Best in Books — 2008 Edition

Longest gestation, best baby:
Now 69, Patrick Lane had been an iconic poet for decades and, more recently, the author of an exquisite memoir, before writing his first novel, the brilliant, scarifying Red Dog, Red Dog. A grim story—dead infant narrators will do that—about proud, bitter and surprisingly loyal characters in the B.C. interior in the 1950’s, the beautifully written story was inexplicably left off all the national prize lists.

Best rewrite of modern history (actual):
How the Nazis Ruled Europe by Columbia university historian Mark Mazower not only shows in greater detail than ever before the casual as well as systematic murderousness of Nazi rule, but it’s equally brutal incompetence: while half the Third Reich clamoured for more and more (slave) workers, the other half was killing them by the millions. More remarkable than that well-known story, though, is Mazower’s persuasive case that the Nazis were depressingly less anomalous than anyone would wish. Much of what they did in Eastern Europe—from vast population transfers to mass hostage executions—was not revolutionarily evil but more an escalation of past wars there.

Best rewrite of modern history (alt-universe):
Half a Crown concluded Montreal writer Jo Walton’s subtle and compelling trilogy, Small Change, three fine, subverted Golden Age detective stories about life in a Britain that made peace with Hitler in 1941, and was sliding into fascism ever since.

CanLit Rookie of the Year:
Just about everyone, prize juries apart, loved 30-year-old Rebecca Rosenblum’s book of short stories, Once. Granted, it’s possible that many critics, older and better off than Once’s characters—mostly young people leading seemingly random lives in dead-end jobs—thought it was the sort of realistic fictional world they ought to appreciate. But if that’s what drew them, it’s Rosenblum’s strong, spare writing that kept them immersed in it.

Uncategorizable (again):
As it began, so it continues. The Gargoyle, by Winnipeg author Andrew Davidson, is notoriously difficult to pigeonhole by genre: a centuries-spanning love story about a suicidal narrator, burned beyond recognition in a car crash, and the schizophrenic sculptress of gargoyles who entices him back to life. And, oh yes, she claims they were lovers before, in 14th-century Germany, when she was a nun and he was a mercenary. But if publishers didn’t know what it was, they knew what they liked—26 of them gave Davidson an eye-opening $2.5 million in advances, and set a massive marketing machine in motion. The book did reasonably well, and if you discount the hype, was a success; factor in publishers’ high hopes, and it’s more of a bust. Maybe everyone is waiting for the paperback.

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