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Interviews, Recommendations, and More

Shelf Talkers: February 2024

Greetings from Victoria!

I'm pleased to bring you another batch of recommendations from the booksellers of the Shelf Talkers community, the finest of Canada’s independent booksellers. (Plus, a new bookseller has joined us – please welcome Victoria’s Russell Books!) Don’t limit yourself to these recommendations, of course – get in touch with your favourite independent bookseller and ask what they would recommend!

Next time I write this column, it'll be spring! See you then.



The Bookseller: Megan Pickering, Blue Heron Books (Uxbridge, ON)
The Pick: Black Boys Like Me, by Matthew R Morris
I loved getting into Matthew's head in this book. You really can feel the way he was trying to fit the mold he thought necessary for his young social survival. Finding himself later in life only to be questioned about it really got under my skin, and his perseverance is something to be admired. A great read.



The Bookseller: David Worsley, Words Worth Books (Waterloo, ON)
The Pick: What We Buried, by Robert Rotenberg
Robert Rotenberg's What We Buried – largely a standalone, but with a nod on several levels to his beloved Toronto-based crime series of the last decade – parks a light on a cold case. Recurring character Daniel Kennicott always believed his brother's murder had to do with his upcoming trip to Italy. It's ten years later, and colleagues quietly working the case have uncovered a decades-old connection to the murder and are now worried for Daniel. This necessitates his own trip to Italy to confront his past and that of the residents of a bucolic Italian village still grappling with Second World War era atrocities and the weight of history. Robert Rotenberg has stretched a great series with What We Buried, and he continues to find new ways for crime fiction to speak to who we are and were. I'll read anything with Rotenberg’s name on it.



The Bookseller: Hilary Atleo, Iron Dog Books (Tsleil-Waututh, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and Musqueam territories - Vancouver,BC)
The Pick: The Other Valley, by Scott Alexander Howard
The Other Valley is extremely well written, full of artful observations, and with a totally gripping plot. I had to stay up until 12:45AM so I could read all the way to the end!



The Bookseller: Chris Hall of McNally Robinson (Winnipeg, MN)
The Picks:
Cold, by Drew Hayden Taylor
Known for the humour in his writing, Taylor offers a novel sure to beat the winter blues. Part thriller, part murder mystery, part horror novel, Cold features four characters with seemingly little connecting them, who realize that someone, or something, is hunting them all.


Dominion: The Railway and the Rise of Canada, by Stephen Bown
The story of the race to plan and build a railway across Canada before the US assumed much of its western territory. Greed, corruption and hubris tainted the wins of investors while costs were borne by Indigenous peoples as well as thousands of labourers.

The Bookstore: Russell Books (Victoria, BC)
Katya’s pick:


A Town Called Solace, by Mary Lawson
Clara lives in Solace – a lonely concrete place in the forests of Northern Ontario, with one open cafe, an ugly library, and inhabitants who keep themselves to themselves. She keeps watch at her window, waiting for her missing sister, Rose, to return. She wonders where her friend, Mrs Orchard, has gone and who will look after her cat, Moses. She watches as a strange man moves into her neighbour's empty house. Seen through the eyes of Clara, Mrs Orchard and Liam Kane, the newcomer to Solace, this is a tender story of love, longing and grief. A nominee for the 2021 Booker, A Town Called Solace demonstrates Lawson’s prowess in crafting characters and a place which get under your skin.


Emma’s pick:
Awake and Dreaming, by Kit Pearson

Nine-year-old Theo has spent most of her life in poverty, bouncing between apartments and schools with her young and unreliable mother, all the while longing for a "real" and perfect family. In a twist of fate, her dream appears to come true when she mysteriously finds herself a part of the warm and welcoming Kaldor family. But can this magic last forever, or is perfection doomed to fade away?

This book is a childhood read that has stuck with me throughout the years – it is clear that Pearson respects and understands the depths of emotion that children experience. She spins a story that is at once both magical and heartbreaking.


Jenna’s Pick:
Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
A captivating and masterly crafted work from Atwood that I don’t hear nearly enough people talking about. Alias Grace is a fictionalized retelling of a real double-murder that took place in the mid 1800’s outside of Toronto. The story centres around 16-year-old Grace Marks, who has been accused and sentenced for the murder of her employer and his housekeeper. Grace, however, has no memory of the murders. Although many believe Grace is guilty, some believe in her innocence. We first meet Grace while she is imprisoned at the Kingston Penitentiary and learn of her troubled story through her conversations with a rising expert in the study of mental illness, who aims to surface her memories of the day she can’t remember.
This is a slower paced, but incredibly compelling read that has long stuck with me.



The Bookseller: Colin Holt, Bolen Books (Victoria, BC)
The Pick: NOMEANSNO: From Obscurity to Oblivion, by Jason Lamb
Jason Lamb has put together an oral history of one of the greatest Canadian bands you've likely never heard of. Nomeansno: From Obscurity to Oblivion is a visually stunning, highly entertaining look at a band that toured the world while intentionally making decisions that would keep them from becoming a household name. A great read for any music fan.



The Bookseller: Mary-Ann Yazedjian, Book Warehouse Main Street (Vancouver, BC)
The Pick: The Librarianist, by Patrick deWitt

I highly recommend this story of retired librarian Bob Comet, whose quiet life and routines are interrupted by a woman in pink and the residents of the care home in which she resides.

