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The 49th Shelf Timeless Books Challenge

There is something refreshingly quiet about January in the book world, after the flurry of fall literary awards and a proliferation of year-end books lists. And sure, we're already looking ahead to an exciting books season—stay tuned for our Spring Preview coming soon—but in the meantime there a chance to take a breath. Our towers of new releases aren't quite toppling yet, and maybe here's that rare chance to reach back to celebrated titles of previous years and finally pick up that one  timeless book that's been on your to-be-read list for far too long now.

It's been a rough couple of years, and 2022 is all about taking it easy, so the challenge here is pretty low-stakes. Pick at least one book from this list of fiction that's dazzled us over the last few years, and read it. We hope you love it. And we hope this challenge starts off your literary year on a high note, inspiring you to seek out books from all kinds of places instead of just bestseller lists. We hope you dare to blaze your own literary trails.

*****

Undercard, by David Albertyn

"I wanted Undercard to have all the aspects of a great sports story, within the context of a great thriller."

About the book: Set over the course of twenty-four exhilarating hours, Undercard is the story of four childhood friends, now in their early thirties, unexpectedly reunited by a high-profile prizefight in a Las Vegas casino… and an even higher-profile murder.

When Tyron Shaw returns to his hometown of Las Vegas after eleven years in the Marines, he’s surprised to discover that two of his best friends from childhood are all anyone is talking about: Antoine Deco, three years out of prison, hasn’t lost a boxing match since his release, and tonight
is fighting in the undercard to the fight of the decade; and Keenan Quinn, a police officer who killed an unarmed teenager and escaped punishment from the courts, is the subject of a protest tomorrow morning.

Tyron has trouble reconciling either story with his memory of these men, and the situation escalates when he runs into the love of his life, Naomi Wilks, a retired WNBA player, basketball coach, and estranged wife of Keenan. As Tyron reconnects with his old community, he will learn over the next twenty-four hours that much has changed since he left Las Vegas… and there is much more that he never understood.

The Reef, an aquarium-themed casino and the hottest resort on the Strip, is the backdrop for this bullet-paced narrative, where loyalty to one’s friends, one’s family, and one’s community are ever at odds, and every choice has deadly repercussions.

*

Bad Endings, by Carleigh Baker

"But at the time I was writing Bad Endings I was definitely most driven to try and figure out bad decisions, apocalyptic relationships, and why people in love behave badly and even cruelly towards each other."

About the book: Carleigh Baker likes to make light in the dark. Whether plumbing family ties, the end of a marriage, or death itself, she never lets go of the witty, the ironic, and perhaps most notably, the awkward. Despite the title, the resolution in these stories isn't always tragic, but it's often uncomfortable, unexpected, or just plain strange. Character digressions, bad decisions, and misconceptions abound.

While steadfastly local in her choice of setting, Baker's deep appreciation for nature takes a lot of these stories out of Vancouver and into the wild. Salmon and bees play reoccurring roles in these tales, as do rivers. Occasionally, characters blend with their animal counterparts, adding a touch of magic realism. Nature is a place of escape and attempted convalescence for characters suffering from urban burnout. Even if things get weird along the way, as Hunter S. Thompson said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

In Bad Endings, Baker takes troubled characters to a moment of realization or self-revelation, but the results aren't always pretty.

*

The Luminous Sea, by Melissa Barbeau

"The book asks whether magic and science can exist in the same space, and if there is any space left for wonder in a world that rushes to claim ownership of every new thing."

About the book: A team of researchers from a nearby university have set up a research station in a fictional outport in Newfoundland, studying the strange emergence of phosphorescent tides. And Vivienne, a young assistant, accidentally captures a creature unknown to science: a kind of fish, both sentient and distinctly female. As the project supervisor and lead researcher attempt to exploit the discovery, the creature begins to waste away, and Vivian must endanger herself to save them both.

