Category Archives: CanadianBookChallenge5

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011

From my library hold list.

A debut novel that takes place in Rome in 1978, a time when families of Russian Jews were passing through a gap in the Iron Curtain.  The city was  filled with immigrants waiting for visas to their chosen destination.  For three generations of the Kranansky family what begins as a journey to America ends up, after six months of waiting,  as a journey to Canada.

There is Alex and his brother Karl, Alex’s new wife Polina and Karl’s wife Rosa and their two sons who, along with grandparents Emma and Samuil, have traveled from Latvia to Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Vienna finally arriving in Rome.  Samuil is the one causing the delay.  A former Red Guard, he suffers from many ailments, and Canada is not taking any invalids.  Israel might, but that is not an option for Samuil, or for Karl and Alex.    As the novel unfolds we learn some of the back story for all of these characters but the most enjoyable parts for me was the experiences within and around the migrant community in Rome.

Praised by the New Yorker as one of the best “20 under 40”, Bezmozgis is expert at the portrayal of loss while maintaining a balanced sense of humor.  And we see the hopes and dreams these people carry with them into their new lives.  Somewhat autobiographical, this author truely loves his characters.  Parts of the novel drifted out of focus for me but on the whole I enjoyed it.  I plan on reading the author’s collection, Natasha and Other Stories, sometime in the near future.


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, Historical Fiction, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

Viking, New York, 2009

From my library hold list.  Winner of the 2008 ScotiaBank Giller Prize.

A follow-up to Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road, this book tells the story of a Frist Nations family through the voices of two members.

Will Bird, a bush pilot with a wild past, lies in a coma in the hospital in his home town, Moose Factory, Ontario.  His niece Annie, after returning home from a journey she took to Montreal and New York in search of her sister Suzanne, sits by his bedside.

In his dreams Will revisits his life and tells Annie of the distant and recent past.  Having been told that talking to her uncle may help him recover, Annie tells him stories.  She tells of her memories growing up, of her journey in search of herself and her connections to her family.  As each of these wounded souls reveals their past a story grows, of history, of betrayal and of resilience.

Boyden writes with humor and with a deep  understanding of the hidden nature of places and of people.  In the end this is a story of forgiveness, of family and of self.


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

Fauna by Alissa York

Fauna by Alissa York

Vintage Canada, Toronto, 2011

From my TBR pile.

I’m not sure what drew me to this one, maybe it was the title.

Edal Jones, a Federal Wildlife officer, is falling apart.  One too many baby tortoises, packed in egg cartons and crushed in a suitcase.  She is home, on leave, exhausted, emotionally spent.

One morning, on a bike ride, she sees a young woman picking up stunned birds from around the glass towers of downtown Toronto.  She follows this woman into the Don Valley and discovers a small group of people and animals living in ways very different from those around her.

Fauna is mainly Edal’s story.  Named after one of the otters from Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, she had joined the Federal agency to help wildlife, and finds herself devastated by loss.

     Having entered that room full of oddities, her thoughts are inclined to remain there.  As Baloo and Bagheera chase through the jungle after their beloved man-cub, her mind’s eye moves over confiscated grizzly rugs and black bear galls, a dried tiger penis, a leopard skin coat.   When they make a friend of Kaa, the massive rock python, she can only see wallets and handbags, hideous pointy-toed boots.  She manages to focus again during the great battle at the ruined city know as the Cold Lairs, but only until Mowgli tumbles down into the abandoned summer house and lands among the hissing hoods of the Poison-People.  Why would someone shove a cobra inside a bottle and pickle it?  More to the point, why would anyone spot such an atrocity in a marketplace and long to possess it, let alone attempt to smuggle it home?  From page 88.

This novel is also an interesting mix of characters, both human and animal, that live in this city and of the fragile connections between them.  It reminds me of how, even in a place of glass and concrete, life can flourish.  Something I find I need to remember.

And mixed in with all this is a love of books.  Each of the main characters has an important book in their past.  There is also the thread of The Jungle Book, read aloud following group dinners, and the effect it has on all who read and hear it.  York’s writing is rich in detail, precise, and hard-edged.  I found Fauna an interesting, enjoyable book.


