Tag Archives: Canada

‘Christmas Under the Stars’ by Karen Swan

christmas-under-the-starsstarstarI was disappointed with this book although it was a convenient mindless read during the holiday season. According to the reviews in Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, what I thought was going to be a delicious Canadian Christmas romance with plenty of twists and turns, turned out to be flat and predictable and very little about Christmas after all. Though the setting of Banff was charming as the place itself, the novel was slow and depressing and way too long.

British author Karen Swan has written many Christmas themed books as well as summer ones. This one was a shout out to a country that she loves and wanted to thank her readers in. It’s about a tragic event in the Canadian Rockies during a blinding snowstorm that connects Meg, who is desperately trying to radio for help, with an astronaut who from his perspective in space, can see what she cannot. Relationships and secrets are not what they seem and there is only one person who understands what it is to be truly alone.

‘All the Broken Things’ by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

All the Broken Thingsstarstarstarstar“It was the shame Teacher conveyed, by trying to fix things. He wanted to shout that these things were just broken. He wanted her to understand about the pride of broken things.”

What a unique and special story, so gently told but also full of intrigue. Thanks for the recommendation Joan! This is a story about a boy and a bear: a refugee boy from Vietnam recently landed in Canada, and a bear in the circus.  It is set back in the day when the circus would come to town and one of the attractions might be a bear riding around on a tricycle wearing a pink tutu, or even a man wrestling with a bear.  There also might be a “freak” show, with all sorts of human and/or animal abnormalities on display.

The boy’s name is Bo. He helps his mother take care of his little sister called Orange. She is the family secret, severely disfigured with birth defects from Agent Orange, a farm chemical used as a weapon of war to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. This immigrant family struggles to survive and fit in. Kuitenbrouwer captures many of the tensions that Bo experiences in always being ‘other.’ Despite efforts by his amazing teacher to help Bo fit in, he ends up street fighting a lot and one day is discovered by a circus trainer who eventually gives him his own bear to train. This becomes his passion, but being involved with the circus also brings tragedy. At one point his mother and sister disappear with the circus master and he and the bear are left to fend for themselves in the trees of High Park.

Kuitenbrouwer learned alot about bears while tree planting. So did another Canadian author Claire Cameron who wrote The Bear. Apparently both tree planters/authors wrote bear stories after their experience in the North. When they discovered this they had a moment of alarm that they had written the same story! Luckily they were not at all the same, and both are well worth a read!

‘Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage’ by Kathleen Winter

BoundlessstarstarstarCanadian Kathleen Winter knows the North. Born in the UK, she has lived in Newfoundland and Labrador. Her amazing award winning novel Annabel is set in the remote north. Coming from an immigrant family she understands feelings of rootlessness and the tension between freedom and belonging. Even in Annabel, which is about gender, she sensitively explores the difficulty in finding home, the place where you belong. For Wayne/Annabel that struggle takes place in his/her own body. She often uses descriptions of cold natural landscapes to depict isolation and loneliness within. Her writing is thoughtful and insightful and graced with self-deprecating humour in this narrative non-fiction called Boundless.

Robert J. Wiersema, himself an accomplished novelist,  wrote a beautiful review in the Globe and Mail which I will include here, because he simply says it all better than I can:  Globe and Mail Review

Boundless, part biography part travelogue, is the result of an impromptu opportunity Kathleen Winter had to travel on a ship through the Northwest Passage. The gravity of following fatal Franklin’s “one warm line” through barren land and icebergs was not lost on Winter. But neither was the beauty. With great reverence and awe, she uses her reflective story telling so that we can travel with her and experience a part of the world that few will ever have a chance to see for themselves.

Being a Stan Rogers fan, I was thrilled to hear that Nathan Rogers, his son, was also on the boat with Winter. How poignant it must have been to hear him sing his father’s iconic and haunting “Northwest Passage” while actually being on the voyage! Stan Rogers tragically died when Nathan was only a small child, but the son has gone on to become just as fine a musician and human being as his Dad was.

