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Top of the pile

Free Press book reviewers choose their 50 favourite titles of 2018

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/12/2018 (213 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Fiction

Clock Dance By Anne Tyler

In this, her 22nd novel, Baltimore’s Anne Tyler presents Willa Drake in four key stages of her life. It is a disarming portrayal of a contemporary American woman quietly establishing an identity that does not depend on either children or men. Tyler’s refreshingly straightforward and often funny narrative captures a wonderful array of fully fleshed-out characters.

—Dave Williamson

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/12/2018 (213 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Fiction

Clock Dance
By Anne Tyler

In this, her 22nd novel, Baltimore’s Anne Tyler presents Willa Drake in four key stages of her life. It is a disarming portrayal of a contemporary American woman quietly establishing an identity that does not depend on either children or men. Tyler’s refreshingly straightforward and often funny narrative captures a wonderful array of fully fleshed-out characters.

—Dave Williamson

Dear Evelyn
By Kathy Page

Dear Evelyn is a smartly written portrait of a 70-year marriage between Harry and Evelyn set against a backdrop of a world war and the decades that came after. Sometimes sweet and sometimes painful, it is likely to leave readers with a tear in their eye.

—Cheryl Girard

The Death and Life of Strother Purcell
By Ian Weir

British Columbia writer Ian Weir’s book is a raucous, exciting tale of revenge, guilt and ultimate forgiveness told as a series of memoirs about legendary outlaw Strother Purcell. Brimming over with the joy and sorrow of life, the novel is an epic of the Old West in the style that Charles Dickens might have given us.

—Rory Runnells

French Exit
By Patrick deWitt

There’s a certain inimitable charm and humour to Patrick deWitt’s dialogue-driven fiction. In French Exit — the modern-day story of an elderly, high-society Manhattan widow, her very plain adult son and their house cat (a reincarnation of the family patriarch) who move to Paris to squander a dwindling fortune — his eclectic cast of characters sparkles.

—Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

The Ghost Keeper
By Natalie Morrill

The Ghost Keeper is a powerful, poignant, beautifully written work of fiction that will haunt readers long after they finish the book. Set mainly in Austria before and after the Second World War, this debut novel recounts the life and times of Josef Tobak, a loving husband, a loyal friend and a decent and principled man who is determined to remember those who have disappeared.

—Sharon Chisvin

The Great Believers
By Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers, American writer Rebecca Makkai’s third novel, does not have a happy ending. How could it? It’s set in Chicago’s gay community during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. But it is a masterwork, and it has political resonances for our time. It’s not as if AIDS has gone away, and neither has a public response which is squeamish at best — or violent at worst — toward those who suffer from it. This beautiful, passionate novel is about this suffering, but also about the optimism and vibrancy that characterizes a full life before it ends.

—Julienne Isaacs

The Italian Teacher
By Tom Rachman

This humane and poignant literary novel charts the life and times of the sad-sack son of a monstrously selfish American visual artist. It also asks questions of authorship and the role of personal reputation in an artist’s body of work. A fine return to form for the British-Canadian writer of the 2010 hit The Imperfectionists.

—Morley Walker

Jonny Appleseed
By Joshua Whitehead

Set in the space between Indigenous and queer personhood, Joshua Whitehead’s debut novel gives us the titular Jonny, a two-spirit cybersex worker who grew up on the Rez. While returning from the city for his stepfather’s funeral, Jonny’s vivid, irreverent voice and Whitehead’s fluid narrative weave heartbreak and humour into good medicine in this story of identity, home and love.

—Nyala Ali

Kingdom of Ash
By Sarah J. Maas

Kingdom of Ash is the incandescent conclusion to Maas’s beloved and bestselling Throne of Glass series. Intense, heartbreaking, and triumphant — all describe both phenomenal heroine Aelin Galathynius and the book itself. A blazing and brilliant end to a series that set many imaginations on fire.

—Katrina Sklepowich

A Ladder to the Sky
By John Boyne

John Boyne continues to show his literary dexterity in A Ladder to the Sky, through the character of Maurice Swift, a narcissist whose ambition it is to be a literary legend. Swift steals other people’s ideas and manuscripts because he has no meaningful stories of his own to tell. He has no qualms about his larceny, but ultimately finds out what happens to those who climb ladders without support. Boyne’s writing is smart, insightful and also very funny.

