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The Writers Who Showed Me What a Novel Could Be

A recommended reading list by the author of our July summer book pick, If We Caught Fire.

Beth Ryan's If We Caught Fire is one of 49th Shelf's July summer book picks, which are all up for giveaway until the end of the month.

Don't miss your chance to win!


Book Cover If We Caught Fire

For most of my life, there’s been a novel sitting on my nightstand or on my desk, enticing me to abandon whatever I’m supposed to be doing and dive into the story. It’s hard to match the delight of discovering a new novel from a much-loved author and anticipating the ride it’s about to take you on.

The only thing that comes close for me was the thrill of holding a copy of my new novel, If We Caught Fire, in my hands. I’d already published a book of short fiction—but seeing the words "a novel" under the title gave me an inexplicable rush: I am a novelist.

There is the promise that a novel offers, a chance to disappear into a unique world and become immersed in the characters’ most intimate experiences. There’s the grip that a novel has on you that won’t let you put it down, that makes you keep reading even when you’re dropping with sleep or you’re in math class with that novel hidden between the pages of your textbook.  There’s the need to see and hear more of the characters and their lives, to know them better, to anticipate what’s next for them, and to be part of it.

My novel got its start as a piece of postcard fiction—500 words that hinted at the intensity of the connection between my two main characters, Edie and Harlow. But those characters came back to me repeatedly over the years, clamouring for a bigger story. That’s what a novel allows us to do as writers—give our characters a rich world filled with people and situations that provoke them to react, respond and change.

Canadian writers have crafted some of my favourite novels, books I return to again and again, that I enjoy as a reader and admire as a writer. Here are some of my favourite novelists.


Book Cover Cat's Eye

Margaret Atwood

I first encountered Margaret Atwood’s novels when I was in university, notably The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle, and The Handmaid’s Tale (which was terrifying and prescient when it was published in 1985, only to become more relevant with every passing decade). But it was Cat’s Eye (1988) that made me a fan for life. That novel was a revelation to me, a book that offers an unflinching look at the treachery of female friendship and shows women as complex and fascinating characters in situations that make us squirm with recognition. Scenes from that book play like little movies in my head, prompting me to re-read Cat’s Eye every few years. Atwood continues to reinvent the novel with every book—a recent favourite of mine is The Heart Goes Last, which surprised me in every chapter with its characters’ reactions to the bizarre world they inhabit.


Book Cover Falling Angels

Barbara Gowdy

Barbara Gowdy explores the darkness of the human experience in ways that are unexpected, shocking, and utterly fascinating. She makes you look at people you wouldn't have ever known (or might not even wanted to know) and allows readers to experience these characters' lives in way that encourages curiosity and empathy instead of judgment. Whether it’s the dysfunctional family dynamic of the Field sisters in Falling Angels, the misery of loving a man gripped by addiction in The Romantic, or the disturbing obsessions of a man who kidnaps a child in Helpless, the reader is mesmerized by what unfolds and challenged to reflect on their response to the characters. As a writer, I appreciate the restraint of Gowdy’s storytelling and her spare and vigorous prose as she deals with dramatic and intense content. I also admire the courage she demonstrates in taking on subjects that scare and unsettle us but challenge us to see the world from different angles.


Book Cover January February June or July

Helen Fogwill Porter

Helen Fogwill Porter led the way for generations of Newfoundland and Labrador writers, including me. Her first novel, January, February, June and July, surprised and delighted me with its specificity—its accurate depiction of the life of a teenaged girl in the early 1980s in St. John’s, one I’d lived but never seen on the page of a book. That was her gift—as a writer, teacher and mentor, Porter encouraged us to comb through our own experiences for sources of inspiration for creative writing. In January, February, June and July, Porter’s protagonist is Heather Novak, a 16-year-old trying to deal with the unexpected consequences of her first romantic relationship. The book stood out when it was published in 1988 for its realistic portrayal of a teenager struggling to get an abortion. Thirty-five years later, its themes resonate strongly. Porter published her last book at age 89 and died earlier this year, leaving behind a wealth of her own writing and the results of the mentorship she offered other writers.


Book Cover Happenstance

Carol Shields

Carol Shields mined our everyday experiences for ideas, experiences and images that offer us insight into what’s important in our lives. In each of her novels, I was struck by the beauty of those small moments and the way she imbued them with meaning and depth. One of her earliest novels, Happenstance, explores the complexities of a marriage from the perspective of the wife and the husband in two separate narratives, offering the reader an unusual take on a relationship (and a physical book that requires us to flip it around to read the alternate storyline). In Larry’s Party, the main character is a man with a passion for building labyrinths, a unique talent that seems to elevate him from his inherent ordinariness. But the book is also a meditation on mid-life and the regrets that come when we ponder our lost relationships and the opportunities left untaken. Quiet moments take centre stage in Shields’ novels and leave us with insights that are simultaneously obvious and profound.


Book Cover Summer of My Amazing Luck

Miriam Toews

In her novels, Miriam Toews displays a talent for infusing the most tragic stories with light, laughter, and even hope. The humour shines in Summer of My Amazing Luck, a tale of two young single mothers who take off to Colorado in search of relief from their life of poverty. In All My Puny Sorrows, Elf is willing to do just about anything to save her brilliant and beautiful sister, Yoli, from the relentless depression that keeps trying to take her life. This book will grab your heart in its fist—especially if someone you love struggles with thoughts of suicide. In A Complicated Kindness, Toews’ story tests the connections that her 16-year-old protagonist, Nomi, has with her father, church and community after her mother and sister leave town. She knows all of her characters well and trusts them to take the wheel and guide the story. In every book, Toews tells hard truths with a light touch, letting the harsh realities of the characters’ lives slip easily into the reader’s consciousness. Later, there’s a moment of revelation when the reader experiences the full impact of Toews’ words.


Book Cover If We Caught Fire

Learn more about If We Caught Fire:
If We Caught Fire brings two families together for a wedding in St. John’s, an event that sets off a summer of fireworks in the lives of the people around them.
Edie’s calm and contained life is knocked awry when her mother decides to marry a man she met online after just a few months of dating. The groom’s son, Harlow, is a joyful adventurer who shows up for the wedding and quickly recruits Edie as his sidekick.

Harlow runs toward risk and adventure with arms wide open, unconcerned about what other people expect from him. Edie plans every step carefully and keeps her dreams small and attainable, even when others encourage her to want more. Over a few months, they develop a connection that defies definition, a situation that leaves Edie queasy with fear and tingly with possibility.

Edie and Harlow (and the rest of their new unwieldy family) do an elaborate dance, trying to discover just what they are to one another. When Edie thinks she’s figured him out, Harlow reveals a depth and darkness she didn’t see coming. By Labour Day, they’ve created connections, tested boundaries, and found they've come together and apart in unexpected ways.

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