Summer is a time for exploring, but not all of us get the opportunity to do that in the form of physical travel. Books though, can take us to anywhere we want to go from the comfort of our own homes. Stephen King called them “uniquely portable magic,” and Lemony Snicket encourages us to “never trust anyone who hasn’t brought a book with them.” Tyrion Lannister, though not a writer himself, tells us that “a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”
For those who cannot travel in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, I encourage you instead to pick a nice spot in the form of a beach blanket, park bench, or coffee shop, get yourself an iced beverage and immerse yourself in the unique and varied world of Canadian literature. Containing historical, speculative, and illustrated fiction, as well as poetry and a young adult novel, this list includes eight books, two for every month from May to August (plus a few extra suggestions in Further Reading), to keep your mind sharp over the summer and expand your horizons.
Canada contains within it a multitude of worlds, viewpoints and opinions. The authors on this list are varied in their origins and geographical locations, personal perspectives and privileges, but they share one key factor: They are all Canadian.
*A warning: Many of these books contain heavy issues such as sexual assault, violence, racism, death and suicide.
Fifteen dogs By Andre Alexis
Winner of this year’s Canada Reads competition and a host of other awards, including the Giller Prize and the Writer’s Trust of Canada Fiction Prize, Fifteen Dogs explores what would happen if a group of dogs were given human intelligence and set free upon the world. Two Greek gods make a bet and give the dogs sentience, vowing not to interfere in their lives. This book cleverly explores the nature of happiness and the human need to fit in through the eyes, and intelligent mind, of a dog. The dogs form groups, make connections, and live out their unhappy lives, just as humans do. Set in Toronto, the city is shown to the reader from ground level, through physical descriptions and a dog’s powerful sense of smell. One of the more depressing books I’ve ever read, Fifteen Dogs looks at why we’re happy, why we’re not, and what happiness itself really means. At just over 170 pages, it’s probably okay that the book will suck you in.
Further Reading: Nostalgia, by MG Vassanji, Trader, by Charles de Lint
Saints and Misfits By S.K. Ali
Young adult fiction is an ever-expanding genre. It encompasses just about every other genre and makes the stories from the perspective of young people, not quite children and not quite adults. S.K. Ali’s debut novel takes a look at the life of Janna Yusuf, an Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager. To say this main character is rare in teen fiction is a bit of an understatement. Ali’s novel represents voices rarely heard. She herself is a Muslim woman and a teacher, as well as the mother of a teenage daughter. Her book, being officially released in June of this year, takes the reader into Janna’s life as she tries to figure out who she is, and if she really cares enough what people think about her to keep a very big, very dangerous secret. An important book and also a good one, Saints and Misfits shows Janna finding her own voice and explores complex issues in the lighter and more to-the-point manner of Young Adult fiction.
Further Reading: 40 things I want to tell you, Alice Kuipers
The Handmaid’s Tale By Margaret Atwood
Can Margaret Atwood see the future? Let’s hope not. The Handmaid’s Tale explores a future in which a highly conservative and controlling government has taken over, assigning roles and granting limited freedom to only a few. The book, now a dramatic series on Hulu starring Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes, shows us a world we cannot help but fear. The book stars Offred, a woman who ‘does not exist.’ Her name literally means that she belongs to Fred, also known as the Commander, for whom she is supposed to bear children. She isn’t his wife. She is a handmaid and her job is to make babies for rich people. She was captured, separated from her daughter, and given this job against her will. The world is terrifyingly familiar, being set in the United States, and speaks of a future in which men control women’s bodies and everything else about them. This book is a must read. As Bookriot, a book blogging mecca, put it, “Read A Handmaid’s Tale before it becomes reality!”
Further reading: Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood.
