Tag Archives: death

Book Review: The Bear by Claire Cameron


By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

the bear


Category: Fiction

Author: Claire Cameron

Format: Trade Paperback, 226 pages

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

ISBN: 978-0-385-67902-2

Pub Date: February 11, 2014


Summary from Publisher:

The black dog is not scratching. He goes back to his sniffing and huffing and then he starts cracking his bone. Stick and I are huddled tight. . . . It is dark and no Daddy or Mommy and after a while I watch the lids of my eyes close down like jaws.

Told from the point of view of a six-year-old child, The Bear is the story of Anna and her little brother, Stick–two young children forced to fend for themselves in Algonquin Park after a black bear attacks their parents. A gripping and mesmerizing exploration of the child psyche, this is a survival story unlike any other, one that asks what it takes to survive in the wilderness and what happens when predation comes from within.

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet

The Bear by Claire Cameron is an emotional story birthed from a real-life event, the tragedy of Raymond Jakubauskas and Carola Frehe in October 1991 on Bates Island on Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park, two hundred miles northeast of Toronto. The couple who had planned a three-day camping trip never returned, but were attacked and killed by a large male black bear for no apparent rationale other than predation.

The high interest in this novel is not perhaps the tragedy of its plot, but instead the voice of its narrator, young five-year-old Anna, who must navigate a nearly 3,000 square mile of wilderness on her own in care of her much younger brother, Alex, affectionately known and called Stick, who is only two years of age, after the brutal attack on her parents while on a camping trip.

Though I did find the narrative sometimes distracting  and contrived, obvious in its attempt to sound like a five-year-old while some of the plot outcomes were also somewhat unrealistic, the horror of knowing a child so young must be left alone, unattended, lost, and left to fend for not only herself, but also her little brother in answer to abruptly becoming an orphan without full knowledge of this, is painfully harrowing, a force that will coerce almost any reader to continue to read on.

The heart of the book is in its travesty and loss, a child’s lucid memory, her passionate attachments, the immediacy of her self-preservation, the innocence of her deductions, and the way in which children are brutally candid, and exceptionally thoughtful in their awareness, unbashful in their displays of love and affection.

Which is why children are so easily beloved—they are the uncensored selves we as adults painfully grown out of. And why it is equally horrific to witness the news of a child in danger, which is what propels this book forward.

The characters, as seen through the eyes of five-year-old Anna, are shown in the microscopic detail of her plain and honest view from Stick’s incessant stuffed-up breathing, his heavy-set bottom, his two-year-old waddle, and his insatiable love for cookies; to Grandfather’s scent of pipe, the weariness and nostalgia of his sorrow, to the familiarity of his pull-out chair; and the Lipstick Lady’s clinical demeanor and inability to genuinely connect with children, merely capable of one-sided misinterpretation when attempting to analyze Anna’s response to the tragedy of her parents’ deaths.

The plot, too, while at times, slow—not much seems to happen from the onset of the bear attack to the ways in which the children must meander through the wilderness on their own—the details depicted through Anna’s narrative convey the genuine willfulness a child has in trying to obey his or her mother’s last wishes, as well as the natural frustration a child encounters at being given responsibilities that far exceeds his or her abilities.

While some of the plot outcomes seemed far too unrealistic, perhaps my reading felt so, in conjunction with the narrative writing style also failing to consistently seem seamless. And the language sometimes too juvenile to truly represent how a five-year-old girl might respond to such a crisis.

But, the quest to survive as an instinctual need to move forward as much as it is a direct instruction from Anna’s mother to ride in a canoe, take Stick with her, and wait because they will come, is the thriving action in the novel.

Its power seen most clearly in Anna’s love and connection to her teddy bear, Gwen, who she sniffs often for comfort and security; her frustration at carrying the burden of being an older sister when five-years-old is obviously not old enough to be a real babysitter to her baby brother, Stick; and the tenderness and desperation Anna feels in the ideology that she’s created in her mind of belonging to a family of four.

While Anna is the main narrator, it was Stick, whom I felt most empathy for. A two-year-old in the wilderness, naked from the waist down, hungry with only a few cookies, a few berries, and mud water to quench on, feverish and soiled, falling prey to poison ivy, and at the constant mercy of the elements, and a bossy sister whose lack of nurturing could not be blamed any more than could her age—it was Stick, the secondary character in the book, who made my reading plunge into a well of pity and sorrow, intensifying my need for the two children to succeed.

