The City We Became – NK Jemisin

A very imaginative example of speculative fiction about the soul of cities, specifically New York which is protected by five avatars in the five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. The personalities of the avatars reflect the borough characteristics. But there is conflict, a city takeover by malevolent forces! Highly entertaining with extraordinary visual scenes. Thanks Amy for this recommendation.

Metropolis – Philip Kerr

Another sublime Bernie Gunther crime thriller. The plot is intricate with vivid characters, and Kerr’s books always have superb context. In this book, it is Berlin in 1928 so lingering effects of WWI and the rise of facism are all key features of difficult Berlin life. Gunther is a republican meaning neither a socialist or fascist so he has to navigate complex and dangerous social politics. And there is much moral philosophy about the origins of crime and the role of police. Regretfully Kerr died in 2018 so this will be the last of his writing

Five Little Indians – Michelle Good

A graphic and powerful story of five indigernous children who have experienced Residential Schools, especially the aftermath on their post-school lives. Some tragic endings, some examples of resilience. This book should be assigned reading for those who dismiss the Residential School tragedy and for those who acknowledge hardship but then suggest that “survivors” should just get over it.

Knife – Jo Nesbo

The latest Harry Hole thriller is brilliant, one of his best. Hole’s usual chaotic life is even more nightmarish with binge drinking and blackouts.  A fiendish villain plots to frame Hole for a murder that Harry can’t be sure that he isn’t guilty of. So a diabolical plot with Hole’s behaviour driven by revenge and some very dubious actions. Finally there is a very satisfying enigmatic ending. Overall, an outstanding example of Scandinavian noir crime thrillers.

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

This is a very satisfying novel. First, the literary style is intriguing: long sentences with lots of commas and yet reading is smooth. Second, the subject matter is very topical; a dystopian future that begins in a localized fashion with two young lovers in an unspecified Middle Eastern location. Escalating conflict leads them to escape through doors that are portals to distant locations (London, Mykonos). Their future becomes uncertain in new lands that are overwhelmed by the arrival of increasing numbers of refugees/migrants like themselves. How do relationships survive when tested repeatedly – highly recommended.

Labyrinth of the Spirits – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Labyrinth is the 4th and final book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Context (time and place) is an important feature of Ruiz’ books and this is especially true of Labyrinth: Barcelona is presented as an eerie Gothic wonderland and 1959 features nefarious political and criminal activities. (And at 800 pages, there is lots of space for context!). Labyrinth features the enigmatic Alicia Gris as an investigator tasked with a missing person case, leading to much intrigue as secrets are revealed. And there is some shocking violence. This is a haunting story – highly recommended.

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.