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.

BOOK REVIEW | Brother by David Chariandy | 2018 Canada Reads Longlist

5/5 stars

There is so much packed into this slim book by David Chariandy. Brother explores topics that many would describe as timely, but that he describes as being felt by many for far too long. Chariandy dives into race, masculinity, police violence, community, the immigrant experience, and the power of music with striking precision and depth.

Michael and his older brother, Francis, live in a community called The Park in Scarborough, Ontario. Raised by their hard working Trinidadian mother, the boys are often left alone to take care of each other. Francis takes on the role of leader, guiding and teaching Michael along the way, often making mistakes of his own. With love and respect for their mother the boys stay on a clean path, but after witnessing an instance of violence, Francis is changed.

The story jumps back and forth in time from when the boys are kids to present day. As Michael and Francis struggle to find purpose and identity, the pair are subject to the prejudice that comes from having brown skin and living in an immigrant community; expectations are low. Through a love of hip hop, Francis begins to explore new opportunities, unknowingly sealing his fate. In the aftermath of tragedy, Michael discovers the healing power of his community.

Chariandy did a great job at representing for us children of Caribbean immigrants (my mother is Jamaican), layering in even more for me to love about this book. I don’t think I’ve ever seen “ackee” mentioned in a book, or that “pears” are “avocados”, at least to Caribbean folks. Knowing that so many Canadians will read this story through Canada Reads 2018 brings me so much happiness.

BOOK REVIEW | Canada Reads 2017 #1 – Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis



From the publisher:
– I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.

– I’ll wager a year’s servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.

And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old ‘dog’ ways, and those whoembrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.

My thoughts:
Fifteen Dogs blew me away. This was probably the Canada Reads selection that I was least looking forward to, and it may very well end up as my front runner.

Gods Hermes and Apollo are hanging out at the local tavern, waxing philosophical over drinks. The discussion turns to human happiness, and a bet is made: Apollo wagers a year’s servitude that any animal, if bestowed with human intelligence and consciousness, would be even more unhappy than humans. Hermes takes him up on the bet, with the caveat that if any one animal is happy at its death, he wins. After leaving the tavern they end up near a veterinary clinic and in the back are fifteen dogs. With that, they decide to test their theory on dogs, and they grant the animals with human language and intelligence. From here, the story unfolds. We follow the fifteen dogs as they begin to understand their new intelligence, through their lives and struggles, and ultimately to their deaths. The story is insightful, bleak, brutal, and heartbreaking – I absolutely loved it.

The dogs ask poignant questions and contemplate timeless philosophies – to understand love, the fight for personal sovereignty, the need for a sense of family or community, dominance vs. submission, and of course the struggle to find meaning and joy in life. Alexis skillfully weaves in and out of their stories, and brings it all home with a touching denouement. In the note on the text, Alexis reveals something pretty amazing about the short poems in the book – I promise you’ll be turning back to read them all over again.

Alexis packed so much into this short book: there’s action, quiet contemplation, humor, joy, and sadness. Every page has meaning and has been carefully crafted; this is not a book to be skimmed through. While this is a book about fifteen dogs, you do not need to be a dog lover to enjoy this, though there are some great moments for those of of who are! This book is profoundly human, and one that I can see myself returning to again and again.

BOOK REVIEW | All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai


3.5/5 stars

*I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

From the publisher:
You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks, and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed . . . because it wasn’t necessary.

Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.

But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career, and—maybe, just maybe—his soul mate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents, and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future—our future—is supposed to be.

My thoughts:
Is it possible to think outside of the box of your ideology? Or is ideology the box and you just have to work at opening it?

In Tom Barren’s 2016, all of the technological advances predicted in the 1950’s have come to light. In 1965, a scientist named Lionel Goettreider discoverd a new form of energy, unleashing the power of automation and nano-targeting into the world. Need a haircut, a meal, or a new outfit? The touch of a button gets the job done, and the results are perfectly tailored to your needs. If you’re heading to work, take your flying car. Life is easy with technology at the forefront, but Tom isn’t happy. Tom’s father, a leader in the field of time travel, is openly disappointed in his son but reluctantly brings him aboard his company. Tom was not meant to be the first to test his father’s time machine, but through a mishap, that’s exactly what he becomes. Tom ends up in another 2016 – our 2016 – where a haircut requires a skilled, scissor yielding, professional.

While this book is categorized as sci-fi, I found it surprisingly rooted in humanity. Tom’s struggles are relatable, and I found myself highlighting many poignant passages. Mastai creatively addresses fate and destiny, the power that a single decision can have on the course of one’s life, and finding contentment and human connection in a world overrun with technology. Though I didn’t fully connect with Tom I still wanted the best for him – I wanted him to find his way home, and for him to have peace with wherever that was.

I often struggle with books primarily narrated in the first person, but found that the story was engaging enough that I didn’t notice it here, a testament to Mastai’s writing. He does use the word “like” conversationally quite a bit, and I could have done without that. I understand the intent, people do talk like this, but I found it distracting. Mastai’s insights are meaningful and this story was really fun to read!

BOOK REVIEW | The Wonder by Emma Donoghue


4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In the latest masterpiece by Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.

Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels–a tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.

My thoughts:
How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized – as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock.

This book is fantastic! Admittedly, I went into this with fairly low expectations, but it blew those out of the water. It’s atmospheric and slow burning, mysterious and infuriating.

The year is 1859, shortly after the Crimean war and Lib, an English nurse, is called to Ireland to take watch over a young girl named Anna who claims she no longer needs food to live. In a time of religious fervor, the people of the town believe that Anna is a living wonder, chosen by God. Lib is convinced that Anna is playing an elaborate prank on everyone, sneaking food on the sly, and watches her every move closely in an attempt to figure out how she’s doing it. Anna’s explanation is that for the last four months, she has lived on manna from heaven – this confounds Lib, who is determined to understand what the girl means. No one can sustain themselves for this long without some nourishment, this she knows to be true.

The story unfolds slowly, leading up to startling confessions and disturbing realizations. Lib knows she must take immediate, drastic action to save Anna, who has deteriorated physically.

The Wonder asks the reader to consider questions about religious conviction, loyalty, and parenthood. It will keep you flipping the pages as you race to discover the truth.