Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

November 20, 2014

My 5 Canada Reads Picks!

Canada Reads has not been interesting to me for several years, in large part because the crowd-sourcing of recommendations has led to a lot of predictable, already-lauded frontlist books being chosen to represent the year’s theme, no matter what it was. For anyone who follows CanLit, the lists for the last three Canada Reads have been deeply boring. Deserving, sure; but dull.

There is something about this year that has roused my optimism, however. “One book to break barriers,” they want. Surely this theme, of all themes, lends itself to new, unexpected, barrier-breaking nominees? They want challenging books. They want – now, don’t get cynical here on me. We’re still in the honeymoon phase – to upset the status quo.

In the wake of the Ghomeshi scandal, Wab Kinew is not the ideal Canada Reads host. Don’t get me wrong – I love Kinew to pieces and think he will do a brilliant job. But given all that we have learned about institutionalized sexism and cultures of harassment over the last weeks, Canada Reads – and Q – really needed a woman at the podium.

But Canada Reads isn’t about the host. It is about the books, and there is absolutely no reason this year cannot be a slate of fresh, challenging, smart, and feminist Canadian books.

While we’re breaking barriers, let’s break a few more. It’s high time Canada Reads had more of our incredible range of literary speculative fiction on its slate. It’s time for our outstanding Young Adult authors to have a place. Sadly, they are not inviting short story collections this year – fie – but non-fiction is welcome at the table.

I have a few ides.

vN by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot Books)

Toronto’s Ashby writes science fiction which deftly goes out of its way to do exactly what science fiction does best: turn societal norms inside out to show us how messed up things are here and now. Her struggling android protagonists expose smart truths about race, gender, and power without losing sight of the tight, thriller-like plot.

The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet (ChiZine)

Sweet’s debut novel is a dark fantasy filled with magic and monsters, but at its heart is the story of a vulnerable young woman who finds herself under the power of an abusive teacher. Sweet uses fantasy to explore the complexities of how powerful (and charismatic) man can trap and harm even the most talented women. Topical? Yes.

 Above by Leah Bobet (Scholastic)

Bobet’s debut young adult novel is rich not only in wonderful, poetic language, but in what it has to say about identity and belonging. Her “Freaks” live deep beneath a city that does not love them, a sort-of-Toronto every bit as problematic as the one we have here. Despite jacket copy tat makes it sound like a boilerplate YA paranormal romance, Above is philosophically nuanced and emotionally demanding of its readers.

Among Others by Jo Walton (Tor)

Jo Walton’s “science fiction with a fantasy problem” novel is another example of rich language layered on enchanting worldbuilding and exciting plot with a painful story of a young woman who has lost so much at its core. It is also funny, touching, whimsical and a delight to read – but the biggest barrier it pushes is in how this is very much a story about women, and only women. Witches and fairies, yes, but mothers and daughters and sisters and aunts.

Chorus of Mushrooms by Hiromi Goto (NeWest Press)

Hiromi Goto’s 1994 classic about three generations of Japanese-Canadian women is so much weirder, more wonderful, and more experimental than I had expected. Another story of “identity and belonging”, Canada’s favourite subject, this one is infused with Japanese folklore in a distinctly postmodern sort of way. Stories are couched within stories, blurring the lines between whose story if being told and whether anything being told is a story. In addition – this is an older classic of Asian-Canadian literature from a small Canadian press. Just the sort of thing Canada Reads is meant to help readers discover!

So, from now until November 30th 2014, Tweet, Facebook or email your suggestions to the CBC! I won’t tell you what I’m going to put forth, but spoiler: it’s on this list. I hope you’ll follow my lead!

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