13 Canadian Books

Thirteen Canadian Booksimages

In June 2017 I was issued a challenge: can you read thirteen Canadian books in one year? But, of course, I scoffed. What kind of lame-ass challenge is this? Canadian-written books are available everywhere, and I usually read a lot more than thirteen books every 365 days. I was confident that I'd be finished in a couple of months.

Well, I was wrong. For the first time in my life. It was a lot more difficult to find Canadian books in Ireland than I'd realised. Even going through Kindle and Amazon didn't get me the results I wanted; if there was no American publishing deal for a Canadian book, generally, there was no book available for downloading. So I found most of these titles in Canada, and as a random group. ('Is this Canadian?' I'd ask. 'Great. I'm reading it.') The only thing that unites them are the postal codes of the authors involved, and the fact that all but two are by women. (Why? I have no idea.) Anyhoo, here they are, in the order that I read them:

1. Thirteen Shells by Nadia Bozak

9781770899872Beautifully written coming of age story set in the 70s and 80s. In thirteen chapters, which work as self-contained and often quietly devastating stories, we follow Shell as she makes her faltering and painful way towards adulthood. The author knows how to create unbearable suspense with just a bare foot and a broken piece of glass, and high tragedy in choosing the wrong outfit for a wedding. I'm already looking forward to re-reading it.

2. Still Life by Louise Penny10466342

Cosy mystery set in the Eastern townships in Quebec. The setting is the real star here – by the end of the book I wanted to move to this town and never leave. The plot concerns a local artist murdered because of an incriminating detail included in one of her paintings. Along the way there are a number of satisfying twists and surprises, especially concerning what's under the wallpaper in the house where no one has ever been invited.

227504583. Boring Girls by Sara Taylor

I read this compulsively over a couple of days. No flashbacks or back-and-forth interior monologues, just a plot that propels itself onwards, in short chronological chapters, to its horrifying conclusion. Rachel and Fern achieve heavy metal stardom, but the abuse that they suffer in breaking into a male-dominated scene takes its tragic toll. This is also a story about the joy of starting a band and finding your place in the world, and Rachel's joy is infectious. I wanted a happy ending for this duo.

4. The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel9780812987034

A man turns his back on God for taking his beloved away, and so walks backwards for the rest of his life. He borrows a Model-T Ford and goes puttering up the high mountains of Portugal, looking for a 400-year-old crucifix that will reveal the true nature of God. And that's just the first chapter. Three interconnected stories that will either leave you enchanted or rolling your eyes, depending on how you took that first sentence.

282508465. Serial Monogamy by Kate Taylor

Skilfully intertwines three stories: a modern-day writer dealing with her husband's infidelity and the heartbreak of leaving her children, a young woman alone in London planning a dinner party, and scenes from the life of Charles Dickens' long-term mistress. A nuanced look at the compromises that love demands, with some shocks and surprises along the way.

6. Runaway by Alice Munro857972. UY200

Another masterful collection of short stories and novellas. I'll admit there were a few I couldn't remember much about once I'd closed the book, but there are also many devastating moments where the page seemed to fall away and I forgot I was holding a book in my hand. Who else can do this? It's Alice Freakin' Munro, just read it.

9781552664230 300 457 907. Chasing Freedom by Gloria Ann Wesley

A number of loyalist slaves left America and were given their freedom in Nova Scotia after the War of Independence. But harsh winters, infertile land, terrible poverty and fierce prejudice awaited them. The author does a great service in bringing these events and this story to life, focusing on the fate of one family and especially Sarah, a young girl who dreams of opening her own dressmakers' shop in North America's first Black community. As a Nova Scotian, I'm really quite appalled that I wasn't taught more about Birchtown in history class. (And SO MUCH about Samuel de Champlain's Order of Good Cheer, etc...)

8. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence17562041

I read this book for the third time last year. The first time was thirty years ago (!!!) in high school. How can you review a book that's been part of your life, or at least lurking in the background, for that length of time? It's like writing a review of one of your relatives. I will never forget Hagar describing her daughter-in-law's version of heaven as 'a chunk of costume jewellery in the sky' or dismissing her own notes in the margins of a novel as 'written by a nincompoop who shared my first name'. Hagar's uncompromising pride, and her final gesture towards letting go of it have stayed fresh in my crumbling memory for thirty years. Quite a book.

31ViFpzJvNL. SX348 BO1204203200 9. Queen of the Crows by Harmony Wagner

This brief YA novel follows two stories: the fantasy world of the crows, with their own hierarchies and struggles, and the story of a girl who is forced to fend for herself when her mother has a breakdown. Both parts come together in one transcendent moment when the girl joins the crows and flies. Based on a short film which I wish I'd seen.

10. Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashiostrich

Beautiful, heart-breaking novel. Egg is eight years old, growing up in the late seventies on an ostrich farm outside a small town in Alberta as part of the only Japanese family in the area. Her brother Albert is gone, her devastated parents aren't speaking to each other, and her older sister needs to escape the town and find freedom, but then who will take care of Egg? Perfect child's-eye viewpoint and intensely beautiful writing. I was in agonies of suspense by then end thinking something terrible would happen to this child I'd grown to love.

1226881711. Glass Boys by Nicole Lundrigan

One of those books where you have to stop every few sentences and say 'wow'. The writing is that good. The first chapter, one of the best openings I've ever read, hooks the reader with unanswered questions. (What the hell is in that jar??) The story goes on to follow a neat and compact family saga set in small-town Newfoundland. The sense of fate spinning nasty surprises for these characters never lets up, and the dialogue and characterisation are sharp and often very funny. Read this book if you haven't.

12. Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis51KSue PK L. SX318 BO1204203200

Apollo and Hermes make a bet: give fifteen random dogs the gift of human consciousness and intelligence – will any of them die happy? The rest of the book follows the dogs' fates in an attempt to answer this question. Some of the dogs betray each other, some are betrayed by their masters, one finds perfect love and companionship, the last is a poet. Many of them are not around for long. An intriguing look at what it means to be human, and canine.

978034581595813. Startle and Illuminate – Carol Shields on Writing, edited by Anne and Nicholas Giardini

Most of the books on writing I see these days are about how to hook readers and make money, which is one reason this one is such a welcome relief. Taken from Carol Shield's letters, articles and speeches, each chapter is organised around one piece of advice. ('Be a little crazy, astonish me' says one chapter title.) Shields is wise, funny and generous, and her passion is for honest writing that brings messy reality to the page. A gift for anyone who loves Carol Shields and her books.


Honourable mention: I finished this book in April 2017, so it didn't qualify for the June to June deadline, but I really liked it:

Some Assistance Required by C.L. Ogilvie41XFLDU3YL

What do you do when your co-workers are monsters, literally? Get up and go to work as usual, of course, and hope your vampire boss doesn't spike your coffee with the blood of the undead because he has a crush on you. Light, frothy, and fun.

So...what should I read next? Any Canadian (or even non-Canadian) suggestions? 

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"...astonishingly good....a juicy coming-of-age story...also an important read." The Globe and Mail

"...poignant...heart-wrenching. This stunning debut will surely appeal to both teenage readers and adults." Quill & Quire, starred review

"Witty, devastating, with a melancholy humour..." Sunday Business Post

"...page-turning, top drawer stuff..." BGE Book Club

"...warm, witty, heartfelt and utterly engaging..." The Irish News

"A stunning debut. I loved it." The Irish Examiner