Archives for category: Buzz Books

2020 Holiday Gift Guide CBC

Another year, another holiday gift guide. It wasn’t my intention to choose books whose covers were so matchy-matchy, but it’s a nice bonus if you want to splurge and buy them all together!

Listen to the audio here >> LISTEN

My top picks for 2019 are:

The Innocents by Michael Crummey – my favourite Canadian novel of the year

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – my favourite non-Canadian novel of the year

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow – already a Pulitzer Prize winner and major buzz book, this book about the journalist’s pursuit of the Harvey Weinstein story reads like a le Carré novel

Agnes, Murderess by Sara Leavitt – an awesome Canadian historical graphic novel with a queer subplot and gothic vibe, this will appeal to teens and adults

Just Because by Mac Barnett illus. Isabelle Arsenault and King Mouse by Cary Fagan illus. Dena Seiferling – two picture books for little kids that tell two very different stories, both about kindness, patience, and the magic of imagination.



The literary “season” is upon us, with award nominations coming thick and fast.

Below, a summary of my coverage for the Globe & Mail.

The Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist was announced Sept. 3, the same day that Margaret Atwood was named to the Booker Prize shortlist in the UK (she was on both). Read my story here.

Then, on Sept. 17, the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction shortlist was announced. For the first time, all five books in contention are written by women. Read my story here.

The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize shortlist came next, on Sept. 24. No Atwood here, but repeat appearances for André Alexis, Michael Crummey and Alix Ohlin, and a great morning for Canadian independent presses. Read my story here.

On Sept. 30, the Giller Prize longlist was whittled down to a shortlist of six. Past winners Atwood and Alexis failed to make the cut, but Michael Crummey and Alix Ohlin chalked up a second shortlisting each. The shortlisted six  – who hail from across the country – include a majority of writers who are successful in genres beyond fiction (poetry and drama). Read my story here.

I didn’t write about the Governor General’s Literary Awards shortlists this year, but they were announced on Oct. 2, when it became the year of Michael Crummey. He is the only author to appear on all three lists (his novel, The Innocents, is fantastic BTW).


On Sept. 10, Margaret Atwood released The Testaments, a sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Thanks to the global attention surrounding Atwood, the book, and the TV show of The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s safe to say this is one of the biggest books of the year, with the publisher enforcing ferocious non-disclosure agreements on prize juries, booksellers and advance juries (though that didn’t quite work out as planned).

Should you read it?

My review for CBC Radio One’s Day 6 is here


Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead’s follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning The Underground Railroad is one of the big-buzz releases of the summer.

Whitehead is on the cover of TIME, heralded as “America’s Storyteller,” and The Nickel Boys tells another dark chapter in American history.

Should you read it? Listen to my review here.

Summer Reads 2019 CBC


My summer reads picks for this year are here! (Beach towel and Wayfarer-wearing fox friend not included)

Listen to the segment here.


sally rooney


Sally Rooney = international literary sensation.

Her new novel, Normal People, has been out for aaaaaages in the UK and Ireland, but has only just made it to North America.

Should you read it?

My review for Day 6 >> audio.

2019 Holiday Reads


Books: they’re easy to wrap! (I say this every year, but it’s true).

My annual Holiday Gift Guide for CBC Radio’s Day 6  is here.

It includes:

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart
Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage
Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page

In Pieces by Sally Field
Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography by Andrea Warner

The Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada 

Sleep, Sheep! by Kerry Lyn Sparrow. Illustrated by Guillaume Perreault


Songs for the Cold of Heart


For my latest “Should I Read It?” review, I talked about a novel that is buzzy in part by virtue of its obscurity.

Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart was a massive bestseller in Quebec, but its English-language translation (released in Canada in July 2018) was relatively unknown until it landed a spot on the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist on October 1.

It’s the odd-one-out on a shortlist filled with books that are already Canadian bestsellers in the English-language market. The Giller nod has given it a huge awareness (and sales) boost.

Should you read it? Here’s my review >> audio

And how is Dupont’s tiny Quebec publisher, QC Fiction, coping with the Giller spotlight? Here’s a piece I wrote for the Globe & Mail.

