’t read so when I saw it at the second hand bookstore, I took it. It’s also on my TBR Pile Challenge list so I have to read it soonish. See? I needed it.

The Duchess of Aquitaine: A Novel of Eleanor by Margaret Ball. I’ve been looking for some good historical fiction that doesn’t deal with Yorks or Tudors, wives of famous writers or the French Revolution. I’m hopeful that this fits the bill.

How to Be A Good Wife by Emma Chapman. Definitely not a how-to guide. Rather one of those domestic thrillers we’re all into right now from a debut author.

Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy. I was in the middle of a reading slump and I always find that Maeve Binchy is the perfect author with which to reset my reading mojo. I didn’t need it though – Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken did the trick. I’m sure Maeve will come in handy sooner or later though – she’s always good to have on hand.

Ru by Kim Thuy. The Canada Reads list had just been released and for the first time ever, I was interested in maybe reading some of the books. Ru was the first one I found when I was in that mindset and so I took it home with me.

The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park. Iv’e been on the lookout for books about Italy since we’re going in the Spring and I don’t know that much about the country. OK so this is fiction but Heather picked it so it can’t be terrible. I promise to read some non-fiction about Italy soon.

I also picked up Persuasion because I’m going to re-read that soon and the first three Anne of Green Gables books to restart the collection because I’m doing the Green Gables Readalong with Reeder Reads and I didn’t have the books anymore which made me sad.

So yeah. Good thing today is a day off. I have a lot of reading to do. What am I even doing here??

Have you gone on any book buying binges lately?