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.

Empire of Wild – Cherie Dimaline

Brilliant story-telling about a Metis woman’s search for her husband, a quest complicated by the sinister presence of a rogarou, a man/dog monster. And there is a travelling missionary tent show using the historical role of religious conversion to steal land and resources from Indigenous people. Finally, the book becomes a flat-out thriller. Very strong writing, better than The Marrow Thieves.

Five Wives – Joan Thomas

Ms. Thomas is an undiscovered treasure, a Canadian writer living in Winnipeg. In fact, her writing reminds me of Carol Shields (high praise). This book takes place in 1956. Five evangelist men heed a call from God to become missionaries in Ecuador, to convert a reclusive war-like tribe, the Waroani. There is an absolute belief in the righteousness of their divine calling and that God will protect them. In reality, all five men are killed quickly after contact with the Waorani. Much of the perspective in this story of martyrdom is from the viewpoint of the accompanying wives, their willingness to travel to Ecuador with a complex mix of enthusiasm and fear and then how they cope in the aftermath with understandable disillusionment but with an acceptance of fate. There is also a fascinating character, Rachel who is the unmarried sister of one of the missionary men. Thomas’ writing is insightful and her prose is beautiful.

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club – Megan Gail Coles

A remarkable first novel that is a Giller finalist. The title page has the following warning: “Contains scenes of sexual, physical and psychological violence”, so reader be warned – this is not an easy read. The book is a gritty unforgiving character study of people in St. John’s Newfoundland, in part during a bitter February blizzard. There are lies and violence and much deception. The main charactes are for the most part completely unhappy. So this is a bleak look at a subset of contemporary society lonely despondent people without much hoe or optimism. I suggest that readers be aware of their own psychological mindset before embarking on this book; it is a rewarding story notwithstanding  these limitations.

The Innocents – Michael Crummey

Two children, Evered (maybe age 12) and sister Ada (maybe 10) are orphaned after the sudden deaths of their parents and infant sister. And they are isolated on a rocky cove somewhere on Newfoundland’s northern coast. They live in almost total isolation with only the visit of a supply ship twice a year. Crummey’s brilliant descriptions of their numerous hardships becomes a profound story of resilience. But the title of this book is perfect, as these children are total innocents because of profound ignorance through lack of adult human contact. Importantly there is the strong bond of loyalty between brother and sister which becomes complicated with the onset of puberty and emerging sexuality. This is a brilliant book that I hope will be a powerful contender for the Giller Prize.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

I first read this amazing book about 30 years ago so a re-reading was in order as a prelude to her new book The Testaments. And simply put, the Handmaid’s Tale is a masterpiece. Atwood’s writing is perfect, a slow reveal of the horrors of the Gilead revolution: the rise of totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism, the loss of women’s rights and autonomy with rampant misogyny. Handmaids are possessed by men (Of Fred = Offred) as breeders and are not taught to read! It is chilling to realize that many of the regressive features of Gilead are happening now throughout the world. Atwood is a national treasure.