We Ride Upon Sticks – Quan Barry

It is 1989, and a high school field hockey team (10 females, 1 male) in Danvers Massachusetts is driven to win the state championship. Can witchcraft help in this quest, particularly since Danvers is near to Salem, the site of the witch trials and burnings in 1692? This is a brilliant depiction of friendship in the context of high school and team sports. Teenage culture in 1989 is presented perfectly; music, hormones – sex drugs and rock-n-roll. Great fun.

Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro has been recognized as a great writer by receiving the Nobel Prize for literature. This new book is simply brilliant, in part because of a unique point-of-view. The narrator Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF, aka robot), with acute powers of observing and learning. She is acquired by Josie and must learn about friendship and the nuances of human behaviour: love, loneliness, sacrifice, what it means to be human. Klara is an AF/AI with empathy, to serve as a companion, to prevent Josie’s loneliness. Empathy is not achieved by programming but rather by machine learning. Overall, this is a compelling story about relationships; Klara has a special relationship with the sun (she is solar powered) which she logically tries to apply to humans. And typically (recall Never Let Me Go), Ishiguro introduces a single word in the text that is not explained for 200 pages, creating a mystery. Fantastic book, highly recommended. Finally, this is a very nice companion book to Machines Like Us by Ian McEwan.

Seven – Farzana Doctor

Sharifa is an Indian American woman living in New York. She accompanies her husband and 7-year-old daughter to India for an 8-month visit to Mumbai. In India, she researches the life of her great-great-grandfather, but increasingly becomes involved in a movement to ban female genital mutilation (khatna) in her Muslim religious community. This is a very strong story of kinship and community, and the damage to women’s bodies in the name of religion.

The Thursday Murder Plot – Richard Osman

Four 70-80-year-old members of an upscale retirement village in SE England meet on Thursdays to discuss unsolved cold cases. The murder of a local developer suddenly affords the the opportunity to apply their talents to a “live” case. Their manipulation of the police to share information is sublime. The writing exhibits wit and intelligence, and the diabolical plot is riddled with red herrings. Thanks Joyce, for this recommendation.

Miss Benson’s Beetle – Rachel Joyce

Ms. Joyce has written some unabashedly sentimental books (e.g., The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) and this book follows in this genre. In 1950s London, Margery Benson, a 46-year-old spinster, flees her teaching job to commence an obsessive journey, a quest for a never-discovered golden beetle in New Caledonia. She recruits a travelling companion, Enid Pretty, who is wildly inappropriate as a research assistant. But this unlikely odd couple eventually develops a close friendship, as one might predict, despite many hilarious frustrations. But all is not sweetness and light in this story: there is a murder sub-plot and a deranged stalker. Some laugh-out-loud sections are coupled with some truly poignant moments. Above all, this is a superb literary example of the transformative power of friendship.

The Crash Palace – Andrew Wedderburn

Audrey is a young woman who loves to drive. Much of this story describes in detail an extended road trip with four aging ex-punk rockers, to gigs in mostly empty dive bars throughout BC and Alberta. Wedderburn’s writing is wonderfully descriptive: the physical geography, the smells and sounds of the bars. There are many recognizable locations in Calgary and Camore. And with a character called the Skinny Cowboy, what’s not to love! Thanks Sarah, for giving me this delightful book.

Love – Roddy Doyle

Two near 60-year-old men meet in Dublin pubs to reminisce, so this is the epitome of a “guy” book. Early in the book it is stated: “There is a reason why men do not talk about their feelings. It’s not just that it is difficult, or embarrassing. It’s almost impossible. The words aren’t really there.” And yet, Joe wants to share a secret; Davy listens and withholds a personal secret. What follows is an inarticulate but profound examination of friendship, memories, and mortality, and love in many forms. This is Doyle at his best.

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.

Polar Vortex – Shani Mootoo

This is a superb introspective relationship story. Priya and Alexandra have a six-year marriage that is disrupted by the impending visit of Prakash, a long-time friend of Priya’s. What are Prakash’s motives for this visit? Why has Priya been withholding information on the significance of this friendship from Alex? And why can memories between friends be so selectively remembered and interpreted? A bit gloomy but overall an excellent read (on the Giller long-list).