Canada Reads 2019 Mini Reviews

The five contenders for Canada Reads 2019, in order in which I read them (or didn’t).

The theme: One Book to Move You.

Brother by David Chariandy — defended by Lisa Ray, model and actress

I’m happy that Brother is a part of Canada Reads this year. I read this book when it was longlisted for the 2017 Giller Prize. A powerful book about two brothers growing up in a suburb of Toronto in the 1980s; the children of hard-working immigrants living “quietly heroic lives”, their encounters with racism, tragedy, and grief. You can read my review here.

All around us in the Park were mothers who had journeyed far beyond what they knew, who took day courses and worked nights, who dreamed of raising children who might have just a little more than they did, children who might reward sacrifice and redeem a past.  And there were victories, you must know. Fears were banished by the scents of simmering pots, denigration countered by a freshly laundered tablecloth. History beaten back by the provision of clothes and yearly school supplies.

Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung — defended by Chuck Comeau, musician

Another book I’m happy to see make it to Canada Reads. Like Brother, there’s so much to discuss here. Abu Bakr had a happy childhood – going to school, playing soccer and video games with his friends and cousins – until war broke out on the streets around him. He and his family (parents and six siblings) eventually immigrated to Canada in search of safety and a secure future. But coming to Canada wasn’t easy – there were many obstacles to their happiness. This book gave me huge insights into life as a refugee. You can read my review here.

In my twenty-six days in Canada, I had not heard or seen a single bomb or gun. There was no fighting, no war. I was glad to be here, to be safe. Some kind of impossible knot inside me had released but now, I was just a different kind of afraid. I had prayed so long for safety but now, I felt ungrateful and ashamed and I couldn’t help it. The backs of my eyes started to sting and I clenched my teeth because I didn’t want to start my new life with tears.

By Chance Alone by Max Eisen — defended by Ziya Tong, TV Host

Every time I read a Holocaust memoir, it saddens and amazes me more than the one before. Written in a candid, uncomplicated style, Max Eisen‘s story is truly remarkable. Not only because of the horrors that he lived through in the camps, but also the loss of his entire family, his home, his culture and dignity. And he still persevered; through illness and isolation, prison and grief, he made it through to the other side and lived to marry, have children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Fulfilling his father’s last wish, to “tell the world what happened here”, he travels the country telling others about his story and how grateful he his for all the kind people who helped him along the way.

As I was reading, I realized that he was exactly the same age, while at Auschwitz, that my son is now – fifteen/sixteen. So I started to tell my son about his story until he put his fingers in his ears and told me to stop because it was too sad.

Just look at that sweet, smiling boy on the cover of the book.

Suzanne by Anais Barbeau-Lavalette, translated by Rhonda Mullins — defended by Yanic Truesdale, actor

Suzanne is the imagined life of the author’s grandmother who left her daughter (the author’s mother) at a young age. Anais Barbeau-Lavalette hated her grandmother until, upon her death, she and her mother went to her apartment to go through her belongings. That’s when she started to get to know her grandmother as a person with a life, rather than just the woman who abandoned her mother.

We set out into the winter to meet you. Through the storm. Archaeologists of a murky life. Who were you?

Written in second person, her novel tells the story of Suzanne’s life from beginning to end. There was a rebellious side to her even as a child. Once she was given the opportunity to go away to school, she didn’t ever look back. She didn’t see her mother again until her funeral. But no matter where Suzanne was or who she was with, she never felt like she belonged.

You absorb the lives of others and don’t know how to build your own.

Although I couldn’t relate to Suzanne and her decision to leave her children, I found her to be a sympathetic character – not unlikable – just different. Maybe different from many of us. She dared to be herself, although I’m not convinced it ever made her happy.

Suzanne taught me some Quebec history: Hilda Strike, “les Automatistes” and the “Refus global“, as well as a handful of French-Canadian artists, including Marcel Barbeau, the author’s grandfather.

Beautiful, poetic writing that quietly draws you along.

