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).

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Academy was a notorious reform school in Florida; young African-American boys could be assigned for months-years for trivial reasons. And they were subjected to horrible abuse: beatings, sexual assault, etc. The story focusses on two boys in the early 60s, Elwood and Turner, who have remarkably different viewpoints. Elwood has ideals based on the words of Martin Luther King; Turner is a cynical schemer. Which boy is more likely to survive the Nickel nightmare? The Jim Crow era in the South in the 1960s has evils that are perpetuated in the current #BLM times.  Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for his previous book The Underground Railroad: both are highly recommended.

The Robber Bride – Margaret Atwood

Simply put, this is a brilliant book, one of Atwood’s best. Three women (Tony, Charis and Roz) are each linked to Zenia, a brilliant and beautiful woman who is manipulative and ruthless. Over three decades, Zenia exerts considerable damage by creating really toxic relationships, but all three women remain in thrall, under a spell, beguiled. Even though Zenia’s lies and cons become obvious she somehow retains their sympathy while betraying their trust and treating male partners as loot. Fantastic story-telling.