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Free Press book reviewers pick their favourite reads of 2015

FICTION

A Beauty

By Connie Gault

SET in 1930s rural Saskatchewan, this novel focuses on a young, charismatic Finnish woman and her impact on the people she encounters. It's a compelling story filled with vivid characterization as well as an exploration of universal themes such as loss, belonging and the nature of forgiveness.

— Bev Sandell Greenberg

 

A Little More Free

By John McFetridge

McFETRIDGE'S police procedurals featuring working-class bilingual Montreal beat cop Eddie Dougherty are brilliant mysteries, but far more than that, the author uses Dougherty's awakening awareness of the world around him to explore and examine crucial times in Canadian history. Here, against the backdrop of the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union national hockey teams, Dougherty discovers a hidden world of draft dodgers and deserters from the U.S. war in southeast Asia, systemic persecution of homosexuals, the stirring of Quebec nationalism, and the beginning of organized crime's taking hold in the province.

— Nick Martin

Atavisms

By Raymond Bock

QUÉBÉCOIS author Raymond Bock dissects the darker psychological and social strains in Quebec history in 13 wild, brave and moving stories. Though there's no specific thread linking the stories, they seem, when read, to connect the history of Quebec and its people in a profound way. Bock's prose displays a master of style and technique.

— Rory Runnells

 

The Book of Aron

By Jim Shepherd

WHEN Jim Shepherd's novel The Book of Aron opens, Aron Rozyckis is nine years old. When it ends, he's 13 and on his way, it seems, to certain death in the gas chambers of Treblinka. Between that beginning and end, Shepherd has Aron tell the story of his life in a voice that is so authentic, so bewildered and so sad that it will break the reader's heart.

— Sharon Chisvin

 

Charlie Martz and Other Stories

By Elmore Leonard

IF you've never read the crime novels and stories of Elmore Leonard, the posthumously published Charlie Martz and Other Stories is a good place to start. It showcases all of his concision, his subtly changing tonalities, his wry humour, his easy charm, his tough-guy's sense of story and character.

— Gene Walz

The Golden Son

By Shilpi Somaya Gowda

THE Golden Son successfully achieves the virtually impossible: it is every bit as good and strong as its author's internationally bestselling debut novel, Secret Daughter.

The Golden Son focuses on Anil, who leaves his large family in rural India to do a medical residency in Dallas, Texas.

Both The Golden Son and Secret Daughter are set in India and North America, and tell compelling stories that make each a page turner and a fast read. Both are extremely well-written with riveting plots. Gowda is a born storyteller.

— Brenlee Carrington

 

His Whole Life

By Elizabeth Hay

ELIZABETH Hay uses the contrasting setting of Ontario lake country and the streets of New York City to skilfully tell a moving tale of changing family dynamics and Canada's political strife in the mid-1990s as seen through the eyes of a preteen boy.

— Andrea Geary

 

Hope Makes Love

By Trevor Cole

AFTER the disappointing Practical Jean, Trevor Cole is back in top form with Hope Makes Love. Zep Baker, under the tutelage of brain scientist Hope Riopelle, tries to manufacture love in his ex-wife Emily Good. Trouble ensues.

— Reinhold Kramer

Infinitum

By G.M.B. Chomichuk

SPECIAL Investigator Nine must work to prevent a seemingly unpreventable murder, with his own time-travelling selves as his multiple backups. However, in order to solve the crime, he must work to change the one moment in his past that means the most to him. An experimental graphic novel that blends a science-fiction time-travel story with a noir crime thriller plot in order to subvert the conventions of both genres.

— Jonathan Ball

 

The Jaguar's Children

By John Vaillant

MEXICAN migrants hoping to enter the U.S. illegally wait for rescue or death in the confines of a sealed water tank abandoned by smugglers. Based on the soundfiles and text messages found on a cellphone of a migrant who died in the searing desert heat, the wrenching story is revealed of Latin America's plunder at the hands of colonial masters, old and very new.

