Skip to content
Recommended Reading


2019 Best Books of the Year

Carleigh Baker

Carleigh Baker was the writer-in-residence at Berton House from January to March 2019.


So many 2019 faves, but I’d like to call special attention to Watching You Without Me by Lynn Coady, Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being by Amy Fung, and Moccasin Square Gardens by Richard Van Camp. These books made me think about human relationships and our relationship to the land in clear-eyed and exciting ways.

Joelle Barron

Joelle Barron was a finalist for this year’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers.


The Brightest Thing by Ruth Daniell

Rue des Rosiers by Rhea Tregebov

Disintegrate/Dissociate by Arielle Twist 

These are not the potatoes of my youth by Matthew Walsh

Renaissance Normcore by Adèle Barclay

I would love to suggest that people read this year's RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers poems by finalists Ellie Sawatzky, Rebecca Salazar, and winner John Elizabeth Stintzi! I believe they are available for free on Apple Books and in PDF! 

Sharon Butala

Sharon Butala was a finalist for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her short story collection Season of Fury and Wonder.


I read so many books, mostly really excellent novels, in 2019 and either borrowed them from the library or immediately after reading gave them away, and kept no record and (aside from Michael Crummey's The Innocents) now my mind is blank. And yet the one novel I cannot forget that I read this year is Icelandic Nobelist Halldór Laxness’ 1934 novel, Independent People. Because of my mostly remotely rural life, I have always cared very much about people who live in in nature and off the beaten track and make their livings growing things and where survival is always iffy and hard and have wanted to write about such people myself. Laxness tells it all memorably and heart-breakingly.

Stephen Collis

Stephen Collis received this year’s $25,000 Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize.


Pots and Other Living Beings by annie ross (Talonbooks)
This is documentary poetry and poetic photo-essay at its best. ross, a Vancouver-based Maya-Irish poet and artist, feels her way carefully across the landscape of the US South West — a landscape scarred by colonization and the military industrial complex and its atomic desires.

A Literary Biography of Robin Blaser by Miriam Nichols (Palgrave MacMillan)
A brilliant biography of long-time Vancouver resident and more-than-mere-mortal poet Robin Blaser (whose collected poems, also edited by Nichols, won the 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize). You learn as much about the life lived as the poetry written — as well as the inseparability of the two.

On Forgetting a Language by Isabella Wang (Baseline Press)
This beautiful chapbook introduces readers to a poet who, at just nineteen years old, is already writing with the intellectual grace and poise of someone twice her age (or possibly three times). The first of many books to come I’m sure.

Our Death by Sean Bonney (Commune Editions)
A book bursting with articulate rage at the state of the world, made all the more poignant by the author’s death, at only 50 years old, just as this, his last book, was being released. Bonney put the fire back in poetry. It’s worth having a read in the light of this blaze.

NISHGA by Jordan Abel (McClelland and Stewart)
OK, I’m cheating — this book isn’t out until April 2020, but I read it in 2019, and it is profound. Abel turns his conceptual, documentarian eye on his own personal archive and it is devastating and moving and without doubt a game-changer.

Melissa J. Gismondi

Melissa J. Gismondi was selected this year as a Writers’ Trust Rising Star by author Charlotte Gray.


My two recommendations would be A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott and Normal People by Sally Rooney (it was published in North America for the first time this year!) I picked Elliott’s book because I’m in awe of how she weaves the personal with the political, as well as the historical. It feels effortless. I also recommend Rooney’s new book because she is a writer who lives up to her hype — and then some. In my mind, these are two exciting new writers and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Charlotte Gray

Charlotte Gray was a selector this year for the Writers’ Trust Rising Stars. She selected Melissa J. Gismondi.


As a juror for the Cundill Prize, an international award for the best book of history published this year, I have read volumes of world-class history in 2019. All three finalists were extraordinary, especially the winner. I certainly didn’t expect to enjoy Julia Lovell’s Maoism, A Global History when I picked it up (too heavy! too scholarly!), but it proved to be engrossing — well-structured, lively, and easy to read.

One of the best biographies I read this year was Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century by Saskatoon-based Alexandra Popoff. With compassion and an intimate understanding of Russia, Popoff delves into the life of writer Grossman, who bore witness to some of the most hideous events of the twentieth century. Grossman never escaped from the totalitarian grip of his homeland, yet had the mentality of a man from the free world.

