The Colony of Unrequited Dreams






Author: Wayne Johnston
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: Feb. 2018

Where to start? This was a very long book that took a lot of motivation to pick up off my shelf, but that I ended up having a lot of opinions about. I was worried that it was going to be really dense, but fortunately, it turned out to be a very well written and engaging book about Newfoundland.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is historical fiction about Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland’s first premier who helped to usher Newfoundland into confederation with Canada. He is both a well liked and disliked premier, depending on who you talk to. Johnston definitely takes a lot of liberties with Smallwood’s character in this novel, but the story is still pretty accurately based on his life in terms of what he accomplished.

The story starts with Smallwood as a child in the early 1900’s. His family were shoe salesmen in St. John’s and he lived up on the Brow looking over the Harbour until his uncle decided to pay to send him to Bishop Feild, the prestigious boy’s boarding school of the day. At Bishop Feild, he meets Prowse, grandson of a noted historian, and Fielding, a girl who attends the nearby sister school, Bishop Spencer.

Fielding is the other main character in this story and unlike Smallwood, her character is completely fabricated. Fielding has a cane, walks with a limp, has a wry sense of humour, with sarcasm and irony being her preferred mediums. She’s a bit of an outcast who goes on to work as a reporter for The Telegram, publishing critical articles about all branches and parties of the government. Fielding marches to the beat of her own drum and I really liked her. I loved that she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and I loved her sense of humour.

This book actually had a lot more humour in it than I was expecting and it had me laughing out loud early in the novel. Below is one of my favourite quotes from the book, which is an argument Smallwood has with his mother, and had me laughing because I also grew up in St. John’s while my parents grew up in rural outport communities. This is pretty much the exact same thing my parents would say to me growing up and the biggest way you could offend my parents would be to call them townies.

“I’m a Newfoundlander, but not St. John’s born, no, not St. John’s born,” he said.
“You’re a bayman and you always will be,” my mother said.

I’ve been living on the West Coast for the last 4 years, so this was super nostalgic for me. Wayne Johnston is not even describing my St. John’s in this novel because it’s set between 1900 and 1950, but there’s something really special about still being able to vividly picture the setting of a story, especially when it’s a place like Newfoundland, which I hold so special in my heart.

I didn’t love Joe Smallwood’s character, but I did like the writing. This was one of my monthly challenge books and I’m glad I challenged myself to read it because I probably never would have gotten around to it otherwise. Johnston does a really great job with the setting. I don’t know how non-Newfoundlanders might feel about this book, but I loved the setting and the atmosphere Johnston created. Especially towards the end when we finally get to the whole business of confederation and the end of independence. I felt like Johnston did a good job of not taking a side and presenting both sides of the story. It really makes you reflect on what Newfoundland gained, what it lost, and what may or may not have been.

I read Greg Malone’s Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders several years ago and I felt that this book was a good contrast to that. Greg Malone is very clearly anti-confederation, as well as a bit of a conspiracy theorist. While I really liked Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders, because it has some great history in it and I learned a lot, it is very speculative and I liked that Wayne Johnston presented a more balanced version of history and I feel he left his personal feelings out of it.

For those of you not well versed in Newfoundland’s history, we we’re an independent country up until 1933 when we had a commission of government forced on us by the British as a result of our war debt (even though A LOT of Newfoundlanders lost their lives fighting for Great Britain in WWI – I am a little bitter, yes). I’ve written an entire blog post about Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders if you’re interested in our fascinating history (to me anyways), but basically we were supposed to get back our independence when we became self-sustaining once more, which we did after WWII. However, instead of just turning governance back over to Newfoundland, it was decided to hold a referendum to let the people choose if they wanted to join Canada instead.

Joe Smallwood wanted nothing more than to do something for which he would be remembered. He dropped out of Bishop Feild and failed at making a life for himself in New York, so he was desperate to have an influence in Newfoundland’s future. He was an avid socialist in his youth, but upon realizing that Newfoundlanders were never going to buy into socialism, he turned his talents to the Liberal government. He helped former Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires with his re-election campaign in hopes of winning the nomination to run himself, but he is jilted by Squires again and again and struggles to get into politics.