*

Use Your Imagination, by Kris Bertin

"Calling this collection 'stories about stories' really is accurate: what’s at stake in all of these is the storyteller’s sense of responsibility over a story, and the impact it will have if they misunderstand any part of it"

About the book: A woman becomes obsessed with a story about her family from 1890—when a naked, mute girl stumbled onto their property—and whether or not it really happened. A self-help guru and his chief strategist take their most affluent and unstable clients on a harrowing nature hike that destroys their company. A young convict in a prison creative writing class chronicles the rise and fall of his cellblock's resident peacemaker. A rural neighbourhood becomes obsessed by the coming of a strange and powerful new homeowner who is in the middle of reinventing herself.

The stories of Use Your Imagination! are about stories, about the way we define and give shape to ourselves through all kinds of narratives, true or not. In seven long stories, Kris Bertin examines the complex labyrinth of lies, delusions, compromise, and fabrication that makes up our personal history and mythology. Sometimes funny, strange, or frightening, these stories represent Bertin's follow-up to his critically acclaimed, award-winning debut, Bad Things Happen.

*

Brighten the Corner Where You Are, by Carol Bruneau

"The first thing you need to remember is that I'm no longer down where you are, haven't been down your way in years, in what you people call the land of the living."

About the book: A brilliant novel reimagining the life of internationally renowned folk artist Maud Lewis by an award-winning author.

But I had known since forever that it's colours that keep the world turning,
 that keep a person going.

One glimpse of the tiny painted house that folk art legend Maud Lewis shared with her husband, Everett, in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, during the mid-twentieth century and the startling contrast between her joyful artwork and her life's deprivations is evident. One glimpse at her photo and you realize, for all her smile's shyness, she must've been one tough cookie. But, beneath her iconic resilience, who was Maud, really? How did she manage, holed up in that one-room house with no running water, married to a miserly man known for his drinking? Was she happy, or was she miserable? Did painting save or make her Everett's meal ticket? And then there are the darker secrets that haunt her story: the loss of her parents, her child, her first love.

Against all odds, Maud Lewis rose above these constraints—and this is where you'll find the Maud of Brighten the Corner Where You Are: speaking her mind from beyond the grave, freed of the stigmas of gender, poverty, and disability that marked her life and shaped her art. Unfettered and feisty as can be, she tells her story her way, illuminating the darkest corners of her life. In possession of a voice all her own, Maud demonstrates the agency that hovers within us all.

*

Watermark, by Christy Ann Conlin

"The stories are definitely evocative and full of shadows, twists, and unexpected moments in unexpected places, characters haunted by both past and present, haunted by the moment they find themselves in."

About the book: From Christy Ann Conlin, the critically acclaimed and award winning author of Heave, comes a breathtaking and unforgettable collection about how the briefest moment can shape us forever.

In these evocative and startling stories, we meet people navigating the elemental forces of love, life, and death. An insomniac on Halifax’s moonlit streets. A runaway bride. A young woman accused of a brutal murder. A man who must live in exile if he is to live at all. A woman coming to terms with her eccentric childhood in a cult on the Bay of Fundy shore.

A master of North Atlantic Gothic, Christy Ann Conlin expertly navigates our conflicting self-perceptions, especially in moments of crisis. She illuminates the personality of land and ocean, charts the pull of the past on the present, and reveals the wildness inside each of us. These stories offer a gallery of both gritty and lyrical portraits, each unmasking the myth and mystery of the everyday.

*

Book Cver The Western Alienation Merit Badge

The Western Alienation Merit Badge, by Nancy Jo Cullen

"At first blush, this is a quirky, queer coming-of-age novel. In her stripped-down, everyday prose, Cullen details the small hurts and moments of silence that break Frankie's heart when she refuses to hide her sexuality from her conservative family...."

About the book: Set in Calgary in 1982, during the recession that arrived on the heels of Canada's National Energy Program, The Western Alienation Merit Badge follows the Murray family as they struggle with grief and find themselves on the brink of financial ruin. After the death of her stepmother, Frances "Frankie" Murray returns to Calgary to help her father, Jimmy, and her sister, Bernadette, pay the mortgage on the family home. When Robyn, a long-lost friend, becomes their house guest old tensions are reignited and Jimmy, Bernadette and Frances find themselves increasingly alienated from one another.

