What made 2002 wonderful was the mind-blowing work from new writers. Marnie Woodrow, Mary Lou Zeitoun and others not mentioned here, including Christy Ann Conlin (Heave), made huge impressions. Not that the vets crapped out -- Sarah Waters and Carol Shields definitely delivered the goods. Sure, it's unusual to put a fresh face like Nancy Lee at the top of a list like this, but that's the kind of year it was.
1dead girls by Nancy Lee (McLelland & Stewart) Vancouverite Lee has written a collection with an unforgettable urgency. In pointed, unflinching prose, Lee details the lives of street people or soon-to-be-street people, those they touch and the families they've abandoned. In the background lurks a serial killer, an obvious reference to the over 60 women who may have been murdered on the now-infamous pig farm. Lee knows how to convey a serious sense of dread. Watch out for her.
2the lost garden by Helen Humphreys (HarperFlamingo) Humphreys's awesome third novel is so beautiful it makes you weep. The story follows the emotionally insecure Gwen Davis as she heads up a team of teen volunteers tending a garden in the English countryside. But the soldiers billeted up the hill are pulling the girls' focus, and Gwen absolutely craves the experience of love. Humphreys describes each flower as if it experiences all of life's changes. You'll never look at peonies the same way again.
3 unless by Carol Shields (Random House) Craft so expert you have to stop every couple of pages to catch your breath. Writer and translator Reta's almost perfect life in a small town outside T.O. unravels when her eldest daughter takes up residence on the street corner of Bathurst and Bloor. Devastating.
4shakey by Jimmy McDonough (Random House) Shakey is a biography with everything going for it: a skilled journalist author and a rock-star subject, Neil Young, who has no internal editor. McDonough talked to over 300 of Young's friends and colleagues and interviewed the rockin' hero for 50 hours over a six-year period. Young left nothing out, including his jealousies, drug use and rages. An insightful portrait depicts the creative process of a strung-out egomaniac who seems not at all distressed about the fact that his talent has gone into the toilet. Thorough, and thoroughly appalling.
5 fingersmith by Sarah Waters (Little Brown/H.B. Fenn) The author of Tipping The Velvet comes through with another hot and heavy bodice-ripper set in the Victorian era. Professional thief Susan conspires with Mr. Rivers to fleece a naive and wealthy heiress, except that the heiress turns out to be not so naive, and Susan winds up hopelessly smitten. Waters has no compunction about showing us that women can do bad things to each other and, true to her form, the sexual suspense makes you squirm.
6spelling mississippi by Marnie Woodrow (Knopf) With her first novel, a steamy love letter to New Orleans, local light Woodrow takes a big leap in literary maturity. Cleo, on the run from Toronto, becomes obsessed with a woman she's seen leap fully clothed into the Mississippi River. Of course they will eventually meet, and their connection is so intense they're convinced something must be terribly wrong. Wake up and smell the magnolias -- Woodrow's doing something very right.
7CUMBERLAND by Michael V. Smith (Cormorant) In spare and direct prose, Smith tells the story of a divorced mill worker who's about to lose his job thanks to free trade and his sense of identity thanks to his late-night gay sex escapades in the park. A subtle, poignant novel that creeps up on you.
8AT THE HANDS OF PERSONS UNKNOWN: THE LYNCHING OF BLACK AMERICA by Philip Dray (Random House) As the United States gets set to go to war to defend what it calls freedom, Dray looks at that nation's own history of injustice. Between the Civil War and the 1930s at least 3,000 blacks were lynched in a series of ritualized slaughters. Dray documents the trail of death and the bold black resistance that it spawned. Terrifying and important.
9THE NIGHTiNGALES by Patricia Seaman (Coach House) This dreamy, intoxicating and totally urban novel tracks an unusual triangle of young women desperate to find love. Problem is, they keep choosing the wrong guys and hating each other for it. Toronto never sweltered so convincingly.
1013 by Mary Lou Zeitoun (Porcupine's Quill) Zeitoun gets right into the head of a teenager growing up in 1980 in this kick-ass comic novel. Marnie is 13, hot for John Lennon and desperate to fit in. Typical! But then again, that's the point. Credit Zeitoun for luring a whole new generation of young readers.
a waste of trees
The Womanizer: A Man Of His Time by Rick Salutin (Doubleday)
Is there no shit detector at Doubleday? We have no idea what Salutin was thinking when he unleashed this barely veiled autobiography focusing on his sexual conquests. Stick to the op-ed page, Rick.
The autograph man by Zaidie Smith (Penguin)
Up-and-comer Smith scored big with her debut White Teeth, then follows it up with a novel about the perils of celebrity. Puh-lease. As for the Jewish content, if you're looking for it UK-style, you're way better off with Linda Grant's Still Here (Little Brown UK).
Blur by Michelle Berry (Random House)
Talk about not keeping your promise. Berry's first novel, What We All Want, the story of a family reuniting for a funeral, had so much soul. Her second, Blur, a melodramatic mystery set in Hollywood, is as soulless as its setting.
Why do great writers release bad books? Why don't their editors stop them? HarperCollins should have saved Findley from himself and spared us Spadework, his flaccid take on unfettered ambition at the Stratford Festival.
Rock and Roll Novels
In 2001 Canadian fiction lapsed back into its comfy relationship to period. With the exception of Timothy Taylor's Stanley Park, all the books shortlisted for the Giller Prize fell into the category of historical fiction, and every nominee had that all-Canadian obsession with landscape. Edgy urban fiction was painfully low-profile, and the rock 'n' roll novel was almost invisible. Yashin Blake's Titanium Punch had some energy -- Blake really kicks it in when he's writing about music -- but no craft or characters. We're still desperately seeking a book that reflects contemporary T.O.'s city slickness.
Rita Mae Brown
The once edgy role model for lesbian writers is coasting. She used to write about the clash between southern manners and Yankee values, but Alma Mater, her tale of wealthy college coeds' southern discomfort with coming out -- how 70s! -- marks her as a writer who's out of touch with anything that matters.
They're not dead yet, but the fact that most major publishing companies have discontinued their e-book-only releases doesn't bode well for the cyber-lit movement. E-book companions to paper publications are still being produced, but let's face it, tech editions aren't exactly taking over. People still love the feel of a real live book. SGC
Write Books at email@example.com