Skip to content

Canadian Challenge

September 5, 2009

canadianchallengeI’m late to the party, but I’ve realised I don’t pay enough attention to my northern neighbours. So what better way to fix that than by joining a challenge that requires me to read 13 books by Canadian authors before next Canada Day (July 1st)? The lovely John Mutford is the host of the Canadian Challenge, now in its third year.

Once I overcame the temptation to fill up my list with L.M. Montgomery and Charles de Lint, I began creating my pool in earnest. And I discovered something fascinating; being a ‘Canadian’ author seems to be a pretty amorphous quality. My list ended up falling into three definite categories plus one catch-all. So let’s get to discussing books, shall we?

Fiction by Canadians Not Set in Canada

  • The Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji: I just read The Book of Secrets and loved it. This one has been sitting on my TBR shelf for almost two years! And it has the prettiest cover.
  • The Lizard Cage by Karen Connolly: another one that’s been on my TBR shelf forever. I read three books about Burma earlier this year, so it’ll be good to return.
  • The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway: Bosnia is near and dear to my heart, since I did my senior honour’s thesis (100+ pages) on its reconstruction. This is a novel set during the brutal war.
  • The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys: this one sounds similar to the Persephones everyone’s been tormenting me with lately (my library doesn’t have any, and I’m on a book buying ban)-a quiet, private woman novel. It’s set during early WWII, when a young gardener leaves for Devon to get away from the Blitz (did I ever tell you that I woke up in the middle of the night one time, and thought to myself “Oh dear. The curtains. Shall have to pay a blackout fine.” before realising that I was not in fact British, living in London, or in the 1940s? I have weird, vivid dreams like that all the time.). She stays at a large estate, training girls to farm the extensive grounds, along with a regiment of Canadian soldiers. Girls, soldiers, war…need I say more? :)
  • What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin: this is set in India during the Partition, which reminds me of an incredible novella I read the dealt with the same events (Train to Pakistan). But it looks at Sikh culture, specifically at two wives who have the same husband…I had no idea Sikhs could be polygamous!
  • The Book of Saints by Nino Ricci: this one’s set in Italy, and is the beginning of a trilogy. That’s about all I know! (Sometimes I like to go into books with a blank slate.)
  • A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: I feel like this is one of the more well-known books on my list! After all, Oprah picked it. :) It’s another India-focused novel, and a Powell’s staffer recommends it by comparing it to Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. Doesn’t that make you want to read it?!

Historical Fiction Set in Canada

  • The Book of Negroes/Someone Knows by Name by Lawrence Hill: this one has been all over the blogosphere! I don’t know why the American edition has a different title; for awhile I thought my library catalog was just being dumb, lol. It follows a slavegirl from her capture through her life in America during the Revolutionary War to her involvement in the founding of Sierra Leone.
  • Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald: this is totally my style: it’s a sprawling family epic. It’s set on Cape Breton Island, which I had to look up on a map (shameful, I know, but I can name the 13 provinces!), and spans five generations. Apparently, it was another Oprah pick.
  • The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan: a love story set in 1915 around Niagara Falls. I’ve been to Niagara a lot, since my mom’s family is from Buffalo, so pretty much every time we visited we’d go look at them. Because of this, I forget that they’re a natural wonder! Anyway, Melody had a great review of this.
  • In The Skin Of A Lion by Michael Ondaatje: I listened to his Divisadero on CD a few years ago and didn’t like it at all. However, I usually give authors at least two tries, and this one’s set in one of my favourite time periods-the 20s or 30s.
  • Obasan by Joy Kogawa: it turns out the US government wasn’t the only one who treated people of Japanese descent as war criminals during WWII. Canada did as well. Kogowa has novelised her own experience of that.
  • All that Matters by Wayson Choy: this is actually a sequel/prequel to Choy’s first novel The Jade Peony, but it’s the only one my library has. So, it follows a Chinese boy who arrives in Canada during the 20s and his eventualy family, mainly set in Vancouver 30s and 40s. I think it’s more like a companion novel, looking at the same family and events from a different perspective.
  • Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood: I’ve very much enjoyed all of the Atwood I’ve read and I loved The Blind Assassin. So I to include her on the list! I’ve heard great things about this novel, based around a real nineteenth century maid who was convicted of killing her employers.
  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley: this is another one that’s gotten a ton of press! In fact, I’m number 70-something on my library’s list (fortunately, they’ve got 15 copies and 4 more on order). But I’ve seen only positive reviews, and Bradley’s a debut septogenarian author. How cool is that?! This is also the only mystery on my whole list; since I love mysteries, I’m very excited. It’s set in the 1950s, which will be a change-most of my historical mystery reads are earlier.


