Monday, February 8, 2016

"This is Where It Ends" by Marieke Nijkamp

At 10:00 am, the principal of Opportunity High School in Alabama has finished the same speech she gives every year, welcoming the entire student body to a new semester. 

At 10:02 am, the students all get up to leave but the auditorium doors will not open.

At 10:05 am, someone starts shooting.

This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, is a story told over the span of 54 minutes in which a high school shooting occurs. Shown from four different perspectives, it relates the horror and heroism that takes place as one student commits the most heinous of crimes against his peers.

I was in high school when the Columbine shootings took place. I still vividly remember the feelings of returning to school the next day and how the place felt different. Nothing like that had happened before but now it’s an epidemic. Each time I hear of another school shooting, I’m reminded of how those days felt and that is what drove me to pick up this book.

I thought that telling the story in “real time“ was a good and unique idea. For me, it added to the pain of the story, made it feel more real. This method doesn’t allow for fleshing out the cause of it or for really developing back stories for the characters, but for me this wasn’t what the book was about. 

I also appreciated that this book was told from multiple points of view.  The shooting is told through the perspectives of Sylvia and Claire who are in the auditorium, Tomas who is one of two students in the school but outside of the auditorium, and Claire who is running track outside of the school.  It also includes texts and tweets from students inside and outside of the school, which is haunting given the way social media brings new perspectives to situations like this (the part where the reporter is asking students questions by Twitter hit me pretty hard.)

I know that reviews of this book are pretty split, some love it and some hate it. I do agree with some of the criticisms, mostly that I felt like the diversity of the book felt forced. I want to see diversity in books but it should be natural and not stereotypical. Also, the flashbacks took away from the story for me.  I think this story should either have been written completely in real-time and only about the shooting or it should have delved deeper into the emotions and psychology, past and present.

I think this is a book that people need to read for themselves. We all have different experiences and feelings surrounding situations like this and what one may feel is based on that. I didn’t come in to this book looking for the psychology behind school shootings, I was expecting a real time storytelling of a school shooting and that is what I got.  

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

"City of Thorns" by Ben Rawlence

Deep in the desert of Northern Kenya lies the Dadaab refugee camp, where almost half a million residents live, unable to go back to their home in Somalia and unwanted by the Kenyan government. Dadaab is considered a humanitarian crisis. Only supposed to house a few thousand people for a few years, it has for over two decades grown into a city.

Ben Rawlence spent four years in Dadaab, witnessing first-hand the struggles of the people who call it home.  They ended up there trying to escape the civil war in Somalia but now it looks like many will never escape the desperation and difficulties.

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, by Ben Rawlence, is a heartbreaking and intimate look at life inside Dadaab.  The nine stories are interwoven to give readers a well-rounded understanding of the political landscape that created Dadaab and the forces that keep people there. The lives lived in Dadaab are unimaginable for so many of us and this book shines a spotlight on the crisis that has been unfolding in Kenya for years, with no end in sight.

In the West, it can often seem like humanitarian crises come and go like trends. Civil wars, famines, natural disasters, one happens and it’s all that we hear about until another happens and then we forget about the first.  The thing is, just because we don’t hear about them anymore, doesn’t mean they have ended. 

Dadaab was created 25 years ago to help people who were fleeing civil war in Somalia. Over time, it also became home to people fleeing famine and drought. At one point, in 2011, over 10,000 people were arriving each month. The camp grew far beyond its resources could provide for. Each year, thousands of children are born in the camp and Dadaab is now starting to see a third generation being born there. For many, this is the only home they have ever known.  For a while, the eyes of the world were on Dadaab, with money and other resources pouring in, but time and shifting public attention has changed things. The global war on terrorism has put the camp back into the spotlight, but for different reasons. And what continues to get left behind are the people who spend their days in Dadaab.

In City of Thorns, Rawlence introduces us to nine people and their families who call Dadaab home. This includes Guled, forced to be a child soldier for Al-Shabaab; Tawane, who came to the camp as a young boy and is now a youth leader; Kheyro who knows that her education is the one thing that can help her escape the camp; Monday, a Lost Boy of Sudan, a Christian who married a Muslim woman; Nisho, a porter in the market who was born en route to Dadaab; and Professor White Eyes, born blind but later recovered his sight and became a successful businessman in the camp. Their stories, and many more, are combined to tell a story that is difficult and heartbreaking.  

This is an incredible book. While I’m familiar with Dadaab through newspaper and internet articles, this opened my eyes to what day to day life is like in a modern refugee camp and it is beyond anything I could have imagined. I was amazed at the way the camp economy took shape, the community that grew out of it, the way the multinational humanitarian organizations ran the camp, but mostly I was just heartbroken for the people who face life in these conditions. Refugee camps are meant to be temporary but for many, Dadaab is for life.

I think I would have preferred this book if each of the stories were told individually. By weaving them all together, Rawlence is able to tell a story that plays out chronologically and paints a big picture of the camp but I found that with so many stories between the main people and the secondary people, I was getting lost and often forgetting people and places. While reading the story of one person, I would be wondering what had happened to someone else. 

