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13 Fiction Faves

My personal theory, one I've developed after years of being steeped in the world of CanLit, is that there's no such thing as "CanLit." Instead, I think that CanLit is everything—rich and literary, fun and commercial, regionally focused with universal appeal, hilarious, heart-wrenching, gripping, sweeping, popular, obscure, genre-pushing, and fantastic. These 13 fiction releases run the gamut!

*****

I Am Billy the Kid, by Michael Blouin

About the book: What if Billy the Kid not only didn't die, but was saved by a woman?

History tells us that the short and violent life of William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid, ended at the hand of Pat Garrett on the moonless night of July 14, 1881. But I Am Billy the Kid tells a different story, straight from Billy himself. This revisionist history seen through the lens of a twenty-first century sensibility features the picaresque hero we thought we knew and the unexpected one that we don't; a fearless and determined young woman who is in no mood to be saved and would much prefer exacting her own revenge. Billy has been in an alcoholic haze since a failed attempt to escape notoriety by faking his own death. By 1915, his fame has only increased, and when word of a possible ruse leaks out, Billy finds himself once again on the run. He agrees to follow his elder brother Joseph north from New Mexico Territory, to possible sanctuary in Canada. Billy and Joseph encounter Turner Wing, a young woman with a fierce sense of self-determination and the skills with a gun to back it up, and her father, a man with a past and a burlap sack over his head due to a significant facial disfiguration. They are in desperate search of Turner's sister, who has been abducted by a pair of marauding thieves. Billy and Joseph know the truth about the girl's fate and, following their own code of honour, form an uneasy alliance with the Wings to avenge her death.

Why we're taking notice: The author has some literary cred! Michael Blouin is a ReLit Award-winning author for Best Novel in Canada, has been shortlisted for the Amazon First Novel Award, the bpNichol Award, and the CBC Literary Award—and is a winner of the Diana Brebner Award and the 2012 Lampman Award.

*

Cambium Blue, by Maureen Brownlee

About the book: Set in the British Columbia Interior, the novel Cambium Blue is an homage to resource towns, independent women and local newspapers.

In 1994, at the outset of the bark beetle epidemic that will decimate millions of acres of pine forest in western North America, a fiercely independent lumber town faces a bleak future when its only sawmill is shuttered. Encouraged by a provincial government intent on transitioning the region from timber to tourism, the town council embraces a resort developer as their last, best hope. A failure to anticipate the human cost of that choice ignites a struggle for the very soul of the community.

Cambium Blue’s narrative alternates between three viewpoints. Stevie Jeffers is a timid, 24-year-old single mom who stakes her future on the town after a traumatic break-up. Nash Malone is a reclusive Spanish Civil War veteran who supplements his pension with salvage from the local dump—an occupation that puts him on a collision course with the town’s plan to beautify itself. At 54 years old, cash-strapped and short-staffed Maggie Evans is treading water while waiting to sell her dead husband’s newspaper, the barely solvent Chronicle. As the characters’ lives intertwine and the conflict heats up, they will each be challenged to traverse the ambiguous divide between substance and hype, past and future, hope and despair.

Rich with unforgettable characters and set in the Interior hinterland of British Columbia, Cambium Blue is a masterful and compassionate illumination of the human politics of a small town, and the intersection of individual lives with political agendas and environmental catastrophes.

Why we're taking notice: This is the second novel by Brownlee, who spent ten years as (variously) publisher, editor, reporter, photographer, graphic designer (and janitor) for a weekly community newspaper. Novelist Angie Abdou writes, "This story, these characters, this environmental and political discussion—all so crucially important today, right now. Read it."

*

Grin Reaping, by Rod Carley

About the book: In a series of fourteen interconnected short stories and musings, Rudy Boyle, a Northern Ontario college English teacher stuck both in middle age and in the middle of his five siblings, transforms the strangeness of his everyday life into exaggerated home-movie prose. From the significance of tuna fish and Botox, the threat of coyotes and aliens, to the big-ticket items of mortality, gender, climate-change, and Armageddon, Rudy tackles a range of topics with a wry, self-deprecating wit. As he variously shares such snippets, he exaggerates small and mundane situations into comic celebrations of the life of the mind, never letting the truth get in the way of a great story. His reminiscences deal not only with the absurdities of human nature, but also encompass the grief of losing family. Rudy is bedeviled by neurosis, and cowed before the insignificant things in his world. He talks largely about small matters and trivially about great affairs. It is the nature of his dilemma and the dilemma of his nature.

