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Books of the Year

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2020 Books of the Year: Editors’ picks

Desmond Cole (Kate Yang-Nikodym)

The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power
Desmond Cole
Doubleday Canada

Released in January, Desmond Cole’s scathing look at anti-Black racism in Canada anticipated the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement across North America in the wake of protests over the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and became a canonical feature of anti-racism reading lists. Cole’s unflinching, courageous, and confrontational book addresses systemic racism in Canada directly, refusing to allow its readers to look away or remain complacent. –Steven W. Beattie

Amanda Leduc (Rachel Idzerda)

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space
Amanda Leduc
Coach House Books

Novelist Amanda Leduc peels back the narratives behind popular fairy tales to reveal the limitations and often damaging effects of the happy-ending trope. Whose wishes actually come true? Who is depicted as a villain? As a lifelong Disney fan with cerebral palsy, Leduc blends personal storytelling with meticulous research and pop-culture analysis, exposing the discriminatory underpinnings of the stories we consume. Disfigured is not just an eye-opener when it comes to the Disney princess crew and the Marvel universe – this thin volume provides the tools to change how readers engage with other kinds of popular media, from horror films to fashion magazines to outdated sitcom jokes. –Sue Carter

Annabel Lyon (Phillip Chin)

Annabel Lyon
Random House Canada

Beyond that loaded title is a novel of quiet moments that together build to a dramatic crescendo. The stories of two pairs of diametrically opposed sisters – Sara, an academic, and Mattie, who lives with a learning disability; and twins Saskia, the wallflower, and Jenny, the magnetic It girl – resist connecting until late in the game. But when they do, the results are as shocking as the ancient Greek canon that Lyon has long mined for inspiration. –Ryan Porter

Souvankham Thammavongsa (Sarah Bodri)

How to Pronounce Knife
Souvankham Thammavongsa
McClelland & Stewart

A 70-year-old woman embarks on an affair with a 32-year-old man; an ex-boxer finds work as a manicurist in a nail salon; a mother and daughter pick worms behind a hog farm in the dead of night. The stories in Souvankham Thammavongsa’s short-fiction debut display the same sharp observation and concentrated language found in the author’s poetry, but add a welcome layer of humour that emphasizes the empathetic humanity of the prose. One of the few titles this year to live up to its pre-publication hype, How to Pronounce Knife was one of 2020’s most profoundly affecting fiction debuts. –SWB

Eternity Martis (Corey Misquita)

They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up
Eternity Martis
McClelland & Stewart

Recently optioned for film and TV, Martis’s memoir of attending Western University in London, Ontario, as a Black woman is both a testament to enduring racism on Canadian campuses and an indictment of the rampant white privilege that reigns specifically at Western. The humour and introspection with which Martis writes about her difficult experiences make her first book a multi-dimensional read. –RP

Francesca Ekwuyasi (Mo Phung)

Butter Honey Pig Bread
Francesca Ekwuyasi
Arsenal Pulp Press

It is a rare pleasure when a debut novel appears with such a fully realized, confident voice as Francesca Ekwuyasi’s Butter Honey Pig Bread. The Halifax-based author blends Nigerian folklore with a queer love story and plenty of luscious food scenes to create a cosmopolitan story about a family of women who are estranged yet still spiritually connected. Fans of the novel won’t be surprised that it landed on the Scotiabank Giller Prize’s longlist, confirming Ekwuyasi as one to watch. –SC

Wendy, Master of Art
Walter Scott
Drawn & Quarterly

In his third collection of Wendy comics, and first with D&Q, Toronto-based Kanien’keha:ka artist Walter Kaheró:ton Scott and his bug-eyed, beret-wearing protagonist move from hard-partying Berlin to earnest “Hell, Ontario” for grad studies. Those in the art world will nod with familiarity, while others will relate to Wendy’s attempts to find her own identity. But despite the signs that she might be growing up, Wendy’s rubber-band body and flailing limbs still draw laughs like a seasoned physical comedian. –SC

Daniil and Vanya
Marie-Hélène Larochelle; Michelle Winters, trans.
Invisible Publishing

