Canada Reads 2018: Mini Reviews

Canada Reads 2018 starts Monday, March 26, and continues to the 29th. This year’s theme: One book to open your eyes. The longlist seemed particularly strong to me this year, and I would like to have read them all. Unfortunately, because of time and availability, I’m struggling to get the 5 from the shortlist read. Here is what I managed to cobble together…

Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson — defended by Greg Johnson, one of North America’s top professional storm-chasers and severe weather experts.

I read and reviewed Precious Cargo in April, 2016. I was interested in reading it partly because of the subject matter, and partly because the author is well know for his dark literary fiction and horror novels. Imagine my surprise in finding out that his memoir was endearing, insightful, and amusing. Who would have guessed that Craig Davidson had always been considered the class clown?

What I liked most about the book was the story of the kids on his bus – all of which have a “special need”. Davidson had no experience with special needs kids when taking the job as their bus driver. His story is well worth learning about.

Will it do well in the debates? I have come to learn over the years that the best book does not always win, and that there is no predicting which book is going to do well and which is not. But it has potential. One thing Precious Cargo has going for it that many Canada Reads books do not is its humour. I think Davidson’s voice will appeal to a lot of readers.

Here’s the thing: everyday was the best day, even the crappiest ones. Every single day I spent with those kids. And I was grateful, so incredibly grateful, because I knew I’d done nothing to deserve it.

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto — defended by Jeanne Beker, the host of Fashion Television, among many other accomplishments.

Forgiveness is the story of Mark Sakamoto’s grandparents – his paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather – and how they came to, not only forgive and accept, but to love and respect each other after the harrowing experiences they went through.

At the same time as Mark’s grandfather was being tortured and starved in a POW camp in Japan, his Japanese-Canadian grandmother was stripped of her dignity and sent away from her home to labour on a sugar beet farm in rural Alberta.

Not only is this a personal story of courage and forgiveness, but it’s also informative. It goes into the plight of the Canadian soldiers who were sent to Hong Kong with very little military support, as well as the politics behind the treatment of the Japanese in Canada during the war.

Escott Reid, a long-time External Affairs official, later wrote, “I felt in that committee room in the presence of evil.” Pearl Harbour was a gift to biggots who wanted to remove the Japanese from B.C. and its economy. It mattered little that Canada’s national security – army, navy, and RCMP – were all on record stating there was no national security issue. Vitriol of that degree gets attention. It whips up, it grows, and it often wins.

At times I found the writing somewhat flawed, but thought that the incredible nature of the story made up for what small faults were to be found. Even though I have read books on this subject before, I still find the prejudism of the time shocking. And his own personal experience with his mother is tragic.

The subject matter reminded me of similar stories I have read and would recommend to anyone interested in reading more: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Obasan by Joy Kogawa (my thoughts), The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake (my thoughts).

In terms of the Canada Reads debates, I think readers will be drawn to the fact that this book is based on a true story, and struck by the characters’ abilities to rise above anger and resentment to arrive at love and forgiveness.

American War by Omar El Akkad — defended by Tahmoh Penikett, an actor from the Yukon.

There are so many things in this book you could focus on; politics, world building, gender differences, class differences, environmental issues, plausibility, and the burning questions about the story itself.

This is what I think the book has going for it – its potential for conversation. It gives readers a lot to think about, relating to the world today and how these issues might take us into the future.

One downfall it might have for some readers (and we have seen this before in the CR debates) is the desolation and violence. There is a war going on, after all. Some of it is hard to read, but in my opinion, necessary to understand the main character and how she went from a curious, innocent girl to an angry, destructive adult.

This isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.

The structure of the story is compelling; it’s told from the perspective of a character living in the far north in the future whom we don’t know yet. Near the end of the book, his part in the story is revealed, bringing some relief to the reader as the focus takes a slight shift from the tragedy of Sarat’s life to the narrator. The story ends on an emotional note, reminding us of the happy little girl at the beginning of the book. (That, by then, feels so long ago.)

I belong to what they call the Miraculous Generation: those born in the years between the start of the Second American Civil War in 2074 and its end in 2095. Some extend the definition further, including those born during the decade-long plague that followed the end of the war. This country has a long history of defining its generations by the conflicts that should have killed them, and my generation is no exception. We are the few who escaped the wrath of the homicide bombers and the warring Birds; the few who were spirited into well-stocked cellars or tornado shelters before the Reunification Plague spread across the continent. The few who were just plain lucky.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline — defended by Jully Black, “Canada’s queen of R&B”.

