The Year in Books: 2023

Delve into mysteries, romance, suspenseful sagas, books of poetry, historic journeys, and maybe even a pinch of psychedelics in this year’s roundup of locally produced literature.

November 27, 2023 | | Arts

As fall morphs into winter, many of us look forward to finding a good book – or several – to fire our imaginations and help us through the dark days ahead.

If your literary inclinations lean toward international intrigue, the prolific Barbara Kyle is back with The Deadly Trade, in which her protagonist is caught up in the brutal, and astoundingly profitable, global trade in wild animals. And in Outfoxed, Peter Thomas Pontsa has crafted an adventure that takes readers to the other side of the world – and back.

Closer to home, Jim Bartley’s The Bliss House tells the disturbing, but ultimately heartwarming, story of a family torn apart by suspicion and secrets. For an even bigger dose of heartwarming, dip into Dan Needles’ Finding Larkspur, the latest addition to his affectionately wry and ironic writings about rural life. And those with a taste for non-fiction will enjoy Nancy Early’s Once Upon a Forest, an illustrated exploration of Orangeville’s early history.

Fans of historical fiction can settle in with Dream’s End, by Marilyn Boyle Taylor, a suspense-filled romance set in Nantucket during the whaling era. Then, in three related books, starting with Leaving Was Just the Beginning, Cynthia Young explores her family history through the lens of her own imaginings.

This past year was an especially busy one for writers of kids and young adult books. Teens will thrill to the drama of The Girls from Hush Cabin by Marie Hoy-Kenny, while younger kids will be enchanted by books such as Beatrice and Barb by Kate Jenks Landry and Stories from the Back Garden by Kathleen Davies. You can find our roundup of the best local kids books at this link.

So grab your reading glasses and your favourite hot drink, find a comfy couch and delight in this year’s bounty. The writers of Headwaters offer something for everyone.

Finding Larkspur – A Return to Village Life

by Dan Needles
Humorist and playwright Dan Needles has been documenting the quirks and charms of rural life for more than four decades. And now the author of the beloved Wingfield series of plays is back with his fourth book, a collection of wry and insightful essays that explore what has changed and what endures as more and more ex-urbanites take up residence in rural towns and villages. Fans of Needles’ column in this magazine will recognize some themes – including the underlying one that, as he observes, “In Canada, as seemingly everywhere in the world, the national conversation may be driven by urban voices, but the national character is often very much a product of small towns and back roads.” A recipient of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, Needles spent much of his youth in Mono and now lives on a small farm south of Collingwood. (Douglas & McIntyre, $22.95)

Outfoxed – An Inspector William Fox Adventure

by Peter Thomas Pontsa
Part police procedural, part action adventure and part political thriller interwoven with Chinese and Indigenous history and culture, Outfoxed introduces RCMP inspector William Fox as he embarks on a mission to rescue Tracy Jordan, an American archeologist who has been kidnapped by Chinese gangsters. But what on earth would members of a Chinese triad want with an archeologist? To answer this question, Fox teams up with FBI special agent Patrick Reilly, and the two find themselves caught up in events that threaten to spiral out of control.

Now retired from his dental supply business, Peter Thomas Pontsa lives in Loretto, where he nurtures his passion for British sports cars – and writing. (FriesenPress, $25)

Dream’s End – A Tale of Nantucket

by Marilyn Boyle Taylor
Set in 1850s Nantucket, when the island’s whaling industry was in decline, Dream’s End chronicles the story an impecunious young Scottish woman who arrives as the new bride of a well-to-do but recalcitrant father of a small boy. As the new mistress of the stately home Dream’s End, Mary Regina works to blend into Nantucket society, but mysterious “accidents,” each of which could prove deadly, begin to happen on the home front.

Boyle Taylor skillfully interweaves Nantucket’s whaling history and her suspense-filled fictional account of the twists and turns with Mary Regina’s life on the storied island. A journalist, songwriter and poet, Boyle Taylor, who lived year-round in Nantucket for a time, now calls Caledon home. Dream’s End is her first novel. (Pender Press, $24.95)

The Deadly Trade

by Barbara Kyle
In this first book of a newly launched series, Barbara Kyle introduces dedicated animal rights activist Natalie “Nat” Sinclair, who suddenly finds herself suspected of committing murder. And this is just for openers. Because things are about to get a lot worse before they get better, if they get better. As Nat struggles to untangle the dangerous web of lies and deceit that threaten her and the animals and people she cares about, she discovers that the international trade in wild animals – with its promise of profits so huge that they rival those of the drug trade – are a powerful motivator for those intent on doing evil.