‘Medicine Walk’ by Richard Wagamese

Medicine WalkstarstarstarstarstarAfter reading The Orenda, I promised myself I would read some other First Nations authors and the two I picked were Thomas King and Richard Wagamese. Recently, hearing a CBC The Next Chapter podcast about  Richard Wagamese’s new novel ‘Medicine Walk’,  I decided to start with it because I was so touched by Wagamese’s personal story.

In a candid interview with Shelagh Rogers, Wagamese is very open about the fact that because he is an alcoholic, he became alienated from his sons. Those years are lost and he is trying to find healing in his personal life. Part of how he does this is through his writing. Medicine Walk is a beautifully written and moving story about a father and son. It is as lyrically and respectfully written as Boyden’s epic work, just as powerful, but simpler and gentler.

Franklin accepts his dying father’s last request to take him to the BC interior where he wants to be buried “in the warrior way”.  It sets both of them on a journey of discovery – an encounter with the past and with the nature of their relationship. Franklin is the most self-contained mature sixteen year old I have ever come across in a novel. It was such a pleasure getting to know this remarkable character. Written in sure, clear prose, much of this novel is so real and down to earth, yet so eloquent. A redemptive, masterful story. “It’s all we are in the end. Our stories.”

Wagamese’s earlier novel Indian Horse, winner of the Canada Reads People’s Choice poll in 2013, is now definitely on my to-read list as well.  It’s about residential schools and how one boy finds hope through playing ice hockey.

‘The Orenda’ by Joseph Boyden

The OrendastarstarstarstarstarJoseph Boyden has written an honest and epic historical snapshot of Canada in its infancy. Set in Southern Ontario in the 1600’s, it follows the lives of three characters so rich and deeply portrayed I believe they will each stay with me for a very long time. And because three narrators speak of the same events from different perspectives, it gives the story an unforgettable three dimensional depth. It is impressive how simply and lyrically Boyden captures so many turbulent and important themes in one novel.

Snow Falls, a young Iroquois girl with special gifts, is kidnapped and adopted by Bird, a Huron elder and warrior. He seeks to fill the gap left by the wife and daughter he has lost, but Snow Falls’ fierce independence will test that plan. The third narrator is Christophe, a Jesuit missionary who has dedicated his life to learning and understanding Huron ways so that he can live amongst them and share his faith.

Some of the brutality of war and torture may be disturbing to some, but are handled by Boyden only because he has to in order to be true to the story. He claimed in an interview with Shelagh Rogers of CBC’s The Next Chapter (October 28, 2013 podcast) that these sections were as hard to write as they are to read. But I hope that does not put you off of the novel because you will miss a great deal of beauty as well. I commend Boyden for not shying away from a difficult task and giving us a human story where worlds and world views inevitably collide. The violence in the novel is personal but not gratuitous and if anything, weirdly gentle. Being indigenous to the culture himself, ‘The Orenda’ flows out of Joseph Boyden in a way that brings history alive and makes it jump off the page. An ‘orenda’ is a life force much like a human soul, but inhabits more widely. Animals and trees have an orenda, Lake Ontario has an orenda. As Rogers said in her interview, in this book, Boyden has given history an orenda.

This very week, ‘The Orenda’ is one of the books battling to be dubbed a ‘Great Canadian Novel’ in Canada Reads 2014. Each year Canadian celebrities choose Canadian novels and argue for their choice until one comes out on top. Arbitrary as it may sound (how can one novel be all things to all Canadians), I do commend Canadians for hosting a spirited literary debate in the dead of winter to create some warmth and intrigue! This time I’ve actually read two of the books in the running, the other one being Annabel by Kathleen Winter which was also excellent.

‘The Orenda’ is part of a loose trilogy. It was preceded by Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, but chronologically comes first.

