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Darn Good Books: Popular Fiction from the Past

One of my personal missions is to remind Canadians—and especially young Canadian writers—that popular fiction has deep roots in this country, and that we used to celebrate it. We can debate why the Governor General's Literary Awards (aka the GGs) have gone from being a fiction award embracing all genres to one narrowly focused on literary fiction, but we should remember those former winners, just as we should remember which Governor General helped create the awards in the first place: our 15th Governor General John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, himself a prolific writer who, of all his many works, was best known for his 28 popular novels of adventure, including his classic spy novel The 39 Steps.

"What we are trying to do," explained one of the GGs' founders, Globe & Mail book review editor William Arthur Deacon, in 1940, "is crown good books, the 'best' books by a plain, common-sense standard. E.g. we won’t just pick the current best-seller because it is popular; but neither will we choose some obscure thing that the public would not bother with. We want quality, merit, but of the sort that people will want to buy and like to read. A spotlight for 'darn good books.'"

Here are a few of them.


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8 Books that Shaped Me As a Writer

My debut novel Looking for Jane explores multiple facets of motherhood over the course of several decades, as well as the feminist movement for reproductive choice in Canada. So I'll begin with one of my favourite feminist reads, and one that undoubtedly shaped my interest in reading and writing about the lives of women.


Book Cover Unless

Unless, by Carol Shields

This was probably my first adult feminist read during my formative years. My mother recommended it to me, and it's always stood as an example of truly outstanding, exceptional writing talent to which I can only dream of aspiring! It's also a profound example of the power that exists in writing about the lives of ordinary women. My debut novel Looking for Jane is about exactly that: a group of everyday women who exhibited extraordinary courage in standing up to an unjust system. Unless is also what we would today call a bit "meta" in that it explores the ways in which "women's fiction"—which really translates to any book in any genre that features and speaks primarily to women—is sidelined as lesser than in …

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Powerful Stories That Matter

Stella's Carpet, a brand new novel from Lucy E.M. Black, is described by award-winning novelist Brad Smith as "a treat—a multi-national, multi-generational gem of a novel about family, loss and the ties that bind. Lucy Black writes with heart, verve . . . and oodles of talent.”

In addition to being a writer, Black is also a prolific reader, and we're pleased to feature her list of other powerful stories.


The Good Son, by Carolyn Huizinga Mills

The Good Son, by Carolyn Huizinga Mills is an entirely believable suspense novel, with a twist. Zoe, the mid-thirties protagonist, was traumatized by the kidnapping and murder of her six year-old neighbour.  Zoe was herself a child at the time, and knows that she saw something significant. Yet the difference between what Zoe believes she saw, and what she actually saw becomes a defining feature of her life. In addition, the information Zoe shared with adults versus the information she deliberately withheld continues to haunt her, and has lingering consequences for her intimate relationships.  When the col …

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Shattering Effects: Living With Violence and War

Peacekeeper’s Daughter is the astonishing story of a French-Canadian military family stationed in Israel and Lebanon in 1982-1983. Told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl, Peacekeeper’s Daughter parchutes the reader into the Lebanese Civil War, the Palestinian crisis, and the wave of terrorism—including the bombing of the American Embassy—that ravaged Beirut at the height of the siege. This novelistic memoir moves from Jerusalem to Tiberius, from the disputed No-Man’s Land of the Golan Heights to Damascus, and on to Beirut by way of Tripoli, crossing borders that remain closed to this day.

In this list, Tanya Bellehumeur-Allatt shares five works of fiction and five memoirs about terrorism and war.


Rue des Rosiers, by Rhea Trebegov

Winner of the Nancy Richler Award for fiction, Rue des Rosiers is an engrossing historical coming-of-age story with a timely examination of hatred’s long consequences. The novel is set in Toronto, Winnipeg and Paris in the spring and summer of 1982. Its 25-year-old protagonist, Sarah Levine, finds …

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Eavesdropping on Other Lives, Real and Imagined

Historical fiction and books of social history featuring the lives of not really “ordinary” people, recommended by Lesley Krueger, author of the new novel Time Squared


Most of the books I write are set at least partly in the past, so my reading often takes me back—back into social history and into novels and poems written or set historically. It can be research, but since these are also the type of books I love, work becomes a pleasure. (I try not to think about the pleasure being partly work.)

As a writer, I’m preoccupied with why things happen. How did we get where we find ourselves? We all know the answer sometimes lies in the moment. Impulse. But of course we often act out of long-term beliefs, traumas or societal expectations, whether we’re fulfilling them or fighting them. These eight books by Canadian authors have taken me deep into the question of "Why?"

I also love the way they let me eavesdrop on other lives, real and imagined, since eavesdropping is surely part of reading, too.


They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Tra …

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Crime Fiction, True Crime, Historical Mysteries, and History

Enter for your chance to win a copy of The Keening on our Giveaways Page!

My first eleven books are known as the Collins-Burke mystery series, revolving around the trials and tribulations of my two main characters. Monty Collins is a Halifax criminal lawyer who lets off steam by singing in his blues band, Functus. Father Brennan Burke is priest whose family emigrated from Ireland to New York City under a cloud. Burke is now a choirmaster in Halifax, but aside from his musical brilliance he is hardly a choirboy. He is fond of a drink, uses salty language, and has occasionally let a pretty face compromise his vows, but he stays the course as a priest of God. Monty and Brennan sometimes work together, and sometimes inadvertently against each other, as they try to solve the murders that happen on their turf.

My new book is a departure from the series. The Keening: A Mystery of Gaelic Ireland is a stand-alone historical novel. I’ll be returning to the Collins-Burke series for my future novels!

