The Island of Sea Women – Lisa See

A detailed account of a friendship between two Korean women who are part of a woman’s diving collective (Haenyo) on a Korean island. The story begins in 1938, then progresses through the Japanese occupation prior to and during World War II. Their friendship is ruptured by an act of atrocity; the post-war years leading to the Korean War are filled with hardships. The latter part of the book is a poignant recalling of broken trust and how difficult it is to achieve reconciliation and grant forgiveness. This is a profound story of women who are powerful in the sea but overcome by extreme forces on  land. The history of Korea, especially the post-war chaos, makes for a powerful book.

The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

A re-telling of the Iliad from the point of view of Briseus, the daughter of the King of Lyrnessus who is awarded to Achilles as a trophy. The best part of this book is the portrayal of the ensuing 9-year Trojan War as the folly of men, waging war because of a mis-guided sense of honour usually manifesting as petulance. Achilles is especially blood-thirsty, driven by a rage and compulsion to kill. The savagery of war is described wonderfully by the author of the Regeneration Trilogy, a masterful treatment of war and its collateral damage.

Death at La Fenice – Donna Leon

In my comments of The Temptation of Forgiveness (May 2018), it was noted this was the 27th Inspector Brunetti book. Death at La Fenice is the first, written in 1992. This origin story is notable for its initial definition of Brunetti as a crime investigator: he works alone without computers or fancy forensics, he listens and thinks. His warm loving family life is featured here as in all the Leon books; there is a simply glorious account of a Monopoly game with his wife and children. Thanks Amy, for this delightful read.

Smoke – Dan Vyleta

Sometimes speculative fiction creates entire new fantastical worlds. In other examples, like this book, a paradoxical provocation is introduced to a familiar world, in this case England about a century ago. The novel aspect in this story is that evil in thought or deed is manifested by the emanation of smoke from bodies. This produces a class distinction or separation; the upper class aristocrats and gentry generally do not smoke but the lower working classes are drenched in smoke that becomes a dense soot. So London becomes a particularly dark place. The protagonists are three young people exposed to lies, secrets and increasing violence and treachery. The crucial issues: rich versus poor, political differences, right versus wrong, love versus lust, and lots of guilt. This is very fine writing, reminiscent of some of Stephen King’s best stories.

The Affairs of the Falcons – Melissa Rivera

A compelling story of a Peruvian family displaced to New York as undocumented illegals. This is a relationship book that highlights a well-known fact that all relationships can be complicated, but none more that under the pressure of living illegally – how can Ana provide housing, food and shelter for her family? The displaced South Americans all watch Spanish soap operas on TV, but their own lives are infinitely more complicated than the TV plots. The essential question: what will you do to protect your family? This is an especially topical book given the current immigration chaos in the United States.

The Magicians – Lev Grossman

Note: The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman is from a list of recommended books about magic by Erin Morgenstern, author of the fabulous The Night Circus. More than half of this first book is about a magic school but this is not Hogwarts: the school is in upper New York state and the students are older (post-high school) so they indulge in young adult activities like drinking and sex, making for complicated relationships. There are two difficulties: learning magical incantations is very hard (wands are for sissies) and there is an existential dilemma – what is the purpose of magic in a modern world? This latter issue is addressed by the young magicians entering a fantasy realm, one described in fiction books and thought to be entirely imaginary; all the magicians have read the books about the magical world of Fillory when they were young children. This is where imaginative adventures occur with violence and a significant body count. So this book offers a very different treatment of magic compared to Harry Potter books, but is equal entertaining.

The Magician King – Lev Grossman

Book two of the trilogy, the continued adventures of Quentin and colleagues: more travel in a quest to locate five magical keys. Part of this travel is on Earth, using portals that are created precisely with Google Street View! And there are deliciously old-fashioned sea trips in Fillory. Much of the book has metaphysical tones. Where does magic come from? Are there all-powerful secret magicians (aka Gods; I was reminded of the Old Gods in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods)? Finally, there are wonderful character names like Pouncy Silverkitten – what’s not to love!