The recent announcement of the 2020 Canada Reads finalists had me reflecting on some of the fantastic Canada Reads books I have enjoyed over the years, many of which I ended up reading because they made it on the short list of finalists for the show.
Canada Reads is a game show contest format, and not a juried literary prize. All of the books that make the shortlist see a large jump in exposure and sales. But in recent years there has been some criticism of the lack of Indigenous books among the Canada Reads winners and about the depth of the debates that are able to occur on stage. Personally, the contest has allowed me to discover new, diverse Canadian authors and some truly great books – regardless of which of the five books ultimately won. Many of those books are in this list.
So with all that in mind, I decided it could be fun to make a list to draw attention to what I think are the great Canada Reads finalists worth reading – even though they didn’t ultimately win the contest. Here they are:
HOMES: A REFUGEE STORY – BY ABU BAKR AL RABEEAH AND WINNIE YEUNG (2019)
A Canada Reads finalist last year – this was the book I was rooting for to win. Last year’s Canada Reads theme was “one book to move you” and Homes: A Refugee Story does just that.
It is short and accessible, yet a powerful story of a refugee family told through the eyes of a young person, Abu Bakr al Rabeeah. He describes life in a war zone (horrific, unsettling experiences along with regular day to day family life) and their attempts to find safety from Iraq, to Syria and eventually settling right here in Edmonton.
You can’t help but be moved by Abu Bakr’s stories, which remind us of our shared humanity. Given recent world events, and the urgent need to address the rise of hate, violence and anti-immigration movements, this is definitely a book I would have picked for all Canadians to read.
BROTHER – BY DAVID CHARIANDY (2019)
But I will say, Brother by David Chariandy is a book that moved me deeply when I read it last year, and it is a book that continues to stick with me even now.
The story is of two brothers, sons of Trinidadian immigrants growing up in “The Park” in 1990s Scarborough. David Chariandy’s beautifully written novel is 200 pages filled with fantastic storytelling, where you experience the character’s hopes and dreams, their sadness and their grief right along with them.
This is one of my favourite novels to date and is well worth adding to your reading list.
THE MARROW THIEVES – BY CHERIE DIMALINE (2018)
Cherie Dimaline is an amazing writer. The Marrow Thieves is a young adult novel taking place in a dystopian future in post-climate change ravaged Ontario, where Indigenous people are being hunted for their bone marrow which is said to contain their ability to dream – an ability all others have lost.
A dystopian story, yes, but a timely read that somehow felt all too close to home. Ultimately this is a story about love and caring, hope and continuing on.
THE BREAK – BY KATHERENA VERMETTE (2017)
The Break by Katherena Vermette is a gripping novel told predominantly through the voices of the Indigenous women who make up this haunting story. From the moment I opened it, I was pulled in to a cold wintery evening in Winnipeg’s North End, and was kept drawn in until I turned the last page.
The narrator changes chapter to chapter making for a quick, thrilling read that left me both heartbroken and inspired.
The 2017 Canada Reads theme was ‘’What is the one book Canadians need right now?’ Definitely this one. I was glad to be there in person, along with my friend Heather, to watch Candy Palmater champion it and to quietly boo when it was voted off on the first day.
BIRDIE – BY TRACEY LINDBERG (2016)
Tracey Lindberg set a high bar with her debut novel, Birdie. The 2016 Canada Reads theme was “starting over”, and boy does starting over define Bernice in Birdie.Bernice Meetoos, nicknamed Birdie, is a troubled young Cree woman. At the beginning of the book we find her in bed in a lucid dreamlike state. With the help of the women in her family, we see Bernice start to face the past and look towards the future.
Colonialism, foster care, homelessness, mental health and sexual abuse are themes in her life. Her story involves a lot of jumping back and forth through timelines but eventually it all comes together clearly to tell the story of Birdie.
Birdie is a beautiful novel. It is a story of resilience, healing, and starting over. And despite the seriousness of the issues, it manages to be filled with a vibrant humour throughout.
THE INCONVENIENT INDIAN – BY THOMAS KING (2015)
What is the one book to break barriers? That’s the question that Canada Reads was asking us in 2015. Canada Reads 2015 was “all about books that can change perspectives, challenge stereotypes and illuminate issues”. Given that goal of breaking down barriers, the Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King was the best finalist to do that for Canadians.
Canada remains a divided, racist place, largely ignorant to our own colonial history and resistant to acknowledging it, let along addressing it. Overcoming these barriers of ignorance and division is one of the most important struggles our communities face today. Without doing so, issues around poverty, climate change, our economy, our health, and so on, are rooted in our colonial history and won’t be resolved.
One book will not overcome centuries of colonial history, conflict and struggle, but Thomas King’s mix of humour, fact and storytelling makes for an enjoyable, enlightening read about a tough topic. It’s one of the best books I’ve read for settlers to learn from and to start breaking down those barriers. I only wish I had such an illuminating book like this to read and open my mind when I was younger.
HALF-BLOOD BLUES – BY ESI EDUGYAN (2014)
This is a novel about music, racism, war, Nazi occupation, power, escape, and coming to terms with past transgressions. Half-Blood Blues follows musician Sid Griffiths’ story as he takes us back and forth between Berlin & Paris in 1940, and his present day in 1992.
I’ll admit my first attempt at reading this book I was in an impatient mood and found it tough to get into, but the second time I picked it up I couldn’t put it down. A compelling story, rich characters and a look at World War 2 history through new eyes makes for a phenomenal read. There’s a short visceral train station scene that sticks with me even now.
Esi Edugyan is a fantastic story teller. The history in her work is clearly very well researched. It’s no surprise to me that this book won the 2011 Giller Prize, among many other awards and accolades.
INDIAN HORSE – BY RICHARD WAGAMESE (2013)
Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse confronts the legacy of residential schools head on. This coming of age story begins with a grown Saul Indian Horse who has hit rock bottom and takes us back in time to piece together his history – from growing up in the north, being taken residential school, to a career in hockey, and ultimately to an alcohol-ravaged adulthood.
Wagamese’s writing is incredible. It is easy to read, often funny, yet tells a tough and important story that all Canadians should read. This may be a fictional novel but the truths within it run deep.
This remains my favourite of Richard Wagamese’s books. In 2017 Indian Horse was also turned in to a powerful film. If you haven’t seen it yet it is well worth watching.
ESSEX COUNTY – BY JEFF LEMIRE (2011)
What else to say but wow? Essex County is a beautiful book. After years of not reading the graphic novel format, I finally caved and gave his this book a go. It quickly reminded me of just how powerful the format can be and sold me on giving more graphic novels a chance.
A trilogy of stories about ‘regular folks’, love, regret, community and family. Essex County is thoughtful, poignant and jam packed with emotions.
Jeff Lemire is an amazing artist and incredibly powerful story teller. This book will punch you in the gut a few times, tug at your heartstrings, and will probably end by making you cry. Just writing this makes me want to pick it up again for another read.