What we love about Jael Richardson is that she shares our vision for cliche-defying CanLit. CanLit is everything—it's YA, and romance, suspense, literary, commercial, published by presses big and small, and writers from many different kinds of backgrounds, coming from every kind of perspective, especially those perspectives many readers often haven't had the chance to see inside the pages of a book.
A celebrated memoirist and children's book author, as well as founder of the Festival of Literary Diversity—set in Richardson's hometown of Brampton, ON, and which has helped changed the face of Canadian publishing for the better—Richardson has also just released her debut novel, Gutter Child, one of the most buzzed-about books of the season.
Waubgesghig Rice calls Gutter Child "a fierce and astounding debut novel from a crucial voice."
It's a book that sits well in the company of the gorgeous books Richardson has been championing in her regular role as books columnist at CBC Radio's q over the years, and in honour of how Richardson is just as talented a reader as she is a writer, we've compiled this remarkable list of her recommended reads.
Saints and Misfits, by S.K. Ali
About the book: Saints and Misfits—a William C. Morris Award finalist and an Entertainment Weekly Best YA Book of the Year—is a “timely and authentic” (School Library Journal, starred review) debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.
There are three kinds of people in my world:
1. Saints, those special people moving the world forward. Sometimes you glaze over them. Or, at least, I do. They’re in your face so much, you can’t see them, like how you can’t see your nose.
2. Misfits, people who don’t belong. Like me—the way I don’t fit into Dad’s brand-new family or in the leftover one composed of Mom and my older brother, Mama’s-Boy-Muhammad.
Also, there’s Jeremy and me. Misfits. Because although, alliteratively speaking, Janna and Jeremy sound good together, we don’t go together. Same planet, different worlds.
But sometimes worlds collide and beautiful things happen, right?
3. Monsters. Well, monsters wearing saint masks, like in Flannery O’Connor’s stories.
Like the monster at my mosque.
People think he’s holy, untouchable, but nobody has seen under the mask.
The Boat People, by Sharon Bala
About the book: By the winner of The Journey Prize, and inspired by a real incident, The Boat People is a gripping and morally complex novel about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean voyage to reach Canada—only to face the threat of deportation and accusations of terrorism in their new land.
When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees reaches the shores of British Columbia, the young father is overcome with relief: he and his six-year-old son can finally put Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war behind them and begin new lives. Instead, the group is thrown into prison, with government officials and news headlines speculating that hidden among the “boat people” are members of a terrorist militia. As suspicion swirls and interrogation mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize his and his son’s chances for asylum.
Told through the alternating perspectives of Mahindan; his lawyer Priya, who reluctantly represents the migrants; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian adjudicator who must decide Mahindan’s fate, The Boat People is a high-stakes novel that offers a deeply compassionate lens through which to view the current refugee crisis. Inspired by real events, with vivid scenes that move between the eerie beauty of northern Sri Lanka and combative refugee hearings in Vancouver, where life and death decisions are made, Sharon Bala’s stunning debut is an unforgettable and necessary story for our times.
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?
A Girl Like That, by Tanaz Bhathena
About the book: Sixteen-year-old Zarin Wadia is many things: a bright and vivacious student, an orphan, a risk taker. She’s also the kind of girl that parents warn their kids to stay away from: a troublemaker whose many romances are the subject of endless gossip at school.You don't want to get involved with a girl like that,they say. So how is it that eighteen-year-old Porus Dumasia has only ever had eyes for her? And how did Zarin and Porus end up dead in a car together, crashed on the side of a highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia? When the religious police arrive on the scene, everything everyone thought they knew about Zarin is questioned. And as her story is pieced together, told through multiple perspectives, it becomes clear that she was far more than just a girl like that.
This beautifully written debut novel from Tanaz Bhathena reveals a rich and wonderful new world to readers; tackles complicated issues of race, identity, class, and religion; and paints a portrait of teenage ambition, angst, and alienation that feels both inventive and universal.