— Harriet Zaidman

 

Killing and Dying

By Adrian Tomine

A VISUALLY stunning and emotionally powerful collection of graphic short stories that takes us inside the everyday experiences, dreams and delusions of a demographically diverse group of American characters. Tomine's complex narrative structures and note-perfect dialogue make this one of the best short-fiction collections of the year that just happens to be in the form of comics.

— Candida Rifkind

 

Liberty Street

By Dianne Warren

THIS is the rich, complex and quietly funny story of Frances Mary Moon, who traces her roots to a small town in northern Saskatchewan. Frances often makes poor choices but ultimately this is a story of compassion, healing and of coming to terms with one's past told with intelligence, humour and wit.

— Cheryl Girard

 

The Past

By Tessa Hadley

IN her sixth novel, England's Tessa Hadley presents a three-week family get-together at a run-down rural vicarage. Hadley rivals American Anne Tyler in her knack for bringing a large number of siblings to life, enthralling us with their authentic voices, thoughts and quirks.

— Dave Williamson

Purity

By Jonathan Franzen

THE American literary heavyweight's latest tour de force explores the struggles of people trying to live ethically — purely, as it were — in the modern world. It is also a more sober and serious novel, less satirical than anything he has produced to date. In fact, its core event is a murder, from which most of its plot ripples out.

— Morley Walker

 

Too Far Gone

By Chadwick Ginther

TOO Far Gone is the final volume in the Thunder Road trilogy by Chadwick Ginther, a master fantasy/noir storyteller based in Winnipeg. Having defeated the mighty Thor and acquiring his hammer, anti-hero Ted Callan has left Winnipeg on a trip to Edmonton, where he hopes to have a relatively quiet family reunion and attend his best friend's wedding. Unfortunately, the trickster god Loki is along for the ride, transformed into a stripper. Needless to say, Ted's family and friends are less than impressed.

— Chris Rutkowski

 

Undermajordomo Minor

By Patrick De Witt

DE Witt follows up on his much-lauded western The Sisters Brothers with a touching, beautifully written, darkly funny fable set in continental Europe. Lucien (Lucy) Minor takes a job at the mysterious Castle Von Aux; in the nearby town he meets the beautiful Klara, and the two fall in love. As their romance hits bumps in the road, mysterious goings-on at the castle lead Lucy to investigate the whereabouts of the absent Baron Von Aux.

— Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

 

Vanessa and her Sister

By Priya Parmar

BEFORE there was Woodstock there was the Bloomsbury Group, a constellation of free spirits kicking over the traces of their Victorian upbringing.

This novel gives them as sharp an outline as one of Vanessa's paintings.

— Ron Robinson

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

By Alexandra Kleeman

ALEXANDRA Kleeman's sharply written but profoundly weird debut novel maps a trio of unnamed characters through their increasing alienation from the world, each other and their own bodies. Challenging yet immensely readable, the novel heralds a striking, fully-formed talent — as well as a preview of what the future of literature itself might look like.

— Doug McLean

 

NON-FICTION

 

Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act

By Dan Rubinstein

JOURNALIST-TREKKER Dan Rubinstein tests his hypothesis that walking can fix — or at least patch — a broken world, weaving accounts of his wanderings with other anecdotes, contemporary studies and statistics, many of them Canadian. This book should be required reading for our nation's politicians, policy-makers, planners and pedestrians.

— Gail Perry

 

The Carbon Bubble: What Happens to Us When it Bursts

By Jeff Rubin

PUBLISHED a few weeks before the stunning upset of a provincial regime that had lasted several decades, economist Jeff Rubin criticizes Alberta's over-reliance on oilsands development.

In many ways prescient of world leaders' recent and long-awaited curbs on carbon, the book also offers tips on ethical investing, satisfying the green movement and die-hard capitalists alike.

— Joseph Hnatiuk

 

Don't Suck, Don't Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt

By Kristin Hersh

KRISTIN Hersh's heartbreaking memoir of her friendship and musical partnership with the late Vic Chesnutt stands as a perfect tribute to the singer's brilliance and irascibility. Hersh eschews strict biography and continuity in favour of dream-like vignettes, imagined communications and a host of unsaid words to detail a story of triumph, loss and being left behind.