Part family drama, part queer coming-of-age story, The Western Alienation Merit Badge explores the complex dynamics of a small family falling apart.

*

Glass Beads, by Dawn Dumont

"Probably my work doesn’t fall into the quirky category—Indigenous comedy with strong female protagonists. Although to people who come from reserves, this wouldn’t be seen as unusual as all. Funny females who can tell you off and make you laugh at the same time are the norm there."

About the book: These short stories interconnect the friendships of four First Nations people—Everett Kaiswatim, Nellie Gordon, Julie Papequash, and Nathan (Taz) Mosquito—as the collection evolves over two decades against the cultural, political, and historical backdrop of the 90s and early 2000s.

These young people are among the first of their families to live off the reserve for most of their adult lives, and must adapt and evolve. In stories like “Stranger Danger”, we watch how shy Julie, though supported by her roomies, is filled with apprehension as she goes on her first white-guy date, while years later in “Two Years Less A Day” we witness her change as her worries and vulnerability are put to the real test when she is unjustly convicted in a violent melee and must serve some jail time. “The House and Things That Can Be Taken” establishes how the move from the city both excites and intimidate reserve youth — respectively, how a young man finds a job or a young woman becomes vulnerable in the bar scene. As well as developing her characters experientially, Dumont carefully contrasts them, as we see in the fragile and uncertain Everett and the culturally strong and independent but reckless Taz.

As the four friends experience family catastrophes, broken friendships, travel to Mexico, and the aftermath of the great tragedy of 9/11, readers are intimately connected with each struggle, whether it is with racism, isolation, finding their cultural identity, or repairing the wounds of their upbringing.

*

Things Are Good Now, by Djamila Ibrahim

"And people can be victims in one scenario, and an oppressor in another, a hero to some and a villain to others. These complications bring depth and nuance to the stories, and make the difficult passages easier to write."

About the book: Set in East Africa, the Middle East, Canada, and the U.S., Things Are Good Now examines the weight of the migrant experience on the human psyche.

In Djamila Ibrahim’s powerful story collection, women, men, and children who’ve crossed continents in search of a better life find themselves struggling with the chaos of displacement and the religious and cultural clashes they face in their new homes. A maid who travelled to the Middle East lured by the prospect of a well-paying job is trapped in the Syrian war. A female ex-freedom fighter immigrates to Canada only to be relegated to cleaning public washrooms and hospital sheets. A disillusioned civil servant struggles to come to grips with his lover’s imminent departure. A young Muslim Canadian woman who’d married her way to California realizes she’s made a mistake.

Things Are Good Now is about remorse and the power of memory, and about the hardships of a post-9/11 reality that labels many as suspicious or dangerous because of their names or skin colour alone. Most importantly, it’s about the compromises we make to belong.

*

The Conjoined, by Jen Sookfong Lee

"I had flirted with the idea of writing a literary crime novel for years, partly because I love crime fiction and partly because the very best and very worst of humanity bubbles up whenever a crime has occurred."

About the book: On a sunny May morning, social worker Jessica Campbell sorts through her mother’s belongings after her recent funeral. In the basement, she makes a shocking discovery—two dead girls curled into the bottom of her mother’s chest freezers. She remembers a pair of foster children who lived with the family in 1988: Casey and Jamie Cheng—troubled, beautiful, and wild teenaged sisters from Vancouver’s Chinatown. After six weeks, they disappeared; social workers, police officers, and Jessica herself assumed they had run away.

As Jessica learns more about Casey, Jamie, and their troubled immigrant Chinese parents, she also unearths dark stories about Donna, whom she had always thought of as the perfect mother. The complicated truths she uncovers force her to take stock of own life.

Moving between present and past, this riveting novel unflinchingly examines the myth of social heroism and traces the often-hidden fractures that divide our diverse cities.

*

Bad Ideas, by Missy Marston

"I am not sure I have ever written anything that hasn’t touched on mental health: depression (hormone-driven or otherwise), rage, PTSD, suicide. I think this is just because I write about people and if you have more than four characters, it probably comes up in a pretty natural way."

