My favorite books on Vancouver history

Why am I passionate about this?

When I was a kid growing up in Vancouver my parents had a collection of books arranged on shelves around the living room. The only one I remember taking down and actually reading was an early history of the city. I recalled being impressed by the simple fact that someone had thought my hometown was interesting enough to write about, not something that was self-evident to a cocky teenager. Many years later, some two dozen books of my own under my belt, I decided maybe I’d earned the right to take a crack at the city myself.


I wrote...

Becoming Vancouver: A History

By Daniel Francis,

Book cover of Becoming Vancouver: A History

What is my book about?

The first full account of the city’s history in several decades, this book follows the evolution of Vancouver from a tiny mill-town at the edge of the continent, through decades of racial strife, economic transformation, and physical shape-shifting to its emergence as a modern world metropolis. I try to capture the main themes of the story without neglecting some of the colorful personalities who shaped the city with their industry and perseverance.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Who Killed Janet Smith?

Daniel Francis Why did I love this book?

Janet Smith was a young Scottish housemaid who was murdered in the home of her well-to-do employer in 1924. Never solved, the murder is one of the most celebrated crimes in Vancouver history, featuring political corruption, racial animosity, sex, drugs, and jazz. The book is a wonderful evocation of life in the city in the 1920s when it was emerging from world war and recession and finding its feet as a cosmopolitan community with pretensions to economic leadership. This is one of the first books I ever read about Vancouver history and it remains a favourite.

By Ed Starkins,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Who Killed Janet Smith? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Literary Nonfiction. New Edition as part City of Vancouver's Legacy Book Project, with foreword by historian Daniel Francis. WHO KILLED JANEY SMITH? examines one of the most infamous and still unsolved murder cases in Canadian history: the 1924 murder of twenty-two-year-old Scottish nursemaid Janet Smith. Originally published in 1984, and out of print for over a decade, this tale of intrigue, racism, privilege, and corruption in high places is a true-crime recreation that reads like a complex thriller.

Anvil Press is pleased to be reissuing this title as part of the City of Vancouver's Legacy Book Project. This new edition…


Book cover of Stanley Park's Secret

Daniel Francis Why did I love this book?

The secret of the title refers to the fact that Vancouver’s most famous landmark, Stanley Park, was home to many Indigenous people before they were dispossessed and removed from the park following the creation of the city. Jean Barman is one of British Columbia’s leading historians and she combines her skill as a researcher with many hours of conversation with descendants of the original families to write a path-breaking book. Reading it was a watershed moment in my own understanding of the city.

By Jean Barman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stanley Park's Secret as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Finalist for 2006 BC Book Prize - Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize

Shortlisted for George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in B.C. Writing and Publishing

Each year, over eight million people visit Stanley Park, a 400-hectare (1000-acre) haven of beauty that offers a backdrop of majestic cedars and firs and an environment teeming with wildlife just steps from the sidewalks and skyscrapers of Vancouver. But few visitors stop to contemplate the secret past of British Columbia's most popular tourist destination.

Officially opened in 1888, Stanley Park was born alongside the city of Vancouver, so it is easy to assume that the…


Book cover of Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960

Daniel Francis Why did I love this book?

Purvey and Belshaw are a husband-and-wife team of academics who know how to spin a great story for a general audience. Their book is an account of the “noir era” in the city, roughly 1930 to 1960. It is inspired by the black and white photographs of crime scenes and shadowy streetscapes that appeared in the daily press of the period. Reading it is like revelling in an old gangster movie. Amply illustrated.

By Diane Purvey, John Belshaw,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Vancouver Noir as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Literary Nonfiction. Photography. Vancouver Sun books list: "30 best reads from B.C. and beyond". It was an era of gambling, smuggling rings, grifters, police corruption, bootleggers, brothels, murders, and more. It was also a time of intensified concern with order, conformity, structure, and restrictions. VANCOUVER NOIR provides a fascinating insight into life in the Terminal City, noir-style.

These are visions of the city, both of what it was and what some of its citizens hoped it would either become or conversely cease to be. The photographs—most of which look like stills from period movies featuring detectives with chiselled features, tough…


Book cover of Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History

Daniel Francis Why did I love this book?

Stanley Park occupies such a giant place in the city’s imagination. Most Vancouverites well remember the devastating windstorm that blew through the city in 2006 – it tore down several trees in my own neighbourhood and scared me witless – leveling great swathes of the park. Historian Sean Kheraj uses the storm as a jumping-off point to reflect on the park’s history and its complicated relationship with the citizens of the city.

By Sean Kheraj,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Inventing Stanley Park as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In early December 2006, a powerful windstorm ripped through Vancouver's Stanley Park. The storm transformed the city's most treasured landmark into a tangle of splintered trees and shattered a decades-old vision of the park as timeless virgin wilderness. In Inventing Stanley Park, Sean Kheraj traces how the tension between popular expectations of idealized nature and the volatility of complex ecosystems helped transform the landscape of one of the world's most famous urban parks. This beautifully illustrated book not only depicts the natural and cultural forces that shaped the park's landscape, it also examines the roots of our complex relationship with…


Book cover of Along the No. 20 Line

Daniel Francis Why did I love this book?

This unusual book is a tour through the working-class city in the middle of the last century. This is a portrait of Vancouver when working people occupied the waterfront, instead of glittering condo towers. Knight imagines taking a trip on the old No.20 streetcar that once ran the length of the city’s eastside waterfront, painting an evocative portrait of the mills, docks, flophouses, and beer parlours that occupied the strip. Then he turns the book over to a series of personal reminiscences from men and women who called the neighbourhood home. Vancouver prides itself today on being a world-class destination for the global super-rich. This is where it came from.

By Rolf Knight,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Along the No. 20 Line as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Along the No. 20 Line, Rolf Knight takes the reader on a tour through working class East Vancouver of a century ago.

Knight's "through line" is literally a line: the old No. 20 Streetcar Line that ran between downtown Vancouver and the present day neighbourhood of the Pacific National Exhibition. From 1892 to 1949, when it was shut down and replaced by the No. 20 Granville / Victoria Drive bus, the No. 20 line took thousands of Vancouverites back and forth from their East Van homes to their jobs along the waterfront, on the docks, in mills, factories and…


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Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

Book cover of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

Gabrielle Robinson Author Of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Retired english professor

Gabrielle's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Gabrielle found her grandfather’s diaries after her mother’s death, only to discover that he had been a Nazi. Born in Berlin in 1942, she and her mother fled the city in 1945, but Api, the one surviving male member of her family, stayed behind to work as a doctor in a city 90% destroyed.

Gabrielle retraces Api’s steps in the Berlin of the 21st century, torn between her love for the man who gave her the happiest years of her childhood and trying to come to terms with his Nazi membership, German guilt, and political responsibility.

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

What is this book about?

"This is not a book I will forget any time soon."
Story Circle Book Reviews

Moving and provocative, Api's Berlin Diaries offers a personal perspective on the fall of Berlin 1945 and the far-reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich.

After her mother's death, Robinson was thrilled to find her beloved grandfather's war diaries-only to discover that he had been a Nazi.

The award-winning memoir shows Api, a doctor in Berlin, desperately trying to help the wounded in cellars without water or light. He himself was reduced to anxiety and despair, the daily diary his main refuge. As Robinson retraces Api's…


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