Dragon Springs Road, by Janie Chang
About the book: In early-twentieth-century Shanghai, an ancient imperial dynasty collapses, a new government struggles to life and two girls are bound together in a friendship that will be tested by duty, honour and love.
Abandoned in the courtyard of a once-lavish estate outside Shanghai, seven-year-old Jialing learns she is zazhong—Eurasian—and thus doomed to face a lifetime of contempt from both Chinese and Europeans. The Yang family, new owners of the estate, reluctantly take her in as a servant. As Jialing grows up, her only allies are Anjuin, the eldest Yang daughter, and Fox, an animal spirit who has lived in the courtyard for more than three hundred years. But when a young English girl appears and befriends the lonely orphan—and then mysteriously vanishes—Jialing’s life takes an unexpected turn.
As Jialang grows into womanhood during the tumultuous early years of the Chinese republic, she must find a way to survive political intrigue, jealousy, forbidden love and even murder. Through every turn she is guided, both by Fox and by her own strength of spirit, away from the shadows of her past toward a very different fate.
Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline
About the book: Broken-hearted Joan has been searching for her husband, Victor, for almost a year—ever since he went missing on the night they had their first serious argument. One hung-over morning in a Walmart parking lot in a little town near Georgian Bay, she is drawn to a revival tent where the local Métis have been flocking to hear a charismatic preacher. By the time she staggers into the tent the service is over, but as she is about to leave, she hears an unmistakable voice.
She turns, and there is Victor. Only he insists he is not Victor, but the Reverend Eugene Wolff, on a mission to bring his people to Jesus. And he doesn't seem to be faking: there isn't even a flicker of recognition in his eyes.
With only two allies--her odd, Johnny-Cash-loving, 12-year-old nephew Zeus, and Ajean, a foul-mouthed euchre shark with deep knowledge of the old ways—Joan sets out to remind the Reverend Wolff of who he really is. If he really is Victor, his life, and the life of everyone she loves, depends upon her success.
Inspired by the traditional Métis story of the Rogarou—a werewolf-like creature that haunts the roads and woods of Métis communities—Cherie Dimaline has created a propulsive, stunning and sensuous novel.
Songs for the Cold of Heart, by Eric Dupont
About the book: Nuns that appear out of thin air, a dinner party at the Goebbels’, Quebec’s very own Margaret Thatcher, a grandma that just won’t die (not until the archangel comes back)...Songs For The Cold Of Heart is a yarn to rival the best of them, a big fat whopper of a tall tale that bounces around from provincial Rivière-du-Loup in 1919 to Nagasaki, 1990s Berlin, Rome, and beyond. This is the novel of a century—long and glorious, stuffed full of parallels, repeating motifs, and unforgettable characters—with the passion and plotting of a modern-day Tosca.
Ties That Tether, by Jane Igharo
About the book: At twelve years old, Azere promised her dying father she would marry a Nigerian man and preserve her culture, even after immigrating to Canada. Her mother has been vigilant about helping—well forcing—her to stay within the Nigerian dating pool ever since. But when another match-made-by-mom goes wrong, Azere ends up at a bar, enjoying the company and later sharing the bed of Rafael Castellano, a man who is tall, handsome, and…white.
When their one-night stand unexpectedly evolves into something serious, Azere is caught between her feelings for Rafael and the compulsive need to please her mother. Soon, Azere can't help wondering if loving Rafael makes her any less of a Nigerian. Can she be with him without compromising her identity? The answer will either cause Azere to be audacious and fight for her happiness or continue as the compliant daughter.
The Lost Ones, by Sheena Kamal
About the book: It begins with a phone call that Nora Watts has dreaded for fifteen years—since the day she gave her newborn daughter up for adoption. Bonnie has vanished. The police consider her a chronic runaway and aren’t looking, leaving her desperate adoptive parents to reach out to her birth mother as a last hope.
