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First impressions: The Canada Reads team on their contenders

Last week, we meet those from the Canada Reads team tough enough to stand up for their favourite contenders. This week, we asked them to share their first impressions of their chosen novel and what, if anything, surprised them, delighted them or disappointed them about the read.

David Carroll defends: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

David Carroll The Best Laid PlansSo I was planning to dip my toes into The Best Laid Plans. Just splash about in its frothy, comedic waters, then set the thing down and give you my first impressions.

Oops, flawed plan. Turns out, Terry Fallis wrote a book you can't just dip in and out of. This book grabs you by the ankles and swallows you whole. You start it, you finish it, probably in the same 24-hour news cycle. It sucked me under Tuesday night at 8, and spat me out Wednesday afternoon around 4. And I had better things to do, you understand. Question Period was on. Being Erica.

My thoughts? Well, at first glance it seems to be a boy's book. With melon-bombers! Sexy political aides! Hovercraft! Chess!

But then you notice it's a girl's book too. With Liberal matriarchs! Buff whistle-blowers! Swashbuckling septagenarians!

Best of all, it features more free advertising for CBC Radio than any Canadian novel in recent memory. Seriously, it's almost as if the author was trying to.....

Hang on a sec. Gotta do something.

(Two hours elapse.)

Sorry about that. Dude dropped a copy of Jeff Lemire's Essex County on my lap. Once the swelling went down (it's 500+ pages) I decided to have a peek.

Oh. My. God.

Someone call Mr. Fallis. We've got ourselves a ball game!

Essex County is fantastic. Am I allowed to say that? I don't care, look at me; I'm a puddle of tears. I've got the eyes of a sea lion. I can't remember the last time a book got me so choked up.

Resolved: you can not call yourself a lover of Canadian literature unless you've read Jeff Lemire's Essex County.

There, I said it. So...where was I?

Ah yes, The Best Laid Plans. Did I mention that it's funny? Really funny. And not Fozzie Bear funny. Bill Maher funny.

I'll drop my second impressions on you shortly. But right now, Power and Politics with Evan Solomon is on.

I bet he'd love The Best Laid Plans.

Discuss The Best Laid Plans here >>

Kimberly Walsh defends: The Birth House by Ami McKay

Thumbnail image for kimberly-walsh-aliasgrace-birth-house-CR.jpg

It's tough not going into The Birth House without expectations. I'd never read a book about midwifery, known anyone who had birthed children under the care of a midwife or even had children of my own. In a way, it felt like the book was distinctly not for me. But what's a novel if not an escape from my own boring reality, right? Ami McKay's gift to the reader is her ability to paint a breathtaking landscape of rural Nova Scotia in the early 1900s and fill it with lively characters. Her characters spring to life from the page and offer an interesting glimpse into history.

Just as in life, preconceptions of a book can leave you missing out on something wonderful. The Birth House is filled with gorgeous imagery and interesting dialogue, and along with these are the haunting experiences left unspoken. She also tackles issues that we continue to talk about today: equal rights, the role of science in childbirth and the preservation of traditions in the face of modern innovations.

Discuss The Birth House here >>

Barb Carey defends: The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou

Barb Carey The Bone Cage

I love sports and I'm an Olympics junkie, having soaked up the glory moments of winning performances and sat stunned and teary-eyed at heartbreaking failures. (Let's face it, the Games are the Puccini operas of the sporting world.)

But wrestling and swimming are two sports I have had absolutely no experience of and (to be honest) no real interest in. At least, not until I began reading The Bone Cage.

One of the book bloggers who praised The Bone Cage commented on how immersive it was (thanks, @treeleaning!). She wrote, "I could see, hear, feel, and smell this book... Abdou's description of a wrestling match was superb. I could see and hear the grunts and squeaks and the grappling and bodies slapping on the mats as if I were present in the arena." (Check out the full review here.) To me, that's the best aspect of the novel. It's difficult to write about exertion -- its combination of pain and rush -- without getting abstract, but Angie Abdou renders the experience in such vivid detail that the reader knows bodily what it feels like.

But hey, I don't want to give the impression that you have to be into sports to enjoy this book. Outside the wrestling ring and the swimming pool, Digger and Sadie face the kind of challenges we all do in dealing with family, lovers and close friends. They're not "heroic." They have complicated relationships, ups and downs, frailties -- and they're not always likeable. But they're totally believable as characters, and the more I read about them, the more I wanted to know what would happen to them.

Now, isn't that the sign of a story with a strong grip?

Discuss The Bone Cage here >>

Andrea Chiu defends: Essex County by Jeff Lemire

Andrea Chiu Essex County

In last week's introduction, I made the argument that graphic novels can be just as powerful as a traditional novel. I used Maus and Persepolis as examples, but I wasn't sure how Essex County would achieve the same level of emotion as a book about the Holocaust or the Islamic Revolution. After all, Jeff Lemire's collection is just a story about the people of Essex County and...what ever happens there?

I dove into the 510-page collection without any expectations and was immediately hooked. If it wasn't for the arrival of house guests, I would have read it all in one sitting. This is a book full of emotion. Essex County isn't a story that is driven by plot but by the relationships the characters have with each other. This is most true in "Book Two: Ghost Stories" which tells the tale of a former hockey player who leads a lonely life full of regret. I'm no wimp, but I admit, I almost cried.

For readers who would normally pass over a graphic novel, I encourage you to give Essex County a fair shot. From his evocation of the tap of hockey sticks on ice to the cold silence of falling snow, Jeff Lemire has given us a book that's not just a treat for the eyes but all our senses.

Discuss Essex County here >>

Hannah Classen defends: Unless by Carol Shields

Hannah Classen UnlessFirst impressions are a funny thing.

We already know that Unless deals with loss. Reta, our protagonist, is asking important questions of herself and struggling to understand how to make sense of the world around her. She begins to relate her daughter's "lostness" to a greater loss of female accomplishments and potential in a male-dominated society. It all sounds awfully earnest and important, and it is. But thankfully, Reta's got a razor-sharp wit when it comes to probing the big questions, so it's also awfully funny .

All of which is to say I guess I thought this book would be sad. I knew there would be moments of heart-wrenching sorrow and its requisite soul-searching. But what I didn't know is that I would find myself laughing so much as well. I didn't know I would find such a good friend. And I couldn't have known I would miss her so much when it was finished.

There are books that you read, and they are fun and fast and enjoyable. But, really, how long do you remember them? How long do you carry their words, that voice, around with you? Do they change you?

Discuss Unless here >>

What were your first impressions of the Canada Reads 2011 novels?

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