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.

Little Women – Louisa M. Alcott

Everyone seems to e familiar with the March sisters from multiple movies and TV series, but I had never read the original novel published in 1909.  Part 1 was read from an old book inscribed as being the “Property of Maisie Bentley 1913”, purchased in Bristol I think. Part of the charm in reading this very old book was inclusion of 8 full-page colour illustrations. Part 2 was read as a library e-book. Alcott’s writing is necessarily old-fashioned with emphasis on morals and some authorial homilies. These characters are so indelible and well-loved that it was a treat to read the original words.

Dominicana – Angie Cruz

It is the 1960s: Ana is 15 years old and newly married when she moves to New York City with her much older controlling husband. The NY context is the Washington Heights neighbourhood which is colourful and multi-cultural. Ana speaks no English and has no documents so she has a tough life. The 1960s setting in NY is one of the strengths of this story. Thanks Amy, for this recommendation.

That’s My Baby – Frances Itani

Ms. Itani has written two superb books about an Ontario community coping with the aftermath of WWI, Deafening (2003) and Tell (2011). This story is about Hanova who learns in 1958 on her 18th birthday that she was adopted as a child. Itani’s exquisite writing is subtle and expressive: the beauty of ordinariness (much like Carole Shields and Alice Munro). Her description of a trip to a dance hall is perfect. Hanora’s life during WWII and her subsequent considerable success as a writer is a major focus of the book, along with her quest for information about her birth parents. Itani’s impeccable writing covers diverse topics like art and music; she is a national literary treasure.

Educated – Tara Westover

This is a remarkable memoir where reality is stranger than fiction. The author was raised in the mountains of Utah. Her parents were survivalists and totally suspicious of government so she had no birth certificate and does not go to school. To say that she was home-schooled is rather generous; her learning is self-directed and spotty. Tara is the youngest of 5 children. Her life is complicated by a controlling father and a brother who bullies her both psychologically and physically. The second half of the book details her escape to university, first to Brigham Young University and then to Cambridge England. This is a compelling story of remarkable resilience but at great cost. The contradictions of memory are also a feature of a memoir that is so deeply emotional. Final comment: Westover’s parents make the parents in Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle seem wonderful by comparison! Thanks Erin and Amy, for this recommendation.

Akin – Emma Donoghue

An odd couple makes a trip to Nice France. Noah is a 79-year-old recently-widowed childless retired University professor; Michael is his 11-year-old great-nephew who Noah has never met. Their wildly disparate backgrounds create both considerable conflict and humour as they investigate a series of World War II photographs from Noah’s mother. This is a wondrously written story of love, loss and family.

In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo – Claire Tacon

This delightful novel is about complicated family relationships. Henry and Kath have two grown daughters; Starr is the oldest and is special-needs (Williams Syndrome). Part of the story recounts a disastrous road trip by Henry, Starr and Darren (Henry’s co-worker) to a ComicCon convention in Chicago. How can a father get the correct balance between being protective, to hold on tighter, to hold off the future, with the absolute need to let go? In parts the story is hilarious but also poignant and at times heart-breaking. Henry can be frustratingly hapless at times, full of contradictions. All the characters have rich complex personalities, proving that life is messy and complicated: a very fine read. Thanks Amy, for this recommendation.

Autopsy of a Boring Wife – Marie-Renee Lavoie

Simply put, this is a marvellous read. Diane is a married mother of three grown children whose life is over-turned when her husband leaves her for a younger woman. What is brilliant in the story-telling is the raw emotions, the biting anger displayed by Diane in encounters with her mother-in-law and her husbands new partner are priceless.