—Harriet Zaidman

Love And Ruin
By Paula McLain

This absorbing novel revisits the life of the late American writer Ernest Hemingway. Set in Florida, Cuba, Spain and Finland, the book chronicles his passionate (albeit turbulent) relationship with his third wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn.

—Bev Sandell Greenberg

Man with a Seagull on His Head
By Harriet Paige

Harriet Paige’s debut novel, Man with a Seagull on His Head is filled with quirky but likable characters drawn together by the unlikely incident of a dead bird falling from the sky.

—Andrea Geary

 

Nine Perfect Strangers
By Liane Moriarty

Nine unsuspecting strangers converge at a health resort in an isolated historic mansion hoping for a refreshing break. If you are looking for a book to escape into that is suspenseful, funny, sad and simply entertaining, this is a good choice.

—Cheryl Girard

The Only Story
By Julian Barnes

An unbearably sad meditation on love, age and memory that stands among the British author’s loveliest, most haunting works, The Only Story follows a romance that begins when Paul is 19 and Susan is 48. With plain-spoken but elegantly crafted prose, Barnes has crafted a deeply human tale about defining relationships.

—Jill Wilson

The Saturday Night Ghost Club
By Craig Davidson

Bestselling author Craig Davidson’s latest takes readers on a bittersweet journey through the past. A coming-of-age story reminiscent of Stephen King’s The Body, Ghost Club tells the tale of 12-year-old outcast Jake Baker as he explore would-be paranormal events with a pair of new pals, uncovering some family secrets in the process.

—Sheldon Birnie

The Sparsholt Affair
By Alan Hollinghurst

In this dazzlingly intelligent and deeply tender work, London-based, Man Booker Prize-winning Alan Hollinghurst (The Line of Beauty, The Stranger’s Child) tracks the fall-out of the titular affair, a 1960s sex scandal involving a closeted gay politician. With prose that is both elegantly refined and sensuously concrete, he moves from wartime deprivations through the new freedoms of the 1970s to the current period of reality TV and internet porn, always keeping a close eye on the shifting dynamics of gay life in Britain.

—Alison Gillmor

That Tiny Life
By Erin Frances Fisher

If you’re tired of short story collections that are stuck in the same town and the same mood from start to finish, this impressive debut will come as a delightful change. Victoria writer Fisher takes readers to Revolutionary-era France, the American Wild West, Canada’s North and outer space in six stories and one novella, telling tales of memorable outsiders and misfits.

—Bob Armstrong

Washington Black
By Esi Edugyan

Weird and wonderful, Washington Black spans years and continents as Wash tries to find his place in a world that isn’t all that welcoming. Writing beauty into the ugly history of slavery, Edugyan has earned another Scotiabank Giller Prize with this fascinating and tender narrative.

—Katrina Sklepowich

There There
By Tommy Orange

This striking debut novel earned Orange widespread critical acclaim, and with good reason. There There follows a cross-section of Native American characters as they grapple with their individual and collective identities while careening through their respective personal turmoils. The tension ratchets up as all converge on a big Oakland, Calif., powwow and the book’s explosive conclusion.

—Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

Transcription
By Kate Atkinson

The award-winning British author’s latest is a complex but compelling tale that follows Juliet Armstrong, a young woman pulled into the machinations of spy agency MI5 during the Second World War. Full of double crosses and double agents and larded with Atkinson’s dry wit, it’s rich in historical detail that doesn’t bog down the breathlessly enjoyable mystery.

—Jill Wilson

Women Talking
By Miriam Toews

As a highly fictionalized response to real-life sexual crimes committed at a Bolivian Mennonite colony, Miriam Toews’ harrowing and humane novel happens to be hot-button topical. But the former Winnipegger also deals with themes that have preoccupied her for more than two decades, including the tight and tricky bonds of family and the abiding strength of sisters and mothers. Using a characteristically complex tonal mix, Toews conveys blazing anger and sorrow through a screen of irony, understatement and pitch-dark humour.

