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BC's 'Real' Summer Reads, Revealed

Bookstores divulge the guilty pleasures and enduring classics we're pocketing this season.

Ariel Fournier 14 Jul 2012TheTyee.ca

Ariel Fournier is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver.

Every year The Tyee gives you our recommended summer book list. But who are we to tell you what to read?

Lest you think we hand down recommendations from on high, The Tyee has conducted exhaustive, on the ground research -- based on information from connoisseurs across B.C.'s literary landscape -- to compile this list of what B.C. readers are actually buying this summer.

Four esteemed informants from independent bookstores across the province told us what readers are purchasing, whether proudly or ashamedly, as well as the books that will likely be returned to used stores or thrown in the trash by Labour Day.

The contributors are Chris Brayshaw from Pulpfiction (Vancouver), Anna Beddie from Misty River Books (Terrace), Dave Hill from Munro's Books (Victoria) and Sarah Klassen from Mosaic Books (Kelowna).

Without further ado, here are various shades of summer reading as selected by you, dear readers.

The summer hit:

Let's just get this over with: Fifty Shades of Grey is this summer's bestseller. When I asked Sarah Klassen, the book buyer for Kelowna's Mosaic Books, about their most popular novel, she answered "Have you heard of Fifty Shades of Grey? I think everyone on the planet has heard of it."

The possibly sexy -- probably sexist -- take on hetero-normative kink is sweeping the nation and the province. With such wordsmithing as "I close my eyes, feeling the build up... pushing me higher and higher to the castle in the air," it is hard to resist.

Three of our four panelists agreed that the book was a hot item, if not their bestseller overall.*

Erotica aside, there are other clear summer favourites emerging in B.C.

"The usual preconception is that people want a light fluffy read in the summer, but people just have more time to read," said Dave Hill, owner of Munro's Books in Victoria.

The store's second most popular paperback is the Man Booker prize-winner The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Far from fluffy, it follows a narrator suddenly reminded of his school friend's suicide while settling into his retirement years.

Novels can reach bestseller status for their critical acclaim or their entertainment value, but others have the allure of divisiveness to keep them selling. Toronto author Sheila Heti released her semi-autobiographical novel How Should a Person Be? to mixed reviews in the U.S. this week.

The book is one of Pulpfiction's bestsellers and has divided the bookstore as well as their clientele. Brayshaw from that store was unimpressed by "what feels like smart young people going down to Gene [the nearby café] and bitching about how unrecognized they are," while others contend it's one of the best novels in recent memory.

You could take your vacation time to decide for yourself... or opt out and take Fifty Shades to the beach instead.

The winner (after Fifty Shades of Grey):

Munro's Books (Victoria): The Sense of An Ending, Julian Barnes and Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan

Pulpfiction (Vancouver): A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin and How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti (Bonus: Open City, Teju Cole)

Misty River Books (Terrace): The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern and Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt

Mosaic Books (Kelowna): Gold, Chris Cleave and Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

The enduring classic

Re-treading novel ground is an ever-popular summer reading move. Certain classics emerge again and again as the most popular ones to read, and crime novels and bygone fiction have a tendency to fall into this category.

Author P.D. James has cleverly capitalized on both genres with Death Comes to Pemberly, a mystery loosely built around Pride and Prejudice, but many classics need no reimagining to sell.

Tourists often arrive looking to learn more at Misty River Books in Terrace, and its bookseller Beddie says people look for outdoor guides and regional tales of adventure.

The winner:

Munro's Books (Victoria): Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Pulpfiction (Vancouver): The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

Misty River Books (Terrace): Challenge the Wilderness, George Tomlinson

Mosaic Books (Kelowna): Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The scarlet novel

This category was intended to unearth which summer reads people are ashamed to bring home. Certain novels are less known for their elegant prose as they are for their sordid content, but the panel seemed to agree that few people are embarrassed about loving summer smut like Fifty Shades of Grey.

"I thought people would be tucking it between their other books, but not at all," said Klassen from Mosaic Books. Beddie of Misty Rivers Books had a 14-year-old girl try to buy the book, but Beddie insisted on receiving the girl's parents' permission first. "It is very explicit."

Brayshaw of Pulpfiction is pleased by the rising popularity of A Game of Thrones, largely spurred by the HBO television series, but some customers are a little sheepish over the selection. He adds that some patrons are embarrassed about crime novels or "books with vampires."

"All tastes and styles -- no judgment," he says quoting another favourite store's policy. "We all make strong aesthetic choices here, but I try not to be judgmental when someone comes up to the till with something different in their hands."

The winner: You, because reading is fun (and not embarassing)!

The fast fader

And what are the books our panelists voted most likely to be returned to used bookstores at the end of the season?

"Like a carton of milk that has been sitting in the backseat of your car in a parking lot and it's good for a while, but then suddenly everyone realizes it smells," Brayshaw predicts Fifty Shades of Grey will come flooding into his store once readers recover from the craze.

But other panelists are less certain. Klassen from Mosaic Books notes that Penguin and Simon & Schuster have recently released similar spinoffs of the series.

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it will be interesting to see if this is just a fad," she says.

Hill of Munro Books finds that celebrity biographies and highly news driven non-fiction often "have their day in hardback" but never make it to soft cover. But this year's most popular celebrity biography Steve Jobs isn't yet losing steam, so this fall may see fewer returned novels on the counter.

The winner: Stay tuned.

*Story corrected July 14 at 3:50 p.m.  [Tyee]

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