Canada Reads 2024: The Contenders!

Canada Reads is an 18-year-old annual literary competition hosted by CBC Books in which five books by Canadian authors are chosen, then "championed" by a Canadian celebrity during a week of televised debates in March. The goal? To pick one book that will appeal broadly to Canadians. The contest is described as a "literary  Survivor" and at the end of each day of debating one book is voted out. 

It's all in good fun, and it has a deeper purpose: to engage us in reading CanLit and buying books (or borrowing them from the library, as I love to do!) Each year has a theme, and this year it is "One book to carry us forward": 

When we are at a crossroads, when uncertainty is upon us, when we have faced challenges and are ready for the future, how do we know where to go next? This collection of books is about finding the resilience and the hope needed to carry on and keep moving forward.

2024's contenders are: 

This is only the second year that I've even been aware of this competition. Last year I had such fun reading the books and watching the debates that I decided to do it again. I've reviewed each book and given my thoughts about their relevance to the theme. Take a read and see what you think!

Bad Cree by Jessica Johns
Championed by Dallas Soonias

My Quick Take: A simple novel that speaks with a clear voice about confronting our inner, unresolved emotions with the help of those we are connected to.


Are you in the mood for something that’s immediately hooking, at times genuinely creepy, that confronts the idea of greed and delusion in the world but is ultimately full of goodness, even while acknowledging that the hard things are never totally banished? Bad Cree hits all these notes.

I really enjoyed Bad Cree, the debut novel from Johns. According to her bio, she’s “a queer nehiyaw aunty with English-Irish ancestry and a member of the Sucker Creek First Nation.”

This is a very simple story at its core, with young Cree woman Mackenzie waking nightly in her Vancouver home to nightmares about her recently deceased cousin. She’d fled to Vancouver from Alberta in the wake of the deaths of her kokum and cousin. “I thought that I could leave the bad behind. But I guess the bad isn’t a thing you can run from, because it’s not a thing that can be held. It doesn’t announce itself, there’s no siren or beacon. Instead, it’s a steady beating, like a heart or a drum. It’s a sound that lives in the body and grows down into the ground.”

The dreams bleed into real life, and Mackenzie realises she must travel back to her Alberta home to confront these otherworldly happenings. She needs to enlist the help of her mom, sister, aunties and cousin, discovering that she is not as alone as she thinks in fighting this dreamworld terror.

There’s a horror novel narrative here, and though I didn’t find it particularly scary, it gave me nice creepy vibes. But though the basic story is horror-esque, this isn’t fundamentally a horror novel. Rather, it uses the uncanny to expose the deeper truths of trauma and grief and our need to confront it before it consumes us.

Johns invokes the wheetigo, a cannibalistic spirit in the Cree culture that is representative of greed and excess, constantly consuming victims and never sated. To me it speaks of humankind’s darker nature; the greed, hatred and warped worldview that sometimes threatens to take over, both individually and collectively. While reading, I contemplated the way we tend to push away grief, trauma and hurt without confronting it. It’s wholly understandable, but if left to fester it can grow into something monstrous that may consume and isolate us from those we are connected to. The wheetigo is fed by isolation, disconnection and miscommunication. In Bad Cree such enchantment is embodied by an almost hypnotic state that takes over the characters when they are confronted by the monster.

The antidote to this is waking up to reality as it really is; connection with others; and acknowledging pain and grief. Though this is an intimate story of one person and her family, I think there is a lesson for society at large as well. The themes in Bad Cree are echoed in many other books I’ve been reading and ways of thinking I’ve been studying. I see similarities to Buddhist philosophy; and it’s very apropos to Gabor Mate’s The Myth of Normal (2022), which I recently finished. He speaks of trauma and the consequences of not addressing it.

Bad Cree is a strong contender for the 2024 Canada Reads champion. It is a book that easily speaks to the idea of finding resilience and facing difficulties in order to live more authentically and in a healthier way. As such, it embodies the theme of a book to carry us forward. I suspect it has a good chance of winning this year. Not only does it fit the theme, it is easy to read and reasonably thought provoking for a short book.