Why we're taking notice: Terry Fallis writes, "Once in a while, you come across that rare writer who makes you laugh and think at the same time, even in the same sentence. Rod Carley pulls it off." Carley's previous book, Kinmount, was longlisted for the the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.

*

Sister Seen, Sister Heard, by Kimia Eslah

About the book: Farah’s ready to move out of her parent’s house. It takes an hour to get to campus, and she has no freedom to be herself. Maiheen and Mostafa, first-generation Iranian immigrants in Toronto, find their younger daughter’s “Canadian” ways disappointing and embarrassing, and they wonder why Farah can’t be like her older sister Farzana—though Farah knows things about Farzana that her parents don’t. They begrudgingly agree to let Farah move, and she begins to explore her exciting new life as an independent university student. But when Farah gets assaulted on campus, everything changes. This beautiful coming-of-age story will be familiar to every immigrant in the diaspora who has struggled to find a way between cultures, every youth who has rebelled against their parents and every woman who has faced the world alone.

Why we're taking notice: "Honesty can be messy..." Check out Kimia Eslah's video about her new book, filmed at Words Worth Books.

*

All the Shining People, by Kathy Friedman

About the book: All the Shining People explores migration, diaspora, and belonging within Toronto’s Jewish South African community, as individuals come to terms with the oppressive hierarchies that separate, and the connections that bind. Seeking a place to belong, the book’s characters — including a life-drawing model searching the streets for her lover; a woman confronting secrets from her past in the new South Africa; and a man grappling with the legacy of his father, a former political prisoner—crave authentic relationships that replicate the lost feeling of home. With its focus on family, culture, and identity, All the Shining People captures the experiences of immigrants and outsiders with honesty, subtlety, and deep sympathy.

Why we're taking notice: Kathy Friedman has been a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and the Canadian Jewish News writes that, in her latest collection, she "weaves a colourful and rich tapestry of the community—and does so masterfully..."

*

Dandelion, by Jamie Chai Yun Liew

About the book: When Lily was eleven years old, her mother, Swee Hua, walked away from the family, never to be seen or heard from again. Now a new mother herself, Lily becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Swee Hua. She recalls the spring of 1987, growing up in a small British Columbia mining town where there were only a handful of Asian families; Lily's previously stateless father wanted to blend seamlessly into Canadian life, while her mother, alienated and isolated, longed to return to Brunei. Years later, still affected by Swee Hua's disappearance, Lily's family is stubbornly silent to her questioning. But eventually, an old family friend provides a clue that sends Lily to Southeast Asia to find out the truth.

Why we're taking notice: Dandelion is winner of the Jim Wong-Chu Emerging Writers Award. Carrianne Leung calls the novel, "at once comfortable and unsettling, raw, and tender."

*

An Unthinkable Thing, by Nicole Lundrigan

About the book: A tragedy brings a young boy into the home of a "perfect" family--one whose dark secrets begin closing in, until a horrifying moment changes everything.

Tommie Ware’s life is turned upside down the summer of 1958, just after his eleventh birthday. When his beloved aunt—the woman who raised him—doesn’t return after her shift as a night nurse and is later found murdered, there is only one place left for Tommie to go: “home” to the mother who handed him over the day he was born.

All is not as it seems behind the hedgerow surrounding the lavish Henneberry estate where Tommie’s mother, Esther, works as live-in housekeeper. Her employers have agreed he can stay until she “sorts things out,” but as she's at the family’s beck and call around the clock, Tommie is mostly left on his own to navigate the grounds, the massive house, and the twisted family inside.

Soon he is enmeshed in the oppressive attentions of matriarch Muriel, who is often heavily medicated, and of fifteen-year-old Martin, who treats Tommie sometimes like a kid brother, sometimes like a pawn in a confusing game. While Dr. Henneberry mostly ignores Tommie, he also seems eager for him to be gone. Then there’s the elderly neighbour, who may know more about the family's past than anyone else will say.

By summer's end, the secrets and games tighten around Tommie and his mother, until a horrific crime is discovered and we are faced with an unthinkable question: could an eleven-year-old boy really have committed cold-blooded murder?

