2015 Best Books of the Year: Recommended by Canadian Writers
The Writers' Trust asked several of the Canadian writers we recognized in 2015 to share the highlights of their own reading.
Including notable novels from the likes of André Alexis, Lawrence Hill, and Jane Urquhart, these author-recommended stories are perfect for you to cozy up with during the upcoming holiday season, or perhaps purchase as gifts for loved ones:
“One of the consequences of writing a sequence of novels – I’ve written three of a projected five – is that I haven't been able to read many books lately. I’ll start one then abandon it when my work demands.
The one book I have been able to read – and I’ve read it several times – is Box Kite, a collection of prose poems written by Roo Borson and Kim Maltman (writing as Baziju).
Even if it had not been written by friends, I’d have no hesitation in calling it singular and beautiful. It’s a meditation on time and place, a book about China (sort of), a book about Toronto (sort of), a book about trees, light, stones, bridges, gardens, the writer Lu Hsun, and the way rooms feel when you enter them. It’s a work that grows in the imagination and it was an inspiration while I was writing a novel about cities (Toronto) and rooms.”
André Alexis won the 2015 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for his novel Fifteen Dogs.
“Will Ferguson’s Road Trip Rwanda: A Journey Into the New Heart of Africa explores Rwanda as a country that underwent a terrible genocide but refuses to be fully defined by that darkness. It’s a refreshing and thoughtful approach to an important, multi-layered subject.
Marc Goodman’s Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It tackles the important issues of hacking, cybercrime, and data security, and their widespread implications. This is the new face of crime, security, and investigations, and it’s a world that law enforcement and the criminal law are not yet equipped to deal with. These are issues I've spent the past three years studying and working with closely, and there’s still so much to learn.”
Eliott Behar was a finalist for the 2015 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for Tell it to the World: International Justice and the Secret Campaign to Hide Mass Murder in Kosovo.
“Boring Girls by Sara Taylor. I’m a sucker for coming of age stories that go beyond a first romance and typical growing pains. Sara Taylor delivers with a deadly and bloodstained tongue-in-cheek revenge tale: the hurt of growing up on a devastating scale.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s highly satisfying to read re-imaginings of myths you’ve encountered from childhood through university. I was completely charmed and lost in the mixed genre world of The Buried Giant, where the personal tragedy of a couple crosses the grand quests of Sir Gawain.”
Emily Bossé was a finalist for the 2015 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for “Last Animal Standing on Gentleman's Farm.”
“Nino Ricci’s freight train of a novel, Sleep. Unrelenting, terrifying, sharply written, and completely compelling. Read it in two sittings.
Damian Rogers’ hallucinogenic poetry collection, Dear Leader. It’s like being dropped into a kaleidoscope, where shape and colour alters constantly, where horizon and perspective are a shifting landscape. And where, despite the darkness of much of the subject matter, beauty is all around you.
Leslie Vryenhook’s subtle, deeply affecting novel, Ledger of the Open Hand. A story about friendship, family and debts of all description – financial, emotional, generational, literary. There are a lot of balls in the air here, and Vryenhook juggles them with a professional ease.”
Michael Crummey won the 2015 Writers’ Trust Fellowship.
“One of my most important reads this year was Patricia Robinson’s article, ‘Writing the Necessary’ in Canadian Notes and Queries 92. It’s a call to writers to smash our mirrors and switch our focus from self to society. With an uncertain future looming, Robinson says ‘...we’re in dire need of literary fiction that takes larger risks’ that challenges the reader as well as the society we live in. ‘Does [our literature] illuminate our own time? Does it force us to re-examine what reality is? Is it, in the end, necessary?’
As for fiction, I loved Rebecca Makkai’s Music for Wartime. The collection offers stories in a variety of voices and viewpoints while playing with and challenging the format. Her stories range from straightforward relationship conflicts to micro-fictions to historical dramas to sci-fi. I first heard Makkai read ‘The November Story’ on This American Life and have been waiting for this collection for quite a few years. Finally, it’s here!
My favourite Canadian title of the year was Step Aside, Pops from Cape Breton native Kate Beaton. Step Aside is Beaton’s second collection of comics/graphic novel. I like to think of her as a counterpoint to Pierre Berton – who’s history was pretty well only about old, white men. Beaton writes/draws about well-known and little-known historical figures and events, often with a funny – and feminist – twist. ‘I had fun once and it was awful’ is possibly one of my all-time favourite comic punchlines.”
Nicole Dixon was writer-in-residence at Berton House from January through March.
“Close to Hugh by Marina Endicott – fast paced, clever, warm, what a cast of characters, ring so true.
The Last Bonobo: A Journey into the Congo by Deni Bechard – rich with detail – (almost too much) and first-hand experience.
