Charles Darwin: Voyaging – Janet Browne

This impeccably researched biography of a scientific genius covers Darwin’s early life: his childhood, haphazard University education and then his 5-year voyage on the Beagle. Following his return to Britain, he then spent more than 20 years researching and publishing numerous scientific studies while marshalling his evidence for natural selection that would result in his publication of the Origin of Species. Darwin’s scientific life is impressive because of his breadth of interests and knowledge, from biology to geology, and his transition from observation as a naturalist to an experimentalist. Overall, an insightful description of a genius. Be warned, there is incredible detail, more than 500 pages plus footnotes and references. Browne’s second volume in the Darwin biography, The Power of Place, is equally detailed but less interesting without the Beagle adventures. Thanks, Mike, for this recommendation.

The Night Watchman – Louise Erdrich

Another very fine Indigenous novel from Ms. Erdrich, this time the Turtle Mountain Indians (North Dakota) in 1953-54 who have to counter a USA Government plan to “emancipate” Indian tribes. In fact, this government plan will terminate all support to Indians and force their relocation to cities with loss of their lands. Much of the story concerns the community response to this existential threat. One of the most attractive aspects of this story is the ordinariness of the community. There is angst, to be sure: poverty, substance abuse, human trafficking. But the story does not dwell on the negatives, but rather on the community action. Who are the leaders? How can their initiatives be financed? And there are ghosts! A very fine read.

City of Girls – Elizabeth Gilbert

In 2010,  a very old woman, Vivian, receives a letter with a question: “If you now feel comfortable telling me what you were to my father?” Thus begins a long remembering of Vivian’s life, starting in New York as a 20-year old in 1940. Vivian is the epitome of white privilege, a delightfully hedonistic person with self-deprecating humour. The description of the NY theatre scene in the 40s is fabulous. Overall a recounting of both strong and toxic female relationships for a completely entertaining story. Thanks Amy.

Redhead by the Side of the Road – Anne Tyler

Full disclosure: I love Anne Tyler’s writing. In this slim novel, she continues her theme of writing about ordinary but quirky people in Baltimore. Micah is a 42-year old man who lives a predictable life, constrained by precise patterns of behaviour. “Sometimes when he was dealing with people he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up prizes but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove”. Can Micah find happiness? Tyler describes funny and poignant situations with introspective wisdom.

The Sword in the Stone – T. H. White

This is the first book of White’s magnificent 4-book collection entitled the Once And Future King, an epic retelling of King Arthur legends. In this first book, the young Arthur (nicknamed Wart) is tutored by Merlyn so much magic is involved. Lessons frequently involve Wart’s transformation into different animals: fish, birds, a badger, etc. There are also some gut-busting hilarious illustrations of the difficulties of jousting. Imaginative writing is coupled with impressive knowledge of natural history (how to fly, how to swim) makes this an enchanting read.

 

Amy adds: still laughing at the jousting descriptions!

The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern

What if you found an old mis-shelved fiction book in a University Library that contains an incident from your own life, described in perfect detail? This is the beginning of this wildly inventive novel and it gets better! Doors are painted on surfaces that become portals to an underground maze of tunnels and rooms filled with books/stories. Characters in reality interact with characters from stories, and time is very flexible. But this magical place is under attack and great quests ensue. Morgenstern’s writing is wonderfully imaginative; previously she wrote the fabulous The Night Circus (2011). Both books are must reads.

 

Amy adds; it’s a love letter to storytelling, and it gripped my heart.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Academy was a notorious reform school in Florida; young African-American boys could be assigned for months-years for trivial reasons. And they were subjected to horrible abuse: beatings, sexual assault, etc. The story focusses on two boys in the early 60s, Elwood and Turner, who have remarkably different viewpoints. Elwood has ideals based on the words of Martin Luther King; Turner is a cynical schemer. Which boy is more likely to survive the Nickel nightmare? The Jim Crow era in the South in the 1960s has evils that are perpetuated in the current #BLM times.  Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for his previous book The Underground Railroad: both are highly recommended.

Machines Like Us – Ian McEwan

McEwan has created an alternative 1982 London in which Britain loses the Falklands War and PM Thatcher is defeated by Tony Benn. Most significantly, Sir Alan Turing achieves an artificial intelligence breakthrough resulting in the creation of humanoid robots; prototypes are named Adam and Eve. Charlie purchases an Adam and together with his girlfriend Miranda, Adam’s personality (mind) is personalized. What follows is a fascinating 3-way relationship story. With machine learning, what makes us human? This provocative and enthralling story is one of McEwan’s best.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett

Two African-American twin sisters grow up in rural Louisiana in the 1950-60s with a unique feature – they are very light-skinned. Eventually their lives separate because Stella chooses to live as a white woman. In the 1980s, the daughters of the estranged sisters (one black, one white) meet by chance. So this is a relationship book: twin sisters, mother-daughters, cousins. Of particular interest is the strained and curious relationship between the two cousins which drives the latter half of the story. This is a really excellent identity book with a story line that is never trite or stereotypical – highly recommended.