— Doug McLean

Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald

Fight to the Finish: Canadians in the Second World War 1944-1945

By Tim Cook

Once again the Canadian historian has given us a door-stopper that presents a combination of the big picture with the anecdotal view from the slit trench, the cockpit and the foredeck.

— Ron Robinson

 

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things

By Jenny Lawson

IN her second book, the popular blogger and New York Times bestselling author gets beautifully real and furthers the much-needed conversation about mental illness, with many laughs and a few tears along the way.

— Julie Kentner

 

H is for Hawk

By Helen Macdonald

FACED with the sudden, devastating death of her father, Helen Macdonald tries to manage her pain by purchasing and training a young goshawk. H Is for Hawk is uniquely multifaceted — a mesmerizing memoir combined with a hawk-trainer's diary, and a biography of T.H. White. All three of these strands are presented in vivid detail — clear, frank, and evocative.

— Gene Walz

 

The Land We Are: Artists and Writers Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation

Edited by Gabrielle L'Hirondelle Hill and Sophie McCall

THE indigenous and non-indigenous artists and writers represented in this inspiring and beautifully-produced volume have crafted a disruptive and thought-provoking challenge to mainstream dialogue on reconciliation.

— Michael Dudley

 

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology

By JohnJoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili

LIFE on the Edge is by scientists specializing in genetics and physics who argue that quantum physics plays a fundamental role in life on Earth, and that our existence depends on it. "The way you walk or talk or eat or sleep or even think must ultimately depend on quantum mechanical forces governing electrons, protons and other particles," they explain, "just as the operation of your car or toaster depends, ultimately, on quantum mechanics." But, they add, "by and large, you don't need to know that."

— Chris Rutkowski

Princes at War: The Bitter Battle Inside Britain's Royal Family in the Darkest Days of WW II

By Deborah Cadbury

CADBURY'S account of the tensions within the British royal family during the Second World War is dramatic, inspiring and highly readable.

— Graeme Voyer

 

The Reason You Walk

By Wab Kinew

WAB Kinew's The Reason You Walk presents us with a vital voice in the reconciliation movement that we must all engage across the country. Its resonance echoes beyond its individual and local origins; we should be thankful for its raw and compelling honesty.

— Neil Besner

 

The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From A Small Island

By Bill Bryson

BRYSON meanders about Britain again 20 years after writing Notes From a Small Island, rediscovering his beloved island and visiting new sites and cities along the way. He is masterful with the English language, often outspoken, mostly cheerful, enthusiastic about history and wondrously good at telling amusing stories.

— Cheryl Girard

 

Road Trip Rwanda: A Journey into the New Heart of Africa

By Will Ferguson

CALGARY'S Will Ferguson visited the central African country of Rwanda and was astounded by its economic and social recovery from the 1990s genocide. He cleverly weaves together details of the change with descriptions of the rugged terrain, the exotic animals, and the local hospitality.

— Dave Williamson

 

Sinatra: The Chairman

By James Kaplan

THIS nearly 1,000-page biographical opus is a masterful, compelling and eminently readable book about the fears, emotions and inner turmoil of a musical legend.

— Julie Kentner

 

Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

By Rosemary Sullivan

CRITICALLY acclaimed biographer Rosemary Sullivan has written a thoroughly researched account of Stalin's daughter's tormented life. It is a gripping account of how a woman born into a society of spies, informants, secret police and arbitrary murder tried, and failed, to take control of her own life.

— John K. Collins

 

Why Did You Do That? The Autobiography of a Human Rights Advocate

By David Matas

THE Russians loathe him and the Chinese revile him. David Matas is a super-human global force for righteous conduct. If most Canadians knew him (most don't) they'd want a bronze of him outside our Canadian Museum for Human Rights next to the one of Gandhi. As an ex-journalist and cynic, I can't believe I'm saying this — Matas is a national treasure.

— Barry Craig

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History

Updated on Saturday, December 26, 2015 at 8:21 AM CST: Formatting.

December 27, 2015 at 12:42 PM: Photos tweaked.

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