Wednesday, May 31, 2017


Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything / F.S. Michaels
Kamloops, BC: Red Clover, c2011.
190 p.

A fine nonfiction read to follow Taxi!, this brief and clearly stated examination of our monoculture was excellent and thought-provoking.

What is the monoculture? It's one story that takes over and becomes the lens through which our culture interprets and understands everything around us. Michaels posits, very convincingly, that our current monoculture is an Economic one, that all parts of life are judged in a transactional manner. Whether it's relationships to other people, nature, spirituality, education, work or creativity, an economic lens limits how we can interact. 

Transactional relationships limit our committment and interconnection to just one interaction, the one in which we are exchanging whatever it is, rather than allowing us to develop relationships which are long-term, engaged, and responsible for one another.

Each chapter is brief and clearly argued, and builds to the next. Over the length of the book, different aspects of how a monoculture shapes us individually are drawn out and highlighted. And there are some ideas about how to think yourself outside of the one story. I would have liked to see more of a direct "action plan" somewhere in the book to help people strategize further, but really, self-education and knowledge seem to be the key to unlocking your tunnel vision.

There is a lengthy section in the Community chapter about the public good and how Economics isn't always the best way to view the viability of public services. The example that Michaels uses is public libraries, and she argues that letting corporate services and philosophies take over libraries is very much NOT in the public good. I must admit she's preaching to the choir here -- I also believe much of what she shares about the direction of public libraries in an Economic monoculture. I love that she makes so clear why libraries are powerful and need their independence, and that she shares a very good bibliography in this area, as well as the others she tackles. She points out over and over again, in most chapters, that the needs and values of profit-driven corporations don't always reflect what we might think of as the "good life" in terms of human connection.

I really enjoyed this read. It's thorough, well-argued, and not even close to being a screed. It's balanced and thoughtful, and brings up many, many points that are calmly made obvious. It makes you question your own assumptions, and allows you to see life differently. And as she says, life is about many stories, not just the One story. Widen your narrative and enrich your life.

I'll leave you with a brief quote that summarizes why it's important to widen your life story.
When you conform to the monoculture's version of who you are and what the world is like, you lose your freedom along with your ability to be truly innovative in terms of your own life. Being able to draw on many different stories, not just the economic one, allows you to creatively and authentically meet the challenges that face you in your life. The monoculture, determinedly single-minded, insists that economic values and assumptions can be used to solve your problems, whether those problems are spiritual, political,  intellectual, or relational.

This book pulls back the curtain on Economic assumptions that rule our culture, now more than ever; although this book was only published in 2011, the Economic worldview seems to have even more firmly grasped our cultural imagination since. This is a necessary read.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Taxi! / Helen Potrebenko
Vancouver: New Star Books, 1989, c1975.
162 p.

This is a Canadian novel from the 70s which doesn't examine the theme of Wilderness, or individual crises of identity among women looking at their lives; it looks at the everyday systemic crisis that women faced as urban, working class people in this era. And it is superbly strong and fearless while doing it.

I enjoyed Potrebenko's short story collection, Hey, Waitress!, when I read it some years ago, and have been meaning to get to Taxi! ever since. Thanks to Interlibrary Loan I got my hands on it and read it this week. There are some others who are really keen on getting people to read Taxi again, notably author Anakana Schofield, who loved it so much that she sparked its revival with a piece praising it in the National Post, and then started a blog about it, way back in 2009.

What's it about? Taxi driving, on the surface of it. Shannon is an outspoken taxi driver in Vancouver; she's unusual, as there aren't many women in this soul-sucking job. Through her narration the reader comes to understand the drudgery of this job, and the way in which so many people don't have the option of finding a 'better job' to go to. She talks about the dull passengers who always have the same questions: "Are you married? Are there many women drivers?  Do you like your job?"