His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay – something warm about this that pulls you in, albeit slowly.
Bark by Lorrie Moore, short stories, though not published in 2015.
And on the to-read list: The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg, a fictional biography of George Sand.”
Deirdre Dore won the 2015 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for “The Wise Baby.”
“This sounds ridiculous, but I went through the 82 (and counting) books I've read this year (I keep a list each year), and none of them were first published in 2015. I guess I'm always playing catch-up. The best two books I read were In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell and Sweetland by Michael Crummey. In the House... is so good it defies description: written like a parable or fairy tale, yet a thrilling page-turner; so timeless and dense with meaning I expect people to be studying it in 100 years. Sweetland, beyond being simply an excellent, heartbreaking novel, confounds me as writer. Somehow Crummey makes dreams, hallucinations, apocalyptic survival, and shocking tragedies (where most writers risk being boring, self-indulgent, maudlin, or melodramatic) into plain truths and facts of life.”
Kim Fu has been the writer-in-residence at Berton House since October.
“Historian Norman Hillmer's O.D. Skelton: A Portrait of Canadian Ambition.
This is an immensely readable and wonderfully perceptive portrait of Mackenzie King's sidekick and our most important public servant, a man who among other things knew how to write and described himself as ‘a queer mixture of over confidence in my opinions and lack of confidence in myself.’
It's an irresistible book for anyone who loves Canadian history.”
Elizabeth Hay was a finalist for the 2015 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her novel His Whole Life.
“The Illegal by Lawrence Hill;
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Swiss author Joël Dicker (available in translation);
Constellation by Adrien Bosc (for anyone who reads French);
And tome four of the Millennium series (The Girl in the Spider's Web) if only for entertainment on a rainy campaign afternoon.”
Chantal Hébert was a finalist for the 2015 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for her book (written with Jean Lapierre) The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was.
Guy Gavriel Kay
“This year my favourite books were not obscure discoveries. I was on many of the express trains.
I was thrilled that Andre Alexis won both the Writers’ Trust and the Giller Prizes for Fifteen Dogs. (Full disclosure: a friend.) Andre has done focused, attentive, finely-crafted work for a long time, and this recognition for his latest meditation is richly deserved.
I dislike the phrase Ferrante Fever (glib!) but I had it, big time. Her Neapolitan quartet was memorable and angry, and immensely powerful. Lila in those four books is my own ‘most vivid character’ in fiction for the 21st century, thus far.
I reviewed Helen MacDonald's H Is For Hawk for the Washington Post and raved – as everyone else did. It deserved all the awards it won. This is a book that merges so many forms and motifs, and does so with wonderful language and detail. We learn about raptors, and about loss, and experience exceptionally good writing.
And I loved Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. I read it in Jamaica, in fact, which added a detail, but the book is a powerhouse achievement. James’ Booker Prize made it a happy year for me as to prizewinners. Bravo to a whole slew of judges.”
Guy Gavriel Kay delivered the 2015 Margaret Laurence Lecture, delivered in Winnipeg on May 29. Listen.
Anna Ling Kaye
“Some of my favourite books of 2015 approached delicate subjects from audacious angles, such as the playful structure and live-wire language of Anakana Schofield’s Martin John (on sexual deviance), or the wit and curiosity of Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron (set during the Holocaust). Other favourite reads anticipated global conversations of the day, such as Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal and John Vaillant’s The Jaguar’s Children, both exploring the difficulties of human migration within highly creative and divergent narrative frames. I am also grateful for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir Between the World and Me, a generous and wise reflection on the state of race in the United States.”
Anna Ling Kaye was a finalist for the 2015 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for “Red Egg and Ginger.”
“A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. I enjoyed this story – a wide-ranging narrative over three generations – never mind the slipping and sliding between times and events. For one thing, it made the temporal moving to and fro in my novel (Red Jacket) seem no big deal by comparison. Strong characters treated with wry humour and a sure pen – well, almost always sure – kept me attentive.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This overwhelming, unrelenting book is required reading, especially for persons of colour, most especially those with lived experiences in North America. Though Coates is ruthless in his indictment of ‘those who think they are white’ for being complicit – through the state and its agents, through the shitstem (sic) overall – in destabilizing the black body and rendering it insecure, this is not an angry book. It is grateful, graceful, and gracious.
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. The dystopian world which the author discovers in this book is not preoccupied with any of the issues Coates tackles in Between the World and Me but there are eerie correspondences, like the facility with which one of the main characters, assigned with an indisputably evil task, justifies undertaking this destabilization of the human body. Like Coates, Atwood exposes how the most decent of us will find ways to accommodate horrific evils once we think they are required to preserve our 'security.’