Inspired by the work of her husband, Stephen Best, and the Animal Alliance of Canada, Kyle has created a thriller that will both disturb and delight. An actor, screenwriter and author of the historical series Thornleigh Saga, as well as other novels, she is a former Mulmur resident who now lives in Guelph. (Woodhall Press, $26.95)

Once Upon a Forest – Celebrating Orangeville’s Early Years

by Nancy Early
Brightly illustrated by Kasia Charko, this history of Orangeville facts and lore takes readers on a lively stroll through the ages, from the time the land the town now occupies was covered by primal forest to vibrant, present-day street scenes on Broadway, Orangeville’s main drag. Along the way, writer Nancy Early introduces readers to the Indigenous families who first travelled through the area, the first European settlers, and a host of characters who brought the town to life. Among others, they include Seneca Ketchum, who built the first church; entrepreneur Orange Lawrence, for whom the town is named; and Thomas Bowles, the first county sheriff and grandfather of Prime Minister Lester Bowles Pearson. Both Early and Charko live in Alton. They previously collaborated on Once Upon a River: Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Alton. (Nancy Early/Kasia Charko, $20)

Our Second Chance – Changing Course and Solving the Value Crisis

by Andrew Welch
In his 2014 book, The Value Crisis, Andrew Welch argued that the relentless pace of climate change and growing income inequity are the result of a value system programmed to place quantity over quality, a numbers-based approach that assumes more is always better than enough. Then came the forced pause of the pandemic, an object lesson that proved nature can rebound and we can reset our values, rapidly, if we put our minds to it. Out of that came Our Second Chance, in which Welch offers a compelling range of large-scale strategies, such as a guaranteed basic income, and plenty of smaller-scale personal actions, such as using libraries and buying for quality, that can enable us to live not only more fully but also in balance with the planet’s capacity. One of Caledon resident Andrew Welch’s many interests is his role as official town crier for Caledon and Erin. (Captus Press, $20)

The Girls from Hush Cabin

by Marie Hoy-Kenny
Can four summer camp friends, separated by a mutual tragedy, come together years later to solve the “accidental death” of their favourite camp counsellor? Join Zoe, Denise, Calista and Holly as they try to get to the bottom of what happened to Violet, a strong swimmer who drowned in her mother’s indoor saltwater pool.

Did Violet’s suspicious death have something to do with what happened at camp – and with the secrets each friend hides from the others? The four search for answers while also navigating the complexities of young adulthood, complete with boyfriend problems, worries about the future, and family drama.

Written at her home in Dundalk during the pandemic, Hoy-Kenny’s debut young adult novel is full of nostalgic summer vibes, shady suspects and dark secrets from the past. (Blackstone Publishing, $26.95)

The Bliss House

by Jim Bartley

It’s 1963, and strange things are happening at the Bliss house. At least, that’s what the neighbours think – and the Children’s Aid. But 17-year-old Cam Bliss, his older cousin Wes and their much younger relative Dorie are doing okay – well, sort of – on the hardscrabble farm that has been in the family for generations. After their abusive alcoholic grandfather dies, Cam and Wes start building a life for themselves and Dorie while they work out a way of disposing of Gramp’s body. They can’t report the death because the authorities will almost certainly rush in and place little Dorie in foster care.

But as Gramp’s mouldering body becomes ever more pungent, Cam and Wes face questions about his whereabouts. Things start to unravel. And then … the murders start to pile up. In spare, crisp prose and with impeccable timing, perhaps the result of his long experience with writing plays, Jim Bartley tells a tale that is, by turns, disturbing and darkly humorous. But as the story unfolds, his fondness for his hapless characters shines through to the end.

The Bliss House is Bartley’s third novel. He divides his time between Toronto and Dufferin County. (Rare Machines, an imprint of Dundurn Press, $24.99)

Love and Longing in Times Gone Bye

by Nathaniel Watt
Each of the 11 short stories in this collection is set in a specific year, ranging from 1648 to 2000. In “1984: The Dreamer,” for example, Rene devises a way to time travel, intent on bringing modern conveniences to his hard-working great-grandmother. And in “1946: The Pink Rose,” a six-year-old is intimidated by his great-aunt, who looks right through him but who arrives for each visit with a tantalizing, black trunk filled with presents. In these and all the stories, as the main characters’ perceptions of others evolve, they too are altered by emotional revelations that transcend the specifics of time and place. Watt lives in Mono. His previous books include An Ill Wind Blows: A Sudoku Murder Mystery. (Watt Books, $12.99)

Brain Plasticity and Mind Manifesting Psychedelics

by David Courtney
Equal parts screed, memoir, how-to, and secular prayer, David Courtney’s latest book takes on the mind-numbing technology, stultifying habits of thought and institutional conformity that simultaneously overwhelm our synapses and close off creativity. Making the case for the transformative power of free-flowing imagination and the metamorphic power of art, he argues we need to disrupt patterns and pursue divergent thinking to experience our full humanity. And controlled use of psychedelics, such as LSD, ayahuasca and psilocybin, are one, though not the only, way of setting our brains free to experience their remarkable – he argues, infinite – plasticity. Courtney clearly takes joy in language play, and his stream-of-consciousness prose is as much a ride as a read, in itself a manifestation of his argument. Courtney grew up in Orangeville and now lives in Belwood. (David Courtney, $27.95)

In the Shadow of Mount Royal – Growing Up in Montreal’s Golden Age
Leaving Was Just the Beginning – One Woman’s Journey to India
After Clouds, Sunshine – The Story of Grace Evelyn Loucks, 1867–1949

by Cynthia Young
In this series of creative non-fiction books, Cynthia Young delves into the stories of her great-grandparents, combining the facts of their lives and family lore with her own imaginings – of thoughts, of conversations, of events, of settings.

