6

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!
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8

Taking ‘Buckshaw’ out of the Buckshaw Chronicles

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

Recently, I’ve seen people “confess” to their love of the Flavia de Luce books (fine, the Buckshaw Chronicles). Like reading and liking these books is something to feel guilty about, they are some kind of guilty pleasure.

I’m not about that life, guys. Are Alan Bradley’s delightful mysteries set in the 1950s English countryside gritty or dark or violent? Nope. But that’s kind of their charm. They are much more in the vein of Agatha Christie and I for one appreciate their lighter fare. I’ve spent several years loving Flavia and her penchant for solving crimes, chemistry and finding new ways to torture her older sisters.

So I’m not here to rag on these books. I think they are the kind of books that we probably need these days.

But I think Book #9, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, might be the end of the line.

grave

This is the copy I have…

After the shocking end of Book #8 (still not over it), the ever faithful Dogger takes Flavia and her older sisters on a boating trip before they are all off to new lives. As they are making their way up the river, Dogger is just telling Flavia about the wonderful case of the vicar who poisoned three of his parishioners and how they dropped dead right in the front pew, when Flavia literally drags a body from the water. One minute she’s dragging her arm in the water, the next a body is hanging from her hand by its teeth.

Naturally Flavia is delighted and Dogger and the de Luces decamp to the village of the famous poisoning incident. While there, Flavia endeavors to find out not only what happened to the body she dragged from the water but how did the vicar actually go about poisoning his parishioners?

In true Buckshaw Chronicles fashion, Flavia uncovers more than she bargained for and learns ever more about human nature.

If you’re familiar with these books, then you know exactly what you’re getting with The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place. It follows in the footsteps of it’s predecessors. The fact that this one is removed from Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey does mean that we lose access to some of the characters that didn’t come along on the trip. But Bradley has given us a whole cast of new characters that ably fill the void. However, if this IS the last one, the series is going out with a whimper, not a bang. And I can’t decide how I feel about that.

grave2

…but THIS version is stunning!

Now that Flavia has made a decision about her future, putting all her skills and training to use in this new pursuit, now that all of the financial issues around Buckshaw have been sorted out, I kind of want to see what direction these books could go in. They really do feel like an homage to Agatha Christie, maybe mixed with The Bletchley Circle and Harriet the Spy. Having freed himself from some of the constraints of the story, I want to see what Bradley comes up with for Flavia.

If you can come to this maybe-final book accepting it for what it is, then I suspect you will enjoy the ride. Flavia is in fine form, finally understanding how humans relate to one another, something that has always eluded her.

Finally, Flavia is all grown up.

6

CanLit Win: Someone You Love Is Gone

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

Heading into the long weekend, I was planning on reading something easy, a “guilty pleasure” style book. But by the time Monday rolled around, and I still hadn’t finished that particular book (or even really cared to read it at all) I decided that I’d maybe need to admit defeat and move on.

(Remember at the beginning of the year I said I’d be better about not finishing books?)

I looked around the apartment for my next book and settled pretty quickly on Someone You Love Is Gone by Gurjinder Basran. Basran is a local author whose debut novel, Everything Was Goodbye was the winner of the Search for the Great BC Novel contest in 2010 and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Award in 2011. It was also a Chatelaine Book Club pick in 2012.

basran

In Someone You Love Is Gone, Basran explores loss and grief and the coming to terms with a new reality. Simran’s mother has just passed away after a long illness. Simran doesn’t know how to cope with the void in her life; the past couple of years have been spent caring for her mother and suddenly her mother doesn’t exist anymore.

Except she kind of does. As she starts moving forward with her life, Simran’s mother haunts her, sits with her and talks about the past, about her siblings and the need for family in this world. They are just little glimpses of her but they offer Simran some comfort. Especially as she works through her family’s past, decisions that were made and the repercussions that rippled out through the generations.

When Simran was 10, her brother Diwa, always a special boy, believing himself to be reincarnated, is sent away to live with relatives. No explanation is ever given to Simran or Diwa; Diwa is gone and the siblings rarely see each other anymore. Soon a new sibling, Jyoti is born but the age difference means the sisters never become close.

