Free Press reviewers choose their top reads of 2014
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/12/2014 (2800 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was a big year for Manitoba-born writers.
Literary heavyweights David Bergen, Joan Thomas and Miriam Toews all released new novels to great acclaim (and some hardware). On the non-fiction front (which was heavy with First World War and hockey tomes), Winnipeg-born Karyn Freedman and local Maurice Mierau produced emotionally charged, highly talked-about memoirs.
Here are some of the Free Press book reviewers’ favourite titles of 2014, both fiction and non-fiction, listed alphabetically by title.
ALL MY PUNY SORROWS By Miriam Toews
Miriam Toews’ fictionalized rendering of her own sister’s suicide is heartbreaking, intelligent and also very funny. The novel considers the ethics of assisted suicide, meditates on relationships both bonded and broken, and shows us how to laugh at the absurdity of the human condition.
— Jen Robinson
ALL THE BROKEN THINGS By Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
Set in 1980s Toronto, this unusual, thought-provoking novel involves a Vietnamese teenage boy, his profoundly disabled sister and a performing bear. It’s a compassionate page-turner, addressing significant issues such as the exploitation of animals, school bullying and the mental health of refugees.
— Bev Sandell Greenberg
ARCTIC SUMMER By Damon Galgut
South African novelist Damon Galgut tracks E.M. Forster’s submerged suburban life as he struggles to write his 1924 masterwork A Passage to India. Writing about Forster’s hidden homosexuality in a way that Forster himself could not, Galgut explores issues of class, race, power and desire with delicate subtlety and deep feeling.
— Alison Gillmor
BASED ON A TRUE STORY By Elizabeth Renzetti
Renzetti’s crisp writing adds zip to this tender tale of a washed-up British soap-opera queen and a would-be journalist facing a crisis of her own. Her wobbly journey is side-splittingly funny and at the same time poignant and realistic.
— Harriet Zaidman
COME BACK By Rudy Wiebe
Hal Wiens, a retired prof, thinks he sees his son Gabriel on an Edmonton street — 25 years after he took his own life. Wiebe then sets Hal down a harrowing path of revisiting his late son’s journals in a heartbreaking treatise on depression and suicide.
— Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson
EMBERTON By Peter Norman
Lance Blunt’s new job is a nightmarish realm of gothic horror, a vampiric prison with a history of ancient blood sports, strange fluids leaking from the walls, corruption of every conceivable kind, and a cute girl who’s avoiding him. A cross between Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and Franz Kafka, Emberton is darkly fantastic fun.
— Jonathan Ball
THE EVOLUTION OF ALICE By David Alexander Robertson
In this slim, complicated novel about love, loss, and community, Robertson doesn’t put a word wrong. Every sentence and every character in The Evolution of Alice enhances the whole. The story of Alice, her daughters, and Gideon is devastating and unforgettable.
— Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen
THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW By Matthew Quick
American novelist Matthew Quick’s second novel is a funny, heart-warming and thoughtful coming-of-age story with an unlikely hero for whom readers will love to cheer.
— Kathryne Cardwell
JULIET WAS A SURPRISE By Bill Gaston
That this is a treat will be no surprise to Canada’s insatiable short-fiction enthusiasts. Surprises abound for Gaston’s latest protagonists who, in love and even life itself, are unable or unwilling to see the warning signs around them.
— Gail Perry
LEAVING TOMORROW By David Bergen
Feeling himself to be surrounded by imbeciles in his small Prairie town, Arthur Wohlgemut flees, yearning to chat up Sartre instead. David Bergen gives us another richly observed life.
— Reinhold Kramer
THE LONG WAY HOME By Louise Penny
Louise Penny’s 10th Inspector Gamache novel is her best. The search for a missing artist from Gamache’s idyllic village of Trois Pins leads him further and further — and further — up the St. Lawrence River, in an utterly absorbing mystery.
— Nick Martin
MÃN By Kim Thúy
The individual chapters in Mãn rarely extend beyond a single page. Yet as succinct as they are, they resonate with profound imagery and emotion, replete with joy and disappointment, lost wars and lost fathers, broken hearts and broken promises, simple acts of love and kindness.
— Sharon Chisvin
A MAN CAME OUT OF A DOOR IN THE MOUNTAIN By Adrianne Harun
This novel, conceived in anger over the tragedy of missing and murdered Canadian women, is difficult to categorize but intriguing to read — a rich blend of the fantastic and the realistic.
— Duncan McMonagle
NO RELATION By Terry Fallis
Fallis asks the age-old question: “What’s in a name?” His protagonist: Earnest Hemmingway. The slight difference in spelling to the famous author matters not when it comes to his hilarious journey about finding happiness through finding himself.
— Deborah Bowers
THE OPENING SKY By Joan Thomas
Thomas’s latest comes close to perfectly balancing its wealth of psychological and family tensions. Just as her characters take risks in love, Thomas herself takes narrative risks, offering no typical solutions. But the risks are the most beautiful — they’re worth taking.
— Julienne Isaacs
RADIANCE OF TOMORROW By Ishmael Beah
Set in postwar Sierra Leone around 2002, this is a haunting, evocative book with the healing power of storytelling at its core. It’s a potent, poignant story that will stay with readers long after the last page is turned.
— Adelia Wiens
SHOPLIFTER By Michael Cho
The debut graphic novel by this Toronto cartoonist is a gorgeously drawn coming-of-age story about a 20-something copywriter overcoming her first adult disappointments by attending to her inner ambitions and the encounters of daily life.
— Candida Rifkind
THUNDERSTRUCK & OTHER STORIES By Elizabeth McCracken
This endlessly re-readable collection is just what one expects from McCracken: nine mordantly witty short stories peopled with indelibly inked characters, most dealing with some kind of loss. McCracken is allergic to sentimentality, but she will break your heart nonetheless.
— Jill Wilson
THE UNAMERICANS By Molly Antopol
This superb collection of stories details the Old and New world of Jewish experience with a kind of jaundiced humanity presented in a moving, beautiful prose style. Unmissable.
— Rory Runnells
BERLIN: IMAGINE A CITY By Rory MacLean
MacLean uses a mixture of fact and imaginary scenes to tell Berlin’s story, with people key to the city’s development — such as architect Frederich Schinkel, some of whose buildings survived the war and were restored — are profiled.
— Jim Blanchard
THE COLLAPSE: THE ACCIDENTAL OPENING OF THE BERLIN WALL By Mary Elise Sarotte
Depicting the short-term causes of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Sarotte illustrates a larger point about the efficacy of human agency. This is history at its best, informed by sound philosophical principles.
— Graeme Voyer
A DEADLY WANDERING: A TALE OF TRAGEDY AND REDEMPTION IN THE AGE OF ATTENTION By Matt Richtel
Richtel has constructed a gripping, sobering account not only of a lethal distracted-driving accident and its painful emotional and legal aftermath, but of the emerging, disturbing neuroscience of our failed efforts to multitask in an age of ubiquitous mobile computing.
— Michael Dudley
DETACHMENT: AN ADOPTION MEMOIR By Maurice Mierau
Unsentimental but moving, Detachment is a story of adopting two young boys from Ukraine and the various hurdles — bureaucratic and psychological — that threaten to overwhelm the family. With a poet’s economy and with an unflinching and self-damning eye, Mierau crystallizes his family’s struggles in tense, terse, gripping prose.
— Jonathan Ball
THE DEVILS’ ALLIANCE By Roger Moorhouse
By signing an odious non-aggression agreement in 1939, Stalin and Hitler facilitated the world’s second descent into hell. Even though one of them eventually helped retriev e it after being rooked by his false friend, we’re reminded why imperfect democracies are preferable to dictatorships.
— Joseph Hnatiuk
THE END OF ABSENCE By Michael Harris
This excellent meditation on how technology — especially constant connectedness — has so rapidly taken over our lives, and taken away our quiet times, won the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction.
— Dave Williamson
GANDHI BEFORE INDIA By Ramachandra Guha
This absorbing account of Gandhi’s early years in India, England and South Africa shows how he became committed to social justice and perfected the technique of non-violent civil resistance that he used to such powerful effect in the struggle for Indian independence. It carries a universal message.
