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2021: Books of the Year

These were the books this year that broke our hearts, made us laugh, posed the difficult questions, made us think, showed us how to connect the dots, provided hours of entertainment, and swept us away to all kinds of fascinating times and places—including (and maybe even especially) right now! 

And best of all? Every single title is up for giveaway right now.

Don't miss your chance to win one of these top-shelf reads!

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Dishonour in Camp 33, by Wayne Arthurson

About the book: Sergeant Neumann and the inmates of Camp 133 are back!

Even thousands of miles from the front lines, locked into a Canadian prisoner-of-war camp at the base of the Canadian Rockies, death isn't far away. For August Neumann, head of Camp Civil Security and decorated German war hero, this is the reality. Chef Schlipal has been found dead in Mess #3, a knife in his back.

Now it's up to Neumann to find out what would drive the men of the camp, brothers-in-arms, to turn on each other. He's learned, of course, that beneath the veneer of duty and honour, the camp is anything but civil.

When the trail of clues ends at the edge of the prison yard, Neumann must consider the crime bigger than the camp. Is someone getting out of the prison? If so, can he follow? If he can't, he might have to live with the dishonour of Camp 133.

Read Wayne Arthurson's Indigenous Books List

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Out of Mind, by David Bergen

About the book: In Out of Mind, David Bergen delves into the psyche of Lucille Black, mother, grandmother, lover, psychiatrist, and analyst of self, who first appeared in Bergen’s bestselling novel The Matter with Morris. Although adept at probing the lives of others, Lucille has become untethered, caught between duty and desire, between the demands of family and her own longing.

Her ex-husband Morris betrays her by publishing a memoir about the aftermath of their son Martin’s death in Afghanistan. She travels to Thailand to attempt to extricate her youngest daughter from the clutches of an apparent cult leader. And she is invited to the south of France to attend the marriage of a man whom she rejected a year earlier. Negotiating with herself about her altered role in the lives of her family and friends, Lucille circles the globe—and herself.

In this brilliant and subtle evocation of vulnerability and loss, Bergen traces one woman’s quest to reform her identity, reminding us that the unexpected is always lying in wait.

Read David Bergen's books list, "The Perplexities of the Human Condition"

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Everything Turns Away, by Michelle Berry

About the book: On September 11, 2001, the world changed. For Sophie and Paul, it started with a disastrous dinner party. For the babysitter, it started with waking in a dark kitchen and recognizing the smell of blood. For others, it started with a plane flying into the World Trade Center. In this tautly written domestic thriller set in Toronto, Michelle Berry weaves together the story of two couples whose lives are about to be unravelled by the murder of a neighbour, a babysitter who has gone missing and the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center. It is a haunting exploration of marriages and what tears them apart, of what happens to people during shocking events and of how everything can change in an instant. Filled with richly drawn characters, a web of thwarted desires and multiple motives, Everything Turns Away is riveting until the very end.

Check out Editors' Picks for October 2021

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Constant Nobody, by Michelle Butler Hallett

About the book: The time is 1937. The place: the Basque Country, embroiled in the Spanish Civil War. Polyglot and British intelligence agent Temerity West encounters Kostya Nikto, a Soviet secret police agent. Kostya has been dispatched to assassinate a doctor as part of the suppression of a rogue communist faction. When Kostya finds his victim in the company of Temerity, she expects Kostya to execute her—instead, he spares her.

Several weeks later, Temerity is reassigned to Moscow. When she is arrested by the secret police, she once again encounters Kostya. His judgement impaired by pain, morphine, and alcohol, he extricates her from a dangerous situation and takes her to his flat. In the morning, they both awaken to the realities of what Kostya has done. Although Kostya wants to keep Temerity safe, the cost will be high. And Temerity must decide where her loyalties lie.

Writing about violence with an unusual grace, Michelle Butler Hallett tells a story of complicity, love, tyranny, and identity. Constant Nobody is a thrilling novel that asks how far an individual will go to protect another—whether out of love or fear.