Denison Avenue by Daniel Innes and Christina Wong
Championed by Naheed Nenshi

My Quick Take: Everything I want in a book! It’s an absorbing narrative of a Chinese elder living in a rapidly changing Toronto Chinatown dealing with grief, and the stuff of everyday life. There are detailed illustrations of the neighbourhood transformations to firmly contextualise the story.


Christina Wong, a Toronto-based writer and multidisciplinary artist; and Daniel Innes, a multidisciplinary artist also from Toronto have created a thoroughly compelling and beautifully designed book that kept me riveted to a simple tale, and admiring detailed line-drawn illustrations that put the story in context. So far, one of the best books I’ve read this year, and one that I’d like to gift to others!

Cho Sum is a character I won’t soon forget. A senior who lives in Toronto’s Chinatown-Kensington Market neighbourhood, she immigrated from China as a young woman to marry See Hai, and together they’ve built a life: working, growing vegetables in their urban home, vital members of their community. After tragedy strikes, Cho Sum is left to grieve and adjust to widowhood, but her loss is not the only change: her neighbourhood is also inexorably changing.

Wong writes beautifully, sometimes choosing to structure the words on the page to reflect sounds and sights, or emotional states. Occasionally the prose transforms into poetry for a brief interlude. It all works so well. Cho Sum speaks the Toisanese dialect and Wong chooses to write the dialogue in larger capitals phonetically on the page followed by the standard English translation in brackets. You might think it disruptive but it’s an amazingly effective technique because I could “hear” and appreciate the language for what it was. Having to read the translation put me in the guest seat. I can see Wong’s artistic ability emerging here: there’s an aural and visual component to the novel that adds a layer of interest and complexity.

The story itself is simple, following Cho Sum’s days as she adjusts, going about her daily routines and finding new ways to pass her time. This alternates with flashbacks from her past and we gradually learn her immigration story. In the present day, she is tutored by an acquaintance on how to collect cans and become a “bottle lady”. She reconnects with friends in her community. She gardens and loves to scour the neighbourhood stores for bargains.

I have to say, I connected so much with Cho Sum in some ways. Though we have completely different backgrounds, I too love a bargain. I come from a long line of folks who will happily pick up used cans around the neighbourhood (albeit not with a shopping cart!) and return them for the ten cent deposit. I scour stores for sales and obsessively check the half price bins at the local food shops. I felt very connected to Cho Sum as Wong let me into her world. That is the wonderful thing about this book. It really promotes empathy and understanding; I can find common ground with those who I’d normally just pass by as I navigate my own city of Vancouver.

There is so much change, and the authors lament this in the Preface:

“Our story primarily takes place in Toronto’s Chinatown–Kensington Market–a neighbourhood we consider home, one we feel connected to, and one we want to pay homage to before much of what we know disappears. While we were working on this book, many of the shops mentioned closed, or were forced to close.

As the area faces pressures of urban renewal and gentrification that make it largely unaffordable for the working class, we are reminded that the displacement of communities, tradition, language, culture and people is nothing new.”
However, despair doesn’t dominate the book; rather Cho Sum can grieve but also be brave and find renewal in the act of change and moving forward, and the resilience to keep going. “But I keep holding on. And I keep going, because that is what I have learned to do.”

Innes’ illustrations are at the back of the ebook, and after reading the story, examining his artful drawings of locations mentioned in the book was fascinating. He has presented pairs of drawings that depict a location in the past and currently, and the changes are illustrative of the changes over time in the Chinatown-Kensington Market area.

I absolutely think that Denison Avenue is a good contender for the Canada Reads 2024 competition. Resilience is a key factor, and one message is that we can know where to go next when faced with uncertainty by connecting with people and places that we know, and rhymes and routines that bring us meaning. Community even in the face of change is key. Sometimes we can create our sense of belonging and place even when things aren’t stable.

Meet Me at the Lake by Carley Fortune
Championed by Mirian Njoh

My Quick Take: This was a sweet romance at its core, but there were a few nice added details that I liked.


This is Torontonian Fortune’s second novel, after a career as a journalist and editor. I haven’t read her first book, but wanted to read this as a part of my quest to read all of the Canada Reads short list this year, even though this romance genre is not my preference these days. 