Gratitude by Oliver Sacks. A slim volume that is a deeply felt testimony to a life lived passionately in the service of others. As Sacks faces death, he shares how he has greeted the years since he turned 80, as well as important moments in his life – including his mother, a strictly observant Jew, calling him ‘an abomination’ when she discovers he is gay. A gentle farewell from one who lived a generous, full life.
Pamela Mordecai was a finalist for the 2015 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her novel Red Jacket.
“For me, 2015 has been a year of contrasts. I've reread mystery novels with female detectives (I'm still not sure I didn't miss my calling as a P.I.) while clawing my way through prison writings and dense educational pedagogies that call for a massive overhaul of the school system. But a few literary works stand out for me. First, there's Elena Ferrante – the anonymous Italian writer – whose absurdly detailed Neapolitan novels read like autobiography. Second are two Canadian poetry collections that stayed with me for months. Carolyn Smart's Careen is a biography in poetic verse of the harsh poverty, desperation, and anger that formed the infamous Bonnie and Clyde duo. And Sue Goyette's devastating The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl blends magical realism, ghost story, and the tragic truth about the over-medicalization of a four-year-old girl who displayed fairly normal childhood behaviour.”
Emily Pohl-Weary was writer-in-residence at Berton House from July through September.
“Often political work highlights external oppressions. But sometimes the equally important conversations are ones that speak about harm within communities.
Leah Horlick's sophomore collection of poetry, For Your Own Good, incisively details the experience of abuse in a queer partnership. One of the most delicately crafted, unsettling, and inspiring reads of 2015.”
Vivek Shraya was a finalist for the 2015 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LBGT Emerging Writers.
“Living out of a suitcase the past couple of years has meant my reading life is even less up-to-date than usual. But I have a handful of Canadian poetry books kicking around my current rental, and would recommend them all: Damian Rogers’ Dear Leader, Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, George Murray’s Diversion, Laura Clarke’s Decline of the Animal Kingdom, and Christian Bok’s The Xenotext: Book 1. I've been telling everyone to read Marlon James' astounding novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. And waiting to be packed and hauled off to Saskatchewan for the holidays are Greg Hollingshead’s Act Normal, André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, and Rebecca Solnit’s new collection of essays The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness.”
Karen Solie won the 2015 Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize.
“Jane Urquhart’s The Night Stages. A wonderful portrait of Irish landscape and characters, but also a brilliant dissection of the character of the adulterous lover. As well, since my Irish grandfather was cycling champion for Canada, Urquhart’s stunning portrait of the Rás Tailteann, the gruelling Irish cycling marathon, resonated.
Rachel Cusk’s Outline. Cusk’s narrator goes deeply into the heads of the multiple characters she meets as a visiting writer in Greece. They are actually ordinary people, but their introspection, their often delusional self-awareness, is disturbing because it hits so close to home. A very smart book.
André Alexis' Fifteen Dogs. You really do get to see and feel the world from the dogs' points of view. Anyone who knows how different the personalities of dogs are will love this book. And Alexis doesn’t allegorize, doesn’t turn the dogs into humans. Such a relief. A very moving, often sad, but also illuminating book.
Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X. The trilogy was published this year in one volume. A stunning, absolutely original work. Vandermeer imagines a biological entity that brings another time/ space dimension to our beleaguered earth; it is not malevolent, but simply indifferent to the human. The human mind copes by seeing only the ENEMY. The book makes you rethink everything: the cosmos, metaphysics, identity, time, etc. etc. One of those books that never quite leaves you after you’ve read it.”
Rosemary Sullivan won the 2015 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for her biography Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva.
“As always, lots of picture books caught my eye this year, but a few titles really stood out. One is Nancy Knows by Cybele Young — a very simple story about an elephant called Nancy who can’t quite remember something she knows she needs to remember. The illustrations — simple ink elephant outlines filled with intricate paper sculptures — are fabulously creative and, most importantly, fun.
My favorite, though, is The Wolf-Birds by Willow Dawson. With a lyrical text and stylized, but dynamic art, this well-researched nonfiction picture book uses the interrelationship between wolves and ravens to introduce young kids to the cycle of life. Animals die in this book, but, as Willow writes, ‘one animal’s life helps many others live.’”
Jan Thornhill won the 2015 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young Readers.
“I read Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper this summer.
I thoroughly enjoyed the novel because it reminded me of home (I am from Saskatchewan) and for the way it conveyed how people change over time.
I found relationships between the three protagonists especially moving; Etta and Otto and Russell illustrated the good and bad ways love affects friendship, romance, and family.”
Chuqiao Yang was a finalist for the 2015 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers for her poetry collection “Roads Home.”
Looking for even more great books to read?
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