Don't miss Michelle Butler Howlett's books list "Courage from the Outliers"

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Music From a Strange Planet, Barbara Black

About the book: Off-beat, provocative, philosophical, Music from a Strange Planet traces the fault lines of identity and emotional attachment. Grief, tenderness, and longing soak the pages, admitting the reader into the intimate places of the heart: An awkward child envisions herself as a darkling beetle; an unemployed business analyst prefers water-walking over "rebranding" himself; after being kidnapped, a psychologist rejects the idea of marrying herself; and in the squatters' district, a biogenetically-altered couple visits an attic to observe a large cocoon. From the ruins of a dystopian city to the inner self-created landscapes of a coma victim, this unique story collection places characters at the core of their vulnerabilities. With a masterfully crafted tone and a register that ranges from contemplative to comic, the subversive, immersive stories in this collection brim with humanity. Expect your planet to tilt a little to the strange after reading this engaging, vivid and incisive collection of stories.

Read Barbara Black's list of "fearless and tender" short stories

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Householders, by Kate Cayley

About the book: Linked short stories about families, nascent queers, and self-deluded utopians explore the moral ordinary strangeness in their characters’ overlapping lives.

A woman impersonates a nun online, with unexpected consequences. In a rapidly changing neighborhood, tensions escalate around two events planned for the same day. The barista girlfriend of a tech billionaire survives a zombie apocalypse only to face spending her life with the paranoid super-rich. From a university campus to an underground bunker, a commune in the woods to Toronto and back again, the linked stories in Householders move effortlessly between the commonplace and the fantastic. In deft and exacting narratives about difficult children and thorny friendships, hopeful revolutionaries and self-deluded utopians, nascent queers, sincere frauds, and families of all kinds, Kate Cayley mines the moral hazards inherent in the ways we try to save each other and ourselves.

Householders appears on Fawn Parker's list of books exploring memory and place

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Good Burdens, by Christina Crook

About the book: From the "Marie Kondo of Digital" comes a thoughtful book about realigning our energies, increasing intentionality, and prioritizing our well-being in the digital age.

It's time we choose joy over fear. Empowerment over anxiety. JOMO over FOMO. How do we get there? By taking up good burdens.

The things we're most proud of in life—the child we're raising; the marathon we completed; the major project we hit out of the park—these required all of us: all of our attention, all of our loves, all of our effort. Could we control the outcome? No. Were we all in? Hell, yes. These effortful pursuits are what digital well being pioneer Christina Crook calls "good burdens".

In thoughtful prose, Christina Crook's insightful follow up to the acclaimed The Joy of Missing Out makes the case for increasing intentionality in our day to day lives, unlocking the building blocks of joy, and offering concrete solutions for flourishing in the digital age. Using historical data, real life stories from leading mindful tech leaders and rich personal narrative, Good Burdens advocates for a realignment of our energies, online and off, towards effortful pursuits - cultivating relationships, community, and creative projects that bring lasting joy.

Read an excerpt from Good Burdens: "You Were Made For More"

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The Queer Evangelist, by Cheri DiNovo

About the book: In The Queer Evangelist, Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo (CM) shares her origins as a young socialist activist in the 1960s, and her rise to ordained minister in the ‘90s and New Democratic member of provincial parliament. During her tenure representing Parkdale-High Park in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario from 2006 to 2017, DiNovo passed more LGBTQ bills than anyone in Canadian history.

She describes the behind-the-scenes details of major changes to Canadian law, including Toby’s Law: the first Transgender Rights legislation in North America. She also passed bills banning conversion therapy, proclaiming parent equality for LGBTQ parents, and for enshrining Trans Day of Remembrance into Ontario law. Every year on November 20th in the legislature, the provincial government is mandated to observe a minute of silence while Trans murders and suicides are detailed.

Interspersed with her political work, DiNovo describes her conversion to religious life with radical intimacy, including her theological work and her ongoing struggle with the Christian Right. Cheri DiNovo's story shows how queer people can be both people of faith and critics of religion, illustrating how one can resist and change repressive systems from within.

