Exploring the Canada Reads Top 40: The independents have their day

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Today, we're going to look at the Top 40 titles that fit the category of "independent" — whether they were published by a small press, are off the beaten path or got their publishing start in non-traditional ways. As with every list this week, this one isn't comprehensive, it's a snapshot of the diversity found in the Top 40. Other books may qualify as independent, but make appearances in other lists. Be sure to peruse the Canada Reads blog archives in the sidebar to check out posts introducing the other Top 40 titles!


The Bone Cage

The Bone Cage (NeWest Press, 2007) by Angie Abdou

This tale of two Olympians struck a chord with the athletic and non-athletic alike. Lyndsay Belisle thinks all of Canada should get a behind-the-scenes look at the world of elite athletes. She wrote:

"This book really made me feel what it must have felt like to be a wrestler and a swimmer. The author did an excellent job making the reader 'see into' the daily lives of a Canadian amateur athlete. Once I started reading The Bone Cage, I could not put it down!"

Accolades: The Bone Cage was number one on our own CBC Book Club's Top 10 Sports Books and it won critical praise from reviewers nation-wide, including Quill & Quire, which called it "well paced and readable, memorable for its fresh perspective on the lives of athletes and the obstacles they must overcome."


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Bottle Rocket Hearts (Cormorant Books, 2007) by Zoe Whittall

This coming-of-age tale set in 1995 Montreal has it all: love, sex, a referendum and a large, devoted fan base. In his reader recommendation, Michel Sauve wrote:

"I read through this book so fast, it was like drinking a glass of water. It speaks so poignantly of queer life in Montreal during the referendum, that I felt like I had lived the story myself. It's witty, wry and insightful. A must-read!"

Accolades: Zoe Whittall's debut novel took home the Dayne Ogilive Grant Award and won rave reviews, including from the Globe and Mail, which wrote, "Zoe Whittall might just possibly be the cockiest, brashest, funniest, toughest, most life-affirming, elegant, scruffy, no-holds-barred writer to emerge from Montreal since Mordecai Richler." (The book's film rights have also been optioned, so keep your eyes peeled for a movie version in the near future!)


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Essex County (Top Shelf Comics, 2007) by Jeff Lemire

One of two graphic novels to make the list, Essex County tells the tale of, well, Essex County in southwestern Ontario. This critically acclaimed collection scored legions of fans, including Jeffrey Wegener who wrote:

"Essex County is a beautifully and intimately written and drawn graphic novel trilogy that captures not only the feel of rural Canada, but its people. It is emotional, real, and heartbreaking."

Accolades: Jeff Lemire is a graphic novelist on the rise, recently being named one of Wizard magazine's 25 "rising stars" and taking home the Joe Shuster Award for Outstanding Canadian Comic Book Cartoonist, the Doug Wright Award for Best Emerging Talent and a 2008 Alex Award from the American Library Association.


Moody Food

Moody Food (Biblioasis, 2002) by Ray Robertson

This 1960s rock 'n' roll tale about a bookseller makes the reader laugh out loud. Andrew Johnson wants to share the good times with you, writing:

"Moody Food is a fantastic rock 'n' roll novel that is also a terrific novel. Strangely under-appreciated, the book also draws on one of the great scenes in Canadian history, Yorkville in the mid-1960s, a rich place/time that deserves more celebration than it gets."

Accolades: Ray Robertson won over fans and critics alike with Moody Food. The Globe and Mail called it "clever, word-drunk and falling-down funny," adding that "Robertson is a moral writer and a bitingly intelligent one, a man who writes with penetrating insight of what needs to be written about: beauty, truth and goodness."


Shelf Monkey

Shelf Monkey (ECW Press, 2007) by Corey Redekop

This satirical examination of book club culture and the Oprah phenomenon would be perfect for Canada Reads, according to Remi Gunn. In his reader nomination, he wrote:

"I picked Shelf Monkey because it is a good book that is not afraid to be funny. Besides, isn't Canada Reads basically a love-in for Canuck book lovers? What better way is there to show that love then by reading a book about fellow book obsessives and their attempt to strike back against the masses?"

Accolades: Shelf Monkey won the Gold Medal for Popular Fiction at the Independent Publisher Book Awards, but don't be fooled into thinking it's a lightweight. Chatelaine assures us that this book will satisfy even the most literary of readers: "Very funny...This satire has enough snooty literary schadenfreude to satisfy even the most seasoned bibliophile."


The Best Laid Plans

The Best Laid Plans (McClleland & Stewart, 2008) by Terry Fallis

This previously self-published satire introduces us to a political strategist turned campaign manager who secretly wants everything to go very, very wrong (and, of course, it just happens to go very, very right). Barbara Brown enjoyed Terry Fallis's tale and thinks you will too, writing:

"It's been a long time since I've read anything that has made me laugh like this satirical novel! And yet there are some beautifully poignant moments mixed in to create a great snapshot of life, love and politics in Canada — quite the mix! And very difficult to put down once started — all in all a wonderful read and I've recommended to everyone I know. I only hope this is the beginning of a wonderful writing career for Terry Fallis."

Accolades: The Best Laid Plans was officially declared the funniest book in Canada in 2008 when it snagged the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. Terry Fallis also emerged from his humble self-published roots with a book deal and legions of fans, including Canada's U.N. ambassador, Allan Rock, who called it "a great read for anyone thinking of running for office, and especially reassuring for those who have decided not to."


The Girls Who Saw Everything

The Girls Who Saw Everything (Coach House Books, 2007) by Sean Dixon

The saga of Gilgamesh gets a fresh and funny Montreal update in Sean Dixon's The Girls Who Saw Everything , which features one of the most bizarre book clubs ever concocted. Gillian Bernett thinks this high-concept romp deserves a second look:

"A sweeping, quintessentially Canadian book with a riveting narrative peopled with quirkily memorable characters. Compelling and funny, this book is capital-l literary without ever sinking into pretension or self-conscious technique. One of my all-time faves."

Accolades: No one sings the praises of this book better than its original Canada Reads nominator, Kerry Clare of Pickle Me This: "The whole thing is brilliant. It's a book that is accessible and complex, hilarious and poignant, serious and light, important and whimsical, and brimming with bookishness for the love of bookishness, and inside jokes and outside jokes, and all the very best things about literature."


Skim

Skim (Groundwood Books, 2008) by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

This coming-of-age tale certainly carved its own Canada Reads path. It's one of two graphic novels and the only YA novel to make the list, but Ali Grotkowski believes that its appeal transcends format and genre, declaring:

"An absolutely beautifully illustrated graphic novel that covers some tough topics central to the lives of teenaged Canadian girls. This books is absolutely marvelous and well worth reading for everyone, teenagers and adults alike. It is a good read, not overwhelming the plot with any one issue or talking down to the readership, but instead focusing on what is important."

Accolades: Skim cleaned up on the awards circuit, taking home the Doug Wright Award, an Ignatz Award and the Joe Shuster Award. It was also a finalist for the Governor General's Award, among other prizes.

What do you think, Canada? Do you want to see one of these novels defended in the 2011 debates? Cast your vote in our Top 10 poll (one vote per person!), and don't forget to share your thoughts about the list and your vote on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below!

Erin Balser is an associate producer with Canada Reads.

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