BOOK REVIEW | Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

4/5 stars

Son of a Trickster has been on my radar for a while now, and I’m so grateful to Canada Reads 2020 for selecting it for the shortlist. I loved this book!

Eden Robinson can tell a story – this book and all of its characters are so vivid and alive. Right off of the bat, the language is foul and hilarious: I knew I was in for a wild ride. This is in many ways a coming of age story for Jared, a 16 year old First Nations boy. Jared’s parents are busy dealing with their own addictions to drugs and alcohol, leaving Jared to take care of both them and himself. Jared bakes and sells marijuana cookies to get by, goes to parties, and occasionally helps complete chores for his aging neighbours.

That’s the tip of the iceberg here. Jared’s grandmother spent time in a residential school, and the effects of multi-generational trauma are very much at the centre of the narrative. Along with addiction, Jared has endured abuse and absentee parents. While these are heavy topics, and as dysfunctional as Jared’s life is, Robinson has crafted a story centered around the love and strength of family. Jared’s mother, for all her faults, loves him deeply. Oh, and there’s magic too.

If you’re familiar with Indigenous storytelling, you’re probably familiar with the Trickster. The Trickster can take many forms, but is a mischievous mythical creature present in traditional stories. In this case it’s called the Wee’git, and Jared’s maternal grandmother thinks that he’s it. Jared sometimes notices strange things happening around him, but passes them off as bad drug trips. We dive into the world of magic in the last third of the book, and I wanted to better understand and this section. It was totally entertaining, but I can’t help but feel as though I missed an important detail. The good news is this is the first in a trilogy, so I can continue to enjoy Robinson’s fantastic word.

BOOK REVIEW | We Have Always Been Here – A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib

4/5 stars

Book #2 for Canada Reads 2020!

We Have Always Been Here is a powerful story of one woman’s journey of self-discovery and re-inventing her faith after immigrating to Canada from Pakistan, escaping an arraigned marriage, and estrangement from her parents.

Samra Habib spent the early years of her childhood in Pakistan, her family a part of a small sect of Ahmadi Muslims. Under the threat of violence from Islamic extremists, Habib’s family made the decision to flee to Canada. Their arrival in Toronto provided freedom from physical violence, but started a new chapter of pain in Habib’s life. Like many immigrant children, she had to grow up quickly. She was bullied and felt lost among her Canadian peers. Before long, her much older male cousin came to live with her family. She soon discovers she is arranged to be married to him when she is of age.

… despite having grand dreams of becoming a writer and traveling the world, my future consisted of being a good Pakistani wife. I was destined for a life of servitude …

At age 16, Habib becomes a child bride. She begins to discover herself and knows this isn’t the life she is meant to be living. Her journey of self-healing is filled with relationships, books, art, music, fashion, travel, and mentors – each of which brings her closer to her true identity. She begins to identify as queer, a taboo that can be deadly for some in the Muslim faith. In her adult life, she as grown into her queer identity, but is missing the comfort and familiarity that Islam once brought her.

The most beautiful parts of Habib’s story were in her discovery of Unity Mosque. Almost like a secret club, she finds a Mosque that welcomes queer Muslims without judgement and with open arms. Re-discovering her faith was critical to her wholeness as a person, but more significantly was her openness to re-inventing what being Muslim means.

As I sat cross-legged on the prayer mat and started out the window, I could hardly believe I was coming back to my faith in the same neighbourhood where I attended my first drag show…I was meeting myself again in my thirties.

Habib’s passion for connecting with queer Muslims was the drive behind her photography project, Just Me and Allah. Traveling the globe, she meets with queer Muslims to take their portraits and hear their diverse stories. Through these connections they find a community, and a safe space to share their truth.

I hope that more conservative readers won’t pass on this book, and I encourage those readers to find the common ground. We all seek to find acceptance, our voice, and our place in the world. Many of Habib’s influences resonated with mine, and reading this felt like having a coffee with a friend. This book is compulsively easy to read – it’s hard to put down.

 

BOOK REVIEW | Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles

 

4/5 stars

My first book complete for Canada Reads 2020!

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, a book for the #metoo movement, takes place in St. John’s Newfoundland. Set over the course of one long day with a blizzard setting in, we hear from staff and acquaintances of the resturaunt “The Hazel”.