Potrebenko openly discusses class, money, feminism, sexism, racism, politics and more -- refreshing, really. She refers to the War Measures Act, to unionizing, to the Vietnam War, to the state that Indians [sic] find themselves in at this time. "It's hard to find work if you're not a white man," one Indigenous passenger tells her; yes, Shannon agrees, yes it is. 

Shannon, alongside her friends and housemates Evelyn & Bradley (and their baby), are placed into a social context. Their friendship goes from strong to fraught and back again depending on the exhaustion of all three, and their employment and economic status. Bradley loses jobs, so has to take on some short-term work he dislikes; Evelyn holds a brief office job but prefers to be home with the baby. Shannon keeps plodding along driving a broken-down taxi, sharing her feminist insights with some of her passengers, and fending off drunks - so many drunks. She has one real friend, Gerald, a middle class young man who has decided being a hippie on the street is more worth his time -- Potrebenko has some strong words for the burgeoning hippie movement, although Shannon does call herself a kind of hippie from time to time. 

"There is no more room in the middle class for the sons of the working class (there never was any room for the daughters). Even the sons and daughters of the middle class are finding there is no further space for them, and so they are cast down into cannabis and hitch-hiking and they pretend for a time that it's groovy...
Here's another quote about why she thinks the hippie movement took on steam, too long to type out but a full page and more of socioeconomic philosophy:

This is a novel that still resonates and speaks truth to the reader. It's kind of depressing that this book, first released 42 years ago, is still so timely. But it's energetic, honest, funny in parts, and has a straightforward and unusual perspective that I really appreciated. If you are looking for the fictionally uncommon perspective of a working class woman, this is the one for you.

************************* Helen Potrebenko also writes poetry, and you can find some of it online at her blog Doing My Share of the World's Work - it hasn't been updated lately but still holds a lot of her work.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Silent Rooms

The Silent Rooms / Anne Hebert; translated from the French by Kathy Mezei.
Don Mills, ON: Musson, c1974. (orig. pub. in French in 1958).
167 p.

A fine example of the Quebec Gothic, as I like to think of it, this is a fairy-tale like story of Catherine -- motherless, eldest daughter of a stern and distant father, who marries into a decadent family of local nobility. 

Her new husband has sister issues, and seems to hate women and the very idea of sex. He takes Catherine to Paris, where they stay sealed inside their two little wooden rooms, never going out. Catherine gets paler and more and more bored, stitching at her needlework all day like a princess in a tower. Michel thinks she looks so beautiful when pale and thin that he mutters "this woman is so beautiful I'd like to drown her". So much for happily ever after.

When Michel's sister Lia shows up, having broken off her own love affair, the obsessive sibling dynamic arises again. The two of them cut Catherine out, treating her like a servant to supply their needs while remaining silent and undemanding. But eventually, Catherine rebels by getting very sick -- depression and lethargy sentence her to bed. The doctor recommends a change of scene -- impossible. But Catherine finds a backbone, and leaves, accompanied by their maid, who always backs the strongest player. 

The rest of the story takes place in a small seaside town in France in which Catherine recuperates and determines what to do with herself. Will she find freedom, happiness, self-determination? This  brief story looks at all of that in its fable-like structure. It's not a long or deeply detailed story, rather it moves lightly among archetypes and characterizations. It reminds me somewhat of Marie Claire Blais' Tete Blanche, in the main male character's neurotic behaviour: I didn't much like either of these characters! 

But I found this a hypnotic read, with the writing weaving a kind of spell that I couldn't look away from until I finished it, in one sitting. It was a intriguing look at a Cinderella who becomes a Rapunzel or perhaps a Sleeping Beauty, awoken by a huntsman rather than a prince.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Engel's Bear

Bear / Marian Engel
Toronto: Random House, 1990, c1976.
152 p.

So here's another Canadian classic I never read in university, but I thought I should really get to this scandalous novel at some point. It seems to elicit salacious tee-hees from most, so I wanted to see whether it justified the response.