Why we're taking notice: Because we're friends with bookseller David Worsley on Facebook who posted, "There's a ton of milquetoast crime fiction out there in which a 'normal' family behaves abnormally... Nicole Lundrigan's writing is genuinely creepy. The richness in her sentences and the constantly shifting ground throughout bring much needed fresh air to a stale room."

*

Animal Person, by Alexander MacLeod

About the book: Startling, suspenseful, deeply humane yet alert to the undertow of our darker instincts, the eight stories in Animal Person illuminate what it means to exist in the perilous space between desire and action, and to have your faith in what you hold true buckle and give way.

A petty argument between two sisters is interrupted by an unexpected visitor. Adjoining motel rooms connect a family on the brink of a new life with a criminal whose legacy will haunt them for years to come. A connoisseur of other people’s secrets is undone by what he finds in a piece of lost luggage. In the wake of a tragic accident, a young man must contend with what is owed to the living and to the dead. And in the O. Henry Award-winning story “Lagomorph,” a man’s relationship with his family’s long-lived pet rabbit opens up to become a profound exploration of how a marriage fractures.

Muscular and tender, beautifully crafted, and alive with an elemental power, these stories explore the struggle for meaning and connection in an age when many of us feel cut off from so much, not least ourselves. This is a collection that beats with raw emotion and shimmers with the complexity of our shared human experience, and it confirms Alexander MacLeod’s reputation as a modern master of the short story.

Why we're taking notice: Because we've been waiting for a new story collection by Alexander MacLeod since we were in our early thirties! We're older now and even better situated to appreciate the excruciatingly beautiful emotion in his work. This book is great.

*

The Broken Places, by Frances Peck

About the book: Vancouver. A day like any other. Kyle, a successful cosmetic surgeon, is punishing himself with a sprint up a mountain. Charlotte, wife of a tech tycoon, is combing the farm belt for local cheese and a sense of purpose. Back in the city their families go about their business: landscaping, negotiating deals, skipping school. It's a day like any other--until suddenly it's not.

When the earthquake hits, the city erupts in chaos and fear. Kyle's and Charlotte's families, along with two passersby, are thrown together in an oceanfront mansion. The conflicts that beset these wildly different people expose the fault lines beneath their relationships, as they question everything in an effort to survive and reunite with their loved ones stranded outside the city.

Frances Peck's debut novel examines the unpredictable ways in which disaster can shake up lives and test personal resilience.

Why we're taking notice: This is a novel blurbed by Brian Francis, Kelly S. Thompson, John Vigna, and other great people with CanLit cred. Further, when we reached out to our latest round of giveaway winners, one wrote back just to tell us that The Broken Places is brilliant—she was also an early reader. Word of mouth indeed.

We've got a copy up for grabs right now!

*

The Island of Forgetting, by Jasmine Sealy

About the book: How does memory become myth? How do lies become family lore? How do we escape the trauma of the past when the truth has been forgotten? 

Barbados, 1962. Lost soul Iapetus roams the island, scared and alone, driven mad after witnessing his father’s death at the hands of his mother and his older brother, Cronus. Just before Iapetus is lost forever, he has a son, but the baby is not enough to save him from himself—or his family’s secrets.  

Seventeen years later, Iapetus’s son, the stoic Atlas, lives in a loveless house, under the care of his uncle, Cronus, and in the shadow of his charismatic cousin Z. Knowing little about the tragic circumstances of his father’s life, Atlas must choose between his desire to flee the island and his loyalty to the uncle who raised him.  

Time passes. Atlas’s daughter, Calypso, is a beautiful and wilful teenager who is desperate to avoid being trapped in a life of drudgery at her uncle Z’s hotel. When she falls dangerously in love with a visiting real estate developer, she finds herself entangled in her uncle’s shady dealings, a pawn in the games of the powerful men around her.  

It is now 2019. Calypso’s son, Nautilus, is on a path of self-destruction as he grapples with his fatherless condition, his mixed-race identity and his complicated feelings of attraction towards his best friend, Daniel. Then one night, after making an impulsive decision, Nautilus finds himself exiled to Canada.  

The Island of Forgetting is an intimate saga spanning four generations of one family who run a beachfront hotel. Loosely inspired by Greek mythology, this is a novel about the echo of deep—and sometimes tragic—love and the ways a family’s past can haunt its future.