When the boxes of Cundill reading got too much, I devoured fiction on my Kobo. The lyricism of Michael Crummey’s The Innocents, the tension of Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, and the literary precision of Miriam Toews’ Women Talking took me into other worlds. My big discovery this year was the British Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie, whose sophisticated, post-colonial fiction explores the clash between society, family, and faith in the modern world. Her characters feel authentic, her prose is elegant, her stories never slide into melodrama. After being blown away by her most recent novel, Home Fire, I consumed her backlist and her regular columns in The Guardian.

Finally, in Truth Be Told, former Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has given us all a compelling account of her own journey to the country’s top court, and also a glimpse into how the law works. McLachlin writes with such modesty, warmth and wisdom that readers can feel they are talking to a friend.

Rawi Hage

Rawi Hage received this year’s $25,000 Writers’ Trust Engel Findley Award.


Radius Islamicus by Julian Samuel

Are the Rivers in Your Poems Real by Moez Surani

Madame Victoria by Catherine Leroux, translated by Lazer Lederhendler

Return to Arcadia by H. Nigel Thomas 

Glen Huser

Glen Huser was a juror for this year’s Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People.


Among picture books of this past year, the one that totally blew me away was Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Julia Sarda. It may seem an odd venture to develop this subject for children, but Vancouver writer Bailey is surefooted in her text, finding correspondences in Mary Shelley’s life that will appeal to young readers — the fact that the narrative grew out of a ghost story competition among friends (Mary still a teenager), that it came from a “waking dream,” that it developed from scientific interests of the time. And, of course, the fact that it’s still famous two hundred years later. Julia Sarda’s illustrations with their dark, Gothic spreads touched by lightning flashes of colour are so amazing that a reader cannot help browsing through them over and over again.

El Jones

El Jones was selected this year as a Writers’ Trust Rising Star by writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.


BlackLife by Rinaldo Walcott and Idil Abdillahi: a vital and wide-sweeping cultural and political critique of Blackness and anti-Blackness in Canada, the erasure of Black contribution, and the resistance and resilience of Black Canada.

Not out yet but I’m awaiting The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole — a long-awaited chronicle of 2017 and a year in Black activism and resistance.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

Black Writers Matter, edited by Whitney French

Chelene Knight

Chelene Knight was selected this year as a Writers’ Trust Rising Star by author David Chariandy.


For me, I would select Rebent Sinner by Ivan Coyote. Easily the best book I’ve read this year. Rebent Sinner is a beautifully honest memoir written in the very fragmented way we experience life. Ivan gifted us a spot in their soul so that we could see, hear, feel our own stories echoed back at us. This memoir not only allowed me to see things I haven’t seen before, but it allowed me time and space to acknowledge my own feelings and experiences as a marginalized writer.

Angélique Lalonde

Angélique Lalonde won this year’s Writers’ Trust McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for her short story “Pooka.”


Mistakes to Run With by Yasuko Thanh

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt

Immigrant City by David Bezmozgis

The Girl and the Wolf by Katherena Vermette, illustrated by Julie Flett

Disintegrate/Dissociate by Arielle Twist

This isn’t one author, it’s a compendium of some really exciting work, but I do want to include: Grain Volume 46, No. 5:Indigenous Writers and Storytellers,” which is sitting quite close to my heart right now. 

Kyo Maclear

Kyo Maclear was a juror for this year’s Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People.


Birdsong by Julie Flett
I’d follow Julie’s art on the page anywhere but this story completely dazzled me. It’s an ode to art-making, moon cycles and intergenerational friendship. Just perfect in every way.

On Fire by Naomi Klein
Fiery, politically-nutritive, hope-giving — I freely admit to being forever under Naomi’s writerly and world-rearranging spell.

Téa Mutonji

Téa Mutonji was a finalist for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her collection of short stories Shut Up You’re Pretty.


Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta
I heard Zalika read the story “Snow Day” a few months prior to her book being released. I remember thinking: someone needs to give this person a book deal ASAP, only to immediately find out that someone had, and that an entire collection with stories as funny, intimate, and moving as “Snow Day” was to be published this summer. Frying Plantain is an entire journey; I felt complicated feelings of nostalgia and release.

Bunny by Mona Awad
I’ve successfully made all my friends read this book so we can discuss it. Conclusion: bunkers, a wild ride, the true and inner thoughts of an MFA creative writing student. And what’s that thing about toxic female friendships? This book is excellent.

Reproduction by Ian Williams
I picked up this book at the FOLD festival in May, where Ian and I met for the first time. I read it on the GO Train, the VIA Rail, on the Megabus. There’s something really special about reading one book throughout your travels. I’ll admit that I hadn’t finished it. I got extremely busy since coming home from tour, and I’m looking forward to the holiday downtime to finish it. A part of me, however, likes living in the limbo of Reproduction. I’m nervous that it has a sad ending, judging by where I left off. And I also don’t want the book to end.

