Normal People – Sally Rooney

This is a superbly-written relationship book. The story covers four years in the lives of Connell and Marianne, one year at high school in the west of Ireland followed by University at Trinity College in Dublin. Rooney’s writing illustrates perfectly that relationships are complicated even between two people with undeniable chemistry, complications by miscommunication and misperception of feelings. There is also emotional paralysis by expectations of inadequacy and not belonging. Connell and Marianne are very different people from different backgrounds, resulting in feelings of isolation and disconnection. This is a great book, better than her first book Conversations With Friends.

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

As a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is equally compelling but with a very different tone. Whereas The Handmaid’s Tale had a single narrator (Offred), The Testaments (set 16 years later) has three voices: two very different young women, one raised in Gilead and one raised outside, and the notorious Aunt Lydia. The resulting story is less introspective with more action, thus less reactive. The seeds of dissent are outlined clearly and logically with some Machiavellian motivations. This is a page turner, a completely engrossing read.

The Island of Sea Women – Lisa See

A detailed account of a friendship between two Korean women who are part of a woman’s diving collective (Haenyo) on a Korean island. The story begins in 1938, then progresses through the Japanese occupation prior to and during World War II. Their friendship is ruptured by an act of atrocity; the post-war years leading to the Korean War are filled with hardships. The latter part of the book is a poignant recalling of broken trust and how difficult it is to achieve reconciliation and grant forgiveness. This is a profound story of women who are powerful in the sea but overcome by extreme forces on  land. The history of Korea, especially the post-war chaos, makes for a powerful book.

The Magicians – Lev Grossman

Note: The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman is from a list of recommended books about magic by Erin Morgenstern, author of the fabulous The Night Circus. More than half of this first book is about a magic school but this is not Hogwarts: the school is in upper New York state and the students are older (post-high school) so they indulge in young adult activities like drinking and sex, making for complicated relationships. There are two difficulties: learning magical incantations is very hard (wands are for sissies) and there is an existential dilemma – what is the purpose of magic in a modern world? This latter issue is addressed by the young magicians entering a fantasy realm, one described in fiction books and thought to be entirely imaginary; all the magicians have read the books about the magical world of Fillory when they were young children. This is where imaginative adventures occur with violence and a significant body count. So this book offers a very different treatment of magic compared to Harry Potter books, but is equal entertaining.

Give Me Your Hand – Megan Abbott

Give Me Your Hand - Megan AbbottThere are two key features in successful mystery thrillers: context and plot. In my opinion, context is often the most informative and dramatic element. This book is about two young women in two time-lines: THEN as high school students, and NOW, as post-doctoral researchers in a University medical research laboratory. Given my own background as a biomedical researcher, clearly the context is novel and appealing, the description of lab smells, the equipment, everything is described perfectly. But this is a book about relationships, in particular a friendship complicated by academic competition. And there are dark secrets: a key phrase repeated in the book is “You don’t have a self until you have a secret”. A key progression from dark secrets are lies and then paralyzing “Crime & Punishment” type guilt. Finally, this is a book about women. Highly recommended. Thanks, Karen, for this book suggestion.

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore – Kim Fu

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore - Kim FuPreviously, Ms. Fu wrote the very fine For Today I Am A Boy, and this new book is even better. Five young girls (ages 9-11) are stranded in the woods after an overnight kayaking trip, producing some “Lord Of The Flies” crises. This narrative is interspersed with the subsequent lives of the survivors: how are lives shaped by an early traumatic event? How are friendships tested by cruelties and betrayals? This is evocative writing and is highly recommended.

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor TowlesIn 1922, Count Alexander Roskov, a member of the Russian aristocracy, is declared an enemy of the state and subjected to “house” arrest in the Hotel Metropol. The description of his demeanour and manners is exquisite and impeccable, hardly surprising for an author whose previous book was Rules of Civility. Alexander creates new and changing relationships with individuals who work in the hotel over the next 32 years. The prose illustrates beautifully the importance of virtues like loyalty. The Soviet Union undergoes dramatic change in this post-revolution period, so Alexander has to be adaptable. The most impactful change occurs when he becomes guardian of a 6-year-old little girl. This is a wonderful book with masterful writing, so a joy to read.