Canada Reads 2016

I almost finished reading and reviewing all five of the Canada Reads novels in time for the debates. So close! It’s the fastest I’ve read through them since I’ve started keeping up with Canada Reads these last few years.

In general, I found that the selection for this year was a bit lacking than the previous years, though I did enjoy a few of them. This is also the first time that I’ve successfully predicted and agreed with the winner! Check out how I ranked the books this year and don’t forget to click on the titles for the full reviews!

How I ranked the books this year:

5) Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter – Follows the life of Henry,  a worker in northern Alberta, who then goes to work in Afghanistan to try and piece back his life together when his girlfriend leaves him. A tragic and horrible accident occurs in Afghanistan leaving Henry with guilt and consequences. Sadly, this is the worst book I’ve read in years. I couldn’t even bring myself to finish it. Read the full review to find out  why.

4) The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami – Follows a grief stricken Indian family who have to deal with the loss of a daughter they disowned and now have to care for her only child. Another disappointing read for me. I did not care for most of the characters and felt little sympathy for them as the situations that arise in the story are ones that they alone create. Isn’t that the story of us all though? Read my full review to learn more.

3) Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz – Two sisters who are brought up by mixed parents and mixed religions have a bond that not many share; one that is shaped by extreme loss. Sadly, the tale is narrated by the one sister who is reminiscing over their shared childhood as she is coming to terms with the sudden death of her sister. A book with a potent tale, that’s for sure, but I couldn’t determine whose story it really was in the end. Read my full review to learn more.

2) Birdie by Tracey Lindberg  – Is the spiritual and highly poetic story of a young Native American woman named Birdie. She begins a sort of vision quest by finally learning to deal with her abusive and very-troubled past. A beautiful and potent read that stresses some real issues that Native American women today still face. Read my full review to learn more. 

1) The Illegal by Lawrence Hill  – Keita wants to be an elite runner and he definitely has the skills to do it but unfortunately for Keita, he was a born in a country with a tyrannous government and the country that he flees to is unforgiving with refugees. While the countries in the book are technically made up, it’s easy to see which one’s they’re making reference to. A massive reflection on some very present day issues. Enjoyable read with memorable characters. Oh and, RUNNING! Yay! Read my full review here. 

How Canada Reads ranked the books:

5) Minister Without Portfolios by Michael Winter

4) Birdie by Tracey Lindberg

3) Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

2) The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami

1) The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

I was spot on in my own ranking with two of the books this year in comparison to the final list which, I think is the best I’ve done so far.

Want to read about previous Canada Reads years? Check out my rankings and reviews for 2015 and 2014!

Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter

1/5 stars.
Read from March 22 to April 01, 2016 (DNF).
ebook, 270 pages.

Well, this is a rare occurrence for me. In my lifetime of reading, there are only three books that I committed to read that I did not finish. Sadly, I had to add this book to that list to make it a fourth. This book was painful to read. I managed to make it quarter of the way through though, but I also picked up and almost finished two other novels in the time it took me to get a quarter of the way through this one. I tried, I really did, but I’m not sorry I didn’t finish this book. I don’t think my life is lacking for not finishing it.

Henry Hayward, who is originally from the east coast of Canada and has been working up in northern area of Alberta, Canada, which is very common. His romance with his long-term girlfriend Nora comes to an end so he unemotionally deals with his loss with booze and sex. Henry then takes up a job in Afghanistan in hopes of being able to forget Nora and move on. Sadly, Henry and his good friend, Tender, end up being involved in tragic accident while out on patrol. Tender dies and Henry knows that  it was his mistake that caused it.

Returning home, Henry is guilt-stricken. He hopes to make amends by repairing and fixing Tender’s home, but ends up making some poor decisions with Tender’s girlfriend in the process. Tender’s girlfriend also has a secret that will devastate things further for Henry and their circle of friends.

It’s no surprise to me that this book was knocked out first in the Canada Reads 2016 debate because it doesn’t stack up. Winter’s writing style is forced, hard to follow, and ultimately unengaging. He also didn’t do himself, or the reader, any favors by completely omitting quotation marks. There are very few authors that can pull off this distinct style and Winter’s isn’t one of them. Combine all of this with an unremarkable plot line and characters that are distant and lack depth and you have a terrible book.

I suppose I can at least see what Winter’s was trying to accomplish with his characters, in how they all lacked feeling, as he I think he was trying to explain a lifestyle very specific to those who Alberta (working up North) and the type of people that do this sort of work.  I sadly can’t even say it would appeal to the families of workers or even those faced with the trauma of war as the writing and depictions of the characters and plot line is so poorly handled.

Sorry Mr. Winter, but your novel just didn’t do it for me and I can’t see myself recommending this book to anyone I would know.

The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami

2/5 stars.
ebook, 310 pages.
Read from March 07 to 21, 2016.