In Real Life By Cory Doctorow
Aimed at middle school aged children, In Real Life is a graphic novel that appears to be about online video games. It contains art by Jen Wang that is beautiful and spunky, colourful and engaging. It draws the reader into the story, which Cory Doctorow, journalist, activist, blogger and author, adapted from his own short story “Anda’s Game.” It follows protagonist Anda as she loses herself in the world of an online game, discovers the danger and consequences of believing everything people say about others, and how to clean up one’s own mess. Anda learns, through the lens of her online avatar, that people have different experiences in life and her place of privilege might have made it difficult for her to see and identify with those experiences. In our ever shrinking world, a lesson on empathy is something we all need. This 175-page graphic novel is a quick read, but don’t be fooled. The lessons are real and cut deep. If kids can understand this, adults can too.
Further reading: Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship, by Adrienne Clarkson
Milk and Honey By Rupi Kaur
Poetry is not usually for everybody but Rupi Kaur’s beautiful and heart-wrenching lines really are. In her first publication, Milk and Honey, Kaur explores love, sex, pain, sadness, loss and longing. The poems work through four distinct phases, from “The Hurting” to “The healing” and are indescribably powerful. Accompanied by drawings, the lines suck the reader in with their honesty and fragility. Kaur’s poems are also strong and powerful. They ask questions we might not want to know the answers to. This collection is one people have been talking about and for good reason. Read it. It will make you cry. It will empower you. It will give the average reader a new appreciation for poetry that they didn’t know they could have. At just over 200 pages, you can burn through this collection in one sitting. Take breaks though. It’s rough going.
Further reading: Alice Munro’s Best: Selected Stories, By Alice Munro, Introduction by Margaret Atwood
Station Eleven By Emily St. John Mandel
Another look at the possible future, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel opens in a theatre where a once famous and now declining actor is giving the performance of his life as Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A young man in the audience walks home in the snowy streets of Toronto to find the world falling apart around him. An illness has broken out in the city and is spreading. St. John Mandel’s novel looks at the fall out of the prepared, the unprepared, and the stranded in the wake of illness, which seems to have killed the majority of the Earth’s population. The rich world Mandel creates allows her characters, all connected in some way, to fully explore, and lead the reader through, what very well could happen to us. Station Eleven won the National Book Award in 2014.
Further reading: Last Night in Montreal, by Emily St. John Mandel.
Calculating God By Robert J sawyer
Hugo and Nebula award-winning Robert J Sawyer sets this science fiction meets religious exploration at the Royal Ontario Museum. The book explores what would happen if God were really an alien creature living outside the known universe. It opens with a commentary on the Harris government destroying education funding in the 90s and moves on to an alien landing their spacecraft on the front step of the ROM and asking to speak with a paleontologist. The book explores the assumptions humans make about themselves and others and the power of science to explore any question we might ask. Sawyer allows the main character, a paleontologist named Jericho, to waver in his convictions, something that can only be allowed when using reason rather than faith as the basis for your beliefs. This book, released in 2000, may leave the reader with more questions than answers, but it will certainly open minds. At just over 300 pages, this book won’t take long to read, but you’ll want to dig into more of Sawyer’s writing immediately.
Further Reading: Wake, by Robert J Sawyer; Neuromancer, by William S Gibson.
The Break By Katharena Vermette
The Break opens with a scene that will be familiar to just about anyone who lives in a Canadian suburb. Then, something happens, something everyone fears when they look out and see the bleak environment of their suburban neighbourhood and think “Would anybody hear me if I screamed?” A woman is attacked and the police don’t trust the only witness because of her past. The story, set in Winnipeg’s North end, begins with Stella, a young Metis woman who struggles to tell her story through her panic. It then works its way through a range of characters, all connected through the victim. Vermette’s descriptions are haunting and true, poetic at times and enthralling. They’ll drag you down into the story and not let you out again until it’s over. The Break, Vermette’s first novel was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary award and was a finalist in the Writer’s Trust of Canada Fiction Prize. The Break was a finalist in this year’s Canada Reads competition, and has won or been nominated for a host of other awards. Vermette’s book is the longest on the list, at 350 pages, but it’s well worth the time.
Further Reading: Half-Blood Blues, By Esi Edugyan