Quill and Quire

Books of the Year

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What three CanLit leaders read in 2020

With independent bookstores at some stage of lockdown for much of 2020, readers missed out on the delight of discovery that comes from browsing their local shelves. Q&Q wanted to replicate that experience in our weekly What We’re Reading series, in which we told you about some of the best books to cross our nightstands (the series ran in our newsletter, which you can subscribe to for free).

We were fortunate to have three great readers from outside the Q&Q team chime in with recommendations of their own: the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Charlie Foran, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s Rose Vespa, and Taylor Prize founder Noreen Taylor. These books gave them a much-needed moment of literary escape amid the strains of 2020.

The cover of Aislinn Hunter's The CertaintiesThe Certainties, Aislinn Hunter (Knopf Canada)

Aislinn Hunter’s The Certainties makes literary magic. The plot of the novel resolves poetically, all while retaining a tone of irresolution and abiding mystery. The reader seeking clearer, simpler outcomes is steered towards acceptance. Acceptance, and understanding that sometimes – most of the time, really – there can be no such clarity.

A seasoned novelist and poet, Hunter has an impressive control of craft. She weaves stories of terrible events – a weary intellectual fleeing fascism, a refugee disaster off an island coast – into a seamless whole. Her elegiac prose does much of the work; her sympathetic imagination, and moral intelligence, the rest. I finished a first reading of The Certainties under the impression it was foremost about love and humility, and how to abide the loss of things. Part-way through a re-read of this lovely novel, I am certain of it. Charlie Foran, CM; executive director, Writers’ Trust of Canada

No Fixed Address, Susin Nielsen (Tundra Books)

One of my daughter’s classmates recommended a book for her to read – No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen. I learned everyone at the CCBC [The Canadian Children’s Book Centre] loved it too! I brought a copy from the office for her to read. So, after she plowed through it in one day, I decided to give it a read too.

Felix, the main character, is adorable, funny, an old soul, but also out of necessity, very resilient. Astrid, his mom, has a complicated life. After a series of unfortunate circumstances, they begin living out of a Westfalia Van just as Felix begins seventh grade.

The story is funny and heartbreaking. Nielsen is adept at addressing some pretty timely issues through the eyes of both Astrid and Felix. Her references to Vancouver and the lower mainland of British Columbia were excellent details. I enjoyed the experience of talking about a book with my daughter that we both loved. –Rose Vespa, executive director, The Canadian Children’s Book Centre 

The cover of Jessica J. Lee's Two Trees Make a ForestTwo Trees Make a Forest, Jessica J. Lee (Penguin Canada)

Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts is a difficult book to categorize but a wonderful book to read. At times a history, at other times a book about travel, still at other times a book about nature, Two Trees Make a Forest is, finally, a deeply personal story about a writer discovering her past. The glue that holds all these different narrative threads together is the uncommonly beautiful writing style of its author, Jessica J. Lee.

Lee’s style reads effortlessly, and readers enter the rhythm of her prose style and allow that rhythm to carry them along chapter after chapter as one facet or another is examined and revealed. It is little wonder that Kate Harris selected Ms. Lee as the winner of the RBC Taylor Prize’s 2019 Emerging Writer Award. It is also unsurprising that Two Trees Make a Forest won the Writer’s Trust Hilary Weston Prize for Literary Non-Fiction in 2020. –Noreen Taylor, founder of the Taylor Prize