In this novel, he is a huge supporter of unions, walking across the entire provincial railroad line to start a rail-workers union, and he later travels all around Newfoundland’s most remote islands, trying to start a fisherman’s union. This really gave me an appreciation for how Smallwood became so popular and influential and why he supported Confederation. He really cared about Newfoundlanders and he spent an inordinate amount of time speaking with the poor throughout his life. He was also the host of a popular radio show that focused on sharing stories of Newfoundland and about Newfoundlanders.

The fisherman were not nationalists of any sort…They would vote for Confederation to get the mother’s allowance and would live by Confederation exactly as they had before…They had starved through a depression that had ended when the war began. Now, they were terrified that another decade like the thirties was on its way.

The crowd from St. John’s, the merchants and the wealthy, were all big supporters of independence. But Smallwood understood from his travels around Newfoundland that the majority of Newfoundlanders were poor fisherman, struggling to keep food on the table. They didn’t care about the government of the day and it rarely affected them. Confederation wouldn’t really change anything for them, except they’d be able to profit from access to Canada’s established public services.

The anti-confederates must have wondered how they lost…They had been to London and they had been to New York, but they had never been to Bonavista or La Poile, and that was why they lost.

Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders leaves you feeling angry and riled up, but The Colony of Unrequited Dreams gave me an appreciation of what it was really like for Newfoundlanders. Forget the politics and the conspiracies, rural fishermen just wanted to catch a break and this was something I never really understood before. Yet Johnston still presents the other side of the story and makes you feel very nostalgic for what might have been. Personally, I wish we could have seen what might have been had we re-gained our independence, but I do also think it’s likely that we might have ended up joining Canada anyways and I’m proud to be both a Newfoundlander and a Canadian. I think this must be one of the reasons why Newfoundlanders always retain such a keen sense of home no matter where they go. There is something unique about Newfoundland culture that does not come from Canada because we have not always been Canadian.

The ending of this book was heartbreaking for me though. I was a little bit disappointed that Johnston chose to end this book about Fielding. I really liked her, but as a fictional character, I don’t think her story was quite as powerful and it felt very anti-climatic to suddenly jump back into Fielding’s past.

“You all but gave away Churchill Falls, which you had hoped would crown your career as Confederation had crowned Mackenzie King’s”

Johnston touches very briefly on Churchill Falls and I wish he’d explored it more. If this book had been written 10 years later, I’m sure he would have because the Lower Churchill is such a hot topic in Newfoundland right now. But I found this so heartbreaking because Churchill Falls was meant to be Smallwood’s swan song – his legacy – and instead it turned out to be one of the worst deals every made and a real sore spot for Newfoundlanders. Smallwood did not have a successful start as Premier and Johnston portrays him running out of time in office and chasing after Churchill Falls as his last chance to see Newfoundland transformed.

That said, my favourite part of this book is easily the way Johnston writes about Newfoundland. You can tell he has a great love and reverence for the island. I’m sure any Newfoundlander can relate as there’s just something that makes Newfoundlanders have this deep attachment to their homeland. She’s a rocky isle in the ocean, and she’s pounded by winds from the sea, but you just can’t help but love her ruggedness and her people. Smallwood was relentless and he really did want to do something good for Newfoundland. His whole life was dedicated to making Newfoundlander better and I do really think he cared about the poor Newfoundlanders and that they are what ultimately motivated him to chase after confederation.

I have often thought of that train hurtling down the Bonavista like the victory express. And all around it the northern night, the barrens, the bogs, the rocks and ponds and hills of Newfoundland. The Straits of Belle Isle, from the island side of which I have seen the coast of Labrador.
These things, finally, primarily, are Newfoundland.
From a mind divesting itself of images, those of the land would be the last to go.
We are a people on whose mind these images have been imprinted.
We are a people in whose bodies old sea-seeking rivers roar with blood.


The Boat People







Author: Sharon Bala
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Read: Feb. 2018

Oh my goodness, I feel like this book took forever to finish! Between going on a ski trip last weekend and the Olympics stealing all of my attention, it took me a bit longer than anticipated to get through The Boat People. But I finally finished!

