Eventually, at some point, we’re going to just have to stop talking about how weird everything is, right?
I mean, it would certainly help if things weren’t so weird on such an ongoing basis.
Look at this summer, for example. We’ve got scorching highs, record rains, and unreasonable balminess, which sounds pretty standard for a Canadian summer until you realize those weather blips are all occurring in the wrong places. Victoria, for example, where one expects rain no matter the season, is now a month-and-a-half worth of rainless days in a row. And let’s not even talk about the heat dome. Please, I’m begging you. No more heat dome. I want to just forget it, as quickly as possible.
As we have come to learn over the last year and a half, when caught in times of weirdness, we are best advised to hold on to what stability and familiarity we can.
And, of course, for many of us, that means books. It might be a weird summer, but it’s a summer nonetheless, and there is no better season for reading. So strip down, or swaddle up (I leave it up to you and whatever your current weather system is doing), and dig into these recommendations from independent booksellers across the country. And if you can make it outside without wilting (or being swept away), visit your local independent bookseller for even more recommendations.
The Bookseller: Liz Greenaway, Audreys Books (Edmonton, AB)
Ghost Forest, by Pik-Shuen Fung
This is a beautiful book I expect to go back to. It's a family living in Vancouver adjusting to life with an "astronaut" father—a father still living in Hong Kong when the family immigrates to Canada before the Hong Kong takeover. Though billed as a book about grief—I'm not spoiling anything, that's all over the cover—I found it was a slim, lovely book that got the words right about family, and love, and how we show love among the generations. I love this book. Highly recommend.
The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, by Kim Izzo
I love all things Pride and Prejudice, so am likely to give books and movies a try if they have a Pride and Prejudice twist.
Kate Shaw, an acting beauty editor for a big magazine, suddenly finds herself about to be jobless, homeless, and single. She pitches to her editor for one last article—how to find yourself a man and money through the guidelines of Pride and Prejudice, published two hundred years ago by Jane Austen. What starts as an article turns into Kate's real-life quest, taking her to England. But in her new persona as Lady Kate, whom can she trust and can this hare-brained scheme really work?
Fun for a rainy weekend for the Austen fan.
Everyone in this Room Will Someday be Dead, by Emily Austin
I loved this novel and totally feel for its main character, Gilda. Gilda is unmotivated, maybe depressed, and accidentally takes a job in a Catholic church because she is unable to articulate that she was there for their counselling sessions. I stayed riveted even as Gilda's lies start to swarm around her putting her relationships at risk.
There's lots of humour in this sweet book, and lots that's real and sad. I'm guessing you'll be rooting for Gilda as well.
The Bookseller: Michelle Berry, Hunter Street Books (Peterborough, ON)
The Pick: A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozecki
Published in 2013, Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for The Time Being would easily fit into a great summer reading list. It's a novel about 16-year-old Noo, a Japanese-American who is now living in Tokyo. Bullied and lonely in her new school, Noo discovers her great-grandmother's diary. A Buddhist nun, her great-grandmother's words, and life change Noo in more ways than she can imagine. A second thread in the book is the one of Ruth, a novelist (autobiographical? based on the author herself?), who lives on an island on the West Coast. Ruth collects things during her daily walks and starts to collect what has washed up on the shore from Japan after the 2011 tsunami. A Hello Kitty box containing odd bits and pieces of life may be her connection to Noo.
This is a mysterious, enigmatic book full of different cultures and moods and thoughts. It's funny and wise and sorrowful, all at the same time. I loved this book. Ruth Ozeki has a new novel coming out in September 2021, The Book of Form and Emptiness. My suggestion would be to read A Tale for the Time Being as a summer read and then dive into the new one for early fall.
The Bookseller: Deborah Hines, Audreys Books (Edmonton, AB)
The Pick: Last Impressions, by Joseph Kertes
I recommend Last Impressions by Joseph Kertes. The protagonist, Zoltan, is dying of prostate cancer. The sons are there to support and one of the sons tells us the story of Zoltan's life from his early history in Hungary to his time in Canada. It is laugh-out-loud funny in parts; Zoltan is outrageous but also sad. It was so good that I looked up other titles by Kertes!
