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The New Canadian Classics

By Kobo • July 15, 2020The Bookish Life

For readers expecting a “classic Canadian story” to be something they might find on the road to Avonlea, these eBooks are a refreshing detour.

Canada’s rich cultural panoply and its wide array of voices is writ large in these extraordinary literary works. Many tell stories of carving out a place for oneself; many speak with voices previously little-heard in the hallowed halls of “CanLit”; and some convey a quintessentially Canadian in-betweenness through their surprising genre-bending forms. All on this list are beautiful and honest stories that speak to a Canada we recognize today.

Canadian readers can access all of these eBooks by subscribing to Kobo Plus Read. Start your FREE 30-day trial.

The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke

Winner of the 2002 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Clarke’s tenth novel is set in the post-colonial West Indies and begins with a confession of murder. The story unravels over a 24-hour period, but spans the lifetime of a woman and a society built on and bound by the trauma of slavery. In his quest to “creolize” Oxford English, Clarke drew inspiration from a range of sources including Miles Davis and Geoffrey Chaucer. The result is a haunting and lyrical story of the power of memory and the human spirit.

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Autopsy of a Boring Wife by Marie-Renée Lavoie

Hailed as a Quebecois Bridget Jones’ Diary, Autopsy of a Boring Wife is the touching and funny tale of poor old Diane, a 48-year old woman whose husband has an affair and leaves her because, he says, she bores him. Well, who could take that news without a fight? Not Diane, who embarks upon an often racy, always entertaining journey to find herself and her spark again. The CBC called this book ‘wonderfully fresh and engaging”, and “an astute commentary on women and girls, gender differences and the curious institution of marriage in the 21st-century.”

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Refuge by Merilyn Simonds

Cassandra MacCallum, 96, is living quietly and well thank you very much -- when suddenly things take a dramatic turn. A young Burmese woman turns up claiming to be kin and tells a harrowing story of torture and flight. Can any of it be true? And is this stranger actually family? Slowly, Cass is forced to face a tragedy she had buried for half a century.

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Alligator by Lisa Moore

In her gritty third novel, set on the brooding Newfoundland coast, Lisa Moore constructs an interwoven cast of characters, each grappling with mortal battles of various weight. To wit, and not exhaustively: An Inuit man is found inexplicably dead in his room in St. John’s; a young woman strives to save the pine martens; a sociopathic yet oddly charming Russian gangster stakes out his territory; a dying filmmaker struggles to create her magnum opus. These are very human struggles, set against a powerful and brutally glorious landscape in a deftly told story filled with passion, regret, joy and despair.

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Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta

The interwoven stories of Frying Plantain are set in midtown Toronto where, if you walk a few yards one direction you are in Little Italy, a few steps the other way you’re in Little Jamaica. The location is a perfect metaphor for protagonist Kara Davis, “a girl caught in the middle” - not a kid but not an adult, Canadian but yearning to be more Jamaican, and altogether too “too” - too loud, too quiet, too soft, too bold. It’s a powerful coming of age story of growing up between worlds. Hear the author discuss her novel and the books that shaped her as a writer on the Kobo in Conversation podcast.

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Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Woe is the man who can’t successfully commit his own suicide. Rescued against his will, the self-described and unfortunately-for-him-very-much-alive thief reluctantly attends sessions with a well-meaning but naive therapist and unravels his violent life story of growing up in a war-torn country, then emigrating to Montreal where where he imagines himself a cockroach invading the lives of the privileged. It’s not precisely a plot twist, but from this wrecked life emerges a glimmer of hope for redemption.

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Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice

Winter is coming and slowly but surely, a small northern Anishinaabe community goes dark -- the TV goes, cellphones, then the landlines. Not a good sign, and soon enough the community is infiltrated by one stranger, then many escaping the crumbling society to the south. Local leadership loses its grip as the frightened and increasingly hungry community is manipulated by these invaders who take control of the reserve. Tensions and chaos rise, until a group of young people turn to the land and Anishinaabe tradition in hopes of helping their community thrive again -- but at a tremendous cost.