Life of the Party: Poems by Olivia Gatwood
This was an accidental purchase. I picked it up at Indigo and added it to my pile without intention. I finished it in one sitting. I went back and revisited some of the poems. Funny, heartbreaking, and incredibly smart. This was one of the best treats of the year.

Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker
This is the book I dreamt of reading in high school. I would do anything to have read this book when I was a fifteen-year-old emo kid in a predominantly white suburban high school. This too is popular in my Christmas gift list.

Susin Nielsen

Susin Nielsen received this year’s $25,000 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People.


A few of my favourite books from 2019: 

I know Margaret Atwood probably doesn’t need my help to sell a few more books, but dang, I loved reading The Testaments. It was riveting, with so many pitch-perfect sentences; she is a master at the literary page-turner. I loved seeing her so much at the top of her game. 

At the other end of the spectrum, I read a gorgeous debut novel by Nazanine Hozar, Aria. It’s set in Iran, in the lead-up to the revolution, and it, too, is a page-turner. I love being taken into worlds that are not my own. That this was her debut novel is mildly irritating because it’s so very good 😊. I can’t wait to see what she does next. 

Night of Power by Anar Ali was another book that I found absolutely riveting from the get-go. It’s set in the Ismaili community in Calgary, and the characters are so poignant and heartbreaking and flawed and believable. 

Lastly, in the world of YA I just loved The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan. Again I was taken into a world and culture I knew little about. What really stayed with me was the author’s compassion for her characters; even when they are doing things that seem truly horrible, Khan puts their deeds into context; though the overall messages are clear, she never paints in black and white. This is also a debut novel, by the way. 

Lindsay Nixon

Lindsay Nixon won this year’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers.


I Am Still Too Much by Brandi Bird is the best unsung poetry collection of the millennial generation of Indigenous literature. Bird’s comfortability with the formalist aspects of poetry means they use visceral, visual metaphors and cutting wit to concisely disrupt the canon of poetry and carve out Indigenous space and time.

NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt subverts the tradition of the ethnographic journal by rawly reflecting upon his own life. Subjects range from douching while Kesha plays to reflecting upon a cultural moment surrounding the #MeToo movement to the underlying ethos of the frequently used online shorthand phrase “NDN.”

In My Own Moccasins is Helen Knott’s mark on a legacy of Indigenous memoir. In the footsteps of her literary mentors, such as Maria Campbell, Knott does not disappoint, delivering uncensored Indigenous truth that calls the legitimacy of settler-colonial Canada into question.

Heather O’Neill

Heather O’Neill received this year’s $50,000 Writers’ Trust Fellowship.


I adored Zalika Reid-Bent’s Frying Plantain. It's a group of interconnected stories about a second generation Canadian named Kara and her Jamaican family. Reid-Benta’s attention to detail is hilarious and heart-breaking. The anxieties and desires of a whole community burst forth in simple prose. I sat in the living room with Kara's family, looked in the mirror with her, squashed in bed with her single mother. The loneliness and wonder of having the privilege of possibilities your family did not is marvellously captured. Oh and Kara’s chronically unfaithful grandfather was a hysterical portrait of melancholy, dysfunction, and love.

Deborah Ostrovsky

Deborah Ostrovsky was selected this year as a Writers’ Trust Rising Star by writer Taras Grescoe.


I am currently finishing off Mistakes to Run With by Yasuko Thanh and I’m very grateful to end 2019 with this riveting memoir that challenges many perceived ideas about the power we have to control, and change, our lives.

My pre-New Year’s resolution is to read Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves in French, Pilleurs de rêves, recently translated by Madeleine Stratford, a Governor General’s Literary Award finalist this year. It’s exciting to have Dimaline’s book available to francophone readers in Canada and beyond.

Another Governor General’s Literary Award finalist and French fiction author whose work I’m grateful to discover is Éléonore Goldberg. Her novel in fragments, Maisons fauves, is about memory, rootlessness, and identity.

I have to wonder if I would have survived many ups and downs in 2019 without the extraordinary power of South African-born, British author Deborah Levy to write about ordinary, lived experience, grief, and the way we are shaped by family and society in The Cost of Living and Things I Don't Want to Know.

This was the first year I have ever belonged to a book club, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to read Women Talking by Miriam Toews with a group of Montreal women, from all walks of life — all of whom wanted to talk at length about the book’s deeply spiritual message: to be true to one’s personal convictions, and faith, in the face of oppression, abuse, and trauma.

