If Sylvie Had Nine Lives – Leona Theis

Sylvia’s life from 1974-2014 is told as 9 separate lives, entirely separate stories with different husbands, activities, children. Sylvia emerges as a flawed but appealing woman. Her stories illustrate the impact of decisions that have profoundly different reverberations and impacts. Each chapter presents a new Sylvia who is very entertaining and often surprising. This was an excellent first read in 2021.

The Association of Small Bombs – Keran Mahajan

In 1996, a terrorist bomb explodes in a Delhi market. The story that emerges is about the aftermath for the victims and the activists and terrorists. Thus, it is the psychological aftermath: the cost to survivors, the motivation of terrorists. The ripple effects of this 1996 bomb expand to a subsequent bomb in 2003. This is a very strong story with beautiful writing set in the compelling chaos of India.

The Library At Mount Char – Scott Hawkins

This is a wildly imaginative speculative fiction story. Carolyn is a “librarian” in a library that contains all the secrets of the universe. However, she is like no ordinary librarian; her agenda is complex and difficult to describe. The story is complicated to enter and impossible to predict. So, imagine gods and monsters, much bloody violence but occasional hilarious sections. Reading this book reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. In short, a very original epic fantasy about cruelty that is also a thriller.

Butter Honey Pig bread – Francesca Ekwuyasi

A superb relationship book set mostly in Nigeria with some Canadian content. The memorable characters: a mother with an uneasy existence with the spirit world, and her twin daughters. The twins exhibit a special closeness but also a requirement for space away from each other, especially after a childhood trauma to one of the twins. And one of the daughters has an apparition to consult with and offer comment. An interesting feature of the story is that the context is Nigeria of privilege. There is lots of Nigerian cooking too. From the Giller long-list.

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.

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.

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.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett

Two African-American twin sisters grow up in rural Louisiana in the 1950-60s with a unique feature – they are very light-skinned. Eventually their lives separate because Stella chooses to live as a white woman. In the 1980s, the daughters of the estranged sisters (one black, one white) meet by chance. So this is a relationship book: twin sisters, mother-daughters, cousins. Of particular interest is the strained and curious relationship between the two cousins which drives the latter half of the story. This is a really excellent identity book with a story line that is never trite or stereotypical – highly recommended.

Greenwood – Michael Christie

A sweeping saga of four generations of the Greenwood family, told more or less backwards from 2038 to 1908. What is most interesting in the story-telling is that the Greenwood family is a construct. Two orphans are raised as “brothers’ but have no biological ties; a “daughter” is rescued and adopted into the family under mysterious conditions. Even the name Greenwood is an artificial construct, a name arbitrarily applied to the two (unrelated) orphans. The story has a strong ecological focus, from the dirty-thirties to a global ecological disaster called the withering in 2028. Very strong character, a vivid description of place – highly recommended.