About the book: Wildly funny and wonderfully moving, Bad Ideas is about just that—a string of bad ideas—and the absurdity of love

Trudy works nights in a linen factory, avoiding romance and sharing the care of her four-year-old niece with Trudy’s mother, Claire. Claire still pines for Trudy’s father, a St. Lawrence Seaway construction worker who left her twenty years ago. Claire believes in true love. Trudy does not. She’s keeping herself to herself. But when Jules Tremblay, aspiring daredevil, walks into the Jubilee restaurant, Trudy’s a goner.

Loosely inspired by Ken “the Crazy Canuck” Carter’s attempt to jump the St. Lawrence River in a rocket car, and set in a 1970s hollowed-out town in eastern Ontario, Bad Ideas paints an indelible portrait of people on the forgotten fringes of life. Witty and wise, this is a novel that will stay with you a long time.

*

Red Jacket, by Pamela Mordecai

"A story subverts dislocation by insisting that teller and listener are rooted together in a place and sequence of events—it doesn’t matter that they are imaginative."

About the book: As she comes into adulthood, Grace confronts the mystery of her own identity and the story of her birth mother in this sprawling, large-hearted novel.

Growing up on the Caribbean island of St. Chris, Grace Carpenter never feels like she really belongs. Although her large, extended family is black, she is a redibo. Her skin is copper-coloured, her hair is red, and her eyes are grey. A neighbour taunts her, calling her “a little red jacket,” but the reason for the insult is never explained. Only much later does Grace learn the story of her birth mother and decipher the mystery surrounding her true identity.

*

The Showrunner, by Kim Moritsugu

"Strong, outspoken women rule in the seven novels I've had published to date, including my latest, The Showrunner."

About the book: The hiring of a new assistant triggers a power struggle between an aging TV show creator and her former protégée.
Rising-star showrunner Stacey McCreedy has one goal: to leave behind her nerd-girl origins and become a power player — like Ann Dalloni, her former mentor and current producing partner. Ann, meanwhile, is feeling her age and losing her mind. But she’ll be damned if she cedes control of their hit primetime TV show to Stacey.
After Ann hires Jenna, a young actress hoping to restart her stalled career, as an assistant, the relationship between Ann and Stacey deteriorates into a blood feud. Soon, Jenna must choose whom to support and whom to betray to achieve her own ends. And Stacey will find out if she possesses the killer instinct needed to stay on top.

*

Shut Up, You’re Pretty, by Téa Mutonji

"The work that’s coming out of Scarborough isn’t new work. The stories, the literature, the love, the support–all that is embedded in Scarborough culture. It just so happens that now, for whatever reason, everyone’s paying attention. To that I say, good, it’s about time."

About the book: In Tea Mutonji's disarming debut story collection, a woman contemplates her Congolese traditions during a family wedding, a teenage girl looks for happiness inside a pack of cigarettes, a mother reconnects with her daughter through their shared interest in fish, and a young woman decides to shave her head in the waiting room of an abortion clinic. These punchy, sharply observed stories blur the lines between longing and choosing, exploring the narrator's experience as an involuntary one. Tinged with pathos and humour, they interrogate the moments in which femininity, womanness, and identity are not only questioned but also imposed.

Shut Up You're Pretty is the first book to be published under the imprint VS. Books, a series of books curated and edited by writer-musician Vivek Shraya featuring work by new and emerging Indigenous or Black writers, or writers of colour.

*

Dear Evelyn, by Kathy Page

"There were countless things to find out, from artillery commands and the details of an obscure battle in the Desert War to the price of curtain fabric in the 1950s and the design of cruise ships of the 1970s"

About the book: Inspired by the author’s family history, this forthright love story unflinchingly portrays the trials and tensions of a lifelong marriage.

Born between the wars on a working-class street in London, Harry Miles wins a scholarship to an exclusive school and with it a chance to escape his station. Instead he falls in love with poetry, and though his teachers encourage him to attend university, he’s tired of scholarship’s dull routines. He takes an entry-level job and spends his free time among the poetry volumes at Battersea Public Library

One afternoon on his way up the stairs, Harry encounters the enigmatic Evelyn Hill. The daughter of an alcoholic layabout, the young woman chafes against the idea of marriage—but during a summer spent wandering the commons and taking in plays with Harry, their relationship begins to bloom in the shadow of the Second World War. Before they know it, Harry is headed into battle and the couple faces the first of many challenges in what will become a lifetime spent together.

