Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

2018:12
4 of 5 stars
Published 2017

This debut novel will keep you thinking long after you turn that last page. Set at the end of the 21st century, America is in the depths of a second Civil War fought over fossil fuel that the North wanted outlawed and the Southern section refused to give up.  The map of the country as it’s known today looks very different as most of the coastal areas are under water. Extreme weather still takes its toll on the country.  There are unmanned but armed drones that dot the skies, raining explosives down.  There are soldiers that come, night or day.  At the end of the war, there was then a terrible plague that swept the country. War is hell. We know all this at the start of the book. The rest of the book fills in the blanks, told by the nephew of the protagonist as he looks back on his own life and the woman that influenced him and saved his life.

Sounds grim. It’s gonna get grimmer. Sarat is a child at the beginning of the book. She and her mother, brother and twin sister are taken to a refugee camp when her father is killed. From here, we get an insight as to what life is like for ordinary people during wartime. As Sarat gets older, we see the effects of living to survive has on her and her family. Sarat is recruited to the Southern (Red) manifesto, having continually lost people she loves. It takes a toll on a child and she is easily turned into a hard core revel who takes on the North faction (Blue) as she is instructed. If this were an action movie, it would involve high leg kicking, num chucks and lots of explosions but it is more underhanded and nefarious than that. We watch Sarat through her life, her determination, her obsession, her willpower and her single minded beliefs. Her fate is inevitable.

The book is very well written but while not a pleasant read, it’s a very good one just the same. It’s bleak but it’s also somewhat believable that the near-ish future could come to that point so it has that touch of reality to it. There are a number of topics that were not brought into the story but that probably would have made the book too long and would distract the reader from what the author wanted to say, a warning that within 50 years, this could be the way it is, or similar.

This is one of the books shortlisted for the Canada Reads competition at the end of March.

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Review: Remembering the Bones – Frances Itani

2018:11
5 of 5 stars
Published in 2007

This is Georgie’s story. Georgina Witley. She’s nearly 80 and has been invited to participate in a formal lunch at Buckingham Palace because her birthday is the same day as that of Queen Elizabeth I along with the other 99 guests who are also invited. But Georgie only gets to the end of her road where she accidentally drives her car off the road and down into a steep ravine. Georgie is thrown from the car but is injured and has no way to alert anyone.

She spends several days there, with exposure to the elements. While her injuries may not be fatal, lack of food and especially water just might be. She tries to keep her mind alert by reciting the latin names of the bones in the body and remembering anecdotes from her life and her family, hoping to ward off the Grim Reaper who is ever inching closer. She doesn’t filter her memories through in chronological order as you might think. That’s just the way most minds work. She keeps herself motivated by talking ..to herself, to her late husband, to her mother and even to Death himself as she slowly inches her way to her vehicle, hoping for a little warmth and a way to sound the horn to alert someone for help.

Frances Itani writes exquisitely and she writes about women, women that are vastly different from each other but all have a very true and real presence.

Review: Tomboy Survival Guide – Ivan Coyote

2018: 9
4 of 5 stars
Published 2016

Ivan Coyote is a trans-man, or rather, “gender-box-defying adult” who is a writer, storyteller and stage performer. In this book, they reveal anecdotes from their life growing up in Whitehorse in Canada’s far north. There are stories about their family, stories about their friends, about meeting the general public when they’re on tour. There are letters  that touch the heart, answers that open your eyes, issues raised and explained, labels cast away because they don’t fit anyway.  Ivan was lucky in some respects. They had a loving family and the support network there for them.

I know several trans people so I’m familiar with some of the issues but I learned something from this book, too. I think it would be a very good book for young adults to read as well. A lot of Ivan’s shows are actually directed towards younger people, maybe to head them off before they become too entangled in labels. This was one of the Canada Reads 2018 books on the long list though it didn’t make the cut to the short list. Too bad, it’s certainly an eye opener, in a good way. Ivan’s stories of their childhood, discovering that they were meant  to be a boy and the hard road to get there,  the bullies, the battle of the bathrooms. We watch them persevere and become the person they were meant to. The road to get to that spot in life is bumpy but ultimately, for Ivan, they find their place in lifel

Review: Fables of Brunswick Avenue – Kathleen Govier

2018:8
3.5 of 5 stars
Published in 2005

I read a novel by Ms. Govier last year and liked it (The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel). This year, for the Bingo reading challenge, one of the books to read must be short stories and Fables of Brunswick Avenue is just that. It’s a collection of 16 short stories. The book “blurb” describes them as being about the people who live in the neighbourhood around Brunswick Avenue, north of Bloor Street in Toronto. The stories reflect on the multicultural inhabitants of the neighbourhood in the 1970s, much as it was when the author herself lived there, or so she says in the pre-amble and first story which feels autobiographical but which may or may not actually be.

That’s not exactly the case. The first story is the one reflected in the title of the book and is about the people and the neighbourhood as it was when the author lived there in the 70s. Fair enough. The rest of the stories take place in various locations including Toronto and don’t really seem to be time-era-specific. The stories are not tales with twists or surprises, they are slices of life, character portraits, mostly women but some men as well. Some stories ended too abruptly for my taste, some just fizzled but there were a few stronger ones as well.