The Marrow Thieves is the winner of the 2017 Governor General’s Award for young people. I really wanted to read it before the debates, but unfortunately it hasn’t come in for me yet. The good news is that this means other people in town are reading it!

Update: My review of The Marrow Thieves

Goodreads synopsis: In a futuristic world ravaged by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness. The only people still able to dream are North America’s Indigenous people, and it is their marrow that holds the cure for the rest of the world. But getting the marrow, and dreams, means death for the unwilling donors. Driven to flight, a fifteen-year-old and his companions struggle for survival, attempt to reunite with loved ones and take refuge from the “recruiters” who seek them out to bring them to the marrow-stealing “factories.”

Here are some trusted blogger reviews you can check out:

Buried in Print: “The aspect of this story which I most enjoyed and most dreaded were the creation stories, which are called “coming-to” stories. These are devastating and brutal accounts of suffering which led this small group of survivalists to walk this path together. They pepper the narrative and gradually secure readers’ investment in the characters, defying readers to remain indifferent.”

The Indextrious Reader: “It’s a really interesting take on the dystopian trend, incorporating many ideas and themes that are based in an Indigenous perspective, with white characters not present much at all. The characters are well drawn and the set up is different from other dystopian stories, so well worth exploring.

ebookclassics: “I love dystopias, but I was particularly enamoured with The Marrow Thieves because of the Indigenous culture weaved into the story. I thought the way the group tried to keep their culture alive by sharing stories and language reflected the challenges Indigenous people face today.”

A Year of Books: “According to an interview on CBC’s Unreserved, she wrote the novel as a reaction to the high levels of suicide among indigenous youth.  The Marrow Thieves started as a short story and her goal was to show the YA audience a story where indigenous youth were the heroes, saving the world.”

The Boat People by Sharon Bala — defended by Mozhdah Jamalzadah, the “Oprah of Afghanistan”.

Update: My review of The Boat People.

Another book that didn’t make it into my hands in time. Although, I still hold out some hope for reading it before the debates are over… It seems to be a popular book right now, and is receiving many positive reviews, in which it is often described as an “important book”. (Which, I have to admit, turns me off a bit.)

Goodreads synopsisWhen a rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war reaches Vancouver’s shores, the young father thinks he and his six-year-old son can finally start a new life. Instead, the group is thrown into a detention processing center, with government officials and news headlines speculating that among the “boat people” are members of a separatist militant organization responsible for countless suicide attacks—and that these terrorists now pose a threat to Canada’s national security. As the refugees become subject to heavy interrogation, Mahindan begins to fear that a desperate act taken in Sri Lanka to fund their escape may now jeopardize his and his son’s chance for asylum.

Some trusted blogger reviews to check out:

Bookish Beck: “The scenes set in Sri Lanka are particularly vivid. Bala has drawn on her own family’s history. Although all of the characters are fictional, she has reproduced some actual words from refugees’ anonymous testimony.

I’ve Read This: “I adored this book. I found it difficult to read, and when I finished each chapter I had to put it down and sigh out my emotions, but I already know this will be one of the best books I read this year, if not THE best.”

ebookclassics: “While Mahindan’s story is fictional, all refugee stories are beautiful when you hear about the hard choices people made to survive and trace the unique paths they took to arrive in our country. That’s what I found so touching about reading The Boat People. It’s about hope and how nothing is ever black and white, except the human desire for freedom, safety and love.

The Paperback Princess: “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.


Laura from Reading In Bed has posted a Canada Reads breakdown, as well as her thoughts on three of the books (including the two I haven’t read), on her YouTube channel.

And I hear that Kristilyn from Reading In Winter in posting a spoiler-y post of all the CR books on Monday.

I will update this post at the end of each day to let you know which book has been voted off, and which one is the winner at the end of the week.

Have you read any of the Canada Reads books? Will you be tuning in this year? Any favourites or predictions?


