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Exploring the Canada Reads Top 40: Historical fiction for here and now

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Canadian literature and historical fiction often go hand in hand. Some of the best Canadian novels look to the past — as do many of the titles on our Top 40. Here's a rundown on some of the novels on the list that are primarily set in bygone days but make their mark on the present. (Other novels with a historical bent may be dealt with in one of our other posts — let's face it, with 40 books to discuss, there were a number that fit in several categories.)

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The Birth House (Random House of Canada, 2006) by Ami McKay

Naomi MacKinnon found this story of a midwife in early 20th-century Nova Scotia irresistible. She writes:

"There are many things I love about this book. I love the setting, I love the subject, I love the history, and I love the characters. It was one of those rare books that you are very sorry to be finished."

Accolades: A national bestseller, The Birth House won the Evergreen Award and was number 30 on the Globe and Mail's list of the decade's bestsellers. It scored laudatory reviews across the country, including from the Ottawa Citizen, which called it "An astonishing debut, a book that will break your heart and take your breath away."

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Conceit (Random House of Canada, 2007) by Mary Novik

Mary Novik's journey to 17th-century London, England, had many readers, including Heather Walter, swooning. In her nomination, she writes:

"I recommend Conceit because it is far and away the best and most ambitious novel on a literary theme that I have read."

Accolades: Conceit took home the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, awarded annually to the best book of fiction by a B.C. author, and was a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist. The Globe and Mail declared it a must-read, citing that "reading Conceit is like settling into a multi-course feast that shifts your ideas of food, of the wonders that art can conjure from the staples of life."

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The Day the Falls Stood Still (HarperCollins Canada, 2007) by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Christine Leonard loved this love story set against the backdrop of Niagara Falls in the early part of the 20th century, and she thinks readers everywhere will too:

"This book has something for everyone.The compelling voice of the main character Bess Heath takes the reader on a page-turning journey that encompasses a history of Niagara Falls, hydroelectric power and WWI. Buchanan expertly weaves a very personal story with the larger themes of the war, class and the environment. I love that the book is not easy to classify — it is a story that will resonate with both women and men. And, while a very Canadian story, an international audience will be fascinated by her depiction of the famous waterfall."

Accolades: Who wouldn't want to read a book whose Globe and Mail review opens with: "What a wordsmith! What a work of depth and breadth! What a world newcomer Cathy Marie Buchanan brings to propulsively glittering and gorgeous life in The Day the Falls Stood Still."

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Elle (Goose Lane Editions, 2003) by Douglas Glover

This 16th-century romp is nothing short of brilliant, according to the many readers who recommended it to Canada Reads. Bethany Gibson writes:

"It's brilliant. Lusty and scary and smart and energetic, a true stand-out in Canadian fiction."

Accolades: Elle scored the Governor General's Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

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The Fallen (Penguin Canada, 2009) by Stephen Finucan

This Second World War tale takes us back in time and across the pond to Naples in 1944. Shawn Fujiki thinks more readers need to take this trip:

"My wife and I read it during our honeymoon in Italy, and it really struck a chord with us. We visited a couple of the places described in the novel (by coincidence) and could only stop to imagine what took place there so many decades ago. His ability to pull the reader into the life of Greaves is amazing."

Accolades: While The Fallen is barely a year old, it's sure to become a staple read for fans of wartime fiction. The Globe and Mail agrees, writing "The Fallen is resonant and immediate. For all that it resides in history, it speaks a lesson that we do not seem able to remember."

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Far to Go (House of Anansi, 2010) by Alison Pick

Lucy Valko feels that even though this heartbreaking tale of an affluent Jewish family in Czechoslovakia at the outset of the Second World War was published mere months ago, it's a novel every Canadian should read. She writes:

"A compelling story...but most powerful is the way the author was able to capture it. Alison Pick has a gift of painting the internal and external worlds of her characters with a lightness of depth that makes what is human — beautiful."

Accolades: A September 2010 pub date means Far to Go may still garner a nomination or two in future literary awards. In the meantime, it's had a warm reception from critics, earning a glowing review from the Globe and Mail, among others: "The writing in Far to Go is clean, crisp and unencumbered. Pick never dwells for too long in an image or metaphor, and she creates small moments that are both lovely and frightening."

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The Stone Carvers (McClleland & Stewart, 2001) by Jane Urquhart

The Stone Carvers is one of the older books on the Top 40 list, but that doesn't mean its appeal has faded at all with time. Cynthia Gordon sings the praises of this epic story of love and war and the redemptive power of art, which is set in the early 20th century and ranges from southern Ontario to Europe after the First World War.

"This is a beautiful novel that brings the Battle of Vimy Ridge (and its importance to the Canadian identity) to life. I read it close to 10 years ago and it has stayed with me. It is timeless and a novel all Canadians should read."

Accolades: The Stone Carvers scored three big hits in 2001, being named to the shortlist of the Governor General's Award and the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and making the long list of the Man Booker Prize.

What's your view? Do you want to see any of these titles make the Top 10 and have a shot at challenging for the Canada Reads crown? Cast your vote in our Top 10 poll (one vote per person!), and share your thoughts on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below!

Erin Balser is an associate producer with Canada Reads.

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