Don't miss "The Chat with Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo"

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The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour, by Dawn Dumont

About the book: The hilarious story of an unlikely group of Indigenous dancers who find themselves thrown together on a performance tour of Europe

The Tour is all prepared. The Prairie Chicken dance troupe is all set for a fifteen-day trek through Europe, performing at festivals and cultural events. But then the performers all come down with the flu. And John Greyeyes, a retired cowboy who hasn't danced in fifteen years, finds himself abruptly thrust into the position of leading a hastily-assembled group of replacement dancers.

A group of expert dancers they are not. There's a middle-aged woman with advanced arthritis, her nineteen-year-old niece who is far more interested in flirtations than pow-wow, and an enigmatic man from the U.S.—all being chased by Nadine, the organizer of the original tour who is determined to be a part of the action, and the handsome man she picked up in a gas-station bathroom. They're all looking to John, who has never left the continent, to guide them through a world that he knows nothing about. As the gang makes its way from one stop to another, absolutely nothing goes as planned and the tour becomes a string of madcap adventures.

The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour is loosely based—like, hospital-gown loose—on the true story of a group of Indigenous dancers who left Saskatchewan and toured through Europe in the 1970s. Dawn Dumont brings her signature razor-sharp wit and impeccable comedic timing to this hilarious, warm, and wildly entertaining novel.

Check out the books list "Chicken...Or the Egg?"

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Tainna, by Norma Dunning

About the book: Drawing on both lived experience and cultural memory, Norma Dunning brings together six powerful new short stories centred on modern-day Inuk characters in Tainna. Ranging from homeless to extravagantly wealthy, from spiritual to jaded, young to elderly, and even from alive to deceased, Dunning’s characters are united by shared feelings of alienation, displacement and loneliness resulting from their experiences in southern Canada.

In Tainna—meaning “the unseen ones” and pronounced Da‑e‑nn‑a—a fraught reunion between sisters Sila and Amak ends in an uneasy understanding. From the spirit realm, Chevy Bass watches over his imperilled grandson, Kunak. And in the title story, the broken-hearted Bunny wanders onto a golf course on a freezing night, when a flock of geese stand vigil until her body is discovered by a kind stranger.

Norma Dunning’s masterful storytelling uses humour and incisive detail to create compelling characters who discover themselves in a hostile land where prejudice, misogyny and inequity are most often found hidden in plain sight. There, they must rely on their wits, artistic talent, senses of humour and spirituality­ for survival; and there, too, they find solace in shining moments of reconnection with their families and communities.

Read "The Chat with Norma Dunning"

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The Beautiful Place, by Lee Gowan

About the book: Lee Gowan’s new novel is an audacious sequel to Sinclair Ross’ prairie classic, As for Me and My House. The Beautiful Place is about a man who is in trouble in love and work—a darkly funny cautionary tale for our times.

The man we know only as Bentley is facing a triple threat—in other words, his life is a hot mess every way he looks. Like anyone who feels that he’s on the brink of annihilation, Bentley thinks back to his misspent youth, which was also the year he met his famous grandfather, the painter Philip Bentley, for the first time. To make matters worse, he has inherited his grandfather’s tendency to self-doubt, as well as that cranky artist’s old service pistol. Our hero is confused about so much. How did he end up as a cryonics salesman—a huckster for a dubious afterlife—when he wanted to be a writer? And who is the mysterious Mary Abraham, and why is she the thread unravelling his unhappy present? What will be left when all the strands come undone? Lee Gowan’s The Beautiful Place is the best kind of journey: both psychological and real, with a lot of quick-on-the-draw conversations and stunning scenery along the way—and only one gun, which may or may not be loaded.

Check out Lee Gowan's reading list, "Becoming CanLit"

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Hope Matters, by Elin Kelsey

About the book: A gift to enlighten and restore hope: for educators, activists, and anyone concerned about the climate crisis.

Fears about climate change are fueling an epidemic of despair across the world: adults worry about their children’s future; thirty-somethings question whether they should have kids or not; and many young people honestly believe they have no future at all. 

