2017 was a fantastic year in bookishness. With our Top Fiction of 2017, the 49thShelf.com team looks back on the highlights and the books we were most excited to read and celebrate.
Bad Endings, by Carleigh Baker
About the book: Finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. Winner of the City of Vancouver Book Award. Carleigh Baker likes to make light in the dark. Whether plumbing family ties, the end of a marriage, or death itself, she never lets go of the witty, the ironic, and perhaps most notably, the awkward. Despite the title, the resolution in these stories isn’t always tragic, but it’s often uncomfortable, unexpected, or just plain strange. Character digressions, bad decisions, and misconceptions abound.
A Bookseller favourite, Bad Endings turned up in our Shelf Talkers column three times this year! James Irvine's recommendation from the Book Warehouse in Vancover reads, "A superb collection of short stories awaits the reader of this book. Each story left me wanting to read more. Take this book to lunch; take it for coffee or a nice glass of wine. A great companion. Carleigh Baker is a new and exciting voice in Canadian literature."
The Prisoner and the Chaplain, by Michelle Berry
About the book: What if prison was the only world that existed for you now and everything else was a story? What if you weren't sure if you were guilty but wanted forgiveness in any form? The Prisoner and the Chaplain is about two men; one man awaiting execution, the other man listening to his story. As the hours drain away, the chaplain must decide if the prisoner's story is an off-the-cuff confession or a last bid for salvation. As the chaplain listens he realizes a life has many stories, and he has his own story to tell—a last-ditch plea for forgiveness told to someone who will never be able to repeat it. Each man is guilty in his own way, and their stories have led them to the same room, a room that only one of them will leave alive. If you had only twelve hours left to live, what would you have to say?
Check out Michelle Berry's list for us of her favourite books to hand-sell in her bookstore, Hunter Street Books. The Prisoner and the Chaplain was one of our Most Anticipated Fiction Titles for Fall 2017, and we're so thrilled it's been receiving great reviews all around.
A Bird in Every Tree, by Carol Bruneau
About the book: Carol Bruneau, author of six acclaimed works of fiction (most recently, These Good Hands), brings her finely honed voice to 12 new stories about shifting concepts of Nova Scotian identity.
In "The Race," a war bride's remarkable life trajectory unfolds as she competes in an international swim marathon in the Northwest Arm. Strain erupts between a Haligonian couple in "Burning Times," while they struggle to keep track of one another, both physically and emotionally, on an Italian vacation. In "Polio Beach," cousins gather oceanside over the will of a recently deceased aunt who once saved one of them from drowning.
Writing with empathy, humour, and linguistic precision, Bruneau follows characters who find themselves connected to Nova Scotia by birth, through attempts at escape and new beginnings, or as a temporary resting place, always carrying with them their own idiosyncratic and complex definitions of "home."
Carol Bruneau's recommended reading list for us, "Change Your Take on Nova Scotia Lit," is such a terrific example of what these lists can be in terms of breadth, approach, and spirit, and puts her book in the most wonderful company.
A Shimmer of Hummingbirds, by Steve Burrows
About the book: Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune is hoping an overseas birding trip might hold some answers in his fugitive brother’s manslaughter case. But there are people on the tour who seem keen to keep their secrets, and the rainforest can be a dangerous place for those who ask too many questions.
Back in the U.K., in Jejeune’s absence, Marvin Laraby, his former boss and longtime nemesis has been brought in to investigate the murder of an accountant. He is proving so effective that Superintendent Colleen Shepherd is considering making his replacement of Jejeune a permanent arrangement.
With the manslaughter case poised to claim another victim, Jejeune learns that an accident back home involving his girlfriend, Lindy Hey, is much more than it seems. Lindy is in imminent danger. And only Jejeune can help her. But to do so, he must sacrifice his working relationship with Shepherd, opening the door for Laraby’s appointment as Saltmarsh’s new DCI.