(I don’t really think these are spoilers…) Fern and Will met for about 24 hours ten years ago and there was a spark, but neither was in a place in their lives to be together. They determined to meet again in a year, but the best laid plans…you know. Fast forward ten years and they cross paths at Brooksbank, Fern’s family-owned resort in Ontario. Her mom has died, and Fern has inherited the property. Will happens to be a business consultant. Sparks fly, but there are, as always, many obstacles on the road to a happy ending.

I found this book to be sweet, generally well-written and thus an easy and quick read. I think it will satisfy if that’s what you’re wanting in a book. There’s a bit of spice on the page, but not too much, and there’s not too much miscommunication between Fern and Will. There is a nice cast of supporting characters.

Because this isn’t the genre that I gravitate to, I found my own experience with the book average, though I liked the descriptions of Vancouver (where I live!) and the Canadian setting. As to the Canada Reads theme, Fern and Will did have to overcome obstacles in their lives and Will especially has to show a lot of resilience.

Which brings me to the actual highlight of the book for me: Fortune’s comments in the Acknowledgements and her “Behind the Book” section. “Every day when I sat down to write the first draft, I waged a battle against the chorus in my head telling me I had no idea what I was doing, that my writing was terrible, that there was no way my second book would be as good as the one that came before it. It hurt,” she says in the Acknowledgements. But Fortune persisted, and seems very grateful for the supports that she had around her to help.

[A couple of mild spoilers follow] I urge you to read the Behind the Book essay in full, because it’s important and moving, and gave me more appreciation for the book. Fortune discusses her own postpartum OCD, characterized by frightening intrusive thoughts after her first pregnancy, a condition that is under-reported and often misunderstood. “During both my pregnancies, no medical practitioner mentioned it to me.” She’s taken the symptoms and written them in as a plot point that Will experiences after the birth of his niece, though in a general way. She also experienced a different severe postpartum anxiety characterized by worries after her second child was born. She then goes on to give a bit more insight into how she chose to proceed with the relationship plot points in the book given Will’s experiences.

I suppose that this book must be judged on the actual novel for the Canada Reads debates, but I get a lot of the 2024 themes for the competition from these last, extra sections. I feel that Fortune herself has taken adversity, including both the difficulties of writing and her experiences with postpartum anxiety, and shown real resilience. She then wrote some of that into the story, and it made me appreciate it more. I’ll be so curious as to how Mirian Njoh chooses to champion this book.

Shut Up You’re Pretty by Tea Mutonji
Championed by Kudakwashe Rutendo

My Quick Take: This novel is fraught with challenging and difficult issues as it follows one girl’s life in Scarborough from childhood to early adulthood.


Tea Mutjoni’s novel presented scenes from a life that feels so foreign to me that I almost had trouble connecting to the main character and the narrative in a meaningful way. In a collection of stories that reads as a novel, Loli has immigrated to Canada from Congo, living in subsidized housing with her family. Loli’s life is not easy in any way: she confronts racism, misogyny and parental illness.

Certainly there were positives too in Loli’s life and her ability to keep going in the face of depression and loss showed her resilience. The writing was straightforward, down-to-earth and engaging, with a quick pace that had me turning the pages quickly.

It’s a coming of age novel that doesn’t pull its punches; it brought me front and centre to witness Loli’s life, and it was challenging. On one hand, her environment provided some stability, but there were few trusted adult figures to provide any sense of security: it struck me as kids leading kids, and it generally turned out pretty harshly. There were a couple of scenes that had me feeling so sad that I didn’t really want to have read it. I do think this points to some strong writing on Mutjoni’s part. At other times, I found myself frustrated at Loli’s choices; she seemed doomed to repeat her maladaptive relationship dynamics over and over.

I suppose this all hangs together, though, given Loli’s experiences and traumas. I felt somewhat disconnected from Loli and the story, feeling like an outsider looking in. In the days after putting the book down, I’ve been pondering my reaction. In a way, this makes it a more interesting book, a story that I should read. Loli and I live in the same country and time, but our Canadas and experiences in it are so different that it’s hard to connect those dots…but we are connected, all of us. I know this intellectually, but I like that books can remind me more pointedly of this time and time again.