‘The Best Laid Plans’ by Terry Fallis

The Best Laid PlansstarstarstarstarVery funny and very Canadian! Brisk and highly readable, this political satire won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 2008 and Canada Reads in 2011. This post is timely because a CBC TV series based on it, with the same name, is airing in just a few days! Now I almost wish I hadn’t cancelled my cable! 😦

The Best Laid Plans, CBC TV mini-series

Behind the Scenes – The Best Laid Plans

Angus McLintock is the most unlikely politician to hit Parliament Hill! This quote from the book describes his larger than life character: “you cannot be bought, you have no desire for re-election, you have no interest in higher office, you don’t care what people think of you, you actually do what you say.” How refreshing is that!

Angus, a big burly Scottish engineering professor will do just about anything to escape teaching English to Engineers – even running for political office. Still mourning the death of his wife, he agrees to embark on an unlikely political campaign which should have been doomed to failure. Throw in a little love story, a monstrous hovercraft, some drams of good single malt, and a few games of chess and you end up with a novel that has a little bit for everyone. And if you want to carry on with Angus, there is a sequel called The High Road which came out in 2010.

‘I Feel Great About My Hands: And Other Unexpected Joys of Aging’ edited by Shari Graydon

With wisdom and humour, forty-one remarkable, mature Canadian women over 50 revel in the joys of aging.

This was an impulse buy on my Kindle – the title intrigued me! Even though most of the time I prefer to pretend that my knees are not creaking and my hormones haven’t packed up and left town, I am not ashamed to admit that I do find myself in the over 50 age group. Most people (especially women) like to let other people believe they are younger than they are. Perhaps it would be smarter to mislead in the opposite direction. If you suggest older, you might get “you look GREAT for 65!”

This collection of feisty honest reflections is thoughtful, amusing, and encouraging, stressing the positives of aging. It’s all that stuff about feeling more comfortable in your own skin and embracing the inevitable changes instead of fighting them.  There is a lot of truth in it. I would never want to be back in earlier decades.  There are seasons in our lives, and each one is enjoyable in a different sort of way. In the present season, I must say that I am quite happy to display my wrinkles. Each one tells a story. And since I’ve never coloured my hair, I am not about to “cover my wisdom” (a quote from the book) now. Although I must admit to Google Imaging a few of the contributors to this anthology, to see if I look younger than them! 🙂 Sigh…will we never learn to just be happy as we are?…let the real women Dove ads rule!

Here are some of the catchy essay titles to entice you: “How Drooping Breasts Led Me to a Truck-driving Life of Adventure”, “Levity in the Face of Gravity”, “My Grandmother’s Skin”, “The Pleasures of an Older Man”, “Dinner Tastes Better than Ever”, and “My Colonoscopy”.

‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ by Stef Penney

A beautiful portrayal of the Canadian north in 1867. Ironically, the author is British and I read it for my UK reading group. But I am a Canadian and loved the view into that time period, the days of trappers and the early days of the Hudson’s Bay Co. Even walking into The Bay in Toronto the other day made me think back to an earlier time…I bought some very warm gloves (on sale).  The novel is atmospheric and affecting, you do carry it with you while reading it. I often felt chilly while reading this book, but perhaps it was just being in Canada in January.

A woman’s son disappears following a brutal murder in a small town. She journeys into the snowy cold wilderness to track him and clear his name, but she is not alone. Many others are tracking as well, and as new characters are introduced, suddenly the wilderness seems full of other trackers and possible suspects, all on their own journeys. Penney’s writing captures the spirit of the place and the time and the themes are around a sense of longing, a yearning for something you seek, but may never find.  There is little tenderness in the wild and rugged landscape.  The wolves are often feared but never turn out to be the culprits – man is much more to be feared than wolf.

The suspense in the novel centres around the murder but there are many other secrets and suspicions.  There are a lot of characters to keep track of in this one, so I kept a yellow sticky in the front to scribble a ‘who’s who’ list which becomes a handy reference. The various narratives become clearer as the story progresses. This book reminded me of Joseph Boyden’s novel ‘Through Black Spruce’. The author is interesting – she never travelled to Canada because she was agoraphobic and couldn’t fly or even travel by train. She did her research at the British Library in London.