Surfacing – Margaret Atwood

An early Atwood treasure from the 1970s with beautiful descriptive writing – this description off a restaurant meal is on page 1: “two restaurants which served identical grey hamburger steaks plastered with mud gravy and canned peas, watery and pallid as fish eyes, and french fries heavy with lard”. Is your mouth watering? The narrator is an un-named young woman who travels to a remote lake in Northern Quebec with three friends, to seek her missing father. There is an eerily effective transition to sinister happenings, but the true gem of the writing is the unfiltered dialog in the narrator’s head: this story is both spooky and brilliant, a must read.

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 Difference – Marina Endicott

Although I generally do not read much historical fiction (Washington Black is an obvious exception to this statement), Ms. Endicott is just an excellent storyteller. The book has two parts. The first is an around-the-world journey by a sailing ship in 1911-12. Two disparate sisters are on this long sea journey, 12 year-old Kay and her much older sister Thea who is married to the ship’s captain. Kay is temperamental and impetuous but is a keen observer; she is also tormented by memories of her early childhood in Alberta where her stern father ran a Residential School. After two miscarriages at sea, Thea “acquires” young Micronesian boy they name Aren, an exchange for four tins of tobacco. The second part of the book takes place 10 years later at the sister’s home in Nova Scotia. Predictably Aren does not fit in so Kay ranges for a second sea trip back to the island of his origin. The writing is enchanting; a description of a mid-Pacific eclipse is breathtaking. This is a powerful story about differences, especially those that cannot be overcome.

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.

Split Tooth – Tanya Tagaq

Ms. Tagaq is an Inuit throat singer and Polaris Prize winner in 2014. She can now add author to her artistic gifts. This is a remarkable first novel. There is the often difficult reality of living in Nunavut as a young person: endless summer sunshine, the dark and brutally cold winter, and human difficulties like substance and sexual abuse. And there is a magical imaginary component, sometimes based on dreams. Ms. Tagaq’s prose is accompanied by graphic poems and a few illustrations. Highly imaginative writing.