My Top 15 Reads of 2021

2021 was an odd year, with the ups and downs of COVID measures and a federal election that consumed much of my time. Yet, looking back on my reading list, I still managed to complete 56 new-to-me books this year. I continued to read and follow Canada Reads closely (woohoo Johnny Appleseed) and still keep a nerdy spreadsheet to ensure I stayed focused on reading authors with a wider diversity of backgrounds and identities.

I won’t list everything I read, but in no particular order here are my favourite fiction and non-fiction reads from this year.

FICTION

Five Little Indians – Michelle Good

Wow. There’s a reason this book has been a consistent best seller and won so many awards. Five Little Indians follows the stories of five children who are taken from their families to residential school and their lives that follow. Michelle Good is a powerful storyteller that makes you feel deeply about each of the characters. This book is so well written, heartbreaking, and powerful. Ultimately, it’s a book about how to move forward. All Canadians should read it.

Crosshairs – Catherine Hernandez

Catherine Hernandez is such a fantastic writer. Her book Scarborough remains one of my favourite reads of all time. So, I was excited to dive into her second novel, Crosshairs. It sure didn’t disappoint! Inside is a story of queer and BIPOC resistance in a dystopian Toronto-based future. Booklist described it as “raw yet beautiful, distrusting yet hopeful.” I can’t say it better than that, so I won’t try!

The Strangers – Katherena Vermette

An awesome Christmas gift, I dove into this straight away. Since reading The Break, Katherna Vermette has been one of my favourite authors. The Strangers tells the story of four Métis women of the Stranger family, rotating between them each chapter. Incredibly written and at times devasting, we see the impacts of intergenerational trauma and dysfunction, but also love and hope. The Strangers builds on The Break and has only made me love Katherena Vermette as an author even more. (Note: you wouldn’t need to read The Break to enjoy this book.)

Speaking of Katherena Vermette, I’ve continued to read her A Girl Called Echo comic series this year. It is well worth checking out, especially if you have a younger person in your life who may enjoy.

The Bishop’s Man – Linden MacIntyre

This year I continued my project of going back and chipping away at past Giller Prize Winners. This won back in 2009 but was still a fantastic read today. Linden MacIntyre takes us into the story of the massive cover-up of sexual abuse in the Antigonish Catholic Church, but through well-crafted fiction. I really didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. The story isn’t told in a linear way, which at first I was unsure about, but as I got pulled into the story I got used to and appreciated his approach. It’s a great novel that will leave you with a lot to think about. It is well worth the read.

Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart

I heard many good interviews about this book when it won the 2020 Booker Prize so I decided to grab a copy. The world needs more working-class stories and that’s exactly what this is. Taking us back to 1980s Scotland during a time when Margaret Thatcher’s policies have left many out of work, the story centres around Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, and his experiences in a world surrounded by poverty and addictions, and his struggles with loneliness while coming of age and to terms with his own sexuality. This is a thick book but the story inside is fantastic and I devoured it in a weekend, no problem.

The Clothesline Swing – Ahmad Danny Ramadan

So many people enthusiastically suggested this book to me I finally read it in 2020. The Clothesline Swing is a love story between two men in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. It’s also a heart-breaking tribute to a Syria now gone. Told back and forth through time, the narrative is enthralling, you get caught up in it and can’t put this book down. Ramadan’s writing is wonderful. All I can say is this novel is beautiful. It’s an experience to read it. Pick up a copy and give it a go.

Starlight – Richard Wagamese

Sadly, this is Richard Wagamese’s final, unfinished novel. I’m thankful it was still published. Frank Starlight and Emmy are wonderful characters, and Richard Wagamese’s storytelling skills are on full display in this book. This is easily in my top Wagamese books, along with Indian Horse and Medicine Walk. If you’ve enjoyed any of his other books you’ll enjoy this one too.