Day 1: The Boat People voted off. Boo. (Day 1 Replay)

Day 2: Precious Cargo voted off. Not surprising to see it go, but the way it went kind of surprised me. (Day 2 Replay)

Day 3: The Marrow Thieves is gone. Boo!! (Day 3 Replay)

Day 4: American War is voted out, and Forgiveness is the winner. Not sure how I feel about this. However, I enjoyed this year’s CR more than last year’s. (Day 4 Replay)

51 thoughts on “Canada Reads 2018: Mini Reviews

  1. annelogan17 says:

    Thanks for the shout-out! And great summary, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. I suspect I won’t have time to post blogs about it, but i’ll try to post on fb and twitter.

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    How kind of you to quote from my review of The Boat People. It’s the only one of the nominees that I’ve read, but I think the refugee theme is timely and would fit the “open your eyes” criteria. It’s not a particularly subtle book, but is “important,” yes (and I can see why that word would dissuade you!).

    I like the sound of Precious Cargo. Forgiveness also sounds promising, but your caution about the writing gives me pause.

    • Naomi says:

      Unfortunately, The Boat People was voted off yesterday. It was surprising, even though I should know by now not to be surprised by anything that happens at Canada Reads. I think I will still read it at some point!

      Forgiveness is such a great story, but there *are* other book choices on the same topic that might be better. Although, I have to say, that some people think the writing is fantastic. I wonder if they’re confusing “great story” with “great writing”? (Not that the writing is terrible – it really isn’t – just not the best!)

      • Rebecca Foster says:

        Yeah, I heard that — too bad! I didn’t realize it was Survivor-style judging, so maybe Bala was voted out strategically as too strong a contender?

        I know what you mean. There might be nothing wrong with a book, just that others tell a similar story better.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s a big event over here! And, even though there are certain things about it I might like to change (if I was in charge – ha!), I love that we have it!

  3. The Cue Card says:

    I did read American War and thought the ending was a pretty brutal take. It made me turn away from really liking the book. It’s just all pretty dark. If I had to guess I’d say it’ll either be a) The Marrow Thieves or b) The Boat People.

    • Naomi says:

      I would have guessed the same two, as well… but I am always wrong! haha!

      American War is really dark, and I don’t mind that as a reader, but it’s definitely a point against it in the debates. Although, Tahmoh is using the loss of empathy as his defense, which is a good angle and one I hadn’t thought of!

    • Naomi says:

      It’ll be interesting to see how far Precious Cargo goes – we don’t usually have such a humorous book on the table. But it would be cool to see an Indigenous book geared toward young people (Marrow Thieves) win out! Very cool.

  4. Laura says:

    American War is on my 2018 TBR list. I hadn’t heard of any of the others, but I’m intrigued by The Boat People and The Marrow Thieves.

      • Naomi says:

        My knowledge of books from the rest of the world (except maybe the US and the UK) is embarrassingly bad – there are just too many to keep up with! 🙂

  5. Kristilyn says:

    Great post – and thanks for the link to my own! I am so glad to see someone else who really enjoyed Precious Cargo. It’s the one book out of the five that I most enjoyed reading and thought it had so much heart AND it was the only book to make me cry. American War was just so-so for me. It was an okay book, but definitely not one for Canada – I mean, where IS Canada in that book?!? I liked Forgiveness but I think that the theme of forgiveness is lost as the book goes on and it has trouble sticking to a central theme. I wish there had been more of his grandparents in that book and less memoir. I’m definitely interested to see how this all turns out! This is the first year I’ve read all the books and have actually watched the debates – it’s very exciting!

    • Naomi says:

      I didn’t know this was your first big CR year – very exciting! Except you probably didn’t enjoy vote #2 very much. I was really surprised by it after the rant she had just gone on about American War. Oh well… that’s how it goes!

  6. James says:

    I must admit (and I’m probably in the minority here) that I generally eschew anything involving competitions such as these. Primarily, these are books from larger presses and one must wonder if there’s not a degree of bias or commercial pressure to support one book over another. Like Naomi, I am not a fan of books labelled as “important.” And I don’t care what a celebrity, media personality etc thinks of a book; I don’t want to be influenced by what others say. I don’t even look at a book’s back cover before reading it for a review. Secondly, I don’t trust the CBC to fairly cover the Canadian literary scene or any ‘scene’ for that matter). As with most things Canadian, it emanates from what is selling in Ontario (i.e. Toronto) and not in independent bookstores across the nation. However, it does promote reading, and “good” reading at that, so it’s not a bad thing, just something I don’t follow. Like the Olympics, Tennis and the current POTUS. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t think you’re alone… I know a few other readers who don’t follow it for various reasons. I think it’s fun, even though there are some things that I’d change if it were up to me. I also like that it not only gets people *reading* books, but also *talking about* books.
      It’s also very good for the authors – many of them not very well known before making it onto the list. There’s never been a year that I’ve heard of all the books on the longlist!