The Bear will certainly alert its readers to the real dangers of the wild, a sobering wake-up call that requires our knowledge and respect of the animal kingdom we so often tend to underestimate and renew our belief in the autonomy and resilience of our children especially when faced with crisis.


Characters: 3 stars

Pacing: 2.5 stars

Cover Design: 2.5 stars

Plot: 2.5 stars


Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Doubleday Canada for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


About the Author:

claire cameron

Claire Cameron’s first novel, The Line Painter, was nominated for an Authur Ellis Award for best first crime fiction novel and won the Northern Lit Award from the Ontario Library Service. Cameron’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, and The Millions. She worked as a wilderness instructor in Ontario’s Algonquin Park and for Outward Bound. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two children.

– From inside jacket


You can connect with Claire on her official website.

You can like Claire on Facebook.

You can follow Claire on Twitter.


Imagine yourself as a five-year-old girl or two-year-old boy. What would you do to try to survive in the wilderness without your parents?

Have you ever encountered a bear while on a camping trip? What was your experience like?

Have you read “The Bear” by Claire Cameron yet? What do think of it?


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Book Review: Sworn Secret by Amanda Jennings


Book Review:

Sworn Secret by Amanda Jennings


By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis



Category: Fiction

Author: Amanda Jennings

Format: ARC, 376 pages

Publisher: Canvas, imprint of Constable & Robinson

ISBN: 978-1-84901-969-9

Pub Date: August 16, 2012


Sworn Secret by Amanda Jennings is a dramatic story of a family who must struggle through their grief from the loss of their sister and daughter named Anna, who in a tragic accident, falls from the roof of her school.

The cover of the book features a sombre-looking young girl, which may deceive its readers into thinking this is a simple young adult (YA) novel. but rest assured, don’t be misled. The grip of the story is serious and mature enough to peak the interest of its readers to not only empathize with the emotional responses of the characters in the book, but sombrely feel the substantial weight of their personal loss and grief.

Anna’s mother, Kate, succumbs to a deep, almost intolerable form of grief that reveals a disturbing post-traumatic stress, which ultimately alienates her husband, Jon, and their daughter, Lizzie, who, too, must come to terms with their own feelings of loss while trying to appease their wife and mother’s manic inability to cope.

Jon’s own grief for his daughter’s death is repressed and cast aside along the continual deterioration of his father’s health who is afflicted with the disheartening last stages of Alzheimer’s disease. His steadfast compulsion to remain a pillar of strength for his wife furthers his burden of helplessness and deterioration at the potential loss and disintegration of his marriage.

Through Jon’s constant worry and concern for his wife, Kate, and Kate’s self-indulgent, self-preoccupation; their less charismatic, yet surviving daughter, Lizzie, is left emotionally neglected, almost unseen—a ghost of her elder sister both in looks and in blossoming personality.

But, the novel is much more than a secular form of grief, but a book with a rich backdrop of characters that enrich and further complicate the story:

  • Jon’s parents
  • Jon’s extroverted and over-zealous brother, Dan
  • Kate’s best friend, Rachel
  • Rachel’s daughter and Anna’s friend, Rebecca
  • Stephen Howe, school principal
  • Mrs. Howe, Dr. Howe’s wife
  • Haydn Howe, Anna and Lizzie’s friend

It’s an easy and readable narrative, though at times can be heavy laden with the self-indulgence of the character, Kate and her wallowing grief. Yet, it is entertaining with a few surprising twists that will intrigue the reader to move along in the work. The surprises reveal the complex nature of personality and relationships and the potential hidden secrets and desires found in them. We also experience the private and personal affliction of loss at the questions that surround the unnatural death of a loved one through the characters’ suffering.

The end, too, while it provide a sense of inevitable closure, it does leaves room for open-ended possibility in the story—which could very well call for an anticipated sequel!


Zara’s Rating


A special thank you to Canvas Books, an imprint of Constable & Robinson in the U.K. for providing me with an ARC of Sworn Secret in exchange for an honest, unpaid review.


Have you ever lost someone close to you through an accident?  What would your advice be to the character, Lizzie, in coping with her grief at the loss of her sister?


