1. David Bergen: The Case of Lena S (McClelland & Stewart, 2003) The Case of Lena S. follows the life, loves, and coming-of-age of sixteen-year-old Mason Crowe during a year in which he will learn what it truly means to be in the world. At the centre of the novel is Lena, a troubled girl who has "chosen" Mason and will teach him something of desire and despair. Impulsive, provocative, vulnerable, and sad, Lena becomes haunting for Mason in ways he does not always understand. We meet Mason's first "love," an older girl destined for an arranged marriage; his mother, who takes a lover; and a wise and erudite blind man with a voyeuristic streak, to whom Mason reads. Playful, and with deadpan humour, the novel brilliantly captures the yearnings of youth, as well as the tantalizing possibilities and the confounding absurdities that sometimes lie at the heart of our most intimate relationships.
2. Martha Brooks: Queen of Hearts (Groundwood, 2010)
It's 1941, and Canada is two years into World War II. Meanwhile, in rural Manitoba, fifteen-year-old Marie-Claire Cote begins a war of her own as she and her brother and sister, all stricken with tuberculosis, are taken by their anguished parents to "chase the cure" at nearby Pembina Hills Sanatorium. While her roommate retains a dogged cheerfulness that is both heroic and irritating, Marie-Claire resists with all of her prideful strength while she fights her own illness and tries to seek privacy where there is none. Her father, overwhelmed by fear and guilt, never visits. And her young brother, Luc, who is losing his battle with TB in another wing of the infirmary, sends notes to her penned for him by his nineteen-year-old roommate, Jack Hawkings. This is a story about surviving loss--and finding friendship, and love, in surprising places.
3. Catherine Hunter: The Dead of Midnight (Ravenstone, 2001)
Members of the book club at the Mystery Au Lait Cafe in Winnipeg are getting nervous, as events from their favourite murder mysteries start to come true--right in their own quiet neighbourhood of Wolseley. But Sarah Petursson and her neighbours can't stop themselves from reading the popular Midnight Mystery series published by Alfred, a prominent member of the club. For Sarah, the mystery novels are an escape from her tragic memories of Lake of the Woods. For Morgan, they're a cheap thrill. And for Alfred, they're a goldmine. As he continues to release the books to greater and greater acclaim, the popularity of the reclusive author of the Midnight Mysteries soars--and so does the body count. Who could be imitating the details of the plots, killing off mystery fans one by one, as they helplessly read on? When Sarah returns to Lake of the Woods alone to face the sad memories of her past, her neighbours hope the curse of the Midnight Mysteries won't follow her there. But the nights are dark and lonely, and sometimes Sarah senses a presence outside her cabin window as she reads by candlelight.
4. Robert Kroetsch: What the Crow Said (1978, rprt U of Alberta Press, 1998) John Lang died the same spring his daughter Vera encountered the swarm of bees, the year the summer never came. The loves and marriages of his widow, his daughters and grand-daughters, thread through the history of the district in its years of abundance and of disaster. There's a card game that lasted 151 days, a farmer who believed that nothing outside of Bigknife existed until he saw it from the air when shot from a circus cannon, and a crow whose maddening comments were only appreciated when he disappeared. The story ends when the citizens embark on their last heroic struggle with the elements: a war on the sky. Robert Kroetsch's writing reverberates with magic, humor and poetry; he makes the farmers of the Alberta-Saskatchewan border into mythical heroes and the Municipality of Bigknife into a microcosm of the universe.
5. Allan Levine: Fugitives of the Forest (1998, rprt Lyons Press, 2008) As the Second World War and the Nazi assault on Europe ended, some 25,000 Jews, entire families in some instances, walked out of the forests of Eastern Europe. For three years, these men, women and children had miraculously survived eluding Nazi hunts and Soviet, Polish, and Ukrainian partisans who often killed first and asked questions later. They had escaped from the Nazi ghettos and slave labor camps and formed secret partisan camps in the surrounding forests. The forest not only protected them, it also became their base for sabotage and resistance efforts against the Germans and their allies. Based on numerous interviews with the survivors themselves, Fugitives of the Forest tells the harrowing and heroic story of those who resisted amid such perilous conditions. Many of us will ask the troubling question: why did not more Jews resist? But the question should be: how, under the circumstances, was any resistance possible at all?
