Machine Without Horses – Helen Humphreys

Machine Without Horses - Helen HumphreysHumphreys is a great writer (Nocturne, The Evening Chorus, The Lost Garden). Her new book is fascinating because the first half is a personal account of her writing process: start with an idea, in this case an obituary of a reclusive Scottish woman who was a renowned salmon-fly dresser. Humphreys describes the essential questions: What is the story? Whose Story is it? How are you going to tell the story? The second half of the book is the imagined life of the Scottish woman; very entertaining.

Tilly and the Crazy Eights – Monique Gray Smith

Tilly and the Crazy Eights - Monique Gray SmithSmith’s first book about Tilly (Tilly: A story of Hope and Resilience) was largely about recovery from addictions. This second book has Tilly driving eight Indigenous elders from Canada to a pow-wow in Albuquerque. Along the way, each of the elders has a bucket-list destination. There is both laughter and tears in this unashamedly sentimental book with significant insights into Indigenous spirituality. The spectre of residential school abuse looms in the background of some of the elders, but the story is mainly about resilience.

 

Amy notes; we saw her speak at the Vancouver Writers Fest.

Beartown – Fredrik Backman

Beartown - Fredrik BackmanSimply put, this is a superb book. The setting is universal, a small forest town in decline, where all the town’s hopes and aspirations are placed on the 17-year old shoulders of the boy’s hockey team. Importantly, the story is so much more than sports competition, the emotions of winning and losing. In fact, winning in hockey is the benchmark for success of the entire town; in essence, the future of the town depends on winning at hockey so the stakes are incredibly high. And  then a sexual assault tears the town apart. The book explores with great insight many key relationships: coach and team, teammates pledging unwavering loyalty, husbands and wives and their children. It is unexpected to have a discussion on sorrow and longing but the book is rich in philosophical musings. Backman also uses foreshadowing very effectively. Highly highly recommended.

An Ocean of Minutes – Thea Lim

An Ocean of Minutes - Thea LimThis Giller short-listed first novel is fabulous. The setting is 1980. To obtain medical treatment for her partner who has been stricken with a virulent flu, Polly agrees to time travel 12 years into the future to work for the TimeRaiser Corporation to rebuild America. So this is debt bondage, a form of indentured labour. The issue of time is considered in two ways: more time for her partner and time in the sense of memory. Will Polly be reunited with her partner Frank in 12 years, when he will have aged and she will not? The future is decidedly dystopian and so this book successfully melds several genres: what will you do to survive a pandemic, the dislocating effects of time travel forward and the return to your home, social issues of income inequality, the power of memory and the complexity of enduring love. This is just excellent story-telling.

There There – Tommy Orange

There There - Tommy OrangeOrange is one of a group of impressive Indigenous authors introduced to me during the Calgary Word Fest. This is a superb first novel with intersecting characters assembling in Oakland for a Pow-wow. These individuals have links to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma but their Indian identity is very limited: these are urban Indians. For example, a young boy, Orvil Red Feather, learns pow-wow dancing from YouTube videos. The intersecting multi-generational story-lines can be complicated to follow sometimes because of uncertain or unknown parentage, but the culminating climax is presented powerfully. This is excellent story-telling about identity, violence and recovery, of belonging and un-belonging, loss and hope.

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore – Kim Fu

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore - Kim FuPreviously, Ms. Fu wrote the very fine For Today I Am A Boy, and this new book is even better. Five young girls (ages 9-11) are stranded in the woods after an overnight kayaking trip, producing some “Lord Of The Flies” crises. This narrative is interspersed with the subsequent lives of the survivors: how are lives shaped by an early traumatic event? How are friendships tested by cruelties and betrayals? This is evocative writing and is highly recommended.

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor TowlesIn 1922, Count Alexander Roskov, a member of the Russian aristocracy, is declared an enemy of the state and subjected to “house” arrest in the Hotel Metropol. The description of his demeanour and manners is exquisite and impeccable, hardly surprising for an author whose previous book was Rules of Civility. Alexander creates new and changing relationships with individuals who work in the hotel over the next 32 years. The prose illustrates beautifully the importance of virtues like loyalty. The Soviet Union undergoes dramatic change in this post-revolution period, so Alexander has to be adaptable. The most impactful change occurs when he becomes guardian of a 6-year-old little girl. This is a wonderful book with masterful writing, so a joy to read.

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.