This was the first book of my February Reading Challenge and I am a little concerned I might not fit them all in this month because I am just completely obsessed with the Olympics! This month I challenged myself to read 3 books about Canada and this was my pick from the Canada Reads 2018 shortlist.

The Boat People is written by Sharon Bala, who fascinatingly was born in Dubai, raised in Ontario, and currently lives in Newfoundland, and it’s about a ship full of refugees from Sri Lanka who landed on Vancouver’s shores in 2010. It was a bit of a thrill to read a book about the place where I currently live, as I don’t read that much Canadian literature, and this was a fascinating bit of history about an event I knew shockingly nothing about.

Sri Lanka has been torn apart by war for decades, driving many people to desperation to escape the violence in any way they can. These 492 Sri Lankan’s board a cargo ship bound for Canada in an effort to seek out a better life. Fortunately everyone survives the journey and they are thrilled when they first see the coast of Vancouver Island, but the welcome party is cut short when they are promptly separated and detained in two prisons while the government fumbles to try and decide what to do about them.

I knew very little about the process for migrants who show up un-announced at the border and this was very eye-opening. Refugees must first seek permission to request asylum and then go through admissibility hearings for their request to be granted. In this case, the government was worried about terrorists being on board and wanted to delay the process as much as possible to assuage the public’s fears. The adjudicators had very little information to go on outside of the refugee’s testimony and because the government wanted to delay the process to dissuade copycat voyages, the refugees were forced to remain in these detainment prisons for months while their hearings were repeatedly denied and postponed.

I did struggle a bit with this book as there’s a lot of legalese in it, a lot of (slightly confusing) Sri Lankan history, and a lot of character names and stories that I struggled to keep straight, but I really liked how Bala wrote this book and she was not shy in tackling a lot of different issues.

The story is told from 3 perspectives: Mahindan, a single father who made the journey from Sri Lanka with his 6-year old son Sellian; Priya, an articling student (of Sri Lankan heritage) who’s firm takes on 5 refugee cases pro bono and has her help out on the cases; and Grace, an adjudicator (of japanese heritage) who is assigned by the xenophobic Minister of Immigration to adjudicate the detainment hearings.

This is a morally-gray book and I appreciated Bala for not making this a straight-forward morality tale. She tackles so many issues in this book; the xenophobia of the Canadian public, the refugee diaspora, the immigration process, Canada’s past failings, the importance of history and remembrance, reconciliation, culture shock, and the list goes on.

The novel first presents us with the refugees, ecstatic to arrive on Canada’s shores, and the brutality of their arrival and immediate imprisonment. In my opinion, you can’t help but empathize with them and think the government harsh. But then Bala gets into the morally gray areas of war and how good and innocent people can be forced and coerced into participating in what western countries view as terrorist organizations.

Are we right to studiously evaluate every refugee who comes into Canada for terrorist affiliation? I think yes, but do we need to steal their humanity from them in the process? No. Do we have the right to deport people when deportation will mean certain torture and death? People may be split on that opinion, but it’s a question that requires empathy and understanding that we will never have by “othering” people and fearing them.

Innocent people are forced to do bad things in wartime, but how to we evaluate those acts and decide if the intent was forced or malicious? What’s direct involvement in acts of “terrorism” and what’s proximate? These are impossible questions to answer and as much as I often disliked Grace’s line of thinking, I could appreciate the pressure that was put on her in these quasi-legal proceedings. All she has to go on is the migrant’s story and how is she to know what is truth? That said, she was an adjudicator appointed by the government in power, which begs the question if she should have the power to make those decisions at all.

However, I liked the contrast of Grace’s story and how Bala demonstrates how cyclical history can be. Grace is the grand-daughter of Japanese immigrants and takes a hard line on border safety and who should be permitted to enter Canada. She is determined to safeguard her daughters freedom to move around without fear, while at the same time struggling with her mother’s declining health. Her mother, Kumi, has Alzheimer’s and is slowly regressing into the past. Her parents had been interned during WWII and lost everything. They never spoke up about the injustice and kept their heads down to give their children a chance to become “true” Canadians. However, now she worries that the apathy of her parents has been passed down to her daughter and grandchildren and that Grace has forgotten the injustices of the past, perpetuating the cycle of oppression.