Frey - Katerina


James Frey once wrote a memoir that turned out to be a “memoir.” It sold millions of copies and upset almost as many millions of readers (but remained a bestseller anyway). Now Frey has written a novel that is really more of a “novel.” But is it any good?

My “Should I Read It?” review for Day 6 >> listen here

The risk of the long read
(This column first appeared on in December 2013)

Garth Risk Hallberg (cue a thousand “Risk is my middle name” jokes) made headlines last month for getting paid a lot of money for having written a very long book. The amount of money (US $2million) and the length of book (900-odd pages) were the two key pieces of information for you to take away from each and every story written on the topic. Comparisons were made to The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, comparisons that had nothing to do with plot, setting or theme and everything to do with word count. Yes, these books are all quite long.

So when did our willingness to read a long book become so noteworthy? After it won the Man Booker Prize, I reviewed Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries for Day 6 on CBC radio, and the length of the book was one of the first things we discussed. I wondered why people now seem to view reading a long book as though it were an Olympic sport that should come with a medal for achievement, because really it’s only reading. Mere minutes later, apparently having forgotten everything I’d just said, I posted a picture of myself holding the book spine out, rather than face out, in a “Look how well I did, Mum,” pose of self-congratulation. To be impressed at my feat of getting through the book so fast was the most common first response from those who had heard the review. And this from book industry colleagues who all read for a living – many of them, I’m guessing, far more, and far more quickly, than I do.

In reporting on Hallberg’s book deal, The New York Times said that “the long novel is experiencing a resurgence,” which might be true, or might be just a new headline for an old story. To pick just one example: Susanna Clarke’s 2004 debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, received an advance in the region of a million quid, clocked in at more than 1,000 pages, and sold like Billy-o on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, in an age we might now think of as one that was more friendly to the long novel – let’s call it “the past” – Proust was forced to pay the printing costs of Swann’s Way (the first of seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time) himself because no publisher would touch it; and Dickens’s books, though long, were presented in an episodic format that hid their ultimate length. Stephen King has always written books the size of coffee tables, of course, but perhaps the airport read is exempt from this game of who did it longest.

At this particular point in time, however, the “return” of the long novel does seem to be in step with a different form of marathon narrative consumption. When Netflix launched House of Cards in February of this year, viewing it became, for some, a feat of buttock-numbing, eyeball-popping endurance. Marathon viewing was the order of the day, and a smart piece by San Fran Lit Blogger Scott Esposito suggested an interesting interpretation of this in respect to reading habits:

“This emergent behavior [of marathon viewing] takes all we have been hearing about shortened attention spans and throws it out the window,” he wrote. “You could make quite a dent in ‘War and Peace’ in 12 hours. Anyone up for the unabridged version of ‘Clarissa’? One producer remarked that people are now watching TV the way they read a novel. A novel? I thought the novel was dead.”

So, just as many despair of society’s unwillingness to read when there’s so much good telly around, is it actually the case that the telly got so good by becoming more like the novel? Eleanor Catton cites being heavily influenced by boxed sets of The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad in writing the 832 page The Luminaries (which I did binge read, though perhaps you should take your time), and when Hallberg’s City on Fire was picked up by UK publisher Jonathan Cape last week for a comparatively paltry-seeming £200,000 (c. $347,000), acquiring editor Alex Bowler said that it was unlike any other novel and would more appropriately be compared to an HBO boxed set.

It is no accident, many feel, that the age of boxed-set TV binge watching has also been that of some of the best-scripted TV drama in a long time. Gone is the need for every episode to be self-contained or to finish with a cliff-hanger that will bring viewers back a week later. The narrative must stand up to back-to-back viewing and simultaneous, real-time social media analysis, and must have the depth to reward multiple re-viewings. To write a 900-page novel is an ambitious and impressive undertaking to be sure, but it might also be just what our TV-exercised brains are hungry for. Mr. Hallberg is asking his future readers to take their time with his book, but he may not be asking his publishers to take such a risk after all.