Filed under Animals, Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, ContemporaryFiction, Thoughts

Cool Water by Dianne Warren

Cool Water by Dianne Warren

Harper Collins, Toronto, 2010

From my TBR pile, this novel won the Governor General’s Prize for Fiction in 2010 and was long listed for the Giller Prize.

The novel takes place in Juliet, a  small town on the edge of the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan. Cool Water tells overlapping stories of a day in the lives many of the towns inhabitants.  It reminds me a bit of Olive Kitteridge.

The characters are unpretentious, their stories are quiet and most are unaware of how they entwine, interlock and deeply affect each other.  Warren writing is spare and understated, very evocative of place.  I would like to read more of her work.


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, ContemporaryFiction, Review

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

One summer I spent some time on Vancouver Island.  I remember sitting on the deck of the place where I was staying and watching the cruise ships passing up and down the Georgia Strait.  They seemed magical, all lit up, self-contained worlds.  Rows and rows of lights gleaming in the dark.

Michael Ondaatje’s new novel is about a journey taken by an eleven year old boy.  Traveling alone on a cruise ship from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to join his mother in England, Michael, nicknamed Mynah,  is seated at the “cat’s table”, as for away from the Captain’s Table as possible, his companions, a group of odd adults and two other boys traveling on their own.  All of these outcasts have interesting lives.  The boys have free run of most of  the ship and spend their time exploring, listening, being rambunctious, determined to push all boundaries.  As an adult, remembering this journey, Michael is filled with longing and loss.

A quiet book that contains several mysteries, it is the characters from The Cat’s Table that I enjoyed the most.  It’s as if Michael was showing me his memories, describing his friends and many of the adults on his journey.  Returning with him to this voyage  I feel a great sadness that these people have drifted apart.  There is a sense of regret.

So began a tradition between us.  That I would at certain moments in my life tell Emily things that I would not tell others.  And later in our lives, much later, she would talk to me about what she was going through.  All through my life, Emily would be distinct from everyone I knew.  From page 112.


I am someone who has a cold heart.  If  I am beside a great grief I throw barriers up so the loss can not go too deep or too far.  There is a wall instantly in place, and it will not fall.  Proust has this line: “We think we no longer love our dead, but…suddenly we catch sight again of an old glove and burst into tears.”  I don’t know what it was.  There was no glove…From page 141.

This is a story of  travel to a new world, a new life, and gives a taste of what that must feel like, particularly to a child displaced by family choice, not the necessity of someone leaving due to political or social upheaval.  Ondaatje has said that the idea for this novel came from personal experience but that he wanted to tell a fictionalized account of something that had been forgotten.  I’m not sure what he means by that, it all feels very real to me.  That is one sign of a master story-teller.

Every immigrant family, it seems, has someone who does not belong in the new country they have come to.  It feels like permanent exile to that one brother or wife who cannot stand a silent fate in Boston or London or Melbourne.  I’ve met many who remain haunted by the persistent ghost of an earlier place…From page 139.

I found this book beautifully and simply written and enjoyed it, as I have so many of Michael Ondaatje’s other novels.  I have also read some of his poetry.

Other reviews:

Buried in Print

Jules’ Book Reviews

Reading Matters

The Mookse and the Gripes


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, GillerPrize, Historical Fiction, LiteraryFiction, Review

Zero History by William Gibson

Zero History by William Gibson

G.P. Putman’s Sons, New York, 2010

Borrowed from my library.

I have very eclectic taste in books.  I love  Science Fiction.  I have very specific tastes in Science Fiction.  There used to be a book store in Santa Monica, California, called ” A Change of Hobbit”, I would get lost in there for hours.  That is where I first discovered William Gibson, just when his novel “Neuromancer” was published.

According to SciFi geeks, Gibson invented the term “cyberspace”.    His work has evolved over time to include alternative history and speculation about near-future urban environments but Zero History is different.  This is no longer science fiction,  this is the present becoming the future faster than it takes to read a sentence.  And the past just seems to disappear.

Hurbetus Bigend, the head of Blue Ant, a company that finds the next big, big thing and is all over viral marketing, wants to get into the military contracting business.  After all, war is recession proof.  He sends Milgrin, a ex-addict who owes Bigend his life, to steal the design of some street wear from a threatening looking man on the US east coast.   He hires Hollis Henry, former lead singer in the band Curfew, to find the designer of a very secretive line of fashion called Gabriel Hounds.   In the midst of all this Bigend’s activities pisses off another military contractor named Gracie and all hell breaks loose.  There is this and so much more than this, wrapped up in a book that feels like a movie or ten movies on big screens or like sitting in front of a hundred CCTV screens trying to track the latest social menace.