I thought it was an interesting theme on how people who were once oppressed and othered can learn to be oppressors themselves. And on how important reconciliation is, not just for righting our wrongs, but for protecting against repeating them, to keep fresh an empathy for others.

So while I did feel like it took me forever to get through this book, it was worth it. The Boat People made me think a lot and while it definitely was more ‘liberal-leaning’, it wasn’t a straight forward good vs evil narrative. It’s complex, gritty, and heartbreaking. A fabulous and meaningful debut for a Canadian author.








Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Min Jin Lee
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: Jan. 2018

It feels like I’ve been working on Pachinko for ages, but I finally finished it. I flew through several books at the beginning of the year, but it was nice to settle down with this one, which is definitely an epic and had a lot of depth.

If you’ve been following along, I decided to read 3 books about immigration for my January Challenge and Pachinko was my second selection. I read Girl in Translation earlier this month and loved it. I picked Pachinko because it’s been getting rave reviews and it’s one of the few books I found about immigration that wasn’t a story about immigrating to America.

Pachinko begins in Korea in 1910 and takes us on a journey with 4 generations of the same family as they are forced to leave their ancestral home and build a life for themselves in Japan. This was a great history lesson and I learned a lot about both Korea and Japan and the touchy relationship between the two. Korea was colonized by Japan between 1910 and 1945 and split into North and South Korea after the second world war.

The story starts with Sunja and her parents, Hoonie and Yangjin, who run a boarding house in the small town of Yeoungdo in southern Korea. Sunja falls for a wealthy Korean visiting from Japan and becomes pregnant. Fortunately, one of their boarders, a young christian minister Isak, feels led to marry Sunja to save her from the shame of bearing a child out of wedlock and so that her child might take his name. Isak had been on his way to Japan for an appointment with a church when he stopped at the boarding house and they marry and Sunja accompanies him to Japan.

Relations between Japanese and Koreans were not good at this time and there is a lot of racism against the Koreans. The Japanese believe themselves to be the ruling class and think of Koreans as dirty and stupid. Sunja faces a lot of challenges living in Japan and the novel takes us though 80 years of history through Sunja’s children and grandchildren.

This is definitely not a fast read, but it is very impressive in it’s scope. I haven’t read a lot of historical epics (Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants trilogy is the only other one that comes to mind) and at times Pachinko felt very slow moving, while at other times I was really into it and wanted to know what would happen next. With 4 generations, we inevitably experience many deaths in this book and some of them were actually quite shocking and emotional!

There are so many great themes in this book. I loved Sunja and Kyunghee’s characters and their experiences as women and with motherhood. Lee continuously explores women’s roles throughout the novel and the expectation that a woman’s lot in life is to suffer. Their husbands and family were everything to Sunja and Kyunghee and it never occurred to them to seek happiness for themselves outside of their family. They both had dreams for their lives, yet they were always secondary to the dreams of the men. With each new generation it was interesting to see how women’s roles would change and I enjoyed when Sunja starts to question what her life might have been or could be now if she had made other choices.

The familial relationships in the story are heartbreaking. There’s so many different relationships presented in this book and they were all very beautifully written (although sometimes tragic). This family is tried again and again. They all suffered an enormous amount as Koreans, but their tenacity was inspiring in what they were able to accomplish. I really liked Kyunghee and Kim and I was really intrigued about what happened to the Koreans who returned to North Korea after the war. Lee leaves us with quite a lot of unanswered questions, but I think this is very much indicative of the relationship between Japan and Korea. North Korea was very much a big black box and you never knew what happened there. Many Koreans had to live their entire lives without ever finding out what had become of their friends and family.

I liked Mozasu’s story with the Pachinko parlours as well and I loved the themes Lee tied in with the parlours. So many Koreans were trapped in a cycle of poverty in Japan. They were 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants who had come to the land of their colonizers in search of prosperity and were then later emancipated from their homeland. It was so hard for Koreans to succeed in Japan and they were always looked down upon, yet there was nothing in Korea for them to go back to.  Pachinko parlours are gambling dens where you can play these pinball-like machines in hopes of winning. Because of the gambling, parlour owners were often mixed up in dark criminal underworld and linked with the Yakuza, the Korean gangsters. I liked that despite being rough around the edges growing up, Mozasu was able to discover who he really was in the Pachinko parlours and become an honest man, despite how easy it would have been to become corrupted.