The obvious comparison to Invisible Publishing’s first foray into literary thrillers would be Lionel Shriver’s bone-chilling We Need to Talk About Kevin, but Marie-Hélène Larochelle’s story about a perfect-on-paper couple who adopt Russian twins is its own unique nightmare. In Michelle Winters’s translation, Larochelle’s unadorned language reads like a lengthy confession, or perhaps a defence, building suspense to its inevitable conclusion. As author Casey Plett wrote in her starred Q&Q review, “The tensions of the book play on how – not if – it’s all going to hell.” –SC

Emily Urquhart

The Age of Creativity
Emily Urquhart
House of Anansi Press

An Alphabet for Joanna: A Portrait of My Mother in 26 Fragments
Damian Rogers
Knopf Canada

Two talented writers mine personal relationships with their parents to produce two of the year’s most heartfelt and thoughtful works of non-fiction. Urquhart’s book began as an inquiry into misperceptions about creativity and aging after she observed how her father, the noted painter Tony Urquhart, now in his 80s, is still fully engaged with his work. Poet Rogers excavates family history and ephemera to piece together the stories of her artistically talented mother’s life. Both works deal with dementia and old age with sensitivity and respect, and may soothe readers and caregivers coping with the same. –SC

Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society
Ronald J. Deibert
House of Anansi Press

In clear, concise language, Ronald J. Deibert sounds the alarm about social media’s most dangerous and pervasive threats to human autonomy, from the commodification of data to the ever-expanding reach of the surveillance state to the proliferation of disinformation and other tools of manipulation. Paired with urgent warnings about the perils of our online world, Deibert’s three-pronged formula for change – retreat, reform, restraint – is an urgent call we all should heed. –SWB

Rachel Matlow (Tanja Tiziana)

Dead Mom Walking: A Memoir of Miracle Cures and Other Disasters
Rachel Matlow

Matlow’s memoir of their mother’s misadventures in curing her own cancer using alternative medicine is the year’s most unlikely knee-slapper. Matlow’s depiction of the vivacious, outrageous, and tragically misguided Elaine is so lovable that the book’s moments of heartbreak cut that much deeper. It’s that rare book that can make a reader laugh, cry, and laugh again all in the same paragraph. –RP

Saleema Nawaz

Songs for the End of the World
Saleema Nawaz
McClelland & Stewart

The year’s most prescient title, Saleema Nawaz’s sophomore novel – about a disparate cast of characters responding to a global pandemic – struck an uncanny chord for just how accurate and relatable its details appeared in the context of COVID-19. From online conspiracy theories to the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and the practice of social distancing, Nawaz’s novel navigates a world that has become all too familiar, while also unfolding a multifaceted story that provides a strain of hope for a global population still struggling with a real-life counterpart of the book’s harrowing fictional scenario. –SWB

Vivek Shraya (Vanessa Heins)

The Subtweet
Vivek Shraya
ECW Press

The dynamic between friends is drawn in all its pain and power in Shraya’s story of Neela, a respected working musician, and Rukmini, a fan who becomes something more. The depiction of the indie music scene is deliciously rich and populated with insider observations, while the love-hate relationship the characters maintain with social media will be familiar to anyone who’s ever hate-liked a post. –RP

Canisia Lubrin

The Dyzgraphxst
Canisia Lubrin
McClelland & Stewart

Canisia Lubrin’s syntactically exuberant, polyvocal, and polyvalent long poem is at once an act of reclamation and defiance. Melding Creole and Caribbean rhythms and dialect with a technical approach that breaks down and recombines lyrical principles, the poem’s seven sections merge to form something steeped in the history of the Black African diaspora, while also being “utterly, utterly new.” Shot through with the joy of song and the fire of righteous anger, Lubrin asks her reader to pay attention and frankly confront disturbing questions of colonialism and erasure: “how many ways can you disappear / a people, dignity by dignity, slant / word by slant word.” –SWB


By: Steven W. Beattie, Sue Carter, and Ryan Porter

November 16th, 2020

4:48 pm

Category: Books of the Year, Industry News

Issue Date: December 2020