  7. Rob says:

    Great roundup! I’ve only read American War, which I really enjoyed, but I wonder if it can hold up to the theme in the same way it appears many of the other books do.

  8. TheLiterary Hoarders says:

    Hi Naomi! I own The Boat People and Precious Cargo, and wanted to read Forgiveness – but haven’t read any of them, and didn’t watch any of the coverage of Canada Reads this year at all.

    Like you kind of mentioned, I think it’s time to burn it all down and start it up fresh and new- it’s really drifting too far into overly competitive, personal attacks and shameless fighting, insulting and yelling at each other and not even talking about the damn books. I thought last year was pretty bad for this and it truly sounds like this year was another terrible bout of gross behaviour. It’s a competition, yes, and I get that, so of course it will lead to many upset people about the books that are eliminated and the books that are the chosen winners – but I just have to think there HAS TO BE a better way of handling this. Of discussing the books, of championing all the books that are profiled, and truly discussing the content of the books to the theme (which is so recycled and rehashed every year that it too needs to be burned down and started fresh from the ashes). 🙂 Just my opinion but I’m quite glad to not have bothered with CR 2018 this year – Penny.

    • Naomi says:

      I agree that the theme always seems too much the same – and it always leads to heavy books and emotional debates (not that I mind a little bit of emotion). I was thinking it might be better to have “categories” – it would still help to narrow down the selection, but maybe wouldn’t be quite so personal?

      • Naomi says:

        Yes, it was pretty clear who was a reader and who wasn’t. And it’s fine to be a non-reader, just not so fine on a panel of people discussing books. I think some of the “discussion” that happened could have been avoided had they all been better acquainted with books in general.

      • TheLiterary Hoarders says:

        That’s a real shame that it sounds as though many of the panellists didn’t even read the books beyond the one book they were championing.

        Overall, this sounds like it was a very flawed year for Canada Reads. I’m not sure CBC is going to do a thing to change it though. 😦

      • Naomi says:

        As far as I could tell, the panelists had read all 5 books – I just meant that most of them didn’t seem to be big readers in general.

        In terms of how it all went, I would say it was better than last year’s. But everyone’s looking to get different things out of the show. Some people probably like the very things that we don’t!

  9. buriedinprint says:

    Overall, I enjoyed this year’s debates SO much more than last year (which seemed sad and angry much of the time – maybe just a challenging combination of personalities and books, against this ongoing backdrop of competition).

    I was surprised, in some ways, that Forgiveness won, because the theme of “a book to open your eyes” seems like it fit all the other books in multiple ways, whereas Forgiveness seemed the most familiar and the most recognizable story.

    It seems to me to be one of the books least immediately connected to the issues we see in today’s headlines (although obviously all stories about historical war and love and loss are connected to the international and civil conflicts that rage on today) along with Precious Cargo (although with ever-increasing diagnoses of neuro-stuff in kids, I think this could have been made to seem more pressingly relevant too, if the defender had gone a slightly different way – but maybe he thought that was too depressing to think about :> given his approach).

    CR is still a conversation about reading, and I like seeing all the students in the audience (although most of them look like they’d rather be ANYplace else) and imagining those classes as a welcome departure from more traditional English class assignments, but I wish they would return to more of a focus on the books and the writing. And as others have said, to selecting panelists who actually do read to be there to discuss reading.

      • buriedinprint says:

        This sounds SO cool. It’s almost enough to make me want to reactivate my Facebook page just so I can watch the videos. Those all look like great selectionst too! Thanks so much for letting me know about this – it’s great to see a couple of indie presses represented here too (not just the mainstream publishers that Canada Reads has been favouring).

      • Naomi says:

        Their selections were impressive, I thought! (I think you can watch the videos without Facebook – just try googling each book.)

      • buriedinprint says:

        Thank you! I was able to find them all on CBC using Google. (And I only had to watch that annoying “pickle” and “poutine” ad twice. *sighs*

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