The Winners – Fredrik Backman

This fabulous and long (670 pages) book concludes a trilogy: previous books were Beartown and Us Against You. Backman’s writing is both heart-warming and heart-wrenching. Two remote forest towns (in Sweden but could be Canada) are intense rivals in hockey and politics. There are two funerals, impending violence and intimidation, and a ferocious summer storm. Backman’s writing is often philosophical: what it means to experience fear, for example. Be warned, the story is very emotional with complicated relationships, especially within families; expect to experience extreme sadness (and tears) when confronting loyalty, friendship and loss.

This Is How We Love – Lisa Moore

Ms. Moore is a very fine writer (February, Caught) but this is her best book to date. A multi-generational story set in St. John’s creates a superb relationship book, of mothers mostly and children who are loved, neglected, lost and re-found. What makes a family? Do we ever really choose who we love? Warning: there is violence, a stabbing. And much of the story takes place in a legendary winter storm, a snow-mageddon! Overall: a rich tapestry of the sacrifice, pain and joy of loving, for tour-de-force storytelling.

Jones – Neil Smith

Abi and Eli are siblings, Abi the elder by two years. They share a special communicative relationship, more typical in twins. Their story concerns growing up in a dysfunctional family; in fact, family is described as the f-word. This is a difficult book to describe, other than it is wonderfully written and is highly recommended albeit with a warning that there is violence and abusive parental behaviour. Some dreadful actions are balanced with amazing humour. The outcome is absolutely stunning in its complexity and honesty. Note: I have just heard Neil Smith speak twice at Calgary’s WorldFest, making it even more important to read this book.

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.