When We Lost Our Heads – Heather O’Neill

Simply put, this is a wonderful book about compelling and complex women in Montreal at the end of the 19th century. Men in the story are mostly inconsequential, despite some appallingly boorish behaviour. Marie and Sadie are best friends as children, but theirs is a classic love-hate relationship (“Every decent friendship comes with a drop of hatred. But that hatred is like honey in the tea. It makes it addictive”). Marie is spoiled and entitled; Sadie is subversive and dangerous. Ms. O’Neill‘s writing is enchanting with exquisite similes describing disparate worlds: life in a brothel, exploitive factory work (the Squalid Mile). Female relationships are infinitely complex with righteous anger, pettiness and jealousy, and a self-absorbed woman who has no empathy toward other women. Powerful feminist themes abound: the invisibility of marriage, sexual awareness leading to female empowerment. And finally, anticipate a late plot twist and an extraordinary ending. This is O’Neill at her best, a Montreal noir story.

These Precious Days – Ann Patchett

Ms. Patchett is one of my favourite novelists (The Patron Saint of Liars, Bel Canto) but she also writes essays that previously were collected into the wonderful book This is a Story of a Happy Marriage. This is her second book of essays, some published previously in Harpers and the Atlantic. All are insightful glimpses into her life, from childhood to the current time. A favourite for me is the first essay about her three fathers, all different experiences, all with positive and negatives. Her writing is clear, focused, and honest – highly recommended.

(Amy seconds all of this!)

The Winter Wives – Linden MacIntyre

A superb relationship book: Allan and Byron have married the Winter sisters, Peggy and Annie, respectively. What is love and friendship in the face of manipulation? What is memory when confronted with dementia and suppressed recall? How much wilful disbelief accompanies work for someone who has criminal activities? This is a cracking good psychological thriller – highly recommended.

Apeirogon – Colum McCann

Simply put – this is a remarkable book, one that must be read slowly and savoured. First, a definition: an apeirogon is a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. Thus, a perfect title for a book addressing the complex many-faceted Israel-Palestine situation. Bassam is Palestinian; his daughter Abir was killed by a rubber bullet fired by an Israeli border guard. Rami is Israeli; his daughter Smadar was killed by Palestinian suicide bombers. They separately deal with perceptions of revenge and justice, and the many versions of truth. And unexpectedly, they become friends. Their stories unfold in a non-linear manner with incredible detail. Overall, a breathtaking narrative that merges fact with imagination, violence and grief.

The Man Who Died Twice – Richard Osman

Another delightful Thursday Murder Club mystery: Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim investigate missing diamonds and then several murders. As before, this is a warm and clever story, in large part about friendships. It is also deeply philosophical about aging – a real pleasure to read.

Beautiful World, Where Are You – Sally Rooney

Ms. Rooney’s new book is about four 30-year-olds: Alice and Eileen, Simon and Felix. Although older than the teenagers in Normal People, these adults are no more successful in their relationships. Despite deep friendships and yes, love, they can be frustratingly emotionally distant, deflecting a question with a question as the rejoinder. Overall, a fabulous examination of the modern world. Desire is complicated with delusion; perceptions of happiness are clouded by anxiety and uncertainty. A brilliant book – highly recommended.

State of Terror – Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny

This is a cracking good political thriller involving terrorist threats, combining the crime writing expertise of Louise Penny with the real-world political expertise of Hillary Clinton. The politics and drama of trying to prevent nuclear bomb explosions is portrayed brilliantly, with geopolitical actions in Frankfurt, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and in Washington DC. The book features strong feminist characters and the power of (female) friendships.

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.

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.