Our Top Fiction of 2019

At 49th Shelf, this was the fiction that made our literary year. We're grateful to all of the authors who make our work—featuring amazing Canadian books—such a pleasure.

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Undercard, by David Albertyn

Albertyn says: "I wanted Undercard to have all the aspects of a great sports story, within the context of a great thriller. I wanted the outcome of a sports event to be integral to the outcome of a criminal plot. I wanted my four principal characters to be athletes, current or former, and the specific sport they each compete in helps define and develop who they come to be. I wanted a novel that was as riveting as the most furious boxing match, and as blood-thumping as the most daring revenge tale—one compounded on top of the other.

Read Albertyn's recommended reading list, "Story, Struggle and Sports"

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Days By Moonlight, by Andre Alexis

About the book: Almost a year to the date of his parents' death, botanist Alfred Homer, ever hopeful and constantly surprised, is invited on a road trip by his parents' friend Professor Morgan Bruno. Professor Bruno wants company as he tries to unearth the story of the mysterious and perhaps dead poet John Skennen. But Days by Moonlight is also a journey through an underworld that looks like southern Ontario, a journey taken during the "hour of the wolf," that time of day when the sun is setting and the traveller can't tell the difference between dog and wolf, a time when the world and the imagination won't stay in their own lanes.

Explore our list of the winners of the 2019 Writers' Trust Awards

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Use Your Imagination, by Kris Bertin

Bertin says: "For me, the act of writing short fiction has always been about answering questions. That’s why I haven’t been able to stop writing them: I’ll see something that I can’t stop thinking about (usually because I can’t explain it) and will soon after find myself writing about it as a means of sorting things out. This, I think, is why my work has so much ambiguity and often waffles back and forth between different explanations, moral arguments and interpretations. I’m asking myself what I think about the world, and building a little model with characters and places and situations in order to make a guess."

Read Bertin's conversation with Trevor Corkum at The Chat

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Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, by Megan Gail Coles

Coles prefaces her list (see below): "The books on this list challenge literary expectations and community norms while demanding artistic honesty and human compassion. This is fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama from the whole of our country written by individuals taking creative risks. Some of these are small linguistic risks, forcing the structure of a sentence into a new shape. Others are grand demonstrative risks, urging the industry to move beyond traditional gatekeeping. Still others are risking more, risking everything, even safety and wellbeing, to speak their truth rather than sit silent and unseen."

Read Coles' recommended reading list, "Writing Through Risk"

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Watermark, by Christy Ann Conlin

About the book: A master of North Atlantic Gothic, Christy Ann Conlin expertly navigates our conflicting self-perceptions, especially in moments of crisis. She illuminates the personality of land and ocean, charts the pull of the past on the present, and reveals the wildness inside each of us. These stories offer a gallery of both gritty and lyrical portraits, each unmasking the myth and mystery of the everyday.

Read Conlin's recommended reading list, "Endlessly Flowing: Five Books on Water"

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The Western Civilization Merit Badge, by Nancy Jo Cullen

Cullen says: "I essentially write poems line by line and while I might hammer out an ugly draft of a story I get to return to fix the bad writing a lot more quickly. So I had to sit with a lot of discomfort and a lot of not knowing what TF I was doing. Many, many times through the writing of the novel I thought I’d never do it again but I also didn’t want to give up. But so much insecurity! Now that’s it’s over I feel a little differently although I expect the process of writing a novel might just involve a lot of thinking you are unworthy."

Read Cullen's conversation with Trevor Corkum at The Chat

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Notes Towards Recovery, by Louise Ells

Ells says: "Due to their brevity, short stories are a medium well-suited to the exploration of loss; even as I introduce a character, I am readying readers for the loss of that character. The Canadian settings are partially-remembered, partially-imagined, as I was living in England when I wrote them. During this time, I kept myself connected to Canada by reading contemporary fiction, gravitating towards stories which give voice to females, and focus on liminality and lacunae. Now, as then, these authors continue to inspire me."

Read Ells' recommended reading list, "Short Story Stunners"

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The Student, by Cary Fagan

About the book: It's 1957 and Miriam Moscowitz is starting her final year of university with unwavering ambition. She is a serious and passionate student of literature who studies hard, dates a young Jewish man with a good job, and is the apple of her father's eye and the worry of her mother's. But then, in a single moment, her dreams crumble around her. Unsure of how to break a path for herself, she begins a reckless affair with an American student obsessed with the civil rights clashes in the south. When the young man abandons her to join the movement back home, Miriam gets on a bus to follow him, no longer sure of anything in her life.

