2016's Best Books of the Year, Recommended by Canadian Writers
Everyone deserves a bit of luxury around the holidays, and what better way to treat yourself than with some quality reading? Cozy up by the fire with a few picks from our best books of the year list, as chosen by your favourite Canadian writers. You really can't go wrong.
Jia Qing Wilson-Yang’s Small Beauty. A Southern Gothic novella with a transwoman protagonist who defies the trends of trans representation in literature and reconciles with the legacy of racism, family violence, and wonder of the universe.
Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars. A folklore surrealist novel about a young racialized transwoman in Montreal finding her way through a fantastical landscape of transfemme warriors, first dates with nice cis boys, hormones, and the violence which stalks all transwomen everywhere.
Katherena Vermette’s The Break. A breathtakingly beautiful love letter to Indigenous women, The Break is one of the most important works of Indigenous literature because it showcases Indigenous women as survivors, caretakers of culture and ceremony, and as vital loving forces in our communities.
Vivek Shraya’s even this page is white. A sharp-edged, poetic exploration of racism, what it means to be racialized in Canada, and the struggle of confronting and naming white complicity in racism.
Cherie Dimaline’s A Gentle Habit. A series of short stories, vivid in detail and built with expressive language, A Gentle Habit is an example of Indigenous literary excellence and innovation. A consummate storyteller, Dimalinemoves through the landscape of Indigenous urban fiction with a gentle and persistent sense of grace and revelation.
Gwen Benaway was a finalist for the 2016 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LBGT Emerging Writers. Her second collection of poetry, Passage, will be published by Kegedonce Press later this month. Read our jury citation.
I devoured Blair Braverman’s Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North, a fierce, clear-eyed memoir about being young, and a woman, and going to the North. Whether running sled dogs for tourists in Alaska or feeding lambs in a Norwegian village, Braverman explores what it means to be a “tough girl” in the physically and emotionally challenging Arctic landscape. Also, there are puppies.
Laurie D. Graham’s latest book of poems, Settler Education, reminded me of how poetry can connect us with the past in ways other forms can’t. With vivid sensory details, deft movement through time and space, and the precise placement of historical facts, Graham drops the reader into the middle of the Plains Cree uprising at Frog Lake—without sacrificing a critical, 21st century perspective.
I loved the tenderness in Nadia Bozak’s Thirteen Shells, a series of short stories chronicling the titular character’s childhood. A sweet sadness permeates these stories, like the smell of the cereal factory that hovers over Shell’s small Ontario town.
Claire Caldwell was the writer-in-residence at the Berton House Writers’ Retreat from July to September 2016. Read her blog post.
Strife. Division. Tears in the social fabric. As journalism collapses, leaving fake news and social media to compete for our attention, books are one of the last places where complex conversations still take place. Kathy Page's 2016 Giller long-listed The Two of Us is a collection of stories that explores relationships between pairs of people (not necessarily a couple). She has a dark side and knows how to throw a grenade into expectations.
Kevin Patterson's engrossing war novel about Afghanistan, News from the Red Desert, interrogates how war stories are told and shows us how and why people make bad decisions in the fog of war. There's empathy here, and darkness tempered by wit. Finally—new in translation—Eva Sleeps by Francesca Melandri unearths the little-known history of persecuted German-speaking Italians through the story of a young woman whose pregnancy casts her out of her society, where she falls for a man from the other side. Heartbreak ensues, and a bittersweet reconciliation.
Deborah Campbell won the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for her book A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War. Watch her profile video.
What's it like to be a young person trapped aboard a Ship of State adults are steering aground in an angry sea? The Pact, by Amanda West Lewis, takes us into the day-to-day realities of a young man questioning his place in Hitler's Germany. The novel reads true to life because it's largely based on the actual experiences of Lewis' longtime neighbour, who attended Hitler Youth Camp before the war and years later narrowly escaped from an SS training camp as the Nazi regime was falling apart. I found the book terribly useful for stripping back the inevitable mythologies surrounding such monumental evil and dysfunction. Oddly enough, given the times, this also feels like it might be unsettling yet essential reading for right now.
Alan Cumyn won the 2016 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young Readers. He published the YA novel Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend earlier in the year. Read our jury citation.
I learned so much from Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Not only did it make me keenly aware of the true privilege of simply playing a Bach record, it also made me rethink the transcendent nature of art and the vital role of artists in every society. I took about a month to read the book in order to savour a slow awakening to its emotional and intellectual depths, living each day with the characters as if they were my real friends.