Like so many readers, I have been trying to read everything by, and about, Olga Tokarczuk, who received the Nobel Prize as well as receiving death threats. She reminds us that writing can be a dangerous, but courageous act.

And, closer to home, the poetry of Innu poet and performer, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine. All in all, 2019 has been a year of inspiring reading. 

Casey Plett

Casey Plett was a finalist for this year’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Emerging LGBTQ Writers.


Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles

Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann

Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante

I Hope We Choose Love by Kai Cheng Thom

The Black Emerald by Jeanne Thornton

Reproduction by Ian Williams

Jacques Poitras

Jacques Poitras was a finalist for this year’s Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for his book Pipe Dreams.


If I could include a book from 2018, I would say Washington Black by Esi Edugyan stayed with me all year. The plot, settings and characters were all so vivid and the imagery so memorable. This novel shows why Edugyan is in the top tier of Canadian fiction writers. And if I could include one from 2017, I would say that Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests by Peter Russell is a new take on our history, placing the idea of compromises and trade-offs at the centre of the story. 

If we have to stick to 2019 books, these were my favourites:

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe was the best nonfiction book I read in 2019, an account of the Troubles framed by a real-life murder mystery. For those who enjoy books about books, The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey and Working by Robert A. Caro are both absolute feasts.

Ailsa Ross

Ailsa Ross was the writer-in-residence at Berton House from October to December 2019.


I was so sad when I realized that Sheila Heti’s Motherhood was published in 2018 rather than 2019!

Anyway, here are my picks. 

It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Julie Morstad
I can so clearly feel that It Began With a Page is by the same author who gave us Birds, Art, Life.  There’s such a distilled beauty to this latest children’s book from Kyo Maclear and illustrator Julie Morstad. 

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
Documenting a changing world and our place within it, Kathleen Jamie takes in the world through a thousand lenses — through the kaleidoscope eyes of a dragonfly. The essays in Surfacing take place in the Orkney Islands. They take place in Alaska. They take place among snow buntings and caribou and I love them. 

Bunny by Mona Awad
After reading Bunny I was very glad to not be attending an elite MFA program. The Ottessa Moshfegh comparisons, I totally understand. Mona Awad is funny. And brutal.

Trish Salah

Trish Salah was the writer-in-residence at Berton House from April to June 2019.


Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante

NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt

Vulgar Mechanics by K. B. Thors

Oval by Elvia Wilk

Time by Etel Adnan, translated by Sarah Riggs

Disintegrate/Dissociate by Arielle Twist


Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry, edited by Amber Dawn and Justin Ducharme

John Elizabeth Stintzi

John Elizabeth Stintzi won this year’s RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers for their collection of poetry Selections from Junebat.


2019 has been a weird year, which has led to my being a pretty bad reader (finishing far, far fewer books than I start). That said, there have still been some books that stood out to me this year. I’ve been reading more and more Indigenous voices the last few years, and in 2019 I was particularly bowled over by (of course) Billy-Ray Belcourt’s newest poetry collection NDN Coping Mechanisms and Kaitlyn Purcell’s fiction debut ʔbédayine. Most of the other books I’ve finished and loved this year are less conventional non-fiction books, particularly T Fleischmann’s excellent essay Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through (one of my fave books of the last few years), Christina and Martha Baillie’s Sister Language, and Jennifer Croft’s Homesick. One more that I’ve started, and am look forward to finishing once things chill out, is I Hope We Choose Love by Kai Cheng Thom.

Ayelet Tsabari

Ayelet Tsabari was a finalist for this year’s Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for her memoir The Art of Leaving.


I am still catching up on reading from 2019 and there are so many books I haven’t managed to read yet, although they are on my list and some are even on my bedside table! (Most anticipated at the moment are Rebent Sinner by Ivan Coyote, Bunny by Mona Awad, The Western Alienation Merit Badge by Nancy Jo Cullen, Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me by Anna Mehler Paperny, and All Our Relations by Tanya Talaga). Out of the ones I managed to read, these were my favourites, three fiction and four creative nonfiction (in alphabetic order).

Annahid Dashtgard's memoir, Breaking the Ocean, is a bold and intimate story about trauma and resilience and the power of storytelling to heal and connect us.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott deserves all the hype it has been getting. It is an urgent, necessary book and Elliott is a gorgeous and perceptive writer. I admired the creative risks she took in this book, and her unflinching, uncompromising honesty.

Eufemia Fantetti’s My Father, Fortune-tellers & Me is a delight. Fantetti wrote a book about mental illness and its effect on her family in an innovative, lyrical way that is at once darkly funny, compassionate, and heartbreaking.

