The Virgins – Pamela Erens

The Virgins - Pamela ErensDonna Tartt wrote the really excellent The Secret History about college students in the 1980s. Erens has written equally wonderful story of high school students in 1979, capturing their youthful innocence that transitions to sexual awakenings and complicated physical and psychological feelings. The book features really excellent writing.

March, Volumes 1-3 – John Lewis, Andre Aydin & Nate Powell

March, Volumes 1-3 - John Lewis, Andre Aydin & NatePowellThese three graphic novels tell the story of Congressman John Lewis, an iconic hero of the American civil rights movement. The narrative is provided by Aydin and the evocative black and white drawings are by Powell. Volume 1 covers Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, leading to the struggle to de-segregate lunch counters in Nashville. Volumes 2-3 cover the intense period from 1963 (the Birmingham church bombing) to the Selma March and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The controversial politics of the civil rights movement is detailed, especially the rivalries and debates over the extent of non-violence to be utilized by the protestors, and the participation of white protestors. The stark black/white drawings are very striking when illustrating the horrible abuse and violence subjected by the authorities towards the civil rights movement. This is powerful storytelling, and timely.

The Custodian of Paradise – Wayne Johnston

The Custodian of Paradise - Wayne JohnstonJohnston previously wrote The Colony of Unrequited Dreams about Newfoundland and Joey Smallwood. This new novel is a companion story and is much better because the central character, Sheilagh Fielding (a minor character in the earlier Smallwood book) is a fabulous creation; she has a clever mind, a caustic wit and a legendary sarcastic tongue. This is a Newfoundland story from 1916 – 1943, with a New York interlude. Fielding has a knack for controversies, for courting disaster; she is, in other words, a powerful person. There is also a creepy character in the shadows known only as The Provider. Excellent storytelling; thanks Kathryn for this recommendation.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Elephant Is Completely Fine - Gail HoneymanEnjoying a book chosen from a library shelf with no prior information is a wonderful experience. This is a very fine relationship book about complex issues, most seriously the conviction that someone is unlovable and unlikable because of bad things that happen in childhood. Eleanor has many issues like wildly inappropriate social skills, but a chance encounter with Raymond leads, slowly and haltingly, to a happy endpoint There are some laugh-out loud parts but then some heartbreaking sections that will bring the reader to tears. This is Honeyman’s first novel but her writing is mature and reminiscent of Rachel Joyce which is high praise, in my opinion; highly recommended.

The Boat People – Sharon Bala

The Boat People - Sharon BalaThis is a novel created from a Canadian story – what happens to a boatload of Sri Lankans who arrive in Vancouver as refugees. The novel addresses a number of critical and important questions. What would you do to escape a deadly civil war? What would you reveal during the Immigration and Refugee Board hearings? How can the adjudicators determine what is truth from what might be lies or at least omission of facts? Part of what makes this book great is the detail of the chaotic refugee bureaucracy, and the ease of subverting refugee claims by politicians arguing that terrorists must be within the refugee population. So the context is vivid and important, and the three central characters are complex. Another remarkable first novel, this is the best of the Canada Reads books, in my opinion.

American War – Omar El Akkad

American War - Omar El AkkadThis is a remarkable book about a second American civil war (2075-95). The power is in the chilling demonstration of the cost of war to common people; this is not a story about soldiers. This war is driven by ecological issues and extreme partisanship, so very topical and prescient. Above all, this is a tough angry story about revenge and retribution. This is a debut novel that should be a formidable Canada Reads contender.