As I learned Bob's history – his failed marriage, his quirky friends, and the time he ran away from home when he was 11 and met two eccentric elderly travelling actresses – I fell more and more in love with the character. This book is poignant, witty, and wistful, and is just what you expect from master storyteller Patrick deWitt.



The Bookseller: Michelle Berry, bookseller emeritus (Peterborough, ON)
The Pick: The Mystery Guest, by Nita Prose
In The Mystery Guest, Molly the Maid is back. If you enjoyed The Maid, this sequel is another delightful romp with the Head Maid at the Regency Grand Hotel. Molly, a super-clean, intensely focused, grandmother-quoting maid on the autistic spectrum, discovers another murder. This time it’s a famous mystery author with a secret. The staff and guests of the Hotel play off each other in humorous ways as they try to solve the mystery and Molly’s childhood memories become centre stage. A fun, snowy season read.


The Bookseller: Jo Treggiari, Block Shop Books (Lunenburg, NS)
The Adult Picks:


Roar, by Shelley Thompson
A lyrical, immersive story of resilience, family and community told in multiple points of view and set in rural Nova Scotia. The MacInnes family is grieving the loss of Miranda, the loving mother who was the glue that held them all together. For the first time in five years, Dawn is coming home and she is coming as her true self. Not as Donald who left all those years ago. Dawn has found self-acceptance and self-love through her transition, as well as a new, loving, supportive chosen family in Halifax. Coming home means facing her sister and father and the old life she left behind, and discovering new allies while also navigating small-mindedness and bigotry. This is a powerful, touching story of change, and forgiveness, love and the heart of a small community.


Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue by Christine Higdon
Set in 1920s' Vancouver, this deftly-drawn portrait of the four McKenzie sisters touches on many topics that are still relevant today – reproductive rights, addiction, war, pandemics, infertility, feminism, and sexual identity – and weaves them seamlessly into a larger saga of a family grieving intense loss. Georgina, Isla, Morag, and Harriet are complex and flawed and they have messy lives holding many secrets from one another. We gain insight into each of them through the multiple-viewpoint narrative. Adding some whimsy are the chapters narrated by the rescued beagle, Rue, who has quite the way with words.

At the opening of the story, we meet Isla, who is on the threshold of death after a back-alley abortion. Her sister, Morag, is married to a police officer who is assigned to find the man who performed it, while harbouring complex feelings and secrets of his own. Harriet, the youngest, cares for her opium-addicted mother and is in love with her enigmatic friend, Flore. And Georgina, the eldest, is feeling trapped in her marriage and yearning for a lost love. An evocative and beautifully rendered story of sisterhood, forgiveness, and strength.


Roaming, by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

The award-winning Tamaki cousins join forces once again, in this queer coming of age graphic novel that follows highschool best friends and now college students, Zoe and Dani as they reunite to explore New York City, accompanied by Dani's classmate, the highly-opinionated and magnetic Fiona. Each character is fully-fleshed out and the dialogue zings.

The trio navigate inner conflicts, and relationships as they immerse themselves in tourist traps, museums, and pizza joints. Reading like a nostalgic love letter to nineties' NYC and encapsulating the messiness of young adulthood, we're transported back in time through the gorgeous and breathtaking illustrations.


The middle grade picks:
You Owe Me One, Universe by Chad Lucas

Brian and Ezra's story continues in this sequel to Thanks A Lot, Universe. Haligonian author Lucas excels at mixing poignant real-life concerns with humour and plenty of heart. Although there are deep themes throughout this middle-grade book – Ezra's coming out hasn't been as smooth as he hoped, and Brian's struggles with anxiety and depression following his father's incarceration are darkly realistic – Lucas focuses on friendship and a solid support system of peers and family to provide a good foundation for the two boys. Brian gains confidence on the basketball court and talks through his panic attacks with his therapist, and Ezra, forced to come out to the basketball team, navigates conflicting feelings he's having for a former
school bully. Tender, honest and complex with many laugh-out-loud moments.


Weird Rules to Follow, by Kim Spencer
This middle-grade book swept the Canadian awards season, scooping up three of the five Canadian Children's Book Centre prizes. It's written in snippets, almost like a diary, from the lyrical voice of eleven-year-old Mia. We follow her coming-of-age in 1980s' Prince Rupert and her growing
awareness of the differences between her Indigenous experience and that of her best friend Lara. Although Mia's family is poor, they are close-knit and  living, and the passages about family trips are especially rich. This is a gentle book, sensitive, warm and funny. The first-person narrative is immersive and it speaks volumes about prejudice, micro-aggression and growing apart.



The Bookseller: Bree, Audreys Books (Edmonton, AB)
The Picks:
Queers Like Me, by Michael V. Smith
A poetry collection about small-town queerness, strained family relationships, and grief. It's honest, heartbreaking, and hilarious all in one.


Bunny, by Mona Awad
Bunny is about MFA student Samantha, who is part of a cohort with the Bunnies, a group of girls who all dress, talk, and speak as a hivemind. One night, Samantha is invited to the Bunnies' smut-salon (a reading of smutty prose and poetry), and things quickly take a dark turn. It's a cross between Mean Girls and Heathers with a supernatural spin that balances dread with dark humour.

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