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Interviews, Recommendations, and More

Shelf Talkers: Spring 2024

What a fantastic time of year this is!

No, I’m not talking about the coming of spring (though it seems, at least here in Victoria, that the long winter of our discontent may have finally come to an end). No, I’m talking about the weeks following Canadian Independent Bookstore Day.

Celebrated every year on the last Saturday in April, CIBD serves as a potent reminder of the value of the independent bookstores in our communities. Every year, I spend the following few weeks riding that high (once a bookseller, always a bookseller), revelling in the bookselling community receiving the attention they so richly deserve.

Of course, readers of this column probably don’t need that annual reminder – the independent booksellers of the Shelf Talkers community are here for you (just like they are in their actual stores) sharing their picks for the best of Canadian writers and books year-round.

Celebrate spring with this round-up of their recommendations, and make sure you stop by your local independent in person: they’re grand people, in great stores, just waiting for you.


The Bookseller: Kathy, The Mulberry Bush Bookstore (Qualicum Beach, BC)
The Pick: The Good Women of Safe Harbour, by Bobbi French
This is the story of Frances Delaney and the simple life she lives as a result of tragic circumstances in her childhood. “I haven’t lived the life I wanted – I’ve lived the one that happened.”

At the age of 58 and facing a terminal diagnosis, Frances finally takes control of her life and chooses how it will end.

The Good Women of Safe Harbour is a heartwarming, tragic, often funny book about women, friendship, love, and loss. This is a book that will stay with you long after you turn the last page. I put off finishing it as I did not want to let the characters go. Read this book with a box of tissues by your side!



The Bookseller: Shelley Macbeth, Blue Heron Books (Uxbridge, ON)
The Pick: The Other Valley, by Scott Alexander Howard
The Other Valley, by Scott Alexander Howard, utilizes an interesting and well-crafted premise, a rich coming-of-age story, and, at the same time, also explores a philosophical quandary – would you prefer to go forward or back in time?

Speculative fiction is not my go-to and yet I was immediately pulled into the story and definitely enjoyed the ride. I predict a long life for this one.


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


The Pick: To Our Graves, by Paul Nicholas Mason
St. Cuthbert's College is an eastern Ontario private school, with ties to its leafy community, a spacious campus, a storied commitment to superior education, and a small problem.

Dave Sommer is a Grade 12 student with a chequered past at the school and has been found dead in the school chapel.

Small-town cops, out-of-town detectives, and a smattering of smartly drawn characters – all the charges of an author who taught at a private school for years and knows the terrain. To Our Graves is a quickly paced crime novel with a slick finish.

Dark academia comes to Ontario. What's not to like?



The Bookseller: Chris Hall of McNally Robinson (Winnipeg, MN)
The Picks:
Dispersals: On Plants, Borders, and Belonging, by Jessica J Lee
This book’s starting point is plants and seeds, where they originate and how far afield they disperse, as well as how they are entangled in our human worlds. Lee draws parallels to understanding ourselves and makes connections which are surprising yet germane.


Crosses in the Sky: Jean de Brebeuf and the Destruction of Huronia, by Mark Bourrie
The arrival of Jesuit priests in Canada has long been accepted as the work of God, and Brebeuf is a Catholic saint whose martyrdom became a founding myth of Canada. Bourrie examines this story from the Indigenous perspective too, as they struggled to navigate a new world while their nation was being torn apart.

The Bookseller: Bree, Audreys Books (Edmonton, AB)


The Pick: Gender/Fucking: The Pleasures and Politics of Living in a Gendered Body, by Florence Ashley
Gender/Fucking is a wonderful mix of personal essays, poetry, and academic smut that touches on society's expectations of trans feminine people, queer joy, and unashamed sexuality. Some of my favourite parts of the book are the author's passages on recovering from their bottom surgery, and how it differed from their expectations and in some cases, alienated them from parts of their body. It's also hilarious, and contains references to Vine, My Chemical Romance, and Lord of the Rings. It's one of my favourite reads of the year.

The Bookseller: Colin Holt, Bolen Books (Victoria, BC)


The Pick: Our Crumbling Foundation, by Gregor Craigie
In Our Crumbling Foundation, author Gregor Craigie offers a look at the housing crisis gripping much of Canada. With passion, knowledge and empathy, Craigie discusses what others around the world are doing and provides hope in this ever-intensifying crisis.

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


Hold My Girl, by Charlene Carr
A complex, wonderfully written book on motherhood which also incorporates themes of racial identity, loss, betrayal, infertility, and pregnancy loss.

At an IVF clinic, the eggs of two women are switched. Tragically Tess's baby dies in utero and since then a series of choices have derailed her life.

Katherine, a Black woman who has struggled for many years with infertility, gives birth to Rose, her miracle baby, but worries because Rose's paler skin doesn't match her own. A year after Rose's birth news of the switch breaks and both women's lives are thrown into turmoil. With exquisite care and deft plotting Carr has crafted an engrossing, suspenseful novel which raises many moral questions and asks the reader to contemplate the grey areas between with care and compassion.


Hollow Bamboo, by William Ping
Hollow Bamboo is a unique piece of meta-fiction, and by turns a hilarious and harrowing account of the first Chinese immigrants to arrive in Newfoundland in the 1930s. In this, his first novel, Ping has created a cast of unforgettable characters who take root in our hearts, and fashioned a plot which hurtles between farce and horror. He doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities these men faced. Hunger, poverty, and incredible deprivation dog their days and nights. Daily injustices and anti-Chinese racism which continues to this day. The result is a real page-turner, almost cinematic in scope, which illuminates as much as it entertains.
The Bookseller: Michelle Berry, bookseller emeritus (Peterborough, ON)


The Pick: Breaking and Entering, by Don Gillmor
I’ve fallen in love with the writing of Don Gillmor.

Gillmor is an historical writer, a children’s writer, a journalist, a novelist, and a Governor General’s Award winner, and his writing is glorious.

I went on a binge last winter and read two of his novels, Mount Pleasant and Breaking and Entering, and then his award-winning memoir, To the River: Losing My Brother.

In Breaking and Entering, Bea, a hilarious middle-aged woman whose marriage is falling apart, whose mother has dementia, whose son only talks to her through the phone, takes up a new hobby. During an endless heat wave in Toronto, Bea gives into temptation and curiosity and decides to start breaking into houses and looking around, figuring out lives that aren’t hers and occasionally taking something small and unnoticeable.

This book is witty and layered and deep. It is real and thoughtful. You’ll love Bea and her faults. Gillmor is a sensitive, comical and profound writer.

After reading this one, move on to the rest of Gillmor’s work. You won’t be disappointed.

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