So let me get this straight, I’m actually supposed to like and sympathize with the characters in this book? Because that didn’t happen.

Sripathi is a middle aged man living a life of regret. He has a wife and two children; his son, Arun, is an environmentalist and protester who doesn’t work, while his daughter Maya, is accepted into a prestigious school in Canada. Unfortunately for Sripathi, Maya ends up breaking off an arranged engagement in order to marry a Canadian she falls in love with. Sripathi disowns his daughter after she breaks off her engagement, which brought him and his family shame, and has not talked to her since. Sadly, Maya and her husband die in car crash leaving their only child Nandana behind, and with Sripathi listed has her caregiver in the couples will. Having never met his granddaughter and having to deal with the death and guilt he feels about his own daughters death, Sripathi must try to deal with his feelings and do what is best for the child.

I understand that aspects of the Indian culture don’t do favors to either men and women in terms of what is expected of them but I still couldn’t sympathize with the characters and their choices. Sripathi failed to live up to the unattainable expectations, social standings and dreams that his mother, Ammayya set out for him. Ammayya is an extremely bitter and skeptical woman who was cheated on by her husband before he died and left her and her family with no money. When Sripathi didn’t become a doctor, her resentments transferred to him. She is a horrible person who manipulates her family and never lets go or forgives. Sripathi, never gets over the expectations laid on him and never learns to deal it so he lives a shallow and disconnected life.  His unwillingness to let go resulted in him not being able to forgive Maya before she died. Maya appeared to be the only person in the book that lived her own life and made her own choices successfully and admirably. Let me break this down:

Arun: Son of Sripathi. He spends his time at rallies and protests and doesn’t do a thing to help support the home he lives in. Sripathi is annoyed with him over this and I completely understand. Sripathi doesn’t understand his son until the end of the book and Arun doesn’t understand Sripathi’s frustration until the end of the book.

Putti: Sripathi’s unmarried sister and daughter to Ammayya. Probably the only character I sympathized with. She is in her 40s and is unmarried, which in this culture, means she is still living with her family as she is unable to support herself. The reason is because of her horrible and selfish mother refuses all suitors so that she can keep Putti to herself and have her take care of her. Putti is secretly in love with the milk man but he is of a lower caste than her so Ammayya would never allow it.

Ammayya: Mother to Sripathi and Putti. Bitter and ancient old, she has never forgiven her deceased husband or Sripathi for failing her. There is sympathy to be had for how her husband treated her, but her choices and actions after his death are disgusting. She over-dramatizes everything and pretty much makes Putti her personal slave. She snoops through her family’s belongings for money to steal and items worth selling. I wanted her to die the entire book.

Nirmala: Is Sripathi’s wife. While she is initially portrayed as the typical passive Indian wife, after the death of Maya she finally decides to start taking charge and doing things for herself. She grieves immensely for Maya and blames Sripathi for everything. She puts all of her energy into caring for Nandana when she arrives.

Sripathi: Son of Ammayya. Never met the ridiculously high expectations of his mother. He dropped out of medical school to become a copywriter. He enjoys writing snarky opinion letters to the editor in his own time and is responsible financially for all of the above characters on his modest income. He is angry and distant from his family.

Lovely cast of characters right? Not. While each of them have moments of growth and softness it was still a challenge to get involved in their stories. I believe the point of this novel is to focus on the failures and triumphs of everyday people and everyday lives but it just didn’t work for me. I just couldn’t connect to culture or the characters. I did enjoy the chapters in which Sripathi was recollecting on his strict childhood as it gave me a better understanding about why he and his family acted the way that they did, but some how it wasn’t a good enough excuse.

In our own lives, we experience setbacks, failures and regrets but ultimately they make us stronger, that is, if we are making choices in our own best interest and not in the interest of others. Which, appears to be the failing of the culture where this book is set unfortunately. To me, this book is exactly what not to do. Sripathi waited until his mid-fifties to forgive and start living! You could say that it’s never too late to do that, but I don’t believe that: Ammayya died not forgiving anyone and lived a miserable life and Sripathi lost his daughter before he had a chance to forgive.

Additionally, I felt that the author missed some pinnacle emotional moments. The time that Sripathi spent in Vancouver is short and void of emotion. I also felt that Nandana’s side of the story was lacking but perhaps it’s because she is truly the only one to feel sorry for in this book. The book’s climax and related title, I also felt, were weak.

I suppose for those that understand some of traditions and difficulties of Indian culture, they may have a better time relating and sympathizing with this book but for me, the detached characters and lack of certain emotional elements made it too challenging for me to fully engage with.

In terms of Canada Reads, each of the character did start over. Well except for Ammayya, as she died, but that’s okay. If you read the book, you’ll hate her too. So I guess in terms of the theme this book checks all the right boxes but I don’t believe this book is the best candidate so far.