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.

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.

Split Tooth – Tanya Tagaq

Ms. Tagaq is an Inuit throat singer and Polaris Prize winner in 2014. She can now add author to her artistic gifts. This is a remarkable first novel. There is the often difficult reality of living in Nunavut as a young person: endless summer sunshine, the dark and brutally cold winter, and human difficulties like substance and sexual abuse. And there is a magical imaginary component, sometimes based on dreams. Ms. Tagaq’s prose is accompanied by graphic poems and a few illustrations. Highly imaginative writing.

The Magicians – Lev Grossman

Note: The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman is from a list of recommended books about magic by Erin Morgenstern, author of the fabulous The Night Circus. More than half of this first book is about a magic school but this is not Hogwarts: the school is in upper New York state and the students are older (post-high school) so they indulge in young adult activities like drinking and sex, making for complicated relationships. There are two difficulties: learning magical incantations is very hard (wands are for sissies) and there is an existential dilemma – what is the purpose of magic in a modern world? This latter issue is addressed by the young magicians entering a fantasy realm, one described in fiction books and thought to be entirely imaginary; all the magicians have read the books about the magical world of Fillory when they were young children. This is where imaginative adventures occur with violence and a significant body count. So this book offers a very different treatment of magic compared to Harry Potter books, but is equal entertaining.

Our Souls At Night – Kent Haruf

This is a short but meaningful book about two widowed people in their 70s who are willing to take a risk, to start a relationship based on gentle companionship. The storytelling has a wonderful authentic simplicity: “they ate a supper of macaroni and cheese casserole and iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing and canned green beans and bread and butter and iced tea from an old heavy glass pitcher and there was Neapolitan ice cream for dessert”.  They key feature in this book is the recognition that relationships, at any age, are complicated but especially for older people in the 70s and yet they have the courage to try, to see what happens.Thanks Karen, for this recommendation.

Priestdaddy – Patricia Lockwood

Priestdaddy - Patricia LockwoodThe author leaves her Mid-Western home at age 19 to be married but after 12 years, financial constraints forces her and her husband to return to the parental home. This gives her the opportunity to remember an unconventional upbringing: a flamboyant and charismatic guitar-playing father usually (un)dressed in only his underwear, who, by the way, is a Catholic Priest with a wife and 5 children (how can that be, you may ask?); and a long-suffering over-protective mother. There are some eye-popping childhood experiences like attending an anti-abortion rally at a very young age. Ms. Lockwood also takes this opportunity for reflection, producing a memoir that is often comic but also poignant. And for a published poet, her writing is wonderful such as this description of a church space: “The ceiling is low and the lights flicker fluorescently and emit an insect whine. The whole place smells like where coffee goes to die”. Highly recommended; thanks to Sarah’s friend Elizabeth for this recommendation.

By Chance Alone – Max Eisen

By Chance Alone - Max EisenCanada Reads winner. This poignant and powerful memoir, written by an Auschwitz survivor, in presented in three parts. First, a happy childhood in Southern Czechoslovakia. Then second, at age 15, Max and his family are transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring of 1944; he is separated from his mother and three siblings instantly who are all killed. Initially Max and his father and uncle work as slave labourers but then are separated and his father and uncle are targeted for death. Max’s survival is by chance (hence the title). He is arbitrarily selected to work in the concentration camp infirmary; this provides a unique look at how this “hospital” worked while staffed by political prisoners. The third chapter is post-liberation which is fraught with problems leading to a complicated process as a young orphan to find his way to Canada. One striking feature of the Auschwitz story is that simple survival was the over-arching imperative so Max’s psychological and emotional response to the loss of his entire family had to be suppressed. The Canada Reads success was due to three factors. First the panel proponent, Ziya Tong, was well-organized and passionate. Second, the current emergence of white supremacy (e.g. New Zealand atrocity) in the world demands an understanding of the holocaust. And the third factor was sort of reverse ageism, that Max represents a disappearing generation of Auschwitz survivors and so it is important to give this book an audience.