Téa Mutonji’s Shut Up You’re Pretty. A coming-of-age story set in Scarborough, this debut brims with raw energy and is written with such a bold, confident hand. I was enthralled by the voice of Loli. She’s a character I will not soon forget.

I couldn’t put down Alix Ohlin’s Dual Citizens. Which is what I want from a novel. I was deeply immersed and invested in the relationship between the sisters and loved the storyteller voice and the elegance of the prose. 

Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta is an impressive, intelligent and well-crafted collection of linked stories. Reid-Benta writes with great compassion and nuance about Kara’s journey from girlhood to early adulthood.

Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. by Jenny Heijun Wills is a stunning memoir — haunting, resonant and deeply moving. I admired the poetic language, the alternative structure, and the author’s profound mediation on belonging and identity.

Margo Wheaton

Margo Wheaton was a juror for this year’s Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize.


I’m currently reading Odysseus Asleep by Peter Sanger and loving it. The book is a collection of poem sequences, elegantly produced by the ever-attentive and poetry-friendly Gaspereau Press. These poems are characterized by a fierce heart and a finely tuned ear: Sanger is known for his impeccable attention to even the smallest of details and silences in his carefully-crafted well-wrought poems. I’m finding these sequences mesmerizing. Filled with political acuity and grace.

I also have to recommend another offering by Sanger that I devoured earlier this year. Lightfield is an extended essay on the environmentally astute and visionary work of New Brunswick-based artist Thaddeus Holownia. Sanger’s essays on the intricacy and meaning of Holownia’s photographs are themselves passionate, illuminating, and even generative. Reading them shook me into alertness and reminded me of why making art matters.

Other books I loved reading in 2019 were:

The Organist by Mark Abley

Blackbird Song by Randy Lundy (Published in 2018, but this book was one of the most affecting things I read this year. Exquisite and powerful.) 

No Meeting Without Body by Annick MacAskill (Also published in 2018, but I enjoyed reading it so much this year, that I couldn’t keep it off my list!)

Murder: And Other Essays by David Adams Richards

Cluster by Souvankham Thammavongsa

The Experience of Meaning by Jan Zwicky

Jenny Heijun Wills

Jenny Heijun Wills won this year’s Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for her memoir Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.


Some of my most memorable reading moments in 2019 show how literature reaches right into my body. 

The stories in Coconut Dreams by Derek Mascarenhas move me to want to be a better storyteller. Throughout, he finds the perfect words that make me stop mid-sentence and marvel at how a writer can quietly stun a reader into holding their breath just with language. 

The essays in I Hope We Choose Love by Kai Cheng Thom have the kind of gentle power that I feel on the surface of my skin and also underneath it. I feel her power all over. I find myself having conversations aloud to an empty room while reading and I love that. I have been a huge fan for some time and this is only further confirmed now. 

I was delighted by the title of Téa Mutonji’s, Shut Up You’re Pretty, delighted again by the story names, and again and again by the humour and tenderness of the entire book. I felt like I was in a race reading each story, not because of their perfect brevity, but because my heart was beating so fast. 

Alissa York

Alissa York was a juror for this year’s Writers’ Trust Engel Findley Award.


The Difference by Marina Endicott

Watching You Without Me by Lynn Coady

A King Alone by Jean Giono, translated by Alyson Waters

All Our Relations by Tanya Talaga

Horizon by Barry Lopez

Winnie Yeung

Winnie Yeung was a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for her book, Homes: A Refugee Story, co-written with Abu Bakr Al-Rabeeah.


This year, time for pleasure reading was scarce as I struggled to juggle the demands of promoting Homes: A Refugee Story, teaching, and writing. However, the one lucky thing about spending so much time in airports is that it offered time to escape into books. My three favourite diversions published in 2019 were written by whip-smart women and entering their variously dark fictional worlds surprisingly offered me hope and inspiration. 

First, it was satisfying to lose myself, yet again, in Louise Penny’s fictional village of Three Pines in her latest book, A Better Man.

Sarah Leavitt’s graphic novel, Agnes, Murderess, was both enchanting and disconcerting since I completely identified with the main character’s dream — and subsequent disillusionment — about how reaching a place or goal might be the answer to all your problems.

Lastly, it took me weeks to prepare myself to read Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. Having revered The Handmaid’s Tale, I was scared that the second book would not live up to my sky-high Margaret Atwood ideals. I’m embarrassed for not having more faith in my literary idol. The Testaments was wildly clever and a true testament to Atwood’s brilliance.