Readers who believe they’re on Santa’s Nice List might want to include some of these fiction titles in their letters to him, whereas readers who suspect they might be on Santa’s Naughty List could perhaps gift these novels to themselves. Everyone deserves a good book. Above: Santa (Jack Vanderburg, the author’s husband) checks his lists. Photo Doreen Yakabuski.
Fight Night by Miriam Toews
A Miriam Toews novel is always a must-read. This one focuses on the relationship between Swiv, the 9-year-old narrator, and her unconventional grandmother. Despite having experienced several tragedies, Grandma Elvira believes people should live joyfully and fight ferociously to live on their own terms. This is the lesson she tries to teach her granddaughter, though Swiv is often embarrassed by Elvira’s antics. This book has memorable characters, humour, and thought-provoking ideas.
What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad
This book, winner of the 2021 Giller Prize, explores the global refugee crisis in a way that will not leave readers unaffected. Amir Utu, a 9-year-old Syrian boy, washes up on the beach of a Mediterranean island where he encounters a local girl, 15-year-old Vänna Hermes. In chapters entitled “Before” we learn about Amir’s past and how he came to be on the boat; in alternating chapters entitled “After” we see how Vänna tries to help Amir escape authorities and get to safety. The novel has many strengths: realistic, well-developed characters, lots of suspense, and a theme which should have everyone thinking.
August into Winter by Guy Vanderhaeghe
This book illustrates the author’s master storytelling skills. In 1939, Ernie Sickert brutally kills an RCMP police officer in rural Saskatchewan. Making his escape, Ernie takes with him the girl with whom he is besotted. A policeman in pursuit of Sickert enlists the help of two veterans of World War I. They make their way to a schoolhouse where they believe Sickert may have sought shelter and where a new teacher has just moved. The encounters at the school change the lives of all those present. The reader will encounter action, suspense, humour, and romance.
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
Another example of excellent historical fiction is this book set in June of 1954. Emmett Watson, 18, arrives home after serving a sentence in a juvenile reformatory. Since he and his eight-year-old brother Billy are orphans, they decide to leave their Nebraska home and set out for California in Emmett’s 1948 Studebaker to begin a new life. Before they can leave, two of Emmett’s fellow inmates arrive with alternate travel plans. Instead of heading west, the Watsons have to make a detour to New York City and not always in Emmett’s car. The novel has something for everyone: memorable characters, suspense, humour, and pathos.
The Mystery of Right and Wrong by Wayne Johnston
This book, by another of my favourite Canadian writers, begins with Wade Jackson, a young man from a Newfoundland outport, falling in love with Rachel van Hout. The smitten man travels to South Africa with Rachel and her parents and three sisters. As more and more family secrets are revealed, Wade comes to realize that the van Hout family is very dysfunctional. Though the novel’s pace is sometimes slow and sections are confusing, all is eventually made clear. The villainy of one of the characters is almost unbelievable, but then the Author’s Note at the end delivers a gut punch.
Undersong by Kathleen Winters
This is a fictionalized account of the life of Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the famous poet William Wordsworth. Though the book will have particular appeal to lovers of English literature, I recommend it to everyone. It focuses on Dorothy’s relationship with her brother and with James Dixon, the gardener/handyman for the Wordsworth household, and examines how women, especially those of a certain age, are often rendered invisible. The complexity of the character development is amazing. Were I to rank the books I read this past year, this one would definitely be at the top.
The Creak on the Stairs and Girls Who Lie by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention at least one mystery title, so for mystery lovers I’m recommending two. This Icelandic author has written two books in a series she is calling Forbidden Iceland. Elma, the protagonist, is recovering from a failed long-term relationship and has grudgingly returned to her hometown where she has taken a job with the police department. In both books, Elma is soon investigating murders. These police procedurals have multi-layered, intricate plotting and engaging characters with interesting backstories.
Complete reviews of all these books and many more can be found on my blog at https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/.
Hopefully Santa will bring you all the books you want.
Happy holidays! Happy reading!