Avenue of Champions – Conor Kerr

When browsing in Glass Bookshop they suggested this debut novel from local Edmonton author Conor Kerr, so I gave it a go. I’m glad I took their suggestion! It is centred around Daniel, a young Métis man, as him and others navigate life around Edmonton’s Avenue of Champions. It is actually written as a series of stories that together tell the story, giving you added insight in to each character’s lives and experiences. There is plenty of humour and tragedy inside. This book is very Edmonton, not just because of the well-known landmarks, but also the heavy reminder how we remain a city that is often living in two different realities, along racial lines. It is definitely worth reading for anyone who lives here.

Empire of Wild – Cherie Dimaline

Cherie Dimaline is a vivid storyteller. From the first page you’re drawn in to the mystery of Joan’s missing husband (and apparent return?). You can’t help but want to know how things are going to end. The main character Joan is hilarious, a bit of a mess and delightful to go on this journey with. This novel is inspired by the traditional Métis story of the Rogarou (which if you are like me and grew up near Roche Percee in Southeast Saskatchewan you’d know stories of these creatures well). If you’ve never read Cherie Dimaline I’d still suggest you start with her debut YA novel, The Marrow Thieves, but this was a great read as well.

Probably Ruby – Lisa Bird-Wilson

The main character Ruby, a Métis woman, is a victim of the “sixties scoop” who was given up for adoption and raised by a white family. Ruby grows up to struggle with relationships, substance use, her lost culture and so much more. Told through Ruby’s connection to family and others we see many perspectives and insights into who she is in a unique way. This can be a tough read at times, both because of style and content, but it’s worth it. I found this book incredibly moving and hopeful to read. Ruby is a character you won’t soon forget.

Swimming in the Dark – Tomasz Jerdrowski

At a pre-Christmas shopping stop to Turning the Tide Bookstore, Tracey told me I’d probably like this book, so I bought it on a whim. Set in 1980s Poland, the characters Ludwik and Janusz first meet at a Polish summer work camp, go on to fall in love, but ultimately end up on either side of a growing political divide. It’s a charming book that touches on love, politics and history. I enjoyed diving into a time and place I knew little about. It made for a nice holiday read.

NON-FICTION

Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber and Elon Musk – James Wilt

It was a civic election year in Alberta this year so it was timely to dive into this one. Suspicious of hype around “innovations” in our municipal services that are really just moves to privatization and way from the public good? Then dive into this book. It’s well researched with timely examples of how cities can tackle climate change while bolstering our public transit and services to actually meet our needs, and tackle inequity too.

Share the Wealth! How we can tax Canada’s super-rich and create a better country for everyone – Angella MacEwen & Jonathan Gauvin

Canada’s rich are getting richer, quickly, while the rest of us are being left behind. If you care about tax fairness, wealth inequity and how to pay for our public services, read this book. It’s concisely done (185 pages!), easy to read and clearly lays out the various policy tools at our disposal if we want to actually start taxing the rich. The authors also do a fantastic job of dispelling the various myths and excuses for why we can’t act.

Intimate Integration: A History of the Sixties Scoop and the Colonization of Indigenous Kinship- Allyson D. Stevenson

Take a deep dive into the “Sixties Scoop”, decades of colonial adoption and child welfare policies, with this book. This is an academic book that is so well researched and thorough. Yet there’s a layer of storytelling and a centering of lived experience to go along with, making it an easier read than many academic books. Canada has a long history of taking Indigenous children away from their families and communities – this book helped me further connect the dots of how little has changed over the decades since residential schools right up to today.

Compelled To Act: Histories of Women’s Activism in Western Canada – Edited by: Sarah Carter and Nancy Langford

While often overlooked, activism is alive and well on the Canadian prairies. This book take a historical look at decades of Women’s Activism from labour struggles, to peace, to reproductive rights, to Indigenous struggles, fighting for Medicare and so much more. The chapter on women during the Crowsnest Pass Strike of 1932 gave me a whole new perspective into that struggle. I’m glad to have found this book.

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