Trent's take on the Canada Reads contenders

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Last year's champ returns! Trent McClellan will be our guide to the Canada Reads experience. Follow along as he blogs, tweets and more about the 2014 edition of CBC's battle of the books. His blog posts will appear on the Canada Reads website every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter @Trent McClellan for his complete Canada Reads 2014 coverage.

Well, now we know the books in the Canada Reads 2014 ring and we've been introduced to their defenders. It's a pretty interesting mix of personalities, judging from their appearance on CBC Radio's Q and the launch event in Toronto.

I remember launch day last year when I was a panelist. I was very nervous, because it was the first time I found out who my competition was and what the other books were. It's also when panelists meet the author of their chosen book, and often that's also for the first time. So it can be an overwhelming situation. People aren't necessarily going to be at their best under those circumstances, so how a panelist performs on launch day isn't necessarily a good indicator of what they'll bring to the debates.

That being said, here are my impressions of this year's defenders.

Sarah Gadon

Sarah came across as a panelist who will do her homework and be quite the "keener." She showed charm, knowledge and confidence. Dangerous! She was very prepared on launch day, which suggests that she realizes how much advance thought is required to do well in the debates. She's defending Annabel, by Kathleen Winter -- a choice that will require some creative maneuvering, because it's a book that speaks to a unique situation. It will be up to Sarah to convince her fellow panelists that there's also a universality to it that makes it the book that all of Canada should read.

Samantha Bee

Samantha was the most energetic of the panelists on launch day. She was very funny but also spoke eloquently about Cockroach by Rawi Hage. Like me, Samantha is a comedic performer, so she may face the same challenges I had last year. Will the other panelists take her seriously when the debates begin? My approach was similar to Samantha's on launch day -- lots of jokes -- but by debate time I was all business. Samantha is used to performing in a set amount of time in front of a crowd, so that might turn out to be a major advantage. I'm really looking forward to seeing her approach and strategy in a few months' time.

Donovan Bailey

Donovan is obviously used to success on the biggest stages. He appeared to not be quite as prepared as the other panelists on launch day but that means very little going forward. His passion for Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues and competitive nature were evident and that combination makes for a great debater. However, I think he's going to have to be creative in his defence of the book. Because it isn't set in Canada, it may be the toughest one to sell as the book that could change our country. On the other hand, it deals with events that changed the whole world. I reminded some fans on Twitter not to count him out on the basis of first impressions. I think he was enjoying himself on launch day but like the elite athlete he is, he'll get down to serious training and will have his arguments in top shape when the competition begins for real.

More from Canada Reads:

Stephen Lewis

Stephen joked that his son Avi Lewis (who is a former Canada Reads champion defender, having backed Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes in 2009) told him he was out of his element in this battle of the books. My gut tells me though that he will be super-prepared and will be able to take all of his worldly knowledge into the debates. His chosen book is Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood, which deals largely with the aftermath of neglected environmental concerns, so I think he will bring a wealth of insight on that front. Stephen is also a great speaker and that will serve him well in a competition that gives debaters limited time to get their message across.

Wab Kinew

Wab was an unknown for me but he really impressed me with his eloquence, thoughtfulness and sincerity. His choice, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, is about our complex relationship with our indigenous peoples, and that's a pressing issue right now in Canada. The timeliness of the novel has to be on the minds of his fellow debaters. I think if the panelists were being graded for their performance at the launch, Wab would have been the winner. But of course the debates present a different challenge altogether, so it remains to be seen whether Wab will be as impressive under pressure.

So much is still up in the air. What books besides their own will the panelists enjoy? How will they rank them in their own minds? Who will be the most prepared? Will panelists vote strategically to remove the book they feel is their strongest competition or will they vote from the heart? The answers to all these questions and more will make for high drama. I wish all the competitors the best of luck in their preparations for the debates in March. And in the meantime, happy reading everyone!

What do you think of the 2014 contenders? Who is the dark horse? The early frontrunner? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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