So Much Life Left Over – Louis De Bernieres

Daniel Pitt is a WWI flying ace who struggles to fid purpose after surviving the war – what to do with life inexplicably left over. His story from 1925-45 includes Ceylon, England, France and Germany. His marriage to Rosie slowly disintegrates, and Rosie acquires a remarkably mean-spirited persona. And there are Rosie’s three sisters, each strong individual characters. The story evolves in short chapters with different points-of-view. Overall, a compelling story of complex relationships in post-war and pre-war contexts.

Amy adds: Louis De Bernieres also wrote The Dust that Falls from Dreams, and the excellent Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

The Code Breaker – Walter Isaacson

This fabulous book makes me think I should read more non-fiction! First, an aside: the best acronyms are pronounceable. This book is about the discovery of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short patronymic repeats, if you are interested), a powerful gene editing tool that may revolutionize biology. The book is meticulously researched with a lot of science, but it is also about scientists – what motivates them to pursue discoveries? The stark differences between collegial collaborations and cut-throat competition for prizes and patents is high-lighted. Finally, the ethics of gene editing is a major focus, specifically the divide between somatic editing to cure or prevent disease and germline (inheritable) editing which could be used to enhance traits like height or intelligence. This is a thoughtful and gripping book – highly recommended. Thanks Linda, for the gift of this book.

What Strange Paradise – Omar El Akkad

A Giller short-listed book about Amir, a 9-year-old Syrian refugee, the sole survivor of a shipwreck who is washed up on a Greek Island. He evades capture by local authorities and is rescued by Vanna, a 15-year-old resident of the island. What follows is a strange and dangerous odyssey by two children who do not speak a common language. They are pursued by Colonel Kethros, an implacable authority figure (think Javert). The writing is exceptional, describing both hope and despair, empathy and indifference.

The Son of the House – Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onubia

Also Giller short-listed: a Nigerian story of two women, Nwabula and Julie; their two seemingly independent lives intersect dramatically at the end of the book. The story begins in the 1970s, and then jumps forward to 2011.The book has two strong features. First, there is the Nigerian context, with both exotic and frustratingly corrupts aspects. But mostly this is about the resilience of women in an intense human drama.

The Road From Coorain – Jill Ker Conway

This is a clear-eyed memoir of growing up in Australia (1935-75) with two exquisite points-of-view. The first is her evocative description of the physical geography of an 18,000-acre sheep station, 500 miles west of Sydney. The bush ethos, the virtue of loneliness and hardship, is a marked feature of her early life, along with the profound isolation (no other children as playmates).The second point-of-view comes after the death of her father and her relocation with her mother to Sydney, where she is introduced to rigid class structures and the minimal role of women in education. This is a masterpiece of place and memory.

Fight Club – Miriam Toews

Another tour-de-fore novel by a wonderful storyteller. A remarkable feature of this book is its literary style which is completely different from Toews’ previous books. This is a story of three generations of women. The principal character is Swiv (age unspecified, as is the origin of her name) who has a pregnant and unstable mother and an eccentric grandmother. The wisdom of the grandmother, namely that you must fight to survive, drives the story. The place is Toronto with an extraordinary and hilarious road trip to Fresno for Swiv and Elvira, her grandmother. This is epic storytelling about unusual family relationships – highly recommended.

Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead

This is a very different book from Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novels The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. The setting is Harlem in the early 1960s, so a time of change in the racial dynamics of New York City. The principal character, Ray Carney, sells furniture but also occasionally sells or disposes of stolen items. On page 31, it is stated that “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked”. However, his ne’er-do-well cousin Freddie involves him in some serious criminal activity, so the story is enriched by gangsters, crooked cops and corrupt bankers. Ultimately this is a heist and crime story within the cultural context of Harlem. Overall, brilliant writing, as always. Thanks Amy, for giving me this fantastic book.

Humans of New York City Stories – Brandon Stanton

This is a remarkable book of street photography coupled with brief but insightful narratives from interviews with the subjects. The photos are outstanding but the narratives, the comments, are sometimes astonishingly candid. Comments range from the unbridled optimism of children to introspective insights from adults regarding loneliness and isolation that may include mental illness. This is a riveting book for NY-philes. Thanks Sarah, for giving me this book.