People always seem shocked that this novel won the Governor General's award for fiction in 1976, mostly because of the 'sex with a bear' thing going on -- that's the shock reason, I mean, not the reason it won the award. Though I sometimes wonder.

Anyhow -- the story. Lou is a young archivist, stifled in the hot summer in Toronto. She gets an assignment to head north and catalogue the collection of Colonel Cary, an eccentric man who's left his middling library to her institute. Lou finds that the library, housed in an isolated octagonal house on an island, is rather bland and will take no time at all to sort through. But who's to say no to a lakeside stay rather than a cramped Toronto apartment in the summer? So she works slowly and methodically, being rather distracted by the large and highly tame black bear that has come with the property.

There is a lot of metaphor going on. Lou is single, having desultory sex with her director now and again; she feels dissociated from herself, with no roots to rely on; she ends up trading sex for handyman chores while at the cabin; and of course, there is the bear. There is a sense that she is trying to reclaim her natural, animal self through this theme -- trying to find that essential core of self-knowledge -- trying to merge with the wilderness at the heart of Canadian identity (especially in the 70s rising of CanLit). But there is also actual, physical sexual contact with the bear. The previous owners of the house were fascinated by bear lore, and Lou reads their collected bits of information as the summer progresses, adding layers to her relationship to the bear and the wild in general. By the time she is ready to leave, she has changed, transforming her sense of self as she heads back to her regular life.

I found this novel very much of its time, with the focus on women's lives and agency and identity that was so strong in this era. The bear sex part is not as nudge-nudge wink-wink as I had expected, though I wonder what induced her to so graphically describe it, other than its beginning as a short piece intended to be part of a collection of pornographic writing by "serious writers" that she was trying to publish as a fundraiser for the newly established Writers' Union of Canada (established by Engel, in her living room). Nevertheless, this is a story about much more than this titillating content which seems to be the extent of most readers' knowledge of it. It certainly stands on its own.


A few other Canadian Book Challenge participants have read this one; you can read Eric's recent review, complete with a look at how this book has been presented via multiple covers over the years.

And you can also hear Marian Engel reading from this work on the CBC, way back in 1976, and discussing it with Peter Gzowski.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Basic Black with Pearls

Basic Black with Pearls / Helen Weinzweig
Toronto: Anansi, 2015, c1980.
144 p.

This is another of a string of 70s novels I've just finished; while this was published in 1980 originally, it holds a strong 70s feel similar to many other women's novels of the time. At least Canadian women's novels.

The main character, Shirley Kaszenbowski, nee Silverberg, takes us on a surreal trip across Toronto, revisiting her past as a Jewish immigrant in the Spadina-Dundas area. This revealing trip back into the uneasy postwar years is rather incidental -- Shirley is following clues left for her by her sometime lover, secret agent Coenraad, hoping to find him for a tryst. But does he even really exist, or is he Shirley's invention? We're not sure, but her drive to escape the routine of her numb middle-class married life could mean either is true.

The writing style is fluid; the key to it is following Shirley's thoughts, with no firm reliance on straightforward chronology or realist descriptions. Yet the sense of place comes through clearly -- Toronto really leaps to life. Weinzweig's look at a woman who is restless and ready to break out after a long stretch of marriage to a dull and controlling husband reminds me of Constance Beresford-Howe's The Book of Eve, set around the same time but in Montreal. 

Weinzweig is much less tethered to everyday detail than Beresford-Howe, and the initial set-up of Shirley's international man of mystery spy lover already makes this book much more strange and unsettling from the start. But they are ruminating on some of the same questions of women's agency and the need to seize one's own life, questions that were top of mind in the 70s, it seems. 

