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Interviews, Recommendations, and More

Shelf Talkers: Melting Queens, Mysteries, and More

Robert J. Wiersema ponders what groundhogs might read (and offers them advice) and introduces us to the incredible recommendations of indie booksellers across Canada.

With all due respect and apologies to the rest of the country (I’m looking at you especially, St. John’s), I’d like us to take a moment to consider winter.

This is a topic with which, until recently, I have been largely unfamiliar. Now, though, having survived two days in which there were several centimetres of snow on the ground in Victoria, I feel uniquely qualified to discuss the frigid season. (Honestly, I’ve never felt more Canadian.)

And I just have to say: I don’t like it.

No sir. Not one bit.

It probably goes without saying that, for me, adding “winter” in front of the word “sports” doesn’t do anything to make them more enticing. And have you noticed that all of these “fun” pastimes are actually accidents waiting to happen? “Hey kids, let’s strap a board or two onto our feet and go down a frozen hill really fast!” “You know what sounds like fun? Tying blades to our feet and trying to stay upright on a sheet of ice!”

Not for me.

And then there’s the matter of trying to figure out where you packed your scarf and gloves twenty-three years ago, after the end of the Blizzard of '96. How can I possibly be expected to keep track of things like that?

No, with my harrowing exposure to winter, I have come to a simple conclusion: the groundhogs have it right.

Think about it: they stay in their dens during the coldest months of the year, they poke their heads out when they think the worst has passed, and if it hasn’t, they sequester themselves for another six weeks. This, I think, is the perfect approach to winter.

But it makes me wonder: what do groundhogs read?

Well, if they’re wise groundhogs—and I think we have established that, as a species, they know what’s going on—they take the advice of their local independent bookseller.

Imagine it: you know you’re going to be spending weeks or months hunkered down. The basics and essentials are taken care of; your burrow is actually looking quite homey. But you need something to read, something that will enthrall and transport you, something wonderful. Mostly, though, you need recommendations you can count on: it just wouldn’t do to find yourself with a dud of a book.

And that’s why wise groundhogs choose to consult their local independent booksellers; their winters depend on the booksellers’ knowledge, their keen skill matching a reader—human or groundhog—with the perfect books to see them through.

This winter, do what all wise groundhogs do: check in with your local independent bookseller.

Some of their choices are below.

And good luck—we’ll see you after the thaw.

The Bookseller: Christie Shaw Roome, Salt Spring Books (Salt Spring Island, BC)


The Pick: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

What do Shakespeare and a flu pandemic killing 99% of the world’s population have in common? The interconnected lives of a famous actor, his best friend, the man who tried to save him and a child actor who becomes obsessed with his life. Station Eleven follows a group of musicians and Shakespearean actors called the Travelling Symphony. Their motto, “Survival is insufficient” (taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager). is painted on the side of their makeshift wagon train. This book left an indelible mark on my psyche. I simultaneously felt heartbroken and hopeful. Was I the only one intrigued by the idea of living in an airport? Emily St. John Mandel explores memory, human relationships, the importance of shared cultural history, and the beauty of art.

The Bookseller: Liz Greenaway, Audreys Books (Edmonton, AB)

The Picks:


The Melting Queen, by Bruce Cinnamon

Welcome to an alternate version of Edmonton, where Melting Queens—chosen on the day the river breaks up—rule the city. It's magical and also dark and when a trans Melting Queen is named, chaos ensues. Couldn't stop reading this.


The Red Chesterfield, by Wayne Arthurson

Wayne Arthurson takes a departure from his usual mystery format with this delightful short novel which focuses on two crimes: a murder and the abandonment of a piece of furniture. Utterly delightful–some of us are hoping for a sequel!

From the Ashes, by Jesse Thistle


From the Ashes is a remarkable memoir about hope and resilience, and a revelatory look into the life of a Métis-Cree man who refused to give up. It's gut-wrenching to read but also inspirational. No surprise it's on the Canada Reads shortlist. Highly recommended. 


The Bookseller: Susan Chamberlain, The Book Keeper (Sarnia, ON)


The Pick: Good Morning, Monster by Catherine Gildiner

I have been a fan of Catherine Gildiner’s writing since the publication of her first book, a memoir of her delightfully quirky childhood, Too Close to the Falls. That book has been basic stock on our bookshelves for twenty years, which says something about the quality of Gildiner’s talent. In her latest book, Good Morning, Monster, Gildiner turns her pen once again to the telling of life stories. This time she is sharing with the readers the stories of the five most fascinating patients she treated during her 25 years as a psychologist.