Like any other writer, I love reading! I read a lot of history, philosophy, politics and, of course, good fiction. My list here includes some of my favourite genres, books that I have enjoyed or that have influenced my own writing: crime fiction, true crime, historical mysteries, …

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Books that Bring the Past to Life

"Music and hope navigate the treacherous waters of the pre-war period in this detailed, well-researched novel about perseverance and the power of self-discovery," writes bestseller Genevieve Graham about Claudette on the Keys, the debut novel by Joanne Culley.

In this list, Culley recommends her own favourites by Genevieve Graham, along with other historical fiction gems.


The Forgotten Home Child, by Genevieve Graham

About the book: This fictional account of the Barnardo Home Children is based on true stories discovered during the author's interviews with former Barnardo children who came to North America from the British Isles as well as their descendants.


Rabbit Foot Bill, by Helen Humphreys

About the book: A gripping book about a relationship between a young boy and an older free-spirited man on the prairies after the Second World …

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The Chat with Kathleen Winter

Kathleen Winter_ © Roger LeMoyne

Undersong is garnering rave reviews. Janet Somerville, writing in the Toronto Star, says the novel is "compelling, gracefully written, poignant and profound ... a stunning, spellbinding, poetic triumph." A starred review in Quill & Quire calls the novel "luminous" and "consistently elegant and original."

Kathleen Winter’s novel Annabel was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the First Novel Award, the Orange Prize, and numerous other awards. It was also a Globe and Mail "Best Book," a New York Times "Notable" book, a Quill & Quire "Book of the Year" and a #1 bestseller in Canada. It has been published and translated worldwide. Her Arctic memoir Boundless (2014) was shortlisted for Canada's Weston and Taylor non-fiction prizes, and her last novel Lost in September (2017) was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award. Born in the UK, Winter now lives in Montreal after many years in Newfoundland.



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Quick Hits: 5 Gems You Don't Want to Miss

In Quick Hits, we look through our stacks to bring you books that, when they were published, elicited a lot of reaction and praise. Our selections will include books published this year, last year, or any year. They will be from any genre. The best books are timeless, and they deserve to find readers whenever and wherever.


Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, by Norma Dunning

Genre: Short stories

Publisher: University of Alberta Press

What It's About

I woke up with Moses Henry’s boot holding open my jaw and my right eye was looking into his gun barrel. I heard the slow words, “Take. It. Back.” I know one thing about Moses Henry; he means business when he means business. I took it back and for the last eight months I have not uttered Annie Mukluk’s name.

In strolls Annie Mukluk in all her mukiness glory. Tonight she has gone traditional. Her long black hair is wrapped in intu’dlit braids. Only my mom still does that. She’s got mukluks, real mukluks on and she’s wearing the old-style caribou parka. It must be something her grandma gave her. No one makes that anymore. She’s got the faint black eyeliner showing off those brown eyes and to top off her face she’s put pretend face tattooing on. We all know it’ll wash out tomorrow.

— from "Annie Muktuk"

When Se …

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Be Transported with Historical Fiction

Book Cover Daughter of Black Lake

Some books take us to another time and place. We smell woodsmoke and feel homespun against our skin. We hear the clang clang clang of a blacksmith at work in his forge. The world of the book appears as vividly to the reader as does her own reality. It’s what I strive for in my own work, including my latest novel, Daughter of Black Lake.

For my list, I’ve chosen historically set fiction where an author has shown mastery in transporting us to another time and place.


Elizabeth Hay’s A Student of Weather tells the story of two prairie sisters in love with the same man. Though I read the novel two decades ago, I can still call up the 1930s dust bowl of the sisters’ childhood and the blizzard from which the sisters’ love interest appeared.


Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries is the fictional century-long biography of Daisy Goodwill Fl …

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Exploring Sister Bonds

One of our most anticipated debuts of the season, Bryn Turnbull's The Woman Before Wallis, tells the true story of the American divorcée who captured Prince Edward’s heart before he abdicated his throne for Wallis Simpson. But it's also the story of a pair of sisters, and in her recommended reading list for us, Turnbull explores other titles that illuminate this bond.


The bonds between sisters can be loving, fraught, conflicted, and challenging—often, they’re all four at once. Compared to books about brothers, sister bonds may seem like a seldom-explored familial bond, but as the books below show, they’re an incredible source of inspiration for authors and readers alike.


The Quintland Sisters, by Shelley Wood

The Dionne Quintuplets were a media sensation in the 1930s—the first five identical sisters to survive past birth, they were a symbol of optimism in depression-era North America, so much so that thousands of visitors would flock to North Bay to see the girls in their purpose-built nursery-cum-tourist-attraction. As doctors, politi …

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Launchpad: The War Widow, by Tara Moss

Launchpad Logo

This spring we've made it our mission (even more than usual) to celebrate new releases in the wake of cancelled launch parties, book festivals, and reading series. With 49th Shelf Launchpad, we're holding virtual launch parties here on our platform complete with witty banter and great insight to give you a taste of the books on offer. You can request these books from your local library, get them as e-books or audio books, order them from your local indie bookseller if they're delivering, buy them direct from the publisher or from online retailers.

Today we're launching The War Widow, by Tara Moss, described as "Retro noir with a gutsy heroine and atmospheric setting...vivid, page-turning historical crime."


The Elevator Pitch. Tell us about your book in a sentence.

The war may be officially over, but stylish private investigator and former war reporter Billie Walker is plunged right back into the danger she thought she’d left behind in Europe, in this thrilling tale set in glamorous 1940s Sydney.

Describe your ideal reader.

Anyone who loves a good …

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