10 Great Recommended CanLit Reads for the Holidays

This list of books is not meant to be exhaustive or to indicate anything other than these are ten great CanLit reads that I highly recommend. I have chosen books published from the 1980s forward for this particular list. I believe these titles offer a relatively broad range of themes and writing styles, and should be available in most new and used bookstores across the country. Please enjoy the brief list, with titles that appear in no particular order, and I hope that it is useful in some small way either for gifts or recommendations over the holiday season and beyond.

The Jade Peony, Wayson Choy.

Some writers make it seem effortless. I put Wayson Choy in this category. He is a beautiful storyteller whose writing style is exquisite. Three young narrators lead us on a journey through Vancouver’s Chinatown during the Second World War. Choy’s skills are on full display in this novel from the driving narrative to the compelling characters. Family and forbidden love are two of the novel’s dominant themes.

Shoeless Joe, W.P. Kinsella.

Even if you have seen Field of Dreams, I am confident that you can enjoy Kinsella’s baseball tale that weaves myth, nostalgia and fact to create a great story. While the movie is mildly entertaining, Kinsella’s novel is quite simply, captivating. Sports, and particularly baseball fans will enjoy this book most, but anyone who appreciates unfettered imagination in the books they read will not be disappointed.

The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill.

Lawrence Hill has created one of the most compelling heroines in recent Canadian literature. Aminata is a force from beginning to end in this sweeping epic. Hill provides us with an unforgettable tale that contains wisdom, pain, beauty and unwavering hope. The pre-Confederation British North America colonies are cast in a light that is too often ignored when discussing this problematic history. This is Hill’s best effort to date but I have a feeling there are even greater novels to come as he begins to peak as an author.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood.

This is not necessarily Atwood’s best, but I think it endures as her signature novel. If you have not yet read anything by one of Canada’s most famous authors (maybe you have been living under a rock) this is the one to get started with before tackling some of her more complex novels. Written in the dark shadows of Reaganomics and increasing religious fundamentalism in the United States, Atwood’s dystopian future remains eerily prescient more than twenty years later. Read some Palin-speak – you will not require a dictionary – before you dive into The Handmaid’s Tale to get the full effect of Atwood’s justifiable angst.

Fruit, Brian Francis.

This novel does not appear on enough lists as a highly recommended read for my liking. Francis’s gifts are many as he creates one of the most endearing characters, in Peter Paddington, that I have encountered in the last ten years. Talking nipples alone are reason to start this fine book; Francis’s sensitivity, humour and compassion makes you wish the book were twice as long as it sails along.

Monkey Beach, Eden Robinson.

There is a rawness, along with a gripping reality contained in this book that is rarely matched in contemporary CanLit. Robinson, much like Hill, teaches without making the reader feel as if they are being lectured at. Empathy, compassion and sincerity define this West Coast novel and while some of Robinson’s characters are impossible to like, others will make you believe the human spirit can triumph in the face of despair and pain.

The Outlander, Gil Adamson.

I recommend this book to so many people, I am sure they think that Gil is a family member. From the opening pages, the murderous widow leads us on one of the best chases in CanLit history. If you can put this book down more than a dozen times from start to finish, you will have me beat. Adamson’s prose is as rich and as clear as the Rocky Mountain air that the widow breathes with every deep inhale.

The Flying Troutmans, Miriam Toews.

Many people will argue that A Complicated Kindness is Toews’s best work. While there is much to like in her debut, award-winning novel, I prefer The Flying Troutmans, hands down. Toews has an excellent ear for language and this is reflected in the dialogue exchanged between her dynamic young characters. This modern quest across North America in a damaged minivan by three scarred young people is both brilliant and moving. Toews’s potential as a writer seems boundless from my perspective.

In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje.

Ondaatje is both lyrical and powerful in writing style in this exploration of working class and immigrant lives of Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s. Ondaatje’s books are crafted with skill and care. Because he is such a gifted storyteller, the tendency is to race through them, but if you take your time, you pick up the subtleties and nuances that make him one of the finest writers of our time. This book, along with most of his other efforts, will endure.

Nikolski, Nicolas Dickner.

Thankfully, this excellent novel was the Canada Reads 2010 winner, because I fear it would not have received the recognition it so richly deserves. While it received early rave reviews in Quebec, non-Quebeckers, sadly, did not engage with it until it received some English-Canada stamps of approval. Dickner takes the reader on an amazing journey with characters that you want to succeed in all that they do. Disparate storylines are woven together to create an unforgettable novel. I challenge you not to devour this book within a day or two of opening its first page.