A little while ago, I read an article that stated camps like Dadaab will be the new future for refugees. As we watch the plight of Syrian refugees unfold before our eyes, it seems scary but true. This book will open your eyes to an experience that is happening to millions of people around the world.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Month In Review

The start of a new year is always so much fun as a reader. It's the time when all the lists of "must-read" books are out and we get to make our lists of what to read, what to buy, and what to put on hold at the library.  That always inspires me to do a lot of reading and that definitely happened this month. Here is what I read in January with my GoodReads ratings:

Troublemaker - Leah Remini *****
Reasons to Stay Alive - Matt Haig ****
City of Thorns - Ben Rawlence ****
City of the Lost - Kelley Armstrong ****
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist - Sunil Yapa ****
The Outside Circle - Patti Laboucane-Benson ****
Behind Closed Doors - B.A. Paris ****
The Crooked Heart of Mercy - Billie Livingston ****
Birdie - Tracey Lindberg ***
The Royal We - Heather Cocks ***

The Expatriates - Janice YK Lee


Troublemaker was absolutely amazing! It is currently not for sale in Canada so I had a family member purchase it while in the US.  Leah Remini does not hold back!  Reasons to Stay Alive is a book I think everyone should read - people who struggle with depression/anxiety will find so much comfort in this book and those who do not struggle with it will gain a better understanding of what it is like.  If you're looking for a good mystery, I really recommend City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong.   And The Outside Circle and Birdie are two great reads about Aboriginal Canadians.  I did not finish The Expatriates, I got just over 100 pages in and found there wasn't much connecting me to the story and I didn't see the point in continuing.

What I'm Looking Forward to in February

There are some great CanLit releases out this month. Yann Martel is back with The High Mountains of Portugal and Karen Hill's posthumous debut Café Babanussa is out along with Mona Awad's 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Tricia Dower's Becoming Lin and Joy Fielding's She's Not There.

I have two more books to read from the Canada Reads 2016 contenders so I hope to read at least 1 of them if not both.

Friday, January 29, 2016

"City of the Lost" by Kelley Armstrong

Casey Duncan is a talented police detective, dedicated to her job and her best friend Diana.  Other than her no strings attached relationship with ex-con Kurt, her life is focused on those two things.  But Casey carries with her a very dark secret - she once killed a man, and she got away with it.

Casey and Diana have been on the run for years, from Diana’s powerful and abusive ex-husband.  Once again, he’s found her and now it’s time for Diana to run once more.  But when a figure from Casey’s past shows up and threatens her life, the two women realize that they need to go somewhere they will never be found.

Diana has heard of a place, a town where people who need to disappear completely can go.  Located in the far northern reaches of Canada, this town is their only hope.  Casey and Diana are thrilled to be accepted into Rockton, but when they arrive Casey quickly discovers that all is not as it seems.  Because a hunter has come to Rockton, and it's hunting for people.

City of the Lost, by Kelley Armstrong, is thrilling mystery novel that will have readers guessing to the very end. With a unique premise, it is sure to impress both long-time mystery readers and those new to the genre.

Kelley Armstrong typically writes paranormal books so I will say that I have not read any of her work as that is not a genre I have much interest in.  But I do know from spending time on Twitter how much people love her work and how dedicated her fans are. So when I saw that she was writing a mystery novel, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to give a new to me Canadian writer a read.

This book had me hooked right from the beginning and I could not put it down.  At over 400 pages, it can seem daunting at first, but the writing and the storyline will have you breezing through it in no time.  I couldn’t believe how quickly I got through the first 100 pages, it was all due to being completely engrossed in the story.

This is a creepy and gory mystery but thankfully for as spine-tingling that it is, the writing keeps the reader interested rather than put off.  There were many moments in the book where I was pretty sure I knew who the killer was (different characters each time) and the ending came as a surprise to me which was great.  There’s nothing worse than figuring it out pretty quick then having to read 300 more pages to find out what you already know.  

Casey Duncan is a character that is flawed and troubled but that readers will have no problem warming up to.  I also appreciate that Casey is biracial in a book where the race of the character has no bearing on the story.  What we see in the literary world right now is a default to white characters when race does not affect the storyline so I was happy to see a character that is more representative of our population.  

A town in the north where people can disappear to, it is such a unique premise and it also makes for a very eerie setting for a murder mystery.  I absolutely enjoyed this book and I hope that Armstrong continues to write mysteries because I will definitely read them all.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada.  The opinions expressed above are my own.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"Birdie" by Tracey Lindberg

Bernice Meetoos, aka Birdie, is a Cree woman who has left her home in Northern Alberta and travelled to Gibsons, BC. There, she hopes to find and meet Pat Johns, who played Jesse on The Beachcombers, partly because of a teenage crush and partly because he is a working, healthy Indian man.  

In Gibsons, she ends up meeting Lola, a white woman who gives her a place to stay and a job in her bakery.  But it is also here that her past catches up to her.  When she doesn’t find what she is looking for her on her travels, she has a breakdown and takes to her bed. Her Auntie Val and her cousin, Skinny Freda, soon arrive in Gibsons to take care of Birdie, as she embarks on a quest that will change her life forever.

Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg, is an incredible novel about confronting and healing from your past.  Steeped in Cree lore and traditions, this novel touches on the life faced by Aboriginal woman in Canada and on the experiences all women face.

I had a tough time reading this book.  I don’t think I was in the right headspace to fully appreciate what I was reading because as I sit down to write this review, the things that I glimpsed over are now coming back to move and haunt me.

Bernice, or Birdie, is a strong character that draws the emotion out of the readers.  Sexually assaulted as a child by family members, raised by a single mother who disappeared, taken in by a white family who couldn’t relate to her, living on the streets of Edmonton, then ending up in a psychiatric facility, she lived through more heartache and hurt than should be had in a lifetime.  All of this pain catches up to her, resulting in a breakdown, where she disappears into herself and her dreams, which include both Cree folklore and The Frugal Gourmet.  

What also makes this book so poignant is the writing style.  The book jumps around throughout Birdie’s life to give bits and pieces that eventually inform of the reader of why Birdie’s present day situation is so important.  I greatly appreciate how Lindberg starts each chapter with Cree vocabulary and its English translation.  They also include bits of an Acimowin, which in Cree tradition is a fable.

But the most important part of this novel, for me, is the way it puts a face to the strength and power of Native women in Canada.  In a country that right now is crying out for something to be done regarding our treatment of the Aboriginal people, in a time where it looks like the powers that be may finally be waking up to the fact that we have failed the over 1100 missing or murdered Aboriginal women as well as those who endured the harsh realities of the residential school system, this book puts a face to those people we have for too long put to the side.  But this book isn’t a face of victimhood, it’s a face of a culture that stands strong on its families and their traditions.  

The more I sit and think on this book, the more I realize what an incredible story it is.  This a story about healing, resilience, and community.  This is a story about strength.  It says a lot to me when a book keeps getting better long after I turn the final page. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

"Lost Ocean" by Johanna Basford

Working in a bookstore, the most common question I heard at Christmas was "do you sell those adult colouring books?"  I honestly lost count of how many times I answered that question.

Adult colouring books are a trend that has completely taken over and one that, at first, I didn't quite understand.  Until I received a sample of Lost Ocean from Penguin Random House while I was at Word on the Street this past summer.  I brought it home, coloured a few pages, and was hooked. They are fun and relaxing, the perfect thing to do when unwinding at the end of a long day.

Whenever I was asked about colouring books, I always recommended one by Johanna Basford.  Since releasing The Secret Garden a couple of years ago, she has sold over 10 million books.  Her illustrations are absolutely beautiful, incredibly intricate, and very enjoyable. Here are two pictures I have coloured so far:

I started with two easier pictures but there are so many pages that are completely filled with intricate designs.  What I love about these colouring books is that there is so much to colour, you will spend so much time with them.  Each of the above pictures took me a few hours to colour.  As I tell people, you definitely get your money's worth with them.  And I love the thick paper that is used, this is definitely a high quality book.

If you are a non-creative person like I am, you'll enjoy this colouring book because it will make you feel like an artist.  If you are a creative person, you will have a lot of fun with all of the possibilities these beautiful pictures present.  

If you haven't jumped on the adult colouring bandwagon yet, I highly recommend you do and start with Lost Ocean.  Lose yourself in the fish, dolphins, mermaids, crabs, jellyfish, seahorses, and the beautiful flora.  Just keep a pencil sharpener close by, you'll definitely be wanting to make sure your pencil crayons are perfectly sharpened.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Penguin Random House of Canada. The opinions expressed above are my own.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of A Fist" by Sunil Yapa

When Victor sets out to sell marijuana to some of the 50,000 anti-globalization protestors gathered in Seattle, he doesn’t know what he is in for.  The protestors are determined to shut down the city and the meetings of the WTO delegates.  But the patience of the police is wearing thin and clashes are inevitable.

Over the course of one afternoon, the lives of seven people will be altered completely.  Bishop, the chief of police, is the father that Victor hasn’t seen in three years.  Ju and Park are police officers assigned to control the crowds.  King and John Henry are two protestors who are watching their plan of non-violence spin wildly out of control.  And then there is Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, the Sri Lankan finance minister for whom the fate of his country rests on getting through the protestors to the meetings.  

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, the debut novel from Sunil Yapa, is a moving and powerful novel about humanity and compassion.

This is a fascinating novel that I absolutely enjoyed reading.  I do not remember the demonstrations that took place in Seattle in 1999, but this is a novel that could take place anywhere at any time.  It’s not necessary to understand what happened in Seattle, just to understand what drives people toward these situations.  And this book does a great job of helping the reader understand that.

I particularly enjoyed the way the story was told in short chapters with each chapter being from the perspective of another character.  There are just enough characters to make this work and through doing this, Yapa drives the story forward while giving a well-rounded view of the situation at hand.  

I often forgot that this book was taking place over the period of just one day, there were so many layers to it and so much going on.  There were a few moments that were very poignant but one that especially made me feel as though I was punched in the stomach, it took my breath away.  

I picked up this book because it was on every must read of 2016 list so I figured it had to be good.  I was not disappointed.  A year from now this book will be on every best of 2016 list.