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Exploring the Top 40: The Canada Reads contenders

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Over the next few days, we're going to briefly introduce the novels that made the Canada Reads Top 40 — provide a stats sheet, if you will. Think of the list as a roster and these posts as the players' bios. Short and sweet, enough to get you thinking about what should make the Top 10.

We figured we might as well start with the giant elephant in the room: the past Canada Reads winners and contenders. Interestingly, every eligible winner (that is, novels published after January 1, 2000) made the cut except last year's champion, Nicolas Dickner's Nikolski. (Why didn't Nikolski get any love, Canada?)


A Complicated Kindness (Knopf Canada, 2004) by Miriam Toews

J.M. Bridgemen nominated this book for the Top 40. Here's what he had to say:

"I love how Nomi Nickel's child-woman's voice captures the tension of being caught in that holding pattern between Grade 12 and the start of real life. As she negotiates boyfriends, sex, birth control, final exams, summer jobs, she is also contending with abandonment, betrayal, grief, and possible mental illness in the family. Nomi kicks against religious constraints, holier-than-thou relatives, and the questionable love of a faith which puts heaven ahead of family. Constant driving, pushers and pit parties, church and Hymn Sing, and distant city lights capture the teenage restlessness of Nomi's schizoid world."

Accolades: A Complicated Kindness took home the 2006 Canada Reads crown. But the tale of Nomi Nickel was a winner from the get-go: in 2004, the year the book came out, it won the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year, and was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Not bad for the memoir of a misfit Mennonite!

lullabies for little criminals

Lullabies for Little Criminals (HarperCollins Canada, 2006) by Heather O'Neill

Sharon O'Hara felt Lullabies deserved a second crack at the Canada Reads title. In her nomination, she wrote:

"I love this book because it is raw, startling and hopeful. It evoked such an emotional response because it felt so real. It shows us a part of Canada we don't want to see but need to acknowledge."

Accolades: Along with the 2007 Canada Reads title, Lullabies for Little Criminals won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and made the shortlist for the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award.

oryx and crake

Oryx and Crake (McClelland & Stewart, 2003) by Margaret Atwood

Susan Farrell recommended Atwood's classic dystopian tale with the following comments:

"Who else creates something so readable that stays in our head for so long after we have closed the book? How close are we to the world Margaret Atwood paints? As we chip away at the morality and conscience of our world, and become desensitized to the depravity and violence which results from that, we set ourselves on a course that cannot be stopped. This warning about the eroding of the soul of our culture and our humanity — our arts — promises a bleak future if we fail to heed it. I love this book because it is smart, scary and so timely."

Accolades: Oryx and Crake was shortlisted for a slew of prestigious awards, including the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Man Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General's Award.

The Book of Negroes

The Book of Negroes (HarperCollins Canada, 2007) by Lawrence Hill

Possibly the most popular Canadian novel ever written, the remarkable story of Aminata Diallo won Margaret Lenn's vote for the Top 40. She wrote:

"This work of historical fiction is one of the finest books I have ever read. Telling the story through the eyes of a young girl was masterfully perfected. Historically correct and spellbinding, the story captivated me from cover to cover."

Accolades: In addition to claiming the 2009 Canada Reads crownThe Book of Negroes was awarded the 2007 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

The Last Crossing

The Last Crossing (McClleland & Stewart, 2002) by Guy Vanderhaege

Elske Kuiper thought The Last Crossing deserves a second look:

"It's beautifully written. It deals with a part of Canadian history and geography that many urban Canadians are unaware of."

Accolades: The Last Crossing snagged the Canada Reads title in 2003, and was named Fiction Book of the Year by the Canadian Booksellers Association.

Three Day Road

Three Day Road (Penguin Canada, 2005) by Joseph Boyden

Like many Canadians, A. Johnson was captivated by the power of Joseph Boyden's prose:

"I read this book at the cottage in the summer of 2006, and four years later the tale still sits in my heart. The bravery, loneliness and love of the main characters as well as the Canadian and European setting of the novel, mark it as the quintessential Canadian novel of the decade. It could be hoped that the theme of healing in this novel inspire readers to seek peace with difficult memories in their own lives."

Accolades: Three Day Road didn't win Canada Reads (it came second to A Complicated Kindness), but don't feel bad for Joseph Boyden: his book took home several smaller prizes, including the Amazon.ca/Books in Print First Novel Award, and made the Governor General's Award shortlist.

life of pi

Life of Pi (Knopf Canada, 2001) by Yann Martel

Perhaps Life of Pi and The Book of Negroes should battle it out for most celebrated book of the decade. That said, both had major impact on the CanLit scene and on readers around the world. It won Sarah Dick's vote. She wrote:

"Life of Pi is by far one of the best books of the past decade. The intriguing and memorable story of Pi Patel is fast paced, full of surprises and an overall wonderful read. This is one of my favourites and a novel that can be read over and over again."

Accolades: Life of Pi came up short in the 2003 Canada Reads debate, but won big elsewhere, capturing the Man Book Prize and the Hugh MacLennan Prize. It was also optioned as a film, with director Ang Lee at the helm.

What do you think? Do any of these titles deserve a place in the Top 10, and another shot at Canada Reads glory? Have your say in the comments below, or via Facebook or Twitter. And don't forget to vote for your essential read in our Top 10 poll. The deadline is midnight ET on Sunday, November 7, so get your vote in!

Erin Balser is an associate producer with Canada Reads.

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