The Bookseller: Christie Shaw Roome, Salt Spring Books (Salt Spring Island, BC)
The Pick: Five Little Indians, by Michelle Good
Michelle Good’s beautifully braided narrative is the first of its kind to use fiction as a mechanism for answering the question “why can’t they just get over it?.” It has been published almost concurrently with the uncovering of over 1,000 (so far) unmarked graves of children who died at residential school. These schools were born out of the Indian Act, run in partnership by the government and the church, and were mandated to "kill the Indian in the child."
Through alternating points of view, Good tells the story of five young Indigenous people who must figure out how to navigate life after being released from residential school. Not only are they only teenagers, but they are traumatized from years of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. They must rely on their own wits as they search for one another and for a community that will support them.
Through the fictionalized lives of her characters—Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie and Maisie—Good is able give us a snapshot of the inherent struggle that ensues when an entire group of people are pushed aside and not given the resources to heal. It is a crucial story for those who are starting to learn about residential schools and the horrific acts of racism perpetrated towards Indigenous peoples, both in the past and in the present.
It should be mandatory reading in every grade 11/12 Canadian classroom.
The Bookseller: Barbara Pope, The Mulberry Bush Bookstore (Qualicum Beach, BC)
The Pick: The Son of the House, by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia
This beautiful and powerful novel, set in Nigeria, explores the lives of Nwabulu, a tall, beautiful housemaid who dreams of becoming a typist, and Julie, an older, educated, and entrepreneurial dress designer. When the two women are kidnapped and held for ransom, they share their stories and discover that their lives are inextricably linked in ways they never imagined. Exquisite storytelling by this Canadian writer.
The Bookseller: Penny Dobbin, Misty River Books (Terrace, BC)
The Pick: The Captive, by Fiona King Foster
The Captive, by Fiona King Foster, is a powerfully written debut novel, with rich characters and edge-of-your-seat suspense! Part adventure and part crime, this enthralling tale keeps upending the reader’s expectations. The protagonist, Brooke Holland, is hiding from her past, trying to make a new life with her husband, Milo and daughters, Holly and Sal, on their cranberry farm. The past comes knocking on her door, when an escaped criminal, Stephen Cawley, attacks their farm. As Brooke attempts to protect her family and return Stephen to the authorities, one must wonder who is truly the captive: Stephen, who is gagged and tied up – or Brooke, who desperately tries to hide the truth from her family? A real heart-stopping page-turner!
The Bookseller: Chris Hall of McNally Robinson (Winnipeg, MN)
Sufferance, by Thomas King
Jeremiah Camp can translate what he sees in the heart of humanity into profits. But he’s feeling hopeless about what he’s seen and so he runs away. He ends up in an old residential school where his past comes to call. King’s trademark mix of social commentary and fun.
What Strange Paradise, by Omar El Akkad
The author of American War is back with a new novel about a Syrian boy who risks everything to cross the Mediterranean in a boat and lands on a Greek island. He meets a young girl who tries to help him onward to a better future but the authorities have other ideas.
Probably Ruby, by Lisa Bird-Wilson
Ruby is an Indigenous woman who was adopted as an infant by a white family and has spent her life cut apart from her real family and roots. She’s self-destructive and brutally honest with a laugh that can fill a room and she is determined to squeeze the joy from what life has offered her.
The Bookseller: Erin Kirsh, Iron Dog Books (Tsleil-Waututh, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and Musqueam territories—Vancouver, BC)
The Pick: Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung
This is an addictive and stirring debut. It was a joy to be immersed in the lives and histories of the narrator's family; when I got to the end I felt a sense of loss at not being able to spend more time with them. The way this book makes sense of time and distance is dreamy in every sense of the word.
The Bookseller: David Worsley, Words Worth Books (Waterloo, ON)
Even So, by Lauren B. Davis
In a climate where entirely too many novels focus on bad things happening to plucky good people who overcome their lot in life, Lauren B. Davis has done something with Even So that very few authors would dare to do. She's fashioned characters who, whatever their station, are hard to like and who may not deserve much from those around them. She almost dares the reader to listen to their better angels and before I knew it, I was all in. I've found it easy to engage with all of her novels, but Even So is, for my money, Giller-worthy, and her high-water mark.
The Retreat, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi
This is a twisty, claustrophobic thrill ride of a story in which a group of arts-engaged people are staying at an Alberta facility to work on their craft when an avalanche cuts them off from the world. Maeve dreams of opening her own dance studio after fleeing a violent marriage, but her brief, welcome solitude vanishes when other guests are dispatched in mysterious deaths. I'm a sucker for locked-room mysteries, but there's much more here than just that.