Drawing on original wartime letters written by the author’s father, Dear Evelyn reckons with the shifting tides of marriage, exploring how two people shape one another over the course of a lifetime. This compelling account that will leave its mark on any reader who has ever loved

*

Little Fortress, by Laisha Rosnau

"The more I heard about the true stories behind these women’s lives, and what may have led them into exile, the more they fascinated me."

About the book: In this captivating and intricate novel Laisha Rosnau introduces us to three women, each of whom is storied enough to have their own novel and who, together, make for an unforgettable tale. Based on the true story of the Caetanis, Italian nobility driven out of their home by the rise in fascism who chose exile in Vernon, BC, Rosnau brings to life Ofelia Caetani, her daughter Sveva Caetani and their personal secretary, Miss Juul. Miss Juul is the voice of the novel, a diminutive Danish woman who enters into employment with the Caetani family in Italy before the birth of Sveva, stays with them through twenty-five years of seclusion at their home in Vernon, and past the death of Ofelia. Little Fortress is a story of a shifting world, with the death of its age-old nobility, and of the intricacies of the lives of women caught up in these grand changes. It is a story of friendship, class, betrayal and love.

*

Crow. by Amy Spurway

"A compelling narrative voice can run the gamut from subtle and seamless, to smack-ya-upside-the-head brashness, but it always resonates in an emotionally intimate way. Voice is what draws me in and pulls me through a book."

About the book: When Stacey Fortune is diagnosed with three highly unpredictable—and inoperable—brain tumours, she abandons the crumbling glamour of her life in Toronto for her mother Effie's scruffy trailer in rural Cape Breton. Back home, she's known as Crow, and everybody suspects that her family is cursed.

With her future all but sealed, Crow decides to go down in a blaze of unforgettable glory by writing a memoir that will raise eyebrows and drop jaws. She'll dig up "the dirt" on her family tree, including the supposed curse, and uncover the truth about her mysterious father, who disappeared a month before she was born.

But first, Crow must contend with an eclectic assortment of characters, including her gossipy Aunt Peggy, hedonistic party-pal Char, homebound best friend Allie, and high-school flame Willy. She'll also have to figure out how to live with her mother and how to muddle through the unsettling visual disturbances that are becoming more and more vivid each day.

Witty, energetic, and crackling with sharp Cape Breton humour, Crow is a story of big twists, big personalities, big drama, and even bigger heart.

*

In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo, by Claire Tacon

"That transition out of high school, and adolescence in general, really fascinates me. I think of it like a volcanic eruption—you’re just growing at such an explosive rate, trying out all these different shapes and ways of being."

About the book: When Henry Robinson's first daughter, Starr, is born with Williams Syndrome, he swears to devote his life to making her happy. More than twenty years later, we find Henry working at Frankie's Funhouse, where he repairs the animatronic band that Starr loves, wrestling with her attempts at living outside the family home. His wife, Kathy, wishes he would allow Starr more independence, hoping that Henry will turn his attention a little more to their own relationship and to their other daughter, who is pregnant. As tensions mount Henry's young co-worker, Darren, reveals he needs to get to Chicago Comic Con to win back his ex-girlfriend, so Henry packs Starr (and her pet turtles) and Darren (still dressed as Frankie the mascot) into the van for a road trip no one was prepared for.

Told in multiple points of view, we hear from Henry, Darren and Starr as they all try to find their place in the world. In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo is a charming, tender and often funny story of a father struggling to let his daughters grow up and of a family struggling against hard odds, taking care of each other when the world lets them down.

*

Dazzle Patterns, by Alison Watt

"The novel is as much about art as war...as well as the historic Halifax explosion."

About the book: Beginning the day of the devastating Halifax Explosion of 1917, Dazzle Patterns is an unforgettable story about loss, the resilience of the human spirit, and the transformative power of art. A finalist for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award.

