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Book Reviews Review: Debuts from Simon Sylvester, Dawn Anahid MacKeen and Nilanjana Roy

The Visitors

By Simon Sylvester

Melville House, 357 pages, $24.95

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In Scottish lore, a selkie is a creature that lives as a seal in the sea but can shed its sealskin to walk as a human on land. Variations on selkie stories abound, but one through line is that a selkie or a human will fall in love with the other and want to possess it at all costs. Generally, this ends badly. Simon Sylvester's debut is many things. At the start, it's a coming-of-age and insular novel about island culture in the Scottish Hebrides that put me in mind of Mary Horlock's Book of Lies, about being a teenager in Guernsey. Further in, you begin to sense the long windup for a thriller. It's all wrapped in a contemporary twist on the selkie story. Judged as any single one of these fiction types, The Visitors might be found not wholly satisfying, but here's the thing: I found the combination beguiling, unputdownable.

The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey

By Dawn Anahid MacKeen

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 368 pages, $34

For survivors of the Armenian genocide, the name Deir Zor rings like Auschwitz. The Hundred-Year Walk follows two journeys to this place, the worst slaughterhouse in the Ottoman Empire's systematic massacre of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians and the place Dawn Anahid Mac-Keen's family calls hell. In 1915, the Ottoman government placed Stepan Miskjian on a 1,600-kilometre death march to Deir Zor through concentration camps, mountain ranges and deserts, starvation, forced labour and degradation. In short chapters alternating with Stepan's story, MacKeen narrates her own path in 2007, tracing her grandfather Stepan's walk through what is now Turkey and Syria. MacKeen weaves multiple historical sources for corroboration and context, but her main material, Stepan's unpublished memoir, lands the emotional punch of personal narrative. MacKeen's added perspective is what makes this book though. A moving portrait of one family's relationship to the past that offers surprising hope for reconciliation.

The Wildings

By Nilanjana Roy

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Random House, 336 pages, $22.95

Drawing comparisons to Watership Down and Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, The Wildings centres on a clan of cats in New Delhi's Nizamuddin neighbourhood. Grown accustomed to lives of ease, the Nizamuddin wildings are thrown off balance by the arrival of a "Sender," a cat with preternatural abilities to communicate over the cat telepathic network. Clan wisdom holds that an outsider Sender is dangerous, but legend has it that a Sender arrives only in a clan's time of need – Nizamuddin's carefully maintained interspecies social order is about to be rocked by an event beyond the cats' imagining. One of the joys of this novel is Roy's intricately imagined animal, avian, even insect society – a community that lives alongside but not as part of the bumbling, oblivious Bigfeet (that's us). An ode to New Delhi and a thrilling adventure to boot, this is the first in a two-book series to be concluded this summer.

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