When Jejeune discovers the truth about Laraby’s current case, he is faced with a dilemma. He can speak up, knowing it will cost him his job on the north Norfolk coast he loves. Or he can stay silent, and let a killer escape justice.
As he weighs his alternatives, Domenic Jejeune begins to realize that, sometimes, the wrong choice is the only choice you have.
Burrows' Birder Murder series are perennial favourites of ours. In March, the inimitable Jenn Hubbs of Curiosity House Books in Creemore, ON, wrote, "Burrows' mysteries benefit from a unique premise (Canadian border policeman living and working in Norfolk), but their strengths really lie in excellent character development. Readers are invested in what happens to Jejune, Hey and the others, and the birding references will be of interest to even non-birders."
A Plea for Constant Motion, by Paul Carlucci
About the book: Quietly atmospheric and darkly foreboding, A Plea for Constant Motion is an ominous, and occasionally unnerving, new work of fiction by award-winning author Paul Carlucci.
Penetrating and visceral, yet always offset by small moments of tenderness and humour, A Plea for Constant Motion is a powerful examination of the innate desire in everyone to change their lives and strive for something better.
Two couples share a disastrous dinner after their children are killed in a botched kidnapping overseas. A teacher with a passion for cartography orchestrates a bizarre apology after intentionally hitting a student. Desperate to be friends, a man ignores his neighbour’s strange behaviour to the peril of himself and others. A young girl babysits for a family friend, dimly aware that her presence is required for more than just childcare.
Dexterously divided into two parts and a surreal intermission, the characters in these stories find themselves confronted by situations that leave them either struggling to escape or firmly rooted in place. Paul Carlucci’s formidable work is by turns familiar and disquieting, sober and surreal, a stark and carefully crafted examination of the human condition.
From Carlucci's interview with Trevor Corkum (who called the book "a dark, moody, compassionate, and generous collection"): "It’s easy to smirk at that stuff, especially Stephen King, but that dude swept my imagination completely into his own, and he made me think about books when I was playing tag or eating pizza or whatever. I wanted to go home and read, and very quickly I wanted to write."
The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline
About the book: Humanity has nearly destroyed its world through global warming, but now an even greater evil lurks. The indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream. In this dark world, Frenchie and his companions struggle to survive as they make their way up north to the old lands. For now, survival means staying hidden—but what they don't know is that one of them holds the secret to defeating the marrow thieves.
Yes! We loved this book. From Trevor's interview with Dimaline: " It's crucial at this time that we accept that the Western way of thinking about our world is a broken theory, that Indigenous Traditional Knowledge is vital to any forward movement."
Glass Beads, by Dawn Dumont
About the book: These short stories interconnect the friendships of four First Nations people—Everett Kaiswatim, Nellie Gordon, Julie Papequash, and Nathan (Taz) Mosquito—as the collection evolves over two decades against the cultural, political, and historical backdrop of the 90s and early 2000s.
These young people are among the first of their families to live off the reserve for most of their adult lives, and must adapt and evolve. In stories like “Stranger Danger”, we watch how shy Julie, though supported by her roomies, is filled with apprehension as she goes on her first white-guy date, while years later in “Two Years Less A Day” we witness her change as her worries and vulnerability are put to the real test when she is unjustly convicted in a violent melee and must serve some jail time. “The House and Things That Can Be Taken” establishes how the move from the city both excites and intimidate reserve youth—respectively, how a young man finds a job or a young woman becomes vulnerable in the bar scene. As well as developing her characters experientially, Dumont carefully contrasts them, as we see in the fragile and uncertain Everett and the culturally strong and independent but reckless Taz.
As the four friends experience family catastrophes, broken friendships, travel to Mexico, and the aftermath of the great tragedy of 9/11, readers are intimately connected with each struggle, whether it is with racism, isolation, finding their cultural identity, or repairing the wounds of their upbringing.
Dawn Dumont from our "Unpacking 'Quirky' Round-Table" earlier this year: "Probably my work doesn’t fall into the quirky category—Indigenous comedy with strong female protagonists. Although to people who come from reserves, this wouldn’t be seen as unusual as all. Funny females who can tell you off and make you laugh at the same time are the norm there."
