Literary Revelations: Top Reviewers Pick Their Surprise Books of the Year

We have so many amazing experiences as book lovers: entering new worlds, falling in love with characters, dog-earing so many pages that a book won't close, grieving the inevitable but terrible fact that books do end, etc. And of course, the treat of being surprised. This post centres on a particular type of bibliophilic surprise: that of picking up a book one might not normally pick up, expect much from, or know much about ... then being delighted or otherwise impressed by the read.

We asked four powerhouse tastemakers within Canadian book media—Mark Medley, books editor at the National Post and overseer of The Afterword blog; Steven W. Beattie, review editor at Quill & Quire and author of the blog, That Shakespearean Rag; Erin Balser, radio/web producer and columnist for CBC Books; and Jared Bland, books editor at the Globe and Mail—to tell us about the books that most surprised them this year, and why they were surprised. Here are their picks, as well as their caveats about the notion of surprise and/or prefaces to their choices.



Mark Medley (National Post):

"Choosing three books that 'surprised' me is a puzzling task; I expect every book I open to surprise me in one way or another, otherwise what's the point of reading? However, I think it's probably easier to be surprised by a book if you've never read the author before, which is what happened with the following three novels."

The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert: "Kenneth Bonert's debut novel, and the only title in Knopf Canada's New Face of Fiction program this year, surprised me in the sense that there's no way a first novel, even one that took the better part of a decade to write, should be this good. An assured and ambitious coming-of-age story set in Johannesburg's Jewish community during the first half of the 20th century, Bonert is a wizard at creating characters, and possesses a linguist's tongue when it comes to his love of language. The fact that it was left off the Giller Prize long list—I fear it wasn't even submitted by his publisher—is a travesty."

In Calamity's Wake by Natalee Caple: "I first read Michael Ondaatje's seminal The Collected Works of Billy The Kid during my first year of university, when I was 19 years old. I recalled his troubled, romantic, and anxious young gunslinger while reading Caple's latest novel, which does for Calamity Jane what Ondaatje did for William Bonney. This is a poignant, feverish novel."

The Empty Room by Lauren B. Davis: "For whatever reason, 2013 has been the year of women and drinking. There was Jowita Bydlowska's much buzzed about memoir Drunk Mom, Gabrielle Glaser's Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink and How They Can Regain Control, and the blog-turned-book Reasons Mommy Drinks, while journalist Ann Dowsett Johnston will publish Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol later this month. Perhaps the less heralded entry in the exploding genre was Lauren B. Davis's novel The Empty Room, an often agonizing-to-read day in the life of a woman, both ignorant and dismissive of her own addiction, who can't stop drinking, to often disastrous results. I've encountered several people who disliked the novel; that's what's surprised me most about this book."


Steven W. Beattie (Quill & Quire):

"I should point out that none of these books surprised me per se, in the sense that I didn’t go in expecting them to be lousy. But all three have flown under the radar of most readers, who would benefit from seeking them out."

Permission by S.D. Chrostowska: "York University professor Chrostowska’s nouveau-epistolary novel is one of the most formally adventurous books I’ve read this year. Virtually plotless, and told in a series of enigmatic e-mails from a protean correspondent to an anonymous artist, the novel interrogates the relationships between author, reader, and text. Recalling Barthes, Derrida, and Robbe-Grillet, Chrostowska has written a surprising and unconventional novel of ideas."

Keep It Beautiful by Kelly Ward: "Ward’s story 'The Night Shift' won the Lush Triumphant Award for Fiction; her debut collection is a suite of stories about outsiders and loners trying to negotiate ambivalent relationships with an antagonistic world. The author’s deft facility with character and her willingness to trust her readers by infusing her stories with just the right degree of contingency mark her as an author to watch."

The Hottest Summer in Recorded History by Elizabeth Bachinsky: "Employing everything from instant messaging to prose to traditional verse structures such as villanelles and sonnets, Bachinsky blurs the increasingly tedious line between lyric and anti-lyric poetry. From the opening poem ('On two occasions, I shit myself: once when sick and / once when aroused') it’s apparent that this book is willing to lay it all out, like a body splayed open on an operating table. The short poem 'Peregian Beach Mall Parking Lot, Peregian Beach Oz' is one of the funniest riffs on William Carlos Williams I’ve read in a long while."


Erin Balser (CBC Books):

"I came into these books with certain expectations about what they would be and should be. They both turned those expectations on their head and reminded me that I shouldn't judge books by their covers—or their back cover copy. That's what surprise is all about, right? Both these writers are on our Writers to Watch list and I'm looking forward to what they do next."

1996 by Sara Peters: "This is the best poetry collection I have read in a long time. I’ll admit, I don’t read as much poetry as I feel like I should (don’t we all!), but when 1996 came across my desk, I was enthralled. Her poems are disturbing, yet delightful. It reminded me why poetry can be the best."

Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska: "This book was certainly buzzed about when it was released in the spring, but I wasn’t all that excited to read it. I was nervous it was your clichéd addiction memoir, but this time, the twist was that she’s a mom! The shame! But once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. I loved Jowita’s voice, so fresh and raw and funny and real."



Jared Bland (Globe and Mail):

"Surprise is a complicated notion. I’m often surprised by how bad various books are, though I’m less often surprised by how good they are; it’s my job to know about the good ones, in a sense, so I try not to let them sneak up on me. Here are three books that surprised me in various ways: by being even better than I remembered, by being remarkably piercing in societal critique, and by transforming clichéd marketing speak into genuine, and genuinely surprising, success."

Infidelity by Stacey May Fowles: "Stacey May Fowles is a dear friend of mine, and I first read this novel in 2011 in an early draft. What surprises me about it today is that much of what was powerful then is somehow more so now, and also how much nuance, sadness, and beauty has been added to it since I first read it. In one sense, it’s a simple story about two people. But in a much bigger sense, it’s a book about impossibility: the impossibility of our dreams, the impossibility of love, and, one hopes, the impossibility of those exact impossibilities."

The Dilettantes by Michael Hingston: "Michael Hingston, one of the sharpest young literary critics in the country, has just released his first novel, and it’s a sheer delight. Set at a student newspaper at Vancouver’s SFU, The Dilettantes surprises me in its vicious yet entirely charming lampooning of youthful pretension, and it surprises me in the clarity with which Hingston—himself not far beyond his own slacker undergrad years—sees the sweet, essential, and ultimately doomed core of youthful ambition."

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison: "My surprise here is of a different kind. It’s become obligatory to compare any tense, domestic suspense novel to Gone Girl, the flawed but fun ripper of a novel that dominated the bestseller lists last year. (At the Globe, our crime reviewer, Margaret Cannon, likes to make regular fun of how many books try to crown themselves the next Gone Girl.) But this one is actually working—since its publication, it’s slowly climbed the sales charts, and now sits near the very top, week after week."


*Keep reading! Natalee Caple (In Calamity's Wake) wrote a stunning blog post for us this summer: see it here. Voila an excerpt of Lauren B. Davis's The Empty Room (Davis also appears on our blog later this week). Marita Dachsel included Elizabeth Bachinsky on her list of favourite poetry books by Canadian women. Drunk Mom was one of the books chosen by our publishing insiders in this summer's blockbuster blog post, Couldn't Put It Down. Both Infidelity and The Dilettantes made it onto our Most Anticipated Fall 2013 Fiction list, and Stacey May Fowles was one of the first authors ever to grace us with a guest list: Unconventional Heroines.

September 24, 2013
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