Narrated by a large cast of characters, Coles seeks to illustrate the ways in which a capitalist society sets you up for either success of failure. When you have a rich dad he can buy you a restaurant to run, nepotism at its finest. When you have drug addicted parents you may find yourself in damaging foster homes, and end up addicted to drugs yourself. This is ultimately about imbalances in power and wealth, and how this impacts the health of a community.

Coles is unrelenting, unafraid to go to the darkest depths of addiction and poverty, but the format of this book kept me at an emotional distance. The narrative style is unique – there’s not a lot of dialogue throughout the story. We mainly hear from the different characters via their inner monologues, often in a sort of stream of consciousness rumination. I felt the most engaged when we see the dynamics between the characters come alive – Iris and John, Calv and Amanda, etc. This book is heavy, depicting some really difficult scenes, but I found myself unaffected. At least not as deeply as with stories where I feel truly connected to the characters.

This is a great book and I can see why it’s doing so well here in Canada. Up for a Giller Prize, and now shortlisted for Canada Reads 2020, it’s a bold look into the some of the dark places that we often try to avoid. It you’re about to start on this book, I recommend keeping a piece of paper nearby to jot down how the characters are connected. Personally, I feel like a second reading would allow for a deeper relationship with the characters and a more impactful experience.

BOOK REVIEW | The Boat People by Sharon Bala| Canada Reads 2018 Contender #4

3/5 stars

In a time when political views are extremely divided, Sharon Bala’s The Boat People portrays a unique set of views regarding the immigrant experience. The vast number refugees coming into Canada are simply seeking a safe life for their families, but how do we separate those who will become contributing citizens from those with other motives? Bala seeks to answer this question, as well as shed light on a process that feels more criminal than hopeful.

Mahindin and his six year old son, Sillian, flee the civil war in Sri Lanka, setting out on a boat with about 500 other people seeking refuge in Canada. When their boat arrives in British Columbia, the refugee’s hope is quickly destroyed. Rather than starting their new lives, they are detained, questioned, and subject to a legal battle that will determine if they can stay or if they will be deported. Mahindan is separated from Sillian during the process, and fears that his past political associations will come to light, destroying their chances for life in Canada.

Inspired by actual events from 2009, Bala is effective in her portrayal of the immigration process from all sides. The story is told not only from Mahindan’s perspective, but also from Priya, a young lawyer appointed to defend Mahindan, and Grace, an adjudicator who will ultimately determine his fate. As pressure mounts, questions arise about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), why Mahindan was in a Tiger controlled area, and whether he has terrorist affiliations. Bala also touches on the smugglers and crime that goes along with moving people in desperate times.

This is such such an important story to tell, especially in our current political climate. The story surrounding Mahindan, Sillian, and their history was a joy to read. However, I was never able to fully invest myself in Priya’s or Grace’s stories – they were interesting, but didn’t feel necessary. Their stories made the book unnecessarily long, leaving me zoned out at times. This was a solid read, and a valuable addition to the Canada Reads contender list.

BOOK REVIEW | American War by Omar El Akkad| Canada Reads 2018 Contender #2

3/5 stars

I struggled to get through this book – it’s dark and heavy, but something didn’t quite click for me. Omar El Akkad imagines an America of the future; sides are strongly divided and a second civil war breaks out.

Sarat is our central character and force driving the narrative – I wanted to know what would happen with her, so I kept reading. She is six years old in 2074 when the war begins; it’s not long before tragedy strikes her family, leaving them displaced. They end up in a refugee camp where Sarat meets an older man who guides her in unexpected ways . In El Akkad’s future, innocence disappears quickly and people become instruments of war. War crimes are punished through torture, and humanity is lost.

The focus here is on the ways war shapes people. If not for the war, Sarat’s life, and who she ultimately becomes, would be entirely different. It’s heartbreaking to partake in Sarat’s transformation from an innocent child, to a woman of war, to a woman seeking revenge.  El Akkad is making a bold statement and offering a warning with this book – the Red (South) and Blue (North) are deeply divided, mirroring modern America: a country this polarized will eventually break. Something must give. This is a dystopian story, but one that doesn’t feel impossible.

