It was hard to pay too much attention to books written outside Canada this year. That's how good our homegrown writers were in 2004. Only one American title muscled its way into the list of the year's best reads.
1 SMALL ISLAND by Andrea Levy (Review) Two Jamaicans move to England and transform the lives of two white Brits. Complex characters change and grow in this powerful and nuanced depiction of racism - polite and otherwise - in the UK and the experience of displacement of its shell-shocked immigrants. Read this book, winner of this year's Orange Prize.
2 Life Mask by Emma Donoghue (Virago/Penguin) Once again, Donoghue mines history for a terrific story - based on real-life characters and meticulously researched - of sex, politics and art in late-18th-century London, England. Fans of Sarah Waters's Tipping The Velvet will love this, but Life Mask has the added bonus of bringing out issues that are completely contemporary. Superbly soapy - in a good way.
3 Wild Dogs by Helen Humphreys (HarperCollins) Humphreys retains the title of most under-appreciated writer in Canada. This is the story of six people trying to make sense of why their dogs have gone wild. Utterly beautiful.
4 Beginning Of Was by Ania Szado (Penguin) This achingly poignant novel about a grief-stricken young woman hired to help an elderly woman complete her will is rich in detail and completely moving. Hard to believe this is Szado's first novel.
5 This Body by Tessa McWatt (HarperCollins) The third novel by McWatt takes a huge artistic leap. Victoria, an accomplished cook, becomes guardian to her nephew Derek when her sister dies. What's impressive is the way McWatt gets right inside the mind of both 60-year-old Victoria, who has trouble connecting, and eight-year-old Derek, who has heavy issues at school.
6 Hopeful Monsters by Hiromi Goto (Arsenal Pulp) Disturbing, inspired stories - all of them featuring Japanese Canadians coping with culture clash. Goto's characters go to hard places, but you always want to go with them.
7 What Casanova Told Me by Susan Swan (Knopf) A young archivist, travelling with her dead mother's lesbian lover to Venice and Athens, reads the diaries of her ancestor Asked For and discovers that she had an affair with Casanova. Neatly crafted, wonderfully romantic yet real.
8 Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al Franken (Dutton) Of the avalanche of Bush-bashing books, the most furious and by far the funniest is Franken's gem. He proves you can confront an opponent more devastatingly with wit than with whining in this great work of satire and investigative research.
9 Fruit by Brian Francis (ECW) Fat-boy loser Peter Paddington, everybody's junior high school joke, has gender-bent bedtime fantasies, and his nipples, swelling to unnatural proportions, talk to him, urging to him to queer heights. Only in Sarnia, you say? Hilarious.
10 BlinD Night by Cordelia Strube (Thomas Allen) Heroine McKenna is a professional hair colourist slowly going blind in this novel dripping with drama. A former drug addict with unresolved anger issues and a fierce and beautiful love for her daughter, she's a vivid, working-class hero, one of the year's best-drawn characters.
This was a year when many local writers showed new gifts. They may not make the top-10 list, but if they keep going in the same direction they'll make the cut soon enough. Check out Jim Munroe's An Opening Act Of Unspeakable Evil (No Media Kings), Anna Camilleri's I Am A Red Dress (Arsenal Pulp) and Tamara Faith Berger's The Way Of The Whore (Gutter).
It's too easy to trash bad writers. What distinguishes this list of literary losers is that all of the authors have talent. We just didn't see any of it in these books.
What We've Lost by Graydon Carter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) There are a number of hard-hitting, well-written exposés of the Bush administration and the people who push its agenda. But where other writers have brought insight to the subject, Vanity Fair's Carter delivers his raw notes. Turgid and boring.
MURIELLA PENT by Russell Smith (Doubleday) Smith's satire of arts funders and wannabe patrons is sabotaged by his contempt for his heroine. And when did his prose get so stodgy? It feels like he's trying to impress all the wrong people.
GALVESTON by Paul Quarrington (Random House) The presence on the Giller shortlist of Quarrington's lightweight, cliché-ridden tale of obsessed storm chasers remains a complete mystery.
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