The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong — defended by Joe Zee, television celebrity

This is the one book I haven’t read yet, although it is ready for me to pick up at the library as I write this so I may get it read in time for the debates.

Goodreads synopsis: In this jaw-dropping, darkly comedic memoir, a young woman comes of age in a dysfunctional Asian family whose members blamed their woes on ghosts and demons when in fact they should have been on anti-psychotic meds… On one hand a witty and touching memoir about the Asian immigrant experience, and on the other a harrowing and honest depiction of the vagaries of mental illness…

There are quite a few reviews on Goodreads that warn of the dark content making this book hard to read. This one even speculates that reading it is making her grumpy.

Eva at The Paperback Princess has this to say:Reading about her childhood I felt anger and sadness for this little girl that couldn’t possibly understand how sick her family was. That there was no one at school, no friends, no friends’ parents who stepped in to offer Lindsay any kind of help, a place to go that was clean and safe. I’m still incredibly curious about how she has managed to become a functioning, capable adult from the violent, crass, unwashed teenager she writes about so callously.

In this interview with Joe Zee, Lindsay Wong talks about her willingness to lay everything out on table – holding nothing back -and how her family has reacted to her book in which all their dirty laundry is aired.


The Canada Reads debates take place March 25 – 28. I will update this post at the end of each day as each book is eliminated.

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



Day 1: The Woo-Woo was voted off. No great surprise, but kind of disappointing.

Day 1 Replay

Day 2: Today we said good bye to Suzanne, after a heroic effort from the defender. 

Day 2 Replay

Day 3: It was sad to see Brother go today – I love it so much. But Homes and By Chance Alone are also strong contenders. My fingers are crossed for a small publisher win this year!

Day 3 Replay

Day 4: It was a shocker of an ending, for me. I thought Homes was going to win – but as Buried in Print says in her Canada Reads post, “Quite literally, books changed minds.” And that’s a good thing.

The winner is By Chance Alone by Max Eisen!

Day 4 Replay


44 thoughts on “Canada Reads 2019 Mini Reviews

  1. FictionFan says:

    I’m surprised to see three books with the same theme – the immigrant experience – appearing on the list. It sounds like they all approach it in different ways admittedly, but it still seems to make the list sound a bit monotone…

    • Lisa Hill says:

      I’d like to respectfully disagree, if I may. The Western world is a world of immigrants these days, and their stories are anything but monotone. Not only that but there is IMHO a real need for fiction that brings us these stories as a counterbalance to the negative and/or homogenising portrayals of immigrants in the media.

      • FictionFan says:

        Always happy to disagree! 😀 I agree it’s an important subject, but it’s not the only important subject – I’d have liked to see something about climate change, maybe, or the rise of fascism across the democratic world, or even just a good old rip-roaring adventure yarn!

      • Naomi says:

        I have to admit that it would be great to have a year of Canada Reads where they focus on something fun. Just for a change… 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      The books are actually so different from each other, I hadn’t even really noticed that three of them are also about the immigrant experience! Thanks for pointing that out! I wonder if it’ll come up in the debates as too “same-y”. But the books themselves are SO different, and about things other than just immigration.

      There are a lot of books about the immigration experience in CanLit, which makes sense when you think about how Canada became Canada!

      • FictionFan says:

        I haven’t read any of them except Brother which I thought was excellent, so I’m certainly not criticising the books themselves. But I must admit I look for more variety of theme on a shortlist and would be disappointed by this one if I were intending to participate. Immigration is important, of course, but so are other things…

  2. The Paperback Princess says:

    I had such grand plans to read all of these this year and managed one. I’m honestly shocked that the debates are starting on Monday – I felt like I still had ages. Your post is making me want to run out and read the rest of them ASAP.

    Thanks for the mention!

    • Naomi says:

      I can’t believe it, either. The month flew by! I had lots of plans for this month, and now I’m trying to cram it all in at the end. (I was out of commission for a while earlier in the month because of a bad cold.)
      I had both The Woo-Woo and Wait for Me, Jack come in to the library yesterday, and now I have to decide if I should cram in The Woo-Woo first before tomorrow, or skip it and get right to our LW book!