If you can comfortably read a story that will discombobulate and confuse you at times, that will poke at your expectations of a wifely character, that will throw you around in time a bit, this is the one to pick up. Weinzweig is a fascinating new-to-me author who only wrote two novels and one short story collection, and thanks to Anansi is now republished and ready to be rediscovered. Her own life was just as interesting as her fiction, and I'm happy to have picked this novel up in a recent sale, alongside of Irina Kovalyova's Specimen, another great Anansi discovery. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Margaret Laurence's Diviners

The Diviners / Margaret Laurence
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c1974.
382 p.

I put off reading this book for years, thinking it was going to be a dull, good-for-you classic. I'm not sure why, as I absolutely loved Laurence's novel The Stone Angel when I read it years ago. In any case, I couldn't have been more wrong about this one.

This a story that feels fresh and modern in the way that it plays with structure and form. It asks questions concerning a woman's independence and her role as wife, mother, person. I found Laurence's method of telling the story through sections separated out as memories, inside memories, writings and so forth really fascinating. The story shifts in time like a person talking, retelling their life in back and forth fragments. Yet it's completely coherent and builds narrative tension.

Morag Gunn is from the small town of Manawaka; orphaned at age four, she is raised by the town refuse collector and his wife. Her main goal is to get out of town as soon as possible. She succeeds in leaving to go to university, and through a circuitous route, including a relatively brief marriage, ends up with one daughter and a house in the Ontario countryside, from whence she tells her story.

And she tells it, full of sensory details and clever writing, as suits the writer Morag has become. She compares moments from all over her life and reflects on her prickly nature, including being totally honest about what she's done right and wrong over the years. She's a strong, complex, completely real character with a thoroughly active internal life.

This is a Canadian classic that has the whiff of the 70s about it, in its focus on a woman's life and her struggle for individuation, and in the elements of identity, both personal and national, that arise again and again. But it's also modern and relevant and just really, really interesting to read now.

Highly recommend this one.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Weekend Effect

The Weekend Effect: The Life Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork / Katrina Onstad
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2017.
304 p.

Now this is the opposite of the last book I read, How to Be a Bawse. Instead of recommending hustle, it recommends slowing down the ever-increasing pace of 24/7 work and taking time away from identifying only as a paid worker, whatever it is you do. I don't know if the different perspective is down to age, life stage, economic status, or what -- but it seems like these two books are talking to totally different readers.

Onstad is a journalist, and that shows in this book -- it's a carefully constructed series of chapters that provide research to support the tips that are given in a quick list near the end of the book. I suggest reading the cheat sheet first, then going back to see more info on each.

How do you reclaim your weekend as restorative time-off? Take a look at these ideas:

I found the book very well laid out; lots of ideas and lots of research to back it up, told in a readable manner. It encourages readers to think of themselves as human beings with the need for connection and down-time and beauty, with a soul that needs restoration from the daily grind of making a living. 

I feel that high-powered professionals who work hours and hours a week to the exclusion of other parts of their lives could really benefit from these tips. But it also pinpoints the new entrepreneur, the one who puts everything into their business, or who is a freelancer and thus always on -- even working for yourself you need some time off from Work. 

So a great reminder for those who've been hustling for a long time and are heading toward burnout if they don't slow down. I especially loved the idea of making space, wandering, wondering. I think that every reader will find at least one or two ideas that resonate with them, as something they could incorporate into their lives. I already consciously "do less" in order to own my time, but actively searching out opportunities to play and to encounter beauty sounds like a plan. 

Do you feel that you manage your time for yourself well? If so, any tips?  But if you're feeling overwhelmed or work-burdened, I do suggest this quick read as a spur for self-care. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

How to Be a Bawse

How to Be a Bawse / Lilly Singh
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, c2017.
224 p.

I'm officially old. I didn't know about Lilly Singh or her meteoric popularity and youtube stardom as ||Superwoman|| until I saw this book in my library.

But I sure do now! I was interested in reading about how she approaches her life as a "bawse". What is a bawse?