“Every morning, Mozasu and his men tinkered with the machines to fix the outcomes – there could only be a few winners and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones. How could you get angry at the ones who wanted to be in the game? Etsuko had failed in this important way – she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”

As a book about immigration, Pachinko was fantastic. There are so many thoughtful nuggets of information and shared experiences about immigration in this book. I was particularly moved when Mozasu had to take Solomon on his 14th birthday to get his fingerprints taken and get his documentation card so that he could remain in Japan. Even though he and his son had both been born in Japan, they were forced to renew their identity cards every 3 years and could potentially be deported to South Korea – a country neither of them had ever known. This is so relevant to what’s happening all over the world with white people spewing hate at immigrants that have been living and contributing to their countries and economies for years.

I’ll finish with a quote from Solomon towards the end of the novel which I loved for it’s hopefulness despite the decades of discrimination his family had experienced. I appreciated the relationships Lee built between the Koreans and the Japanese, to remind her readers that we are all just people. There are good actions and their are bad actions, but we are each our own and we can each actively make the decision to accept and support each other, rather than hate.

“Kazu was a shit, but so what? He was one bad guy, and he was Japanese… Even if there were a hundred bad Japanese, if there was one good one, he refused to make a blanket statement. Etsuko was like a mother to him; his first love was Hana; and Totoyama was like an uncle, too. They were Japanese, and they were very good.”

The Life She Was Given


Author: Ellen Marie Wiseman
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: Jan. 2018


Oh my goodness, how much suffering can one person take?

The Life She Was Given follows the stories of two women and switches back and forth between their perspectives every other chapter. Lilly’s story takes place in the 1930’s and begins when she is 10 years old. For the first 10 years of her life, Lilly has only known the attic of her parents manor. She is an albino and is shunned by her religious mother who views her as an abomination. However, one night she sees the red and white stripes of the big top being set up in the farmland near their estate and her mother hurries her out of the house for the first time in her life. Lilly is overwhelmed and shocked to discover that her mother has conspired to sell Lilly to the circus and abandons her with a controlling and terrifying man named Merrick who runs the circus sideshow, also known as the freak show.

As Lilly adjusts to circus life, we follow the story of another young woman, Julia. It’s the 1950’s and Julia is 18 and has run away from home, leaving behind her controlling religious mother and their huge manor. When she hears her mother has passed and the estate has been left to her, she reluctantly returns home and begins exploring the manor, discovering several photos of a young circus performer and realizing that her parents may have been hiding some dark secrets in the manor.

This book is a hard read. It is dark and disturbing and filled with an intense amount of suffering. I’m not opposed to reading dark books and I actually really like gritty books that make you feel, but there was very little that I enjoyed about this book.

First of all, Julia’s story was sooo boring. Barely anything happens to her and I found her whole side story with the horses pretty pointless. I can see why Wiseman decided to include it since it goes with her whole anti-animal cruelty theme, but honestly, I thought Julia’s arc with the horses really added nothing of value to the book overall. The whole premise of Julia’s story is that she finds stuff in the house that leads her to investigate what her parents were hiding, but it took forever for her to make any significant discoveries and I was just super bored. Julia was also totally unbelievable to me as an 18 year old runaway. Once she returned to the manor and took up all the responsibilities of running the farm, she seemed more like a 30 year old woman to me than an 18 year old who’d been living on her own with an abusive boyfriend for the last 3 years. She also didn’t read like someone who grew up in the 1950’s and I would have had no trouble believing her story took place in modern day. Overall I thought her characterization and development was very poor.