Forty-eight years later, Miriam is the about to witness her son's wedding (a newly-legal, same-sex marriage). She climbs the stairs to her study to look at a book she had carried with her on a bus to Detroit...

Explore the other titles nominated for the Governor General's Literary Awards

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Dream Sequence, Adam Foulds

About the book: Henry Banks, star of the UK’s most popular television series, has higher aspirations, ones befitting of his talent: a serious film career, beginning with a role in a brilliant Spanish director’s next movie. To make the jump to the big screen, he’ll have to remake himself in more than one way. But as he runs his morning miles and scrutinizes his changing physique in the mirror, he doesn’t know that he’s not alone in his obsession—Kristin, an unstable American fan, has her own ambitions...

Explore the other titles on the Scotiabank Giller Prize Longlist

 

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A Joy to Be Hidden, by Ariella Freedman

About the book: Alice Stein, a young graduate student living in a vivid and chaotic late-90s East Village, loses her father and grandmother in a single year and is given the task of cleaning out her grandmother's Brooklyn apartment. In the process of doing so, she begins to unlock a family secret. Accompanied by her precocious downstairs neighbour, a twelve-year-old girl named Persephone, she sets out on a quest to understand her family and herself. In the process, she will discover lost children and buried love affairs, histories she wants to believe and people she can't trust, a village in Hungary and an artist's loft in Harlem.

Read Freedman's recommended reading list of Jewish Canadian fiction

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Winning Chance, by Katherine Koller

Koller says: "My new collection of 15 short stories, Winning Chance, explores those second and third chances that the universe provides, and what we do with them. Here are ten selections, in no particular order, which also examine that next chance.

I love this quote by Giorgos Seferis, and have it at the front my reading log: 'Don’t ask who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life.' Although I don’t consider myself in any way a lion, here are some delicious short story collections by Canadian writers."

Read Koller's recommended reading list, "Stories of Second Chances"

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The Birds That Stay, by Ann Lambert

Lambert prefaces her list: "How do I isolate ten books to recommend from the range and depth of Canadian literature? How do I not include Barometer Rising, The Tin Flute, The Wars, Le Matou, Unless, A Complicated Kindness, A Fine Balance, The Life of Pi, The Book of Negroes, Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Tiger, The Break and so many other terrific books? I decided to select books by Canadian writers whose work prompted a watershed moment for me, over a lifetime of reading."

Read Lambert's recommended reading list, "Watershed Books"

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Agnes, Murderess, by Sarah Leavitt

About the book: Agnes, Murderess is a graphic novel inspired by the bloody legend of Agnes McVee, a roadhouse owner, madam and serial killer in the Cariboo region of British Columbia in the late nineteenth century. Fascinated by this legend--which originated in a 1970s guide to buried treasure in BC, and has never been verified—Sarah Leavitt has imagined an entirely new story for the mysterious Agnes: her immigration to Canada from an isolated Scottish Island; her complex entanglement with shiny things; and her terrifying grandmother, Gormul, who haunts Agnes's dreams and waking life.

Explore the other titles on our Editors' Picks list

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Bad Ideas, by Missy Marston

About the book: Wildly funny and wonderfully moving, Bad Ideas is about just that—a string of bad ideas—and the absurdity of love

Trudy works nights in a linen factory, avoiding romance and sharing the care of her four-year-old niece with Trudy’s mother, Claire. Claire still pines for Trudy’s father, a St. Lawrence Seaway construction worker who left her twenty years ago. Claire believes in true love. Trudy does not. She’s keeping herself to herself. But when Jules Tremblay, aspiring daredevil, walks into the Jubilee restaurant, Trudy’s a goner...

Explore the other titles on our list, "Reese's Book Club: CanLit Match-Ups"

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Coconut Dreams, by Derek Mascarenhas

Mascarenhas says: "The collection started with the voices of Aiden and Ally. I felt they had unique perspectives that I personally hadn’t seen represented in Canadian literature—specifically the experience of growing up South Asian in a predominantly white suburb. I chose short fiction because it’s an art form I love. A great short story can change someone’s life. Having a linked collection also allowed for the point of view, timeline, and tone to match each story’s needs and be self contained, but then also fit within a larger narrative."