"A Bawse is a human being who exudes confidence, turns heads, reaches goals, finds inner strength, gets hurt efficiently and smiles genuinely- because they've fought through it all and made it out the other side." 
Essentially this is a book about personal achievement and business advice for the young. After you've read this empowering set of brief essays on life skills and attitudes for success, you might age a little and read some Danielle Laporte for personal and business advice for the fiery female leader, and then age a little more and read some business advice about leadership, commitment and integrity from Arlene Dickinson. 

This book is high energy (as Singh is). It's made up of 50 short chapters on different aspects of business and life success. Each one opens with a highly coloured photo of Singh in a costume or outfit themed to the topic. The paper stock is heavy and glossy and the chapters also include the very trendy full-page text pop-outs in varied Instagrammy fonts and colours. It's an eye catching and active style that is made for short attention spans and bites of reading time. It also means there is not a lot of space to go deep, but I find that's not what these kinds of books are for.

However, I did find that Singh has some good stuff to share, emphasizing hard work, kindness to others, and persistence. 

Here's a couple of favourite quotes:

In a bawse world there are no escalators, there are only stairs.

Say what you mean, but don't say it mean.

The universe might respect the law of attraction, but it respects a good hustle even more.

And in the end, that's really the message of her book and her career, as she shares it: you've got to hustle to get what you want. Always work hard, focus on your goals, take opportunities that arise, and make opportunities, too. I liked her repetition of the concept of hustle NOT including meanness -- she restates a couple of times that being courteous and respectful is important, and that being kind and knowing which rung of the ladder you're on doesn't mean getting walked over. 
And she certainly has hustled, all the way from Scarborough to LA, and from one youtube video to hundreds of them, some viewed over 20 million times. And a world tour. And more.

I'd recommend this to some younger people I know as a good starter guide to getting ahead. And some not-so-young readers still have things that jump out, too.  My takeaway? This quote:

Procrastination is a hustler's worst enemy.


Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Mary Green: a Regency tale

Mary Green / Melanie Kerr
Edmonton: Stonehouse Publishing, c2016.
320 p.

I was intrigued by this novel, having discovered it on Stonehouse's website after reading another of their books recently (Kalyna). It's a Regency tale, fully inspired by Kerr's study of Austen - both academically, and via the tactile experience of creating and wearing Regency clothing & creating Regency events.

The novel does have a very Austen feel; it combines elements of Mansfield Park, Sense & Sensibility, and Emma; it also seems to reference Jane Eyre. The eponymous Mary Green is a young orphan two times over (her adoptive parents have died) taken in by her adopted mother's brother. This brother travels extensively, so Mary is left to the care of an aunt along with her two cousins, Dorothea and Augusta. Of course, in a Cinderella-like twist, Mary is treated badly, not even called by her real name by these tenuous relatives, instead called Polly.

But at 21, Mary finds out she is very rich and picks up and decamps to London with the solicitors the very same day. Her whirlwind life in London as a rich young woman is predictably head-turning -- but eventually Mary decides to head to her new estate in the country and live on a more even keel.

I was a little disappointed in this turn of events -- it's like Mary was another Fanny Price, too good and modest for fashionable life. I wanted to see Mary kick up her heels and enjoy herself for once, with all this newfound fortune! Instead she is sensible and goes in for good works, like supporting the orphanage where she herself started life. 

She does, of course, get her happy ending. The romantic thread is the weakest element of this story, I felt; the story seems more focused on Mary herself, finding her way to selfhood. The romance is not 'romantic' or swoony, in fact, I thought it was really unexpected and not altogether satisfying. Fanny Price again! But if you are looking for a very Austen like novel that is much more convincing than many Austen-like 'sequels', this is a great choice. Kerr has the diction and daily details down. 

You can also check out Melanie Kerr's blog for much more information on the Regency and for reviews and thoughts on other Regency retellings, both book and movie. There is info on her first book Follies Past, a P&P prequel, and videos of her reading from Mary Green, if you wish to avail yourself of the opportunity to learn more. 