Charlie Fiset was a finalist for the 2016 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for her short story “If I Ever See the Sun.” Read more about her story.
Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. The American journalist takes a deeper look at the astonishing PTSD numbers among US soldiers, concluding that it’s less a problem with the soldiers than with the society sending them to fight. A short read that makes you think about the flaws in Western society. For example – why only in northern European cultures do kids sleep with stuffed animals? And what does that have to do with post-trauma?
Robert F. Worth’s A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS. A personal overview of the breakdown of the Arab world over the last five years. Worth tells a small number of human stories that bring home what has happened, beyond politics and statistics – not a happy book, but a necessary one. It’s one of the best things I’ve read about the era-defining events now under way in the Middle East.
Matti Friedman was a finalist for the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for his memoir Pumpkinflowers: An Israeli Soldier’s Story. Watch his profile video.
My favourite titles of 2016 were both released by Vivek Shraya: even this page is white is an antidote to CanLit's legacy of whiteness, a formative text on race for poetry lovers and new readers alike that has only grown more and more necessary as 2016 comes to a close; The Boy and the Bindi, Shraya's debut children's book, is a powerful and playful gem - a gorgeous read for adults and children alike on love that honours and celebrates children for their gifts.
Leah Horlick won the 2016 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LBGT Emerging Writers. Read the jury citation.
Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal. This is a book that you want to get your friends to read, not only so they too can enjoy the experience, but so that you can have the fun of discussing it with them.
Marc Raboy’s Marconi: The Man Who Networked the World. Hard to believe there has never been a major biography of someone as important and downright fascinating as Marconi. Marc Raboy does him full justice here.
Steven Price’s By Gaslight. I devoured the first 100 pages but then forced myself to put it aside as a treat for the Christmas holidays. A book to read by a crackling fire if ever there was one.
Ross King was a finalist for the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for his history Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lillies. Watch his profile video.
I would love to call attention to two nonfiction books that may have flown under the radar. The first is Truth and Honour: The Death of Richard Oland and the Trial of Dennis Oland by Greg Marquis – a reexamination of the murder trial that captivated the Maritimes (the legal process for which is still ongoing). Marquis gives a minute-by-minute account of the murder and evidence, as well as dissecting the trial that followed. A great blend of scholarship and storytelling.
The second book is The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction by Gregory Klages. Much has been written about the strange circumstances surrounding the death of one of Canada's most iconic painters, and much of it is pure speculation. Klages examines each hypothesis in turn, in clean, crisp prose.
Debra Komar is the current writer-in-residence at the Berton House Writers’ Retreat. She arrived in October and will be staying until the end of the month. Check out her Berton House tweets.
Joseph Boyden’s Wenjack. It is such a powerful and important story, and I hope it’s read widely not only in Canada, but also internationally. Wenjack evokes the kind of deep empathy we will need for reconciliation in this country, and, ultimately, for a kinder world where children no longer have to run away alone through forests and deserts to escape cruelty.
Colette Langlois won the the 2016 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for her short story “The Emigrants.” Read more about her story.
Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from A Secret World.
Jean Little delivered the 2016 Margaret Laurence Lecture, in Toronto on June 17. Listen to her speech with sister Pat deVries.
Moez Surani’s Operations. Incantatory new verse exploring the linguistic politics of violence. Best read aloud.
Andrew F. Sullivan’s Waste. Oshawa noir by way of the Pusher Trilogy and Harmony Korine. Brutal and awesome.
Michael Helm’s After James.A puzzle novel that’s not a puzzle, but an existential haunting. Black Mirror on mushrooms.
Jon Klassen’s We Found a Hat. The triumph of generosity over greed, with turtles.
Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. An important book about how a culture of fear can damage love. Worthy of its accolades.
J.R. McConvey was a finalist for the 2016 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for his short story “How the Grizzly Came to Hang in the Royal Oak Hotel.” Read more about his story.
I'm currently in the middle of Steven Price's By Gaslight, which I picked up because I loved his 2006 book of poetry, Anatomy of Keys. This novel is beautiful! Atmospheric, suspenseful, with so many wonderful images and perfect lines. Here is one of my recent favourites: "He thought of how they all must appear to an eye lurking out there in that frigid black sea, last and only survivors of some catastrophe perhaps, how they sailed onward singing and drinking in a light of their own making while all around them darkness held them and not a one looked out and saw it for what it was." Perfect for winter coming on, I think. It's the kind of book you can get lost in for hours at a time.
