Good Moms On Paper – Edited by Stacy May Fowles and Jen Sookfong Lee

Twenty essays about motherhood by (obviously) women authors: struggles with work-life balance, feeling fraudulent as both mother and writer, and creative compulsion – powerful themes with insightful thoughts. Essays cover both biological and adoptive parenting, new mothers, and relationships with the essayist’s mother. Heather O’Neill writes “being a single mother working on a novel is like asking a clairvoyant to book a ticket on the Titanic – it’s a bad idea”! Highly recommended.

The Strangers – Katherena Vermette

Like the companion novel The Break, this book begins with a Trigger Warning. The Strangers are a multi-generational Metis family living in Winnipeg: the story focusses on grandmother Margaret, daughter Elsie and children Phoenix and Cedar. Powerful emotions characterize these women: anger, shame in addictions, feeling invisible. Reflecting on sad stories, Margaret concludes (page 316) that “only Indians, Metis … had sorrow built into their bones, who exchanged despair as exclusively as recipes, who had devastation after devastation after dismissal after denial woven into their skin”. Compelling sentiments in the setting of important and necessary stories – a must read for all Canadians.

A Complicated Kindness – Miriam Toews

A re-read of this brilliant 2004 book reveals themes that feature prominently in her subsequent books: family relationships, especially between sisters, and the cruelty of religious fundamentalism. Nomi is 16 years old and living a stultifying life in a strict Mennonite community characterized by sin, shame, powerlessness, fear, and punishment by silence (shunning). In short, this is a chilling portrayal of adolescent angst in an extreme context, with some inspired comic interludes – a must-read book.

Still Life – Sarah Winman

Ms. Winman writes inspired novels (When God Was a Rabbit, A Year of Marvellous Ways, Tin Man). Her new book is a love letter to Florence and to Italian life in general. There is love of art, great food and wine, and love between humans with all its complications. The lives of diverse English people are detailed beautifully over 35 years, from 1944-2009. There are some remarkably eccentric characters that constitute an extended family. This is a “must read” book.

Amy adds: one of my favourites of the year so far – she’s a favourite author.

All Adults Here – Emma Straub

This charming book is about complex family relationships – the good, bad and ugly. Astrid has three children and three grandchildren, and lives in the Hudson Valley in New York state. Astrid is somewhat closed and flinty: “She believed pets were useful only in teaching young children about death. She knew this was an unpopular opinion”. This multi-generational story is about delayed adolescence with some persistent poor decision making, but also about love and resilience. Finally, there are some inspired comic situations – highly recommended.

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry – Fredrik Backman

Elsa is a precocious almost 8-year-old who is perceived as different and thus bullied at school. Thankfully, she has a very close relationship with her 77-year-old grandmother who tells her mythical stories about the Land-of-Almost-Awake. When Elsa’s grandmother dies, Elsa receives a series of apology letters that she is directed to deliver, and so Elsa learns about her grandmother’s incredible back story. This is a brilliant book about life and death, with inspired comic moments and deeply sentimental sad situations, so both laughs and tears abound.

The Patron Saint of Liars – Ann Patchett

A re-read of Ms. Patchett’s first novel published 30 years ago was just so satisfying. When Rose learns she is pregnant, she flees a loveless marriage in California for St. Elizabeth’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Kentucky. The important context to this story is time, the 60s-70s. Rose is mysterious, someone who does exactly what she wants. A key element in this wonderful book are complex mother-daughter relationships. Highly recommended.

These Precious Days – Ann Patchett

Ms. Patchett is one of my favourite novelists (The Patron Saint of Liars, Bel Canto) but she also writes essays that previously were collected into the wonderful book This is a Story of a Happy Marriage. This is her second book of essays, some published previously in Harpers and the Atlantic. All are insightful glimpses into her life, from childhood to the current time. A favourite for me is the first essay about her three fathers, all different experiences, all with positive and negatives. Her writing is clear, focused, and honest – highly recommended.

(Amy seconds all of this!)

Mirrrorland – Carole Johnstone

 A psychological thriller that reminds me of Gone Girl. Two estranged identical twin sisters are living with repressed memories that have been replaced by childhood imagination. There is a sinister gothic family home in Edinburgh, a missing person, and many devious plot twists driven in part by clues from a mysterious source. What is real and what is imagined? Overall, a deeply satisfying story.