The Mothers – Britt Bennett

Ms. Bennet wrote the fabulous The Vanishing Half, so I wanted to read her first book. The Mothers is about 3 teenagers in Oceanside, north of San Diego; there is teenage sex and a pregnancy and an abortion, actions that have consequences over the next 6 years. This is an excellent relationship book about community in contemporary Black America, friendships undermined by secrets, the aftermath of youthful choices. Finally, the title The Mothers refers in part to elderly church women who are a Greek chorus, commenting on events. And also, the title refers to the issue of absent mothers for two of the characters. This is an insightful, thoughtful engaging story – highly recommended.

The Jane Austen Society – Natalie Jenner

Given my predilection for angst-filled introspective relationship books, it is always a delight to read something entirely different. It is England in the 1940s: a disparate group of 8 people create a local Jane Austen society to preserve Austen’s home and legacy. Much debate ensues about favourite Austen characters (Emma versus Elizabeth Bennett). And delightfully the relationships between some of the 8 society members plays out like an Austen plot. In short, a thoroughly charming book.

Ridgerunner – Gil Adamson

This is a beautifully written book set in 1917. After the death of his mother, 12-year-old Jack is delivered to the care of Sister Beatrice while his father, William Moreland, leaves to raise money to support Jack. However, Moreland’s only skill is as a thief; some of his escapades are Butch Cassidy-like. Much of the setting is the Banff-Lake Louise corridor with the World War in the background. The characters are rich, and the depictions of the natural world are breath-taking. Hopefully, this book will be a strong Giller contender. Ms. Adamson previously wrote the well–regarded The Outlander.

The Pull of the Stars – Emma Donoghue

Not surprisingly, this is another superb historical fiction story by Ms. Donoghue, a writer who never fails to entertain. Dublin in 1918 is suffering the ravages of the Spanish flu pandemic. The story follows three women over just 3 days in a small Maternity/Fever ward: a nurse, volunteer, and physician. There is impeccable medical detail. But the dominant theme is hopelessness – an inability to effectively treat influenza patients with an over-arching issue of mistreatment of orphans and children of unwed mothers by Catholic residentials schools/homes. Highly recommended but be prepared for some profound sadness.

How a Woman Becomes a Lake – Marjorie Celona

A beautifully written story set in a small town in Washington state in 1986, a mystery about a missing person. Celona’s description of flawed family relationships is harrowing; guilt, shame, grief, and blame are all factors. The merciless weight of carrying secrets and the ongoing cost of keeping these secrets are dominant themes. And there is an intriguing treatment of an after-death perspective. Highly recommended.

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

Simply put, this is a brilliant imaginative book. Nora’s life at age 35 is consumed by regrets. She wishes to die but between life and death is a library where books provide opportunities to choose a different life, essentially portals to parallel existences. But a good choice may not produce a desired outcome. The story is deeply philosophical, about not only choices but how expectations drive decisions.

Mexican Gothic – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexico 1950: Noemi goes to see her cousin Catalina who is living in a creepy old mansion called the High Place. The story has a slow beginning but then accelerates to become a true gothic thriller. Can a house have a malevolent purpose, to possess humans? What will humans sacrifice for immortality?  Can you distinguish a dream from a hallucination? Small spoiler alert: readers of this thoroughly creepy book will never again view mushrooms as innocuous things!

A Large Petal of the Sea – Isabel Allende

Allende’s latest historical fiction novel follows two young Spanish people as they flee the Spanish Civil War in 1938. Roser is a pregnant widow; Victor is the brother of her deceased lover. Their flight to the French border is harrowing. Eventually they are chosen by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to immigrate to Chile but must be married to qualify for the journey. Thus, a long caring relationship is initiated in a new country. A replay of the Spanish Civil War conflict is encountered by the military overthrow of the Allende government in 1973, another battle between freedom and repression. After a 12-year exile in Venezuela, Roser and Victor return to Chile which is their true home. This is an epic story told with Allende’s typical lucidity.