6. Chandra Mayor: All the Pretty Girls (Conundrum, 2008)
In each of these short stories, set against a finely-crafted backdrop of poverty and violence, abuse and hope, Chandra Mayor provides a glimpse into the lives of girls and young women, allowing each to speak in her own voice. These are young women who roll pennies to buy toilet paper and roll their own cigarettes, who watch the mail for the welfare cheque and watch their boyfriends and lovers out of the corners of their eyes. But they also watch their own children play in wading pools, and watch the horizon for other women and other possibilities. Outsiders looking in and insiders looking out, these stories are wreathed in cigarette smoke and blurry with beer. Mayor insists that all girls are pretty girls, and that even amid squalor and chaos, true beauty is achieved through the simple act of reaching for something, anything, more.
7. Susie Moloney: The Thirteen (Random House, 2011)
Haven Woods is suburban heaven, a great place to raise a family. It's close to the city, quiet, with great schools and its own hospital right up the road. Property values are climbing. The streets are clean, people keep their yards really nice. It's fairly pet friendly, though barking dogs are not welcomed. The crime rate is practically non-existent, unless you count the odd human sacrifice, dismemberment, animal attack, demon rape and blood atonement. When Paula Wittmore goes home to Haven Woods to care for a suddenly ailing mother, she brings her daughter and a pile of emotional baggage. She also brings the last chance for twelve of her mother's closest frenemies, who like to keep their numbers at thirteen. And her daughter, young, innocent, is a worthy gift to the darkness. A circle of friends will support you through bad times. A circle of witches can drag you through hell.
8. Uma Parameswaran: Cycle of the Moon (TSAR, 2010)
It was a tense autumn the year Mayura came away from her husband saying she was never ever returning to that uncouth, lustful monster. Everyone in the family was affected by her presence to a greater extent than they had thought likely. A sense of collective guilt emasculated the men even while they lectured her on the moral duty of returning to her wedded husband. A sense of outrage mingled inexplicably with a sense of secret sorrow alienated women from themselves and from each other. No one knew what to make of her or of themselves. And meanwhile, she moved as though nothing, nobody, could touch her. And those who thought they had, retreated, scorched. Using a deceptively simple and intimate style, Parameswaran explores the subtleties of love, marriage, sex, and family life in a changing Indian environment.
9. David Robertson: Life of Helen Betty Osborne (Portage and Main, 2009)
Helen Betty Osborne dreamed of becoming a teacher. Sadly, her dream never came true. Helen left her home in Norway House, Manitoba, to attend Guy Hill Residential School in 1969. In September 1971, she entered Margaret Barbour Collegiate in The Pas, Manitoba. Two months later, on November 13, 1971, she was brutally murdered by four young, white men. Years later, the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry concluded that her murder was the result of racism, sexism, and indifference. The Life of Helen Betty Osborne is a graphic novel about Betty's life up to that tragic November day. Her story is told by a young boy named Daniel. The events in Betty's story are true. The events in Daniel's story represent our ability to change, learn, and grow.
10. Gabrielle Roy: Where Nests the Water Hen (1950, rprt. New Canadian Library, 2010)
The story of Where Nests the Water Hen is as pure as the lives of the people in it--and as unforgettable. Set in the remote wilderness of northern Manitoba, this sunny, tender idyll of daily frontier life captures, as few novels ever have, the spirit and the surroundings of the pioneers--not the adventurers and trailblazers who make the headlines, but rather the humble folk who follow after and remain, living out their lives in obscurity to keep the trails open. First published in 1950, Where Nests the Water Hen, Gabrielle Roy's second novel, is a sensitive and sympathetic tale that captures both the innocence and the vitality of a sparsely populated frontier.
