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.

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 Testaments – Margaret Atwood

As a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is equally compelling but with a very different tone. Whereas The Handmaid’s Tale had a single narrator (Offred), The Testaments (set 16 years later) has three voices: two very different young women, one raised in Gilead and one raised outside, and the notorious Aunt Lydia. The resulting story is less introspective with more action, thus less reactive. The seeds of dissent are outlined clearly and logically with some Machiavellian motivations. This is a page turner, a completely engrossing read.

Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

Everything Under - Daisy Johnson.jpgThis is a really excellent novel set in contemporary England. The core of the story is a complicated mother-daughter relationship but it is much more: the use of a private language and a river creature and supplemental characters. The timeline is an interesting feature of the story telling. Johnson’s writing reminds me of Sarah Winman, so high praise.

By Chance Alone – Max Eisen

By Chance Alone - Max EisenCanada Reads winner. This poignant and powerful memoir, written by an Auschwitz survivor, in presented in three parts. First, a happy childhood in Southern Czechoslovakia. Then second, at age 15, Max and his family are transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring of 1944; he is separated from his mother and three siblings instantly who are all killed. Initially Max and his father and uncle work as slave labourers but then are separated and his father and uncle are targeted for death. Max’s survival is by chance (hence the title). He is arbitrarily selected to work in the concentration camp infirmary; this provides a unique look at how this “hospital” worked while staffed by political prisoners. The third chapter is post-liberation which is fraught with problems leading to a complicated process as a young orphan to find his way to Canada. One striking feature of the Auschwitz story is that simple survival was the over-arching imperative so Max’s psychological and emotional response to the loss of his entire family had to be suppressed. The Canada Reads success was due to three factors. First the panel proponent, Ziya Tong, was well-organized and passionate. Second, the current emergence of white supremacy (e.g. New Zealand atrocity) in the world demands an understanding of the holocaust. And the third factor was sort of reverse ageism, that Max represents a disappearing generation of Auschwitz survivors and so it is important to give this book an audience.

Homes – Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah, with Winnie Yeung

Homes - Abu Baker Al RabeeahCanada Reads runner-up. Abu Bakr was born in Iraq. At the age of 9, his family relocates to Syria because of sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict, only to be swept into the Syrian civil war. The chapter headings are deceptively simple, unassuming and low-key: “May 2012: My First Massacre”. Finally, Abu Bakr’s family are accepted as refugees to Canada and so arrive in Edmonton in December 2014. Abu Baker speaks no English so his first school requirement to write a short story about his background is created by Google Translate. He then works with his ESL teacher Ms. Yeung to create this book. Thus, the literary style is basic but the simple stark prose lends itself to the telling of a profound story of survival and courage. The CR panel was influenced by the strong parental love element and the good news and hopeful ending.