Hey, Good Luck Out There – Georgia Toews

Full disclosure: Georgia is the daughter of Miriam so great writing may be inherited! This first novel is a gritty story about substance abuse, specifically alcoholism. There is no supportive network for the un-named young woman, not in the 30-day rehab program, not in post-rehab life: mean girls abound throughout. There is a telling phrase on page 107: “I didn’t want to lie, or tell the truth”, a telling dilemma. This is a solitary struggle. What happens when one is alone in a war with an intrusive inner creature? This is a compelling look at someone both vulnerable and brazen.

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands – Kate Beaton

Ms. Beaton left her Cape Breton home in 2005, to work in the Alberta Oil Sands to pay off her University student loans. The stark black & white drawings in this graphic novel illustrate perfectly her loneliness and isolation, often dealing with overt misogyny in a hyper-masculine environment. And the environmental degradation and rampant capitalism amplify the human cost to the workers. Overall, a compelling coming-of-age narrative.

We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies – Tsering Yangzom Lama

This very impressive debut novel is Giller short-listed. Two sisters, Lhamo and Tenkyi, flee the Chinese invasion of Tibet to resurface in Nepal in the 1960s. Fifty years later, Lhamo’s daughter Dolma is living in Toronto with Tenkyi. This is a beautifully written book about female relationships, a truly epic story of displacement and survival, exile and loss.

Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted – Suleika Jaouad

At age 22, Suleika is diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. What follows are three years of brutal treatments: extensive chemotherapy, an experimental clinical trial, and a bone marrow transplant. The second half of this honest and insightful book details her “survival”, the transition back to the real world. Her coping strategy is to undertake a 15,000-mile road trip to visit those who sustained her when she was very ill. Cancer forces people to face mortality, and emotions are complicated and often conflicted because suffering makes you selfish. Suleika has to imagine a future that includes anger and fear; her writing is brutally honest and courageous. Thanks Sarah, for this recommendation.

This Is How We Love – Lisa Moore

Ms. Moore is a very fine writer (February, Caught) but this is her best book to date. A multi-generational story set in St. John’s creates a superb relationship book, of mothers mostly and children who are loved, neglected, lost and re-found. What makes a family? Do we ever really choose who we love? Warning: there is violence, a stabbing. And much of the story takes place in a legendary winter storm, a snow-mageddon! Overall: a rich tapestry of the sacrifice, pain and joy of loving, for tour-de-force storytelling.

Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead – Emily Austin

Gilda suffers from paralyzing anxiety with chronic panic attacks producing disjointed thought patterns. In short, her life is a messy disaster. And then she, a lesbian atheist, accidentally gets a receptionist job in a Catholic Church where she becomes obsessed with the death of her predecessor. The author of this first novel successfully navigates a tricky balance between hilarious events and some truly pathetic behaviour, so a story of angst and uncertain redemption.

Jones – Neil Smith

Abi and Eli are siblings, Abi the elder by two years. They share a special communicative relationship, more typical in twins. Their story concerns growing up in a dysfunctional family; in fact, family is described as the f-word. This is a difficult book to describe, other than it is wonderfully written and is highly recommended albeit with a warning that there is violence and abusive parental behaviour. Some dreadful actions are balanced with amazing humour. The outcome is absolutely stunning in its complexity and honesty. Note: I have just heard Neil Smith speak twice at Calgary’s WorldFest, making it even more important to read this book.

Should We Stay Or Should We Go – Lionel Shriver

In 1991 at the age of 51, Cyril and Kay make a pact: to avoid the ravages of old age, they will jointly commit suicide at age 80. Now in March 2020, it is decision time. Ms. Shriver thoughtfully and comprehensively provides 12 possible outcomes. What if one opts out? What if cryogenics delivers then into a future strange new world? As usual, Shriver addresses serious themes with characteristic scenarios that may be touching but often hilarious, with contemporary issues like Brexit and the pandemic. Highly recommended.