11. Daria Salamon: Prairie Bridesmaid (Key Porter, 2008)
Just cresting her thirties, Anna Lasko is a frustrated high school teacher whose almost ex-boyfriend, Adam, is away on temporary assignment in Europe. She finds herself tricked into a break-up-with-the-bad-boyfriend intervention by her supportive but meddling girlfriends. To cope with it all, Anna starts smoking again, keeps nightly counsel with her backyard squirrel, Buddy, and starts sessions with a caring but fashion-challenged therapist. Her well-intentioned family adds to the emotional workload when her beautiful and free-spirited sister decides to move to the Middle East with her boyfriend. Luckily, Anna has her devoted grandmother who constantly says it like it is, refuses to conform to anyone's requests, and continues to live on her prairie farm half-blind, happy, and alone. Spectacularly fun and rich with wit and savvy, The Prairie Bridesmaid is a delicious debut novel about the bonds that break and make family, friendship, and love.
12. Carol Shields: Republic of Love (Vintage Canada, 1995)
With a viewpoint that shifts as crisply as cards in the hands of a blackjack dealer, Carol Shields introduces us to two shell-shocked veterans of the wars of the heart. There's Fay, a folklorist whose passion for mermaids has kept her from focusing on any one man. And right across the street there's Tom, a popular radio talk-show host who has focused a little too intently, having married and divorced three times. Can Fay believe in lasting love with such a man? Will romantic love conquer all rational expectations? Only Carol Shields could describe so adroitly this couple who fall in love as thoroughly and satisfyingly as any Victorian couple and the modern complications that beset them in this touching and ironic book.
13. Melissa Steele: Beautiful Girl Thumb (Turnstone, 1999)
Melissa Steele's characters are looking for love, but they are willing to settle. They don't dare feel flat-out greed or lust or hate. Instead they wander around, repeating the mantra "everything is okay." It isn't. These brutally funny stories provide valuable advice on destroying friendships, flirting with your marriage counsellor, cheating at Diplomacy, dumping your boyfriend via Call Waiting, and enrolling your children in the right elementary school programme.
14. Margaret Sweatman: Fox (Turnstone, 1991) History is not only about events. It is about personal lives of people who live them. Fox is not a traditionally understood historical novel. It is about the people who lived through the event--1919 Winnipeg General Strike--and how the tapestry of their lives made the background, the air and the pulp of the event pulse through its veins. Sometimes grotesque and poster-like, sometimes fatal, often lyrical and always sharp as a blade, Margaret Sweatman's view of the things her characters are living through weaves the story of how a dreamlike world of Eleanor, MacDougal, Mary and Drinkwater has been shaken by the collision of the wealthy and working class making the wealth. A jazz composition of prose poetry to illustrate how "strike" and "Marxism" explode the personal worlds.
15. Wayne Tefs: Bandit (Turnstone, 2011) In 1966, Ken Leishman stepped onto the Winnipeg Airport tarmac and into the pages of Canadian history as the mastermind behind the country's largest gold theft. Known as the "flying bandit" or the "gentleman bandit," Leishman had already gained Dillingeresque notoriety as a bank robber when he stole the public's imagination with his last great exploit: brazenly--and politely--holding up a bank in Toronto. Regarded as a Robin Hood-like figure at the height of his exploits, Leishman had humble beginnings in Holland, Manitoba. Master storyteller Wayne Tefs imagines what happened behind the "Flying Bandit" headlines, intermingling the full-on action of the gold heist with the story of a smart but troubled kid growing up in a stifling small prairie town.
16. Joan Thomas: Reading by Lightning (Goose Lane, 2008)
Lily Piper and her family live in an ephemeral world, due to collapse any moment when the Lord comes to pluck His faithful from the drought-ravaged Prairie. Lily tries to be ready, but she is restless, not the daughter she feels her mother wants. As she tries to invent herself, she conjures, too, an imagined past for her beloved father in an effort to understand the demons he battles. In her teens, Lily is sent to England to care for her grandmother. There she falls in love, experiences life's ambiguity, and waits with the rest of England for the Second World War to start--until the news she has been dreading arrives on the doorstep, and she is called home to face a future she thought she had escaped. Thomas's prose is wry and intimate, elegant and devastatingly funny. Her engrossing story considers how we can make sense of a future when the future is something we can hardly imagine.