There’s a lot going on in this book; three times are moving forward and while that often irritates me, removing me from one story when I’m just starting to settle into it, in Someone You Love Is Gone, it works. Basran has given each story the time that it needs, she hasn’t weighed it down with extraneous details or complications. Each story fits inside the others, like a series of Russian nesting dolls.

Simran is without a doubt the anchor of the story. Parts of the book are in first person from her perspective and again, normally this would drive me crazy, but here it felt natural and right. You can feel Simran’s sadness, the grief that she’s just coming to terms with, both over the loss of her mother and all the other losses she’s had to deal with over the course of a lifetime. All three of the siblings have grown up kind alone inside this family that just wants to function and get through the days, to not dwell on the bad things that have happened.

I thought it might be heavy novel, dealing with death as it does. I was worried that I’d become mired down in the darkness that I assumed would come with this book. But there is a real freedom in this book, a weightlessness that comes from Basran offering her characters redemption.

Basran has crafted a quiet, thoughtful novel. It is at once incredibly personal, the story of one family, and completely universal as I’m sure readers will be able to see themselves and their own families in it.

Another thumbs up on the CanLit front.

9

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.

thebreak

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.

 

11

Getting’ witchy with it

Halloween is not my holiday, really.

I don’t like to be scared. Seriously, I hate it. I don’t watch scary movies or read books in any genres that might give me a fright.

I also don’t particularly like dressing up? I’ve only felt like I’ve nailed my costumes a couple of times: Mary Poppins when I was 11, Alice in Wonderland at 22, and Charlie Chaplin when I was 10 except a few people thought I was Hitler on that last one, which was super unfortunate.

(And begs the question, what 10 year old is dressing up as Hitler?)

All that to say that my contribution to Halloween this year is a review of a witchy book: Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York.

I know – daring, isn’t it?

Back in the day, I read McKay’s The Birth House in one sitting. At the time, I couldn’t remember being quite so captivated by a book. It was also one of the first successful forays into CanLit (can someone figure this out for me? McKay was born in the States but lives in Nova Scotia and has totally been embraced as one of our own – does she “count” as being a Canadian author? How does this work? Emma Donogue is another one that this always confuses me with…)

wony_smallcover

When The Virgin Cure came out, I didn’t fall in love with it. So I was apprehensive about The Witches of New York. It continues Moth’s story. But this time Moth, now Adelaide Thom has embraced her witchy heritage. She is in business with Eleanor St Clair – they run a tea shop in New York City. Wealthy women come to visit them for a variety of problems that they help solve through spells and potions.

When Adelaide runs an ad looking for a shop girl to help Eleanor, Beatrice Dunn shows up and everything changes. Suddenly the women are in danger from those who are starting to become suspicious about the work that they do. In 1888, the women are quite removed from the Salem Witch Trials but there are still those who would harm them for the work that they do. As Beatrice learns to harness her powers, those who think that their work is evil come ever closer.

I really liked this book. There were some issues that I had in terms of the plot – there are a lot of things happening and I’m not convinced that they all came together. I also think that it doesn’t need to be a 500 page book – there’s a lot of set up that had no pay off and we could have started later and gotten to the same place.

BUT.

I loved the atmosphere of this book. McKay does an incredible job of evoking this time and place with something extra. Her cast of characters, the history infused into this book give the whole thing an ethereal quality that had me looking around wondering if spirits were near.

Also, McKay is here for women. Beatrice, Adelaide and Eleanor make up a sisterhood who help each other in life and love and have built a business around helping other women out of the problems created, oftentimes, by men. There are very few men in this book and only one of them is really good – he’s the only one that actually listens to what they have to say. The others are intent on the destruction of these women for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that they are evil.

McKay touches on the Salem Witch Trials and the historical persecution of women who didn’t fit the mould. It turns out that one of her own ancestors had been persecuted, accused of being a witch – she was hanged in 1692. So the subject matter feels personal and you can tell as you read.