Zero History, along with the other novels in what could be  called the ” Blue Ant” trilogy, crosses barriers and enters the arena of literary fiction.  Evolving technology, street fashion, pop culture and last stage capitalism all play a part in this tightly woven thriller.  I love how William Gibson’s mind works,  he fits things together in ways that are very, very smart,  all the while seeming to spin out of control.  Reading his books makes me happy.  Weird, huh?


Filed under Art, Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, LiteraryFiction, SpeculativeFiction

Deloume Road by Matthew Hooton

Deloume Road by Matthew Hooton

Vintage Books, London, 2011

I broke my book buying ban and must blame the Canadian Book Challenge.  I ordered this one and several others by Canadian authors when I realized my library would not be purchasing them because of budget cutbacks.  Thank goodness for Better World Books.

This book reminded me of other stories about boys growing up together, Different Seasons by Stephen King being one of them.  It is the story of a rural community,  somewhere down a road between Victoria and Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island.  In a summer during the first Gulf War four boys spend time riding their bikes, exploring the woods and just enjoying their free time.  The adults in the community have their own stories, some more aware of the boys then others, and mingled with this is the history of the place and connections with the town’s founder.  As hot August moves toward September tension builds until the final, terrible event.

This is a beautifully written book, Hooton certainly knows how to convey a sense of place, and the children, their thoughts, and behaviors are so like children I know.  They remind me of myself, my siblings, and my friends growing up close to the woods in Maine.  I wanted to love this one, but found I only liked it.  There are many characters with many stories.  For me some worked, some didn’t and I found myself distracted by things that felt unnecessary to the story.

Don’t let my thoughts dissuade you from reading Deloume Road.  I found some of it truly wonderous.

Blades of grass grow waist-high along both sides of Deloume and tangles of blackberry bushed and crabapple trees border the dairy farms in patches, filling the space between the road and the fence, cutting the cows off from view in places.  Children stop here in August, laying their bikes in the grass on the roadside and wandering deep into the mess of thorns and branches, eating berries as they go, until it appears from the road that they are impossibly far in and must have sprung from the fertile ground.  They pick sour apples and bite into them, squinting and chewing their bottom lips as they wait for the sourness to pass, the bitterness sharper because of the blackberries they have eaten.  The smell of overripe berries and the buzzing of fat insects surrounds them.  That night the children will have stomach aches but won’t complain in case their mothers see their stained fingers or thorn-scratched arms and know.  from page 3.


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, ContemporaryFiction

Galore by Michael Crummey

Galore by Michael Crummey

Doubleday Canada, 2009

From my TBR stack.  Winner of the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book.

A story of life, love and survival on the Newfoundland coast, Galore is filled with folk-lore and magic.  Following the Sellers and Devine families,  along with other denizens  of Paradise Deep and the surrounding areas, through six generations could have been just too much, but the thing that held me was the determination and resilience of  people living in a place filled with such intense beauty and incredible danger.

She felt she’d been delivered into a universe where everyone’s knowledge but hers was complete and there was no acceptable way to acquire information other than waiting for its uncertain arrival.  She stared out at the water, the endless grey expanse of ocean below reflecting the endless grey nothing of her life.  The nothing stretched for miles in all directions, nothing, nothing, nothing, she was on the verge of bawling when the humpback breached the surface, the staggering bulk rising nose first and almost clear of the sea before falling back in a spray.  Mary Tryphena’s skin stippled with goosebumps, her scalp pulled taut.  From page 11.

This novel, based on the history of Newfoundland outports, could have become mired in melodrama after two or three family feuds and the loss of a child, but the addition of folklore and hints of magical realism add elements of mystery and humor.  Following the exploits of wise women, ghosts and an irreverent priest,  Crummey show his skill as a poet and novelist.   I enjoyed this book tremendously.