She’s a very good writer though I think I prefer her novels. That might be because she’d had more experience by then and because I prefer a longer lasting story. This short story collection will suffice to satisfy one of the Bingo challenge squares, as well.

Canada Reads 2018 – The Short List


The team at CBC Books picks a long list of defenders from a long, long list of prominent Canadians from all areas (sports, media, arts etc). Once they have a reasonable number of candidates, they sit down and chat with each one about books and reading. They’re looking for a diverse set of challengers for the competition so they don’t want each potential defender to have the same tastes in books and reading habits as each other. They are really looking for five people that are very different from each other in personality, background, age, race, gender, politics, likes and dislikes. The more different each one is, the more interesting the debates will be. That’s the whole point, entertainment!

You can read more about the five defenders here. The only one I’m at all familiar with is Jeanne Becker from back in the early days of MuchMusic in the mid 1980s.

As far as the books go, that’s just as long a process. The choice of books goes further than just having the CBC Books staff decide on a list. The candidates themselves can suggest books that they’ve read and loved, too. In the end, the long list is created and the candidates choose the book they want to defend in the debates. They will also read all of the other books in the short list because it’s easier to defend your own book when you know what the other books are about and how their defenders might likely present their arguments. It’s also a bonus if the five final books are different from each other yet embrace the theme for that year’s competition.

I’ve blogged about the long list here and now we have the short list, the five books that will be up for debate on March 26 – 29th hosted by Ali Hassan. He did a great job last year. There will be a lot of features and interviews between now and the end of March on the CBC Books website to keep up the interest level, too.

2018 Canada Reads Short list.

Of these, I’ve read Precious Cargo and liked it. American War, Forgiveness and possibly The Marrow Thieves are three more I might like. All three are very different from each other. I doubt I’ll get library copies in time and I don’t want to spend the money on them but sometimes Kobo or Amazon puts them on sale before the debates so I shall keep my eye open. (Don’t get me started on the high price of ebooks!)

Review: Scarborough – Catherine Hernandez

2018:7
4 of 5 stars
Published 2017

This will be the second book that is also on the long list for Canada Reads 2018. It didn’t make the shortlist and I need to write a blog piece about that shortlist, too. *note to self*

This book takes place in the working class multicultural city of Scarborough, just east of Toronto. We follow the stories of several adults and several children who don’t have a lot of support to get them through their days. Most of the parents are single parents struggling and the kids navigate life through a virtual mine field. Tying it all together is the voice of Ms Hina, the beloved worker at the shelter literacy centre where many of the other main characters come for some respite from their daily lives. Hina finds it difficult not to get involved in the lives of some of her clients and helps them every way she can, standing up to her own bully  of a regional manager.

Her clients range in age from small toddler to adult. The children in the centre are ragged urchins, some with very tenuous family connections and  your heart breaks for some of the kids and their home lives. The story focuses on survival, the strength of a community and the apathy of it as well. Friendships, family, poverty, champions and tragedies. The story is told from the voices of most of the clients that use the centre, child and adult and from the neighbourhood as well.

The writing is exquisite and the voices are true. The only thing I didn’t care for was the last chapter. I didn’t think it was necessary but in the long run, doesn’t take away from the book all that much for me.

I’ll be using this book for CanadianContent’s Cross Canada Reading Challenge on Goodreads  for Ontario. It may also be able to be used in this year’s Bingo reading challenge.

Review: Precious Cargo – Craig Davidson

2018:6
3.5 of 5 stars
Published 2016

The full title of this book is Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School  Bus 3077 and it is a memoir of sorts of a man whose career had tanked and needed a job badly. He ends up driving a school bus carrying 5 children of various ages, all of whom have special needs which wasn’t what he expected to be doing. It turned out to be a wonderful experience for him, a real eye opener which, coincidentally, is the theme for this year’s Canada Reads competition. More or Less. It most definitely does tell a story of someone’s eyes being opened and seeing things in a new light and maybe for that reason, it did make the short list and will be one of the books in competition at the end of March.

The five passengers range in ages from 13 to about 16, maybe 17 at most. These kids have challenges they meet daily. Craig learns to accept their differences and support them, the little group end up being a tight knit one. He’s written this book several years after the year in the story and tells about the good times and the rough ones, describing the young people with sympathy and respect. He only gets to know what their lives are like from one point of view, not a lot of insight into it other than what he may observe or what the children tell him, if anything but he does his best to give them a positive experience for the time they have together every day.

I would have liked to find out what happened to the kids in the years up to when the book was written. It wasn’t realistic that Craig would have kept in touch with all the students but he did make particular friends with one boy in a wheelchair. Did they not ever see each other again? The experience has had a positive effect on Davidson, seeming to have bridged the gap between a man floundering to find himself and his career and one who has settled down and made a career in writing and obtained a happy family as well.