The Great Alone – Kristen Hannah

The most important character in this novel is Alaska: majestic beauty coupled with destructive danger. Be warned, Alaska can kill with brutal cold dark winters and savage wild animals. The key plot element in this book is the people that Alaska attracts: rugged individuals, survivalists and some crackpots. The Allbright family travels to Alaska in 1974, woefully unprepared for the harshness of life and survival. What follows is an angst-filed drama that sometimes can approach a soap opera story but the context of Alaska overcomes some plot issues.

The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin

This intriguing novel begins in 1969 when four siblings (13, 11, 9 and 7 years-old) consult a psychic who allegedly tells them individually the day of their death. What follows is a narrative of each sibling that asks a series of questions. What is the nature of belief? Can fate be pre-ordained? What is the line between destiny and choice? Is there a link between reality and illusion? Is there real magic? At its core, this is a family love story even though the siblings appear to be remarkably different, creating complicated complex characters. This is very imaginative story-telling.

Reproduction – Ian Williams

This is a very interesting first novel that is a Giller finalist. The story is about family, but family that is invented by mostly non-biological relationships. There is much dysfunction, some of it quite hilarious. The two adult men, Edgar and Oliver, are particularly reprehensible. The form if the writing is original and works very well until the final section where the literal subtext becomes annoying. Still, this is an insightful story about unconventional people.

The Dutch House – Ann Patchett

This is a deceptively simple and subtle book about family. The key characters are siblings, Danny and Maeve. There are some astonishing acts of cruelty in their early life but also acts of transcendent kindness. Danny is someone who lacks introspection – he commits to a task like learning chemistry with dogged determination; liking the subject is irrelevant. Unfortunately, he applies the same approach to his relationships, i.e. his wife, so love and happiness are non-factors in his relationships. His true happiness is only expressed to and with Maeve. Consequently, forgiveness is difficult for him, a fact that will complicate his life. Like most of Patchett’s writing, this is very fine story-telling.

Watching You Without Me – Lynn Coady

Karen, recently divorced, returns to her childhood home in Nova Scotia after her mother’s death, to care for her developmentally-disabled sister. Karen is understandably over-whelmed with grief and the difficult care of her sister. Thus she gratefully accepts extra assistance from Trevor, one of her sisters care-givers. So she is susceptible to manipulation and Trevor is a master manipulator. Accordingly, this is a masterful and entirely creepy character study of human frailty.

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.