  3. Lisa Hill says:

    PS David Chariandy is going to be attending the Auckland Writers Festival in New Zealand and I am nipping across the Tasman from Australia for the festival so I have tickets to hear him talk about this book!

    • Naomi says:

      It’s probably only a matter of time. Recently I’ve noticed that some of the provinces are even hosting their own versions of Canada Reads. Newfoundland did it this year, and Quebec has been doing it for a while, I think.

  4. Cathy746books says:

    I remember being interested in Brother when you talked about it previously – plus I’m a sucker for anything set in the 80s. Suzanne sounds interesting too even though her actions are hard to fathom.

  5. Rebecca Foster says:

    Given this year’s theme, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brother won. I’d be interested to read the two nominated memoirs and the novelized biography. I’ll be interested to see what happens!

    • Naomi says:

      Brother is definitely a strong contender. I think I’d be okay with any of the books winning, but I think I have a soft spot for Homes.

  6. whatmeread says:

    Gosh, I’ve actually read one of these, Suzanne. My sister-in-law, who is French-Canadian, sent it to me. I didn’t like the character of Suzanne but thought it was a really interesting novel.

    • Naomi says:

      Hooray! All your reading has paid off. 😉

      I know what you mean about the character of Suzanne, but it’s a beautifully written story.

  7. annelogan17 says:

    I will be attempting to tune into this as much as possible next week-my local bookstore is actually screening it live each day, so I’ll probably walk down with the stroller to see it when I can. I’ve got my fingers crossed for Homes (obvs), it being a local book and all 🙂 The Woo Woo really interests me though…

    • Naomi says:

      I can honestly say I loved all of them! Which is not always the case. (I’m actually only half way through The Woo-Woo, but I feel confident it won’t take a turn for the worse!)

  8. buriedinprint says:

    I’m really enjoying the tone of the debates this year and I just managed to squeeze in the fifth book on Sunday night, before they began on Monday morning, so I appreciate feeling like I know the content of all five stories while they’re discussing them throughout the week.

    Perhaps this is something that we are inherently aware of in Canada, given how much of our population is from “elsewhere” (ahem, all of it, other than indigenous peoples) but while I can see how others might feel like there are three books about immigration on the list, really these are three books about family and about navigating life’s challenges.

    The fact that Lindsay Wong and Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah and David Chariandy had parents born elsewhere is important in their stories, the first two being memoirs and the other fiction which draws on his personal experiences and observations, but there are many other important themes in these books too (mental illness, queer identity, grief, underemployment, injustice, the struggle for artistic expression etc.). Only Homes examines the process of relocation and migration, and it is really more about the process of emigrating, more about the difficulty of leaving a beloved but war-torn country behind.

    But I do take lament the absence of climate change from the debates. It’s not a topic that is typically received well in this event. Last year two of the books touched on the theme (one directly and the other indirectly) but neither of them was selected in the end. And in at least one year, the climate change book was the first to be eliminated!

    • Naomi says:

      That’s right about the climate change books! I wonder if writing about climate change doesn’t lend itself as well to emotional connection with a book as a story about family and loss and forgiveness, etc… They tend to be more sci-fi or speculative fiction or non-fiction. American War was pretty emotional for me – but that one did come in second! I was sad when Year of the Flood was voted off so quickly.

      • buriedinprint says:

        Or maybe it’s just too much of a connection? That it frightens readers even more than some of the other issues? Like, you can tell yourself your family isn’t coping with mental illness like Lindsay Wong’s family is, so it’s not really that bad. Or you can say that your economic situation is not as precarious as the family’s situation in Brother. But you can’t say “at least my planet is not as bad as your planet”?

  9. Karissa says:

    Great overview! I loved Brother and am waiting for a library copy of Woo-Woo. The conversation around Suzanne is fascinating too, I think. I can’t imagine walking away from my children but when you think about it in the context of the time and how limited options were for so many women, it becomes more nuanced.

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