In the face of extreme eco-anxiety, scholar and award-winning author Elin Kelsey argues that our hopelessness—while an understandable reaction—is hampering our ability to address the very real problems we face. Kelsey offers a powerful solution: hope itself.

Hope Matters boldly breaks through the narrative of doom and gloom to show why evidence-based hope, not fear, is our most powerful tool for change. Kelsey shares real-life examples of positive climate news that reveal the power of our mindsets to shape reality, the resilience of nature, and the transformative possibilities of individual and collective action. And she demonstrates how we can build on positive trends to work toward a sustainable and just future, before it’s too late.

Read an excerpt: "Turning Toward Solutions and Away from Doom"

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A Good Name, by Yejide Kilanko

About the book: Twelve years in America and Eziafa Okereke has nothing to show for it. Desperate to re-write his story, Eziafa returns to Nigeria to find a woman he can mold to his taste. Eighteen-year-old Zina has big dreams. An arranged marriage to a much older man isn't one of them. Trapped by family expectations, Zina marries Eziafa, moves to Houston, and trains as a nurse. Buffeted by a series of disillusions, the couple stagger through a turbulent marriage until Zina decides to change the rules of engagement.

Don't miss Yejide Kilanko's recommended reading list, "Green and White Threads: Nigerian-Canadian Writers"

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Rebound, by Perry King

About the book: From basketball hoops to cricket bats, the role community sports play in our cities and how crucial they are to diversity and inclusion.

“The virus exposed how we live and work. It also revealed how we play, and what we lose when we have to stop.” For every kid who makes it to the NBA, thousands more seek out the pleasure and camaraderie of pick-up basketball in their local community centre or neighbourhood park. It’s a story that plays out in sport after sport – team and individual, youth and adult, men's and women's. While the dazzle of pro athletes may command our attention, grassroots sports build the bridges that link city-dwellers together in ways that go well beyond the physical benefits. The pandemic and heightened awareness of racial exclusion reminded us of the importance of these pastimes and the public spaces where we play. In this closely reported exploration of the role of community sports in diverse cities, Toronto journalist Perry King makes an impassioned case for re-imagining neighbourhoods whose residents can be active, healthy, and connected.

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The Environmentalist's Dilemma, by Arno Kopecky

About the book: A compelling inquiry into our relationship with humanity’s latest and greatest calamity

In The Environmentalist’s Dilemma, award-winning journalist Arno Kopecky zeroes in on the core predicament of our times: the planet may be dying, but humanity’s doing better than ever. To acknowledge both sides of this paradox is to enter a realm of difficult decisions: Should we take down the government, or try to change it from the inside? Is it okay to compare climate change to Hitler? Is hope naive or indispensable? How do you tackle collective delusion? Should we still have kids? And can we take them to Disneyland?

Inquisitive and relatable, Kopecky strikes a rare note of optimistic realism as he guides us through the moral minefields of our polarized world. From start to finish, The Environmentalist’s Dilemma returns to the central question: How should we engage with the story of our times?

Read Arno Kopecky's reading list, "Love Stories: A People and Planet Affair"

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Time Squared, by Lesley Krueger

About the book: A richly atmospheric portrait of women’s agency and the timelessness of love, Time Squared explores the enduring roles of rights, responsibility, and devotion throughout history

The game will change when you remember who you are

Robin and Eleanor meet in 1811 at the British estate of Eleanor’s rich aunt Clara. Robin is about to leave to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, and her aunt rules out a marriage between them. Everyone Eleanor knows, including Robin, believe they’ve always lived in these times.

But Eleanor has strange glimpses of other eras, dreams that aren’t dreams but memories of other lives. And their time jumps start as their romance deepens. Robin fights in the Boer War, the First and Second World Wars, in Vietnam and Iraq. Meanwhile, Eleanor struggles to figure out what’s going on, finally understanding that she and Robin are being manipulated through time.