Scarborough, by Catherine Hernandez
About the book: Scarborough is a low-income, culturally diverse neighbourhood east of Toronto, the fourth largest city in North America; like many inner-city communities, it suffers under the weight of poverty, drugs, crime, and urban blight. Scarborough the novel employs a multitude of voices to tell the story of a tight-knit neighbourhood under fire: among them, Victor, a black artist harassed by the police; Winsum, a West Indian restaurant owner struggling to keep it together; and Hina, a Muslim school worker who witnesses first-hand the impact of poverty on education.
And then there are the three kids who work to rise above a system that consistently fails them: Bing, a gay Filipino boy who lives under the shadow of his father's mental illness; Sylvie, Bing's best friend, a Native girl whose family struggles to find a permanent home to live in; and Laura, whose history of neglect by her mother is destined to repeat itself with her father.
From Hernandez's interview with Trevor Corkum: "You see, oftentimes as writers, we are so much in our heads trying to sketch out a character based on intellectual facts. When we allow breath to take over, it is pure impulse. Characters speak for you. You are just a conduit. What are they saying? Write it down. When writing a play, I often imagine the characters speaking to each other just a few feet in front of me. I pretend I am just documenting what they are saying. Then the work goes beyond you and your ego. The words already exist in the ether. You just have to catch them."
What We Once Believed, by Andrea MacPherson
About the book: A coming-of-age novel contrasting a daughter's disappointment in her mother's abandonment with the generational differences around feminist values. Summer 1971. While women demand equality, protests erupt over the Vietnam War, and peace activists march, adolescent Maybe Collins' life in quiet Oak Bay is upended by the appearance of her mother, who disappeared nine years earlier. And with her return comes another surprise: she's written a best-selling memoir called The Other Mother, about motherhood and Women's Liberation, which gives only passing reference to Maybe's existence. Camille, now an acclaimed author, is distant and confounding, and Maybe tries to piece together her mother's life-why she left, the truth behind her famous memoir, and the future of their fractured relationship. As Maybe searches for her place, so do the other women in her life: her independent and unchangeable grandmother, Gigi; her best friend's mother, Robin, who struggles with her roles as wife and stay-at-home mother; and Mary Quinn, a successful artist new to Lear Street, who seems to live only by her own rules. Their stories and struggles define how Maybe sees her choices as a woman and how she'll navigate a world that is dramatically shifting every day.
But when Maybe discovers that her mother is writing another book-a book about her return-the betrayal is fierce and painful, and Maybe resolves to teach Camille a lesson that will change them all forever.
From MacPherson's amazing Recommended Reading List, "Bad Mothers and Wives": I have always been fairly obsessed with bad mothers, and by default, bad wives. Our perspectives and expectations of these roles are so precise, so narrowly defined, that any aberration fills us with shock. Perhaps my interest in “bad mothers” comes from a story my grandfather told me, when I was quite young, about his mother abandoning her children and husband. The detail that stuck with me? She made him, her crying 10-year-old son, drag her trunk across town to the train station. So, my interest in bad mothers, and bad wives, started young.
Life on Mars, by Lori McNulty
About the book: A middle-aged sportswriter gets a new lease on life with a heart transplant and develops an intimate relationship with his donated heart. Two brothers find in their rotting family tree the tangled roots of a dark childhood memory. A young woman travels to Thailand to reconnect body and soul and returns home, physically transformed, to face the wrath of her estranged mother. A divorced man struggling to rediscover his place in the world hits the road from California to Newfoundland, guided by an irascible talking squid.
Life on Mars, Lori McNulty's wild debut collection, sears the heart with blinding black humour and whiplash fast prose. With a flawless talent for juxtaposing the absurd with the everyday, violence and discord with redemption and metamorphosis, McNulty takes readers on an unexpected ride into the core of human existence.
