I like fiction when it gives me new ideas and I have to put the book down and pick up a dictionary or run something through Google—or when details I had never noticed before suddenly seem obvious. Sointula by Bill Gaston (Raincoast Books) is about a middle-class woman who flies west to visit a dying ex-boyfriend, suffers a breakdown, steals a kayak and paddles north along Vancouver Island in search of her estranged son. The book is filled with interesting facts and history, but what got me googling were suddenly obvious details, such as how rare cougars are in First Nations art on the west coast, even though they dominate in the region. And (apropos of Vancouver’s reputation as an unfriendly city) an explanation of social tension on the west coast as a symptom of its “geography of frustration,” people crowded like “ants piling up at the shore, shoving, milling, getting on top of each other,” nervous systems “hopped up and owly” from the tectonic stresses beneath them. Although his characters are either clinically depressed or in mental collapse, Gaston’s story is never bleak. These people are familiar, and they suit the setting: the wilder parts of Georgia Strait, beautiful one moment, menacing the next.