Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

Washington Black - Esi EdugyanWashington Black is an 11 year old slave in Barbados in 1832; his life is cruel. A chance encounter with the brother (nicknamed Titch) of his Master changes his life entirely. In fact, one of the strongest features of this impeccably written historical fiction is that it is impossible to predict how the story will progress. Washington makes an incredible escape from Barbados with Titch, and then makes journeys to the Arctic, Nova Scotia and England over the next 7 years. The relationship between Wash and Titch unfolds in an unexpected fashion, and there are rich details about marine biology and painting. This is tour-de-force writing from the Giller Prize-winning author of Half Blood Blues, who will undoubtedly be a strong contender for this year’s Giller.

Warlight – Michael Ondaatje

Warlight - Michael OndaatjeFull disclosure: I have not always been a fan of Ondaatje’s writing; I thought I was never going to get through The English Patient. This book is entirely different because it is enjoyably readable. Warlight is a post-WWII story of Nathaniel, abandoned by his parents at the age of 14 to undergo a bizarre, slightly delinquent upbringing by “guardians”. Ondaatje is a master of withholding in terms of story, so the book essentially is a slow reveal. Why did his mother Rose leave Nathaniel and his sister in the care of a truly odd set of characters, nicknamed The Moth and The Darter? What role did Rose play in the War? There is much left unstated or just left to our wonderment. Masterful writing.

All Things Consoled – Elizabeth Hay

All Things Consoled - Elizabeth HayThis book is subtitled “A Daughter’s Memoir”, and chronicles the last years of her parent’s lives after relocating from their home to London to a seniors residence in Ottawa. Ms. Hay’s wonderful prose describes her aged mother: “her loose skin hung off her like silken parchment … (her) bare arms were as pitiable as a ballerinas”.  The decline in the health of her parents is described in depressing and brutally honest detail, proving once again that growing old is not for sissies. Ms. Hay’s relationships with her parents (and her siblings) is examined thoughtfully, carefully and critically, in particular her often fraught relationship with her tempestuous father. This is very fine writing, introspective and compelling.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson

Transcription - Kate AtkinsonMs. Atkinson has written an attractive spy thriller and mystery, set in 1940 and 1951. Given Atkinson’s past books, then it is no surprise that the story unfolds in a non-linear format. Juliet is recruited to MI5, and the resulting story is very English with regular tea providing comfort and solace to characters named Peregrine and Prendergast. Much like George Smiley in the legendary Le Carre novels, people in Atkinson’s story appear normal and ordinary, but nothing will be as it seems. This is a very entertaining book with some well-timed plot twists.

Lethal White – Robert Galbraith (pseudonym for JK Rowling)

Lethal White - Robert GalbraithThe fourth Cormoran Strike book has a complex plot and, as in previous books, the evolving relationship between Cormoran and his associate Robin is central to the story. In many ways, this is a superb procedural book: how are clues discovered and interpreted? The procedural emphasis is reminiscent of Michael Connelly’s detective Harry Bosch. But the real joy in this Galbraith book is how Cormoran and Robin interact, how ideas and theories are discussed and debated (much like Inspector Lynley and Havers in the E. George mysteries). Both characters are completely dissimilar and have some significant human frailties that are often endearing. Finally the choice of certain words requires the use of a dictionary, a delicious practise that I find completely satisfying. Violence is minimal; this is an excellent book about plot and motive.

Women Talking – Miriam Toews

Women Talking - Miriam ToewsA fictionalized account of a true story, that women in a strict Mennonite community in Bolivia were repeatedly sexually assaulted while drugged, by men in their own community. The women are having introspective existential conversations: to stay (and fight) or leave? They also discuss moral issues of faith and forgiveness. The only periodic male point-of-view is the transcriptionist who is translating their conversations into English and who occasionally offers comment. The context is a conservative patriarchal society where women have no rights. They want safety for their children, the ability to practise their faith and to think for themselves. Powerful writing.

Stray City – Chelsey Johnson

Stray City - Chelsey JohnsonThis book was a chance discovery at the library, so was read without expectations. Therefore the pleasure of reading a very fine first novel was palpable. Andrea leaves a strict childhood in Nebraska to be immersed in Portland’s lesbian life. A bad breakup results in a brief hookup with a man, and a pregnancy results. Much of the book details the difficulty of relationships, in particular the idealized fantasy of a relationship. There are funny parts and sad portions but the core of the book is about the family that we choose, for an excellent story.