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10 Books Where the Imaginary Threatens the Real

A recommended reading list by the author of the new novel Play.

Book Cover Play

Play, the new book by Jess Taylor, is up for giveaway until the end of April.

Visit our Giveaways Page for your chance to win and to take a look at everything else we've got on offer!


In this list, I feature Canadian books by women and non-binary writers who explore how imaginary and dream worlds influence the characters’ real lives. These writers are departing from the Canadian literary realist tradition to write books that bring elements of horror, fantasy, and the surreal to make lasting commentaries on trauma.

Within my debut novel, Play, I looked at how the imaginary has the power to shape and influence the real, how it can disrupt lives, yet also has the power to heal. Paul, my protagonist, is searching for healing from childhood trauma that centred around an imaginary city, The Lighted City, that took over her and her cousin Adrian’s playtime. The story is told in three parts: through The Lighted City and the cousins’ childhood games; Paul in her mid-twenties, grieving Adrian and still caught up in her childhood trauma; and Paul in her mid-thirties, determined to create a life despite “everything that happened”.


Book Cover Lesser Known Monsters

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, by Kim Fu

Kim Fu’s short story collection was a finalist for the Giller Prize, and from its first sentences, it’s easy to tell why. This collection is deeply imaginative. I especially resonated with the story, “Liddy, First to Fly,” about a young girl who sprouts wings just as she and her friend group start to leave pretend games behind.


Book Cover Bad Cree

Bad Cree, by Jessica Johns

In Bad Cree, Jessica Johns’ protagonist Mackenzie is experiencing her dreams breaking into her reality. Haunted, Mackenzie tries to make sense of what’s happening to her and how this is all related to her family. My favourite thing about Bad Cree is the voice: immediately the book captures you with raw details about what is happening to Mackenzie in both her waking and dream lives.


Book Cover the WEather INside

The Weather Inside, by Emily Saso

The Weather Inside features a protagonist, Avery, who is still caught up in her past: she is a recovering Jehovah’s Witness who experienced grief and abuse in childhood. As her husband begins to return to the religion, Avery starts to experience a haunting. Uniquely, Avery’s haunting is made of weather; as she experiences shifting emotions or triggered trauma, the world will turn to ice or cold gusts of air. These changes are only perceived by Avery. I love the creative interpretation of Avery’s internal struggles.


Book Cover Monkey Beach

Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson

When I first did a booklist for 49th Shelf when Pauls came out in 2015, it turns out I also included Monkey Beach on that. I will forever be including Monkey Beach on every booklist I make, as it’s one of my favourite books of all time. Within Monkey Beach, Eden Robinson draws on spiritual elements, Haida folklore, and other fantastical elements to add dimension and verity to her main character Lisa-Marie. It’s such a rich book and will stay in your mind like it has mine.


Book Cover Burr

Burr, by Brooke Lockyer

Burr is a work of gothic fiction that takes place in Southern Ontario. Brooke Lockyer uses her protagonist Jane’s strange relationship with a local eccentric Ernest to examine the lasting hold grief has. In parallel, Jane’s mother Meredith stumbles across a bedroom in a forest and begins to construct a shrine to her husband. Full of hauntings, seances, beautiful imagery, and spooky houses, Burr is as fun to read as it is moving. 


Book Cover Rouge

Rouge, by Mona Awad

Rouge by Mona Awad, best known for Bunny, came out this past fall and was an instant bestseller. Tackling the cult-like atmosphere of the beauty industry, Rouge follows the adventure of Mirabelle, who upon the death of her mother needs to settle her affairs and box up her apartment. While doing this, she is drawn into the cult-like spa her mother was involved in which unleashes all sorts of past trauma and hauntings that Mirabelle has experienced related to beauty. A modern fairy tale full of surrealism, the book culminates with one of the most touching moments I’ve read.


Anticipated Books for 2024

This is going to be a great spring launch season, and looking through the titles, there are so many that excite me. These three deal with hauntings, imaginary worlds, and secret societies, and I can’t wait to start reading.


Book Cover the Invisible Hotel

The Invisible Hotel, by Yeji Y. Hen

I’m fascinated by the way The Invisible Hotel promises to use dreamscapes and fantasy to lead to truth about history and collective trauma. In this book, the protagonist keeps dreaming of a gruesome hotel with infinite rooms and rotting bones in a bathtub. These dreams lead her to the truth about Korea’s collective trauma. 


Book Cover Grey Dog

Grey Dog, by Elliot Gish

A take on female rage, Grey Dog draws on elements of horror to create a book that disrupts women’s historical fiction. I know this book is going to be a great fit for readers who love a little genre-bending in their literary fiction. Like my book, traumatic memory and confusion about what is real permeate the story.


Book Cover Bird Suit

Bird Suit, by Sydney Hegele

Syndey Hegele has proved themselves to be a unique voice in Canadian fiction with their short story collection, The Pump, and Bird Suit promises to take Hegele’s unique worlds and imagination into the kind of depth you can only reach with a novel. I can’t wait to discover protagonist Georgia Jackson, learn about Port Peter, and uncover the secrets of the bird women.


Book Cover Play

Learn more about Play:

Paul (Paulina) Hayes loves her cousin Adrian. Inseparable from a young age, they play The Lighted City, an imaginary world where they pretend to live together and can escape a childhood that seems both too sad and too grown-up. But The Lighted City isn’t without danger.

Years later, Paul is struggling with PTSD after a season of turmoil—one in which Adrian is dead, and radio and television are filled with reports of missing children. Just as stability is settling into her life and relationships, Paul is dragged back into the fate that Adrian seems to have scripted for them. And so she finds herself journeying across the country, down into a ravine, and back to The Lighted City, where so much of her childhood played out. Only by doing so can she begin to come to terms with “the day everything happened”—and what has unfolded since then.

With a unique blend of contemporary storytelling and psychological fiction, Play is a haunting, riveting novel that reminds us of both the beauty and danger of imagination.

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