Monday, May 08, 2017

Waking Gods

Waking Gods / Sylvain Neuvel
New York: Del Rey, c2017.
324 p.

A decade after the events of Sleeping Giants, scientist Rose Franklin and Themis operators Vincent & Kara are still together, called into action when another giant robot suddenly appears in a park in central London. 

Now working for EDC (Earth Defense Corps), they are still just as eager to avoid causing any human deaths as they were 10 years ago. Unfortunately, the British government disregards their advice and precipitates a crisis with millions dead worldwide. 

Finding out who the robots are and why they've come, and what their purpose is, fills this book. All the voices from the last book are here; Rose, Vincent & Kara, as well as our anonymous narrator, with a few new ones, including a young girl in Puerto Rico with psychic visions - who turns out to be an important character indeed. 

The book is told in the same fashion as the first one, in reports, interviews, files and so on, It gives the same urgency and presence as the first, though feels a bit different here as they are facing a "disaster movie" kind of scenario, while in the first book it was more about scientific discovery itself. I found the disaster bits somewhat distressing, especially near the end -- the orgy of deaths in these kinds of tales is always disturbing. 

But this was still a solid second book in a very fresh and vibrant new series that takes on hard science with the same eagerness as human relationships. Definitely worth reading. And, though I haven't tried it myself, I hear that the audio versions of both books are excellent productions as well if you prefer that format.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Promises to Keep

Promises to Keep / Genevieve Graham
Toronto: Simon & Schuster, c2017.
336 p.

The expulsion of the Acadians is perhaps best known through Longfellow's Evangeline. But Genevieve Graham takes on this historical event in a much more readable historical romance (even if Evangeline and Gabriel do crop up in passing...)

It's 1755, and Amélie Belliveau is living with her family on an idyllic Acadian homestead. Her large family is content and well-fed, and a respected part of their community. But into that settled life comes the British army. And they start exiling Acadians, so as to take their fertile lands and comfortable settlements.

All French speaking Acadians are considered enemy French, and are packed into the holds of British ships as prisoners, with no efforts made to keep families together. These ships all head off to various ports where they intend to drop all these unwilling refugees, some of whom (as told in Evangeline) never saw one another again.

But Amélie has a secret benefactor, a Scottish soldier in the English army. He tries, to the best of his ability, to at least make sure that her family is together on the ships. And he plays a bigger role once they are at sea.

The journey of Amélie's family is circuitous and dangerous; she loses many members of her family to illness as the months progress. But she also finds people who are kind and who guide her back to her brothers and Mi'kmaq friends who had been French resisters in Acadia, and had shifted west to what is now Quebec. And there she finds a home again.

The book moves between viewpoints -- Amélie, Connor the Scottish soldier, Me'tekw of the Mi'kmaq, and others. The first half, focused on Acadia and the daily life of the people who will soon lose it, is a little bit slower moving, but the action really picks up in the second half as their forced travels begin. The romance is also a key part of the story, as it shapes the events around Amélie's experience of the expulsion. 

This was an easy reading historical drama that should appeal to those who enjoy tales of the past -- especially those that make Canadian history exciting and romantic. The author has another book inspired by Canadian history, Tides of Honourset at the time of the Halifax Explosion, so if you like sweeping romantic historicals try either one. 

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Among the Ruins

Among the Ruins / Ausma Zehanat Khan
New York: Minotaur, c2017.
357 p.

This is the third novel in the Inspector Esa Khattak series. I really enjoyed book two, The Language of Secrets, last year so quickly picked up this new one... although I still haven't gone back to read book one. I seem to have that problem with series! 

In any case, this book is a little different: Khattak is taking a break after the events that ended the last book. He's on leave, and travelling in Iran. But his idyll is interrupted when a Canadian-Iranian filmmaker, Zahra Sobanhi, is killed, and the Canadian government contacts him for some investigative help while he's there. 