BOOK REVIEW: Precious Cargo: My Year of Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077 | Canada Reads 2018 Contender #1

4/5 stars

If not for my beloved Canada Reads competition, I would never have picked this up. Call me cynical, but stories that are hopeful and quaint are just not my thing (I’m not sure what this says about me). The reason I love Canada Reads is that it forces me to read books that aren’t in my wheelhouse, and I found myself engrossed in this memoir in spite of my initial resistance. I was surprised when I flipped the book over to see that author Craig Davidson writes horror fiction under a pseudonym that I know very well – Nick Cutter. This immediately piqued my interest!

Years ago, long before Davidson became known (as Cutter) for his horror, he was a struggling writer, down on his luck and hopelessly out of work. A flyer in his mailbox advertised a need for school bus drivers, and he applied on a whim. Before long, he found himself going through orientation and training – this section alone was great. I loved the stories about the other trainees, seasoned drivers, and his driving instructor. It was both humourous and eye opening – it’s when Davidson realized the responsibility of transporting children.

He is assigned a route and discovers he will be driving the “short bus”, or “busette”: the special needs bus. Davidson takes us through each stop as he meets the kids that will soon become his “gang”. What follows is an account of the kids that changed his life over the course of one school year. Gavin, Nadja, Jake, Vincent, and Oliver. These kids are hilarious, full of uniqueness and quirks, and dreams no different than any other kid. One of my favourite moments was Nadja’s rules for the bus: no swear words allowed except for “Hell” and “schizz”. Davidson and Jake “click” when they meet – they become fast friends and I love reading their story.

Of course, there are challenges. Davidson respectfully discusses instances of “tantrums”, the stigma that comes from riding in a busette, and the question of self-worth that arises from being special-needs. He shares a powerful story about a time he and Jake were hanging out, and what happens when a kid in a wheelchair needs to use the bathroom. Davidson points out that we are all imperfect; how a drunk driver or a few seconds of lost oxygen in the womb, can make all the difference in who we will become. This was a fantastic read, and I hope the kids from route 3077 find their way to it.

BOOK REVIEW | Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez | Canada Reads 2018

4/5 stars

If you’re looking for a book to completely tear you apart, this could be it. Scarborough is an account of the people living in a low-income community, east of Toronto. Through the Ontario Reads Literacy Program, our large cast of characters are connected. These characters, primarily parents and their kids, are subject to poverty, alcoholism, racism, and prejudice. Though they show it in different ways, all of these parents are doing the best they know how, with limited resources, to provide for their kids.

Told from multiple perspectives, Hernandez astutely captures life for those surviving through poverty. Bing, an intellectually gifted Filipino boy coming to terms with his sexuality and his mother, Edna. Bing and Edna have a beautiful relationship – Edna works hard at her nail salon, Bing often helping out. Laura, a Caucasian girl, suffering through abuse from both of her parents, now living with her father, Cory. Cory is an alcoholic and rarely knows where Laura’s next meal is coming from – Laura is the most heartbreaking character in the book. Sylvie, a First Nations girl, living with her loving and dedicated mother, Marie, and three year old brother Johnny. Marie knows something is different about Johnny, bu prejudices in the medical system prevent her from finding help. She rushes across town on busses, pushes strollers through slush and snow, doing anything she can to make his appointments using public transit.

All of these characters are connected through the Ontario Reads Literacy Reads program – a place kids can go before school to have breakfast and play, to be themselves. Hina, who runs the program, is often subject to racism from the parents who drop their kids off at the program, and struggles to run the program in a way that best serves the community. We hear from Hina in her weekly reports to her supervisor.

There are some amazing wins for some of the characters, such as Bing’s school performance, and Marie’s breakthrough with Johnny. This wasn’t a perfect book, but it was darn close for me. Hernandez gripped me from the first page, and I was deeply invested in all of her characters. The final chapter was a little sentimental for my taste, but I understand what Hernandez was going for.

What struck me the most with this book was how familiar it all felt, particularly the racism and prejudice. These are the problems we face here in Canada, and this is part of why I love Canada Reads so much. These are the sort of books that Canadians need to read, much like The Break last year. American authours abound, but it’s so important to read content from our own backyard.