Blending aesthetic styles from high realism to the fable-esque, Life on Mars devours life's numbing tragedies and exhilarating passions with ravenous appetite. These are raw, moving, strange stories—an unforgettable reckoning for our disconnected times.
From McNulty's interview with Trevor Corkum (who called Life on Mars "a superb collection about outliers, outcasts, solitary figures"): "When I run my fingers across my computer keyboard, it feels like playing a musical instrument. I hear words before I see them. There is such physicality to the process."
Pockets, by Stuart Ross
About the book: A wonderful dream and a horrific nightmare, a fuzzy consciousness of pain and family, Pockets is a novel of fragments—both literally and figuratively. In a series of prose-poem chapters, the nameless narrator, in a largely Jewish 1960s suburb in the northern reaches of Toronto, repeatedly enters the world, as if for the first time. His landscape is one of trilobite fossils, bicycles with banana seats, Red Skelton, and overwhelming loss. Among shadows that both comfort and threaten, a brother who drifts through the sky, he finds his narrative full of pockets of emptiness he can’t help but try to fill.
A heartbreakingly personal and profound work, Pockets redefines the novel, delivering infinite scope in something diminutive, pocket-sized. Every reading brings new revelations.
From our interview with Giller Finalist Michelle Winters: "I’ve just finished Stuart Ross’ gorgeous, pocket-sized prose poetry novel, Pockets. Stuart writes some of the funniest, saddest things you’ve ever read, in the most beautiful, athletic way. I’ve learned a lot from Stuart Ross.
Dazzle Patterns, by Alison Watt
About the book: Beginning the day of the devastating Halifax Explosion of 1917, Dazzle Patterns is an unforgettable story about loss, the resilience of the human spirit, and the transformative power of art.
While Clare Holmes waits for her fiancé, Leo, to return from the war in France, she works as a flaw checker at the Halifax glassworks. It is there that she meets Fred Baker, a mysterious master glassmaker who was trained in his home country of Germany. After the disastrous explosion on December 6, 1917—which killed 2000, injured thousands more, and is said to have shattered every window in the city—Clare, Leo, and Fred's lives become irrevocably intertwined.
In the chaos and turmoil of the war and the aftermath of the explosion, Clare finds solace in drawing, but is further devastated when Leo is reported missing. Meanwhile, tensions in the community quickly rise: who was responsible for the explosion? Could there be German collaborators in their midst? When Fred is arrested, Clare is determined to find a way to prove her new friend's innocence.
Dazzle Patterns is a moving story about three people making their way through harrowing, impossible times. With extraordinary vision and clarity, Alison Watt's remarkable debut novel brings the past to life.
From Alison Watt's Recommended Reading List: "The novel is as much about art as war and the following books speak these two themes, as well as the historic Halifax explosion. Their riches lie among the everyday details buried in text and photos, which I could draw on to try to bring that faraway time and place to life for the modern reader."
Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined, by Danielle Younge-Ullman
About the book: Then
Ingrid traveled all over Europe with her opera star mother, Margot-Sophia. Life was beautiful and bright, and every day soared with music.
Ingrid is on a summertime wilderness survival trek for at-risk teens: addicts, runaways, and her. She’s fighting to survive crushing humiliations, physical challenges that push her to her limits, and mind games that threaten to break her.
When the curtain fell on Margot-Sophia’s singing career, they buried the past and settled into a small, painfully normal life. But Ingrid longed to let the music soar again. She wanted it so much that, for a while, nothing else mattered.
Ingrid is never going to make it through this summer if she can’t figure out why she’s here, what happened to Margot-Sophia, and why the music really stopped.
This one was a two-time Shelf Talkers pick, Mary-Ann Yazedjian of Vancouver's Book Warehouse writing, "This is an excellent first novel by Canadian Danielle Younge-Ullman! She has created a realistic story that is still entertaining to read... Highly recommend for teens who like John Green, Rainbow Rowell, and Jennifer Niven."
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