The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

A re-telling of the Iliad from the point of view of Briseus, the daughter of the King of Lyrnessus who is awarded to Achilles as a trophy. The best part of this book is the portrayal of the ensuing 9-year Trojan War as the folly of men, waging war because of a mis-guided sense of honour usually manifesting as petulance. Achilles is especially blood-thirsty, driven by a rage and compulsion to kill. The savagery of war is described wonderfully by the author of the Regeneration Trilogy, a masterful treatment of war and its collateral damage.

By Chance Alone – Max Eisen

By Chance Alone - Max EisenCanada Reads winner. This poignant and powerful memoir, written by an Auschwitz survivor, in presented in three parts. First, a happy childhood in Southern Czechoslovakia. Then second, at age 15, Max and his family are transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring of 1944; he is separated from his mother and three siblings instantly who are all killed. Initially Max and his father and uncle work as slave labourers but then are separated and his father and uncle are targeted for death. Max’s survival is by chance (hence the title). He is arbitrarily selected to work in the concentration camp infirmary; this provides a unique look at how this “hospital” worked while staffed by political prisoners. The third chapter is post-liberation which is fraught with problems leading to a complicated process as a young orphan to find his way to Canada. One striking feature of the Auschwitz story is that simple survival was the over-arching imperative so Max’s psychological and emotional response to the loss of his entire family had to be suppressed. The Canada Reads success was due to three factors. First the panel proponent, Ziya Tong, was well-organized and passionate. Second, the current emergence of white supremacy (e.g. New Zealand atrocity) in the world demands an understanding of the holocaust. And the third factor was sort of reverse ageism, that Max represents a disappearing generation of Auschwitz survivors and so it is important to give this book an audience.

Homes – Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah, with Winnie Yeung

Homes - Abu Baker Al RabeeahCanada Reads runner-up. Abu Bakr was born in Iraq. At the age of 9, his family relocates to Syria because of sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict, only to be swept into the Syrian civil war. The chapter headings are deceptively simple, unassuming and low-key: “May 2012: My First Massacre”. Finally, Abu Bakr’s family are accepted as refugees to Canada and so arrive in Edmonton in December 2014. Abu Baker speaks no English so his first school requirement to write a short story about his background is created by Google Translate. He then works with his ESL teacher Ms. Yeung to create this book. Thus, the literary style is basic but the simple stark prose lends itself to the telling of a profound story of survival and courage. The CR panel was influenced by the strong parental love element and the good news and hopeful ending.

Dear Evelyn – Kathy Page

Dear Evelyn - Kathy PageSimply put, this is a great book: the story of Harry and Evelyn, their wartime marriage and subsequent long time together. Ms. Page writes with beautiful detail producing an intoxicating richness: learning poetry in school, the song of a thrush. Harry is accommodating, too accommodating. Evelyn is an intense wife and an even more intense mother. And slowly, their relationship disintegrates – nothing dramatic, just a slow progressive loss of civility, less forgiving, cumulative resentment, more impatience. Eventually Evelyn realizes that Harry is not the man she married. Overall, this is a thoughtful and wistful look at long relationship – highly recommended.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson

Transcription - Kate AtkinsonMs. Atkinson has written an attractive spy thriller and mystery, set in 1940 and 1951. Given Atkinson’s past books, then it is no surprise that the story unfolds in a non-linear format. Juliet is recruited to MI5, and the resulting story is very English with regular tea providing comfort and solace to characters named Peregrine and Prendergast. Much like George Smiley in the legendary Le Carre novels, people in Atkinson’s story appear normal and ordinary, but nothing will be as it seems. This is a very entertaining book with some well-timed plot twists.

The Only Cafe – Linden MacIntyre

The Only cafe - Linden MacIntyre.jpgThis is a superb book, a mystery in the John LeCarre mold. Secrets abound: What will someone do to survive in a genocidal war? Was do we really know about a father when he goes missing? The setting is contemporary Toronto with topical issues like Jihadist recruitment. The back-story is the tragic conflict in Lebanon from 1976-83=2. Unanswered questions are rampant – this is just great writing, in part about journalism: can the truth ever be revealed.

American War – Omar El Akkad

American War - Omar El AkkadThis is a remarkable book about a second American civil war (2075-95). The power is in the chilling demonstration of the cost of war to common people; this is not a story about soldiers. This war is driven by ecological issues and extreme partisanship, so very topical and prescient. Above all, this is a tough angry story about revenge and retribution. This is a debut novel that should be a formidable Canada Reads contender.