Other reviews: Buried In PrintCaribousmomeclectic/eccentric,    Linus’s BlanketRundpinne,   The Mookse and the Gripes,


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism, Review

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin

Black Cat, New York, 2009

Borrowed from my library.  Short-listed for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Anne Greves is sixteen year old when she meets Serey,  a Cambodian student and musician, in a jazz club.  He had been forced to leave his home and family during the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime.  Going against her father’s wishes, Anne follows her instincts and falls in love with Serey.  When the borders to Cambodia reopen he returns to search for his family.  Anne is left alone.  She continues with her life, all the time dreaming of her lover.  She secretly studies Khmer, the language of Cambodia.

But in the secret hour of each day I studied Khmer.  The language of love.  A curling script with soundless buried r’s, beautifully balanced between consonants and vowels with two sounds each.  I wrapped my tongue around the language of your childhood, embraced you with each new word.  My teacher had a wooden leg.  His name was Vithu and I paid him with my flower money.  He had managed to escape across the border early in the war but not before he’d stepped on a landmine.  He had been precocious, a farmer’s son who learned to read and write at the monastery.  He taught me words and he taught me how to speak.  He tried to teach me modesty.  He said, If someone says, You cook well or you speak well, you must say, No I don’t, and lower your eyes.  In Cambodia a virtuous woman moves without making a sound on the floor.  from page 48.

A decade later, after writing Serey letters and getting no response, after trying to live with her loss,  Anne sees something on television that changes her life.   She quits her job, buys a ticket to Phnom Penh and goes in search of Serey.  Engulfed in the reality of Cambodia, she begins to learn to see.

Imagine a street; imagine waking up one morning and teenaged voices outside shouting, Comrades, it is Year Zero.

Country kids who cannot drive lurch down the street in tanks and trucks.  They have been hiding out in the jungle.  They screech brakes, pop clutches.  they scream through megaphones.  They fire guns and kill anyone who talks back or asks questions or, god forbid, refuses to move.  They do not have good judgement.  But they can choose anyone to die.  Most neither read nor write.  Imagine going out into the street and watching a man ask why he must leave his home and a teenager lifting his gun and shooting him.  from page 69.

Echlin writes with an intensity that fills her characters with strength and brings the places that they hold in the world into sharp focus.  The Disappeared is a love story, one that expands out from two lovers to engulf an entire culture.  There is beauty and grace in this novel,  the belief that the way to get through the darkness of genocide is to never forget, and the knowledge that love is an antidote for despair.  I’ve been reading a lot of books about war lately.  I think this one is my favorite.  I highly recommend it.

Other reviews: Fizzy Thoughts,   My Friend Amy,   The Mooske and the Gripes

Have your read it?


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, GillerPrize, LiteraryFiction, Review

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.  Winner of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

First released by Gaspereau Press, a small publishing house in Nova Scotia, this novel tells the story of a daughter following the trail of her father’s past and trying to piece together the puzzle of her family and of the relationship formed between her Dad, Napoleon Haskell, and his friend Henry Carey.

The sentimentalists starts with the narrator and her sister moving their Dad from Fargo, North Dakota to Henry’s house, a house that sits on the shores of a lake in Ontario, Canada.   This is no ordinary lake.  It was created years ago, by a dam built to create a reservoir that flooded whole towns and covered the house and land that Henry, and Henry’s son Owen, had grown up in.

Skibsrud is a poet and the emotional depth of this small novel comes in images created by her beautiful way with language.  The lake holds memories, an unfinished boat holds the desolation of Napoleon’s marriage.  Eventually, Napoleon is dying, we learn some of his history and the basis for the connection between him and Henry.

There was something in his voice, though – an apology for something too big for him, and which was perhaps not even intended for me – and still, he regarded me as he spoke.  Still, it was as though he were in fact reaching out.  As though he were in fact touching me.  But for once he did not, and after some time passed into which we again said nothing, I started the motor on the boat and drove off.  From page 126.

There is  sadness in the novel, also a sense of resolution and deep love.   I wondered how connected it’s roots are to Johanna Skibrud’s relationship with her  father.  Turns out part of it is based on her Father’s testimony at a hearing for an Article 32 investigation of an  incident at Quang Tri, South Vietnam, in October  1967.

It seems we are entering a time to revisit the war in Southeast Asia through fiction.  I have read two novels about Vietnam and one about Cambodia in the last two months.  Maybe it’s time to read The Things They Carried again.


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, GillerPrize, LiteraryFiction, Review, Vietnam