There's always something to be excited about in the world of Canadian books—the literary festival circuit, hot spring releases, summer reads, fall books, awards season, holiday reading, and so much more. Literally, it is our job to be enthusing about books all year round and to bring you a taste of everything that's happening across the country in literary fare. It's always the most incredible whirlwind and it almost never stops.
Except right now.
Mid-January, and it's cold outside. Over the last week, we've been snowed in from coast-to-coast (although most particularly in Newfoundland. Wow!). We're in that sweet spot between the Best Books of 2019 lists and the Most Anticipated Books of 2020, which is possibly the closest we'll ever get to living in the moment. So why not stay here for a while? And to keep you company, we're recommending a handful of 2019 books you'd be lucky not to miss.
A Dark House and Other Stories, by Ian Colford
About the book: In Ian Colford's latest collection, people get themselves and those they love into situations awkward and sometimes dangerous, doing what they think is best for all. A man kidnaps his young son from his ex-wife and the road trip west quickly spirals out of control; a destitute mother makes a risky alliance with a neighbour; an almost comically wrong-headed older brother has a detective follow his sister; a retired shop-owner in north end Halifax reflects on his life before making a snap decision to change the course of his sunset years. Colford depicts his characters' shortcomings with wit and generosity, in a plainspoken style that belies deeply nuanced portrayals of the questions of fortune, inevitability, and self-preservation.
Why we're taking notice: A starred review in Quill & Quire! "The care Colford has taken is evident throughout this altogether excellent—immediate, sobering, intriguing—collection that examines fallible characters at pivotal moments."
Daughters of Silence, by Rebecca Fisseha
About the book: Ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano fills the skies. Flights are grounded throughout Europe. Dessie, a cosmopolitan flight attendant from Canada, finds herself stranded in Addis Ababa—her birth place.
Grieving her mother's recent death, Dessie heads to see her grandfather, the Shaleqa—compelled as much by duty as her own will. But Dessie's conflicted past stands in her way. Just as the volcano's eruption disordered Dessie's work life, so too does her mother's death cause seismic disruptions in the fine balance of self-deceptions and false histories that uphold her family.
As Dessie reacquaints herself with her grandfather's house, familiar yet strangely alien to her diasporic sensibilities, she pieces together the family secrets: the trauma of dictatorship and civil war, the shame of unwed motherhood, the abuse met with silence that gives shape to the mystery of her mother's life.
Reminiscent of the deeply immersive writing of Taiye Selasi and Arundhati Roy, Rebecca Fisseha's Daughters of Silence is psychologically astute and buoyed both by metaphor and by the vibrant colours of Ethiopia. It's an impressive debut.
Why we're taking notice: It's a terrific novel, and once you've read Fisseha's essay "When Women Who Survive Split the World Open: On #MeToo in Ethiopia and Eritrea," you will want to read it too.
The Towers of Babylon, by Michelle Kaeser
About the book: Embracing the anxieties of contemporary urban life, The Towers of Babylon tracks a group of hapless Millennials trying to find meaning in a world that consistently rejects them. What do you do when you have a graduate degree and are stuck working at a bagel shop? Or you've snagged a steady, middle-income job only to find it's plunging you into a moral abyss? Or you've worked your way into the upper echelons of the finance sector, but are still (still!) somehow struggling to pull in enough to support the dependents that just keep popping up around you? What happens to your faith when the world that was promised to you is collapsing at your feet?
As the novel's four narrators pinball around Toronto—where real estate prices are hyper-inflated, public infrastructure is crumbling, and climate change is bringing on killer heat and savage storms—they each try to do what's right for themselves and for the world. Trouble is, none of them can agree on what right means.
There's chronically unemployed and accidentally pregnant Joly; her best friend Louise, a billboard marketing genius in moral crisis; Joly's boyfriend Ben, a communist/Anglican hybrid with a big heart and big hopes and a big reservoir of anger; and Yannick, Joly's brother, a private equity hotshot, overworked and overburdened and trying to shake off an encroaching depression with brute will.
The Towers of Babylon looks at a generation struggling—professionally, personally, and spiritually—to carve out their place in a civilization that may well be inching toward decline.
Why we're taking notice: Spotted this one on Bookstagram, and then finally picked it up and it was a rich pleasure to read. Definitely recommended.
Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian), by Hazel Jane Plante
About the book: The playful and poignant novel Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) sifts through a queer trans woman's unrequited love for her straight trans friend who died. A queer love letter steeped in desire, grief, and delight, the story is interspersed with encyclopedia entries about a fictional TV show set on an isolated island.
The experimental form functions at once as a manual for how pop culture can help soothe and mend us and as an exploration of oft-overlooked sources of pleasure, including karaoke, birding, and butt toys. Ultimately, Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) reveals with glorious detail and emotional nuance the woman the narrator loved, why she loved her, and the depths of what she has lost.
Why we're taking notice: A great profile by Sue Carter in The Toronto Star. "Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) is unlike any other book you’ve ever read, released by the dynamic up-and-coming queer publisher, Montreal’s Metonymy Press. Told from the perspective of a queer trans woman mourning the death of her straight trans friend, Viv, the story of their friendship is revealed through alphabetical encyclopedia entries dedicated to a TV show called “Little Blue” that both of them adored."
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.
Why we're taking notice: Because her conversation with our own Trevor Corkum was fascinating! "I grew up up the hill from the house in which these three women secluded themselves, almost entirely, for 25 years. I came of age nearly three decades after two of the three women emerged from out of isolation, and yet I heard so little about them, and when I did, it seemed like mostly rumour or conjecture. Months after the last of these women, Sveva Caetani, passed away in 1994, a book of her artwork, poetry, and some of her writing was published, along with biographical notes and I realized the truth behind their story was stranger—and larger—than any rumours I’d heard."
Red Oblivion, by Leslie Shimotakahara
About the book: When Jill Lau receives an early morning phone call that her elderly father has fallen gravely ill, she and her sister, Celeste, catch the first flight from Toronto to Hong Kong. The man they find languishing in the hospital is a barely recognizable shadow of his old, indomitable self.
According to his housekeeper, a couple of mysterious photographs arrived anonymously in the mail in the days before his collapse. These pictures are only the first link in a chain of events that begin to reveal the truth about their father’s past and how he managed to escape from Guangzhou, China, during the Cultural Revolution to make a new life for himself in Hong Kong. Someone from the old days has returned to haunt him—exposing the terrible things he did to survive and flee one of the most violent periods of Chinese history, reinvent himself, and make the family fortune. Can Jill piece together the story of her family’s past without sacrificing her father's love and reputation?
Why we're taking notice: In an interview, Shimotakahara explores the connections between fact and fiction and how true events inspired the story she tells in her second novel. You can check it out here.
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