Allegra McKenzie was a finalist for the 2016 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers for her short story “This Monstrous Heart.” Download her story on iBooks.
Alice Zorn’s Five Roses. Besides the lovely writing in this novel about the convergence of three women’s lives and their efforts to overcome past difficulties, I particularly enjoyed following a story that takes place in my Montreal neighbourhood — an area rarely captured in literature. After a morning of reading, it was an uncommon delight to walk out to the grocery store and encounter a street corner, a building, or characters I’d been seeing through the astute and observant eyes of author Alice Zorn.
Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People. I was dragged in by this book, submerged and tumbled in Zoe Whittall’s almost claustrophobic examination of what happens to a family and small community when a revered male teacher is charged with sexual assault. It prompted me to ask myself some hard questions and reminded me that even when things may seem to be, they are seldom black and white.
Laura Berton’s I Married the Klondike (published in 1954). Pure pleasure! I loved reading this memoir for a multitude of reasons: its honest and unaffected tone, the fact that I read it while curled up in Laura Berton’s house (I puzzled over where the cellar entrance had been), the colour and illumination it cast on Dawson City as I explored that wonderful community, the quirky details it provided about life in Canada’s North. Despite the hardships and setbacks she describes, Laura Berton’s book is filled with a joy that I found infectious.
Shelagh Plunkett was the writer-in-residence at the Berton House Writers’ Retreat from January to March 2016. Check out her Instagram feed.
Kerry Lee Powell
Anosh Irani’s The Parcel. Told from the viewpoint of a transgender sex worker in Mumbai’s red light district, Irani explores issues of power, complicity, and helplessness with compassion and imaginative range. I was particularly drawn to the vividness of his characters and the authenticity of their voices.
Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life. I’m impressed by the courage and ingenuity of the feminist writers I’ve encountered over the past couple of years. We live in dangerous times, where hard-won human rights and freedoms are in danger of being lost. Wunker’s book is a reminder that those on the frontlines of culture and language are doing brave and necessary work.
Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone). Brown explores wide-ranging issues of race with humanity and grace, delving into the complexities and ambiguities of what it means to be brown in our time. And Al-Solaylee is a splendid writer, achieving in Brown that rare feat: a work that is clear and complex, elegant and heartfelt.
Kerry Lee Powell was a finalist for the 2016 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her collection of short stories Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush. Watch her profile video.
Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall, translated by Lazer Lederhendler
Dorthe Nors’ So Much for That Winter, translated by Misha Hoekstra
Hannah Rahimi was a finalist for the 2016 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers for her short story “With My Scarf Tied Just So.” Download her story on iBooks.
Katherena Vermette’s The Break. One of the most exciting books I've read not simply because of her fearless tackling of subject matter and structure but because of the heart and the palpable bonds between the women.
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Fusion poetry/fiction/nonfiction and a meditation on race relations in America.
Yasuko Thanh’s Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains. A historical novel about the colonial Vietnam told with a cool eye and a sense of whimsy.
Alissa York’s The Naturalist. The amazon through a naturalist's eye written with longing and wonder.
Billie Livingston’s The Crooked Heart of Mercy. The viral video of Drunk Priest Propositions Cop was simply one of my favourite explorations of character ever.
Claudia Casper’s The Mercy Journals. PTSD and the end of the world through mankind's own hand.
Eden Robinson won the 2016 Writers Trust Engel/Findley Award in recognition of her body of work. Her third novel, Son of a Trickster, will be published next February. Read our jury citation.
Madhu’s story in Anosh Irani’s The Parcel about a retired trangender sex worker from Bombay moves with the force of a groundswell: the emotional cadence of its language swept me along even as its honesty made parts of the narrative brutal. I dare anyone to read this book and remain unmoved.
Yasuko Thanh won the 2016 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her novel The Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains. Watch her profile video.
My favourite book of the last year was Katherena Vermette's The Break. Vermette is a Metis poet and novelist from Treaty One territory, Winnipeg, and the book is set there. The Break is written with precision and urgency, brilliantly, and it's both consoling and shattering.
Miriam Toews won the 2016 Writers’ Trust Fellowship. Watch or read her acceptance speech.
Looking for even more great books to read?