  • Louis Riel by Chester Brown: this is the only graphic book on my list (if you have any Canadian graphic novel/memoir recs, share away!). It’s a biography of Louis Riel, one of Canada’s founding fathers apparently. Can you tell I know next to nothing about Canadian history? That’s pretty shameful, I know. But I can tell you all about their refugee policy!
  • The Day The World Came To Town by Jim DeFede: this sounds like it might be a bit fluffy for me, a la Outcasts United, but on the other hand I do enjoy a good personal interest story. DeFede is a journalist, and he looks at 9/11 in Gander, where many planes ended up landing after the US closed its airspace. It’s about both the passengers stuck there and the various townspeople who go out of their way to help.
  • Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat: wolves! Who doesn’t love them? (Other than Sarah Palin…oh, cheap shot, I know. But I’m a vegetarian, so obviously I do *not* like hunting.) Anyway, this is a nature writing classic-Mowat spent a summer on the tundra trying to figure out why the wolves were killing artic caribou for the Canadian Wildlife Service.
  • The Iambics of Newfoundland by Robert Finch: isn’t that a marvelous title?! This sounds like travel writing Bill Bryson style; apparently Newfoundland is an isolated place with a bunch of quirky traditions.
  • The Devil’s Picnic by Taras Grescoe: another travel book, this one is also foodie style. Grescoe goes around the world eating illegal food in various countries. Another one with a fun title too!
  • The Concubine’s Children and/or The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong: both of these biographies sound really good. The former is of Chong’s grandmother and the family she left behind while the latter is of the little Vietname girl being burned by napalm in the famous Pulitzer-prize-winning photographer.
  • As Nature Made Him by John Colapinto: this about a boy who, after a bad circumsion, was raised as a girl (he had a twin brother too!). Apparently, it’s also got a bit of a vendetta John Money and his work on gender.
  • The Judgment of Paris by Ross King: I read King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome earlier this year and wasn’t impressed. But like I said, I enjoy giving authors second changes! And this one has a clever title. ;) It’s about Paris and the beginnings of the Impressionist movement, which since I’m currently reading a big biography of Chagall will be interesting.
  • Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer: a travel memoir about the famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Co.! How could I resist?
  • The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant: we’ve established how I feel about trees. :) This is about logging and nature and politics and sounds really upsetting but really good.
  • Houseboat Chronicles by Jake MacDonald: Powell’s doesn’t have this one, but it’s another travelogue.

  • Of This Earth by Rudy Wiebe: a memoir about growing up as a Mennonite. I always enjoy peeks into different subcultures! And I’ve got a fiction book that deals with the Mennonites too.