— Ken Osborne
HOW NOT TO BE WRONG: THE POWER OF MATHEMATICAL THINKING By Jordan Ellenberg
In a clever and witty way, Ellenberg writes about applied math — the number-crunching that underlies real and diverse things in the world such as the stock market, lotteries, baseball, political polls and the efficacy of drugs.
— David Topper
LISTEN TO THE SQUAWKING CHICKEN By Elaine Lui
Celebrity gossip blogger and television host Elaine (Lainey) Lui has penned a true love letter to her mother. Honest, fearless, funny, smart, wise and irreverent, Lui honours her mother by telling her story with pride.
— Julie Kentner
A LONG WAY HOME: A MEMOIR By Saroo Brierley
At five-years-old, Saroo Brierley became lost in Calcutta. Incredibly, he survived. His miraculous journey took him to Australia, where he started over with a new family. But memories of his Indian family stayed with him; eventually, he found his way back to them.
— Deborah Bowers
A MAD CATASTROPHE: THE OUTBREAK OF WORLD WAR I AND THE COLLAPSE OF THE HABSBURG EMPIRE By Geoffrey Wawro
Although essentially a military history with lots of detail about troop movements, strategy, weaponry, logistics and terrain, Wawro has a knack for condensing the material and promptly returning to the drama of combat.
— Douglas J. Johnston
THE MORNING AFTER: THE 1995 QUEBEC REFERENDUM AND THE DAY THAT ALMOST WAS By Chantal Hébert
Hébert’s book is a well-written anatomy of a near-death experience for the country. Nirvana for political junkies.
— Barry Craig
THE NECESSARY WAR: CANADIANS FIGHTING IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR, 1939-43 By Tim Cook
This book reminds us that rarely a day goes by when the extensive Free Press obituaries do not include a picture and a mention of one of our fellow Winnipeggers who served in the Second World War. Ours was a largely voluntary, citizen military, a point driven home in historian Tim Cook’s engaging and well-researched addition to the mountain of military books on the war.
— Ron Robinson
NO PLACE TO HIDE: EDWARD SNOWDEN, THE NSA AND THE U.S. SURVEILLANCE STATE By Glenn Greenwald
Snowden sacrificed his career and, possibly, his freedom to reveal how powerful surveillance agencies, unaccountable to the public, make a mockery of democracy. “The true measurement of a person’s worth isn’t what they say they believe in,” said Snowden, “but what they do in defence of those beliefs.”
— John K. Collins
ONE HOUR IN PARIS: A TRUE STORY OF RAPE AND RECOVERY By Karyn Freedman
The former Winnipegger’s memoir is a brilliant, brave and soul-searing account of how she survived a near-deadly rape. Freedman has crafted a book destined to become an important tool for rape survivors, and is a call to action to end violence against women.
— Brenlee Carrington
RUMOURS OF GLORY By Bruce Cockburn
The veteran Canadian singer-songwriter mixes confessions about sex, religion and love with discussions of politics and history in this candid and wide-ranging memoir. The results are, like the man himself, thoughtful, earnest and self-aware.
— Morley Walker
SLIM AND NONE: MY WILD RIDE FROM THE WHA TO THE NHL AND ALL THE WAY TO HOLLYWOOD By Howard Baldwin
Baldwin shares his experiences in the worlds of sports and movie-making, portraying himself as a businessman who didn’t let disappointments, large or small, get him down.
— Gilbert Gregory
VIKINGS ON A PRAIRIE OCEAN By Glenn Sigurdson
Vikings is a smoothly written presentation on Lake Winnipeg’s definition of Icelandic settlement in Manitoba. It tells of how the lake took labour and lives and gave back a living.
— Ron Kirbyson
WHAT MAKES OLGA RUN? By Bruce Grierson
Olga Kotelka was the senior Canadian track-and-field star who held more than 23 world records — 17 set past the age of 90 — before her death at 95 this year. Her approach to life and fitness astounded the world’s leading researchers and fascinated social-science writer Bruce Grierson. He studied her to determine why she apparently aged more slowly than most people.
— Julie Carl
Updated on Saturday, December 13, 2014 8:31 AM CST: Formatting.
Updated on Saturday, December 13, 2014 12:11 PM CST: Alters opening paragraph,
Updated on Saturday, December 13, 2014 3:16 PM CST: Alters error in final paragraph.