In The Midst Of Winter – Isabel Allende

In The Midst Of Winter - Isabel AllendeA winter storm in New York brings together three distinctive characters: an American man nearly destroyed by grief and guilt; a Chilean woman survivor of the Allende aftermath in the 1970s; and a young undocumented woman from Guatemala. A fairly simplistic plot device allows the compelling back stories to emerge with Allende’s characteristic story-telling which is evocative. Each of the three characters has experienced tragic and sorrowful events, and yet there is hopefulness in a story contains unexpected romance and love. Allende is a treasure, and this novel is a very worthwhile read.

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Hunger – Roxane Gay

Hunger - Roxane GayPreviously, I used the words “brutally honest and uncomfortably candid” to describe Camilla Gibbs’s memoir This Is Happy, and the same descriptors can be applied emphatically to this memoir by Roxane Gay. Gay is subjected to a brutal sexual assault at age 12; she discusses being both a survivor and a victim. There are two dramatic aspects to the aftermath: her silence and her reaction to eat, to become become fat and undesirable in order to be safe. Gay vividly describes living in a wildly undisciplined body as she becomes categorized as morbidly obese. The cruelty of pubic opinion of her appearance (i.e. fat shaming) is tragic. Her own analysis of her psychology is self-loathing. This is a deeply personal memoir that is often disturbing but occasionally comic as she describes how much she hates exercise. An amazing story.

The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian - Elizabeth KostovaThis fascinating book has a Dan Brown-like plot (but with much better writing). Academics search for clues to find missing persons and to research Vlad Dracula’s life (is he still living?). This research is conducted in medieval libraries (yay!) with much travel: Oxford, Istanbul, Budapest and Bulgaria. Actions happen in three times: the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s, often with parallel stories so the complex plot with much historical detail requires the full attention of readers. This is a really enjoyable read; thanks Steph, for this recommendation.

LaRose – Louise Erdrich

LaRose - Louise ErdrichThis is a fantastic Indigenous novel, set in North Dakota in 1999. There is a powerful start to the story, a tragedy on page 2. What follows is an attempted reparation, guilt and paralyzing grief; a long-standing grudge which leads to revenge; and a gradual reconciliation. The story shifts back and forth in time, and has a mystical element. There is, amidst all this angst, a delightful plainness, a simplicity that engages and delights. For example, there is a transcendent passage about a volleyball game that captures the psychology of young adolescents perfectly! Although this is a multi-generational story, it is the children who are the most complex characters, particularly in circumstances where they are forced to be mature beyond their years (similar to Glass Castle). This book is wonderful storytelling.

This Is Happy – Camilla Gibb

This Is Happy - Camilla Gibb .jpgCamilla Gibb is a very fine novelist (Sweetness In The Belly, for example). This remarkable book is a memoir that is brutally honest and uncomfortably candid. There are heartbreaking descriptions of loneliness and alienation leading to profound depression and suicide attempts, of feelings that she does not deserve happiness. Single motherhood provides an incredible challenge. The adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” is proven true as single mother Gibb constructs a unique extended family to help her care for her daughter: this is a compelling story.

The Fortunate Brother – Donna Morrissey

The Fortunate Brother - Donna MorrisseyA gritty angst-filled guy book set in West Newfoundland. The context – geography and people- is described perfectly. A father and son are paralyzed by grief, so they retreat and psychologically “run away” into a life of drink and anger. The book then becomes a murder mystery with deception and lies and misunderstandings. Annoying behaviour to be sure but the descriptions of the people in a fishing outport trying, usually badly, to have each other’s back is compelling. This is one of Morrissey’s best books.

The Dust That Falls From Dreams – Louis de Bernieres

The Dust That Falls From Dreams - Louis de BernieresDe Bernieres wrote the delightful Corelli’s Mandolin, and his latest book is also excellent. The setting is Britain in 1914. The horror of WWI, the mud and stink and brutal death, is described vividly. Also, very precise details of flying are detailed. But this is a book about relationships within the McCosh family, in particular the 4 sisters. At times, the book is a tender love story that also touches on grief and religion. The relationships are often complicated: a sister loves someone who does not love her in return, and vice versa. There is some wry humour, particularly the class-conscious matriarch Mrs. McCosh who should be played by Maggie Smith if this story is ever adapted for film or theatre. Overall, a very entertaining story.