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The Clay Girl by Heather Tucker

Canada has a long tradition of feisty girls facing up to devastating family circumstances but few have as many challenges as Ari Appleton, the youngest of six sisters who have the misfortune of being born to highly dysfunctional parents. Ari is tossed from one dire situation to another, respite is ripped from her, and temptation tests her character.

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The Outlander by Gil Adamson

No, not THAT Outlander. In this case the outlander is 19-year-old Mary Boulton, a “widow by her own hand” on the run from her husband’s vengeful brothers and a pack of bloodhounds. Opening in mid-flight, this is a fast-paced road trip tale set in the rough and ready Canadian west circa 1903, an adventure story where the outlaw is a steely young woman determined to outrun her fate.

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On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light by Cordelia Strube

They may mess you up, your mom and dad, but they’re not alone; siblings can do a fine job of being both too much and too little, too. Harriet is “eleven going on thirty”, a striving artist who dreams of living in the woods like Tom Thompson, free of the burden of her feckless parents and the devotion of her severely handicapped little brother. To fund an escape, Harriet runs errands for the residents of the improbably named Shangrila apartment complex, putting her in contact with many other equally flawed characters. There are no paragons here, no authority figures, and as to her escape, character may well be destiny.

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Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

Beena and Sadhana are sisters who share a close bond, and the same tragic history, being orphaned and then raised by a harried Sikh uncle who runs a bagel shop in Montreal’s Hasidic community in Mile End. But their paths diverge dramatically and when Sadhana dies suddenly and mysteriously, Beena sets off on a search for truth that stirs memories, opens wounds and threatens to topple her carefully constructed new life.

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Player One: What is to Become of Us? by Douglas Coupland

Not to be confused with the sci-fi novel that became the film, Ready Player One, artist and author Douglas Coupland’s Player One is part of the Massey Lectures series, the original proposition being, What is life in 2010? What, indeed. Rather than deliver a traditional academic lecture, Coupland wrote a five-chapter novel that follows four characters as they arrive in an airport bar, describing their interactions with one another, their thoughts and motivations and how they cope with chaos as cataclysmic events occur. The fifth character, Player One, retells the entire experience from an outsider’s perspective, as if it were a video game. A non-traditional lecture, indeed, and an allegory of life in the 2010s and beyond.

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Life Is About Losing Everything by Lynn Crosbie

This has been called Crosbie’s “most honest, most cutting, most hilarious” book so far, a hefty claim given that she is the highly controversial author of Liar and Paul’s Case, a sort-of fictionalization, some said adoration, of a real-life serial killer. Here the envelope-pusher offers a memoir-like collection of experiences real and imagined, a harrowing and beautiful examination of what it is to be slouching toward infinity.

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This All Happened by Michael Winter

If you are the sort of person whose house is never cleaner than when you have to write something, this is the fictionalized memoir you wish you’d had the cleverness to come up with. Gabriel English desperately wants to write a novel. He has the idea and everything. Thing is, he can’t write it, so he focuses instead on his passion for Lydia. Alas, it’s a love unrequited, and through a year of daily journal entries we watch him descend from love to peevishness to fury. Luckily we as readers are in the very capable hands of an actual writer.

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The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches by Gaétan Soucy

The Girl is a total delight. Translated from the French, it was the first novel published in Quebec ever to be nominated -- let alone become a finalist -- for France's prestigious Prix Renaudot. It is the charming, magical-realist tale of a boy and girl who grow up in isolation and learn of the outside world only through the world of books and fairy tales. Following the shocking suicide of their father, they suddenly have to grapple with the outside world. The story rides the tension between playfulness, cheeky twists, and Soucy’s fascination with guilt, cruelty and violence.

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Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed

Sometimes a book is “Canadian” because a Canadian citizen or resident wrote it. Sometimes it’s because it is set here. And sometimes it’s because it nods in a northward direction. Such is this entry, a comic and rageful re-imagining of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, cheekily published in 1976, America’s bicentennial, and so-named because it is the final destination of hope for a runaway slave. Time and history are fluid on this trip, Lincoln is re-cast as a “player” or con-man who appears on the Late Show, carriages have A/C and power locks and the humdrum horrors of slavery are reinvented with comic rage.

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Canadian readers can read all of these and over 500,000 other eBooks with a Kobo Plus Read subscription.

Photo by Irina Ba on Unsplash

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