—Alison Gillmor

 

 

Non-fiction

Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy on the North Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell About It
By Brian Murphy with Toula Vlahou

Washington Post journalist Brian Murphy accesses family diaries, shipping archives and ice pattern mappings in this masterful retelling of the packet ship John Rutledge, which collided with North Atlantic ice during an unusually frigid February in 1856. Nothing showcases the human spirit better than stories of folks in peril on the sea, and Adrift documents that in spades. Equally horrific and sad are the decisions made by castaways in the last lifeboat, as recorded by crewman Thomas W. Nye, the sinking’s sole survivor.

—GC Cabana-Coldwell

All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir
By Elizabeth Hay

Winner of this year’s Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, in All Things Consoled Hay beautifully recalls life growing up with her fascinating parents — her mother Jean, an artist late in life, and her father Gordon, a school teacher with a moody mean streak. When Hay must look after her aging parents, she navigates complex, harrowing emotions as they surface. A tender, deeply moving musing on family.

—Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall
By Tim Mohr

Award-winning German translator and former DJ Tim Mohr delivers a powerful narrative through which you can almost hear the thrashy guitar chords and feel the reverberations of hundreds of sweaty, dirty youth jumping in angry protest.

—Alan MacKenzie

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees
By Thor Hanson

Besides proving his subtitle about bees’ necessity to humanity, Hanson provides deep and entertaining insight into this "powerful symbol of resilience, and of the potential to restore bees pretty much anywhere." Readers may even be inspired to extend interest in bees to other ways that humans interact with nature.

—Bill Rambo

Dam Busters: Canadian Airmen and the Secret Raid Against Nazi Germany
By Ted Barris

Do we need another book about the Dam Busters, the airmen who undertook the 1943 Second World War bombing raid that took the fight to Germany’s industrial heartland and gave Allied civilians and combatants a much-needed moral boost? Veteran military journalist Ted Barris certainly thinks so, and his focus on young Canadian flyers makes an emotionally satisfying case.

—Ron Robinson

The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL
By Sean McIndoe

Who says history has to be boring? With his latest, veteran online sports writer Sean McIndoe delivers a look back on the NHL’s first 100 years that is as irreverent as it is informative. Casual hockey fans and trivia buffs alike will find something of interest here.

Sheldon Birnie

Educated
By Tara Westover

This thought-provoking memoir recounts a young woman’s pursuit of a university education, despite never having attended school. Now a visiting professor at Harvard, Westover tells her story of resiliency amid the many obstacles she faced, including shame, violence, mental illness and family dysfunction and betrayal.

Bev Sandell Greenberg

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
By Steven Pinker

Readers eager to take on weighty subjects should feel completely sated after reading the latest offering from this prolific writer and Pulitzer Prize finalist. Having acquired an international reputation for his frank critiques on human behaviour, Pinker’s commentary on science, liberalism, religion and geopolitical posturing makes this more than a navel-gazing exercise.

Joseph Hnatiuk

The Fifth Risk
By Michael Lewis

Hidden from sight behind an endless drumbeat of titillating distractions, the Trump administration is relentlessly dismantling American civil society. Michael Lewis reveals how Trump appointees are destroying or privatizing government agencies that ensure environmental protection, food inspection, education, health care and public safety.

—John K. Collins

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning
By Margareta Magnusson

You are going to die and all the stuff you own is going to be left behind for someone else to clean up. That is the cold, hard truth told in a kind and gentle way by this Swedish artist and designer. What makes her book different from other de-cluttering manifestos is her emphasis on our responsibility to clean up after ourselves, leaving memories for our loved ones that are "nice — instead of awful."

—Mary Horodyski

I Am Nobody: Confronting the Sexually Abusive Coach Who Stole My Life
By Greg Gilhooly

I Am Nobody by Greg Gilhooly is this year’s book that I will never forget. It is about the depraved conduct of serial predator Graham James; much more importantly, it is the arresting autobiography of one of his victims, a young Winnipeg hockey player, and the agony of his ongoing recovery. You will end up cursing one man and cherishing the other.

—Barry Craig

Odd Girl Out: My Extraordinary Autistic Life
By Laura James

Odd Girl Out is James’ memoir and it is an intimate, revealing and brave account of how autism has affected her entire life. This book will be of interest to anyone who has a loved one or knows someone with autism.

