What Strange Paradise – Omar El Akkad

A Giller short-listed book about Amir, a 9-year-old Syrian refugee, the sole survivor of a shipwreck who is washed up on a Greek Island. He evades capture by local authorities and is rescued by Vanna, a 15-year-old resident of the island. What follows is a strange and dangerous odyssey by two children who do not speak a common language. They are pursued by Colonel Kethros, an implacable authority figure (think Javert). The writing is exceptional, describing both hope and despair, empathy and indifference.

The Son of the House – Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onubia

Also Giller short-listed: a Nigerian story of two women, Nwabula and Julie; their two seemingly independent lives intersect dramatically at the end of the book. The story begins in the 1970s, and then jumps forward to 2011.The book has two strong features. First, there is the Nigerian context, with both exotic and frustratingly corrupts aspects. But mostly this is about the resilience of women in an intense human drama.

Ridgerunner – Gil Adamson

This is a beautifully written book set in 1917. After the death of his mother, 12-year-old Jack is delivered to the care of Sister Beatrice while his father, William Moreland, leaves to raise money to support Jack. However, Moreland’s only skill is as a thief; some of his escapades are Butch Cassidy-like. Much of the setting is the Banff-Lake Louise corridor with the World War in the background. The characters are rich, and the depictions of the natural world are breath-taking. Hopefully, this book will be a strong Giller contender. Ms. Adamson previously wrote the well–regarded The Outlander.

Polar Vortex – Shani Mootoo

This is a superb introspective relationship story. Priya and Alexandra have a six-year marriage that is disrupted by the impending visit of Prakash, a long-time friend of Priya’s. What are Prakash’s motives for this visit? Why has Priya been withholding information on the significance of this friendship from Alex? And why can memories between friends be so selectively remembered and interpreted? A bit gloomy but overall an excellent read (on the Giller long-list).

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.

An Ocean of Minutes – Thea Lim

An Ocean of Minutes - Thea LimThis Giller short-listed first novel is fabulous. The setting is 1980. To obtain medical treatment for her partner who has been stricken with a virulent flu, Polly agrees to time travel 12 years into the future to work for the TimeRaiser Corporation to rebuild America. So this is debt bondage, a form of indentured labour. The issue of time is considered in two ways: more time for her partner and time in the sense of memory. Will Polly be reunited with her partner Frank in 12 years, when he will have aged and she will not? The future is decidedly dystopian and so this book successfully melds several genres: what will you do to survive a pandemic, the dislocating effects of time travel forward and the return to your home, social issues of income inequality, the power of memory and the complexity of enduring love. This is just excellent story-telling.

Songs For The Cold Of Heart – Eric Dupont

Songs For The Cold Of Heart - Eric DupontThis Giller short-listed book by a Quebec author is hard to describe. It is epic story-telling told with great detail, so there is much content about many many topics. Sometimes I wished that some of the content had been edited out as this is a very long book. Part of the book takes place in Quebec and it is very French-Canadian, with complex family dynamics, wicked nuns, etc. The last half takes place in Berlin and Rome, albeit with characters that are linked by family to the first part of the book. The Lamontagne family is always surprising; the writing is imaginative and often dark.