While Clare Holmes waits for her fiancé, Leo, to return from the war in France, she works as a flaw checker at the Halifax glassworks. It is there that she meets Fred Baker, a mysterious master glassmaker who was trained in his home country of Germany. After the disastrous explosion on December 6, 1917—which killed 2000, injured thousands more, and is said to have shattered every window in the city — Clare, Leo, and Fred's lives become irrevocably intertwined.

In the chaos and turmoil of the war and the aftermath of the explosion, Clare finds solace in drawing, but is further devastated when Leo is reported missing. Meanwhile, tensions in the community quickly rise: who was responsible for the explosion” Could there be German collaborators in their midst” When Fred is arrested, Clare is determined to find a way to prove her new friend's innocence.

Dazzle Patterns is a moving story about three people making their way through harrowing, impossible times. With extraordinary vision and clarity, Alison Watt's remarkable debut novel brings the past to life.

*

Things Not to Do, by Jessica Westhead

"The balance is so important. Without the dark, the light falls flat. And if you have the chance to laugh after something upsetting happens, you seize it. The laughter is a relief, and it’s more genuine because of that."

About the book: Things Not to Do is a collection of stories that seeks to examine—through humour, wit, empathy, and honesty—the dark side of ordinary people. We know them; sometimes we are them. A man attends a gathering on the coattails of his new, zealously empowering friend. A woman helps her husband build an escape room to free him from working for a hated boss. A veteran wedding DJ imparts wisdom, and more besides, to a new recruit. The father of a teen pop sensation gathers with his fans in the wake of a controversy. The actions of these characters, for good or ill—and there is light in their lives, as often as there is dark—stem from the same place, and Westhead cuts right to the heart of that place. They aren't scheming supervillains; they're folks trying to make the most of what they think they have—even if that sometimes means stepping on someone who doesn't deserve it.

*

Congratulations on Everything, by Nathan Whitlock

“Packed with the kind of charmingly odd, broken characters that crowd every decent bar, Whitlock’s fast and funny novel explores lives that may look small from the outside but are vast and infinitely redeemable.”

About the book: A dark and comic novel, Congratulations On Everything tracks the struggles, frailties, and cruelly pyrrhic victories of the middle-aged owner of a bar-restaurant and a 30ish lunch-shift waitress.

Jeremy has bought into the teachings of an empowerment and success guru, hook, line, and sinker. A Toronto service industry lifer, he’s risen through the ranks until he finally takes the keys to his destiny and opens his own place, The Ice Shack.

Everyone assumes Ice Shack daytime waitress Charlene is innocent and empathetic, but in reality she’s desperately unhappy and looking for a way out of her marriage to her high-school sweetheart. A drunken encounter sends Charlene and her boss careening. The Ice Shack stops being an oasis of sanity and, as Jeremy struggles to keep his business afloat, he’ll stop at nothing to maintain his successful, good guy self-image.

In an era when the gourmand rules and chefs become superstars, Congratulations On Everything is a hilarious and occasionally uncomfortable dose of anti-foodie reality that reveals what goes on when the customers and Instagrammers aren’t around—and even sometimes when they are.

*

Five Roses, by Alice Zorn

"In all of these books set in Montreal, weather plays a starring role. Spring is glorious. Summer is manna. Autumn is beautiful, albeit melancholy. But winter always rules. "

About the book: A sister. A baby. A man who watches from the trees.

Fara and her husband buy a house with a disturbing history that reawakens memories of her own family tragedy. Maddy still lives in the house, once a hippie commune, where her daughter was kidnapped twenty-seven years ago. Rose grew up isolated with her mother in the backwoods north of Montreal. Now in the city, she questions the silence and deception that shaped her upbringing.

Fara, Maddy, and Rose meet in Montreal’s historic Pointe St-Charles, a rundown neighbourhood on the cusp of gentrification. Against a backdrop of abandonment, loss, and revitalization, the women must confront troubling secrets in order to rebuild their lives.Zorn deftly interweaves the rich yet fragile lives of three very different people into a story of strength and friendship.

January 13, 2022
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