The First Time Lauren Paling Died – Alyson Rudd

An intriguing speculative fiction story set in 1970-80s England. When Lauren dies accidentally at age 13, she reappears in an alternate reality; new lives also begin for her parents. Lauren has glimpses of her former lives, that she has slightly different mothers, for example. By her third life, these glimpses of her previous two lives become increasingly disturbing. This is an imaginative look at loss and grief.

Empire of Wild – Cherie Dimaline

Brilliant story-telling about a Metis woman’s search for her husband, a quest complicated by the sinister presence of a rogarou, a man/dog monster. And there is a travelling missionary tent show using the historical role of religious conversion to steal land and resources from Indigenous people. Finally, the book becomes a flat-out thriller. Very strong writing, better than The Marrow Thieves.

Five Wives – Joan Thomas

Ms. Thomas is an undiscovered treasure, a Canadian writer living in Winnipeg. In fact, her writing reminds me of Carol Shields (high praise). This book takes place in 1956. Five evangelist men heed a call from God to become missionaries in Ecuador, to convert a reclusive war-like tribe, the Waroani. There is an absolute belief in the righteousness of their divine calling and that God will protect them. In reality, all five men are killed quickly after contact with the Waorani. Much of the perspective in this story of martyrdom is from the viewpoint of the accompanying wives, their willingness to travel to Ecuador with a complex mix of enthusiasm and fear and then how they cope in the aftermath with understandable disillusionment but with an acceptance of fate. There is also a fascinating character, Rachel who is the unmarried sister of one of the missionary men. Thomas’ writing is insightful and her prose is beautiful.

Normal People – Sally Rooney

This is a superbly-written relationship book. The story covers four years in the lives of Connell and Marianne, one year at high school in the west of Ireland followed by University at Trinity College in Dublin. Rooney’s writing illustrates perfectly that relationships are complicated even between two people with undeniable chemistry, complications by miscommunication and misperception of feelings. There is also emotional paralysis by expectations of inadequacy and not belonging. Connell and Marianne are very different people from different backgrounds, resulting in feelings of isolation and disconnection. This is a great book, better than her first book Conversations With Friends.

Olive Again – Elizabeth Strout

This is a sublime sequel to Ms. Strout’s exquisite Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteredge.  Olive remains a somewhat difficult, direct, honest but unfiltered and often irascible character. Her relationship with her second husband, her son from her first marriage, and the townspeople in a seaside town in Maine are, not surprisingly, complicated but entertaining. The stories show a delightful ordinariness of people. And finally, the book has a powerful treatise on ageing and (the lack of) self-awareness. A superb read.

The Difference – Marina Endicott

Although I generally do not read much historical fiction (Washington Black is an obvious exception to this statement), Ms. Endicott is just an excellent storyteller. The book has two parts. The first is an around-the-world journey by a sailing ship in 1911-12. Two disparate sisters are on this long sea journey, 12 year-old Kay and her much older sister Thea who is married to the ship’s captain. Kay is temperamental and impetuous but is a keen observer; she is also tormented by memories of her early childhood in Alberta where her stern father ran a Residential School. After two miscarriages at sea, Thea “acquires” young Micronesian boy they name Aren, an exchange for four tins of tobacco. The second part of the book takes place 10 years later at the sister’s home in Nova Scotia. Predictably Aren does not fit in so Kay ranges for a second sea trip back to the island of his origin. The writing is enchanting; a description of a mid-Pacific eclipse is breathtaking. This is a powerful story about differences, especially those that cannot be overcome.

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.

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.