In the Shadow of Mount Royal, for example, tells the story of James Gillespie, who was born in 1863 and grew up in Montreal during what is often called the city’s “Golden Age.” At the time, Montreal was Canada’s economic and cultural hub, and home to many of the captains of industry whose names are recorded in history books.

But the names of James – or Jamie, as he was called – and his family don’t appear in those books. The Gillespies were ordinary folk who worked every day to make ends meet, who approached life’s tribulations with courage and determination, and whose labour helped build Montreal’s wealth.

In rich and loving detail, Young brings alive Jamie’s story, as well as the stories of Evelyn Loucks in After Clouds, Sunshine and of Mary Lucy Byrne in Leaving Was Just the Beginning, by portraying the lives of these everyday, yet thoroughly remarkable people against the backdrop of the times they lived through.

Young lives in Caledon, where she operates “Family Profiles,” her family history blog. (Cynthia Young, $16–25)

French with Flair – Ideas to Inspire Spontaneous Interactions for Second Language Learners

by Christina A. Schilling
Teacher Christina Schilling, a second language specialist, has compiled loads of creative ideas for hands-on activities that will keep students of French – or any second language – engaged in and enthusiastic about their learning. Schilling’s passion for her calling, and her students, is obvious as she livens the book with anecdotes gathered over the course of 32 years of teaching French as a second language.
A musician and artist, Schilling lives in Belwood with her husband, author David Courtney. (Christina A. Schilling, $25.95)

I Remember It Well

by Betty Kampen, van Ommen
In many ways, Betty Kampen’s story of her family’s immigration to Canada from war-torn Holland is familiar. The pain of leaving behind precious family, friends and possessions. The hardships of the early years. The getting used to a new language and new ways of doing things.
But like all immigrants’ tales, Kampen’s story is also unique. Arriving as a 10-year-old in 1954 and settling with her family in rural Dufferin County. Living in a house with no electricity, central heating or indoor plumbing. Walking three miles to a one-room school in winter wearing rubber boots and layers of jackets because the family can’t afford anything else. Taking comfort in the kindness of a neighbour, the sensitivity of a teacher and most of all, perhaps, the support of the family’s faith community. Persevering. Kampen and her husband, Rudy, live in Orangeville. They will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary next year. (Christian Faith, $26.95)

Heart of the Storm

by Melanie Montesano
In Heart of the Storm, Melanie Montesano spins a tale of loss, healing, and a second chance at love. Devastated by the death of her husband, Isabelle had closed herself off from the world. When she wrongly receives some touching letters written by a woman on her deathbed, she sets out to deliver them to their rightful recipient. But a winter storm thrusts her into the lives of James and his daughter, Natalie, and the three must determine if time can heal old wounds. Orangeville’s Montesano has crafted the perfect novel to curl up by the fire with and read over the Christmas holidays. (Melanie Montesano, $13.99)


In the Storm

by Samantha Hurley
This slim, 80-page volume is Samantha Hurley’s first poetry collection. The short, often just four- or five-line, untitled poems are frequently presented as one side of a dialogue with an unnamed “you.” Written during a difficult time in Hurley’s life, the book is dedicated to her sister who helped her find the courage to put her heart on the page. The poem on the back cover succinctly summarizes the focus of her collection:

When I say you’re fine
What I mean is you will survive this
What I mean is I once survived this too

Hurley is a Toronto-based photographer who grew up in Caledon. The striking photos on the covers of this collection are her own work. (Samantha Hurley, $18)

A Quill in the Ink – A Collection of Poetry

by K.P. Alexander
The poems in this first collection by K.P. Alexander are organized into three sections, each of which explores life’s pivotal moments and their impacts on the human heart. With themes that are sometimes bleak, sometimes hopeful, Alexander sets out to show readers that it is possible to go through darkness and emerge into what she describes as “light, possibility and love.”
The volume’s concluding couplet completes her story:

I want the epilogue of my life to say,
She chose to live, and it was worth it all.

K.P. Alexander is a writer from Orangeville who is now based in Toronto (K.P. Alexander, $16.95)


Reviews compiled by Emily Dickson, Gail Grant, Carol Good, Dyanne Rivers and Signe Ball, with thanks to the staff at BookLore for their invaluable assistance in compiling this year’s book list.

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