—Cheryl Girard

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath
By Leslie Jamison

Brooklyn-based writer and professor Leslie Jamison has produced the definitive book on alcohol addiction, written as a candid personal memoir interwoven with scholarly excursions into the lives of such well-known addicted writers as Malcolm Lowry, John Berryman and Raymond Carver. The result is a book that is satisfying both emotionally and intellectually.

—Dave Williamson

Reporter: A Memoir
By Seymour M. Hersh

News junkies of all stripes will find something to cackle over in this exhaustive, informative and surprisingly entertaining memoir of life in the trenches of American investigative journalism. Hersh made his reputation during the Vietnam War when he broke the My Lai massacre story. His chapter recounting the shoe leather he expended to track down Lt. William Calley offers a master class in reportorial process.

—Morley Walker

The Rise of Andrew Jackson: Myth, Manipulation, and the Making of Modern Politics
By David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler

The grooming of Andrew Jackson is depicted by the husband-and-wife team of Jeanne and David Heidler, American historians who live in Colorado. The authors have produced an excellent work of narrative history that explains the improbable ascent of Jackson.

—Graeme Voyer

Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist
By Eli Saslow

Given the subject matter, the life of nefarious former neo-Nazi Derek Black, Rising Out Of Hatred cannot be described as a light read. It is, however, an important antidote to the bark of trillions of bytes of polarizing online commentary. Eli Saslow has succeeded in getting everyone to talk, with great honesty — even those who know he is not on their side. Forgiveness and redemption might be rare birds, but they are apparently alive and well. It’s a raw but also refreshing read.

—Lara Rae

Robin
By Dave Itzkoff

This hefty, insightful biography on the late comedian Robin Williams (1951-2014) looks at a guy who lived, loved and laughed big, but who was gutted inside. Itzkoff explores Williams’ childhood, his stand-up comedy career, the iconic characters Williams created from TV’s Mork from Ork to the beloved Mrs. Doubtfire. The lifelong depression and substance abuse that Williams fought, as well as his declining health and failed career reboot, led him to take his own life at age 63. Shazbot.

—GC Cabana-Coldwell

Rooster Town: The History of an Urban Métis Community, 1901-1961
By Evelyn Peters, Matthew Stock, Adrian Werner

Where do you establish your home when you have no property, little income and are part of a marginalized racial minority? This was the situation for many Métis living on the edge of Winnipeg’s Fort Rouge neighbourhood from 1900 and up until the late 1950s. What Rooster Town provides is a highly readable account about the community’s history, the nature of the dwellings and the families that lived there.

—Christopher Adams

Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump
By Michael Isikoff and David Corn

Russian Roulette may read like a political thriller, but reaches a dismal and horrifying conclusion: that the current occupant of the Oval Office was placed there through open information warfare, and that America’s democratic institutions are too polarized, cynical, corrupt and dysfunctional to do anything about it — or to prevent something like it from happening again.

—Michael Dudley

Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of Canada’s National Anthem
By Robert Harris

O Canada is an integral part of our life, yet we know so little about how it came to be. The origin of the national anthem and the life of Calixa Lavallée, its composer, make a fascinating story of a young French-Canadian musical migrant and of the troubled history of French-English relations as our nation was being born, a story well-told by music journalist, broadcaster, critic and teacher Robert Harris.

—Chris Smith

The Spinning Magnet: The Force that Created the Modern World and Could Destroy It
By Alanna Mitchell

Canadian science writer Alanna Mitchell sounds the alarm over the significant weakening of Earth’s magnetic fields, which protect the biosphere from destructive solar and galactic radiation. In clear, crisp prose, she describes how those high-velocity radiation storms are already capable of taking out electricity grids, interfering with satellite communications and turning smart phones into useless junk.

—Sheilla Jones

Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart
By Mimi Swartz

Mimi Swartz strongly implies that advances in medical technology will ultimately deliver on the titular long-promised life-saving device. But the quest for an artificial heart remains just that — a quest. Meanwhile, Swartz has chronicled the journey so far with the insight of a journalist and panache of a born storyteller.

—Douglas J. Johnston

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