Why we're taking notice: Sealy's short fiction has been shortlisted for several prizes including Prairie Fire’s annual fiction contest, the CBC Short Story Prize and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. In 2020 The Island of Forgetting won the UBC/HarperCollins Best New Fiction Prize. 

*

Sari, Not Sari, by Sonya Singh

About the book: Manny Dogra is the beautiful young CEO of Breakup, a highly successful company that helps people manage their relationship breakups. As preoccupied as she is with her business, she’s also planning her wedding to handsome architect Adam Jamieson while dealing with the loss of her beloved parents.

For reasons Manny has never understood, her mother and father, who were both born in India, always wanted her to become an “All-American” girl. So that’s what she did. She knows next to nothing about her South Asian heritage, and that’s never been a problem—until her parents are no longer around, and an image of Manny that’s been Photoshopped to make her skin look more white appears on a major magazine cover. Suddenly, the woman who built an empire encouraging people to be true to themselves is having her own identity crisis.

But when an irritating client named Sammy Patel approaches Manny with an odd breakup request, the perfect solution presents itself: If they both agree to certain terms, he’ll give her a crash course in being “Indian” at his brother’s wedding.

What follows is days of dancing and dal, masala and mehndi as Manny meets the lovable, if endlessly interfering, aunties and uncles of the Patel family, and, along the way, discovers much more than she could ever have anticipated.

Why we're taking notice: Singh's debut novel is an ode to her own personal dating experiences, during which she honed the art of writing the perfect break-up email/text. Marissa Stapley says it "[h]as all the ingredients for the most delicious rom-com: family intrigue, workplace drama, an intrepid heroine, a beguiling love interest, laugh-out-loud moments, and a madcap supporting cast."

We've got a copy up for grabs right now!

*

The Gunsmith's Daughter, by Margaret Sweatman

About the book: 1971. Lilac Welsh lives an isolated life with her parents at Rough Rock on the Winnipeg River. Her father, Kal, stern and controlling, has built his wealth by designing powerful guns and ammunition. He’s on the cusp of producing a .50 calibre assault rifle that can shoot down an airplane with a single bullet, when a young stranger named Gavin appears at their door, wanting to meet him before enlisting for the war in Vietnam. Gavin’s arrival sparks an emotional explosion in Lilac’s home and inspires her to begin her own life as a journalist, reporting on the war that’s making her family rich.

The Gunsmith’s Daughter is both a coming-of-age story and an allegorical novel about Canada-US relations. Psychologically and politically astute, and gorgeously written, Margaret Sweatman’s portrait of a brilliant gunsmith and his eighteen-year-old daughter tells an engrossing story of ruthless ambition, and one young woman’s journey toward independence.

Why we're taking notice: Scotiabank Giller Prize-winner Omar El Akkad calls the book, “An astute and subtle interrogation of a young woman's struggle to forge her own path amidst a bloody conflict and in the shadow of the sometimes wildly profitable business of other people's suffering."

*

Celia, Misoka, I, by Xue Yiwei, translated by Stephen Nashef

About the book: Set in modern-day Montreal, Celia, Misoka, I is the story of a middle-aged Chinese man who has been living in the city for fifteen years. After the death of his wife, he begins to reflect on his past and how he has ended up alone in Canada, a solitary member of the Chinese diaspora. It is in this period of angst and uncertainty, during the most unusual of winters, that he meets two women by Beaver Lake, on Montreal’s Mount Royal. They, too, have their own stories: stories of their own personal plights, which connect present to past, and West to East.

The distinct paths taken by these three characters—Celia, Misoka, and “I”—span continents and decades, but, whether by chance or design, converge in Montreal, like mysterious figures in an ancient Chinese Zen painting. After coming together, the three begin to examine who they are, where they might belong, and how to navigate otherness and identity in a globalized world.

Why we're taking notice: From novelist Ha Jin: "Xue Yiwei is a maverick in contemporary Chinese literature. He stays alone and aloof, far away from restive crowds back in his homeland. For him, to write is to make a pilgrimage to his masters: Joyce, Borges, Calvino, Proust. As an admirer of his, I salute his courage, his stamina, and his love of solitude."

April 13, 2022
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