The Robber Bride – Margaret Atwood

Simply put, this is a brilliant book, one of Atwood’s best. Three women (Tony, Charis and Roz) are each linked to Zenia, a brilliant and beautiful woman who is manipulative and ruthless. Over three decades, Zenia exerts considerable damage by creating really toxic relationships, but all three women remain in thrall, under a spell, beguiled. Even though Zenia’s lies and cons become obvious she somehow retains their sympathy while betraying their trust and treating male partners as loot. Fantastic story-telling.

Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

Elaine, a middle-aged painter who lives in Vancouver, returns to Toronto (where she grew up) for a retrospective show of her paintings. This causes her to reminisce about her life. The entire book is great but for me, the first 1/3 is perfect. Atwood wonderfully captures the relationships between 8- to 10-year-olds, alternating between friendships and toxic competitions. School with corporal punishments and skipping grades, shopping and shoplifting things at Woolworths. And how children acquire (mis)information in an era when parental communication was non-existent. Another gem.

Lady Oracle – Margaret Atwood

This is another literary prize book with some inspired comic events like joining Brownies as a child. The core of the story is about split identities; Joan was fat as a child and then transforms Ito a slim attractive version of herself. Jean also writes “Costume Gothic” books (aka Harlequin Romances) under a pseudonym. Many examples of this writing are included: Redmond is described as having rapacious lips, thinks that “he’d become tired of the extravagance of his wife Felicia: of her figure that spread like crabgrass, her hair that spread like fire, her mind that spread like pubic lice”! Wow. In contrast to this florid prose, Atwood’s classic phrasings like “the joy of self-righteous recrimination” are a joy to read. Joan even acquires another identity as a serious author of poetry so her personality is split further. And there are ill-fated relationships with men and blackmail. This book is a delightful pleasure to read.

Songs For The End Of The World – Saleema Nawaz

Previously Ms. Nawaz wrote the very fine Bread And Bone.This new novel, researched and written between 2013-2019, is uncannily about a novel coronavirus pandemic, so eerily relevant to today’s world. The storyline involves multiple characters with interacting stories; the pandemic timeline (August-December 2020) is supplemented with some backstory chapters. The key feature is the focus on how humans cope with a pandemic crisis. An attractive aspect of the writing is that it is philosophical rather than sensational. There are graphic descriptions of the worst of times: disintegration of civil society, the irrationality of scapegoating, racial profiling, the exacerbation of co-existing problems like economic inequalities. But there is also the best of times: life goes on, people exhibit resilience. The writing is exceptional, Atwood-like in quality of describing mood when the black cloud of a pandemic lurks everywhere. Highly recommended, especially when we are experiencing our own pandemic crisis. Sarah, thanks for advising me that the e-book was available for purchase now; the paper book will be published in August.

We Have Always Been Here – Samra Habib

A Canada Reads (now postponed) contender: This is a very well-written and powerful memoir about identity and belonging, but more specifically about the cost of hiding your identity, initially as a member of a minority and persecuted Ahmadi Muslim sect in Pakistan. Then as a new immigrant in Canada, she is subject to racism and bullying. Finally, there is also the poignant issue of her being a queer Muslim, yet another secret identity. Highly recommended.

That’s My Baby – Frances Itani

Ms. Itani has written two superb books about an Ontario community coping with the aftermath of WWI, Deafening (2003) and Tell (2011). This story is about Hanova who learns in 1958 on her 18th birthday that she was adopted as a child. Itani’s exquisite writing is subtle and expressive: the beauty of ordinariness (much like Carole Shields and Alice Munro). Her description of a trip to a dance hall is perfect. Hanora’s life during WWII and her subsequent considerable success as a writer is a major focus of the book, along with her quest for information about her birth parents. Itani’s impeccable writing covers diverse topics like art and music; she is a national literary treasure.

The Ticking Heart – Andrew Kaufman

This is a wildly imaginative book: where to begin? For starters, there is an Epiphany Detective Agency, a Library of Blank Pages and clever acronyms like NEED (Never Ever Enough District). The story is philosophical with questions about the function of the human heart (spoiler alert: true love) and the downside of hope. Overall, a magical read.

 

Amy notes; he wrote what is one of my favourite books of all time, All My Friends are Superheroes.