Who is doing this, and why? Arriving in modern times, Eleanor sets off to confront the ones she discovers are behind this — chessmasters playing her like a pawn. Eleanor’s goal? To free herself to live out her life on her own terms.

Time Squared examines the roles women are forced to play in different centuries, the power they’re allowed, the stresses they face — and what this does to their relationships.

Check out Lesley Krueger's reading list, "Eavesdroppings on Other Lives, Real and Imagined"

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Persephone's Children, by Rowan McCandless

About the book: After years of secrecy and silence, Rowan McCandless leaves an abusive relationship and rediscovers her voice and identity through writing.

She was never to lie to him. She was never to leave him; and she was never supposed to tell.

Persephone’s Children chronicles Rowan McCandless’s odyssey as a Black, biracial woman escaping the stranglehold of a long-term abusive relationship. Through a series of thematically linked and structurally inventive essays, McCandless explores the fraught and fragmented relationship between memory and trauma. Multiple mythologies emerge to bind legacy and loss, motherhood and daughterhood, racism and intergenerational trauma, mental illness and resiliency.

It is only in the aftermath that she can begin to see the patterns in her history, hear the echoes of oppression passed down from unknown, unnamed ancestors, and discover her worth and right to exist in the world.

Don't miss Rowan McCandless's "Genre-Bending Memoirs" list

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Gather, by Richard Van Camp

About the book: Stories are medicine. During a time of heightened isolation, bestselling author Richard Van Camp shares what he knows about the power of storytelling—and offers some of his own favourite stories from Elders, friends, and family.

Gathering around a campfire, or the dinner table, we humans have always told stories. Through them, we define our identities and shape our understanding of the world.
 
Master storyteller and bestselling author Richard Van Camp writes of the power of storytelling and its potential to transform speakers and audiences alike.
 
In Gather, Van Camp shares what elements make a compelling story and offers insights into basic storytelling techniques, such as how to read a room and how to capture the attention of listeners. And he delves further into the impact storytelling can have, helping readers understand how to create community and how to banish loneliness through their tales. A member of the Tlicho Dene First Nation, Van Camp also includes stories from Elders whose wisdom influenced him.
 
During a time of uncertainty and disconnection, stories reach across vast distances to offer connection. Gather is a joyful reminder of this for storytellers: all of us.
 

Read "The Chat with Richard Van Camp"

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The Pump, by Sydney Warner Brooman

About the book: A Gothic collection of stories featuring carnivorous beavers, art-eaters, and family intrigue, for fans of Alice Munro and Shirley Jackson

The small southern Ontario town known as The Pump lies at the crossroads of this world’s violence—a tainted water supply, an apathetic municipal government, the Gothic decay of rural domesticity—and another’s.

In Brooman's interconnected stories, no one is immune to The Pump’s sacrificial games. Lighthouse dwellers, Boy Scouts, queer church camp leaders, love-sick and sick-sick writers, nine-year-old hunters, art-eaters—each must navigate the swamp of their own morality while living on land that is always slowly (and sometimes very quickly) killing them.

Check out Editors' Picks for November 2021

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Letters to Amelia, by Lindsay Zier-Vogel

About the book: Grace Porter is reeling from grief after her partner of seven years unexpectedly leaves. Amidst her heartache, the thirty-year-old library tech is tasked with reading newly discovered letters that Amelia Earhart wrote to her lover, Gene Vidal. She becomes captivated by the famous pilot who disappeared in 1937. Letter by letter, Grace understands more about Amelia while piecing her own life back together.

When Grace discovers she is pregnant, her life becomes more intertwined with the aviation hero and she begins to write her own letters to Amelia. While navigating her third trimester—amidst new conspiracy theories about Amelia's mysterious disappearance, the search for her remains, and the impending publication of her private letters—Grace goes on a pilgrimage of her own.

Underscoring the power of reading and writing letters for self-discovery, Letters to Amelia is, above all, a story of the essential need for connection—and our universal ability to find hope in the face of fear.

Don't miss our books list, "Imagining Amelia Earhart"

December 6, 2021
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