Lilly definitely had the more interesting story of the two women, but I didn’t love her story either. She was super mistreated, which I can understand because it was the 1930’s and people were afraid of things that were different or that they didn’t understand, but her story was just so dark! I found the whole animal whisperer thing to be a stretch and I didn’t really buy into it. I’m glad I read this book for my book club so that I can talk to some other people about it because I honestly have no idea what the theme of this book was supposed to be. Sure, this educated me a little bit on circus life, but really, what was the point of Lilly’s whole story? She just suffered and suffered without really seeming to grow as a character. I know she was mistreated her whole life, so it is understandable that she would be withdrawn, but she never actively did anything for herself. Things just kept happening to her and she only eventually escapes Merrick and finds any happiness because of Cole.

The ending of the book was just blah. I won’t spoil it, but everything about Lilly and Julia’s stories at the end just felt dramatic and overdone. There was no closure for me with this story and the ending felt very forced and not at all organic. I found this book to have a lot of clichés and insufficient justification for why some of the characters acted the way they did. For example, the whole thing with the zealous, religious mother and why she mistreated Lilly. This woman had zero compassion and felt like a caricature. She just was not believable to me as a human being and the “insight” into her character that Wiseman provides at the end was totally insufficient in helping me understand her. Honestly, Merrick was the only character I really thought was believable because I had absolutely no trouble imagining an overbearing, entitled man being a shit to woman to exert his control over them.

The whole animal cruelty storyline felt really cliché and basic too. I was eye-rolling hard at Julia every time she was opposed to something Claude wanted to do with the horses. Yes it is really sad about the nurse mares, but you are running a business and you can’t just adopt every foal put up for auction. But apparently Julia lives in a fantasy world where you can just abandon all manners of money making, become a philanthropist, and still maintain your wealth. For someone who basically lived on the street for 3 years, I found it really hard to believe she wouldn’t care about protecting her income.

Overall, this was an unsatisfying book and I’m glad it’s over.

Now I Rise

Rating: ⭐
Author: Kiersten White
Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Re-imagined History
Read: July 2017
Series: The Conqueror’s Saga (Book 2)


I couldn’t quite decide how I felt about this series when I read And I Darken, but after reading Now I Rise I am totally on the bandwagon!

This series is quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read. I love historical fiction and I love fantasy – The Conqueror’s Saga is a perfect mix of both genres! I would call this re-imagined history, focused on Kiersten White’s re-imagining of history if Vlad the Impaler had been a woman and in love with Mehmed the Conqueror.

The series takes place in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-1400’s when Lada and her younger brother Radu, heirs of Wallachia (part of Romania), are abandoned in the Ottoman courts and strike up a friendship with a young Mehmed. I won’t go into detail on the plot of And I Darken because it was a while since I read it, but Now I Rise follows Lada’s quest to take back the throne of Wallachia and Radu’s uncover spy mission into Constantinople during Mehmed’s attempt to take the city as one of his first accomplishments as the new sultan of the Ottoman empire.

I didn’t know much about the Ottoman Empire, so I found the historical aspects of this series fascinating. History remembers Vlad the Impaler as a villain, but to many Wallachian’s, he was a hero. Lada is completely ruthless and unforgiving, but you can’t help but love her as she does whatever it takes to restore Wallachia. She recognizes that she will always have to fight for power as a woman, but also acknowledges that the hardships she’s faced and the fact that she has to fight twice as hard as a woman is what gives her so much strength.

I liked how the series explores the different ways in which women could have power in the 1400’s and that power gained through marriage or children or even prostitution is still power and no less than that which is gained by traditional feats of strength or dominance. I love the scene where Lada is alone by the river, dealing with having her period, and is set upon by 3 men. She uses her femininity to her advantage and ultimately saves the lives of many of her men by doing so.

This series is dark and there is so much tension between the characters as they fight to gain power. The plot is strong, but the characters are really what really made this story wonderful. They are all so gritty and real. They do horrible things and make terrible choices and yet you understand their motivation and drive. I love the complicated relationship between Lada and Radu and felt such sympathy for Radu as he struggled with his feelings both for Lada and Mehmed. The secondary characters were all so wonderfully realized as well. Nazira is my hero and I loved Cyprian, Nicolae, and Hunyadi. I also enjoyed the exploration of religion in this book and Radu’s relationship with Islam.

Well done Kiersten White, can’t wait to read more!!