He must keep a low profile and not stand out as someone asking too many questions; but he still gets involved with the fate of Iran's political prisoners, and some young protesters. He can't find what he needs without his partner, Rachel Getty, though. Back in Toronto, she starts digging into Iran's contemporary politics and floats the idea that Zahra's killing may not have been fully political. 

Iran, with all its complexities, is beautifully drawn by Khan. The daily life of regular people like Khattak's innkeeper is shown as peculiarly everyday in the face of the political regime. At the same time, his involvement with a young group of students who are anti-regime shows the silent resistance. His position as a tourist both protects him and makes his stay precarious. There is exquisite beauty there, in the landscape and the architecture of palaces and mosques. And there is extreme violence and repression, as shown by the notorious Evin prison.  

This book is very successful at showing the fine line of life under a violent regime. The characters are fascinating and engaging, for the most part. I did feel that the romantic undertones between Khattak and almost any woman he came across, whether students or women his own age, were a bit much. It's as if he couldn't have any kind of encounter without that idea cropping up. 

The other reason I found this book slightly less successful than the last was simply the fact that so much was crammed into it. Iran's politics were confusing and scary enough; to add in a whole other mystery line of smuggling, con men and so on just felt like a little too much -- the mystery and its consequences got a little muddy. I would have 100% believed that Zahra got on the wrong side of politics, I didn't need all the extra skullduggery. 

Khan supports all of her stories with extensive research and knowledge of her settings. In this book she also includes source references for further reading, for anyone interested in the facts behind her story. They are worth spending some time exploring; there is so much to learn about this place and its history. 

Friday, May 05, 2017

Jaguar's Children

The Jaguar's Children / John Vaillant
Toronto: Knopf, c2015.
280 p.

Vaillant, better known for his award-winning nonfiction like The Tiger or The Golden Spruce, turned to fiction with this debut novel. And it is a stunner. 

Hector has decided to illegally cross the border into the US (this is obviously set a few years ago when that would still be a desirable destination). He gathers up enough money to pay the 'coyotes' to take him across with a group of other desperate wishful immigrants. The coyotes, though, are usually gang-related and not entirely trustworthy.

Hector climbs into a water tanker with a group of others, and the hole is welded shut after them. This is a brilliant subterfuge, as no-one could fit into the tanker's opening, thus making it highly unlikely to be suspect. But it also makes for a terrifying trip, especially once the truck stops in the desert, abandoned by their drivers. 

It's a difficult read, as Hector finds an American name on his friend Cesar's phone, and begins sending messages calling for help. The book is structured as a modern epistolary novel; rather than letters, this is made up of one-way phone messages, but with the same effect. 

Vaillant is able to compress a long backstory into a cohesive narrative, one that compels attention and highlights the many reasons why someone might feel desperate enough to attempt this border crossing. He shows a variety of personalities in the group Hector is travelling with, and enlarges upon the vivid culture of Oaxaca - both its strengths and the reasons people might want to leave it. I felt that it powerfully humanized the immigrants who are often demonized instead, giving them a full existence and demanding understanding and empathy from the reader. 

While it's a bit of a terrifying and breathless reading experience, I also think it's a very strong novel. The writing suits the story, and it moves along very quickly, with the reader rushing to find out the conclusion. But at the same time, there is a focus on developing the characters and their lives and longings. It's a striking combination. 

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

11th Annual Canadian Book Challenge!

July 1st is coming soon! I'm lucky enough to be taking over the hosting duties for the marvellous Canadian Book Challenge from John at the Book Mine Set. If you've participated before, rest assured, we are following along with the structure of the past 10 years. If you haven't, check us out because this is one of the most fun, relaxed challenges out there. 

If you're going to read along, check out the full information at the 11th Canadian Book Challenge Sign-up & FAQ page -- you can sign up any time, and the link up posts and participant progress chart will go live as of July 1st. So exciting!