Read Mascarenhas's conversation with Trevor Corkum at The Chat

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Shut Up, You’re Pretty, by Téa Mutonji

Mutonji says: "What you get from Scarborough literature is that uncomfortableness, that hard-hitting evidence that this is life, and life happens fast, and it hits hard. But you also get this burst of love and community both in the stories we write and in the way we share them. I think my book fits right between Catherine and David’s. I can see how all the characters of our respective books could have once existed in the same timeline. I think of Darnell in my book—maybe he is Francis in David’s book. And maybe Bing’s mommy in Scarborough is the exact same mother Loli has in mine. Our texts aren’t necessarily connected by space; they’re connected by people."

Read Mutonji's converation with Trevor Corkum at The Chat

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Little Fortress, by Laisha Rosnau

About the book: In this captivating and intricate novel, Laisha Rosnau introduces us to three women, each of whom is storied enough to have their own novel and who, together, make for an unforgettable tale. Based on the true story of the Caetanis, Italian nobility driven out of their home by the rise in fascism who chose exile in Vernon, BC, Rosnau brings to life Ofelia Caetani, her daughter Sveva Caetani and their personal secretary, Miss Juul. Miss Juul is the voice of the novel, a diminutive Danish woman who enters into employment with the Caetani family in Italy before the birth of Sveva, stays with them through twenty-five years of seclusion at their home in Vernon, and past the death of Ofelia. Little Fortress is a story of a shifting world, with the death of its age-old nobility, and of the intricacies of the lives of women caught up in these grand changes. It is a story of friendship, class, betrayal and love.

Read Rosnau's recommended reading list, "Journeys to Exile"

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Crow, by Amy Spurway

Spurway says: "As a reader, I crave an emotional connection to the story and the characters in it, and that sense of closeness seems inextricably linked to narrative voice. It is not just what is being said, but how. Voice is so much more than interesting characters or good dialogue. It is found in the ineffable qualities of style, as well as in technical elements like syntax, cadence, and tone. It is nestled in the details of what a narrator reveals—and what they leave out. It is the way in which specific words intersect with universal feelings. A compelling narrative voice can run the gamut from subtle and seamless, to smack-ya-upside-the-head brashness, but it always resonates in an emotionally intimate way. Voice is what draws me in and pulls me through a book. The following is a list of eight books by Canadian authors with narrative voices that grabbed hold of me—and never let go."

Read Spurway's recommended reading list, "A Whisper to a Scream"

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Five Wives, by Joan Thomas

Thomas says: "The more I learned through research, the more contemporary and timely the story felt. As I was writing, xenophobia and white nationalism raised its ugly head in the Western world, and I saw so much in this story about the roots of such attitudes in Western culture. I was fascinated by the characters, especially by the wives of the men who died, for whom everything was at stake—the lives of their beloved partners, the happiness of their families—and who asserted even after the killings that they had all done the right thing. How does such doublethink work? At heart, maybe, I was writing about myself: how do I persuade myself to believe things that contradict my own experience of the world?"

Read Thomas's conversation with Trevor Corkum at The Chat

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Worry, by Jessica Westhead

Westhead says: "There is so much pressure on parents these days to be ever-vigilant, to never let their children out of their sight. Because what if something bad happened when they weren’t watching? That pressure can be overwhelming, especially when coupled with the ever-present judgment parents are always at risk of encountering, from other parents or from society at large. So for many parents and guardians, it’s much less stressful to keep the kids at home playing video games than it is to send them outside to play, because at least then you know where they are, right? Because what’s worse—too much screen time, or scary strangers and all the other harmful unknowns out there in the big, bad world? But while I completely understand the fear behind that impulse, I don’t want that for my daughter. I want her to find joy in reading books before she picks up a tablet or a phone. I want her to continue to feel free to use her imagination in any way she chooses. I want her to keep having real-life fun with her friends. I want her to go outside and play. And I want to keep her safe, always. But I know that I can’t always be with her. I can’t always be watching her."

Read Westhead's conversation with Trevor Corkum at The Chat

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December 17, 2019
Books mentioned in this post
Undercard

Undercard

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
tagged : crime, literary
More Info
Shut Up You're Pretty

Shut Up You're Pretty

edition:Paperback
More Info
Crow

Crow

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary, humorous
More Info
Worry

Worry

A Novel
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook Paperback Paperback
tagged : psychological
More Info
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