A biracial product of the foster system, transient, homeless, scarred by a past filled with pain and violence, Nora knows intimately what happens to vulnerable girls on the streets. Caring despite herself, she sets out to find Bonnie with her only companion, her mutt Whisper, knowing she risks reopening wounds that have never really healed—and plunging into the darkness with little to protect her but her instincts and a freakish ability to detect truth from lies.
The search uncovers a puzzling conspiracy that leads Nora on a harrowing journey of deception and violence, from the gloomy rain-soaked streets of Vancouver, to the icy white mountains of the Canadian interior, to the beautiful and dangerous island where she will face her most terrifying demon. All to save a girl she wishes had never been born.
Indians on Vacation, by Thomas King
About the book: Meet Bird and Mimi in this brilliant new novel from one of Canada’s foremost authors. Inspired by a handful of old postcards sent by Uncle Leroy nearly a hundred years earlier, Bird and Mimi attempt to trace Mimi’s long-lost uncle and the family medicine bundle he took with him to Europe.
“I’m sweaty and sticky. My ears are still popping from the descent into Vaclav Havel. My sinuses ache. My stomach is upset. My mouth is a sewer. I roll over and bury my face in a pillow. Mimi snuggles down beside me with no regard for my distress.
‘My god,’ she whispers, ‘can it get any better?’”
By turns witty, sly and poignant, this is the unforgettable tale of one couple’s holiday trip to Europe, where their wanderings through its famous capitals reveal a complicated history, both personal and political.
The Matchmaker's List, by Sonya Lalli
About the book: One devoted modern girl + a meddlesome, traditional grandmother = a heartwarming multicultural romantic comedy about finding love where you least expect it.
Raina Anand may have finally given in to family pressure and agreed to let her grandmother play matchmaker, but that doesn't mean she has to like it--or that she has to play by the rules. Nani always took Raina's side when she tried to push past the traditional expectations of their tight-knit Indian-immigrant community, but now she's ambushing Raina with a list of suitable bachelors. Is it too much to ask for a little space? Besides, what Nani doesn't know won't hurt her...
As Raina's life spirals into a parade of Nani-approved bachelors and disastrous blind dates, she must find a way out of this modern-day arranged-marriage trap without shattering her beloved grandmother's dreams.
Autopsy of a Boring Wife, by Marie Renee Lavoie
About the book: Like a Québécois Bridget Jones’s Diary, Autopsy of a Boring Wife tells the hysterically funny and ultimately touching tale of forty-eight-year-old Diane, a woman whose husband is having an affair because, he says, she bores him.
Diane takes the change to heart and undertakes an often ribald, highly entertaining journey to restore trust in herself--and others--that offers an astute commentary on women and girls, gender differences, and the curious institution of twenty-first century marriage. All the details are up for scrutiny in this brisk, yet tender story of a path to recovery. Autopsy of a Boring Wife is a wonderfully fresh novel of the pitfalls of an apparently “boring” life that could be any of ours.
Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, by Suzanne Mayr
About the book: Dr. Edith Vane, scholar of English literature, is contentedly ensconced at the University of Inivea. Her dissertation on pioneer housewife memoirist Beulah Crump-Withers is about to be published, and her job's finally safe, if she only can fill out her AAO properly. She's a little anxious, but a new floral blouse and her therapist's repeated assurance that she is the architect of her own life should fix that. All should be well, really. Except for her broken washing machine, her fickle new girlfriend, her missing friend Coral, her backstabbing fellow professors, a cutthroat new dean—and the fact that the sentient and malevolent Crawley Hall has decided it wants them all out, and the hall and its hellish hares will stop at nothing to get rid of them.
Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
About the book: After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.
Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.
Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.
And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.
The Showrunner, by Kim Moritsugu
About the book: The hiring of a new assistant triggers a power struggle between an aging TV show creator and her former protégée.
