We Ride Upon Sticks – Quan Barry

It is 1989, and a high school field hockey team (10 females, 1 male) in Danvers Massachusetts is driven to win the state championship. Can witchcraft help in this quest, particularly since Danvers is near to Salem, the site of the witch trials and burnings in 1692? This is a brilliant depiction of friendship in the context of high school and team sports. Teenage culture in 1989 is presented perfectly; music, hormones – sex drugs and rock-n-roll. Great fun.

A Town Called Solace – Mary Lawson

Clara, age 7, lives in Northern Ontario. It is 1972 and Clara has two responsibilities: to keep vigil for her runaway 16-year-old sister and to look after the cat in her neighbour’s house while Mrs. Orchard is in hospital. But then a strange man occupies Mrs. Orchard’s house! Three distinct storylines emerge, each with differing timelines, But this is Clara’s story: fear, love, resilience, a child’s imagination when truth is withheld. Lawson is a literary master; her previous book Crow Lake is equally compelling.

Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro has been recognized as a great writer by receiving the Nobel Prize for literature. This new book is simply brilliant, in part because of a unique point-of-view. The narrator Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF, aka robot), with acute powers of observing and learning. She is acquired by Josie and must learn about friendship and the nuances of human behaviour: love, loneliness, sacrifice, what it means to be human. Klara is an AF/AI with empathy, to serve as a companion, to prevent Josie’s loneliness. Empathy is not achieved by programming but rather by machine learning. Overall, this is a compelling story about relationships; Klara has a special relationship with the sun (she is solar powered) which she logically tries to apply to humans. And typically (recall Never Let Me Go), Ishiguro introduces a single word in the text that is not explained for 200 pages, creating a mystery. Fantastic book, highly recommended. Finally, this is a very nice companion book to Machines Like Us by Ian McEwan.

The Kingdom – Jo Nesbo

Nesbo is best known for his Scandinavian-noir crime novels featuring Detective Harry Hole. His new book also concerns crime in Norway but from the point-of-view of the perpetrators. Roy and Carl are brothers living on a mountain top. Roy works in a service station and as the elder brother, he functions as Carl’s keeper, first as children and now as adults. Nesbo’s stories typically address issues like morality, but this book is particularly philosophical. Motives for bad behaviour are explored, casual violence leads to murder. Acceptance of violence is a seemingly casual action. Untypically, romantic relationships occur, and the L-word (love) is used. And complex relationships are complicated by lies, deceit and willful ignorance of certain realities. Simply put, this is one of Nesbo’s best books.

Slow Horses – Mick Herron

When MI 5 intelligence agents screw up, they are banished to a London location known as Slough House, and the disgraced agents are referred to as “slow horses”.  The story is devilishly complex: everyone has ulterior motives, like a Le Carre story. And the Slough House leader”, Jackson Lamb, is a deliciously wicked man with gross personal habits. This is an excellent spy story with 6 more to follow. Thanks Joyce, for this recommendation.

Seven – Farzana Doctor

Sharifa is an Indian American woman living in New York. She accompanies her husband and 7-year-old daughter to India for an 8-month visit to Mumbai. In India, she researches the life of her great-great-grandfather, but increasingly becomes involved in a movement to ban female genital mutilation (khatna) in her Muslim religious community. This is a very strong story of kinship and community, and the damage to women’s bodies in the name of religion.

Devolution – Max Brooks

Brooks wrote the very excellent World War Z (skip the 2013 Brad Pitt movie). In this new book, Greenloop is a high-tech enclave that is completely isolated by a Mount Rainier volcanic eruption. What follows is a survivalist story that is complicated enormously by an attacking Sasquatch/Bigfoot tribe. The horror of discovering this predatory danger is revealed slowly but inexorably, Stephen King-like. Some of the survival instincts reminded me of Lord of the Flies. Be warned: there is graphic bloody violence. Overall a compelling story, a nice companion to The Centaur’s Wife.

The Thursday Murder Plot – Richard Osman

Four 70-80-year-old members of an upscale retirement village in SE England meet on Thursdays to discuss unsolved cold cases. The murder of a local developer suddenly affords the the opportunity to apply their talents to a “live” case. Their manipulation of the police to share information is sublime. The writing exhibits wit and intelligence, and the diabolical plot is riddled with red herrings. Thanks Joyce, for this recommendation.

The Centaur’s Wife – Amanda Leduc

Heather has just given birth to twin daughters when a meteor shower destroys much of the world. So, on one hand, this is a post-apocalyptic survival story. How do you cope: with optimism (if we work together, we will survive) or pessimism (we are going to starve and die)? But there is a second key element in this book, that the nearby mountain has supernatural power, ground magic, and yes, that centaurs exist on the mountain. Fairy tales are interspersed with a stark realty. This is a compelling fable for our uncertain time.