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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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12 Books I Can't Get Out of My Mind

I can’t fall asleep unless I’ve torn through the pages of an excellent novel first, and I probably read three or four books a week. I devour commercial fiction in all different genres, and it’s not easy to narrow down my favourites. But the following twelve books, in no particular order, are the reads that I just can’t get out of my mind because they’re that spectacular.

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The Arrangement, by Robyn Harding

I’ve inhaled all of Robyn Harding’s books, but The Arrangement really hooked me right from the first line. Take Natalie, a desperate art student; a sugar baby website; Gabe, a rich, older man; add in a murder, and you’ve got the most tantalizing story-line. It's a fantastic, emotional, twisted, perfectly paced read, set against a vivid New York City backdrop, and is so seductive I couldn’t put it down.

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Hurry Home, by Ro …

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Reese's Book Club: CanLit Match-Ups

Reese Witherspoon knows how to pick 'em—she's well on her way to becoming the Oprah's Book Club of our time. Our only criticism? Her books aren't Canadian enough. So to remedy that, we've paired some of her stellar picks with Canadian counterparts. Definitely keep these in mind for your book club and when you're planning your next great read. 

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Book Cover The Secrets We Kept

If you liked The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott, then try....

A Killer in Kings Cove, by Iona Whishaw (and the rest of the books in the Lane Winslow Mystery series)

Why we picked it: Historical fiction fans (who love a bit of Soviet intrigue) will love this series about a brilliant ex-spy who tries to settle down for a quieter life in British Columbia after World War Two, but who finds that mystery follows her wherever she goes. 

About the book: It is 1946, and war-weary young ex-intelligence officer Lane Winslow leaves London to look for a fresh start. When she finds herself happily settled into a sleepy hamlet in the interior of British Columbia surrounded by a suitably eclectic cast of small-town chara …

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Marissa Stapley on Commercial Fiction in Canada

Book Cover Mating for Life

My first encounter with Marissa Stapley was through her bestselling novel, Mating For Life, which I adored for its smarts and abject bookishness—not enough novels have references to Lauren Groff's debut, The Monsters of Templeton, I think. Since then, I've also come to admire Stapley as a reader and a critic, particularly in her role as commercial fiction columnist for The Globe and Mail. Her work and literary championing has made me curious about commercial fiction as a genre, and also how it fits into the Canadian literary scene.

In this Q&A, Stapley delivers the lowdown.

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KC: So let’s start with the hardest, biggest question: what is commercial fiction? Where do its boundaries blur? Are there boundaries at all?

MS: There are some books that fall firmly into one category or the other—but most books don’t. When I pressed myself to try to come up with an answer for you, one that seemed to reflect the opinion of many, all I could come up with was: commercial fiction is focused on plot and entertainment and less on the craft of writing; literary fiction is less focused on plot and doesn’t care if it’s entertaining, because it’s art.

Oh, how I hate that answer! It’s too general. It marginalizes and excludes. And while I do understand the need to lab …

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