Rising-star showrunner Stacey McCreedy has one goal: to leave behind her nerd-girl origins and become a power player — like Ann Dalloni, her former mentor and current producing partner. Ann, meanwhile, is feeling her age and losing her mind. But she’ll be damned if she cedes control of their hit primetime TV show to Stacey.
After Ann hires Jenna, a young actress hoping to restart her stalled career, as an assistant, the relationship between Ann and Stacey deteriorates into a blood feud. Soon, Jenna must choose whom to support and whom to betray to achieve her own ends. And Stacey will find out if she possesses the killer instinct needed to stay on top.
Songs for the End of the World, by Saleema Nawaz
About the book: How quickly he'd forgotten a fundamental truth: the closer you got to the heart of a calamity, the more resilience there was to be found.
This is the story of a handful of people who find themselves living through an unfolding catastrophe.
Elliot is a first responder in New York, a man running from past failures and struggling to do the right thing. Emma is a pregnant singer preparing to headline a benefit concert for victims of the outbreak—all while questioning what kind of world her child is coming into. Owen is the author of a bestselling plague novel with eerie similarities to the real-life pandemic. As fact and fiction begin to blur, he must decide whether his lifelong instinct for self-preservation has been worth the cost.
As the novel moves back and forth in time, we discover these characters' ties to one another—and to those whose lives intersect with theirs—in an extraordinary web of connection and community that reveals none of us is ever truly alone. Linking them all is the mystery of the so-called ARAMIS Girl, a woman at the first infection site whose unknown identity and whereabouts cause a furor.
Written and revised between 2013 and 2019, and brilliantly told by an unforgettable chorus of voices, Saleema Nawaz's glittering novel is a moving and hopeful meditation on what we owe to ourselves and to each other. It reminds us that disaster can bring out the best in people--and that coming together may be what saves us in the end.
Little Fish, by Casey Plett
About the book: It's the dead of winter in Winnipeg and Wendy Reimer, a thirty-year-old trans woman, feels like her life is frozen in place. When her Oma passes away Wendy receives an unexpected phone call from a distant family friend with a startling secret: Wendy's Opa (grandfather)—a devout Mennonite farmer—might have been transgender himself. At first she dismisses this revelation, but as Wendy's life grows increasingly volatile, she finds herself aching for the lost pieces of her Opa's truth. Can Wendy unravel the mystery of her grandfather's world and reckon with the culture that both shaped and rejected her? She's determined to try.
Alternately warm-hearted and dark-spirited, desperate and mirthful, Little Fish explores the winter of discontent in the life of one transgender woman as her past and future become irrevocably entwined.
Your Life Is Mine, by Nathan Ripley
About the book: Blanche Potter never expected to face her past again—but she can’t escape it.
Blanche, an up-and-coming filmmaker, has distanced herself in every way she can from her father, the notorious killer and cult leader, Chuck Varner. In 1996, when she was a small child, he went on a shooting spree before turning the gun on himself.
Now, Blanche learns that her mother has been murdered. She returns to her childhood home, where she soon discovers there’s more to the death than police are willing to reveal. The officer who’s handling the case is holding information back, and a journalist who’s nosing around the investigation is taking an unusual interest in Blanche’s family.
Blanche begins to suspect that Chuck Varner’s cult has found a new life, and that her mother’s murder was just the beginning of the cult’s next chapter.
Then another killing occurs.
Son of a Trickster, by Eden Robinson
About the book: Meet Jared Martin: sixteen-year-old pot cookie dealer, smoker, drinker and son with the scariest mom ever. But Jared's the pot dealer with a heart of gold—really. Compassionate, caring, and nurturing by nature, Jared's determined to help hold his family together—whether that means supporting his dad's new family with the proceeds from his baking or caring for his elderly neighbours. But when it comes to being cared and loved, Jared knows he can't rely on his family. His only source of love and support was his flatulent pit bull Baby, but she's dead. And then there's the talking ravens and the black outs and his grandmother's perpetual suspicion that he is not human, but the son of a trickster.
