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.

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.

Dual Citizens – Alix Ohlin

Regular readers of this book blog know that I have a specific affection for introspective relationship books. This book by Ms. Ohlin is a perfect read, in my opinion. The story enters on two sisters, Lark and Robin, from their early childhood in Montreal and their complicated relationship with their mother Marianne, to adulthood in New York and the Laurentians. Lark is the main character, someone who hopes that silence will produce invisibility. The story contains vivid descriptions of art, music and film, motherhood and even wolves. The writing is divine; highly recommended.

An American Wife – Tayari Jones

An American Wife - Tayari JonesMs. Jones has written a superb relationship book. Celestial and Roy are newlyweds but Roy is wrongfully imprisoned and so goes to jail for 5 years. In Roy’s absence, Celestial’s relationship with Andre, a lifelong friend, is strengthened. So this is about a 3-way relationship with one of the participants, Roy, absent in prison for much of the story. The resolution to this complicated story is breathtaking.

The Affairs of the Falcons – Melissa Rivera

A compelling story of a Peruvian family displaced to New York as undocumented illegals. This is a relationship book that highlights a well-known fact that all relationships can be complicated, but none more that under the pressure of living illegally – how can Ana provide housing, food and shelter for her family? The displaced South Americans all watch Spanish soap operas on TV, but their own lives are infinitely more complicated than the TV plots. The essential question: what will you do to protect your family? This is an especially topical book given the current immigration chaos in the United States.

Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver previously wrote the marvellous The Poisonwood Bible. Her new book has two story lines, about people who live in the same house in New Jersey: one family in 1874 and a contemporary family in 2012. Both stories involve dealing with hardships. In 2012, the issue is economic instability and insecurity (making me think of some classic Lionel Shriver books). In 1874, a biology teacher is conflicted by the controversy about Darwin versus traditional religion. The way Kingsolver links the alternating family stories is masterful and her knowledge of biology is exceptional. This is a very interesting worthwhile read.