Everything Else (mainly fantasy and Native American)

  • Memory and Dream by Charles de Lint: I love this urban fantasy author, and I’m working through his Newford series in order (after accidently reading the last one first back in the first OUAT challenge). This is next on the list! I’m excited-after the so-so ones published under a pseudonym, this one seems to have great reviews.
  • “The Rez Sisters” by Tomson Highway: this is a play, which I ought to read more of, and Yann Martel sent it to the PM. It’s about seven sisters who live in on a reservation and their attempts to win a better life via bingo.
  • A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews: this is the Mennonite novel I talked about. It’s also set in Manitoba, which is appealing since most of the books I’ve chosen are set on the coasts!
  • Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King: this is a magical realist novel about four Native American men who escape from an asylum and are friends with Coyote.
  • Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden: another Native American book, this won the 2008 Giller Prize. It sounds more modern literary than I usually read, but I’ll give it a go. :)
  • A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay: Kay’s another one who I’m giving another chance (I enjoyed Ysabel but it didn’t blow me away). De Lint called this a perfect novel, so we’ll see! It’s set in an alternative, magical Medieval Province.
  • Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson*: I loved Hopkinson’s novel that I read the Caribbean Challenge last month. This is another one of hers, which was part of the CanadaReads award/program/book-off (I don’t know what the right word is!). I originally had it in the ‘not in Canada’ category, but it’s set in a post-apocolyptic Toronto. It’s definitely urban fantasy, with an heiress to voodoo at the heart of the story!
19 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2009 1:47 am

    Don’t worry about the Wayson Choy. You don’t need to have read The Jade Peony before All That Matters. Each is quite independent of the other.

    I didn’t like Divisadero either, but The English Patient is a favourite.

    A Complicated Kindness I very much enjoyed.

  2. September 6, 2009 4:22 am

    I would love to do this challenge, but I seem to have so many unfinished at the moment. Good luck with it.

  3. September 6, 2009 6:05 am

    You’ve got some fantastic books on your list, and what an extensive swath of Canadian history and geography you’re covering as well! For Canadian graphic novels, I highly recommend “Skim” by Mariko & Jillian Tamaki. I wrote a little bit about it in connection with the 1st Canadian book challenge here (#10 on my list):

    Another from my TBR pile, a graphic memoir that I’ve heard many great things about, is Bernice Eistenstein’s “I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors.” You can read about it on the publisher’s website here:

  4. September 6, 2009 7:09 am

    These sound wonderful! (except in a way for Never Cry Wolf which I seem to recall made me cry for about 2 days after I read it!) I’m really looking forward to all your reviews!

  5. September 6, 2009 7:10 am

    The only writers I’ve read from that list are Atwood and Thomas King, although I read Truth & Bright Water. The former I thought was a well-written coming-of-age story while evoking a deeper subtext on issues such as the relationship between Canada and America, and the invoking of important Native American figures not least the protagonist, Tecumseh who is named after the Shawnee leader.

    In the UK, Canadian lit. doesn’t have much, if any, pulling power that American lit. has. You’d only have to take a look at university courses that offer American lit. to see that. Now, I have nothing against this, but I wouldn’t mind having a wider range of nationalities in prominence.

    Hmm, anyway, makes you think…I’m writing down some of those books to be read one day….

  6. September 6, 2009 8:13 am

    Have fun with the challenge!

  7. September 6, 2009 8:17 am

    Nice list! I hope you read FALL ON YOUR KNEES; it’s one of my favourite books, and I’d love to hear what you think of it.

    LOUIS RIEL is also really good; however, he wasn’t exactly a founding father. :) He launched a rebellion that was instrumental in getting Manitoba, (which is where I live), recognized as a province. He’s quite a controversial figure, and he had an interesting life.

  8. September 6, 2009 9:25 am

    Dammit Eva! I’ve managed to say “no” to this challenge so far…but reading your list… *sigh* You always put together the best reading lists around… *sigh* Oh for 10 extra hours in each day… *sigh* Or the ability to read as fast as normal people… *sigh*

    The only one of those books I’ve read is Never Cry Wolf…but would seriously love to read nearly every other book on your list!

  9. September 6, 2009 11:10 am

    You WILL love Fall On Your Knees. I don’t remember anything about A Fine Balance except that it made me cry into my soup and also that I loved it. Good luck!