26 Knots, by Bindu Suresh
About the book: A crackling debut, 26 Knots starts with a fire and never stops smouldering.
Grand in scope, spare in execution, and lush in language, 26 Knots is a fable-like tale of love, obsession, and everything in between. Araceli loves Adrien. Adrien loves Pénélope. Pénélope marries Gabriel, who is tormented by the search for the father he never knew. Set in Montreal, but spiralling out across Canada, Bindu Suresh’s debut novel deftly reveals the devastating consequences of betrayal and commitment, of grief and hope.
Turbulence, by David Szalay
About the book: From the acclaimed, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of All That Man Is, a stunning, virtuosic novel about twelve people, mostly strangers, and the surprising ripple effect each one has on the life of the next as they cross paths while in transit around the world.
A woman strikes up a conversation with the man sitting next to her on a plane after some turbulence. He returns home to tragic news that has also impacted another stranger, a shaken pilot on his way to another continent who seeks comfort from a journalist he meets that night. Her life shifts subtly as well, before she heads to the airport on an assignment that will shift more lives in turn.
In this wondrous, profoundly moving novel, Szalay's diverse protagonists circumnavigate the planet in twelve flights, from London to Madrid, from Dakar to Sao Paulo, to Toronto, to Delhi, to Doha, en route to see lovers or estranged siblings, aging parents, baby grandchildren, or nobody at all. Along the way, they experience the full range of human emotions from loneliness to love and, knowingly or otherwise, change each other in one brief, electrifying interaction after the next.
Written with magic and economy and beautifully exploring the delicate, crisscrossed nature of relationships today, Turbulence is a dazzling portrait of the interconnectedness of the modern world.
How to Pronounce Knife, by Souvankham Thammavongsa
About the book: A young man painting nails at the local salon. A woman plucking feathers at a chicken processing plant. A father who packs furniture to move into homes he'll never afford. A housewife learning English from daytime soap operas. In her stunning debut book of fiction, O. Henry Award winner Souvankham Thammavongsa focuses on characters struggling to make a living, illuminating their hopes, disappointments, love affairs, acts of defiance, and above all their pursuit of a place to belong. In spare, intimate prose charged with emotional power and a sly wit, she paints an indelible portrait of watchful children, wounded men, and restless women caught between cultures, languages, and values. As one of Thammavongsa's characters says, "All we wanted was to live." And in these stories, they do--brightly, ferociously, unforgettably.
A daughter becomes an unwilling accomplice in her mother's growing infatuation with country singer Randy Travis. A boxer finds an unexpected chance at redemption while working at his sister's nail salon. An older woman finds her assumptions about the limits of love unravelling when she begins a relationship with her much younger neighbour. A school bus driver must grapple with how much he's willing to give up in order to belong. And in the Commonwealth Short Story Prize-shortlisted title story, a young girl's unconditional love for her father transcends language.
Unsentimental yet tender, and fiercely alive, How to Pronounce Knife announces Souvankham Thammavongsa as one of the most striking voices of her generation.
Set in an imagined world in which the most vulnerable are forced to buy their freedom by working off their debt to society, Gutter Child uncovers a nation divided into the privileged Mainland and the policed Gutter. In this world, Elimina Dubois is one of only 100 babies taken from the Gutter and raised in the land of opportunity as part of a social experiment led by the Mainland government.
But when her Mainland mother dies, Elimina finds herself all alone, a teenager forced into an unfamiliar life of servitude, unsure of who she is and where she belongs. Elimina is sent to an academy with new rules and expectations where she befriends Gutter children who are making their own way through the Gutter System in whatever ways they know how. When Elimina’s life takes another unexpected turn, she will discover that what she needs more than anything may not be the freedom she longs for after all.
Richardson’s Gutter Child reveals one young woman’s journey through a fractured world of heartbreaking disadvantages and shocking injustices. Elimina is a modern heroine in an altered but all too recognizable reality who must find the strength within herself to forge her future and defy a system that tries to shape her destiny.
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