If Sylvie Had Nine Lives – Leona Theis

Sylvia’s life from 1974-2014 is told as 9 separate lives, entirely separate stories with different husbands, activities, children. Sylvia emerges as a flawed but appealing woman. Her stories illustrate the impact of decisions that have profoundly different reverberations and impacts. Each chapter presents a new Sylvia who is very entertaining and often surprising. This was an excellent first read in 2021.

Anxious People – Fredrik Backman

Backman is a terrific storyteller (Beartown, A Man Called Ove). His new book starts with a failed bank robbery in Sweden which progresses to a hostage situation. What follows is a comic masterpiece with poignant moments. There are laugh-out loud passages, mostly describing idiotic behaviour (not just the hapless bank robber but also by the anxious hostages). There are philosophical chapters with comic insights like “swans can be passive-aggressive bastards”, followed by musings on fear and failure so both humorous and compassionate writing. Highly recommended.

The Association of Small Bombs – Keran Mahajan

In 1996, a terrorist bomb explodes in a Delhi market. The story that emerges is about the aftermath for the victims and the activists and terrorists. Thus, it is the psychological aftermath: the cost to survivors, the motivation of terrorists. The ripple effects of this 1996 bomb expand to a subsequent bomb in 2003. This is a very strong story with beautiful writing set in the compelling chaos of India.

The Midnight Bargain – C L Polk

This imaginative book is in the speculative fiction/fantasy genre. What is novel is the context: a narrative about class and entitlement, and especially gender politics, takes place in the 1800s Regency era in England! Beatrice has a dilemma, to make a very difficult choice between two very different outcomes. First, to be chosen for a bride in a ceremony that is somewhat akin to the Bachelorette; her duty to her family is to secure an advantageous marriage because of family debt. But second is her strong desire to learn magic. These two options are mutually exclusive, thus the dilemma. Magic mainly consists of summoning spirits, for example a good luck spirit. So, this is a romantic fantasy novel about a young woman who must balance her desire to become a great magician against her family duty: a very entertaining book that is a Canada Reads contender.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

It is an extraordinarily hot summer in England in 1976, and someone has gone missing from a suburban avenue. Two 10-year-old girls, Grace and Tilly,  begin a dual search for the missing person and for God (based on a misunderstanding of a Vicar’s sermon). Secrets emerge about a tragic event 10 years previous – is this linked to the disappearance? This is an evocative coming-of-age story that is also about a community in need of absolution. Cannon’s writing is wonderfully descriptive: “carpet the colour of cough syrup”. Overall, a moving and perceptive story – highly recommended. Thanks Joyce, for telling me about this book.

Rabbit Foot Bill – Helen Humphreys

It is 1947 in a small town in Saskatchewan. Leonard is a young boy who befriends a reclusive man known as Rabbit Foot Bill. Bill commits a sudden act of violence and is sent to prison. Twelve years later, Leonard is a recently graduated doctor of psychiatry. His first job is at the Weyburn Mental Hospital where he encounters Bill again. What follows is a strange obsession that ends badly. This book explores the frailty and resilience of the human mind, and the elusive relationship between truth and fiction. The story also reveals the abysmal treatment of mental illness in the 1950s with use of LSD by both the doctors and patients. Humphreys is an under-appreciated literary goddess, with previous gems like The Evening Chorus, The Lost Garden and Nocturne.

The Library At Mount Char – Scott Hawkins

This is a wildly imaginative speculative fiction story. Carolyn is a “librarian” in a library that contains all the secrets of the universe. However, she is like no ordinary librarian; her agenda is complex and difficult to describe. The story is complicated to enter and impossible to predict. So, imagine gods and monsters, much bloody violence but occasional hilarious sections. Reading this book reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. In short, a very original epic fantasy about cruelty that is also a thriller.

Indians On Vacation – Thomas King

Bird and Mimi are travelling in Europe in an attempt to re-trace the journey of Mimi’s long-lost Uncle. What follows is a complex mix of humour and wit with poignant introspective events. The backstory emerges in alternating chapters. This is a completely satisfying look at two people’s relationship that is stressed by travel.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue – V. E. Schwab

Ms. Schwab wrote the fabulous Shades of Magic trilogy and this new book is also a tour-de-force entry in the genre of speculative fiction. In 1714, Adeline (Addie) makes a Faustian deal with a devil (an old god of darkness) to avoid the tedium of an arranged marriage, asking for “time, a chance to live and be free”.  She is granted immortality, but with a curse: that everyone who meets her then forgets her instantly, making her invisible. For 300 years, she struggles to leave her mark in the world. Then in 2014, she enters a bookstore in New York and the bookstore worker says “I remember you” because she stole a book the previous day! This is a sweeping fantasy: a love story that explores the differences between needs and wants, art and inspiration. The final setting of New York City with a central role of a bookstore is, of course, very attractive. Highly recommended.