  10. September 6, 2009 2:19 pm

    I’m very glad you put The Cellist of Sarajevo on your list! It is such a great book. Have you read Camilla Gibb? She’s from Toronto. I think you would like her book “Sweetness in the Belly”. It is a story of a British girl, who after the death of her hippie parents is brought up at a Sufi shrine in Morocco and later lives in Harar, Ethiopia and London. It is a beautifil story.


  11. September 6, 2009 3:09 pm

    I loved the Book of Negroes, I’m so glad you are going to read it. I also really like Alias Grace. I think I just made a third suggestion on a later post. Hadn’t seen this one yet!
    Here’s my review of The Book of Negroes, if you are interested:

  12. September 6, 2009 3:34 pm

    Oooh. I like the idea of a Canadian book challenge. Lots of good looking books on your list.

  13. September 6, 2009 7:12 pm

    Great pool of choices, as usual! I like how you’ve divided them up – you are correct about “Canadian author” often being a disputed term.

    I will be very intererested to see what you think of the Louis Riel biography, having not grown up with his story. I grew up a few miles from the main site of the Riel Rebellion so feel like I have always known all about it. I enjoyed this graphic bio, myself.

    Oh, and I absolutely loved Sweetness at the bottom of the Pie, but it is set in England, not Canada. But it is fantastic. :)

  14. September 7, 2009 7:30 am

    Claire, thanks for letting me know! And maybe I’ll give The English Patient a try; I’m not a Ralphe Fiennes fan, so even though I’ve never seen the movie, I’m worried I’d picture him in the book and it would ruin things.

    Vivienne, yeah-it’s a big challenge for at 13 books, but hopefully I’ll finish it! :)

    Kate, I’ve been wanting to read Skim for awhile now, but my library doesn have it. :/ Thanks for the recs!

    Rhapsody, I’m sure Never Cry Wolf will make me sob, but sometimes we need to read books like that anyway. ;)

    Uenohama, Canadian lit doesn’t have much power in America either (neither does Australian for that matter). It is frustrating how dominant American authors are, as someone who values diverse reading! That’s why I make so many lists. :D

    BermudaOnion, thanks!

    Memory, whoops! The book blurb I looked at called him a founding father, lol. And I didn’t know you were Canadian!

    Debi, aww-thanks! I love reading lists, but I bet I’d get a lot more actual reading done if I didn’t spend *hours* making them, lol.

    Raych, am definitely reading Fall On Your Knees now! (I think I remember your review.) Crying books=awesome

    Tiina, ohhh-thanks for the recommendation. It sounds JUST like a book I would love!

    Lahni, thanks for the link!

    Kat, isn’t it fun? And the definition of Canadian author is so loose, it really leaves me room to play a bit. :)

    Melanie, whoops! How did I miss it was set in England?! lol

  15. September 7, 2009 11:56 am

    Great list! The Book of Negroes and The Cellist of Sarajevo are really good. Highly recommended.

    You’ve also got some well-known British Columbian authors: Wayson Choy and Joy Kogawa. I can’t wait to read your reviews! I did the Canadian Challenge 2 and really enjoyed it.

  16. September 8, 2009 2:39 pm

    Monica, thanks for seconding some of the books! :) I have way more than 13 listed, so it’s good to get some more specific direction!

  17. September 10, 2009 10:31 am


    How could you not have Alice Munro? Must-read. I love her. Maybe you don’t have her because you don’t have a short story list? Do add her to your everything else list.

  18. September 10, 2009 7:18 pm

    Wow, what a great list to choose from! I’ve sooooo enjoyed John’s Canadian Challenges. It’s my 3rd year and I don’t foresee quitting any time soon. Hope you enjoy your Canadian reads!

  19. September 26, 2009 11:52 am

    Your list is epic! I haven’t made a pool yet, but I think I may use yours for some ideas :)

    In The Skin Of A Lion is one I know I want to read, I didn’t enjoy Divisadero either but heard that Skin was a much better representation of his style.

    Canada Reads is coming up in the new year also and I always try to read those books.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: