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NevertheLIST, she persisted: 8 female protagonists who don’t have time for your sh*t

A recommended reading list from Elisabeth de Mariaffi, whose latest novel is Hysteria

Book Cover Hysteria

Elisabeth de Mariaffi's new novel Hysteria is a book in which nothing is what it seems, not the perfect summer setting, the safe and caring marriage, the happy family, or the stories Heike tells about the trauma in her past. This isn't your run-of-the-mill unreliable narrator though, and de Mariaffi pulls off the tricky feat of both keeping the reader from being sure of who Heike really is and also establishing something solid at her core. Heike is steely, courageous, and to be messed with at one's own peril.

In this list, de Mariaffi counts down other amazing books whose protagonists who don't have time for your sh*t. 


Book Cover Girl Runner

8) Girl Runner, by Carrie Anne Snyder

Aganetha Smart is a girl who likes to move…fast. See if you can keep up, speed queen. (Uh, you can’t.)

About the book: 

An unforgettable novel about competition, ambition, and a woman's struggle to earn a place in a man's world, Girl Runner is the story of 1928 Olympic gold medalist Aganetha Smart. Will Aganetha’s undeniable talent help her to outrun the social conventions of her time, or the burden of her family’s secrets?

As a young runner, Aganetha Smart defied everyone’s expectations to win a gold medal for Canada in the 1928 Olympics. It was a revolutionary victory, because these were the first Games in which women could compete in track events—and they did so despite opposition. But now Aganetha is in a nursing home, and nobody realizes that the frail centenarian was once a bold pioneer.

When two young strangers appear asking to interview Aganetha for their documentary film about female athletes, she readily agrees. Despite her frailty, she yearns for adventure and escape, and though her achievement may have been forgotten by history, her memories of chasing gold in Amsterdam remain sharp. But that triumph is only one thread in the rich tapestry of her life. Her remarkable story is colored by tragedy as well as joy, and as much as Aganetha tries, she cannot outrun her past.

Part historical page-turner, part contemporary mystery, Girl Runner peels back the layers of time to reveal how Aganetha’s amazing gift helped her break away from a family haunted by betrayals and sorrow. But as the pieces of her life take shape, it becomes clear that the power of blood ties does not diminish through the years, and that these filmmakers may not be who they claim to be . . .


Book Cover Anne of Green Gables

7) Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Anne Shirley will overcome her orphan status and rise to the top, dammit, and she will do it despite Gilbert Blythe, and possibly drunk on raspberry cordial. All while wearing puffed sleeves.

About the book: When Marilla Cuthbert and her brother, Matthew, decide to adopt a child from a distant orphanage, they don't get quite what they bargained for. The child who awaits them at the tiny Bright River train station is not the strapping young boy they'd imagined—someone to help Matthew work the fields of their small farm—but rather a freckle-faced, redheaded girl named Anne (with an e, if you please).

Matthew and Marilla may not be sure about Anne, but Anne takes one look at Prince Edward Island's red clay roads and the Cuthberts' snug white farmhouse with its distinctive green gables and decides that she's home at last. But will she be able to convince Marilla and Matthew to let her stay?

Armed with only a battered carpetbag and a boundless imagination, Anne charms her way into the Cuthberts' hearts—and into the hearts of readers as well. She truly is, in the words of Mark Twain, "the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice."


Book Cover Son of a Trickster

6)  Son of a Trickster,  by Eden Robinson

Okay, okay. I’m cheating a bit. Jared may well be the protagonist in this 2017 Giller-nominee novel, but it’s his mother I’d most like to hang out with. I mean, if she’d let me. She is deliciously mercenary.

About the book: Everyone knows a guy like Jared: the burnout kid in high school who sells weed cookies and has a scary mom who's often wasted and wielding some kind of weapon. Jared does smoke and drink too much, and he does make the best cookies in town, and his mom is a mess, but he's also a kid who has an immense capacity for compassion and an impulse to watch over people more than twice his age, and he can't rely on anyone for consistent love and support, except for his flatulent pit bull, Baby Killer (he calls her Baby)—and now she's dead.

Jared can't count on his mom to stay sober and stick around to take care of him. He can't rely on his dad to pay the bills and support his new wife and step-daughter. Jared is only sixteen but feels like he is the one who must stabilize his family's life, even look out for his elderly neighbours. But he struggles to keep everything afloat...and sometimes he blacks out. And he puzzles over why his maternal grandmother has never liked him, why she says he's the son of a trickster, that he isn't human. Mind you, ravens speak to him--even when he's not stoned.

You think you know Jared, but you don't.


Book Cover Penelope

5) Penelope, by Sue Goyette

Penelope’s husband is away on business (okay: war) for like, one million years, leaving her with a surly teenage son, a lineup of pushy wannabe lovers, and a party crowd who keep setting up a beer tent and making a mess on her property. She is Fed. Up.

About the book: Penelope waits for Odysseus's return, so the story goes, but literary tradition tells us little about this act of waiting, an act every bit as epic as her husband's exploits. In this suite of poems, Sue Goyette steps into the disorienting world of Penelope's domestic upheaval, a world populated by a swarm of opportunistic suitors, a tempestuous teenage son, a goddess and sundry sentient objects and talking creatures. Written with a wit and a penchant for magic realism reminiscent of both Ocean and The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl, Goyette's Penelope chronicles the human qualities of waiting—grief, doubt, depression and anger, but also determination, strength and grace—as Penelope breaks her long silence and exclaims her own story.


Book Cover Brown Girl in Ring

4)  Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson

In a destroyed, dystopian Toronto, Ti-Jeanne gets over herself, and calls on magical powers and ancestral spirits to defeat a villain. Because that is how we do business, my friends.

About the book: The rich and privileged have fled the city, barricaded it behind roadblocks, and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to rediscover old ways—farming, barter, herb lore. But now the monied need a harvest of bodies, and so they prey upon the helpless of the streets. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, eternal powers, and the tragic mystery surrounding her mother and grandmother.
She must bargain with gods, and give birth to new legends.


Book Cover The Outlander

3) The Outlander, by Gil Adamson

At nineteen, Mary Boulton kills her husband and spends the rest of the novel an outlaw, on the run through the wilds of turn of the century frontierland, bloodhounds literally at her heels. Don’t worry: she still has time for mountain sex with a man known as the Ridgerunner.

About the book: In 1903 a mysterious, desperate young woman flees alone across the west, one quick step ahead of the law. She has just become a widow by her own hand. 

Two vengeful brothers and a pack of bloodhounds track her across the western wilderness. She is nineteen years old and half mad. Gil Adamson's extraordinary novel opens in heart-pounding mid-flight and propels the reader through a gripping road trip with a twist—the steely outlaw in this story is a grief-struck young woman. Along the way she encounters characters of all stripes—unsavoury, wheedling, greedy, lascivious, self-reliant, and occasionally generous and trustworthy. Part historical novel, part Gothic tale, and part literary Western, The Outlander is an original and unforgettable read. This edition will feature a brilliant new introduction by Esta Spalding, poet and screenwriter of the forthcoming film adaptation of The Outlander.


Book Cover A Complicated Kindness

2) A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews

Nomi Nickel is the girl we all want to be—I mean, if we all grew up wearing Docs and loving Lou Reed yet destined for chicken-slaughtering in a Mennonite town. Thanks a lot, Menno.

About the book: As the novel begins, Nomi struggles to cope with the back-to-back departures three years earlier of Tash, her beautiful and mouthy sister, and Trudie, her warm and spirited mother. She lives with her father, Ray, a sweet yet hapless schoolteacher whose love is unconditional but whose parenting skills amount to benign neglect. Father and daughter deal with their losses in very different ways. Ray, a committed elder of the church, seeks to create an artificial sense of order by reorganizing the city dump late at night. Nomi, on the other hand, favours chaos as she tries to blunt her pain through “drugs and imagination.” Together they live in a limbo of unanswered questions.

Nomi’s first person narrative shifts effortlessly between the present and the past. Within the present, Nomi goes through the motions of finishing high school while flagrantly rebelling against Mennonite tradition. She hangs out on Suicide Hill, hooks up with a boy named Travis, goes on the Pill, wanders around town, skips class and cranks Led Zeppelin. But the past is never far from her mind as she remembers happy times with her mother and sister—as well as the painful events that led them to flee town. Throughout, in a voice both defiant and vulnerable, she offers hilarious and heartbreaking reflections on life, death, family, faith and love.

Eventually Nomi’s grief—and a growing sense of hypocrisy—cause her to spiral ever downward to a climax that seems at once startling and inevitable. But even when one more loss is heaped on her piles of losses, Nomi maintains hope and finds the imagination and willingness to envision what lies beyond.


Book Cover The Bear

1) The Bear, by Claire Cameron

Listen up, chumps: Anna is five years old, alone in the Algonquin Park wilderness, trying to escape the rogue black bear that literally just ate her parents. Also? She still has to look after her baby brother. She is capital-F-fierce. Try and beat her; you cannot.  

About the book: 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.


Book Cover Hysteria

About Hysteria

Heike Lerner’s life looks perfect from the outside: she’s settled into an easy routine of caring for her young son, Daniel, and spends her days wandering the woods near their summer house, while her nights are filled with clinking glasses and charming conversation. It all helps to keep her mind at ease—or at least that’s what her husband, Eric, tells her. But lately, Heike’s noticed there are some things out of place: a mysterious cabin set back in the trees and a strange little girl who surfaces alone at the pond one day, then disappears—while at home Eric is becoming increasingly more controlling. Something sinister that Heike cannot quite put her finger on is lingering just beneath the surface of this idyllic life.

It’s possible Heike’s worries are all in her head, but when the unthinkable happens—Daniel vanishes while she and Eric are at a party one night—she can no longer deny that something is very wrong. 

Desperate to find her son, Heike will try anything, but Eric insists on a calm that feels so cold she wonders if she can trust him at all. 

Could Eric be involved in Daniel’s disappearance? Or has some darker thing taken him? The closer Heike gets to the truth, the faster it slips away. But she will not rest until she finds her son. 

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