The Great Alone – Kristen Hannah

The most important character in this novel is Alaska: majestic beauty coupled with destructive danger. Be warned, Alaska can kill with brutal cold dark winters and savage wild animals. The key plot element in this book is the people that Alaska attracts: rugged individuals, survivalists and some crackpots. The Allbright family travels to Alaska in 1974, woefully unprepared for the harshness of life and survival. What follows is an angst-filed drama that sometimes can approach a soap opera story but the context of Alaska overcomes some plot issues.

The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin

This intriguing novel begins in 1969 when four siblings (13, 11, 9 and 7 years-old) consult a psychic who allegedly tells them individually the day of their death. What follows is a narrative of each sibling that asks a series of questions. What is the nature of belief? Can fate be pre-ordained? What is the line between destiny and choice? Is there a link between reality and illusion? Is there real magic? At its core, this is a family love story even though the siblings appear to be remarkably different, creating complicated complex characters. This is very imaginative story-telling.

Reproduction – Ian Williams

This is a very interesting first novel that is a Giller finalist. The story is about family, but family that is invented by mostly non-biological relationships. There is much dysfunction, some of it quite hilarious. The two adult men, Edgar and Oliver, are particularly reprehensible. The form if the writing is original and works very well until the final section where the literal subtext becomes annoying. Still, this is an insightful story about unconventional people.

The Dutch House – Ann Patchett

This is a deceptively simple and subtle book about family. The key characters are siblings, Danny and Maeve. There are some astonishing acts of cruelty in their early life but also acts of transcendent kindness. Danny is someone who lacks introspection – he commits to a task like learning chemistry with dogged determination; liking the subject is irrelevant. Unfortunately, he applies the same approach to his relationships, i.e. his wife, so love and happiness are non-factors in his relationships. His true happiness is only expressed to and with Maeve. Consequently, forgiveness is difficult for him, a fact that will complicate his life. Like most of Patchett’s writing, this is very fine story-telling.

Watching You Without Me – Lynn Coady

Karen, recently divorced, returns to her childhood home in Nova Scotia after her mother’s death, to care for her developmentally-disabled sister. Karen is understandably over-whelmed with grief and the difficult care of her sister. Thus she gratefully accepts extra assistance from Trevor, one of her sisters care-givers. So she is susceptible to manipulation and Trevor is a master manipulator. Accordingly, this is a masterful and entirely creepy character study of human frailty.

Daughter of Family G – Ami McKay

Simply put, this is an amazing book. Ms. McKay is an excellent novelist (The Birth House, The Virgin Cure, Witches of New York). Her new book is a memoir with a unique context. Her great-great-aunt, Pauline Gross, confided to a pathology professor in 1895 that she expected to die young because she had observed a very strong family history of cancer. This statement led to a cancer genealogy study that ultimately resulted in the discovery of a gene mutation that creates a devastating cancer susceptibility, now known as Lynch Syndrome. Part of the book imagines the lives of Pauline and sister Tillie, the direct ancestor of Ms. McKay. Along this history, there are some dedicated physician-scientists but the ugly reality of eugenics is part of this quest. Much of the book is deeply personal since Ms. McKay also has the Lynch Syndrome mutation. What thought process informs the decision to undergo genetic screening? How does one live with this knowledge, with implications for your children (there is a 50% risk of transmitting the mutation)? And finally, there is Ami’s deeply moving and loving relationship with her mother so this is also a memoir of love and fate, tremendous family resilience, the link between the genes we inherit and the life we choose. This is a fantastic read.

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club – Megan Gail Coles

A remarkable first novel that is a Giller finalist. The title page has the following warning: “Contains scenes of sexual, physical and psychological violence”, so reader be warned – this is not an easy read. The book is a gritty unforgiving character study of people in St. John’s Newfoundland, in part during a bitter February blizzard. There are lies and violence and much deception. The main charactes are for the most part completely unhappy. So this is a bleak look at a subset of contemporary society lonely despondent people without much hoe or optimism. I suggest that readers be aware of their own psychological mindset before embarking on this book; it is a rewarding story notwithstanding  these limitations.