We are afforded the thrill and intrigue of being a fly on the wall as people’s deepest secrets and darkest traumas are laid bare. Laura, a high-functioning, professional woman, presents with high stress levels. It turns out that at age eight she was left alone with her two younger siblings in a rural cabin in Northern Ontario. She managed to feed herself and her two charges and get them to school every day for eight months before arousing suspicion and eventually being found out. Danny’s story of being taken from his family as a young boy and shipped off to residential school is one of the most moving stories of the book. Each person’s story illustrates a different way that the effects of extreme childhood trauma can manifest themselves in the behaviour and psyche of the adult. These stories of dysfunction and the truly heroic journeys of each person are both fascinating and inspiring. 



The Bookseller: Kyle Buckley, Type Books (Toronto, ON)

The Pick: The Baudelaire Fractal, by Lisa Robertson

Lisa Robertson's The Baudelaire Fractal is an absolutely impossible novel. But it certainly is a novel (obsessed with its own form). And in the exact same way it's a poem. As always, Robertson's writing is a burst of amazing and maybe alien consciousness and intelligence. "I was only a girl bookworm. I wasn't to stay. None of this troubled me much."

The Bookseller: Jan Lindh, Mulberry Bush Book Store (Parksville, BC)


The Pick: Voices from the Skeena: An Illustrated Oral History, by Robert Budd, art by Roy Henry Vickers  

I have always been interested in history—not so much in what aristocrats and political leaders are doing but “normal” people in their everyday lives. This is a fascinating account based on oral recordings by the CBC in the 1960s of people who lived and worked by and on the Skeena in their own words. It’s accompanied by beautiful paintings by Roy Henry Vickers.



The Bookseller: David Worsley, Words Worth Books (Waterloo, ON)

The Pick: The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel lives up to the hype and then some.
 Centred on four main characters both wrestling with their place in the world and finding themselves periodically on the outside of it, at its core, this is perhaps a novel about money and the effects of a Ponzi scheme that blows up, but there's much more here.
 In far-flung locales and in New York high-rises, Mandel digs into themes of acquisition, morality, addiction, artistic integrity and the myriad manifestations of one's past. The Glass Hotel moves through time and memory; indeed there's an elasticity to the book that at the same time benefits greatly from the many small moments of human frailty and redemption that carry the story to an exhilarating end. 
It's early of course, but this is the kind of novel that will be remembered at the beginning of the next decade.


The Bookseller: Michelle Berry, Hunter Street Books (Peterborough, ON)


The Pick: Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock

Six-year-old Frankie is an energetic, intelligent and (perhaps sometimes by accident, witty) boy who lives with his mother and father in Southern England. When something happens to his mother Frankie stows away on a cruise ship he thinks is heading to France. He's off to find his father, who he thinks is on a business trip. The boat cruises, instead, elsewhere, and we are left in Frankie's funny, but sad, care. Along the way he meets a blind man and his dog and this man and this boy change each other's lives. The dog helps, too. For fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Here I Am! has a quiet beauty to it—Frankie's mind is a joy to be in. Pauline Holdstock is one of those writers that you need to read. And not just because she's Canadian and it'll broaden your reading choices—but because she's amazingly good.

The Bookseller: Chauntelle Atcheynum, Audreys Books (Edmonton, AB)

The Picks:


Those Who Know, by Dianne Miele: A remarkable collection of voices from Alberta's Indigenous Elders, many of whom have passed on since its publication. This collection is personal, profound, and leaves me feeling very inspired.


Indigenous Writes, by Chelsea Vowel: A great collection of well-informed short essays on Canada's historical and contemporary issues. Her satiric style makes me chuckle!
May We Have Enough to Share, by Richard Van Camp: A heart-warming reminder of how to live well with our friends, family and neighbours. It is as nice little book for mantras to live by as it is a great child-rearing book!



The Bookseller: Hilary Atleo, Iron Dog Books (Tsleil-Waututh, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and Musqueam territories—Vancouver, BC)
The Pick: A Killer in King's Cove, by Iona Whishaw

Iona Whishaw's mystery series proves that not all great Canadian detectives live in rural Quebec! Set near Nelson, BC, shortly after WWII, A Killer in King's Cove introduces Lane Winslow, former spy, British ex-pat, and newly arrived to Canada, where she is trying to start a new life away from the war and her history in the intelligence services. Of course it isn't long before bodies start cropping up and Lane becomes a suspect herself ...

A great mystery in the tradition of the British Cozy. Recommended for fans of Jessica Fletcher, Vera Stanhope, and Maisie Dobbs.

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