In the end, the process of reading Shut Up You’re Pretty appealed to me more than the details of the story because it made me think about another person so carefully, and examine my own reaction. This is how I’d approach this book in the Canada Reads debates. Loli keeps on going, even if she’s bouncing off other difficult, hurt people. The ending isn’t very upbeat: it’s kind of an equilibrium rather than a resolution of anything. Loli isn’t magically healed but she can find some reconnection with her mother, for example. The ability to find hope and meaning to move forward when things are so difficult strikes me as a little bit heroic.

The Future by Catherine Leroux/Translated from French by Susan Oiriou
Championed by Heather O’Neill

My Quick Take: A bold, imaginative alternate history novel with themes of ecology and interconnectedness.


In Leroux’s novel The Future, Detroit was never ceded to the U.S and is a part of French Canada, now plagued by poverty, the legacy of racism and income inequality. Gloria has come to find her missing granddaughters after the murder of her daughter Judith. As readers, we are introduced to a vibrant community in the midst of a decaying city and the ragtag band of children living in the nearby Parc Rouge.

This was a beautifully written, substantial novel that reaps rewards for a close reading. Leroux imparts an amazing sense of place. Fort Detroit:

“The impermanence of things, their fragility in the face of the elements, is on full display. Pavement disappears in chunks, sidewalks crumble. The naked trunks holding up electric cables welcome the new life that climbs and grafts itself to their porous wood. Houses are gutted, torn apart by fire and neglect. Nature has returned to occupy them; they let themselves be consumed.”
Leroux plays with the border between reality and fantasy; life and death; and imagination and magic. The veil is thin here with intimations of ghosts and spirits though it is never clear. There’s no concrete magic in this book, but the whole thing feels magical. Fort Detroit is full of ghosts and spirits, at least those who live in the living’s imaginings.
“Voices echo all over Fort Detroit; everything whispers and speaks, everything sighs all the time.”
In Part Two, the narrative shifts to the children in the forest and Leroux’s skill at weaving their imaginative play into the story is masterful. It reflects exactly their developmental age, and shows how they cope; these children are parentless and wary of authority. I enjoyed and appreciated this section, but the pace slowed and the descriptions were so lush that I wondered if the prose could have been pared down to its essence more. I found the story slightly lost in the fantastical. However, I suspect this is a personal preference.

Leroux brings the adult and child worlds together so cleverly, and the story picks up the pace in the last third again. I loved the ending. It was hopeful in the face of adversity and hinted at a future that marries human industry and resilience, and the resilience of nature. The theme pointed to the interconnectedness of everything, and placed humans firmly in the context of the natural world.
“The river flows, and what it ferries is impossible to grasp, to touch, anything born there instantly becomes an echo of itself. Objects thrown into the river ricochet, thoughts stay afloat to spell place names reviving history.

The river roils, it barrels toward the largest lakes in the world, it dashes toward whatever awaits that can neither be seen nor avoided, only welcomed, faced head-on.”
Overall, I think this will be a strong contender for the Canada Reads debates. It absolutely fits the theme of moving forward and highlighting resilience, and it is a strongly written literary yet accessible novel. As I mentioned, I did find it slower going in the middle section, but it’s a picky critique of an excellent book. There’s lots for champion Heather O’Neill to work with for the debates!


After reading all five books, I'll say that each brought something to the literary table, and I appreciate the diversity in genre and tone. As much as it's not my current love, I appreciate that adding a romance to the contest makes this a bookish event that will interest a wider variety of readers. 

My favourite of the contenders was Denison Avenue. It is going to be on my top books of the year list without a doubt. My predication for the 2024 Canada Reads champion? I think it'll be either Denison Avenue or Bad Cree. Forced to chose, I'd say Bad Cree, and it would be a well-deserved win. That said, I'm horrible about picking these things and perhaps I'll be completely surprised by the winner. The fun thing is always the human element in this contest: the debaters really do matter, and they're generally not literary critics, so it's anyone's game. 

Let me know if you've read any of these, or if you'll be tuning into the debates! 


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