A Review: Strange Heaven by Lynn Coady


A Review:

Strange Heaven by Lynn Coady


By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis


Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Lynn Coady

Format: Trade Paperback, 216 pages

Publisher: Goose Lane Editions

ISBN: 978-086492-617-3

Pub Date: May 28, 2010


Strange Heaven by Lynn Coady is a fiercely intelligent and honest, transparent novel about a teenage girl named Bridget Murphy who first transfers herself to a children’s hospital psychiatric ward after giving birth to a baby and putting it up for adoption and then returns home for the Christmas holidays to her rambunctious and irreverent family.


She is at the centre of the book as its narrator who is surrounded by dysfunctional, yet authentic characters found in the ward as Mona, the suspected pathological liar; Kelly and Maria, starving young girls with anorexia; and Byron, the insecure and attention-seeking megalomaniac.

Together they form a quasi-family of sorts, one that is bound by the common thread of illness, dysfunction, and burden of being ostracized and misunderstood.


The psychiatric ward becomes a form of escape and refuge for Bridget as well as an experimental outlet in which she can decide how she wants to respond to her personal trauma of birthing and ultimately who she can be as she creates for herself an adamant assertion to remain if not completely cold, certainly distant and outwardly indifferent.

Those in the ward, too, represent the communal angst that reverberates throughout the helplessness and anxiety of the youth destitute towards the banality of pub-crawls and fist fights that daily drinking incurs, caged in a small town. But, they also represent a community in which Bridget’s apathy is not as isolated as she would prefer it to be—that is to say—Bridget Murphy is not alone.


 And though her escape route to the children’s psychiatric ward is merely temporary since she’s obligated to return home for the Christmas holidays, her experience there has influenced her outlook, however slight and undetected it may seem to be in the novel.

The true story is found in her return to her zany, politically incorrect, and outrageous family which includes:

Margaret P., her bedridden grandmother whose obsession with Catholic religious artifacts are just as strong as her ageing confusion, sharp retorts, and bedpan banging on her bedroom wall to beckon her family to her.


Uncle Albert, whose persistent cheerfulness is largely due to his good intentions about Bridget’s welfare, his resignation to the bottle after 30+ years of sobriety, and a commitment to return to an active participation in Alcoholics Anonymous.


 Uncle Rollie, who is developmentally delayed, often the butt of the family’s jokes as perverse affection,  and whose unrelenting devotion to Margaret P. is as evident as his natural talent for woodwork in the forms of the Virgin Mary and other biblical figures and saints.


 Bridget’s mother, whose compassion and patience is as ready and active as her tongue in sharing the latest news of death in the town as a form of truth and newsworthy gossip.


 And Bridget’s father, whose incessant hollering is filled with surprisingly witty profanities, politically incorrect comments, and truths that stem from a private sentimentality and protective nature towards those he loves.


Overall, although the reader may be taken aback by the profanity and the brutal honesty of the subject matter of the book and its dialogue, its irreverence and natural flow is remarkably real and hilarious that it is through the characters’ innate flaws that they become refreshingly authentic and even endearing.

And while Bridget’s apathy seems to confuse her so-called friends and social circle (Heidi, Mark, Stephen, and Alan) as she pulls herself away from the pedantic routine of basement parties, drinking binges, and promiscuity as a result of small-town boredom rather than real need or desire, Bridget herself, though unconscious of her own growing change and maturity, remains  non-judgemental towards her friends and her family. She simply wishes to disassociate herself from them through her resilient silence and unwavering, cool distance.

The audacity of the writing is brave and astonishing as it is real, honest, and from an author’s general inclination, risky. But, that’s what makes this book so revealing, empathetic, and true — not to mention, good.

The reader can finally laugh abruptly—not titter, but guffaw—and empathize with the main character in her clean and raw observations, and recognize the internal war between passivity and action towards either personal potential or ruin—and the dark humour of death, disease, and the enduring and sometimes overbearing connection to one’s own family.

Strange Heaven as Lynn Coady’s debut novel published in 1998 reveals a wise and capable storyteller and a true novelist with profane guts.


Zara’s Rating


A special thank you to Goose Lane Editions for providing me with a media copy of the book in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.


Every family has its own “uniqueness.” What’s wonderfully “unique” about your family?