The Home for Unwanted Girls – Joanne Goodman

The Home for Unwanted Girls - Joanne GoodmanOne of the things we learned from Heather O’Neill’s very fine The Lonely Hearts Hotel was that Quebec orphanages were tough places. Goodman’s novel reinforces that reality, beginning in 1950. Even worse, the Duplessis Quebec government transferred illegitimate orphans to mental institutions in order to obtain more federal money for institutions. So this is an angst-filled story over 20 years, the mother who was forced to give up her illegitimate daughter and the daughter’s experience in horrible institutions, so be warned.

Grief Cottage – Gail Godwin

Grief Cottage - Gail GodwinSometimes a book can provide a perfect reading experience, a confluence of literary merit and also the receptivity of the reader. Godwin’s book was a perfect read for me. Marcus, an 11 year-old boy, has to live with his Great Aunt after the accidental death of his mother. His Great Aunt is a stranger, a painter who lives on a beach in South Carolina. Given the circumstances and his inherent inclinations, Marcus is wildly self-absorbed and introspective despite his young age. His journey through the summer, largely left to his own devices, is remarkable, both compelling and profound. This is a great read, see also Godwin’s previous book Flora.

Keeper n’Me – Richard Wagamese

Keeper n’Me - Richard WagameseIn the tributes to the late Richard Wagamese at literary festivals in Calgary and Vancouver, several Indigenous authors said that this book had a huge influence on their lives. Garnet Raven is a young child in an Ojibway-Anishanabe community in Northern Ontario. He is a victim of the sixties scoop, essentially a kidnapping, and so grows up without any sense of being an Indian. In fact, there are some hilarious instances of his attempts at cultural appropriation. After 20 years, he is reunited with his family and begins to lean the Indian way with an elder named Keeper. It is easy to understand why this book, published in 1993, became so important to Indigenous youth. This book should be essential reading for everyone, to appreciate a way of living in harmony with the land and the important of silence, of a slow pace of life and a solid sense of humour.

Songs For The Cold Of Heart – Eric Dupont

Songs For The Cold Of Heart - Eric DupontThis Giller short-listed book by a Quebec author is hard to describe. It is epic story-telling told with great detail, so there is much content about many many topics. Sometimes I wished that some of the content had been edited out as this is a very long book. Part of the book takes place in Quebec and it is very French-Canadian, with complex family dynamics, wicked nuns, etc. The last half takes place in Berlin and Rome, albeit with characters that are linked by family to the first part of the book. The Lamontagne family is always surprising; the writing is imaginative and often dark.

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.

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.