I think that The Witches of New York has been set up as a series and I am more than OK with it. If you haven’t read The Virgin Cure, I wouldn’t say that it’s necessary in order to enjoy this one. But don’t pass up The Witches of New York if you didn’t love its predecessor.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for an ARC of this book. 

5

CanLit: The Fortunate Brother

When I first started reading The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey I was afraid that all my old issues with CanLit were coming home to roost in this book.

But I kept at it and before I knew it, I had spent the entire day with this book and was quite attached to it.

The Fortunate Brother is about Kyle Now. His father, Sylvanus has been drinking heavily since the death of Kyle’s brother, Chris. His mother, Addie has just been diagnosed with breast cancer and wants Kyle and his father to quit drinking and make something better out of their lives. When the local bully ends up dead, with traces of his blood on the Now’s dock, Kyle questions everything he knows and really starts to flounder.

This book is very much of a certain time and place. It’s 1980, in Newfoundland, with all the baggage that that comes with. The Nows have come back to this next part of their story, having featured in Morrissey’s previous novel, Sylvanus Now. That one takes place in the 1950s – for readers of that book (I haven’t read it) this is a chance to see what happened.

This book is tense. Right from the beginning, Kyle is at a loose end, living in the shadow of his dead brother, blaming his sister for her part in it. He’s barely 20 and feels like an old man, trying to figure out what his next step is.

The murder really throws everything off. Morrissey takes you into the community, makes you a part of the drama and the unease. It’s a layered story that’s drawn out with purpose. There is a lot going on – a murder mystery, cancer, a family trying to put itself back together – but Morrissey handles all these facets with care. When I started reading it, I didn’t understand how it could all fit together, so disparate did the elements feel. But Morrissey manages it.

In the end, I was grateful to get to read such a taut, complex, resonant and philosophical tale about family and one’s place in the world.

To really get a sense of the strength of the writing, take a look at this post about the book from Naomi @ Consumed By Ink.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for an ARC of this book. 

6

Bring it to the beach: She’s Not There

Remember that time I read Cartwheel, a fictionalized account of the Amanda Knox case, and felt dirty and voyeuristic?

That’s kind of what I was afraid would happen when I read She’s Not There by Joy Fielding.

In May 2007, nearly 4-year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared from her room in a Portuguese resort while her parents had dinner at a nearby restaurant. Her siblings were asleep in the room with her.

To date, she hasn’t been found.

she's not there

In She’s Not There, Caroline Shipley’s 2-year-old daughter, Samantha, was taken from her hotel room at a Mexican resort as her parents dined with friends downstairs. Her 5-year-old sister, Michelle, was asleep in the room with her at the time.

Fifteen years later, near the anniversary of the disappearance, Caroline receives a phone call from a 17-year-old who claims to be her missing daughter. This bombshell rips open all the old wounds and forces Caroline and her family to confront the things that happened all those years ago.

In the beginning of the book, I did get that uncomfortable feeling like I was getting enjoyment reading about the very real pain of the McCann family. But we soon moved past the actual abduction and onto the fallout from that night: the Shipleys’ divorce, the uncomfortable relationship Caroline has with her daughter Michelle, the complex relationship she has with her (horrible) mother, Mary, Caroline’s difficulties finding work as a teacher since her daughter’s disappearance and the portrayal of her in the media as a cold, distant, uptight woman.

She’s Not There becomes less about the abduction and more about the emotional toll it takes on the family. The phone call throws everything Caroline thinks she knows on its head and she is forced to confront truths she might not be ready for.

At the centre of the whole thing, of course, is the question: is this girl really Samantha?

I enjoyed this book so much more than I thought I would. It’s well-paced, trailing just enough breadcrumbs to feel like you are ahead of Fielding. Caroline is allowed to rage against her family, her ex-husband and the media who all have these ideas of Caroline as a terrible mother, a boring person, and an ice queen. I appreciated that all loose ends were tied up and I don’t need to track down other books in a new series.

This is the kind of book that deserves to be read beach-lake-or-pool-side with a cocktail. If you haven’t already read it, keep it in mind when you’re filling your summer totes.